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Endings: A Descent

Batman Arkham City

Last week my second 360 core model died the death. The first suffered the dreaded red ring of death. This one caught the lesser known but equally terminal error 74. Thankfully it was under guarantee so I got my money back and trade up to a slim model. The guy behind the counter gleefully recounted the tale of one regular customer who’d been through 13 of the old models before the slims arrived. Shame on you Microsoft.

There are three things I’m annoyed about after trading up. The first is that I didn’t have The Last of Us on my radar and get a PS3 instead. The most serious is the loud “ping” noise the console makes when you turn it on or open the tray with the console buttons. It’s loud enough to wake my kids up, so now I have to turn on the console with the remote and make sure I have the disc I want to play already in there before bedtime. I’m amazed gaming parents the world over haven’t registered screaming outrage over this.

The final issue is the save games that I lost. Yes, I could have got a transfer cable but that’s additional expense. A save about half-way through Bioshock was a minor annoyance because I didn’t care all that much for the game. Somewhat more dispiriting was the loss of a three-quarter done save of Arkham Asylum, a game I wouldn’t rave over but was certainly enjoying.

So I will now never see the end of Arkham Asylum. And what struck me, the more I dwelt on it, was the fact that I didn’t particularly care. I’d had fun with the game but after maybe ten hours with it, I was actually pretty much done. I was going through the motions just to see the story, which wasn’t enormously compelling in the first place, conclude. And the sudden removal of that pressure turned out to be something of a relief.

It wasn’t so long ago that this idea was complete anathema to me. If I liked a game, I was damn well going to play it until it was finished just to get my money’s worth out of it. I pursued this goal doggedly even when the arrival of children seriously curtailed my gaming time.

I can recall in my one and only JTS podcast appearance (damn you, global time differences) relating the tale of how I replayed and replayed and replayed the notorious Meat Circus level of Psychonauts well beyond the point of enjoyment and well into the realm of fury and frustration. I felt compelled to overcome the challenge simply because it was there.


It’s a bit like staying with a film you’re really not enjoying until it’s done, except that it takes much longer to complete a game than it does a film. So while psychologically it might be the same, in reality it’s far more tedious and damaging.

And it bears repeating that, in spite of what repeated consumption of highly cinematic AAA titles might make us feel, videogames are not films. What differentiates them is the degree of interactivity and challenge that a game can give, making you feel part and parcel of the story rather than passively consuming it.

And that differentiator is key. Film started out like theatre, but evolved into its own art form when pioneers began to think about what it could do differently, and exploited those differences to make great movies. Games, whatever they share with cinema, are no different. What makes a great game great isn’t in the cinematics, it’s in the dialogue between the choices and actions of the player and the game.

So if the story isn’t the ultimate arbiter of the quality of a game, why do so many of us feel the need to unreel the whole thing to the bitter end in order to feel we’ve properly finished a game. Surely the correct measure is the point at which we’ve become bored with the play mechanics.

When viewed through this prism a lot of other slightly troubling things melt away. It explains, for instance, why people carry on playing games even when they’ve finished them, whether it’s a replay on a harder difficulty setting, installing a mod, or just carrying on with goal-free experimentation in sandbox games.

It also throws into stark relief one of the ongoing issues with cinema-style games which is only going to get worse with the next generation. For a long time I’ve felt there was life in the AAA model going forward simply because there was so much cinematic space unexplored. Even the most thought provoking games at the moment are pathetically immature compared with the artistry of the best movies. And Hollywood has demonstrated time and time again that tired old formulas can remain surprisingly entertaining if delivered with enough flair and skill.

But my increasing disinterest in games for the sake of their plot alone suggests this isn’t going to be enough. The interactivity with the unfolding story that a game allows us is hugely powerful, and it strips storytellers of some of the most effective tools they have for engaging the audience. The challenge that’s integral to that interactivity has to be there too, properly integrated, and it’s here that AAA games are increasingly failing to provide innovation.

