The First Few Hours: the new Lara, the new-ish XCOM

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So on Tuesday, I spent $60 to digitally download Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition for my PS4.  As I’ve already played and beaten this game (to 100% completion) twice already on the PC, I was a bit apprehensive about why I had to buy it; if I’d only been willing to wait a few more days, I’d have received a rental copy early next week.

There are three reasons why I succumbed, as it turns out.  The first reason, as always, is that I am a consumer whore, and I cannot resist the temptation of instant gratification.  (Even if “instant gratification” in this particular case means waiting over an hour for the download to finish, and then (because the game is still familiar) playing through the beginning so quickly that I caught up with the download progress and had to turn it off for the night.)

The second reason is that, like most PS4 owners, I really, really want to play games on it.  Even if it’s a game that I’ve already played before where the only real difference is a number of substantial graphical improvements.  (Exhibit A:  Assassin’s Creed 4.)

The third and final reason is, perhaps, guilt?  Square-Enix came right out and called the original release a “failure”, even as it sold 3.5 million copies in its first month.  As I was already a Tomb Raider fan, and as I was also a big big fan of this reboot, I felt compelled to at least offer my support – again – in getting a sequel made.  I don’t know what else I can do, Square-Enix.

In any event:  I bought it, and I’ve played through a few hours of it, and for the most part I can say that I’m happy I bought it, even as the graphical enhancements are not as eye-popping as I’d hoped.

This is not to say it looks bad, of course.  I never played the original version on console, but on my PC it looked quite nice, and this enhanced version on the PS4 generally looks phenomenally better.  Most everything looks sharp and crisp and finely detailed; forests actually feel dense and, well, forest-y, with swaying foliage and trees and mists; Lara’s face is far more expressive and realistic.

Still, there’s some weirdness here and there.  In that opening gameplay sequence, where Lara is suspended upside down, the much-vaunted TressFX has her ponytail hanging upside down, but her bangs remain right-side up; when Lara crouches in crawlspaces with her torch, the fire against the roof is still a 2D sprite; when Lara moves through water, the water still ripples oddly and unconvincingly; the deer that you hunt still look… weird.  These are very small nitpicks, to be sure, but the whole point of this “Definitive Edition” was that the graphics were redone, and as I’ve already played the hell out of this game I can’t help but look at the small stuff this time around.

The game is still great, I’m happy to say, and I’m also still impressed by the PS4 controller.  I know I keep bringing it up, but you gotta understand – I hated the Dualshock 3 almost as much as I loved the Xbox360 controller.  My only gripe is that I keep forgetting how the face buttons are configured, which means I usually fail the game’s quicktime events the first time around.  That aside, the game works just fine, especially where combat is concerned, and so now I am really getting excited for Uncharted 4.

*     *     *

As far as Operation Backlog is concerned, I have spent the last week or so slowly playing through XCOM Enemy Within, which feels a bit like a “remix” rather than a full expansion.

I am playing it on Easy, because I’m a grown-ass man and I can do whatever I want; but also because I’m still terribly intimidated by the game.  I try as hard as I can to not make any mistakes, because the game absolutely beats the shit out of you if you do, and so every mission is very stressful and tense and I’m kinda just creeping along, desperate to stay in cover, trying to remember which of my squad are holding the medkits just in case.

I have not gotten far enough into the game to get into the “Meld” business – I’ve only done the first 5 or 6 missions, and I’ve got quite a stockpile of the stuff, but I don’t think I’ve yet built the requisite facilities to work with it.  It may take some time, really, as my play sessions only tend to last for one mission (and then the requisite post-mission housekeeping).  I can only take so much stress, people.

on social anxiety, solitude, and multiplayer shooters

I’ve said that I’m not really into multiplayer a number of times, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I started to figure out why.

This was a rough weekend, personally speaking.

