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You’re The Best! Around!

10 Jan

originalIt’s now 2013, and so of course everyone has done their “Best of 2012″ lists. At Kotaku, we decided to do writer-specific lists this year.

You can read my list here. It wound up being a list of 11 games, with some honorable mentions that are most honorable, indeed.

The list, in no particular order:

Thirty Flights of Loving
Max Payne 3
The Walking Dead
Hotline Miami
Gravity Rush
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Journey
Far Cry 3
• Botanicula
Sleeping Dogs
Persona 4 Golden

With honorable mentions to FTL, Mark of the Ninja, Dyad, Torchlight II, Dishonored, Papo & Yo, Super Hexagon and Sound Shapes. For more on why I liked those games, check out the full article. Short version: They’re all good!

We also did a site-wide Game of the Year award. I argued for why Journey should be our GOTY, but in the end we gave it to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and I’m just fine with that decision.

A pretty cool year for video games, all around. And while we’re only a week or so in, 2013 is looking like it’s going to be bananas. Hooray.

Read “Kirk’s Top 10 11 Games Of 2012″ At Kotaku

Game Theory

1 Jan

nyt2012 was, for me, a year filled with writing. I wrote 1,366 Kotaku articles (!!), traveled all over the country, played a bunch of games, met a bunch of interesting people, and generally had a good time working my ass off.

It was a year of big changes at Kotaku, and over the course of the year, our team gelled. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the job, but thanks to my co-workers and my marvelous boss, I spent the second half of 2012 in particular looking forward to heading into the office every day.

One of the coolest things this year was our involvement with the New York Times. Just last week, I had the privilege of contributing to the NYT “Game Theory” year-end round-up. So, that’s pretty cool!

Here’s the general story: This year, Kotaku formed a partnership with the Times where we’d provide them the bulk of their games coverage in the form of capsule reviews cut down from the full reviews we’d run on our site. Stephen and Chris Suellentrop also took on more substantive coverage for the paper. It was a pretty low-effort, cheap-thrills kind of thing; we didn’t get bylines, and the capsule reviews didn’t offer us much of a chance to say too much beyond “This game is cool,” but it was still fun to see our words in the Times, and great that Kotaku was providing gaming coverage to arguably the most esteemed and widely-read news publication in the world.

journey-cap-blog480

In past years, Chris Suellentrop has run a neat feature at Slate called the “Slate Gaming Club,” where a group of critics take turns writing letters to one another about the year in games. A lot of my favorite writers and critics have participated in the series, and I’ve wanted to do it for a while. This year, I pitched Chris on the idea–I’d played more games in 2012 than any other year of my life, and if ever there was a year when I’d have a lot to add to the conversation, it was this one. As it turned out, Chris had taken the idea to the New York Times, and asked me if I’d like to contribute to that, instead. He was also in the process of setting up a collection of guest writers–the idea would be that he, Stephen and I would act as the regular writers, with several guests writing one-shot posts in between our entries.

Long story short(ish): We got underway last week, and the whole series came together quite well. Prompted by Sandy Hook, our opening entries talked about violence in games, and I’m actually very glad we found a focus like that. Often, these kinds of things can turn into scattershot “My favorite game was [X]” conversations, and I think we did well with a focus, particularly one people are as interested in as they are video game violence. Each of those first three letters was published in last Wednesday’s print edition of the Times, in a big, multi-page spread. So: My first New York Times byline! Not bad.

NYTimes

You can, of course, read all of these articles online, too. Chris started us off with a table-setter that introduced everyone and raised the question of violence in games, and Stephen followed him with a look at the NRA’s bizarre response to the Sandy Hook shootings the week earlier. My first entry took a look at video game violence through the lenses of a few pet theories of mine, from the idea that game developers keep making shooting games because they’ve gotten very good at it to Steve Gaynor’s wonderful concept of “specific violence,” which suggests that if video game murder were less dehumanized and anonymous, it would be more impactful and dramatically useful.

Helen Lewis, deputy editor of The New Statesman, wrote a thoughtful article about women in games, which was nice to see, particularly as 2012 felt like a watershed year for the discussion of sexism in video games. Stephen waded in to respond to some of the things Helen had brought up, particularly surrounding the Tomb Raider attempted-rape controversy, since there has been some lingering obfuscation about how that story was reported, what the game’s rep actually said, and how the publisher’s PR spun it after the fact. Playwright Lucy Preble hopped in to bring up the games as art discussion, pointing to ThatGameCompany’s Journey as an outstanding example of a video game that stands as a work of art.

26artsbeat-video-blog480

On that tip, Chris wrote my favorite entry of the series, in which he talked about how video games are like ballet. I’ve always talked about how video games are like music, but I gotta say, Chris’ parallel is stronger, largely because dance, like video games, is a medium that encompasses other, subservient disciplines (music, dance, visual arts, dramatic performance). The wonderful Jenn Frank then talked about the indie games she liked this year, and the many ways they embraced failure and death. That gave me an opportunity to bring up a few of my own favorite games of the year (and sneak a few Persona 4 screens onto the NYT website), and look at the many ways video games do not yet welcome newcomers.

