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GameSetWatch.com is the alt.video game weblog and sister site of Gamasutra.com. It is dedicated to collecting curious links and media for offbeat and oft-ignored games from consoles old and new, as well as from the digital download, iOS, and indie spaces.

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Column: Why We Play

COLUMN: Why We Play - "Wanted: World Games"

June 25, 2008 8:00 AM |

[“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer Chris Plante that discusses how videogames benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This week, he elaborates on some adjacent thoughts expressed by GSW's Chris Dahlen earlier this year to suggest a new video game genre: world games.]

The Mess

Remember that big Resident Evil 5 controversy, that one where the gamer community felt serious growing pains in the racial tolerance department?

Wait, wait, wait! Please don’t stop reading! This is not another column about race in video games, so calmly move your mouse away from the back button. This week I just want more games, more free games. RE5’s slip up is an opportunity to discuss a missing game genre: “world games.”

And while the RE5 case has shown many commentators don’t like to dwell on tough subjects--look at GamePolitics.com’s continual coverage—this topic of world games should be universally welcomed. After all, this column is not intended to slap gamers on the wrist, or preserve games as art, or even call for a revolution in how we comment and interact online.

This is a column by a gamer who wants more games, varied games, as many games as he can get from the world over. And I think everyone will agree, more games with unique perspective will not only be great for us as players, but will undoubtedly evolve the industry’s creative backbone.

Look, some of us said things we shouldn’t have said, some of us were quick to reprimand rather than to educate, and some of us just sat helpless on the sideline. But, to our chagrin, most of us (read: me) were quick to congratulate our goofy group.

We’re growing, I thought; we’ll get new views, new perspectives from this debacle. We’ll discuss them. And best of all, we’ll give a voice to those gamers and creators that rarely have one.

Resident Evil 5 takes place in Africa, so who better to comment than Africans? Or who better to make a game about the continent’s economic and agricultural devastation—equally, which better to discuss their own voodoo folklore—than Africans themselves? As Virgil Thompson said of Porgy and Bess, "Folk lore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself.

But these questions never came to fruition in our conversation, which instead devolved into a debate over who’s more racist: those players who shoot black zombies, or those analysts who spread racism like it’s Beetlejuice--simply repeating its name conjures the hateful monster. I can’t say either side has played nicely. And, sadly, this clusterfuck will rage on forums until the game’s release.

As I promised, let’s leave the flames for the forums, and make lemonade from this sour situation. Here are my big questions: What do we get as gamers by encouraging and purchasing foreign games? Where are the video games from Africa—specifically South Africa and Nigeria, which have developed relatively sizable video game markets? And, most importantly for us, where are “World Games?”

Where are games wholly un-American, un-white, and unprivileged? Because it appears one of our greatest prejudices, as gamers, may not be against other peoples, but their games.

COLUMN: Why We Play - "Honorable Fights - Analyzing Bushido Blade"

June 11, 2008 8:00 AM |

83476191_31d178594c.jpg [“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer Chris Plante that discusses how videogames benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This week, he tackles the Bushido Blade series’ most abstract mechanics: honor and choice.]

Metal Gear Solid, the lovechild of GI Joe and Aristotle, may be PSOne’s poster boy, but I’ll always remember another PS classic that brought realism to console games unlike any game before it: Bushido Blade.

And while each MGS installment inspires criticism detailing its culturally relevant storyline, picture perfect art design, and expansive gameplay, the Bushido Blade series - first debuting in 1997 in Japan - has since gone mostly unnoticed (Light Weight, Bushido Blade’s developer, and Squaresoft’s, its publisher, relationship halted future sequels after Bushido Blade 2). So this week, I ask, when not pursuing Liquid Ocelot, you stop by the nearest game re-seller, pick up a copy of the series, and begin the Bushido Blade road to self-improvement.

Apply Generously

Part of Bushido Blade’s appeal lies in the title. The Bushido code, a 12th century Japanese samurai conduct code commonly unspoken and unwritten, emphasizes honor, a honing of physical skills, and frugality. And while frugality may be the game’s most important trait, Bushido Blade reveals itself best through liberal play. It may appear simple, mechanical, and average your first few bouts, but dozens of play-throughs, especially ones with humility, where you take risks rather than rush to defeat your opponent, will lead to a relaxed enjoyment uncommon with frenetic, button-masher fighting games.