Saturday in particular was a busy day – a morning playdate at the first of many 1-year birthday parties we’ll be attending this year, and then, in the evening, a housewarming party at the astoundingly beautiful home of some college friends.  Both of these events were fun, in and of themselves – and it was nice to be out and about as a family, the three of us moving about the city with ease – but at the end of the day I was emotionally spent.  Sunday was decidedly less busy – an afternoon trek out to the local department store for baby supplies and foodstuffs – but it also required driving, which is almost always a source of anxiety (especially in Brooklyn).  When I went to bed, I did end up sleeping soundly, but not necessarily restfully.

A year ago, I’m not sure I’d have made it to even one of these things, let alone all three.  So the fact that I was able to do all these things, and spend quality time out and about with my family – this should be a good thing, right?  And it is; it’s absolutely a good thing.

Except: I’m drained.  I feel hollowed out, exhausted, melancholic.  I feel adrift, really; I feel like I just want to curl away somewhere, where the world can’t hurt me (and where I can’t hurt it back, however unintentionally).

As for why I’m writing about this here?  Well, as I think about all this, it occurs to me that my social anxiety issues are probably the main reason why I’m generally reluctant to participate in multiplayer games.

Case in point.  On Friday, my rental copy of Battlefield 4 for the PS4 showed up.  My good buddy Gred, who’d been hounding me for weeks to get it, wasn’t going to be able to jump on until later Friday night, so I figured I’d take the early part of the evening to play through the campaign while the rest of the disc installed itself.  I lost interest in the campaign quickly enough (specifically in the 2nd mission, the one where you have to rescue two people from the top of a hotel; I ultimately bailed when, after I finally succeeded in destroying a tank with a land mine, I had to destroy another tank with a land mine), but fortunately Gred was available by that point.

Gred was a wonderful tour guide, showing me how the game worked, which of the classes was best suited to my playstyle, how this particular map was laid out (I can’t remember the name, but there’s islands and sunken aircraft carriers and a giant hurricane eventually sweeps through the map towards the end of the session), etc. etc.  And it all looked incredible; 64 people in a session yields some pretty spectacular sights, even from far away – I’m dodging sniper fire while watching two airplanes dogfighting on the other side of the map, blowing the hell out of buildings and radio towers, 10-foot waves slamming jetskis into the rocky island shore, helicopters blitzing strafing fire on either side of the building I’m taking cover in, all hell breaking loose for 60 full minutes.

In a weird way, it was kinda refreshing that the session was so big – it meant that my failings as a player didn’t stand out quite so obviously.  I was a bit of a wallflower, to be honest – I’d tag along behind Gred, occasionally firing wildly at enemies, but mostly getting headshotted from unseen snipers.  I was there really just as a visitor, a tourist, seeing what all the fuss was about, trying not to hurt my team too badly.  And I’m happy to say that in spite of my dreadful K/D ratio, our team ending up winning.

This is, more or less, my approach in real-life situations, too; I’ll attach myself to one person for most of the night, taking in the sights, listening to the music, gradually getting drunk and hoping that the buzz takes some of the anxiety’s edge off a little, and generally just hoping against hope that I don’t embarrass myself in front of a room full of strangers.

I was grateful to have Gred there, is the thing.  Because without him, I would’ve been completely at sea; overwhelmed by the madness of 63 other strangers with guns, or else simply retreating to a corner of the map, watching but not participating, afraid of screwing everything up.

I tend to handle life much better when I’m alone.  I can experience a thing on my own terms, at my own pace, and be alone with my own thoughts.  Solitude can get lonely at times, to be sure, but there can be profound meaning in a solitary experience.  I am (again) reminded of something Tom Bissell wrote in his review of GTA V:

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person.  Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos. Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience…

For me, the single-player experience is, by and large, comforting.  And with a good game the experience can often times feel more engrossing than books or films, because it’s an experience that I get to directly participate in; I get to literally inject myself into the narrative and have a direct influence on the story.  I can’t be judged by other people (until after the fact, I guess, if they’re looking at my gamerscore), I can’t offend anyone, I can’t embarrass myself.  If I need to go to the bathroom, I can pause the game and not annoy anyone; if I need a break, I can walk away and not get teabagged by some douchebag on a camp-out kill spree.

I don’t play games to win; I play just to play.

