Thursday, October 30, 2008

On The Rain-Slick Precipice of AWESOME.

When the announcement that Penny Arcade's RPG was going to be released for the PSN I knew my patience had paid off. And last Thursday, that saved time was rewarded. Not only did I buy the monumental first episode, but I finished it in two sittings. How's that for never finishing my games?! BOOYAH!

I rather like this particular iteration of episodic content. Getting an extension of an excellent game every couple of months provides a somewhat consistent, warm feeling to the recipient. This is how you do episodic games. Half Life 2 has it all ass backwards, which has been addressed several times (the best, I'd say, by Yahtzee) -- releasing a game that only extends the story by a few hours every year or so doesn't make any sense at all. It's like a long-distance relationship with a whore -- you hardly see her, and sure, there's sex when you do, but it just doesn't make you feel good when you pay for it.

I like analogies.

Episodic gaming is something that's desperately trying to find its place in the gaming community, and I think there's a right and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way would be Valve's way of doing it. They release an episode without having the next completed. That's just lazy. If a TV show recorded and released and episode each week, the show would feel rushed and production would be crappy. Shit, I think I just described soap operas. Hm, well, the point remains. So, to combat the high probability of crappiness, Valve "takes its time" between episodes in order to release quality instead of, well, quantity. But isn't the point of episodic games the quantity (coupled with established quality)? Instead of releasing just one long, solid game, you release several short, solid games in the same universe? I understand that Valve may really, really like its HL2 plot and so want to keep it rolling for as long as possible, but releasing episodes of games in the same time that whole other games could be made is more of a gimmick. They might as well just call their episodes what they should be called -- expansion packs.

Then again, expansion packs tend to have additional weapons, characters, and environments, and while HL2's episodes have new characters, it's mostly lacking with the other two. Whatever.

Penny Arcade has done more than just properly release content, though. Their genre is much more adaptive to episodic releases. RPG's generally take large amounts of time to finish, so with an episode of an RPG, you're probably going to get something like 6-8 hours of solid gameplay out of it. FPS's are quick and action packed. A run-through of full FPS games can take only 6 hours if you know what you're doing.

The game itself is brilliantly funny, which is it's biggest strength. As an RPG, it has that real-time-combat style that I've actually never played before (but I think was in Final Fantasy X or something -- I don't know, I hate the FF games), so the combat is surprisingly not-boring (like other RPG's can be). The game just made me want to finish it. The humor alone was a major factor there. I mean c'mon, one of the enemy types -- clowns -- bleed rainbow-colored blood when you hurt them. That's fucking great.

When episodic gaming is done correctly, it really is a great idea. You get the feeling of a new game with each addition, you don't have to devote a week of your life just to finishing a game, and the injection of pleasure arrives at fair and consistent intervals. Good shit.

I also got a new TV. A 42" LCD TV. It has 4 HDMI ports. 1080p. It's a Philips. I love my Playstation 3 right now. I also got Dead Space. And Fallout 3. And Wipeout HD. I think it's time to make a video gaming schedule, because I have quite a catalog to finish before X-mas. And goddamnit, I'm gonna finish them all.

Impressions/discussion of Dead Space and Fallout 3 next time (maybe tomorrow? probably not).

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Someone Cares...

A long time ago -- and I mean long time ago -- I would often, while spending time with a friend of mine who has long moved on to I-don't-know-what, dream of creating a video game. We had ideas, or what would appear to be the illusion of ideas, and with these we would paint on the canvas of imagination. At the time our obsession was a game called Total Annihilation. Some of you might know it as that game the guy that did Supreme Commander made first (Total Annihilation is still better than Supreme Commander, eye-em-aach-oh). But we were, in our 12-year-old selves, sold on the idea of somehow utilizing that game to create our own story, world, and universe. We even wrote down some unit stats.

Of course, nothing happened. We liked the idea of making the game much more than the work required to actually create it.

Last weekend I played through a good chunk of Timeshift, a game that I believe emulates my youthful ambitions rather nicely. The game is, at times, broken. And at one point in play, it froze -- sound loop and all. I have heard of console games freezing, but honestly, I never experienced it myself without a 5+ hour play session being a major factor. At another point in my time with the game, I got stuck in some corner that, physically speaking, no living thing could possibly have managed in to within the confines of reality.

And the story...the story yearns to be taken seriously. You can feel it. But its holes are so wide, and its delivery so muddled that, while playing, you wonder if the game might just be better without it. At one point a loading screen was used to explain to me who I was and what my character's role in the story was. I'm sorry, but complete characterization for an interactive experience such as a video game cannot be achieved with two sentences.

But the game itself is relatively fun. This is why I look at it the same way as I did that imaginary game concept I had so many years ago. Someone inside Timeshift's development team wanted this game to be something. Someone had an idea for something. But the effort clearly could not soar across the chasm of production. Put bluntly, this game fell short, massively.

There is a consistent feeling of satisfaction when you stop time, run through a landscape of suspended raindrops, blast three enemies in the face with a shotgun, and resume normal time to watch them all fall down together. Or, after an enemy throws a grenade your way, reversing time to dodge its destruction altogether.

A game like this makes me wonder if my assumptions are correct -- if there is honest passion buried someone in the development team, but it just isn't enough to make a full artistic construction. What does such a person feel after their dream is released and sold unfinished? Like publishing a book with chapters 4-8 lacking vowels? I know I would feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment in myself. Yes, maybe my bills will still be paid at the end of the month, but the money used to do so would feel dirty. Or, in a way, counterfeit.

I understand that companies have deadlines, and the longer a project is development, the more money that company loses until said project is released. I get that. But where is that line drawn for the passionate within the company? I think Blizzard is the best at handling said line's metaphorical existence -- remember their games are always done when they are done. And you know what? They make the best games (or, at the least consistently kick-ass games). I guess that at least seeing your dream realized in even a partial form is better than nothing, but that shouldn't be the accepted way of thinking. If Timeshift were done, and done right -- the way whatever mystery development person really wanted it to be -- I'm sure it would have been awesome.

Artistic ability is always better when given liberal amount of space to work in. The more confined the creator feels, the more rushed, unfinished, and unpolished the end product is going to appear. So I will use my little corner of the internet here to implore video game developers to cater to that guy that wants it done right instead of done fast. It's a fairly well-known demand, but still. Crappy games are still made despite such a phrase's understanding (Haze?). At least Timeshift is good enough to make me want to finish it.

Oh! All this talk just made me think of a game that should be made....okay, hear me out........