Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Sites 88

Currently playing Mass Effect 2, its one of the most engrossing RPGs I’ve every had the pleasure of experiencing. People who have been following the gaming world should know that Nintendo isn’t doing too well. Well, that’s good for us, price cuts and free games for the win. At Comic-Con, a contest was held to chose a new default version of Jane Shepard for Mass Effect 3, since beauty is what matters for female characters. Leland Yee is a potential mayoral candidate, why that’s questionable.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Portal as an Exploration of Postcolonial Femininity

The Portal games are renowned for their renunciation of video game tropes, seeking to arouse emotions other than visceral excitement, thus challenging players to use intellect rather than reflexes. They are some of the finest games to be released in the past decade, and have remained relevant in the blogosphere for their subversive feminist subtext. Several, very fine works have been written on the subject. Here, I will attempt to analyze the game’s commentary on the role of several different versions of femininity and their place in a postcolonial, male-centric society. 256px-Portal_standalonebox

Before we begin, I shall make the assumption that the reader has a basic familiarity with the Portal series, having played the games or at least watched gameplay videos. For the uninitiated, Portal follows the story of Chell, a woman who wakes up in Aperture Science’s Enrichment Center, and is forced by an omniscient AI to go through a series of puzzle-chambers (check the below trailer to learn more). Another thing that I must explain beforehand is the basic components of semiotics. In essence, a “sign” is a unit of meaning that points to something other than itself, basically, a symbol. Portal is filled to the brink of such signs, which manifest themselves through narrative, characters, environments, even gameplay styles. While I am no women’s studies expert and am familiar with The Second Sex only in skimming, I believe that, as a teenager male gamer, I can bring another perspective to the debate on Portal and feminism.

GlaDOS the Dominatrix

What makes Portal’s omniscient AI antagonist, GlaDOS, so brilliant, is the constant evolution of her identity through several different versions of femininity. The game’s backstory suggests that, when she was created by an elite team of Aperture Science Engineers, she immediately went rouge and released a deadly neurotoxin into the facility to kill hundreds of scientists. In a desperate attempt to stop her reign of terror, Aperture Scientists installed a “morality core” to make her docile.

In this moment, it becomes clear that GlaDOS, prior to the installation of the “morality core”, represents a violent and subversive form of femininity threatening to the male-dominated order of society. In essence, her use of violence to break out of her gender-role equates her to a dominatrix. The installation of her “morality core” thus represents how gender norms repress subversive femininity by creating a set of feminine ideals of submissiveness that GlaDOS must now live up to. Thus, Aperture Scientists signify how binary gender ideals like those of our society squash out room for more esoteric approaches to gender like GlaDOS’s dominatrix, in short, Aperture symbolizes misogyny. 

From a literary perspective, this is comparable to Susan from The Chronicles of Narnia, who loses her initiative and “subversiveness” due to her discovery of lipstick, a sign of feminine norms that constricts her to docile submissiveness. Much like GlaDOS, the imposition of constrictive normativity leads to her destruction.

GlaDOS the Temptress

Nonetheless, it would seem that the installation of the “morality core” did little to soften GlaDOS’s subversiveness. Throughout the course of the game, GlaDOS maintains the facade of a non-living entity in order to manipulate the player through a series of puzzle-chambers, promising to give the player cake if (s)he survives them.

At this point, the type of femininity that GlaDOS seeks to exemplify has shifted. Instead of behaving as a violent dominatrix, she teases the player with promises of cake for successfully completing chambers (a reward that turns out to be nothing more than a fictitious motivator). Ultimately, GlaDOS is being deceptive, and her incessant promises culminate with her attempting to drop the player into a fiery pit of death. At this point, she drops all pretense of appearing to be a non-sentient AI and addresses the player directly. As the player attempts to escape the facility, she becomes less robotic and increasingly human, sarcastically mocking and threatening the player. She reveals more of her true self to the player, and thus becomes more distant, more threatening and more dangerous.

At this point in her character arc, GlaDOS’s promise of cake to the player can be interpreted as a signifier for a different type of subversive femininity. “Cake”, in this context, signifies sex and sexuality, and its potential to be used as a tool to manipulate, hence, fictitious motivator. This essentially turns this iteration of GlaDOS into a temptress, utilizing a facade of innocence and detachment, she pulls the player through a series of oft-lethal test chambers, with the ultimate intention of killing said player at the end.