I suppose that, when it comes to the real world, my social anxiety kicks in because I don’t want to “lose”, whatever that might mean.  It’s been a difficult struggle to acknowledge that the vast majority of social situations don’t actually have this win/loss structure, and that I can have a good time simply by being present in the moment, surrounded by friends (or strangers, as the case may be), and allowing the experience to simply happen, and to just be.

It’s not so cut-and-dry in the game world, though.

Broken Age, Part 1: the reconsideration

In my last post, I’d said that I’d been struggling to stay engaged with Broken Age, the long-awaited, Kickstarter’d 2D point-and-click adventure game by Tim Schafer and Double Fine.  And I went off into some tangents about my personal feelings towards the Kickstarter process, and whether or not I was still interested in adventure games in general.  (That discussion, unfortunately, did not quite get to the point where I could find a way to include a link to Old Man Murray’s immortal classic “Death of Adventure Games”, so I’m including it here simply because I can’t not include a link to it if I’m talking about adventure games.)

I’d mentioned that I’d reached a point in both stories where the path was no longer linear – I’ll try to avoid spoilers here the best I can, but basically in Vella’s story I’d reached the 2nd (“cloud”) town and wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, and in Shay’s story I had been given a set of three urgent tasks but no real idea how I should tackle them.  I found myself feeling a little intimidated, I suppose, and when I get intimidated I sometimes tend to shut down, as opposed to persevering.

Well, it turns out that all I really needed was 24 hours to clear my head and come at these things with fresh eyes, and I ended up finishing both stories (Shay first, then Vella – which, now that I think about it, is probably the best way to do it) shortly thereafter.

Broken Age’s puzzles (such as they are) aren’t necessarily difficult or obtuse; your inventory is relatively small, and most of the time your objects interact with other objects in ways that make sense.  (As much as I dearly love Grim Fandango, there were a number of puzzles that simply broke my brain in half – I’m remembering a puzzle in the first act involving bread crumbs and an inflatable balloon.)  I suppose I was intimidated simply because when it comes to classic adventure games, I like to get things right, and I keep forgetting that there’s no real way to achieve a fail state.  At the end of the day, there was really only one puzzle that I couldn’t figure out without the help of the internet (i.e., using the crochet needle to trick the Weaver into going to a forbidden destination – I knew the crochet needle was involved, but I couldn’t figure out the solution – and in fact I still can’t, because the walkthrough I used didn’t actually explain why it worked).  Everything else was, for the most part, relatively straightforward.

What I really want to talk about, of course, is the cliffhanger at the end.  I won’t, of course, unless we take this into the comment section below.  Suffice it to say, I think it’s a pretty neat trick – and when I think back on certain elements of Shay’s story, there’s quite a lot of telegraphing – and now I absolutely cannot wait for Part 2.

Beyond that, the game is an absolute joy.  Marvelous voice acting with a very charming and witty script, outstanding art direction, a beautiful and evocative orchestral score.  This is, in fact, what I was hoping for when I backed this thing in the first place; I’m glad I finally came around to appreciate it.

Weekend Recap: Nintendo, Broken Age, a lack of fantastic newness

1.  The big news story on Friday was Nintendo’s horrible, no-good, very bad earnings report, and the subsequent discussion, hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth on the big sites and Twitter was more or less focused on how Nintendo can turn things around.  I sometimes feel like I’m the wrong person to comment about anything Nintendo related, being that I never had a Nintendo system as a kid and so I don’t feel any particular pull towards the company; and yet, now that I think about it, I think I might very well be the perfect person to comment about what Nintendo needs to do.

*  This sounds insane, I know, but the first Nintendo-built hardware I ever owned was not an NES, SNES, Gameboy, Super Gameboy, N64 or Gamecube – it was, in fact, a DS.  And I mainly bought it for Nintendogs, thinking that my wife might get a kick out of it – we were dog-less at the time, and I thought it might help scratch that itch.  The DS was a great system by the time I got my hands on it – it had a really diverse lineup of games, and those games seemed to take full advantage of the DS’s strange setup (which, ironically, made the system feel less strange the more you played with it; in fact, the DS probably helped pave the way for the acceptance of the “second screen”).

