Saturday, December 25, 2010

Explorations in Gaming: Year in Review

An interesting trend that I have noticed in the history of this blog is the constant evolution of the topic of the posts, thereby reflecting my own moral and intellectual growth. In previous phases of this site's development, I have written about pre-teen angst, Proposition 8, bioethical issues, adolescent sociology and now, video games and ludological studies. Previously interested in doing “Year in Review” posts, this in this post, I'll discuss such. In creating this site, I did not intend to create “just another online diary”, avoiding trends that I have seen in other teenage bloggers, this is essentially a journal of my own progress and explorations in gaming, a memoir of the experiences I've had this year with the medium that I have fallen in love with.

My year was spent mostly catching up on releases from the past two years and dabbling in some of this year's releases. Here, I would like to talk about some notable, meaningful or interesting experiences I've had playing games this year. The games I will discuss in this post will not necessarily be the best games I've played all year, but some of the the most interesting.

Entering the Community

I've been in somewhat of an upward streak in gaming for the past few years. In 2010, I spent more time and money on games than the past two years combined. My relationship with the medium reached new heights after participating in a video-game program at COSMOS, producing Tactile Cave and signing on to do spriting and animation with Studio C5 on the tentatively titled Platformertown. Reading Ed Halter's From Sun-Tsu to Xbox and Tom Bissell's Extra Lives, I was introduced to fascinating intellectual approaches to the medium.

Formally studying ludological issues in a classroom setting was a very enlightening experience, UC Santa Cruz's Expressive Intelligence Studio gave me the opportunity to learn more about code and creativity than I would ever be able to using online guides and forums. Meeting several current and future indie developers, I came to see the lack of innovation plaguing the current corporate industry and the need for increased accessibility for independent projects and lower prices. The EIS's research deals with Artificial Intelligence, not of the breed that shoots and takes cover, but the kind that can simulate human behavior and conversation. The creative potential for games to arouse powerful emotional reactions is inherent in this type of design, and discussed heavily were the art-games Portal, Braid and fl0wer (all of which I played this year). The studio's own studies and advancements, contained in their game Facade, exemplified fascinating new approaches to interactivity that would be integral to future WRPGs.

The Year of Metroid

2010 began with a grand playthrough of the entire Metroid Prime: Trilogy. My trek through Tallon IV and Aether was one of the most atmospheric and absorbing I've taken, the planets being some of the richest and imaginative virtual environments I've partook in. Retro Studio's attention to detail is incredible, and the Trilogy is a package that I gladly suggest to any gamer. Samus's scanning ability was ultimately my favorite part of the game, being able to analyze and study any part of the environment brought me into the game's world, making the planets feel real, their intricate histories absorbing and magical.

Unfortunately, the two other Metroid games I played that year were not as compelling as the Prime games. Metroid: Other M's emphasis on taking prompts from film to tell its story were disappointing, mostly because of the uninteresting characters than the intriguing plot. I also appreciated Super Metroid's compelling open-world design, but ultimately, the caves of Zebes was not as interesting as Tallon IV with its varied ecosystems or Aether with its rich Luminoth history, and thus, I was not motivated to complete it.

Catching up on Classics
If there was a theme for my gaming choices this year, it would be “modern classics”. I had the opportunity to play, for the first time, Resident Evil 4, Sands of Time, Portal, Knights of the Old Republic, Modern Warfare, Metal Gear Solid, Chinatown Wars, Soul Calibur II, Tatsunoko v. Capcom, Borderlands, Arkham Asylum, Fallout 3, Braid, Galaxy 2, Phoenix Wright, No More Heroes, Cave Story, Counter-Strike: Source, Team Fortress 2, Spirit Tracks, Final Fantasy IV (2007) and finally, StarCraft. I am somewhat embarrassed to have missed out on these games on their original release, and having the opportunity to play these games, beginning to end, was an immensely pleasurable journey.

Resident Evil 4 I held particular gripes with, while the environmental design was second-to-none and the combat, gory and satisfying, the story, while intriguing, was poorly told, shattering suspension of disbelief. Sands of Time I picked up upon hearing high praise on it, while I enjoyed the simple Arabesque story and its memorable ending, I was ultimately immensely frustrated by the linear platforming and the trial-and-error nature of the controls. Portal I easily recommend to anyone, the innovative physics based puzzles are of extreme quality, and in spite of its extreme brevity, Portal is one of the most memorable experiences that any gamer can have. While not a Star Wars fan to begin with, KotOR's absorbing narrative and great characters turned me into one, the plot twist ranking up near that of Inception.

Flashbang Reviews and Semtex Memories

The military game has reached Bieber-esque popularity in the past few years, and the nature of these games, I would admit, lacks particular nuance. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is onesuch example of such a game. Despite the potential for politically charged emotional moments in the game, Modern Warfare takes a rather tepid approach to its own subject matter, seldom does one question the motives of the slaughter he commits. Nonetheless, Modern Warfare did succeed in certain, non-action based moments, the AC-130 mission struck me as particularly cold, brutal and disturbing. The sheer indifference NPCs held towards the mission was shocking, and of course, the death of Paul Jackson left me speechless.

I disliked Bethesda's previous role-playing game, Morrowind, the sheer narrative freedom of the game was daunting, and the vastness of the options available was overwhelming and inaccessible. Fallout 3 improved on these flaws considerably. The ludonarrative freedom available to the player no longer felt overwhelming, but rather quite liberating. V.A.T.S gory, turn-based combat was not particularly compelling, but the options presented to interact with NPCs and the game-world absorbed me into the story of the Capital Wasteland.

Braid has been heavily cited as the most influential indie game of the past decade and the platonic ideal of the art-game. Much like Portal, it is a brief, single-player puzzle game. However, the nature of its challenges are of extreme quality, every moment of the short experience being worthwhile and satisfying, forcing the player to think in ways that would be physically impossible in our own dimension. Braid's four-dimensional gameplay permeated into my own world, and weeks after I was done with it, I still was contemplating the possibilities of altering time. The fact that the absolute and total mindf_ck of an ending stayed with me even when I was not playing the game makes Braid a game that I cannot recommend my friends to play, but demand them to.

To be as frank as possible, I felt that the hyperbolic praise that Super Mario Galaxy 2 was slightly undeserved. While I absolutely adored the game with its challenging levels and inspired artistic design, the superlative reviews it received did not describe the lack of amazement. The first Galaxy absolutely floored me with its unbridled fun, moving through space through the creative environments was one of the finest gaming experiences I had the opportunity of entering. Ultimately, Galaxy 2 felt to be more of the same, and while not a bad thing (more Mario is always good), I felt that the game failed to amaze on the level of the first game.

About that Open-Letter...

Some of my readers may remember my Open-Letter to Senator Leland Yee and the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the EMA case and the Assembly Bills that the case concerns. To those who supported me and signed the petition, I thank you immensely. I received a response from the Senator's office and had the opportunity to meet Senator Yee over coffee to discuss the bill and the ramifications that games have. More on that will come in the following weeks. Until then, Merry Christmas!  

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