The mobile model that’s been eating chunks out of consoles in recent years is precisely the opposite. It doesn’t lack in terms of mechanical creativity, but I find the lack of narrative and detail, of old-fashioned art, means many titles have terrifyingly short shelf-lives. What we need is for the next generation of consoles and PC games to grow and mature in both mechanics and cinematics, and perhaps most importantly of all to master that strange gray space that unites the two.

The forced ending to my time with Arkham Asylum has actually started to feel like a lifted weight. I can finally lay to rest the nagging ghosts of many other games that I almost played to completion but, for one reason or another, had to abandon. I just hope that it isn’t the seeds of an excuse to abandon the narrative appeal of games in their entirety.

Dishonored- First Impressions of Dunwall

If you’re like anything like I am, with each passing year you think “it sure would be nice if someone would develop adventure-based FPS games again like they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s.” I’m thinking great games like Thief, System Shock 2, and No One Lives Forever- classic titles that were much more than just rote shooters despite the behind-the-eyes perspective. These were games that had a sense of focused narrative occurring in meticulous, handcrafted settings paired with a great deal of player agency, allowing for a specific story to be told with the detail filled in by core gameplay. Games like this are rare, but when we get a really great one it turns out to be a Bioshock. Or even a Metro 2033.

With this is in mind and with only a couple of hours of play to back up my claim, I’m already prepared to induct Dishonored into this esteemed fraternity of Really Great Narrative FPS Games.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve played a big budget, high profile game that really floored me and made me feel like I was playing the next great video game. The long spring and summer drought this year very nearly broke my spirit. I was beginning to think this generation didn’t have another truly great game left in it, especially not one with a new IP and without a 3 or a 4 appended to the title.

But from the very beginning of Dishonored, which sets up a simple plot without Michael Bay-class cutscenes, QTEs, or a bunch of bombastic AAA hullaballoo, I could feel that not-familiar-enough feeling of falling in love with a game and in particular its visuals, informed largely by a painterly illustration style evocative of artists like Maxfield Parrish. Then there are the slightly grotesque, almost caricature-like faces that evoke European comic artists. And there are moments both grand and subtle even in the first 20 minutes of the game that develop Dunwall as a new game setting to be reckoned with- the sad majesty of a whale suspended in one of this world’s whaling vessels, the bits of ephemera scattered across a desk. The blubberpunk (don’t call it steampunk, please) fashion and architecture of an impossible world.

As for the gameplay, I was shocked that there weren’t the usual array of gauges and visual indicators that most stealth games depend on. At least for the first couple of segments of the game, which include a great prison breakout, you’ve got to rely on instinct and observation to stay unnoticed rather than on line of sight cones, super-camouflage, or a magic color-changing gem. It’s only later on that you unlock a power that gives you some of these observational abilities.

I made it out of the jail without killing anybody. There were moments of great tension, of feeling like a total badass because I dipped between columns right under the noses of two guards. A couple of times I failed and wound up in combat, which is pretty tough on the Hard setting. Checkpoints are generous. The game wants you to try different things to see what works, it doesn’t want you to get frustrated by experimentation.

There were some clever moments as well, like throwing a dead body to lure rats away from a door-controlling crank. There was a blast of excitement as I blew open the doors, alerted the guards, and made a break for the sewers. I wound up escorted by a boatman to a pub run by loyalists opposed to the attempted coup d’etat that sets the story into motion. There I met the game’s crafter, who made me that wicked metal skull mask and sold me some sleep bolts for the crossbow. I’m playing nonlethal as far as I can.

Then, sleep. In dreams I meet the Outsider, who gives me the Blink ability, a short range teleport that is a master assassin’s dream. He also gives me a magic heart, that whispers secrets and beats feverishly in the presence of upgrade-granting runes. In the real world, it’s 4am and I’ve really got to go to bed. But I haven’t even thrown rats at anybody yet!