I bought (and then regretted buying) a Wii; I bought (and enjoy, sorta) a 3DS; I have absolutely no desire to buy a WiiU.  I have no desire to buy a WiiU because: (1) there hasn’t been any significant new first-party IP in years, which means that if you buy a new Nintendo console you know exactly what you’re going to get, which is a bunch of Mario-themed games, a Zelda, maybe a Metroid, a Super Smash Brothers, and that’s more or less it, and so if you don’t really care about those franchises, there’s nothing to look forward to; and (2) there is no third-party support at all, which makes the prospect of owning just a Nintendo console incredibly limiting.

New IP is a risky business, of course, and considering that there are still rabid fans for their existing franchises, it seems like the best thing for Nintendo to do is stay the course, continue iterating and reiterating on what the fans already know and love, and hope that one of them does really well.

The lack of third-party support, though… that’s the killer.  (That’s what ultimately led to the death of the Dreamcast – once EA stopped putting out Madden and the rest of its sports titles, that pretty much ended other third-party prospects.)  Because if you (like me) don’t particularly care about Mario or Zelda, there’s literally no reason to own a Nintendo console – nobody’s porting their games over, and the ones that do don’t really know how to take advantage of the WiiU’s peculiar hardware.  (With the notable exception of ZombiiU, of course, which is a game I haven’t played.)

I won’t pretend to know anything about game development, but even I can see that Nintendo seems to be operating in some sort of tech bubble, wholly unaware of the innovations made by its competitors.  One only needs to look at Nintendo’s online services to figure out just how behind the times they are.  This Eurogamer feature written by an anonymous third-party developer goes into some pretty jaw-dropping detail about how difficult it is to develop a WiiU title, from a wide variety of angles – there’s one quote in particular, though, that’s been attracting a great deal of attention:

The discussion started off well enough and covered off our experiences with the hardware and (slow) toolchain and then we steered them towards discussing when the online features might be available. We were told that the features, and the OS updates to support them, would be available before the hardware launch, but only just. There were apparently issues with setting up a large networking infrastructure to rival Sony and Microsoft that they hadn’t envisaged.

This was surprising to hear, as we would have thought that they had plenty of time to work on these features as it had been announced months before, so we probed a little deeper and asked how certain scenarios might work with the Mii friends and networking, all the time referencing how Xbox Live and PSN achieve the same thing. At some point in this conversation we were informed that it was no good referencing Live and PSN as nobody in their development teams used those systems (!) so could we provide more detailed explanations for them?

That’s bad enough.  The developer’s conclusions about the WiiU’s failure, though, seem to mirror my own:

[…]I’d like to highlight some interesting points that have been on my mind recently. Firstly, third-party support. Do you remember all the hype surrounding the Wii U launch? All those third parties showing videos of existing games that they were going to bring to the Wii U? Whatever happened to a lot of those games?

After the initial flurry of game titles a lot of the studios quietly backed away from their initial statements and announced, with minimal press, that they were in fact not going to make a Wii U version. The reasons behind a particular title not appearing on the Wii U are all pure speculation, but I personally think that a combination of:

  • Previous development experience using the toolchain and hardware put off development teams from making another title on Wii U.
  • The technical and feature support from Nintendo were lacking for third-party studios. There was a feeling internally that if you weren’t a first-party development studio, you were largely ignored by Nintendo, as we were superficial to their profits. Internally developed titles would save Nintendo and we were just there to add depth to the games catalogue.
  • The sales figures for the Wii U console were not looking that good soon after launch. There was a lot of confusion in the general population around the launch as most people thought that the Wii U was some kind of add-on to the Wii, they didn’t know that it was a new console. This lack of awareness probably contributed to the console not getting off to the start that Nintendo would have hoped and put off studio from developing on the hardware.
  • Nintendo also fell victim to bad timing. A few months after the console launched the next-gen hype train stepped up a gear as Sony announced the PlayStation 4, with Microsoft joining the fray a few months later. Don’t forget that many of the larger studios would have known about the hardware months before it was announced, well before the Wii U hardware actually launched.