Two more guest posters brought us home: Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore talked about the games that influenced his by-all-accounts fine film, and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” producer Gavin Purcell wrote a humorous and well-observed piece about how the social game Letterpress made him become antisocial thanks to his friends constantly pressuring him to take his turn.

And with that, we called it a day. I had a blast contributing to the series, and was happy with the ideas we all managed to articulate. I’m super proud not only to have been published in the New York Times, but to have published work I’m happy with.

Onward and upward, as they say. 2013 should prove to be a very exciting year both at Kotaku and beyond. There are new video game consoles to see, ambitious games already on the horizon, and we’ve got a phenomenal team of writers to take it all on. As I was saying to Jason Schreier the other day, “We’re loaded for bear, and this year, there’re going to be some bears to hunt.” We’ll see what’s next. I’m excited.

For now, I’ve got some soup coming at this cafe, and I’m pretty excited about that, too. Happy new year, everyone!

Read the “Game Theory” series at the New York Times

A Year Of The Melodic

27 Dec

SaxThere’s this thing about working at a high-output job like Kotaku where at the end of the year, you scroll back through the RSS of everything you posted and kind of just gape at it.

“Oh yeah, that article! I forgot I wrote or even conceptualized that.”

It’s certainly one of the challenges of the gig, but the high rate-of-fire is also a way to amass a bulky body of work in a short period of time. 2012 was the year we began to do separate “Channels” at Kotaku, the idea being to let our writers each highlight their expertise in various areas on the site. I got to run “Kotaku Melodic,” ostensibly dedicated to the intersection of games and music. I of course treated it more as my own personal fiefdom to write about Miles Davis, Kimbra, Amanda Palmer, and whatever the hell else I wanted. It was great.

I went back over the year and put together this post rounding up the best of the year at Kotaku Melodic. I’m immensely proud of the work we did this year. Give it a read, won’t you?

The Year In Music At Kotaku

No, THIS Is Me In A Nutshell

8 Dec

NutshellWell, it has been quite a while since I’ve updated this blog. The realities of writing hundreds of blog posts per month somewhere else has run me dry for sharing things here, I’m afraid.

I still really want to have a space on the web that’s just like, my stuff, though I’m figuring out what that looks like exactly. (Should I finally start using my Tumblr account for something other than the Kotaku tumblr? I ask you.)

But in the meantime, I will be posting here throughout the rest of December to round up the year that was, share some work I’m proud of, and maybe talk about some other things that went down in 2012.

For today though, a podcast. The lovely Australian journalist/writer Patrick Stafford asked me to go on his show The Crafting Podcast, where we talked about what I do, why I do it, and how I came to be where I am. Seriously, we went all the way back to high school. So, if you’re curious about any of that, you can listen to it here:

I had a lot of fun; thanks to Patrick for having me on, and for being such a gracious host.

More to come, including year-end round-ups, and other fun stuff.

Hi Again Mom

24 Jun

Hey, look at that! I went on Anthony Carboni’s show “New Challenger” again, this time to talk about the super-broken and weird Kinect game Steel Battalion. We also talk about the Kinect in general, what it does well, what it does poorly, what it could do in the future.

I wore a nicer shirt this time than I did last time. I’m pretty happy about it. Moral of the story: If you’re going on-camera, wear a nice shirt.

Thanks for having me, Mr. Carboni.

“Of All Places!”

10 Jun

Discussion of the whole “growing the jazz audience” idea continues! Because hey, this is not something that gets conceptualized and then put to bed in a couple of weeks.

In the interest of keeping the discussion going, NPR’s “A Blog Supreme” has gathered a few responses to Kurt Ellenberger’s original piece, among them the one I wrote for Kotaku.

I’m happy to see my work discussed at an NPR blog, particularly given the fact that I get to blindside jazz folks by posting such an article on a video game website. (In the NPR article, author Patrick Jarenwattananon refers to Kotaku as “of all places” two times. Ha!)

I have to say I wish I got the sense that there were more people engaging with this discussion with the same vigor as Kurt did. I’ve seen jazz musicians on Facebook and in comments sections using this discussion as an excuse to bring up bones they’ve been picking for a while–the academization of jazz, the way that largely white college professors have ruined things, the effect of Berklee in the 80′s, the unfair misconceptions under which jazz has labored for decades now.

But I’ve seen a dispiriting lack of further, deeper discussion, of people looking to honestly engage in these bigger questions: Whose responsibility is it to keep an artistic movement alive? What role does artistic evolution play in that? How might we better teach music to young people? Is a holistic approach to musical education perhaps more engaging and successful than a strict adherence to jazz dogma? How far can you go before you lose fundamentals?

These questions are asked routinely at conventions like the IAJE (now defunct) and JEN, of course. But questions as vital as those shouldn’t be relegated to educators’ journals and conventions. They should be online, and everyone who wants to hear them should be able to.