This deceptive version of femininity is defeated by the player when (s)he subverts GlaDOS’s power by escaping her trap through a cleverly and intelligently placed portal. This scene, viewable in the YouTube link above, signifies the subversive triumph of reason over deceptive femininity. It is a rejection of GlaDOS’s promises of “cake” and an affirmation of the the player’s will to break out of the rules of GlaDOS’s game. Thus, Chell, the protagonist that the player has been assuming the identity of through the course of the game, achieves independence and subverts the power of GlaDOS’s sexuality. In a real-world context, this can be seen as a resistance to the enfeebling power of sexuality and the affirmation of one’s free will. In Portal, this grants Chell subversive feminine power whilst overthrowing that of GlaDOS.

Aperture Backstage

Upon escaping from the fiery pit of doom, Chell breaks into the restricted staff areas of Aperture Science and a type of war breaks out between her and GlaDOS. No longer content with maintaining her “temptress'” facade, she becomes increasingly hostile towards the player and uses her control over the facility to actively seek out and kill Chell. She loses all indication of femininity and, in using violence to stop Chell, she falls into an increasingly masculine role. Chell flees through the facility until she comes across the room where GlaDOS’s AI core resides in, prepared for an epic final battle, it is here where Portal’s symbolic critique of societal gender norms and their relation to the balance of power reaches its philosophical crux.

The first notable thing about this battle is the discovery of GlaDOS’s true identity, as manifested by her physical body. While she was omniscient and deadly within the facility, in her actual chamber, her robotic body hangs helplessly from the ceiling, being unable to move. Furthermore, when viewed from the proper angle, GlaDOS’s silhouette resembles that of a woman in bondage.


It thus becomes increasingly clear that GlaDOS’s struggle through her three different identities was a battle to break out of her position of powerlessness. As a supercomputer, she was manufactured by Aperture Science to be a tool to achieve the will of her creators, in essence, a slave, hence, the bondage symbol. In order to break out of the oppressive world of Aperture, she took on a new identity as a dominatrix. By flooding the facility with neurotoxin, she elevated herself into a position of power so she could conquer those who enslaved her. Perturbed by this threat to their power, the surviving Aperture scientists installed the morality core to put an end to her subversive femininity, thus attempting to relegate her to the realm of “acceptable” femininity.

But it failed, and GlaDOS moved on to take the identity of the “temptress” in a continued attempt to break out of her powerlessness. By wielding her femininity in a more societally acceptable way, she achieves power and control, managing to subvert male-centric societal norms. But nonetheless, this version of femininity remains as constrictive as the bondage her body is constrained to, and as a result, she must conform to another vision of idealized femininity in order to get power.

Threatened and enraged, GlaDOS and Chell begin to fight. Physically unable to move, GlaDOS uses the most masculine weapon at her disposal, a floor-attached missile launcher.


Much like her immobile body, the missile launcher is also a very important sign. Much like the guns of testosterone-drenched shooters like Call of Duty, the missile launcher is a phallic sign of masculine power. GlaDOS’s wielding of this masculine symbol signifies that she has broken out of the feminine gender role imposed on her by Aperture, and thus, has entered a more androgynous identity.

The method which Chell uses to defeat GlaDOS is also highly symbolic. The "Portals” that her gun fires can be interpreted as a feminine symbol, in essence, an orifice. In using a missile launcher, GlaDOS wields masculine power that Chell must redirect back onto herself by nature of her portals, even the rockets themselves look phallic. Thus, Chell uses her femininity to turn GlaDOS’s newfound masculinity against her. By using a series of well placed orifices, she eventually deconstructs GlaDOS and defeats her. Thereby, freeing her from her near-Sisyphean struggle to subvert Aperture’s power dynamic.

