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Column: Save The Robot

COLUMN: 'Save the Robot': Spinning the Radio Dial

May 7, 2008 8:00 AM |

nl2_splash.png [Save the Robot is a biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media. This time, he examines the 'everything but the kitchen sink' attitude to visual/conceptual design in games and other media.]

Just a few minutes into PC indie title Noitu Love 2: Devolution, I knew what it was. I knew by the way I'd travelled from high-tech alien shoot-downs to a 19th century music hall and gothic clock towers, and the next minute, to a Japanese mish-mash of blossoming trees and samurai bots. Later settings - a western train chase, a deadly TV set - confirmed what I'd already deduced: Noitu Love 2 was a stylistic pastiche, a conceptual collage, and in other words, a mess. And I knew I was in love.

I’ve been calling Noitu Love 2 my Jets 'N' Guns GOLD of 2008 - referring to another PC indie game with a dysfunctional attention span, another kettle into which some hackers had thrown everything they could on the basis of one principle: "It would be so awesome if ... ."

Zombies, metalheads, mice, pirates, cows, and homicidal beer: it all had a place in Jets 'N' Guns GOLD, making it not just a shoot-em-up action game but - speaking purely of style - the kind of thing you'd otherwise get if you threw your ten pulpiest comics in a shredder and, following your best instincts, taped the strips together. It's not random, but it has a fantastically random energy.

This approach to gamemaking - to throw everything plus the kitchen sink into the visual design - is not new.

COLUMN: 'Save the Robot': The One-Game Diet

April 18, 2008 8:00 AM |

Checkers.jpg[Save the Robot is a biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]

In the gaming press, everybody's looking for new games: this week's big hit, next quarter's big buzzmaker, the most hyped, the most indie, the longest-awaited sequels and the most likely flops. We're swimming in new product.

But in the real world, many people don't care about what's coming out this week, or the next. They're fine spending their time with just one game.

In my circle of friends, there's a guy who plays Rock Band. He's been playing it since before Christmas, owns all the downloadable content, and uses practice mode to get himself to expert level on drums.

Another guy, who used to be in the habit of trying every new game and then selling it on, has gotten stuck on Call of Duty 4. I lent him Devil May Cry 4 last month; it's still collecting dust under his couch. And I know a woman who never played games until she discovered World of Warcraft. She's still playing it, to the exclusion of anything else.

We all know that some gamers need more variety than others. But what if these friends I’ve mentioned – who are happily living on a one-game diet – have the right idea?

COLUMN: 'Save the Robot': The Lone Adventures of Steve Jackon's Sorcery!

March 27, 2008 8:00 AM |

Khare%20Cover%20Cropped.jpg[Save the Robot is a biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]

This month’s tributes to the late Gary Gygax gave many of us a chance to look back at our own days of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Some of our greatest game designers first cut their teeth on fantasy thanks to tabletop RPG sessions, with a brilliant dungeon master leading his players through a brainblowing fantasy improv jam.

Of course, for most of the kids who invested in a few books and the starter set of dice, D & D meant making one kid sit there behind a screen - usually the cover of whichever module you were following, to the letter - while everyone else waited to kill stuff and find another Ring of Protection +1.

But even those kids, who plodded through the game until their 9 PM curfew, had a leg up on the lowest caste of D & D players - the people who played by themselves. And I was one of them. How do you play Dungeons & Dragons by yourself? Well, you roll a character, give it a name, and you follow the module room by room, fighting, looting, fighting, looting, slapping on new gear, and fighting again. You don’t need a DM; you just need a long, slow night that needs killing.

The industry was well aware that they had customers who even their other customers wouldn’t be seen with. TSR published modules for solo play, such as Blizzard Pass or Midnight on Dagger Alley. Invisible ink hid all the surprises, at least for the first guy who played through.

And then there were the gamebooks.Back in the ’80s, everykid who was anykid read the Choose Your Own Adventure series. These gimmicky books were such a hit that they spawned dozens of imitators - puzzle choose-your-adventures, horror choose-your-adventures, and so on. But probably the best came from Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, with their Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks system.

Column: 'Save the Robot': Transcendental Air Guitar - Why Games and Music Need Each Other

March 12, 2008 8:00 AM |

2188127164_6f818761ae.jpgMusic games are on the rise. The Guitar Hero series and its younger cousin, Rock Band, have paved the way for the Harmonix iPod game Phase, indie title Audiosurf - a top-seller for Valve’s Steam service in February - and the new rhythm-action game Patapon.

