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Pong December 11, 2007

Posted by jmoran21 in Games.
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Pong’s borders and boundaries utilize the edges of the screen. These are the necessary boundaries for the game due to the technical limitations at the time of its conception, but also as a gameplay element that makes it easy for new players to understand these boundaries. The rules are obvious, score points by bouncing the “ball” past your opponent’s paddle using timing and trajectory. The rules are fixed and constant; there is no point in which you must avoid the ball, for instance. The logic of Pong is geometrical, and almost anyone could grasp this after watching the game for a round or two. Pong’s emergence is evident in every game you play: no matter how many times two players play it is entirely unlikely they will play the same game twice. This is because the number of possible trajectories the ball can take, multiplied by the number of times the ball is bounced in the game is astronomical. The cultural impact of Pong is apparent in the number of people who identify with their paddle as a game character.

Mass Effect December 11, 2007

Posted by jmoran21 in Games, Uncategorized.
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One of the most hyped games of the fall was my biggest reason for taking the 360 plunge last month. Predictably, I’ve fallen victim to its siren song, and would gladly pursue the Geth to any number of backwater worlds for hours on end. Since Bioware is behind some of my favorite games (KOTOR and Baldur’s Gate 2 for example), I had high expectations for their first next gen effort. And while they seemed to have pulled a Molyneux on some really cool features, (dynamic interruptible dilogue, full control over party- err, squad-members) overall the finished product is gleaming, and may be the best storytelling, if not story, I’ve ever seen in a game.

Biggest change from previous Bioware titles: fully voiced protagonist. This makes a huge difference in how you perceive the game. First off, you spend a lot of time staring at your characters face, which makes it much more sensible to go with the default, most highly polished visage for your avatar. If the voice acting sucked, this feature would be worse than useless, but this is not so, luckily. In fact, as many reviews have stated, I find myself slogging through combat just to get to the next dialog tree. The elegant wheel of choices gives you just enough information about your next lines to make a semi-informed choice, but keeps it simple enough to be useful, as well as interesting to listen to.

While the galaxy’s worlds may be a little empty at times, it is way more expansive than the five-planet choice of KOTOR. Not to mention that driving around in the rover is eff you enn fun.

Crime and Punishment November 19, 2007

Posted by jmoran21 in Games, Law, Morality, Perception, Tech.
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A politely incredulous anchor read this story on last Thursday’s Morning Edition:

Morning Edition, November 15, 2007 · A teenager faces charges of stealing furniture that doesn’t exist. The youth in the Netherlands was on one of those Web sites where you create virtual people to wander around virtual buildings spending what amounts to real money. You pay cash for credits to spend online. The 17-year-old allegedly stole $5,800 worth of imaginary furniture. Real police arrested him. They suspect other teens of receiving the stolen goods.

It’s a safe bet we’re talking about Second Life here. My own appreciation of Second Life has increased a bit since my last comment on the not-a-game, due mostly to a lecture I attended by The Tracer, a Second Life architect. So of course when I heard the wording of this story I was rather appalled by the seemingly “lighter side” slant of the reporting. What listeners will fail to realize, due in part to the sloppiness of the writing, is that “stolen goods” in SL are the valuable products of individuals, and that theft is not a part of gameplay, as a layman might assume from the tone of the story. I’ve heard some cool stuff on NPR about games in the past, but I guess they’re still alright with catering to the non-gamers in order to get a chuckle in between the real news.

My hall of fame… November 19, 2007

Posted by jmoran21 in Games, Perception.
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I was able to borrow Halo 3 from my brother this weekend while he went to visit his girlfriend. Like many other students I’ve talked to, the multiplayer component is only a small draw. Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely the most fun you’ll ever have being obliterated from across a map with pinpoint accuracy by someone who doesn’t remember the NES. So while I was curious about the fate of (most) people’s favorite super soldier, I wasn’t sure the single player game was going to be enough to earn my purchase, at least not with the other new opportunities available to me.

As it turns out, I never had to answer that question, since we ended up watching my girlfriend’s little brother* for the weekend. He and I immediately agreed to dig into the game together, tearing away as many meaty chunks of gameplay as we could in the limited time we had available. This was a good choice.

Obviously co-op has been a major component of the game throughout the series, and with good reason. Epic-scale battles with massive vehicles lends themselves well to the teamwork opportunities of a cooperative session, leading to a profound sense of satisfaction and camaraderie. Halo 3 achieves this to the greatest effect yet, thanks to the team-up of the Master Chief and the Arbiter. The game is then able to replace the somewhat nonsensical two MCs of past games with a logical and enjoyable juxtaposition of kindred spirits who can both play a part in the story.

The key “Aaah…” moment came when during a battle with a Scarab Tank, in which Pelican drop ships deploy ATVs with rocket launching marines perched on their backs. We wove figure eights around the massive machine while our passengers unloaded their payloads against the colossal war engine; we cheered at our success and the accuracy of the A.I. controlled gunners. While sharing the thrills of the battle, our enthusiasm spread into the game itself, and the marines became part of our experience. What started as a two-player game became an all out war, at least for us.

