Sunday, December 23, 2007

Year in Preview: 2008

It’s that time of year, again… time for columnists to look back at the hefty bastard of a year that was, look forward to the terrifying vortex of the year ahead, manufacture quickie best/worst lists padded out with cheap jokes. Vacation time, wine-numbed… money for nothing, cheques for free…

So let’s do this timeslip-style, next things first. With which electronic diversions are we going to be desperately digitally anaesthetizing ourselves as the Historical Inevitability of 2008 force-marches the world toward another Republican American presidency?

I actually said the following in a phone conversation last week: “I don’t know… I can’t think of anything I’m really looking forward to next year, other than maybe LittleBigPlanet.”

Long-distance silence from the other end, then: “Um… dude? Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Oh, right! Grand Theft Auto IV. Sure! Yeah! I’m super hot in the pants for the next installment in my all-time favorite series of sandbox urban – and sometimes rural; nothing like taking out competing thugs combine-style – gangland mayhem! Some Eastern European flava this time, too, all ex-KGB and Russian Mafia, sleazy tracksuits in unlicensed NYC backroom clubs with no name and armored front doors, flippin’ souped-up Maserati-analogues off suspension bridges in hi-def, ragdoll rocket-launchering everything in sight…

… by myself.

The heartbreak of the small-town gamer who is not also a high-school student! What the hell good is a GTA game to me without a cackling couchful of Stoney Drinkichuks passing the controller around, entertaining each other (endlessly!) with exciting new feats of virtual erring-do? Screwdriver rampage! Three-tanker freeway explosion pileup! Helicopter decapitation! Ha-HAAA-hahahahaHa-ha…haaahhhhh… It’s not going to be the same. I’m thinking of putting a GAME BUDDIES WANTED poster up on the tavern bulletin board alongside the ads for horse trailers, mobile homes and tax revolt. Or, you know, just kicking it online…

… with the foulmouthed, trash-talking, callow, suburban idiot hordes of the “gamer community.” No, thanks. Is it any wonder I let time and chemistry rinse dreams of a new GTA i.v. from my forebrain, replacing them with fuzzy fantasies of little burlap munchkins cavorting cooperatively in a user-created Smurfland of whimsical soft-sculpted challenges? LittleBigPlanet looks like meets Super Mario Bros. by way of The Lost Vikings; if any online scene is going to be free of OMG LOL NOOB FAGGOT BITCH, might it be this one? I could see myself trading Murder Simulation for hours of caring and sharing, taking out Frowny Freddies with my cuddlethrower, hug grenades and full-auto OK-47.

Another option: Culdcept Saga, the newest in a (relatively) obscure Japanese series of Monopoly-meets-Magic: The Gathering games. This is seriously crunchy-nerd territory, The Eye of Judgment without the bonus humiliation of having to go out and buy physical trading cards. Playing Culdcept might be – as most of my journeys into online Fantasy are – a sort of desperate replacement for the kind of tabletop social gaming I’m half a lifetime away from, in this case maybe taking the place of all-time-fave daywaster Talisman. Did you all see that Talisman’s back in print?! To think I almost dropped $US 250 for a used copy on eBay…

Oh, wait… check it out! How did I forget about this? Talisman’s coming to XBox Live and the PS Network. Sorry, Culdcept Saga, false alarm. Nevermind.

Also in 2008, we’re going to see Fable 2. Am I looking forward to this? Only in the literal sense that, if I’m looking at it at all, “forward” is the direction I must face – because, looking back, I only see how pissed off I got playing the first Fable three years ago. Not that it was a bad game in absolute terms, but in the vicious context of over-promise/under-deliver it was an astounding kick in the balls. Somewhere in the haze of development, this epic, genre-changing, cradle-to-grave, boy-to-man, living-world, moral-choice fantasy masterpiece became a two-sitting, genre-confirming, over-beautified, trivial action RPG. But, check it out! in Fable 2, you have a dog! Awesome! My math here is simple: low expectations = pleasant surprises.

Actually, that’s a pretty good New Year equation in any case; is it too late to get it made up in to one of these festive banners made up of glittery metallic letters, something I can string up over the punchbowl? Bionic Commando, Too Human, Iron Man, No More Heroes… LO.EX=PS.

But Spore? Super Smash Bros. Brawl? Fallout 3? Those will all be fantastic, right? Right?? Right; because with some games there’s a (high) threshold below which expectations cannot be pushed without sacrificing one’s humanity.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Firday Freakout: "Park my bricks"

...posted a day late, appropriately.