But broaden the net, and you can check out the playable instruments and jam session possibilities of Lord of the Rings Online, the strummable guitar tossed into BioShock, or Portal - which didn’t end with a plot-packed cutscene, but with a musical finale.

And yet, as someone who covers both music and gaming, I’m well aware of the gulf between the two communities. The games industry makes more money and sees a brighter future for itself; the music biz is tanking, and has to console itself with drugs, sex, and two living Beatles. At the same time, the music industry sees opportunities to regain some vim – and make some scratch – through games.

Personally, I love ‘em both – and I’m incredibly excited to watch these worlds come together. In fact, nothing pumps me more than the thought of games and music living up to their joint potential.

Here are a few ways they can do it.

Column: 'Save the Robot': My Horse and Me

February 26, 2008 8:00 AM |

MHM_Outdoors.jpg The “games for girls” strategy has taken flak from many critics, both male and female. Sure, we’d like to see a world where video games aren’t branded a 99%-teen-male, testosterone-soaked form of entertainment. Most of us think that men and women – or boys and girls – have an equal birthright to video games.

But the challenge of bringing more women into the fold has led to the birth of “games for girls” – and most of them are curious, even offensive misfires. Games with hot pink covers, Barbie dreamhouses, and titles like Imagine Babyz are often perceived, not as building a bridge for girls into the world of video games, but as creating a kind of dumbed-down, fun-free ghetto.

But let’s consider it a different way. We disparage games for girls because they’re so specialized. But specialized games also present an opportunity. What if we’re curious about the weird little audiences they cater to?

Yes, niche games are meant to exploit niches. But they can also open doors to people who weren’t “supposed” to play them. Video games already let us walk a mile in somebody else’s combat boots; but how about, say, their candy-colored riding chaps?

Column: 'Save the Robot': Let's Burn Down Africa

February 12, 2008 8:00 AM |

far_cry2_3.jpg[Save the Robot is a biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]

It's periodically chic in Hollywood to worry about the fate of Africa. But in the games biz, we'd rather blow the whole place up. At last fall's Penny Arcade Expo, I caught one of the first Far Cry 2 demos, presented by Creative Director Clint Hocking to a packed room of journos and nerds.

Far Cry 2 takes place in Africa, in a made-up but realistically war-torn country. Trees and foliage swayed across the screen; explosions and fire filled the air.

A rocket shot from the player's shoulder flew all the way up to a mountain and then, right before it shrank to nothing, took a dip, and knocked down a tree. The crowd went, "Whoa."

Then there's the fire. While recovering from a bout of malaria, you have to traipse around a 50 square kilometer gameworld taking out the enemy, and one of your best weapons is fire - which you can set in the brush and grasses, where it spreads to surround enemy bases and burn across the landscape. During the Q & A, one fan got right to the point: “Is it possible to incinerate the entire game world?”

If Bono had been there, he would have winged his sunglasses at the kid's head.

Column: 'Save the Robot': What Indie Games Can Learn From Little Miss Sunshine

January 28, 2008 8:00 AM |

lms.jpg[Save the Robot is a biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]

Last week, Simon Carless - expanding on an "indie games rule" column by Clive Thompson - speculated whether indie games are "exploding." In quantity and quality, he and Thompson are surely dead-on that more games are out there, and they're more exciting than ever.

But I want to raise the bar for "explode": I want to see indie games break into the mainstream, the way films like Sex Lies and Videotape or bands like Nirvana broke out in the '90s. And we're not there - yet.

Aquaria is a hit among the kind of people who read this blog, yet as of now, Metacritic only lists two reviews for it (one of them is mine, from The AV Club). Titles like Eets, DEFCON, Samorost 2, Knytt, and many others have potentially widespread appeal, but without a Steam or an XBox Live Arcade, they can't get attention from the mainstream press or casual consumers.

By contrast, consider an indie darling that started at Sundance and broke through to the Oscars: Little Miss Sunshine.

Column: 'Save the Robot': Gaming and Web Me.0 (Or: Why is My Butt Online)

January 15, 2008 8:00 AM |

SL Butt[Save the Robot is a new, biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media. This column discusses how online games should better feed data to the rest of our online lives.]