So, these larger studios had a choice. Would they develop a port of an existing game to a console with limited capabilities and limited market penetration? Or put their teams to work on developing new features and concepts for the “real” next-gen consoles that were going to be launched that year? When you look at it this way, the choice isn’t that hard.

[…]

Doubtless, the first-party developers at Nintendo will make the hardware sing – they always do – but the situation looks grim for those of us in third-party development, with the opportunity to progress on the hardware held back by both the quality of the tools and the lack of financial reward for tailoring our code to the strengths of the hardware. So where does that leave the Wii U?

I didn’t mean to quote so much!  The whole article is worth a good read and does a great job of articulating the myriad of problems the WiiU faces, if reading about such things is something you’re interested in.

2.  As for me:  not a lot of gaming for a 3-day weekend.  I basically inched along in Broken Age and sped through a bunch more AC4 on the PS4.

I am… having trouble staying engaged in Broken Age, sorry to say.  It’s beautiful and charming and witty and very sweet, of course, and so that’s all wonderful, but… I don’t know if it’s the game, or if it’s me, or what, but I’m just not feeling all that inclined towards staying with it.  I’ve reached a point in both stories where the path for each story has become somewhat non-linear, and I suppose not knowing what to do next is a little intimidating.  (I felt the same way at various points in Grim Fandango, for what it’s worth, and I love the hell out of that game.)

I’ve only supported 3 things on Kickstarter; a friend’s film project, a second sequel to one of my favorite films of all time (Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool), and Broken Age.  There’s been lots written about Kickstarter and the psychology of donations and the service’s various up- and down-sides (this Kotaku feature is but the latest), and that’s all well and good; I supported the things I supported because I’m fans of the creators and wanted to see their work succeed.  I don’t necessarily feel “ownership” over these projects; in the specific case of Broken Age, I didn’t want to watch the making-of stuff, or see anything about the game’s development, because I wanted the experience to be unspoiled.  All I did was to give them the money I’d have given them anyway, except that in this case I was helping the game actually get made.

So I don’t necessarily come to the game with unusual expectations, is what I’m trying to say.  That being said, I have high expectations for anything that has Tim Schafer’s name on it, because I’m a huge fan of his and most of everything he’s ever made has been something I’ve enjoyed greatly; funding the game on Kickstarter wouldn’t have changed that.  Getting a chance to play a new game in Tim’s old creative wheelhouse should be something special and celebrated.

Perhaps it’s simply that I don’t enjoy old school point-and-click adventure games the way I used to, no matter how lovingly crafted they appear to be.  Even with Telltale’s recent resurgence in games like The Walking Dead and the Fables game, I’m not drawn to them the way I might’ve been a few years ago; I can’t explain why, other than that I start to get fidgety and anxious after a while.  I suppose I should explore this in depth at some point.

In any event, yeah – I’m a little over an hour into Broken Age.  The girl is in the cloud town; the boy has escaped his room and is making further plans with the wolf guy.  Normally I’d feel OK in writing a “First Few Hours” post at this point in a game, but where Broken Age is concerned I feel like I should play through this first half before making any formal declarations.  And like I said above, right now I’m having trouble staying involved in the game, and I don’t know if that’s my fault or the game’s.

As for AC4… well, I’m playing it primarily because I want to feel like I didn’t waste my money buying a PS4.  I kept almost downloading Battlefield 4 and Need For Speed Rivals and then chickening out at the last minute, mostly because I don’t want to spend $120 on games that I’m playing simply to have something to play.  Fortunately, AC4 looks and feels so much better on the PS4 than it did on my PC that the experience is largely positive; and if it feels repetitive, well, I am finding that I’m going through it a lot faster (because I know what I’m doing).

My rental copy of Battlefield 4 shipped today; that should arrive by Thursday, and so I’ve saved $60.  I’m not sure if I’m going to wait for Need for Speed, or keep my rental queue clear for Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition.  I’m maybe inclined towards waiting for Tomb Raider, because (as with AC4), it’s a game I like a lot, but more prettier.