I can’t wait to play this game again tonight, and even though I hear that it’s short I think it’s a game that I can imagine revisiting on the hardest difficulty. It’s such a confident, assured design that pretty much says “fuck you” to many of the things the second half of this console generation has done so wrong. There is no bullshit multiplayer with multiple Corvos running around trying to headshot each other with a crossbow. There is no bullshit co-op, where Corvo’s bro has to be boosted up to a fire escape or revived when he’s down. There is just you, this rich setting, this brilliant art design, and this devotion to classic gameplay. No blubber. This is a focused game that does something very specific and it doesn’t burden you down with silly filler or needless bulletpoints to appease stakeholders.

Most importantly, these guys knew better than to just mimic the successes of Call of Duty, Gears of War, and other AAA titans. They drank from a deeper, older well of inspiration. We are blessed that they chose to do so.

Fingers crossed that the remainder is as awesome as the first night.

How DRM Killed My Bioshock

Here at No High Scores we’ve, rather justly, beaten the topic of DRM in games into the ground, and I’d imagine we’ll continue to do so. In most cases, like in talking about Diablo 3, we’re talking in the relative abstract about the way in which stringent online authentication demands can cause real problems for gamers. It’s a real concern, but in the here and now, it’s largely nuisance issues. Sure, Diablo 3 servers go down, but they go back up. You can have DLC headaches with Bioware games, but they generally get cleared up eventually. There’s a lot of frustration, but no impassable roadblocks to speak of. Mostly, we talk about and live in fear of the potential for nightmare scenarios that could permanently block you from playing a game you’ve purchase. This past weekend, I hit on exactly that…

I’ve been dating. This is not a dating post and I don’t intend for it become one, but it’s how the story starts so you’ll just have to grit your teeth and bear with the notion that a member of the opposite sex finds me charming and rogue-like. It’s a mystery that will confound scientists for decades. Anyway. We were kicking back in my living room recently when she inquired about the creepy doll-like object I had hanging from the fireplace. You might have seen him before:

Hat tip to Brandon, by the way. He bought it for me. It’s awesome.

At this point she knows me well enough to know I’m a big geek and a gamer. I don’t talk about games a lot with her, but I have no reservation about launching into an abridged explanation of Bioshock, Big Daddies, and what generally made the game tick. It’s an interesting game and a very discussion-worthy premise. She was rather interested and I noted that I thought the first five minutes of Bioshock are among the very best I’ve seen from video games. I still find that initial descent into Rapture an incredible thing. So I decide to go do a quick game install and let her see it for herself. Why not? If you show a girl Bioshock and she bolts then it was never meant to be. Right, Wayne?


The game install is slow, but I return to the PC a half hour later and see this error message:

Why wasn’t the download server responding? Your guess is as good as mine, but near as I can figure from an hour of Google Kung Fu, the SecuROM installer included with the boxed version of this game can be rather persnickity. The server it’s trying to access is there, the Auto Patcher just can’t get to it. I’ve seen various forum posts indicating potential firewall interference, antivirus software interference, browser settings issues (including it just not liking specific browsers), and more. I tried a few simple solutions (turning off my a/v and firewall), but neither worked. Another potential solution, that I’ll get to, I haven’t tried yet. Try explaining the intricacies and pointlessness of DRM insanity, by the way, to someone who only plays Scrabble and Sudoku on an Android phone. It’s not exactly a selling point on this industry.

The problem, however is not that the game wouldn’t install without phoning home to the server to authenticate. I never even got as far as providing a software key or anything. And the game did install. As soon as it was done installing, however, it immediately phones home for the patch. When it can’t locate the patch server you are faced with two options: Retry or Cancel. Retry works about as well as you’d expect. Cancel immediately removes the install and returns you to the Windows desktop. In other words, every time I try and troubleshoot my way around this, I have to reinstall the game from scratch.

Thanks, 2k!

