Games and Books

, , , on October 27, 2011

Something I wrote during the Summer:
I recently finished Bioshock: Rapture.
My short review is that the book did a good job rehashing what was scatteringly told across the two games. Being able to picture Rapture while reading was a treat because it is a real, immersive, detailed place– which I think is what made the games so renowned (not the shooting, gameplay, main story, or faux morality features). While the plot is like a dystopian novel on steroids (ADAM), the ideological and genetic themes make it unique, and interesting to read how they shape Rapture’s rise and fall. I was particularly struck by the sad, sad nature of Rapture, seeing how everyone within it is doomed to die, to have their free will stripped away, to turn on one another, to watch their utopia and ideals fail, to see their children and friends turned into monsters, to feel hopelessly trapped.
I was left wondering why I felt an emotional connection to the book but not the game. When playing Bioshock for the first time, I hardly noticed how gruesome and disturbing it was, but while reading the book I was cringing and really feeling for the people stuck in the city. For example: The founders of an underwater utopia stroll with their children through a dimly lit hydroponic garden, flanked by armed bodyguards, everyone looking on when a mutated, bloody, naked woman is split in half by a moaning cyborg to protect a brainwashed little girl as she happily cheers while stabbing a syringe into a corpse to drink its blood.
WTF? Putting aside my run on sentence, this is only a shock value, superficial vignette, void of the emotional response of the characters and of the history that led up to the event. Try narrating what happens and why it happens when playing a game; it’ll sound pretty screwed up. When we play we don’t seem to notice, even though we see all of this happening first hand, even though we participate in it. These ideas are not new, and they are exactly the ones people use when proclaiming videogames promote undesirable behavior. I don’t really want to address that though, and anyway its validity revolves around carryover from games to reality, whose proof or disproof is less dependent on rambling and more on experimentation.
So why was the book more moving than the game? By design, games do not allow the player to think normally; this is both a conscious decision and a product of how we interact with them. In terms of media, videogames are unique in that they present the consumer with not just an informational one-way world to explore, but a dynamic, interactive experience in which the player learns. The player is integrated into a new world with new rules, which they learn and eventually master. If these rules demand inconsequentially killing others to keep yourself alive, you can bet the player will do that. The immersion is made all the more potent because games physically bond the player to their character, and the morality of the “real world” is lost in all the action. It wasn’t until I read the book, in terms of my own reality, that I realized the severity of the situation.
Unlike videogames, which bring players to new worlds, books bring new worlds to the reader. This is because the story takes place within the reader’s mind, and the two are inseparable. This also means that the reader will constantly compare their own reality to that of the book, making descriptions like the one above more shocking.  A more general storytelling element is that books have a much higher tendency of fleshing out characters and creating a layered plot, increasing the reader’s investment in the story than videogames, which increase the player’s investment in the physical world via coherent gameplay.

Portal 2 Single Player Review

, , on April 22, 2011

Portal 2 shares very little in common with the first Portal, mostly just the same gun. GLaDOS is also back, but her role and personality this time around are rather different. Portal 2 is more story driven, loud, not at all minimalistic, and in some ways quicker than the first game. Portal 2 is polished, but it is not surprising. That said, I love the portal gun!

  • The new game mechanics really stand out, although they are rarely combined and take away from the complexity that emerges after exploring a few simple concepts (as in the first Portal).
  • The credit song– surprising how much it grows on you.
  • Moral ambiguity, an intelligent script, and the voice acting. At times the game is very funny (all due to the amazing Wheatley), at times it is rather serious, and most of the time it is somewhere in between.
  • Of course the fact that despite my complaining, this game is a lot less frustrating than it could have easily been. Go obsessive Valve playtesting!


  • The music is not only bad, it is a letdown compared to the cold, atmospheric music of the first game and the music featured in the Portal 2 trailers (of which they took only the best few second samples). Blah blah blah, the change in music reflects the change in environment between the games; sterility vs fecundity. Great, I’m excited for some liveliness, although only the first half of Portal 2 really maintains this and the second devolves into a bunch of boring warehouses. Which leads me onto…
  • Clutter. The game certainly looks great, whether there are vines all over the place or metal railings, but all these visual feats detract from the clarity that is necessary to solve the puzzles. Almost every time I was confused while playing stemmed from the fact that I had no idea where I should be going or looking. I dreaded the start of a new puzzle because it meant a few minutes of surveying my surroundings and picking out the four or five actually useful puzzle solving components present in the immense rooms. I do appreciate the attention to detail and the look of the game (I spent plenty of time exploring the environment), and I understand the levels need to be physically larger to accommodate the new game mechanics.
  • The repetitive atmosphere and pacing of the game (solve some puzzles, listen to some quips, step into an elevator).
  • There were some story inconsistencies, lame moments, and abrupt plot changes. Also a bit too much tangential narrative while solving puzzles. Chell is boring, which is a shame because she could have been cool and a nice foil to the AIs, silent protagonist or not.
  • Tons of loading screens which made the game feel choppy.

I am excited to see the mods that people come up with. I think people will combine the best of Portal 2 (the new game mechanics) and Portal 1 (the minimalism) to create some brand new ways of doing science.
For a better written review that I heartily agree with, head to ars technica. If you are looking for spoilers and some story speculation, try this hub. For a beautiful Portal related experience, go here. Tevis Thompson has a nice essay on the game as well.

