A Little of What’s Up

LTG isn’t exactly a full-time job, you know.  But still: even when I’m not buying a house, packing the apartment, smooching with Linda, or shopping for food,  I — oh wait.  I PLAY GAMES TOO.  Okay.  (Right now I’m playing Psychonauts.  You heard it here first.  Or last.)

Anyway, even when I’m not wrapped up in all that, I do get a lot more done that it may look like from here.

And oh yes, sometimes I write essays for Game-Central.org as well.  Such as this peppy little number: “Wing Commander and the Awesomeness of the Epic Fail.”  When’s the last time you finished a game by failing?

Here’s a bit to whet your appitite:

More often than not, I’m reloading and re-attacking a game with prior knowledge gained from a splattery death. My in-game avatar, however, would remember it differently. There’s a discontinuity between me and the avatar. He can’t see the quick saves and the rage-quits. In his story, he’s just an awesome guy with an awesome destiny.

But destiny didn’t always have its day. As game studios began to unify video games and filmic narratives, the idea of multiple endings emerged. I’m going to explore how multiple endings work in one particular game here: Wing Commander, released in 1990 by Origin Systems.

It was a fun article to write, and I’m glad Game-Central wanted to host it.

Jade Empire, Take II

I love me some Jade Empire.  The game demonstrates a sea change in the way Bioware did business: launching into new worlds, trying out some custom rules, and changing the way the player engages the game.

In some ways, Jade Empire heralds Mass Effect.  Jade Empire is an action game, made to be played with a controller in real time rather than in traditional RPG tactical phases.  jade empire take iiLike Mass Effect, Jade Empire is a wholly created world of Bioware’s own; until its release, Bioware was tightly connected with the Dungeons and Dragons world.  (Even Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic tried to emulate D&D’s 3rd edition d20 rules system of feats and modifiers.)  And like ME, Jade Empire gives you the slightly exotic, mostly sophomoric, androgynous booty call with whichever member of your party you chat up — as long as they’re of a suitably similar race.

Jade Empire comes with its share of Bioware baggage, though.  The booty call is becoming an uncomfortable hallmark of new Bioware releases — previews seem compelled to point out that, yes, your character can have sex.  The dialogs with NPCs present good vs. evil with the same glaring polarized duality of, say,  gifting an orphan with an ice cream cone vs. setting a kitten on fire.  Subtle, the morality ain’t.

In fact, this black and white moral world reveals a weakness, but whether the weakness is in me or the game, I can’t quite figure out.  I always play the straight up good guy.  It doesn’t matter if I set out to be the evillest rat-bastard to walk the Earth; I still end up a good-aligned softie.  I feel like I’m missing half the game.  Well, a quarter of it, maybe.  At the very least, I’m missing the slight variants on the end cut scenes.

For this limitation I blame the skanky dialogue, mostly.  Jade Empire tries to realign this axis into different combat styles, but it quickly falls into the usual heavy-handed thuggery.  I just can’t bring myself to be a thug.

Maybe what I really want is for my PC to be more like Lex Luthor or Bablyon 5’s Mister Morden: a truly loathsome guy you love to hate, who is nominally “evil” for reasons you just can’t put your finger on.  And who also threatens the existence of all that is good and decent in the world.Morden

(Is that the best definition of “evil” we can come up with?  “Stands against good?”  What does that say for a similar definition of “good?”  Come on, guys.  Even Judas was a disciple first.  And as for Darth Vader AKA Anikan Skywalker… well, we’ll never know about him until Lucas makes those prequels he was always going on about.)

This is still the game I look back to when I think of Bioware at its greatest, or at least at its most ambitious.  It takes guts for a company to vault out of its comfort zone of fantasy and sci-fi to adopt a more exotic, slightly pulpy motif that had no comparable counterpart in the market.  There was no guarantee that the game would break any new ground.  It was a real business risk.

Risk pays off with unexpected reward, though.  Jade Empire sweeps all the comfortable Bioware dependables into the blender, adds a generous dousing of classic Kung Fu movies, gloriously fantasises about a Far East that never was, strips away the dice rolls, and bolts on a Japanese fighty style, button mashing, Tekken-alike for good measure.