This, my friends, is the DRM nightmare scenario and we’re going to run into it more and more often in the years ahead. The game installed just fine when I bought it. It even installed just fine a couple of years later when I installed it again. This time, however, I’ve hit a brick wall, that sure, as a more advanced PC user, I might just be able to work around. But what about Joe Average? Is he going to be able to find the forum thread that says to try uninstalling (not just turn off, but uninstall) his anti-virus software? Or that he should leave the error message up, move the install directory to a new location, click Cancel, and then move the folder back?

What’s he going to think? What did my Special Lady Friend, a potential casual gamer in the making, think?

I’ll tell you what they think: Well that’s pretty stupid. Why even bother?

And they’d be right.

This isn’t even some crappy one-off game bought from the bargain bin at Wal Mart. This is for a flagship IP for 2k Games and I can’t so much as install it because of a DRM scheme that demands access to a patch server immediately upon the completion of installation. This is where PC gaming is headed and it’s incredibly not worth it because your average (non-dedicated) gamer is going to do the same thing I did, remove the game disc and toss it back on the shelf (or into the trash). They’re also not going to do something that I will do: Because I am who I am, I’ll end up buying and writing about Bioshock Infinite when it arrives. Will Joe Average buy anything with Bioshock in the title ever again?

I rather doubt it.

Bioshock: Listening to Rapture

Splicers - the main enemies in Bioshock - have extraordinarily complex and believable vocal sound routines

When I got my 360, with all the enormous catalogue of quality games I could have chosen from to catch up on, the one I picked first was Bioshock. It came top of the list because I was intrigued by the premise behind the game, the lure of a traditional shooter with horror elements in such an esoteric setting. Plus, it was cheap on the used market.

Three chapters in, I have been somewhat disappointed. Bioshock is fun. In fact Bioshock is pretty much everything I was hoping it would be. But the respawn model has really spoiled it for me. Once I realised that there was pretty much zero penalty to dying, other than a short walk back to where you were before, and that you could effectively kill most things in the game by repeatedly hitting them with the wrench, the very first weapon you got, all the challenge and some of the interest drained out of the game. I have a full wallet because buying stuff is pointless: just use the wrench. I’m perplexed how such an awful design choice made it into what should have been an excellent game. Yes, you *could* refuse to use them, and rely on saves but why bother? Plus some of the nasties in the game – Big Daddies in particular – look pretty much unbeatable in a one-off fight with the early game weapons and ammo alone, so re-spawning looks kind of built into the play. The location of re-spawn booths close to difficult fights would tend to confirm that hypothesis.

But I’m going to keep playing anyway, because the story behind the game in indeed interesting, and the setting is indeed esoteric. It also seems to make some explicitly political points, a rarity in games design nowadays. And it helps that so much love has been lavished on the visual design of the game. It didn’t give me the wow factor that I’d been craving, but it was fantastic to see how well unified the visual elements are, everything at once suggestive both of setting in time and place. The horror elements work well too, shadows looming on the walls, lights flickering on and off at appropriate junctures.

But what really got me was the sound design.

Other than soundtracks, I don’t think I’ve ever been specifically impressed by sound design in a game before, but the way it’s used in Bioshock is astonishing. For starters, there’s the ambient background noise of clanking pipes and hissing steam that hovers of the edge of your hearing like an irritating mosquito, simultaneously setting the scene and keeping you jumpy. Then there’s the use of music: no consistent soundtrack, just bursts of sudden discordant piano or saxophone music when you least expect it, often for no particular reason than to make you nervous.

The crowning glory though is the voices. The way Little Sisters chat away to their hulking guardians, just like over-keen toddlers blathering on at a doting parent is unsettlingly bizarre, although you do wonder why the Daddies are always called Mister Bubbles. The sudden voices over the PA system, reminding you that this was once a functioning society with laws and customs all its own. And the set pieces with the Splicers gibbering away to one another or to themselves, featuring clever scripting and excellent voice acting to sound convincingly, disturbingly, insane.