Out of body experiences are rare in games. Up until this weekend I’d only had the lurch of my stomach as I leaped from the Empire State Building in Spiderman 2, and the jerk of my limbs during QTEs in the Shenmue games. Now the adrenaline of Halo 3 co-op joins this rare list of gaming moments that let me transcend reality’s boundaries, if only for a moment.

New Games November 17, 2007

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Portal: Just finished up after 3 short sessions, but I have absolutely no complaints. It was easily the most enjoyable game I’ve played in years. Perfect blend of crisp gameplay, glossy style, and laugh out loud humor. It delivers the tight, high quality platforming experience you’d expect from a Mario game from a hitherto unrealized perspective for the genre. Of course, the ending credits were just as good as any cake. Warren-gray.com has the .mp3, but it’s most satisfying only after beating the game.

Bioshock: The spiritual successor to System Shock 2 had large shoes to fill. When I first heard the rumbling on Evil Avatar about a possible System Shock sequel, I may have gotten out of my chair to do a victory dance. While not quite what I envisioned at the time, Bioshock is a superlative shooter with a thoroughly enjoyable progression of weapons and powers, challenging A.I., and just oozing with style. Every game that has ever been lauded for its water effects in the past must hereby be stricken of its liquids. The world is so nuanced, so complete, I almost wish I was stranded in Rapture myself. While the “System” may be gone, the influence is felt throughout, from the omnipresent narrator and villain constantly inundating you with advice and taunts, to the “ghosts” and audio tapes the reveal the final moments of the citizens of Rapture. I have only gotten about half-way through, but I’m looking forward the the twist I have been so diligently avoiding in blog posts for the last few months.

Beautiful Katamari: More of the same, but that’s not a bad thing. I love rolling things up into a ball, it’s just who I am. I cannot fault a tiger who refuses to change it’s stripes when the stripes are the bloody Mona Lisa (ok, maybe just the Cambell’s Soup Can.) I heard that the DLC sucks, just another 300kb download to unlock content already present on the disc. Seriously, Microsoft, this is the saddest thing to happen to gaming since Black Isle shut down. Fix it.

More this week on Assassin’s Creed, Halo 3, and Half-Life Episode I & II.

Zero Tolerance November 5, 2007

Posted by jmoran21 in Comics, Games, Morality.
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I just finished reading Watchmen, and the ending is heavy. Spoilers ahead: it basically boils down to the heroes choosing whether to pardon a great evil for the greater good of humanity. I found myself siding with the heroes who were in favor of allowing this evil to go unpunished, because the alternative was certain Armageddon in a war between the United States and the Soviet Union. I was disappointed, then, when Rorschach couldn’t lay down his absolute version of justice for once in his life for the sake of the world.

In Half-Life 2, which I also just finished, Gordon Freeman is your silent alter ego who has a lot in common with Rorschach. While many humans become complacent with an alien empire that could (possibly?) wipe out humanity by proving themselves a valuable resource, the cost is too high for the freedom fighters that the player leads. Why, then, when faced with (basically) the same dilemma from Watchmen do I make the opposite choice for myself? Why do I sympathize with the Black Mesa guerrillas whose actions may jeopardize the survival of the species?

I think that it’s as simple as this: I know, despite the odds, there’s a very good chance that at the conclusion of Half-Life’s story, humanity will triumph. In other words, with the advantage of knowing there is a fourth wall there in front of me and that the events of the game are orchestrated by writers who want you to succeed, I am able to make the correct choice without having to contemplate the ramifications.

Maybe if I were Gordon Freeman I would surrender myself to the Combine to prevent further atrocities. But maybe if I were playing a game I would have followed Rorschach outside and joined him as a martyr for truth. In this way, contrary to my previous statements, playing a game can bring out the best in people, their heroic side, just as often as it does their worst.

MMORPGHS November 5, 2007

Posted by jmoran21 in Comics, Education, Games, Tech.
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second lifeBack in middle school, one of my summer reading books was the autobiography of Ryan White. What I remember most (other than his mother buying him an issue of Playboy) is that at one point during his illness, the school district where he lived patched his home through to a closed-circuit TV system and a two way radio so that he would be given his legally-guaranteed free education, without exposing other children to the Aids virus. Weren’t the 80’s just so enlightened? Being a classic antisocial loner, I thought that this was one of the highlights of having a terminal communicable disease, and it stayed in my mind for a long time.

So this warped but alluring concept meets New Media in, where else, Second Life. While not a citizen myself, I do love hearing about the development and growth of the metaverse, preparing myself for the day when they eventually get a real interface and you can actually begin playing it without a reference manual on your lap. I am told that all kinds of universities, libraries, and the New Media Consortium itself all own or rent property where players can attend lectures and avail themselves of information with real life professionals. But as I previously intimated, this is great for the millions of people who play Second Life world-wide, not so much for the billions who don’t.