I’m thankful to Kurt for bringing this conversation out into the light, and I’m glad to see that it’s continuing. I hope to see some more responses published in the future. I get the sense that this conversation is only beginning, and that it’s a worthwhile one to be having.

Your Comments About Building Jazz Audiences And Musicians With Day Jobs [NPR]—

A Kid on the Slope

2 Jun

You guys. Okay, you guys. No… hang on. You guys. Seriously.

You need to go watch Kids on the Slope. It’s this show, see? It’s a show that was essentially Custom Made For Kirk Hamilton. You will like it too though, I sense, even though it was custom made for me.

It’s about a group of high school kids in 1966 Japan who find friendship, love, and discover themselves, and it’s all filtered through the lens of jazz. Not only is it lovely to look at, funny and full of heart, it’s maybe the most right-on piece of “Jazz Fiction” I’ve ever seen. From the way the performances are animated to the tiniest details on record covers, the show has been lovingly crafted by jazz lovers and musicians.

The most recent episode, titled “Now’s the Time,” brought together all the struggles, trials and tunes of the past six episodes into one musical moment so cathartic and wonderful that I wouldn’t even want to attempt to write about it. You’ll just have to watch it for yourself.

I did, however, write about the show at Kotaku. I was thrilled to see my article introduce a lot of people, Bebop-fans and newcomers, to the show. Sometimes I love my job.

Each episode is named for a jazz standard—”Someday my Prince will Come,” “But Not for Me,” “Summertime”—that encapsulates the theme of the episode. When characters are fighting, they come back together around jazz, and it heals them; when they’re lost they find solace in classic tunes and old records. As Kaoru learns “Moanin,” he travels back and forth from the record player to the piano, wearing down the grooves in the vinyl while mimicking Timmons’ swing. Everything about it rings so true, and hits so close to home… as I devoured the show, one episode after another, there were times when I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.

Go read the whole article here, and watch all the episodes for free at crunchyroll.

Seriously.

Growing The Audience

26 May

There’s this running question in the jazz world about “growing the audience,” finding a way to get people to want to listen to jazz again. It’s kind of a bummer topic, since the whole thing is predicated on acknowledging that jazz isn’t really all that popular anymore.

But it’s also a really interesting thing to talk about, since it requires us to take stock of jazz’s musical legacy, and why it is that we teach the music in the first place. Jazz was the jumping-off point for me to get into so many other kinds of music, and at this point, I’ve begun to think of music a bit more holistically both in terms of education and performance.

Anyway! I wrote a big article for my music section at Kotaku about the idea of “growing the jazz audience,” and why A) that’s probably impossible, at least by the narrower definition of “jazz” and B) that’s totally okay. Which really, is only a depressing conclusion if you’re so hung up on the idea of traditional jazz that you simply can’t look beyond it.

Today’s jazz musicians (and jazz-program graduates) are versed in so many different types of music, from straight-ahead bebop to electronic trance to pop to heavy metal, that labeling them “jazz musicians” feels like a misnomer. Jazz may be the root of most modern musical training—it’s where rock, hip-hop and funk all came from, after all—but to pretend that musicians who can play all of that music must or should make a living playing jazz feels like a narrow viewpoint.

Go read the whole article:

Growing The Jazz Audience ‘Cant’ Be Done.’ Maybe That’s Okay?

Viva Melodic!

22 Mar

I’ve been having a great time running my “Kotaku Melodic” series every Thursday from 7-9PM. We’re sharing all sorts of music-related stuff, from goofy videos to funny hidden audio easter-eggs to composer interviews to classic-game mixtapes. That image is from a post I did about the baller music of Persona 3. At my most professional, I described myself as “in full-on, hearts-on-fire love with this game.” That about sums it up.

Anyhow, I wanted to point everyone here over to it, since if you head to the Tag Page, you can just read Kotaku Melodic as if it were its own little music/games blog. You can do the same for our other channels, including Sportaku, PC Gaming Lives, the Off-Kilter comedy block, and the comics-oriented Panel Discussion.

So, go read some Kotaku Melodic! We had another fun set of posts tonight, and will be back next week with more.

Read Kotaku Melodic

The Year in Review(s)

17 Dec

2011 was a hell of a year. Twelve months ago, I was a fresh-faced blogger who had just taken the reins at Paste magazine, eager to do something new but not quite sure what that would be. Now it’s December again and here I am at Kotaku, looking back at an insane year of writing, debating, critiquing, traveling, and goofing around. I’ve made more friends this year than I made in the ten before it, and have had more fun than any one person ought to have. It’s all a bit difficult to write about, actually.

I wanted to take some time over the next week or so to look back at the year that was. I figured I’d start with game reviews.

It felt like I wrote a lot of reviews this year, but looking back, I see that I wrote fourteen. That’s not as many as most hardcore reviewers, but I hope that by keeping myself to around one review per month, I managed to engineer a quality-over-quantity situation.