Delayed Reactions: the PS4

My PS4 arrived yesterday afternoon, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t as giddy as a small child on Christmas morning when it finally showed up.

And after getting it all set up (which took almost no time at all, surprisingly enough), and then downloading Resogun and playing around an hour’s worth of Assassin’s Creed 4 (again), I come away feeling two very specific emotions:  (a) relief that I’ve finally entered the new console generation, and (b) some disappointment that there’s not quite anything new and dazzling to play just yet.  Indeed, the next big title that I’m looking forward to is… the super-deluxe-pretty Tomb Raider release, which is a game that I do in fact like quite a bit but have already beaten twice.

It’s OK, though.  I can wait.  At least the console’s in place, set up and ready to go.

Getting back to that setting up – man, Sony’s really picked up the pace with the PS4’s download speeds!  The Day One patch (which I think was up to version 1.52 when I got to it last night) was somewhere around 300-400MB, and it downloaded and installed everything within 5 minutes.  (Whereas on the PS3, it might still be downloading.)  Netflix and Amazon both downloaded and installed seamlessly, too – and without the need for a verification/validation code, which I believe I needed for both the PS3 and the 360 apps.   I’m not telling you anything that you might already know – I’m just saying, it was shocking to see how fast everything was happening.

And along those same lines, playing/installing Assassin’s Creed 4 off the disc took almost no time at all, either.

I don’t really know what to say about AC4 at this point; I’m not really sure how much of it I plan on playing, being that I just finished spending 60+ hours with it.  It’s basically a time-filler until Tomb Raider and/or Battlefield 4 arrive from Gamefly.  That being said, it’s immediately clear to me that this is the ideal way of experiencing it; the frame rate is perfectly smooth, the graphics are simply astonishing (colors are vibrant (that water!), draw distance is vastly improved, textures are sharp and detailed, and don’t get me started on the foliage), and the difference between the PS4 version and my shitty PC version is night and day.  Playing through that first Abstergo sequence sealed the deal; those sequences nearly broke my PC in half, for whatever reason, and playing them filled me with dread; yet on the PS4, they were smooth as silk, rock-solid frame rate, everything working the way it’s supposed to.

Moreover, the PS4 controller really is quite good.  I’m still very accustomed to the 360 controller, of course, but the PS4 controller fixes pretty much every problem I had with the PS3 controller; it feels really good to hold, all the buttons are in the right place, the d-pad is absolutely perfect (at least as far as entering text is concerned; I suspect it may be trickier when it comes to, say, fighting games).  More to the point, a game like AC4 requires near-constant controller manipulation (i.e., the simple act of running requires two simultaneous button presses), and not once did my hands cramp up.  (This was a constant problem for me with the PS3.)

So, yeah; I’m a happy camper.  Now I just need new games.

(I haven’t forgotten about Broken Age, by the way; I just need more time with it.  I played the first 20 minutes of Shay’s story on Tuesday night, and obviously last night was devoted to the PS4.  I hear it’s around 4 hours or so; I’ll be aiming to finish it over the weekend, and I’ll write something up on Tuesday.  Not sure if I’m going to address the whole “embargo” kerfuffle, especially as DoubleFine themselves ended up backtracking on it.  I’ll do my best to keep my write-up spoiler-free, at any rate.)

Weekend recap: oh no you didn’t

Operation Backlog went a bit sideways this weekend.  I was hoping that my attempts at frugality and my desire to actually finish something I started would last longer than 2 weeks, but, well, here we are.

Let’s start with the Backlog itself:  I finally finished, at long last, Lego Marvel Super Heroes, which I’m not sure I ever want to play again.  It started out quite well, as I recall, but towards the end it became endlessly frustrating – controls being flat-out unresponsive, boss battles with game-stopping bugs and/or glitches so bad I had to quit to desktop, cheesy dialogue that often doesn’t make any literal sense, puzzles with absolutely no context, or hints, or even an acknowledgement that the thing you need to do to enter the next room is to solve a puzzle; plus, after 12 hours of play, I’m only 20% complete.  I’m not enough of a Marvel geek to appreciate how deep the roster is and to soak in all the fan service; nor am I interested in slogging through each of those levels at least twice in order to find all the hidden bullshit.  I may very well be done with the Lego games, I think – at least until the kid is old enough to start playing them, and when that day comes they’d damn well better start shipping these things in a shape that actually works.