Bushido Blade finds richness in reduction. The game offers three stances—high, neutral, and low—each with three one-button attacks. You have the ability to throw dirt or use a projectile (but only once). Then you get three speed attacks: an aerial hindrance attack, along with a low swoop attack, and a lunge. Depending on your contact with the other player, you may swing from one move to the next via the “Motion Shift System.” That’s it.

No time limits. No health bars. No lengthy combos. No move breakers. No specials. No parrying, or air blocks, or even Super Art systems.

You get a limited move-set and a sharp sword that kills with one, precise stroke.

COLUMN: Why We Play - 'Problematic Peripherals'

June 4, 2008 4:00 PM |

MD_ACC_Activator2.jpg [“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer Chris Plante that discusses how videogames benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This time he lunges for the peripheral controller's jugular.]

I loathe peripherals. So when my girlfriend reserved a video game for the first time a month ago, what should have been a benchmark in our relationship was handicapped by a mandatory white-slab, which now rests on our living room floor. That’s right, we, along with my grandmother, my mother, and millions of other non-gamers, are Wii Fit owners.

Nintendo’s recent addition to the Wii Sports canon may be a blast (and even healthful), but it leaves me perplexed: didn’t we buy the Wii for its innovative Wiimote, a device that promised unfettered control—no more wheels or maracas or dance pads or guns or guitars? But between the boxed-in Mario kart wheel and Link’s crossbow, the classic controllers and Wavebirds, and the guitars and drums I cannot find room for Wii Fit; my shoebox apartment hardly has enough room for me. What’s a city gamer to do? After all, peripherals, along with consoles (read: giant peripherals?) require two things: money and space.

Allow me to extrapolate my peripheral melancholy, because right now I must sound like a loon harping on my terrible luck—“I own too many video games!” That’s not the case, rather I’m dismayed that so many recent game and console launches have required more and more real estate. And I am one of many that don’t have the space to share.

The Cost of Control

But first, money; it’s now obvious that video games are more financially divisive than ever. We have, for the first time, three wonderful and successful systems that offer unique experiences and capabilities. Also, each has their exclusive games. Sure, some of us may have an allegiance to a particular console, but most would love to (and few are privileged to) own all three home consoles.

This has divided shape a gamer community divided—one similar to the Sonic/Mario wars of the early 1990’s; and while the Hedgehog may have hung up his shoes, his replacements’, Sony and Microsoft, communities have their Master Chiefs and Solid Snakes to cheer for and grovel over.

Competition may be healthy, but dividing consumers is bad business. Consumers from other markets have refused to be divided as we most recently saw with Blu-Ray and HDDVD. Why then should gamers be expected to either own multiple systems or miss out on exclusive products, while music, movie, and literature fans have standardized formats?

COLUMN: Why We Play - 'Why We Write About Games'

May 28, 2008 8:00 AM |

fp-typewriter.jpg [“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer Chris Plante that discusses how videogames benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This time he makes a call for more game bloggers .]

Two blogs are created each second, but how often does a blog - or more specifically a game blog - die?


If a Tree Falls in the Woods:

Everyone’s a writer. We all see movies, hear songs, and read articles and cannot help, but think to ourselves “I could do that.” “I could create the lyrics to ‘Nevermind;’ I could pen ‘Garden State;’ and I could definitely blog for Kotaku.” It’s a human nature to misunderstand when others make hard work look easy. We could call it the Guitar Hero Effect. The joys of guitar with one hundredth of the skill.

Truthfully, few of us are as talented as Kurt Cobain, Zach Braff, or even Brian Crecente. In January, my ex-roommate and I planned a videogame blog to help us develop our writing, promote our ideas, and make ourselves visible in the ever-crowded gamer community. Blogging looked so easy.

We dubbed our new digital home Hardcasual, a term coined by N’Gai Croal, “to represent the gamer who wants the hardcore experience - the graphics, story, and production values which go almost entirely into gore-heavy epics - to be married with the new casual paradigm - where we can throw a game in for half an hour and get an entirely satisfying experience.”

That’s our About section.