But what really gets me is the triggered vocalisations in real time play. I can’t remember another game in which the enemies actually talk to one another. In most games, of course, you’re hunting aliens or monsters or some such, and they can’t speak in a manner you understand. Some do talk, like the various adversaries in Halo for instance, but they utter repetitive phrases keyed in to your actions. In Bioshock the Splicers talk to you, and they talk to each other, and they talk apparently for the sake of hearing their own voices. The resulting conversations manage to avoid excessive repetition and actually make some sort of coherent sense, giving you a peculiar sense that these were once real live people in a real live place who’ve been driven over the edge, simultaneously creating unease and sympathy in the player.

That sense adds enormously to the already powerful feeling of immersion you get while playing. So it’s doubly tragic then that the designers chose to destroy the sensation of disbelief by creating a ludicrous re-spawn model.

BioShock: Infinite Set for October 16 Release

Ken Levine via the Twitter dropped this little nugget this morning: BioShock Infinite will ship in the states on October 16th with an International release date of October 19th. Now, this is pretty standard “news” but consider this:

BioShock, the original, was released in August of 2007. August is a fairly slow time as far as releases are concerned. It’s still summer. It’s not quite holiday rush. It’s for games that publishers feel are “tweeners” and if you recall BioShock was in NO way a slam dunk from a sales perspective because everyone was harping on the “System Shock was great but sold poorly” mantra and BioShock was being compared to System Shock at every turn.

Fast forward to BioShock 2. New developer. Hit/miss buzz. 2K releases it on February 9, 2010. February is another interesting release window. It’s smack dab in the middle of the 2nd quarter fiscal year for public companies. Early February is an odd choice because people are still reeling a bit from holiday spending. This year we see games like The Darkness 2, Amalur, UFC 3, Syndicate, Neverdead, Ashura’s Wrath, etc. all dropped in February. February could also mean a release date push from 4th quarter.

March, on the other hand, is (usually) when big AAA releases start to flow again (unless you are releasing a Blizzard game but they are a very unique circumstance). Mass Effect 3, Resident Evil, etc. These are clearly not hard and fast rules and it’s easy to point out outliers when it comes to release dates but companies don’t throw darts at a calendar when they decide on when to drop a game on the public.

I do find it interesting that this is the first Q4 release for a BioShock game. That’s either random chance or 2K has more confidence in Infinite than the other two games in this series. And there’s a lot of eggs in this particular BioShock basket.

Oh, yeah, the press release. Here ’tis:

2K Games announced today that BioShock® Infinite will be available in North America on October 16, 2012 on the Xbox 360® video game and entertainment system from Microsoft, PlayStation®3 computer entertainment system and Windows PC. The title will be available internationally on October 19, 2012.

Developed by Irrational Games, BioShock Infinite won more than 75 editorial awards at E3 in 2011, including the Game Critics Awards’ Best of Show. The title has been named one of the most anticipated games of 2012 by more than 50 media outlets, including WIRED, USA Today, TIME, GameSpot, and GameTrailers. The BioShock franchise is one of the interactive entertainment industry’s most successful and critically acclaimed series, which has sold-in over 9 million units worldwide.

“After BioShock, we had a vision for a follow up that dwarfed the original in scope and ambition,” said Ken Levine (@iglevine), Creative Director of Irrational Games (@irrationalgames). “BioShock Infinite has been our sole focus for the last four years, and we can’t wait for fans to get their hands on it.”

BioShock Infinite puts players in the role of Booker DeWitt, a hard-bitten former Pinkerton agent, together with the revolutionary AI companion, Elizabeth. The two struggle to escape the sky-city of Columbia, in a 1912 America that might have been. Armed with an arsenal of new weapons and abilities, they face menacing enemies, in unique expansive environments. Classic BioShock gameplay joins innovations such as aerial combat on high-speed Sky-Lines in the service of a immersive storyline – an Irrational Games signature.