While GlaDOS’s character arc follows her tragic attempt to break out of the constrictive societal norms keeping her in bondage, Chell’s victory would seem to signify the sad triumph of traditional femininity over progressive feminism. In essence, her presence acts as a signifier for how society treats those who take on alternative gender identities to break out of their positions of powerlessness. Portal, thus, acts as an allegory for the plight of independently minded women in postcolonial society.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunday Sites 87

After two weeks in limbo, Sunday Sites is back. "I'll go to Borders to find a book, and then I'll to go to Amazon to buy it, generally," customer Jennifer Geier says. YES Yes, yes. You sir, get an achievement. Seth Godin, writer of Outliers, has an interesting and revealing view on college education The platonic ideal of badass (Thanks Daniel!)

Speaking of which, here’s a cool documentary that many would find interesting. I don’t advocate its views, but to play devil’s advocate, try this out.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Resistance 2 Review

First-person shooters are an oversaturated market these days, and with the flood of nearly identical titles being released every month, it is unsurprising that the quality of these games is on a downward trend. Resistance 2, developed by the esteemed Insomniac of Rachet & Clank fame, exemplifies that sad decline.


Resistance 2 is a run-n-gun first-person shooter about an alternate history wherein invading aliens called the “Chimera” interrupt World War II and begin an unstoppable conquest of Earth. The player takes control of Nathan Hale, an impossibly generic marine infected with the “Chimera Virus”, and must fight his way through frustrating levels of irritating enemies. 55627-forsideIts a thoroughly uninspired and uninteresting story that has little emotional weight and serves only to break up the action.


In essence, Resistance 2 plays very similarly to nearly any sci-fi shooter to be released in the last five years. Progress down a linear path filled with set-piece battles to the level’s end. What makes Resistance 2 unique is how frustrating its levels and enemies are, making what should be exhilarating combat a frustrating process of trial-and-error.

The chief element contributing to the frustration is irritating enemy design. Small, hard-to-hit drones float in the air, firing weak bolts at you. These enemies are not difficult to dispatch, but disrupt the pacing of the combat by forcing the player to circle-strafe in crowded environments. More irritating are zombie-like enemies that swarm around the player clawing at him. These enemies do little damage, but the sheer volume through which they attack the player makes them especially irritating, causing the player to repeatedly mash his melee attack to survive this encounter. Perhaps most irritating of all, an invincible shark-like enemy that instantly kills the player as soon has he ventures close to it. This makes swimming a trial-and-error experience requiring the memorization of its movement patterns to make a mad dash across water for land. Its not fun at all, and understanding the levels becomes a matter of memorizing enemy spawns.

Disappointing, for the most part, are giant, cannon-wielding aliens intended to represent a “boss-fight” of sorts. These enemies are not challenging and represent the irritating challenge of circle-strafing around cluttered environments. Their great girth makes fighting them a matter of placing the crosshairs over their bodies and holding down the trigger until they explode. Its not challenging, and not very fun. hiresscreenshots1

What is challenging and annoying is navigating the environments. Myriad enemies fire at you from many directions, making decent cover hard to acquire. Most frustrating still, are holes in the environment which, given the vertical nature of combat, usually go unseen by the player until he has already fallen to his death in one. Its a thoroughly annoying and unfun experience.

Boss battles are graphical showcases and are jaw-dropping in their scale. Too bad they are frustrating practices in dodging attacks and memorizing patterns, putting none of the skills that players have learned to use and preferring instead to instill new mechanics for each boss. This leads to scattered gameplay and incredibly irritating encounters. Particularly despicable is a giant insect battle on top of a circular tower. The battle requires the player to consistently fire at the boss’s mouth as it crawls about the tower unleashing annoying spawn that must be killed with melee attacks. The scarcity of ammunition during this fight makes the battle frustrating to the extreme.

When it was released in 2009, Resistance 2 was redeemed by its massive 60-player competitive battles and its deep 8-player co-op mode. However, it is 2011 now and the community has dwindled to about five or six active, unranked matches. As a result, the once great multiplayer is essentially dead, and without anyone to play with, the multiplayer cannot be enjoyed at its fullest potential.

Guns and Ammunition

That said, Resistance 2 is redeemed from the realm of crap by its creative and gleeful weaponry, a testament to Insomniac’s experience with the vastly superior Rachet and Clank series of action-platformers. A standout is the “Magnum”, a .44 revolver modified to have remotely detonated rounds. It is truly great to fire a bullet into an enemy and press alt-fire to detonate the round within his body. Also great is the Marksman, a powerful assault rifle with a sniper-like scope which alternately fire a floating drone that shocks anything in its vicinity. A sniper-rifle that can slow down time, as well as an alien assault rifle that can “tag” enemies for shots to home onto, are also standouts. Despite the fact that, for most of the campaign, players will only consistently rely on two or three weapons, there is little to fault about the game’s varied arsenal.