Ten years in development, folks.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Undergrad Gaming

It’s an idyllic winter’s night in a gaming household. I’m sitting at my grandfather’s desk with a mug of hot tea and a jar of peanuts, killing time – that is to say, doing research – with a series of minimalist Japanese point-and-click browser adventures (“The plane broke down. Escape from uninhabited island”) while from the next room comes that sweetest of holiday sounds: the crunchy shatter of virtual targets, the BLING of points being racked up, the occasional exultations of victory, the more frequent curses of defeat.

I’d underestimated Link’s Crossbow Training, and the futuristic Wii Zapper gun-conversion doohickey it’s bundled with, in the first assessment. To even a medium/soft-core gamer, it’s a pretty slight experience: ten three-stage levels’ worth of shooting galleries, each stage clocking out at sixty seconds, with the Zapper as cute but inessential novelty. I played it with my nongamer fiancée, burning through the whole thing in less than two hours, and when we sort of shrugged and put the Wii away I figured that was that.

The next afternoon she pokes her head into my office, a strange glint in her eye. “You know what I think would really reduce some stress?” she asks, rhetorically. “Shooting some goblins.” She mimes cradling the Zapper, and I recognize the glint: she’s got The Fever. Link’s Crossbow Training may be slight and light, but that’s what you look for in a gateway drug.

The meh reviews the package received illustrate a problem with absolute numerical game ratings; comparing the LCT/Zapper combo to a fully realized game is like comparing “Essential Japanese for Travelers” to The Tale of Genji. More than just a trivially diverting virtual popgun experience, Link’s Crossbow Training is nothing less than a grammar of videogames.

Gamers seldom consider the mass of convention and idiom that supports modern gameplay – we don’t have to consider it, because it’s second nature. We don’t have to puzzle out how an onscreen radar works, for example; we don’t have to relearn each time the fundamentals of moving through virtual space, let alone relearn the trick of perceiving the onscreen image as space. But for complete newcomers – they’re rare, but they’re out there – these fundamentals of the medium are baffling as hell, rapid-fire babble in an unfamiliar language. LCT offers a way for these poor souls to at least get up to the level of “Hello, my name is…” and “Where is the train station?”

Gaming 101 is simple target shooting, the first stage of each level. Point the aimer, pull the trigger. Concepts introduced: what an aimer is; what a trigger is; basic menu navigation; scoring and score multipliers; target evaluation and selection. Importantly, the shooting-gallery stages introduce that most basic of videogame drug-rushes: beating your own high score, knowing you can do even better, and being offered the chance to try.

Gaming 140, comprising the “Defender” levels, builds on that. These stages are basically rail shooters; Link’s position is fixed but the player can and must look around the game space to find targets. Here, benign bullseyes are replaced with fearsome enemies. They’re all one and the same to us stone-cold virtual killaz, but for an absolute newbie that first experience of a skeleton coming right at you while a warning klaxon blares can be terrifying. Concepts introduced: looking around; awareness of offscreen game elements; basic radar use; sangfroid in the face of marauding undead.

At the 200 level, the “Ranger” stages take the student through their first full-on FPS experience, giving them control over Link’s movement through the space. Here are introduced the final concepts needed for basic interaction with the modern games medium: perception of three dimensions in virtual space; use of a control stick in moving a character through that space; basic gunfight tactics; advanced radar use; exploration of the environment. Upon completion of the course, advanced students may attempt their first-ever Boss fight for extra credit.

Thanks to Link’s Crossbow Training and the Zapper doohickey – technically unnecessary, the physicality of clutching a gun can’t be overestimated as a teaching aid – I’ve watched my girl go, in a few short hours, from “What? What the fuck? I don’t get it!” to happily striving for Gold and Platinum rankings and trading high-scoring tips over morning coffee, from flailing miserably to navigating the game’s combat courses with a confidence and precision that’d get her though Halo multiplayer without embarrassment. I’m really quite proud.

Of course, like any good school, LCT offers students plenty of opportunity to experience – and learn to cope with -- those intangible challenges of the gaming experience that can’t be taught in a classroom: the remorse over blowing hours of time chasing meaningless medals, the clammy feeling of gamesweat, the first twinges of carpal tunnel syndrome, the perceptual vertigo of returning to the real world.

I just pray she doesn’t get The Dreams.