Here, in chronological order, are all of the game reviews I wrote in 2011. Continue reading

Three Months On The Job

23 Oct

Friends, honored guests, Pawneeans: I have some time this Sunday and I thought I would look back at my first three months writing for Kotaku. It has been an intense, often overwhelming, extraordinarily educational, stressful and rewarding time. It’s taken this long for me to even get a sense of what the hell I’m doing there, and how it is that this particular job best gets done.

Since starting in August, I’ve covered two conventions, attended a dozen or so San Francisco press events, reviewed two big games, and been at the center of a couple of internet controversies. I’ve made some people laugh, pissed some people off, and made some people think (I hope?). I’ve written around 200 posts, which may sound like a lot but by Kotaku standards is a fart in the wind. Some of those posts have been good. Some have been not so good. But I like to think my batting average is holding up okay.

We’re in the height of the fall rush right now, with more great games dropping each week. That said, I feel like I’ve got some sort of window now that I’ve finished Batman: Arkham City (it is excellent) and have a couple of weeks before Uncharted 3 and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Whoo buddy, when Skyrim comes out, I don’t even know what the hell I’m going to do.

Anyway, here are some articles that I’m proud of.

I’ve only done proper “reviews” of two games, both of which I liked. Deus Ex: Human Revolution got a more holistic treatment, and I tried to articulate how the game felt like a playable love-letter to is many influences. I also really liked Gears of War 3, though I got much more specific in my review. That was a very difficult review to write, for whatever reason.

I’ve started or fanned the flames of a few controversies, most having to do with how games represent women and minorities. My very first post as a staff member concerned the Facebook beauty contest that determined the appearance of Mass Effect‘s female commander Shepard. It was the beginning of a longer story, and as it progressed I even got to interview Jennifer Hale, the exceptional voice actor who plays Commander Shepard.

Two other posts generated similar noise–the first, a response to Evan Narcisse’s takedown of an offensive black stereotype in Deus Ex, and the second just last week about Arkham City‘s weird fixation on the word “Bitch.”

With both of those posts, particularly the Batman one, I was surprised by how many people angrily told me that I had no right to be addressing the topic at all. Several of my professional peers suggested that I’d written that “Bitch” post in a cynical bid for pageviews. I can assure them that I did not, and I can further assure them that I’m not the only person to notice that aspect of the game. I was just the first to comment on it in a far-reaching publication.

But even if I had been the only one to feel that way, it was still something I thought, and these days I’m paid to write what I think and show it to people. I appreciated everyone who engaged in the discussion, but I was bummed out by fellow writers who publicly questioned my motivations for writing the piece.

Speaking of interviews, I was happy with an essay/interview I wrote entitled “Felicia Day is Just What Gaming Needs.” Speaking with Ms. Day, I was struck by her enthusiasm and creative energy, and how willing she is to do unconventional and goofy videogame things. She’s a force for good in gaming, and I think we could use more people like her. I was extraordinarily depressed by the comments on this post. That’s a subject for a separate discussion.

I was so happy to reunite with my letter-writing buddy (and buddy in general) Leigh Alexander to tackle the classic 2000 PC game Deus Ex, in what we called “The Deus Ex Letters.” Leigh was hesitant about getting on board with the “greatest PC game of all time,” and given the reactions I’ve come to expect from PC Gamers on… well… just about everything, I don’t blame her. But we had a good time, and I think we shined light on some worthwhile topics.

Not everything I’ve been doing at Kotaku has been news, criticism, or other serious(ish) stuff. I’ve been writing goofy-yet-hopefully-enjoyable things as well. Right at the outset I wrote a fake novelization of The Witcher 2, which wound up being some sort of weird mix of humorous criticism and fanfic. I’m not sure if our readers knew what to make of it (I’m not sure I know what to make of it). I do know that I had a good time writing it, and I plan to do more.

Game previews are something we do a lot of at Kotaku—our readership is very interested in upcoming games, and we get to play a lot of games pre-release and share our impressions. Preview events tend to run from “uncomfortable” to “goddamned uncomfortable” for me. Trying to get a real sense of the game is all but impossible, since you generally see exactly what the publisher wants you to see and nothing more. Furthermore, playing a game for the first time while someone watches you, with a (well-intentioned but also intrusive) PR person hovering in the background is just… it’s not very close to my ideal gaming experience. Though often there are cookies, and I do like to eat cookies while I play games. (Also, Milk Duds.)

Sometimes the PR folks at press events practically write your headlines for you, and sometimes that can get you in trouble. (*cough* Batman *cough*) (I actually plan to address the whole “Joker-Gate 2011″ debacle, but I’ll do it this week at Kotaku and I don’t want to steal my own lede here.)

Writing previews can be fun, if you’re creative about it. I had a good time writing this goofy rhyming preview for Saints Row 3, a game which deserves a poetic preview like a German Shepard deserves a plate of foie gras… which I guess is a good reason to do it? It’s a riotous, dumb game, but it’s not particularly lyrical. Anyhow, I had a good time writing it.

It was cool working with our commenters to assemble this collection of Deus Ex hidden secrets and easter eggs, which did over 1 million pageviews. That is a big number! The last hype-related thing I wrote that I liked was my analysis of the whole Dead Island trailer thing, where the emotionally impactful (blerg worst phrase) ad for a game was substantially different than the game itself. I talked about what I thought that meant, and invoked Don Draper while doing so.