Genesis:

We quickly learned our first lesson: while anyone may create a blog, with no money for promotion or to finance the production of both quantity and quality content, few writers will attract readers. So, to hit the ground running, I pimped Hardcasual.net to every game writer or journalist with an e-mail address. N’Gai, flattered by our title, gave us our first hit count spike, and Leigh Alexander’s linkage gave us the next. Then Simon Carless. Then Maggie Greene.

To further expedite the process I took Leigh Alexander’s advice and I developed a weekly digest, chronicling the Hardcasual’s best posts from the previous week. Knowing most blogs slack off on the weekends (natch), I mailed the digest out Friday, hoping our blog would be cross-posted or linked on major sites on Saturday or Sunday. The advice worked.

Eventually, Hardcasual received the first sign of blogger success: comments. And like many bloggers, I began to check my Wordpress account religiously: Moderating comments, refreshing the hit count, trying to calculate the number of RSS subscribers. The readers had arrived.

Keep One Eye on the Road:

Yet, all this work promoting Hardcasual distracted me from creating actual content. After a few hours creating a digest or contacting journalists, I was burnt out. That’s when I began to commit a blogger sin; I posted for post’s sake. In these rushed posts, I would make big, broad statements that I did not have the time or energy to support. The promotion, which took me hours, went to waste on posts I wrote in minutes.

Blogger burn out had struck. But at least I wasn’t dead.

Column: Why We Play – 'Bored Games'

May 22, 2008 12:00 AM |

41CWx55zz%2BL._SX182_SH35_.jpg [“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer Chris Plante that discusses how video games benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This time, following Manveer Heir's wonderful article on Boom Blox's design, he questions the relevance of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln Log-sim and other digital board games .]

My Father Meets Boom Blox

This week, my parents visited New York City to check out my apartment and take a brief vacation. I always look forward to their visits, because they’re a chance for me to show off my new toys and gizmos to my dad.

I blame him for my manic interest in all things technology; when I was a child, he introduced me to all the cutting edge electronic wizardry—the NES, ten-pound portable computers (er, ‘laptops’), and America Online—that both puzzled and astonished me. Always curious what made these devices tick, but without the guts to rip them apart, I would ask my dad for detailed descriptions, which he would lay out carefully in simple phrases.

“The electricity goes in here,” he would say, point at the plug, “and it moves around inside the box. Then it transforms into a game.” I’d nod, knowingly. Fifteen years later, I still prefer those explanations to textbooks and manuals.

When my father arrived, I was eager to show him Boom Blox, a new Wii game created by EA in collaboration with Steven Spielberg. You’ve probably heard of it, but he hadn’t. The game mechanic involves moving, shooting, and collapsing piles of blocks to earn points. You actually complete these tasks via Wii gestures similar to real life: to pull a block you grab and pull with the Wiimote; hurl a ball, flick the Wiimote; shoot, point and click.

It’s extremely intuitive and, in my opinion, the best use of the console’s technology to date—a perfect match for my father who struggles with complicated controls. And since my father is always eager to use the Wii beyond his extensive Virtual Console collection, I assumed Boom Blox was just the title for him. I was wrong.

Game Time

I put in the disc, boot the game, and take a couple throws.

“Where’s Grand Theft Auto,” he says.

This is peculiar for two reasons. One, my Dad’s never seen anyone play a GTA game, and, two, my parents are adamantly against video game violence (As a child, I had to write them a four page essay on why I needed Resident Evil 2).

I say, “GTA’s in the 360. Do you want to try pulling out the blocks?”

He asks me to show him GTA, since he’s heard so much about it. He confesses to reading my columns, which I find both flattering and strange, like how I imagine starlets feel when they realize their parents read tabloids. So, I begrudgingly turn off Boom Blox, and turn on GTA IV.

And he loves it. We play for a while, before my Mom kicks us back out onto the sun kissed NYC streets. As we make our way to lunch, my Dad discusses the games with me a bit, and I piece together why Boom Blox doesn’t appeal to him. It’s too real.

Column: Why We Play - 'All The World's A Sandbox'

May 8, 2008 8:00 AM |

how-to-make-toys-10.jpg [“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer Chris Plante that discusses how video games benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This time he finds peace in the sandbox.]