Excuse me if I sound a little distracted this week. See, someone posted a photo of my butt online, and I’m trying to get the situation under control. Actually, I’ll be honest – I posted a photo of my butt. It was a total accident. The other day I was changing my boxer shorts when I accidentally hit the “Take Picture” button on my cameraphone. Now, you’d think this wouldn’t be a problem: I’d see the photo on my phone, maybe admire it for a minute, and then delete it before it fell into the wrong hands.

But I want my photos to go straight online the second I take them. What if I take a picture of what I’m eating for lunch, and I want my friends to see it immediately? So with one stray click, my phone shot my butt online, where it was tagged, geocoded and ID’d and then posted for the entire world to enjoy. The minute it hit Flickr, everyone could see that it was my butt, taken by me, in my house, right when I’m usually changing into my silk eveningwear boxer shorts. There was just no denying it.

It got me thinking about the Internet, and how hard it is to stay anonymous. Time was, you could post a photo of your butt, and you could say it was anybody’s. But as technorati like Mark Davis of Yahoo! have said, “People who are living their lives online are living it as themselves.”

Sure, we may stretch the truth sometimes. But the days of anonymity are dying: now, we Twitter, run a dozen profiles on social networking sites, and trace everything back to our blogs and our Flickr albums, where we talk about every damn thing that happens to us. The thinking goes that people no longer want to hide behind anonymous, made-up or partial identities: they want to expose themselves online.

But as someone who reads the gaming press, I’m sure you can think of a giant exception.

COLUMN: 'Save the Robot': Should Games Be Childish Things?

January 2, 2008 12:00 AM |

xwing.jpg When I was around six or seven, Christmas morning meant one thing: Star Wars toys. And even when I was six or seven, I knew that Star Wars toys were junk. My parents gave me one of the first Darth Vaders on the way to a nice restaurant in Boston at Christmastime, probably to keep me quiet at dinner. The figure wore a cape that was just a round piece of vinyl with armholes, and Darth’s light saber slid out of a gouge in his forearm.

After The Empire Strikes Back, I got a Hoth play-set that had as much detail as an egg carton, and when Return of the Jedi landed and the franchise ran its course, I settled for a line of non-canonical one-off spaceships that looked like something you should bury a mouse in. But nobody bought them for the quality. We bought them to play.

Last month, I caught MIT’s Futures of Entertainment conference, where some of the best and brightest of Hollywood and academia came to talk about film, TV, games, and toys, and the transmedia stories that tie them all together.

And I was surprised to hear a couple of the panelists reminisce about playing with Star Wars toys as kids, and using the toys and merch to – as Heroes’ Jesse Alexander put it – “extend the story,” and spin your own experience from what you saw on the screen. Except I don’t know many kids who actually stuck to the script.

Column: 'Save the Robot': Games & The Birth Of The Cool

December 18, 2007 8:00 AM |

guitar_hero_3.jpg [Save the Robot is a new, biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]

Like a lot of music fans, it didn’t take me long to smell something fishy about the latest installment of the Guitar Hero empire. In Guitar Hero III, you’re still playing a cartoonish aspirant to the dream of rock ‘n roll stardom – except in this one, the scenario feels off.

In the first venue, you’re playing a party in someone’s backyard. If you rock hard enough to score an encore, you notice that the crowd is roaring, and then you look over the fence and you see – a cop car! Someone called the cops! Except they’re clapping too! You’re such a hit that even the police don’t have the heart to stop the show. The long-fought war between the pigs and the kids has finally ended.

This was the first in a series of wrong notes that left me with a clammy, phony feeling by the end of the career mode – so phony in fact, that by the time I went to hell and fought the devil in a guitar duel, I could only shrug. Yes, the game is knuckleheaded. But does anyone care?

I know I do. I love pop culture. I'm a committed, committable, always-strung-out culture junkie. Old media or new, comics, TV, books, film, and naturally, music – I need it all, constantly, and the stranger and fringier, the better. Name a film you just saw, and I’ll say the director’s older stuff was better. Tell me about a cult horror flick, and I’ll tell you the one you really need to see. And namedrop your favorite new record, and I’ll say, “Yeah – I liked that stuff better when Bowie/Reed/Eno was doing it.” Sure, I don’t always know what I’m talking about – but I sound like I do.

And that’s half the fun of pop culture: it feels exclusive, in an inclusive way. You get the thrill of catching onto something that millions of other people already knew about. It’s edgy, political and sexualized – but not in a creepy, Second Life-kinda way. It matures you and jades you. It teaches girls about boys and the other way 'round. Sometimes it just plain blows your mind.

Pop culture is "hip." And while games are great, hip is something they ain't.