Still; it’s off the list.

The first bit of news that would put the Backlog project on hold was that DoubleFine’s Broken Age was entering Early Access on Steam this coming Tuesday.  I’d backed the Kickstarter (like everybody else in the Western Hemisphere above a certain age) but deliberately stayed away from the forums and the videos and such; I didn’t want anything spoiled.  Assuming I get the code, I will start downloading that IMMEDIATELY…

…except that the second bit of news that might even put Broken Age on hold is that…. um… I was finally able to buy a Playstation 4.  After a month or so of tracking its in-stock status on Now In Stock and getting shut out each and every time, I was actually able to get a PS4 into my Amazon cart without it disappearing on me… and so I finally pulled the trigger.  It’s scheduled for arrival on Wednesday.

Coincidentally, I was able to play a PS4 for the first time over the weekend, too; we were at the lovely home of my wife’s childhood friend, and at one point the husband took me upstairs to his game room, put his PS4 controller in my hand, and fired up Assassin’s Creed 4.  The difference between the PS4 and my old-ish PC is pretty staggering – as I expected it might be, but still.  Wow.  Right from that first island, the level of detail on the PS4 is jaw-dropping – the foliage, the depth of the water, the vibrant colors of the leaves, the textures of tree bark.  It’s still the same game, of course, but I’m kinda tempted to rent it and play a little bit more – I’d love to see the modern-day stuff moving at more than 5 frames per second, and I’d also love to see some of the towns, cities, and ports; hell, I wouldn’t mind seeing what the ship battles look like, especially during thunderstorms.

I also played just enough of Resogun to make sure I remind myself to download it as soon as I finish plugging the PS4 in.  Also, in perhaps the biggest surprise of all, I played enough of Battlefield 4 to actually consider renting it and maybe even play it online with people.

Speaking of which – if you’re reading this and we’re not already PSN friends, feel free to send me a friend request: I’m JervoNYC.

on crowdfunding for writers

I’ve been struggling for the last few days on this piece I want to write about game journalists and crowdfunding; I’ve had a terrible head cold, for one thing, and that’s made it difficult to think about anything besides wishing I had softer tissues at my work desk, and also a pillow and a blanket, and maybe wishing I’d simply called in sick and stayed in bed.

And in those moments when I do have some relative clarity, I find myself unsure of what to say about it.  Ultimately, I suppose I find it distressing that these prominent writers feel it necessary to supplement their income by crowdfunding at all – not that they shouldn’t do whatever they want to do, but rather that nobody’s already paying them to do it.  These are not amateur hacks like me – these are professional writers, articulate, experienced, insightful and enjoyable to read, and yet in order for them to do the work they really want to do, they need our help.

I sometimes wonder if there’s even a sizable audience for this kind of work; or, alternately, if there are enough games to support this kind of analysis.  For every Gone Home or Journey, games that can’t help but inspire insightful and beautiful writing, there are at least thirty mindless shooters with narratives so dumb and hackneyed they might as well not even be there.  The indie game scene is where all the interesting things seem to be happening these days, and that’s where all the good writing seems to be flowing, too… but the audience for those things is, by definition, small.  And when a major outlet gives one of these games a glowing review (i.e., Gamespot giving Gone Home a 9), 80% of the comments are completely incredulous that Gone Home can even be considered a real “game”.

I don’t mean to sound snobbish about this, but look at this Q&A, from Patrick Klepek’s tumblr (again):

Q:  I have nothing against you as a person (I can’t, I don’t know you). But I consider you to be literally everything wrong with games journalism, you pick up some minuscule point then decide to sensationalize it to gain views.

A:  You don’t get to show up to this argument without examples, son.