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s we must obey the rules of the game. We can pick the game, Niko Bellic, but we cannot change the rules.
-Dimitri Rascalov, GTA IV

With college out of the way and my job search begun, I’ve had a fair amount of time to play GTA IV, and, strangely, return to Crackdown. The more time I spend in Liberty City, the more I miss the opportunity to scale buildings in a single bound. It’s not that I don’t love GTA IV’s narrative, or even that I feel it would be bettered by Crackdown’s superhero’s agilities, rather they are like beer to chips, wine to cheese, or coffee to bagels—they perfectly complement one another.

What I enjoy about these particular games, especially Crackdown, is their willingness to give the player complete freedom to the open world. But what, if anything, does this freedom cost the game’s narrative? And why do I find this freedom, unique to the sandbox genre, so damn appealing?

Applying My Diploma

To dig in, let’s take a brief pit stop in narrative theory. From Aristotle to Arthur Miller, a well-structured narrative should always progress by continually re-applying what the audience learns from previous scenes. Like in a detective story, each scene must act as a clue, a small semblance to a cohesive whole.

At the narrative’s climax, the audience should be able to step-away and feel they have all the pieces before them, but that they alone can’t perfectly put them together; yet, when the pieces congeal, when the climax occurs, the story must also feel inevitable, that these pieces were carefully crafted to fall into their particular places. As Hedda must shoot herself, as Major Kong must ride the bomb, as Brody must give the stink palm—the narrative (or fate) has led them to these decisions.

Generally, games obey this cause-effect method tooth-and-nail. Your completion of each level rewards you the next level, the next puzzle piece, more difficult than the last. On a micro-level, the game gradually increases its difficulty by adding and layering mechanics. The designers carefully pace your introduction to skill-sets, weapons, or abilities to complete the game.

While I won’t explore this concept in non-narrative games, they obey similar rules. Tetris increases speed and pieces. Guitar Hero adds another fret.

Column: Why We Play - 'Yours Truly, Friendly Mob'

April 29, 2008 4:00 PM |

3_gta_cops.jpg [“Why We Play” is a new weekly column by freelance writer and HardCasual blogger Chris Plante that discusses how video games benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This time – serving time for Grand Theft Auto IV.]

Last night, I joined a large group at the Astor Place Gamestop in New York City to grab my reserved copy of Grand Theft Auto IV. At midnight, their doors opened, we calmly shouted a brief hooray, entered, flashed our pre-paid receipts, took our copies, and made our separate ways into the Liberty City, er, New York City night. After a few blocks, I thought “why did we join together in the first place?” Yet, I wanted to be there along with a couple friends, a few acquaintances, and a whole slew of gamers from across the city.

Originally, I returned and wrote an “intellectual” take on the subject. It sucked. Who wants to read an over-thorough account of a launch party? So, here’s last night's events as they happened, and how they revealed why we all joined together for GTA IV.

The Clock Starts:


9:00 PM - I Pass

The line’s too short. I decide not to skip class. I also grab a bagel.

9:45 PM - I Join Up

I return. The line’s a little longer, so I take my place. It’s quiet. A few people talk amongst themselves. Immediately, I notice the absence of cliché game launch survival kits: no DSes, no Chipotle, no extreme sodas. In fact, the group’s quite the demographic smorgasbord. I ask different people why they chose this GameStop.

“It’s safer at midnight.”
“It’s closest.”
“The hot NYU girls.”

10 PM - The Man Arrives
The PR team (and crowd control) roll down Broadway in a black SUV. They stop a few feet away. A group of late-twenty-somethings hop out decked in GTA IV hoodies and various gear. They toss around t-shirts, pass out foam hands giving the international sign for “shocker,” and distribute Rockstar Social Club stickers like the men in china town promoting strip clubs.

For the next two hours, one of them is constantly strolling up and down the line promoting the Rockstar brand, answering questions, and carefully keeping people both enthused and sedated. It’s an impressive technique in crowd control: “Who’s ready for GTA?” “WE ARE!” They reward us with stickers, and move down the line. Every so often, someone near the front or the back yelps a vulgarity, and we all laugh; otherwise, I continue to wait in relative silence. For a moment, I realize I fulfill the friendless loner stereotype.