I was happy to get to share some more bloggy, critical stuff, including my well-received “Kill your Mini-Map” post about Grand Theft Auto IV that has been brewing in ma’ brain for a long time, and a post about “The Thrill of the Hunt” in games, and how much fun it can be to hunt… people… and kill them. Uh. In games. It’s nice to pause and take a look back at games that everyone has already played, and allows for much more critical perspective. I hope to do some more of that in the future.

I’ve also covered some “current events,” in that they were things that were happening and I wrote about them. I was happy with my coverage of the Foxconn iPhone game that got banned, as well as my takedown of Fox News’s uninformed take on Fate of the World. I’ve actually kinda become Kotaku‘s unofficial Fox News hatchet-man, which is a role I’m prefectly happy to assume. If you malign video games on TV, beware! I will probably make fun of you for it.

Me at E3, ignoring Jane's Addiction in favor of trinkets.

So there you have it! Some of my favorite things I’ve written in my first quarter-year at the biggest, weirdest, wildest videogame blog on the planet. The fall rush is halfway over and all my convention-attending is done, so I’m hopeful that I’ll be writing more focused, critical pieces in the coming weeks.

As always, if you’d like to keep up on my writing but for whatever reason don’t want to sift through the tons of content we run every day, you can subscribe to my RSS feed, follow me on Facebook, or track me down on Twitter, where I tend to share my biggest stories.

On a personal note, I’d like to thank all my friends for reading my stuff and supporting me. Getting a full-time gig writing about games is a very cool thing, and I feel fortunate to have this opportunity. But it can often feel lonesome, and the job hasn’t always been easy. Working from home, writing super-hard all day, addressing a mob-like comment section of shouted, conflicting opinions; dealing with doubt and isolation, as well as the occasional anonymous social-media anger of people I don’t even know. It’s all tough. Due to the full-time nature of this job, I also somewhat unexpectedly left my music teaching position at Urban, and I miss teaching every day. It has been a significant challenge for me to balance my life without my students in it.

Every reader who has sent in a note of encouragement, every friend who has retweeted my work or said nice things, everyone who’s joked around with me on IM and teamed up with me for some late-night zombie destruction… thank you. My life has never been weirder than it is right now, and thanks to you, it’s also never been more fun.

Thanks also to my editors and fellow Kotaku writers, all of whom are maniacs who work their asses off every day. Special recognition to Stephen Totilo, who has kept me sane and been a massive help in upping my game. He’s a great editor, a funny guy, and he’s a phenom when he covers a conference. It would take another 1500 words to even begin to list the things I’ve learned from him.

Emo stuff complete! Time to play some more of this game I’m reviewing for next week. It’s not gonna be pretty. But then, “pretty” ain’t what they pay me for.

At least, it’s not entirely what they pay me for.

Talk Talk Music Talk Talk

18 Jul

My latest music/games column is up at Kotaku - it’s a post about voice-acting, melody, and why so many beloved game soundtracks are from games that feature little to no voice acting. It’s an idea I’ve been chewing on for a while, and which I first articulated on Michael Abbott’s Brainy Gamer Podcast last fall while talking with Michael and Dan Bruno about our favorite game soundtracks. While it’s of course not a “final” idea, I’m happy with how I managed to articulate the core concept.

As developers add spoken dialogue and sound effects to their games, they should always weigh the value of those things against the possibility that they will overshadow their game’s other vital aspects: bounce, flow, rhythm, and feel. Games and music can both wordlessly convey feelings of challenge and stress, joy and terror, and progression and release, and a talented composer can weave his or her melodies straight into a game’s mechanical systems to create something dynamic and uniquely beautiful.

The column was also a chance for me to do some collaboration with my friend Sarah Elmaleh, who is a fantastic voice-actor based out of NY. You may remember her role as K’lara Loshachtii in the oft-delayed but epic Sci Fi adventure game Suparna Galaxy. (And the voice of the computer in the PC adventure game Gemini Rue).

Sarah lent her voice to the role of Aeris in a video I made, while… yeah… I played Cloud. My goal wasn’t to win any voice-acting awards, but more to point out how the ear changes focus once a voice enters the scene. That said, I think that a recent YouTube commenter put it most succinctly:

I hope it’s clear in the piece that I don’t mean to “dismiss” any games with voice-acting, and I’m not offering my central theory as anything other than food for thought for fans and developers alike. I love the soundtracks to games like Metal Gear and Mass Effect, and of course both of those games feature copious amounts of voice-acting. That said, I think there’s something to be said for limiting the amount of chatter that goes on in games – lately I’ve been playing a few games that feature too much repetitive NPC chatter, and it detracts from the overall experience as much as it does from the music.

It’s been really fun, as usual, to talk about the column with commenters and people on twitter, and I’ve heard some great thoughts on both sides of the discussion. And I’ve had it further reinforced that at some point here I need to play Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy VI, XenoGears and Crisis Core. You know, when I create a clone of myself specifically to get caught up on older games.