Graphics and Audio

Graphically, Resistance 2 looks great. A massive draw-distance makes for spectacular environments fraught with stunning set-piece battles. Bosses, despite the annoying gameplay that they arouse, are vast in their size and push the Playstation 3 to its limits without a single frame-rate drop. A strong variety of colorful environments, from a Californian Redwood Forest, to a twilight-shaded San Francisco Bay to the red, rocky canyons of New Mexico, shows off the skill of Insomniac’s art team.

From an auditory perspective, Resistance 2 works well. Strong voice acting combines with thoroughly unlikable characters to create a strong sense of mediocrity. Weapons generally sound powerful and are fun to use. Ambient music is utilized effectively to heighten what should have been tension, but ended up as frustration.


Unless you’re truly bored and are looking for a game to play in-between shooters, avoid Resistance 2. Inspired weaponry and great graphics do little to redeem the game from uninteresting level-design, awkward difficulty spikes, annoying enemies and now non-existent multiplayer. Resist this game. 2/5

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dark Deception. Pre-Development Diary #1

I still haven’t done an official reveal of Dark Deception (although pretty much everyone I know knows about it), but I still have much to say about the myriad difficulties of game development and the highs and lows of this adventure. The least of which include project coordination, communication, engine-compatibility and the many, many annoying quirks of computers.

The Good Stuff

In a weeklong period, I taught myself to do environmental art using the RPG-toolkit’s board editor. It was an iterative process, with tiles being replaced as I learned more and more features of the toolkit and collision detection and warping being made functional as I began to understand the intricacies of environmental design. Initially, it took me two hours to complete my first tile, within two days, I was able to create a tile in ten minutes. Check it out.

herpyThe result… was this.

firing range inside 

that's just me being a dumbass




I felt great about myself, everything was going well, until…

About those Lows…

So I laid down some basic collision detection and published a pre-alpha executable that you can download here. The pre-alpha was an epic failure and every tester reported that the game was unplayable and crashed on launch, sometimes not working at all for Chrome users. The game tested okay on my computer and ran perfectly. I tried to address the problem again, until something so terrible and so frustrating transpired that I was brought to my figurative knees as a fledging game designer.

The engine was bugged.

It wasn’t an issue with the code that we wrote, it was the worst type of problem possible, a problem with the software we were using.


The forums were dead and there was no support for our ambitious fledging project. I died a little inside, knowing that if we couldn’t fix the engine, we would have to lose hundreds of hours of work by moving to a new engine, with a far more difficult development environment and without support for multilayered maps.

The fate of the project remains yet to be seen, my esteemed engineer, suggests that we move to a new, Java-based engine that recently powered the cult-hit Minecraft. Stay tuned.


Coordinating an independent company is hard stuff, even harder if you’re an awkward teenager inept at skills needed in the professional business world. Maintaining clear and concise communication at all times is a difficult job. We a single meeting in June and we lacked a single, centralized avenue for communication. There would be occasions where I would meet team members through Steam, Facebook, Skype, AIM and Gmail. Things were chaotic and our business learned its lessons. Furthermore, coordinating a geographically scattered team made turning in work a complete 345crapshoot for us. A problem with the USPS caused us to lose over a month of concept art, forcing my artist to redraw practically every character in the game.

In a sense of the term, game design is an adventure, fraught with trials and tribulations. It is a learning experience to be attempted by the bravest and most creative of souls. Despite all the hell that Dark Deception has given me, I can say that I love the project unconditionally and will stick to it to its very end. The challenges I have faced through this struggle have already left me a stronger game designer. I greatly anticipate seeing where the project heads from here and addressing the new challenges that await the project.