COLUMN: Why We Play - “Today, I’ll Stay Inside”

April 22, 2008 4:00 PM |

Virtual%20Magic%20Kingdom.jpg [“Why We Play” is a new weekly column by freelance writer and HardCasual blogger Chris Plante that discusses how video games benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This time - a look at some harsh criticism of a gamer upset when her favorite site went away]

I’m a fan of gaming blog RockPaperShotgun. I think they write intelligent, rich, expansive criticism and analysis. Naturally, I assumed RPS readers were equally intelligent and thoughtful - guilty by association. So then what caused a small group of RPS commenters to attack the gaming habits of an eleven year old girl with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, forcing RPS to shut down the post's comment section?

A Little Background

I was born with a full cleft-palate and cleft-lip. Like all children with birth defects, I never considered it a blessing, just a cross I willingly bear. For better or worse, I usually forgot about the scars on my mouth unless I spotted another child staring or heard an adult make an irresponsible hare lip joke.

Now, I’m twenty-two, and I live the average life of a post-collegiate freelancer in New York City. I have a cabinet full of ramen, a loving girlfriend, and parents that still pay my cell phone bill. And my rent.

For better and worse, I like to think my birth defect shaped me into this person. Truthfully, I’ve never been happier.

A week ago, a friend and fellow gamer, Paul Arzt, responded on our communal blog to my GameSetWatch column, “In the Name of God.” He noted the power of games as safe environments, places where we can make mistakes, learn new skills, and create. He then mentioned a now popular news story, the closing of Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom.

This story has attracted a vocal response; many commenters have been quick to write it off as the closing of yet another Disney marketing MMO, but Paul showed me the unique response of a young girl named Madison who took the news in a personal way. She wrote this on her online journal:

"My favorite web site, Virtual Magic Kingdom (VMK) is closing May 21st. I’m sad and MAD! I can’t live without my friends on VMK. PLEASE sign my guestbook like a petition to SAVE VMK for me and my friends. Pass my site on to everyone you know so they can help too. I love VMK cause I can WALK, TALK, EAT, DANCE, SHOP and play checkers all by myself.

PLEASE HELP ME!

Love,
Madison
p.s. VMK is GERM FREE too!
p.s.s. and no one stares at me there.

As Paul clarified for me, Madison has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (that likely explains her post-scripts). For her, this game, DVMK, is not just a virtual place she can practice life skills free of consequence, as I mentioned earlier; this is a place where she can live life without fear or shame. It’s a place where she doesn’t need someone’s help to live an ordinary life.

COLUMN: Why We Play - 'In the Name of God'

April 17, 2008 4:00 PM |

pray.png [ “Why We Play” is a new weekly column by freelance writer and HardCasual blogger Chris Plante that discusses how video games benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back.]

Every Friday I go to a class to discuss games. I enjoy our conversations, because they give me a different perspective on stories I’ve played dozens of times. Their rants are like Rashomon, Akira Kursowa’s classic film about the dangers of perspective. For us, everyone’s killed Bowser, it’s how we killed Bowser that’s unique.

As we spent more time together, we noticed our differences. By label some of us are the stereotypical gamers, but then there are a handful of jocks, a few bubblegum girls (who beat my ass in just about anything), professional students, artists, and young professionals. How do we get along so well, when we’re so different? Is this the power of a shared hobby?

To figure out this puzzle, we considered only the essential aspects of gaming. The player. The game. The controller.

For me, a controller works like a pair of shoes. When I sport my kicks, I no longer literally feel the ground beneath my feet. I feel rubber and crusty socks (see: mysterious foot condition). But when I step on grass, I still know it is grass. I don’t have to see it, or even smell it. I feel it, somehow, through the shoes. They’re a tacit part of me.

To bring this back to controllers, in Call of Duty 4, I don’t feel the rubber or broken glass or even the gun in my hand, but I recognize the environment and how I interact with it via my controls. They’re my game shoes, and after twenty years of play they’re perfectly worn-in. The controller is an understood extension of myself.

Our tacit relationship with games through our controllers offers many advantages in real life. They teach us motor skills and linguistics, organization and management, and even bring us closer to the divine. That’s right, God is in the game, or, better, in our interaction with the game, but, out of modesty and complete fear you’ll never read “Why We Play” again, I won’t unpack such a lofty claim in my 5th paragraph on GameSetWatch.