In the meantime, gotta go finish Bastion. It’s pretty cool. I’ll have some stuff to say about it.

-Read “Voice-Acting Sucks Kill It With Fire” at Kotaku-

BarCraft

12 Jul

This past Sunday, I headed down to Mad Dog in the Fog to check out a new event called “BarCraft,” hosted by Justin.tv’s gaming channel Twitch TV. I was covering the event for Kotaku, and it was great fun. My write-up went up today:

In between games there’s a convivial, social vibe as bargoers chat up strangers, discuss strategies and rehash epic games from the past. Everyone seems to agree that it’s a fantastic turnout, and that that fact is a Very Good Thing. BarCraft has that open, optimistic excitement that tends to crop up at the best types of video game events. Here we are at the start, everyone seems to be thinking, dipping our toes into the future.

My impressions are in the piece, as well as some general thoughts on professional gaming as a spectator sport. The short version: I’m totally into it. I’m certainly not much of a StarCraft player; the skill that it takes to compete on the Battle.net ladders is far beyond me. If you want a good idea of what I’m talking about, check out this insane APM demonstration:

 

But even though I could never hope to be one one-hundredth that fast, I love the game, and have had a blast learning more about the process of its design.

I missed the GDC talk given by Blizzard’s Dustin Browder entitled “Designing an e-Sport,” but I wish I hadn’t – fortunately, I can go watch it on the GDC Vault, which I fully plan to do. But even without seeing it, I enjoyed my friend David Carlton’s notes about the talk that he posted to his blog.

I’ve been thinking about sports and games quite a bit lately, realizing that it seems easier to turn a videogame into a sport than it is to turn a pre-existing sport into a videogame. People play Street Fighter IV and StarCraft 2 professionally, but to my knowledge they don’t play Madden or MLB: The Show. I have a number of thoughts about why that might be, but it’d probably be best to get them organized, do some research, and write a full piece about it.

In the meantime, I’m sure there’ll be more BarCrafts soon. The guys from Twitch TV were really excited to host more, and from the look of this Reddit thread, plenty of other folks are going to be taking it upon themselves to organize ad-hoc get-togethers of their own.

I’ll certainly go to the next one, and bring some friends. Maybe in a few months, at the end of the NASL’s second season. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to tear myself away from these YouTube videos and finish the Wings of Liberty campaign.

- Read my “BarCraft” report at Kotaku -

Print = Dead Sexy

6 Jul

There’s something about print, isn’t there? Writing on the internet is fun, and there’s a certain joy in the immediate gratification of hitting “publish.” But print publishing remains the more satisfying experience; the permanence of print will never die, doom-predicting media soothsayers be damned.

I’m happy to have a few things coming out in print this month, first of which is a big feature that I put together for Kill Screen Magazine’s fifth issue, “Public Play.” In it, I go on the road with the San Francisco-based company The Go Game. The Go Game is a bit like a hirable version of The Amazing Race, with games that sprawl across a city and involve location challenges, hidden actors, creative camerawork, and good-natured competition. I was embedded with a team that worked its way through San Francisco’s Embarcadero district, and I also spoke at length with Ian Fraser and Finn Kelley, the company’s founders.

Some other great writers have stuff in the issue as well, including friends Simon Parkin, Jon Irwin, Brian Taylor and Michael Abbott. So go order it. Or better yet, get a subscription, because I have a feeling that the next issue in particular (the “Sound” issue) is going to be pretty out of sight.

I’ve also got some stuff in the newest issue of EDGE Magazine, including a lengthy feature I wrote about Bioshock Infinite. Infinite was easily one of the most impressive demos at E3, and it was great fun to chat with creative director Ken Levine and several other members of the team working on it. I don’t have a print copy of the issue just yet, but you can buy a digital copy online or find it in stores. (I should note that Edge doesn’t publish bylines, so I’m kind of bending the rules by saying that I wrote this feature. But whatever, it’s my first article for them and I’m proud of that. In the future, go ahead and buy Edge, since I’m already working on more cool stuff for them.)

And finally, I’m so excited that Paste has finally launched its digital print mag, the mPlayer! Back in the halcyon days of its print run, Paste was known for the music CD sampler they sent out each month; that sampler returns in digital form with the mPlayer. The second issue has a reprint of my very first column, “Home Again,” and I’ll be writing plenty more things for it as we go forward. It’s free through September, too, so do check it out.

Whew. I’ve been running a bit silent lately, and just finished a big move that sapped a lot of my free time. Fortunately, I’ve got some good stuff in the works. Hope everyone out there is doing well, and finding the time this summer to sit back in the sun and do some reading.

Domino Effect

26 Apr

My review of Valve’s new puzzle game Portal 2 is now online at Paste. I liked the game a whole lot, which is not a huge surprise given that it’s the sequel to one of my favorite games of all time and was made by probably my single favorite design studio in the world.