I myself have taken a few distance learning classes, but they don’t really feel like class. I have only felt one teacher made up for the lack of personal contact, and this she did by assigning tons of homework. There must be a better way, right? Imagine: a federally funded and maintained virtual environment, available to anyone as an alternative to traditional public education, complete with a fully recognized (grade school/high school) diploma. Specially designed terminals combine with a nationwide high bandwidth network enabling interactions on par with and exceeding anything done in multiplayer gaming today. There are no textbooks, no school lunches, no disruptive students dragging down the process. There is social interaction in common areas, completely absent of physical intimidation, social class discrimination, or personal danger. Just use your imagination and the possibilities for this type of system are endless. There are obvious challenges, but it’s definitely possible even within out current level of technology, if not our current level of technology awareness. Personally I’d be ecstatic if my grandkids had this kind of system available to them.

Hello! Have you come to play? October 17, 2007

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Tom NookMy girlfriend is a very busy woman. Everyday, she gets up at dawn and walks to the beach to see what has washed up. On her way home, she stops and visits with her many friends, and she always caries a watering can in case she sees a flower in need of a drink. She might then find a rare entomological specimen, capture it, and rush it toward the museum for study. Or maybe she just winds up at the department store to see what new items are in stock. After carrying her loot home, she occasionally encounters lost kittens or unrelenting insurance salesmoles. After dealing with each appropriately, she heads home to rearrange her décor and accommodate the new furniture she’s purchased. Her most important of all, however, is locating and destroying any weeds that have sprouted in her town. And all this is done before she even gets out of bed!

Yes, friends: my girlfriend’s an Animal Crossing: Wild World addict. I bought her first Nintendo DS for Christmas ’05, but ACWW didn’t come until some time after Nintendogs had lost its hold on her. Once she crossed over, however, it hasn’t been the same. I believe she has spent more time in Circus (her town’s name) than I have with any three videogames I’ve played in my life. She has the mansion, a perfect town, complete bug, fish, and fossil exhibits, and about 90% of the games hundreds of household items are in her catalogue. She bought herself a DS Light and stole my copy of the game because she needed to take advantage of the WiFi play more often than I was willing to. That’s right, she has two towns.

The game is less habit and more ritual for her, a chance to exert total control and achieve perfection in a world she can comfortably predict and participate in. This is the same feelings of escape I experienced all through high school in the form of Starcraft and Civilization, only she limits herself to healthier playing time (and of course a cute and cuddly setting.) What this means to me is that she understands my need to play games, even if she doesn’t appreciate the beauty of the games I play. I also value the quiet time we have together when she’s at a K.K. Slider concert and I’m subduing Black Hole in Macro Land. I also know that if we’re ever really broke, I can turn her loose on World of Warcraft, she’ll soak it up like a sponge and become a one-woman-goldfarm. Gaming niches are very predictable, you know.

What Looking Glass? October 17, 2007

Posted by jmoran21 in Games, Perception.
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HL2A New Media exercise: compare and contrast the differences in how you perceive A) a static, projected image of a hallway, B) viewing the hallway through a narrow window, and C) walking through that hallway.

A) Because the image is projected onto a screen, it relies on electricity and light to exist. If the electricity were cut off, the projected hallway would cease to exist. I can’t get into the image, I can’t modify the contents. It’s a linear communication from the projector, because every viewer sees the same hallway.

B) The window restricts my viewing to a certain range, but I can change my position relative to the window to increase, decrease, or change what I’m viewing. I can’t modify what’s beyond the window from my position in space, but people on the outside can and do affect what I see. This is a transactional communication because what you see depends on where and when you are looking.

C) Being inside the hallway itself fills your perception with the details of the space. I am free to change anything that I see fit and am physically capable of. I could even destroy the hallway if I had the strength.

So is a videogame, an fps like Half-Life 2 for instance, a projection, a window, or a hallway? The closest relative would be the window; even though you can interact with a virtual environment in a video game, you are still separated by the 4th wall, and that is the biggest difference between the window and the hall as well. Many dreamers like to imagine the possibilities of someday interacting with totally immersive game spaces, but I think our generation will be limited to those instances when games are brought to life.

My New Favorite Color (For Boxes) October 15, 2007

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Portal. Despite my enthusiasm, I actually haven’t purchased the Orange Box yet, that robust concoction of Source Engine Delights. In fact my initial pull toward the uber-collection was for the sake of Team-Fortress 2, which part of me still can’t believe has reached retail shelves after what’s got to be one of the most ridiculous development cycles I’ve ever followed. In any case, Portal has taken center stage in both the gushing reviews and the one remaining glowing ounce of my human heart. For the uninitiated, the official synopsis:

Portal™ is a new single player game from Valve. Set in the mysterious Aperture Science Laboratories, Portal has been called one of the most innovative new games on the horizon and will offer gamers hours of unique gameplay.

The game is designed to change the way players approach, manipulate, and surmise the possibilities in a given environment; similar to how Half-Life® 2’s Gravity Gun innovated new ways to leverage an object in any given situation.

Players must solve physical puzzles and challenges by opening portals to maneuvering objects, and themselves, through space.

Now I know what the Wright brothers must have felt like. My hope is that this game will challenge players to exist in a world that has spacial rules completely unlike anything in real life, and it will challenge players to change the way they think.

To get a rough idea of just how this will work, check out the trailer or the unlicensed flash-based knockoff game.