Playing With Art

Analyzing the artistic merits of video games

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The Contradictory Support for Online Gaming

Posted by Nick Dinicola on August 21, 2009

I recently renewed my Xbox Live gold account, and I was reminded of the first time that I signed up for it just over a year ago. A friend came to visit and brought Battlefield: Bad Company, and convinced me to sign up for a gold account right then and there. It was easy but only because I already had a silver account and wireless adapter. Getting to that initial point required more effort and money than it was worth. In that short span of a year, online connectivity has become a major selling point for games and consoles. Nearly every new triple-A game has some form of online play, either competitive or cooperative, and even some multiplayer-only games have jumped from the PC to the consoles. The consoles themselves embrace the online world with a mix of downloadable games and community features. Yet, for all of this hype and support, there are many unnecessary hurdles a customer has to face before getting connected. Hurdles that can easily scare someone away, and that have consistently gone untended. Despite their apparent interest in the online space, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are shooting themselves in the foot.

Microsoft, arguably, has the most invested in its online offerings. There are many aspects of Live that make it an actual community and not just a mish-mash of anonymous people playing the same game. The party system and standard headset encourage communication among players, and the avatars give people a unique visual identity in addition to their chosen gamertag. Members can watch movies from Netflix, with more from Facebook, Twitter, and Last.fm coming in the fall. The “Summer of Arcade,” a five week period which highlights certain Xbox Live Arcade games, has become a yearly promotion, and 1 vs. 100 has emerged as a popular community game that appeals to gamers of every ilk. Yet entering this online world is costly. The hard drive, a necessity when it comes to downloadable games and content games, is prohibitively expensive, as is Microsoft’s official wireless adapter. Even then you only get a silver account, to get a gold account and actually play online with others you have to pay a yearly fee. There’s a workaround for people who don’t want to pay for the adapter, but with all the focus placed on Live and its features, people shouldn’t have to want a workaround.

Read the rest at PopMatters.

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Parody Games and the Changing Face of Collectibles

Posted by Nick Dinicola on August 14, 2009

Parodies by their very nature give us a different perspective on things. Whether it be a plot, genre, or game mechanic, we see a different side of things when they’re viewed through the lens of humor. There are two recent flash games in particular that, while making fun of popular game mechanics, give us a unique look at the roots of those mechanics and why they’re so popular.

Upgrade Complete

Upgrade Complete is a game that makes you upgrade everything. To begin the game, we have to buy a shop menu screen, but since we don’t have any money in the beginning we have to accept a loan from the developer. Then we have to buy the preloader to actually load the game and menu buttons to actually play it. The game itself is a 2-D top-down flying shooter. We can buy missiles and lasers and guns (all upgradeable of course) to help against the waves of enemies, or we can use the money we earn to buy and upgrade a logo, copyright info, the graphics, or a game over screen.

Achievement Unlocked is game that’s all about unlocking achievements. The game itself is mostly a platformer: there’s a single screen filled with blocks, jump pads, and spikes, all traditionally found in some form or another in platformers. But Achievement Unlocked is really more of a puzzle game, since our only goal is to figure out how to get all 99 achievements. It begins easily enough, giving us achievements for preloading the game, watching the sponsor screen, and pretty much rewarding every other simple action we could make: moving left, moving right, jumping, dying, etc. Everything nets us an achievement; we’re even given infinite lives so the game doesn’t end until we either give up or get every achievement.

Read the rest at PopMatters.

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Your Virtual Physical Self

Posted by Nick Dinicola on August 7, 2009

“Physicality” has become a buzzword in the gaming industry, used as a shorthand expression for anything that gives the player a sense of their avatar’s physical self. The intro to Call of Duty 4 is a good example: The character is shoved into a car, driven around, then dragged to a stage and executed. As he’s thrown around, the camera is also thrown around, so not only do we see what the character sees but we experience the same distortion he does. But watching this intro now, one gets a vague sense that something is missing: Limb movement, but specifically arm movement. Other games have embraced this new approach, putting an emphasis on the character’s limbs. While the idea of seeing our legs in a first-person shooter isn’t new, the way some games let us interact with our environment through our arms is new.

Far Cry 2 - Dislocated Finger

Far Cry 2 has an interesting approach because of what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t show your character’s legs. Despite this omission, the game is praised for its immersiveness and how well it portrays a sense of physical self. This praise is entirely due to the game’s unique healing animations. Our character will stab himself in the arm with a syrette, snap a dislocated finger back into place, burn a wound shut with a flare, and the list goes on. The important takeaway here is that we heal ourselves by interacting with our body, and most of those interactions focus on our arms. Because of the unique and memorable nature of these animations, we think of them when we think of the game, not the lack of the character’s legs. Most players probably won’t even realize they don’t have legs over the course of the game because there are few reasons for us to look down. When we do have to look down to pick up an object, the character’s hand reaches out and grabs that object instead of magically picking it up by walking over it. Our body, our arm, interacts with the environment, attracting our attention away from the fact that even though we’re staring straight down we don’t see any legs.

Read the rest at PopMatters.

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Homelessness in The Sims 3

Posted by Nick Dinicola on July 31, 2009

The Sims 3, like all the Sim games and really anything by Will Wright, is a playground in which we can make our own stories. Sometimes we try to keep thing realistic, but the potential for insanity is never far away. The Sims has always been a great source for over-the-top melodrama befitting the worst daytime soap, but it’s also a source of far more serious stories.

Alice and Kev - Fighting

One that stands out is the blog “Alice and Kev.” Alice and Kev are homeless Sims. Kev is described as “…mean-spirited, quick to anger, and inappropriate. He also dislikes children, and he’s insane. He’s basically the worst Dad in the world.” His daughter Alice “…has a kind heart, but suffers from clumsiness and low self-esteem.” Each blog post is a snapshot of their daily lives, and while some are humorous, there’s an undercurrent of sadness running through the entire blog. Reading about the hardships Alice faces while trying to go to school and dealing with a father who hates her is frighteningly realistic, and seeing the joy she gets out of simple things like a good meal and a bed are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Kev provides some comic relief with his haphazard attempts at love, but it’s also hard not to feel sorry for him when his attempts constantly fail, and the drama returns when he comes back “home” and takes his anger out on Alice. It’s a captivating story in its own right, but this premise has been done before with The Sims 2 and can be reproduced by anyone who has the game, what really makes “Alice and Kev” unique is its presentation.

Read the rest at PopMatters.

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