Everyone has had a lot to say about the game, so rather than get too nitty gritty with my criticism, I thought I’d try to illustrate how it felt to play. To do that, I headed down to Cliff’s Variety in the Castro, picked up a big box of dominoes, threw them onto our living room floor, and started taking pictures.

Let me tell you, dominoes do not make for very cooperative photo subjects. Many of the formations I made required a good deal of time to set up (read the review and you’ll see what I’m talking about), and a single mistake would send me back to square one. There are few things more frustrating than toppling a huge domino-heart for the fourth time while Stephen Merchant’s grinning face silently mocks you from the floor.

Interestingly enough, I actually learned a thing about design as I progressed. I was initially constructing the shapes from the beginning to the end, which meant that by the time I got twenty dominoes in, a single mistake could undo all the work that led up to it. In other words, I was unwittingly enforcing old-school game design upon myself, making a game with no checkpoints and a single life. Death resulted in starting all over again. It was stressful.

I quickly figured out that it would be smarter to leave a couple of empty spots in the row, thereby limiting my losses should an errant domino topple. This checkpointing system both of saved me time and helped me to relax, which in turn made me much more effective at laying the actual dominoes.

The moral of the story? Hooray checkpoints!

Anyhow. I had a lot of fun with the review, and even more fun playing the game itself. I still have quite a bit of the co-op campaign to play, as well as the full developer commentary on the single-player campaign. It’s really good.

I’ve noticed several people complaining about the single player campaign’s short length while others are saying that the pacing feels off, that the second and third acts feel bloated. I disagree.

I watched many friends online simply charge through this game, beating it in a single day. While I’m sure this would have been possible, I opted to take my time with it (ten hours for single-player), playing for an hour or two each night for a week. I’m glad I did.

I got stuck a couple of times, and rather than looking for an answer online, I turned off the machine and slept on it, returning the next day with fresh eyes. Personally speaking, I had no problem with Portal 2‘s pacing; with each new hour, I was simply happy to be playing more Portal. Sure, a few of the puzzles in the second act felt a touch too spacious and undirected, but that’s a fairly small complaint compared to the vast number of things the game does right.

There are so many great little touches, many of them musical—the way that lasers generate complimentary tones, the grooves generated by the electronic catapult-levers—as well as the seemingly endless amount of macho dialogue given to the malfunctioning turret bots and the scores of hidden jokes and references that I have yet to find. Valve’s Source engine might be showing its age in terms of its its ability to stream content and eliminate loading screens, but it remains clean and beautiful and is a joy to see in motion. And the big finale! While I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for anyone, suffice to say that I almost fell out of my chair due to the awesomeness.

Anyhow. You can get my official thoughts over at Paste, along with my dominotastic rendition of what it feels like to play Portal 2. Hope you dig it, and I hope you get a chance to play the game.

-Read my Portal 2 Review at Paste-

Fatality

19 Apr

When it came down to it, back in the 90′s you were either Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat; there was no middle ground. The era had a lot of divisions going on—Coke/Pepsi, Nintendo/Sega,  Nike/Reebok—on the one hand  the refined classic, and on the other the edgy upstart. For whatever reason, the refined classic tended to be “red” while the upstart was “blue.”

There was never really much question which franchise I preferred; I was a Mortal Kombat guy through and through. From the first time I saw someone playing the game at Aladdin’s Castle in Bloomington’s College Mall, I was hooked. I remember witnessing:

  • Johnny Cage uppercutting someone onto the spikes in the pit
  • Kano ripping out Johnny Cage’s Heart
  • Sub-Zero tearing out someone’s spinal cord
  • Goro

That was pretty much all I needed. The digitized actors, the claymation, the gouts of ketchupy blood… who needed precision balancing and deep combo-sets when you had all that? I liked the comparative simplicity of the gameplay, like… I always liked the “uppercut” move. With a simple combination button press, I could launch my enemy across the screen and knock away a sizable chunk of health at the same time.

I wasn’t allowed to have any set-top consoles growing up, so the only way I got to play the game was either over at one of my friends’ houses or, eventually, on my Sega Game Gear (I was allowed to have portable systems). I remember when the Game Gear port was finally released. I had pre-ordered, so I went to the Software Etc. (also in College Mall), picked up the tiny box, plugged it in and played and played.

I’m still surprised at how great the portable version was; surprisingly little was lost in the translation. And the Fatalities, oh, man. That was the whole reason you played, just to get to that final moment when you could frantically press buttons in hopes of pulling off a particularly gross finishing move.

My sweet collector’s edition of the game just arrived, and I’ll be doing a review for Paste soon. In the meantime, some fellow Kill Screen writers and I wrote up a bunch of half-serious “reviews”of the new fatalities, based on videos we watched. I got to do some really good ones, though my favorite was Mileena’s:

She sensually saunters over, laying her hands upon his cheeks and gently turning him to face her. It’s a quiet, intimate moment, almost shocking in its immediacy. Conquered and conqueror, their eyes nearly meeting—in another lifetime, in an entirely different kind of game, this could melt into a romantic embrace. But … no. Mileena tears his head from his body, stepping into the spotlight and removing her mask. With her true visage revealed, she lowers her horrid maw and feasts upon the severed face of her foe, throwing the remains to the ground and moaning in blood-soaked ecstasy.