So I play Jade Empire.  And I love it.  I love it for the differences and I love it for the production quality   I may not finish it this time around–I already know how the Good side story ends–but for moment-to-moment RPG fun, there is none like it.  Jade Empire is a brilliant game: one I’m proud to have in my collection.

A Slow Dawn

A quiet year all around, as far as Long Tail Gamer goes, yes?

I mean, there were the Great March Purges, my departure from Game-Central, and basically the total shutting down of video games from my life.  Even my world-famous Twitter feed went dark.

Yup.  Not much to blog about in a world of nothing.  Ergo, chirp chirp.  It happens to every blog eventually.  Sometimes often.

But then things turn around.

Yeah.  Almost a year to the day, the March Purges are slowly reversing.  The light of dawn cracks over the horizon of my gaming rig.  Light from a distant star now graces upon the land.

It’s not like I have more spare time.  If anything, I have less.  I’m preppinga new business venture with Linda, for one thing.  For another thing, we’re getting married.  And I totally need new socks.  There’s, like, a jillion things to do.

But, on a whim and having a few hours to kill, I installed Stronghold last weekend.

Next thing I knew, the Sun was going down, I’d been in my jammies all day, and the cats were starving — TO DEATH, by their reckoning.  So sad, the way their little pink tongues flopped from their gaping mouths, futily twitching to lick the imagined last whiffs of Science Diet from their far-too-clean bowls.

My castle was doing great, though.  Radiers, beware!

If the new biz does well, I’ll be better off financially than I ever have been in my life.  That won’t be much of a stretch, honestly.  But, you know how it is, you get in those “flights of fancy” sort of mood, imagining yourself dolphin-leaping amid piles of shiny coins, fantasizing what you’d do with your cut…

First thing I thought of: upgrade my video card.  Honestly.

So: gaming.  I can’t promise anything, and it won’t be like the old days, but baby, you know I care.  I might not have time for you like I once did, but I’ll make time for you like I never have.

The March Purges – No, I Didn’t Go Crazy.

Months ago, I wrote up a list of names.  With ruthless efficiency, those who bore those names were lined up, all in a neat row.  One by one, with ruthless efficiency, I brought their time in the world to an end.

The purges had begun.

The news instantly spread across the internet, of course.  Followers on Twitter, that famous microblogging force for radical change, could only stare at the ever-lengthening tally of the doomed.  The names flew by for nearly an hour. Each new chirp sounded the faint echo of a bullet’s report.

Well, not a bullet.  More of a mouse click.  That “remove” button doesn’t select itself, you know.

Today, about 20 gigs’ worth of games went into the void.  I tweeted for every single one — a megalomaniacal despot rejoicing as each little death heralded the revolutions that were soon to come under my iron fisted rule.

Here’s the list of victims:

  • Alien vs Predator (2000)
  • The Orange Box – Half-life 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2
  • Arcanum
  • Assassin’s Creed
  • Braid
  • Dungeon Keeper
  • Dungeon Siege and the Ultima 5 total conversion
  • Fallout and Fallout 2
  • Freedom Force vs. 3rd Reich
  • Free Orion
  • Diablo and the Hellfire expansion pack
  • X-Wing Alliance
  • Mass Effect and Bring Down the Sky DLC
  • Patrician III
  • Spellforce Platinum
  • Worms Armageddon
  • World of Goo
  • Audiosurf
  • Peggle Deluxe

Each one I deleted and tweeted.  Most went without a whimper, but a few people lamented Team Fortress 2.  Diablo got a little love, but in the end the bytes went to the bin without mercy.  I loved the idea of gamers across the feed gritting their teeth as another loved one bit the dust in my unflinching campaign.

I saved a few back from the brink.  Yes, I haven’t gone totally game free.  Here are the survivors:

  • Crayon Physics Deluxe
  • Ghostbusters
  • Majesty 2
  • Osmos
  • Penumbra
  • Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
  • Psychonauts
  • Bard’s Tale (2005)

These games have one thing in common: I haven’t finished them, ever.

That’s it, really.

Everything I deleted, I was done with.  I’d either won it long ago, or I’d started it and lost interest.  And I’m kind of proud of the list of games I kept.  It’s a good list.  For the most part, these games are acclaimed, unique, and celebrated.  I want to finish them because they’re new to me.

Not that there aren’t some great contenders in the List of the Doomed.  Dungeon Keeper is always high on my nostalgia list.  But nostalgia and love can be burdens, too.  They can get in the way of seeing fresh things of their own worth.