There are so many amazing things about this question – like the fact that it was asked anonymously, and that (as PK notes) there are no examples (and, indeed, PK does not generally write hard criticism), but the most amazing thing is the idea that anyone would “pick up some minuscule point” in an effort to “gain views.”  It seems to me that most people who “read” reviews basically skip to the number in order to confirm that their preconceived notion of a game that they haven’t played was correct.

I suppose I’m also feeling a little distressed because, for some strange reason, I’ve decided that this is the field I’d like to enter; this is the job I feel called to, even if I came to it very late, and I’m old-ish, and I also have a baby and I’m trying to save money to buy a house next year.  If the best writers need crowdfunding to help support themselves in their efforts to write, I’m fucked.

Here are some further links to check out:

Uninformed Opinion: the Steam Machine

It was rumored that Valve would reveal their plans for the Steam Machine at this year’s CES, and, lo and behold, those rumors were correct.  Polygon has a full run-down of the third party manufacturers, and their respective Machines, right here.

As I look over that rundown, I find it increasingly difficult to know what to think about all this, because the difference between what I thought a Steam Machine would be, and what it apparently is, is so vast that I fear that I might have had the wrong idea from the very beginning.

What I thought we were getting was something meant to compete – not necessarily in ideology, but at least for literal, physical entertainment-center space – with the PS4 and the XB1; a console-sized box for the living room, competitively priced, that would allow me to hold on to my vast Steam library and play new titles with good, shiny tech.

You know what – while I was writing this out, Polygon’s Ben Kuchera basically took the words right out of my mouth.  I’m glad I’m not the only one having this problem:

It’s easy to describe the platonic ideal of what a Steam Machine should be. It should be shaped like a console and offer the same ease of setup and use. It should be able to offer roughly the same amount of power as a PlayStation 4, while costing around $500.

I don’t just want to play Battlefield 4 at the fidelity the PlayStation 4 offers, I also want to be able to try early access PC hits like Starbound, as well as something as niche as the latest Twine game on a fully-functional browser. These systems should play every game available on Steam, with no exceptions, and do everything a standard computer can do in a form factor and price that puts pressure on consoles.

What we have instead are 13 vastly different machines, ranging in price from $400 to $6000, with tech specs that are pretty much all over the place.  Furthermore, it’s now very unclear to me what the advantage of this machine is.   Again, as Ben says:

SteamOS itself, and this fact was somewhat glossed over during the press conference, is based on Linux, and only a percentage of the current Steam library is currently compatible. Why would you buy an able gaming PC only to take away a good chunk of your game selection and functionality by installing a gaming-specific OS?

It’s not a rhetorical question.[…] Newell may brag about the 65 million users Steam enjoys, but many of the games that brought those players to the platform won’t run on SteamOS unless Linux compatibility is added by the developer. Which won’t happen until the market is bigger. Which won’t happen until more games are added. You see the issue.

Jessica Conditt, in her Joystiq editorial, further addresses the sudden overcrowding of the Steam Machine market, without a clear “ideal” with which to base anything on:

“The consumer’s going to look at this landscape and ask, ‘What’s the difference?’ and, ‘Why? Why should I even buy a Steam Box?'” Nguyen said.

He offered an answer, suggesting Valve pick or make one box to be the ultimate Steam Machine, the epitome of what a Steam Machine should be, and market it as such. Give the customer an easy, obvious choice. It’s exactly what Google did with the Nexus phone to clarify the overcrowded Android market.

“They just totally disagreed with that,” Nguyen said. “They very much disagreed.”

Valve envisions a future of openness – open living rooms and open PCs and open code – and that’s a beautiful idea. Or it’s a junk pile. I’m sure Valve believes in what the Steam Machines can be, but the fact that it hasn’t thrown its own hardware into the ring to me demonstrates a lack of confidence in the idea, or at the least a lack of clarity.  (emphasis added)

That last bit is key, for me.  The fact that Valve itself is holding back – at least for the time being – sends an incredibly vague message, and it certainly doesn’t do the concept of the Steam Machine any favors.

At this point, the Steam Machine makes no compelling argument for me to wait.  Indeed, if anything it’s given me more of an incentive to get a better graphics card and leave it at that, and get a PS4 when they finally come back in stock.