Also I use the phrase “cursed with the fang-laden mouth of a Lovecraftian fish-monster.” The whole thing is pretty funny and gross; go give it a read.

With the intense amount of great games I’ve got to play, I’m beginning to wonder about how I’ll get through them all. When it rains, it pours. Sometimes it pours blood.

One Black Angel’s Death Song

4 Apr

Well, that was the subtitle I submitted for my Joystiq review of the new XBLA Slash-em-up The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile. Unfortunately, it was too long for their format so they went with “Fangs a lot,” which is cool too.

Regardless, the game itself is ridiculously cool, and I made no bones about that in my review.

It’s a bloodbath, all right. The young girl swings and stabs, ripping her blade through flesh, metal and bone, eviscerating foe after foe until the room is covered in a thick, rich coat of red. Your eye can barely track her movements as she flits from corner to corner, vanishing in a puff of crimson smoke only to reappear, strike, and then vanish again.

Perhaps that dramatic opening has your intrest piqued? Then go read the whole review! And hey, if you’ve got an XBox 360, you could sure come up with worse ways to spend your money when the game launches this week.

-Read The Diswasher: Vampire Smile Review at Joystiq-

“This Can’t Be For Real!”

25 Mar

Oh, Aeris… I got you these links and now they just sit here, reminding me of you.

Dragon Rage

First up, I wrote a review of BioWare’s new role-playing game Dragon Age 2 that was… well, it was quite negative. I was very frustrated by this game. I disliked so many aspects of it, and I really liked its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, which my friend and fellow games writer Denis Farr and I talked about at great length in this appropriately epic Dragon Age retrospective.

I’ve read a number of really good posts about the things Dragon Age 2 does right, particularly in terms of its subject matter and the novelistic way it tells its story. Kris Ligman’s review, in particular, was well-reasoned and well-thought out. And then of course there is DA2 head writer Daivd Gaider’s excellent response to a complaint on a message board about how all of the potential romantic partners are sexually omniverous. Fuck yeah, BioWare; fuck yeah David Gaider.

But when all is said and done, I simply can’t get around how unenjoyable the game was to play, and how fragmented and claustrophobic it felt. Alas.

Problems Stack Up

Speaking of highly critical reviews, I also reviewed the downloadable game Stacking for Kill Screen magazine. Their web editor Ryan Kuo was cool enough to let me get a bit creative with how I wrote it, so if you know about the game’s subject matter, you’ll get my wildly clever and amazing joke.

Here was another game that had a lot going for it but that was undone by simply being unpleasant to play. This one actually gave me motion sickness. It was a bummer, because I really like Double Fine, but there ya go. Hopefully their next game will be as fun and focused as Costume Quest was.

Oh Hi, Tim

This one is so entirely random that it kind of boggles me still. While at GDC, Paste‘s photographer Brian Taylor (who is also a writer and generally cool bearded man) took a whole bunch of pictures of legendary game developer (and Double Fine head) Tim Schafer. After looking through them, he asked if we could do a photoseries of them at Paste. I agreed, and so we ran it.

The idea had always been to have a caption contest for the pictures, and sure enough, over at the discussion thread at Kill Screen we all took the pics and ran with them. Jamin published his favorite captions over there, and they are pretty hilarious.

I have no idea what Tim made of all of this, though I’m fairly certain he does think we’re all really weird.

Reality is Bokeh

I didn’t write this piece but I wanted to link to it because it is so damn good. Game designer/writer/friend Matthew Burns attended GDC on a Paste press badge, and agreed to write up some sort of essay about his experience. He really was there to pitch a game, so he spent most of his time in closed door meetings.

The essay he eventually wrote, titled “Reality is Bokeh,” is a hell of a piece of work and approaches the weird creative convergence that occurs when you spend time engineering and building worlds from a number of different angles.

Hold Me Closer, Tiny Bronco

I continue to have a really good time playing Final Fantasy VII and writing letters to Leigh Alexander about my experiences. We published a couple more parts to our series this week: Part 3 is called “Our Hero, Our Villain” and talks about Cloud and Sephiroth, and Part 4 discusses the campiness of the game. I also start to talk some about the community that has popped up around me as I play. I feel a bit like that community is the vestiges of a group that has been somehow connected to one another since the game came out in 1997. It’s been really fun to experience a bit of the comraderie and discussion that FFVII seems to inspire. An index of all of our letters so far can be found here.

I just finished disc 1, so you all know what that means. I’m currently coping by building a huge shrine to her in my roommate’s room. He doesn’t know I’m doing it but he won’t be back until tomorrow and I should have it done by then so I hope he likes it.

Thanks so much for reading, and have a lovely weekend. Oh and check out “The Lemon of Pink” by The Books, which I have been listening to at the recommendation of Gus Mastrapa. It is great stuff and sounds weird on headphones.

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