Monday, July 11, 2011

Jamestown Review

The PC/Mac gaming world grinds to a halt whenever Steam has one of its legendary sales, and for good reason. $25 bought me Left 4 Dead 2, Dragon Age: Origins Ultimate Edition, Jamestown, Alien Breed 2, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and a cool hat. The first thing I installed was Jamestown (mostly because it was the smallest at 84 megabytes), playing this indie shoot-em-up immediately, I came to be shocked at its outstanding quality and polish.


Introduction and Story

The year is 1619, Sir Walter Raleigh escapes from the Tower of London with John Smith to British Colonial Mars, strapping on a flying suit of armor, he leads an attack on the colony of Jamestown, which has since been occupied by the traitorous tentacled martians of Roanoke loyal to the Spanish.

As you can see, Jamestown is a weird game. Its unbridled weirdness gives the game an irresistible charm, and as a result we are left with a gleeful smile throughout the entire presentation. From the hyper-detailed backgrounds reminiscent of both classic 16-bit titles and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to the static and silly introductory panels, it is clear that much love has been poured into the game, and Jamestown becomes awesome because of that.


Shoot-em-ups, currently the 7th most popular genre of game in Japan, are relegated to only a tiny niche market here in the west. As parts of a dying genre, these games are unappealing to American tastes because of their unrefined graphics, frenetic pace, simplistic gameplay and masochistic difficulty. Needless to say, Jamestown has much to overcome to become appealing to the western market.

And fortunately, Jamestown succeeds with more than flying colors in being accessible to the Western market. For one, the game moves at a much more sane pace than Japanese shooters, the game is still frantic, yes, but your ship and those of enemies move at a pace that the human mind can comprehend, and as a result, we have a shooter with a much gentler difficulty curve.

Jamestown makes its primary innovation in its “Vaunt” system, which allows a player to collect dropped coins from enemies to fill up a “Vaunt-Gauge”, which, when deployed with the spacebar (or center mouse or X button), grants seconds of invincibility and increased damage and score until the gauge is depleted (the gauge can be refilled mid-vaunt by collecting more coins). Its a system that affords the game a considerable level of strategic depth and skill, deciding the best times to deploy a vaunt and advantageous enemy formations for extending vaunt-time becomes an integral part of the game’s appeal, making Jamestown unique in what might otherwise be a mindless style of gameplay.


Cooperative play another one of the game’s greatest strengths. Instead of sharing a limited pool of lives and credits, the entire party can be brought from the brink of failure as long as one person survives to the end of a level. This significantly reduces the pressure on each of the players and makes the penalty for death bearable. Furthermore, a selection of four ships feature abilities and limitations that complement each other, making for effective cooperative play requiring actual teamwork.

That said, Jamestown is still a very difficult and skill based game. Patterns must be recognized and reacted to accordingly and evasion, while slower paced than Eastern shooters, is still a challenging task. You will die a lot in the game and a limited amount of credits guarantees that the player will need to take multiple tries to succeed. Limits on progression at certain difficulties effectively bolster a player’s skill and usher them into higher difficulties.


Perhaps Jamestown’s strongest aspect is its inspired artistic design. Highly detailed hand-drawn sprites and adorable enemy ships showcase the graphical prowess that can be achieved when a 16-bit aesthetic is attempted with modern hardware. Steampunk trappings solidify the silly martian-colonial story. A multitude of resolution settings gives the player the option of either playing at pixel-perfect ratio or at a highly-stretched fullscreen. Animations feature a multitude of frames and run smoothly on dated hardware. I ran the game on a Intel HD Graphics card and was still able to play at pixel-perfect ratio.


From the auditory side, Jamestown is also a triumph. An orchestral-rock soundtrack is exceedingly rare for an indie title. Sound effects are “just right”, adding a sense of satisfaction to collecting dropped coins and scoring direct hits on enemies.