The Hunger Games Review

, , on September 28, 2010

The Hunger Games is written by Suzanne Collins and is about a future in which 12 ghetto-like districts are ruled by a wealthy and powerful capitol. As a sign of its authority and for its own amusement, the capitol organizes annual Hunger Games in which a male and female tribute, ages 12 – 18, are selected from each district. The 24 kids then fight to the death in an outdoors arena, and the last tribute remaining wins. The book is narrated from the perspective of one of these tributes.
This is the first proper novel I have read since school starting. It is a popular “young adult” novel. It is easy to read and engaging; you’ll probably finish it within a couple days of starting. Its subject matter is very brutal and sad, but the author doesn’t address this much. The simplistic writing style allows the reader to fill in a lot of the details about what is going on (which I like), but it hinders the depth of the characters and story somewhat. I’m sure these are conscious decisions on the part of Ms. Collins, probably having something to due with her “young adult” target, but it left me a bit disappointed that she didn’t take advantage of the themes she introduced. The Hunger Games is the first book in a series of three. Although the story has a definite end, it was sort of abrupt and anticlimactic. Hopefully the climax I was expecting will come to fruition in the final two books of the series.
Despite these issues, the overall plot and world are interesting, the protagonist is a mostly kick ass girl, and I liked the irony of thinking that I would be happy to watch a reality TV show like the Hunger Games (at least a movie is in the works). I’m eagerly awaiting for the second book to arrive at the library.

Related Story: The library network back at home has a 250 person waiting list for The Hunger Games, while the university network has four copies of the book available.

Halo Reach Review

, , , , on September 18, 2010

Crusader0102 took this image

I was lucky enough to have a great brother and friend and two TVs and two xbox’s and two Halo Reach disks to play through the campaign on legendary with. We beat the game in a little over five and a quarter hours and then played multiplayer for a few hours. Here are my thoughts:

Quick complaint: legendary in five and a quarter hours? We are amazing at the game, but the main reason I’m annoyed is because Bungie continuously promises a harder experience, better AI, difficulty scaling when playing co-op, etc. Instead, they add in elites that move when you are about to shoot them, enemies that can kill you from across the level with a plasma pistol, and a plethora of skulls that just tweak a few gameplay modifiers. While some people may enjoy the customization, I don’t find it fun to cherry pick modifiers and make my own difficult setting. Real difficulty lies in the AI and in crafting situations in which the player has to think different to survive.
Gameplay in Halo has always been terrific, and Halo Reach is no different. The controls are fluid, the weapons feel weighty, sound great and are fun to fire. The game is very nice looking, and although I’m happy Halo has kept with its signature vibrant colors and [adjective] art style, over half of the levels were indoors, or during the night, or it was all gray because it was raining or something. On the flip side, the levels that were lit up were beautiful. Make sure to pull yourself from fighting and take a look around. Fall off the edge of a cliff every now and then while staring up at the skyboxes. Burn up in the atmosphere of a planet while admiring its features. I do wish there was a snow level, though. All games need a snow level. Despite the beauty of the Halo universe, it was absent in many of the cut scenes because they were rendered from the point of view of static in-game cameras, like security cameras. These cameras tended to be angled at the ground and suffer from image quality issues.
Halo Reach’s story is very nicely contained and then tied in with the start of Halo: CE, but it can be summarized in seven words. Now, I’m an expert at summarizing things (because I’m lazy), and can probably get whole novels into a paragraph and most videogames into a sentence or two, but Reach’s plot does not have much going on. It has been very war-ized in that much of the dialog is in combat jargon and has a comm filter or fifteen over it to make it inaudible. The little interpersonal talking between Noble Team (when they are together, which is surprisingly not that often) is extremely superficial and all the characters fit into typical I’M FREAKING HUGE stereotypes. The characters are also all jerks  for some reason, even the prominent “civilian” member of the game. Basically the campaign is Call of Duty meets Halo. Remember how I whined about the length of the game? Well, if it were any longer I would have been pretty bored because great gameplay cannot support a trite plot and characters for hours on end.
The good news is that when the campaign finished I wanted to play Halo: CE all over again, and you will too.
I question how much the idea to incorporate literally entire multiplayer levels into the campaign was a design decision to tie the two components together or a lack of time on Bungie’s part. Aside from Hemmorage, asset for asset, the multiplayer levels and firefight maps are all inserted into the campaign at some point. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just something to think about. My thought is the more diverse the environments I encounter in the Halo universe, the better.
As for multiplayer, it is great Halo fun. Hemorrhage, aka Blood Gulch is a fun throwback to vehicle madness and teleporter blocking. Loadouts are good to use either if you are about to die, or if you are bored, or if you are chasing someone down to punch them. Speaking of which, what is with the ridiculously loud panting noises while sprinting? I understand the first person nature prominence for the sound effect, but it is distracting and weird.
I’m sure there will be mad ‘spensive DLC in the future because there are only 9 multiplayer maps. Firefight doesn’t count because that is even easier to rip to/from campaign. Forge is the best map editor on a console, but that still equates to lamesauce. I’ll forgive Bungie if they add in Chiron, Boarding Action, Chillout, Damnation, Battle/Beaver Creek, the real Midship, Lockout, and make Reflection have less reflections.
Wort wort wort!
tl;dr 16/0

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