Sunday, December 21, 2008

Visual Storytelling in Videogames: A Meditation

I do not like having things spelled out for me in my media. I feel it's the author/creator's way of talking down to me. Anytime I watch/play anything that has to stop the action so there can be a big, long, talky part, it just rubs me the wrong way. Recently, there have been a couple of pieces of media that have done this, and I'm not all that happy about it. This is going to be a series of blogs, in which I'll address the items one at a time, so keep your interweb pointed to this space in the future, if what I write amuses/interests you.

In videogames, visual storytelling is something that used to be an absolute requirement. There was not enough memory in game media of old to cram in fully voice-acted, beautifully rendered cut-scenes. Hell, there was barely enough room for still images and crawling text. Ms. Pac-Man showed the relationship between Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man in a series of brief scenes between mazes, using in game assets (except the stork). Mega Man 2 explained the entire game with a brief spot of text and the use of a background image with a building in the foreground.

Well, that's all changed in the modern era. Most games rely on lengthy cut-scenes and dialogue to explain what's going on to the player. I'll pick one almost at random... Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

Now, before any fanboys go getting their panties in a twist, let me say that I loved MGS4. It was one of my Top 5 Games this year, and as soon as I finished it, I started up a New Game+. That being said, the 2nd playthrough was much more enjoyable. Why? Because I didn't have to sit through 7 hours of cut-scenes and dialogue. I knew where I was going and what I was supposed to do, and that allowed the gameplay to shine through.

For anyone who hasn't played MGS4 yet, it does a good job of wrapping up pretty much all of the loose ends in the series thus far. It plays out wonderfully, and the ending is satisfying. The gameplay is great, and the first three chapters used a lot of innovative gameplay mechanics that hadn't really been explored much in videogames until that point (following the guy through the streets of the "European city" was both tense and interesting).

However, the whole experience is muddled by the fact that every ten steps, there's a cut-scene. Why do there need to be so many cut-scenes? Would it not be enough to put some more visual cues in the levels themselves? Maybe some walking codec conversations? Something that doesn't completely disrupt the gameplay?

I understand that MGS4 is an extreme example, being that it's the last in a series of admittedly confusing games, but that doesn't excuse the fact that a 6 hour playthrough is not difficult on a 2nd time around, when the first time takes 15-ish hours. Now, of course, you'll be continuing less and getting stuck less, but the thing that cuts the most time is SKIPPING THE CUT-SCENES. The cut-scenes, which, while pretty are very dialogue driven and for the most part, have little action (which is for the best, because I really hate being shown something cool withoug being able to actually do it while playing).

Cut-scenes have their place, it's just not a place in front of gameplay. The cut-scenes in No More Heroes were excellent, and made me laugh almost all of the time. They added to the experience, and watching them wasn't a chore, as in MGS4.

Now, on the other hand, there's a recent game that does an absolutely brilliant job of telling the story with no cut-scenes outside of the opening movie. That game is Valve's latest; Left 4 Dead. Left 4 Dead is admittedly light on story (there are zombies, kill/get away from them), but what story there is is fully realized through in game dialogue (I particularly love the conversation with the guy in the church during Death Toll) and visual cues.

If you look closely, there is an entire world that is fully realized in brilliant detail in Left 4 Dead. The graffitti in the safe rooms tells the stories of those here before you, corpses covered with sheets tell of those who didn't survive whose friends didn't just want to leave their bodies to the elements, but couldn't take the corpses with them. It's all around. You just have to look for it, and that's part of what made Left 4 Dead such a brilliant experience. Valve proves that visual storytelling still can exist in games, the creators just need to sit and think.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Koslov's Headbutt (or Striking Moves as Finishers in Pro Wrestling)

I have a lot of issues with pro-wrestling today (starting with the fact that almost no one calls it "pro-wrestling" anymore), but the biggest one, the absolute biggest one right now, is Koslov's headbutt. Yeah, I know, seems silly, but let's dissect this for a minute.