Jamestown’s greatest challenge was remaining relevant in an age where 2D-top-down shooters are irrelevant and unnecessary. From the screenshots, one would fairly believe that the game offers nothing different from the legions of crappy free Flash games out there on sites like addictinggames or Kongregate. It is through creativity and innovation that Jamestown beats these insurmountable odds to become relevant in the western market and acquire the respectable score of 4/5.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sunday Sites 86

Well here we are again, its always such a pleasure. (remember when you tried to kill me twice?),17699/ hurr… seems reasonable… Good lord… Call of Duty: Galactic Warfare… what Call of Duty needed to justify its existence. The Nerdiest Colleges… sweet… Cool gaming blog that I came across. Check it out

Sunday, July 3, 2011

inFamous Review

I recently had the opportunity to play inFamous because of Sony’s infamous “apology package” for the infamous Great PSN Hack of 2011. But I realize I should shut up with saying “infamous” now because you’ll be hearing the word “infamous” many times in this review of inFamous. Infamous-cover

Introduction and Story

inFamous is an open-world game structurally more similar to the likes of Spider-Man 2 rather than Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series. The player takes the role of Cole MacGrath, a bike messenger who gains electrical superpowers after the package he was delivering explodes in his hands, taking out several blocks of Empire City and forcing the federal government to quarantine the city. What follows is an entertaining story that seems harebrained and inane due to its mixed narration. inFamous constantly shifts back and forth from a third-person present narration to a first-person past style in both its gameplay and cutscenes. The mixed perspectives make the game somewhat of a confusing mess of a tale, and while this is helpful from a gameplay perspective as it minimizes cutscene time, it detracts from the game’s story as characters, motives and events are lost in the inconsistent narration.

That said, when one extrapolates the plot, value is found in the game’s twisting and fun narrative. An excellent plot-twist at the game’s conclusion nicely wraps up the tangled threads in an epic fashion. Some vaguely emotional moments, coupled with the illusion of an open-ended narrative and amusingly black-and-white moral choices, make the game’s plot more involving than it has any right to be.


inFamous’s gameplay shows its greatest strengths and weaknesses. Combat and navigation, for the most part, is gleeful and exhilarating. Cole’s massive variety of cool, lightning based powers is a joy to use, from his static thrusters, to his precision power and megawatt hammer, effortlessly raining chaos and destruction upon enemies is an absolute joy. Without a doubt, upgrading Cole’s powers by gaining experience points creates a sense of progression, and as a result, us players are left feeling like true badasses.


Unfortunately, Cole’s more useful powers are not introduced to the player until he has made significant progress through the game’s story, and as a result, early missions become more difficult than later missions. A high-powered sniper-rifle ability is given to the player about halfway through the campaign, thereby making the elimination of stationary turrets much easier. As a result, early-game missions featuring these turrets become difficult to the point of frustration. A lack of a New Game Plus feature feels like a missed opportunity, as the game would have greatly benefitted from the ability to replay the campaign with all powers unlocked.

The fundamental mission design is also problematic. While combat is exhilarating and free-running through Empire City collecting Blast Shards is undeniably fun, most missions come down to just these two elements, and, after playing Red Dead Redemption, a game in which I cannot remember doing the same thing twice, inFamous’s variety in its level design just doesn't measure up to other open-world games. That said, there are a few notable exceptions, including a mad rush across the game’s entire world to disable toxic balloons, a prison-defense scenario and some incredible boss battles reminiscent of Zelda.

inFamous’s gameplay makes it ultimately a flawed masterpiece, the mainstays of urban open-world games are missing here, such as reliable aim-assist, varied missions and vehicular navigation, but ultimately, inFamous proves that it doesn't need it.

Graphics and Audio

From an artistic perspective, inFamous is a bit of a mixed bag. Gorgeous hand-drawn cutscenes nail down the dark comic-book feel that the series tries to achieve, nonetheless, these moments of graphical brilliance are marred by a generically bleak urban world. Technically, the world is inconsistent and scattered with various graphical glitches such as textures that fail to load fast enough for the game, an occasionally stuttering frame-rate and environments that Cole can fall through. Bizarre facial and character animation leaves emotional moments adequate at best, laughable at worst.


inFamous’s audio works very well for the most part, the music drums up appropriate dramatic tension at the right moments and there is little to object to about the excellent voice acting. Sound effects are visceral and contribute greatly to the feeling of power and weight behind Cole’s powers.


inFamous is not a bad open-world game, its just an unconventional one. By focusing on intense, stylish and gleeful combat and navigation in a comic-book world, inFamous effectively eschews what we expect from open-world games to create an fresh and fun experience. In a era where games are becoming increasingly similar to each other, inFamous comes as a heroic remedy to protect creativity in open-world game-design. Recommended. 4/5