Once I’m finished with the surviving games, what will I do?  Shall I weep, like Ozymandius, for there are no new worlds to conquer?

No.  There are lots of new worlds.  I just haven’t been looking for them.

And that’s what spurred today’s cullings.

Once upon a time, you see, I was at the cutting edge of gaming.  I had the new releases.  I read the literature.  I kept up on the buzz.

That hasn’t happened for a long time.  I’ve been pestered by the necessarily conservative orientation of this site: always looking toward the past’s successes, always celebrating the old way it was done, always digging into the past of our hobby to pry up some fossilized point of interest.

Meanwhile, the gaming industry evolves into something social and powerful and determined.  It mutates, schisms, and reforms into new schools of thought.  It races past entertainment value and takes on other qualities.  It teaches, it trains, it expands, it connects.  It modifies the minds of the players.

Some very formidible minds are working their magic in the field, too.  Consider as a prime example Dr. Mary McGonigal, who wants to use games to change the world, and is getting results.  Consider Alexander Galloway and his study of gaming and algorythmic culture.  Smart brains are thinking smart thoughts about what’s coming, and gaming is the vehicle of the revelation.

I had a brain like that once.  It ossified over a decade.  And now it’s restless.

Gaming is the modality of the hyper-connected future.  Hell, it’s how the mostly-connected present works.  Ratings, interactions, cybernetics, rules, and relationships are all part of what gaming is, and these fetures are built in to everything nowadays.  Social media is another word for a video game with crappy graphics and real-world payoffs.

This is all more philosophical than I’d inteded to get.  Suffice it to say, I’m dissatisfied with maintaining a purely past-looking orientation for my gaming.  I mean, the last review I posted was when, June 2009?  9 months ago?

Meanwhile, I’m desperate to break into a new gaming mode.  Instructional Technologies looks like a wide open field to me, and the world of academicsloves video games right now.

Loves them generatively, that is, as in, “loves what they’re doing and where they’re going.”  Present tense.  Not historically, not what theywere.  Thinking about this site, I feel like an amateur archeologist sometimes.  Very chique, circa 1700s Enlightenment Era.

In the face of what’s happening in gaming, I am spurred on toward something new.  Because the future, to quote the man, is where you and I are going to be spending the rest of our lives.

Be assured, friends and family:  Long Tail Gamer is not dying.  I’m still gaming, and yes, I do love me the classics.  There is still a lot yet to be said about what’s come before.  But things are turning around in my head, and if the site is going to survive, it has to turn with me.

(And, you know, 20 gigs freed is 20 gigs freed.  Enough room for some new installs, doncha think?)

Matt Barton’s Interview with Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III

You know, those guys who made Star Control?  AKA Ur Quan Masters?  Being the first game I reviewed?

Matt Barton over at Armchair Gamer did a ridiculously comprehensive and thoroughly awesome video interview with these two gods of game design.  Plus, Matt had the gerneous foresight to ask for questions from his audience beforehand.

I asked what they might want to include from UQM if a Star Control sequel were ever made.  To my infinite squee, Matt asked the question and they put a lot of thoughtfulness and detail into the answer:

“Let’s call it Star Control Returns”
“This would be a game for people who like Star Control II and who wanted to continue that experience.  So,I think we’d pick up pretty to close where the story ends and keep enough of the races and ships that you’d feel familiar and then introduce as the game goes on, the new races.”

(Thanks, Star Controller!)

Paul went on to talk about the impact of cell phones on movie plots, speculate about what the Druuge were really doing, and otherwise show that yes — he’s given a potential sequel a lot of thought.

I asked the question snarkily, calling the potential sequel “Star Control 3” — I know Accolade took that name and attached some sort of game to it, but I’m really talking about the soul of Star Control here.  I wonder about a sequel to SC2 the same way I wish there had been sequels to The Matrix, or prequels to Star Wars.

So thanks to Paul Reiche and Fred Ford for their continuing awesomeness.  While making no promises, their game still tantilizes with hints of expansion and novelty.  It’s enough… for now.  Until the glorious unveiling of the next generation of Star Control, bursting fully formed like Athena from the minds of those Zeussean stalwarts Ford and Reiche, that wonder is all I have.

Well, that and Project 6014