Koslov wrestles a guy for anywhere from 2-15 minutes, and at the end of it, he headbutts the guy in the chest and pins him. They call it "The Battering Ram." Why does this work? Ok, bare with me here, but I'm going somewhere with this. Let's take Umaga. Not the greatest performer ever, but miles better than Koslov. Now, we all know that wrestling's internal logic dictates that Samoans have incredibly hard heads (except the Rock, but he must've gotten the recessive "less hard head" gene because he's not full-blooded Samoan), and if he headbutts someone IN THE HEAD, they still don't go down for a three-count.

At what point does a headbutt, ahem, sorry, Battering Ram to the chest outclass and outdamage all the big slams and suplexes this "Sambo Champion" has been dealing out the entire match? And if his head is that hard, why does getting rammed into the turnbuckle faze him at all? Hell, why does getting punched in the head, or even getting hit with a folding chair faze this concrete-skulled monster? I mean, several of the biggest stars in WWE are getting dropped by a HEADBUTT TO THE CHEST.

And this isn't the first time something like this has happened, either. Oh, no. Exhibit A: "Hands of Stone" Ronnie Garvin. Ronnie Garvin, whose work I've never much cared for, used The Knockout Punch as his finisher during his NWA days. The Knockout Punch? So, what, exactly, differentiates "a punch" from "The Knockout Punch"? The only thing I can see is that one comes at the end of a match, the other comes every other second in Garvin's matches.

If Ronnie Garvin can K.O. a guy with a single punch, why doesn't the guy go down the first time he's punched in the head by Garvin? Why aren't ALL of his punches Knockout Punches? And even if there's something different about this supposed Knockout Punch, why does he have to wait until he's exhausted and beat up to use it? Wouldn't he be more likely to hit a good shot right at the beginning of the match? As you can see, this punch leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

You know what's really sad, though? It gets worse with Garvin. Oh, yeah, when he came to the WWF they gave him a new, yet somehow even dumber finisher. The Garvin Stomp. You read that right; The Garvin Stomp. This is where Garvin would systematically stomp on every extremity of this opponent, both arms, both legs, and, finally, their head. It's horrible. If your opponent will lay still long enough for you to walk around him and step on every part of them, wouldn't you just be able to pin them? Moreover, why wouldn't every other stomp cripple them? It's not as if Garvin didn't stomp at all throughout the match before the finish.

Yes, Randy Orton uses this same move now. They call it "The Orton Stomp," but it'll always be The Garvin Stomp, no matter how many good performers actually opt to use it. The differences with Orton are 1) he doesn't use it as a finisher and 2) he actually drops a knee on his opponent's face at the end. I mean, this doesn't save it from being the dumbest move in Orton's arsenal, and making me question if he really is one of the five best performers out there today, but it does make it less painful to watch.

Exhibit B: Johnny B. Badd. Yes, during Marc Mero's tenure with WCW, his finisher was The Tutti Frutti Left Hook. Now, this actually kind of makes sense, as Mero is an ex-boxer, however, he did exactly what Garvin did and punched from the opening bell. Shouldn't all of his punches have much more power than the average wrestler? Shouldn't any non-jab from Mero send his opponent reeling? Yes, yes it should, but it didn't.

Exhibit C: "Big" John Studd. John Studd was one of the best big men in the history of pro-wrestling, but his finisher... well, it was one of the worst. The Heart Punch saw Studd put his opponent in the turnbuckle and punch them in the chest. This supposedly caused some sort of borderline apoplexy, and allowed Studd to make the pin. The only problem is, if he's strong enough that his punches cause minor heart attacks, if directed at the head, as they were throughout matches, shouldn't they also cause the loss of both teeth and conciousness? I'm inclined to say yes. You've probably guessed by now that they didn't.

Now, I'm sure some people are thinking "but, Joe, what about the Superkick (a.k.a. Sweet Chin Music)? What about Kofi Kingston's Jamaican Buzzsaw? What about 'Bad News' Brown's Ghetto Blaster?"

To those people I say the following: those moves are all very specific kicks that require a very specific setup and have a very specific target, i.e. the head. In general in the wrestling business, kicks to the head are portrayed as very damaging, even when they're not finishing moves. You won't EVER see Shawn Michaels kick someone in the head during the course of a match prior to the finish. Brown's Ghetto Blaster was a leaping kick to the back of the head, and you wouldn't see anything like that in any of his matches prior to the finish.

So, back to Koslov and his headbutt. Are we really expected to believe that this headbutt is as devastating as The Pedigree or Tombstone Piledriver or legdrop? Well... ok, forget about that last one, but the answer, apparently, is yes, we are expected to believe it. And tonight, at Judgment Day, there's a good chance Koslov is going to beat Matt Hardy, someone who's been with the company for nearly a decade (with only a brief absence for that RoH thing, but I'm not entirely convinced that wasn't planned to further the Edge feud anyways) with a headbutt. Matt Hardy deserves better than that, and so does the WWE audience. Taz used a suplex as a finisher during his ECW days. Shelton Benjamin uses one now. Koslov's a "Sambo Champion," so why can't they just give him a devastating suplex (belly-to-belly off the top rope, perhaps?) as a finish, and stop making their top guys look like weaklings for getting pinned on a headbutt to the chest?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

2008: The Year Downloadable Games Broke

If you're into alternative music, you probably already know that 1991 is generally considered to be "The Year Punk Broke," due in large part to a documentary of the same title that came out the following year. What that implies is that '91 was the year that punk rock not only changed internally (basically going from Sex Pistols/Ramones-style hard and fast to Nirvana-style hard and less fast, time has shown that "grunge" is a label that simply wouldn't stick, and with numerous good reasons), but also broke into the mainstream, and ran hair metal out of the proverbial town on the proverbial rail. 2008 seemed to me to be downloadable gaming's equivalent, which is not to say that games on PSN, XBLA or WiiWare bested the giant that is The November Rush (especially not WiiWare), but they made a big dent, and many downloadable titles are appearing on "Best of" lists for 2008.

The fact is that games like Braid, Castle Crashers, and, of course, Mega Man 9 showed that a game does not need to have a massive budget to turn a massive profit. All things are relative, of course, but if your metric is a cost to earnings ratio, games like Bionic Commando: ReArmed made way more money than most AAA retail titles. ReArmed sold over 130,000 downloads in its first week. Peanuts compared to Gears of War 2, to be sure, but compared to nearly any downloadable console game prior to 2008, that's selling like gangbusters. It's also more than No More Heroes sold in its first week, which, while a niche title, sold enough to secure a sequel.

There's also the matter of gameplay. Downloadable games have significantly less overhead cost (no printed manual, no plastic case, no shipping, etc.), and, therefore, the designers and publishers stand to lose a lot less if a game tanks, so they can take chances. They can make games with new ideas, or they can make games that are designed to make you believe they were actually made 20 years ago. The latter, of course, seemed to work out very well for Capcom.

In fact, downloadable titles in general seemed to work out very well for Capcom. Two of the games on my personal Best of 2008 list were downloadable titles from Capcom (Mega Man 9 & Bionic Commando: ReArmed). Capcom seems to be the first big developer/publisher to realize just how much money they can make, and great games they can release (not to mention nostalgia they can stripmine) using download services. This year, Capcom released more downloadable titles than any other 3rd party publisher (not even counting their real retro releases on the Wii's Virtual Console). In fact, Sony has given them their own storefront on the Playstation Network because of it.

2008 was a paradigm shift. I'm not saying that 2009 is going to see more downloadable game sales that retail sales. I'm not even saying that 2010 or 2012 will see that, but I think things are going to be a lot different in the next generation of consoles, and gaming historians will point to 2008 as the initial tipping point, but for now, I'm just glad that both retro games and retro styled games have a good, safe means of distribution, because, hey, I'll admit that side-scrolling action games are my favorite genre of all time.


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My name is Joe, and this is my new blog, wherein I will ramble aimlessly about the various elements of pop culture in this crazy, pop culture saturated world. Keep your interweb browser pointed here for musings on videogames, movies, music and even a little bit of pro-wrestling.

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