Category Archives: Observations

Role Playing Game

RPGs are one of my favourite genres of video games, but what exactly is a role-playing game?

A role-playing game is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting.

That’s not a very comprehensive description, as it could apply to almost any game. Though I control the character Mario in the fictional setting of the Mushroom Kingdom, I’d never call Super Mario Bros a role-playing game. Ultimately, this whole post is about semantics, but I’m interested in how people define this particular genre and what games the RPG moniker it gets applied to.

The first game that really made me question the meaning of RPG was Borderlands, a game that billed itself as a role-playing shooter. The game had a number of mechanics in common with the more traditional role-playing games such as choice of class, a talent tree, and power increases through gear and gaining stats as you level. But for me, nothing about Borderlands made me feel like I was playing a role. Whether I played as Mordechai the hunter, or Lilith the siren, the game never felt any different beyond basic combat mechanics. A talent tree does not an RPG make.

Talent tree for Mordechai in Borderlands

Character building is a huge part of RPGs, and can fall into one of two categories. The first, which I’ll call mechanical character building, happens by gaining experience through quests or combat, which increases your level, which in turn increases your character’s stats or gives you more abilities. Mechanical character building is what makes you feel like your character is getting more powerful. The second type, which I’ll call narrative character building happens by making decisions that affect your character in different ways. Rather than levelling until you get 18 Strength, you’re making decisions that develop your character’s personality, how other characters react to you, maybe even the game world. Without this second type of character building I’m reluctant to classify a game as an RPG.

Druid talent trees

World of Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, but I have honestly never considered that an accurate classification. I know that many people play WoW as an RPG – they create backstories for their characters, give them a personality, and maybe even speak to others in-game in character, but this really comes from their own creativity and imagination. Blizzard developed a lot of lore that people can pull their character stories from, but if you take just the actual game content, there’s really not a lot of character building. As someone who does not RP in-game and is not interested in creating my own stories about my character, my Night Elf Druid is really no different from any of a million other Night Elf Druids. Or Tauren Warriors, for that matter. They don’t talk. They don’t have a personality. They don’t make decisions any deeper than do this quest or don’t do this quest. None of the adventures I have in-game effect the larger world, or the story of the game. We can kill the game’s antagonist on Monday only to have him come back on Tuesday. Choosing to be Resto vs Feral or taking Nature’s Vigil over Heart of the Wild make me feel like I’m developing a stat sheet, not a character. For me, the character building in WoW was 100% mechanical.

Planescape Torment conversation options

Another related, somewhat overlapping component of RPGs is choice and decision-making. You can choose your companions in games like Baldur’s Gate. You can choose to join the Dustmen faction, the Anarchists, or the Sensates (or all of them) in Planescape: Torment. You can choose who will rule the kingdom in Dragon Age. All of these decisions affect the game experience in some way, from making different sidequests available to changing the ending.

FF7 Golden Pagoda

Thinking about RPGs from a decision-making and effect point of view makes me think again about JRPGs. Take Final Fantasy 7 for example. There’s actually very little decision-making in this game. In terms of mechanical character development, you don’t even build your character you really just choose weapons and materia to use. Cloud is Cloud and nothing you do changes his story. You can choose to do certain optional content – recruit Yuffie and Vincent, fight the Weapons, breed chocobos – but again, that doesn’t really impact your character or the narrative. The only part of the game that really provides you with something different based on your decisions is who you go on a date with at the Gold Saucer. Final Fantasy or Shadow Hearts, two series I love, don’t really let me develop a character. The protagonists are written in one way and I’m just along for the ride.

The Walking Dead decisions

So what about games that allow you to make decisions and do a lot of narrative character building, but have no mechanical character building? The Walking Dead is full of choices to make and allows you to shape Lee’s personality, but there is no levelling or gearing up. You don’t get stronger, you just develop the story and cultivate relationships with your companions. Is this an RPG? I personally feel that this kind of decision heavy game provides a much more immersive role-playing experience than something that allows me to adjust 100 different stats, traits, and abilities on a character sheet. But that’s just my opinion.

To me, what makes an RPG is decision-making and character building. Without the ability to have input into the character’s development and choices, I really don’t feel like I’m playing a role. The subgenre of the game – it could be a shooter, or turn-based strategy, or action – doesn’t matter, so much as being able to have an effect on events in the game.

What I’m Playing This Week

This past week I bought a lot of video games, I even had time to play many of them!

Divinity: Original Sin

I wrapped up my game of Divinity with 65 hours played. It’s been a while since I’ve spent that much time completing a game. I was going to write a full review but I honestly have nothing too clever to say. It’s a very solid, enjoyable isometric RPG and if you liked Baldur’s Gate or Planescape: Torment, you should play it. I could do without the rock, paper, scissors though.

Richard & Alice

After finishing Divinity, I wanted to play something short. Richard & Alice fit the bill. It’s an indie adventure game, set in an apocalyptic winter wonderland. It’s not much to look at, but it tells a thoughtful and melancholy story about what people will do to survive.

Richard & Alice

The gameplay is simple and the puzzles are straightforward, but the writing is where this game shines. Two hours well spent.

Mass Effect 3

I started a replay of the whole ME series and while back and I’ve been slowly making my way through it. I had only played ME3 once before, right when it came out, and apparently I have a terrible memory because the whole beginning felt completely new to me. I considered ME2 my favourite of the series before, but I’m really digging how wide open this one is, and I love reuniting with my old crew and building up a giant military force to fight the Reapers. I’m playing Renegade this time around, and enjoy getting to punch a lot of people in the face. I also got most of the DLC, so I’m looking forward to seeing that content for the first time.

I gave the multiplayer a shot for the first time and found it surprisingly fun. I’m determined to get to 100% galactic readiness for this playthrough, so I’ll be playing a bit more of it. I play as a Vanguard in multiplayer, which makes me regret not being one in the single player game this time around. There really is nothing better than Biotic Charge > Nova > shotgun blast to the face (and maybe a melee strike for good measure).

Destiny

Honestly, neither of the terms “MMO” or “FPS” fill me with girlish delight, but the Destiny hype machine was so big that I had to try it. It is a beautiful game, and the combat mechanics are solid. I’m playing as an Awoken Titan – obviously. Purple punchy person > everything else. The first thing I noticed was that my kick-ass Awoken lady was not wearing a sculpted breastplate that would kill her. So, kudos to the design team.

I’d like to add a gorgeous screenshot here but… XBox.

I really enjoyed the first few missions – the combat was fun, Peter Dinklage was talking to me. When I got to my 4th or 5th story mission it all started feeling the same. Also, the story missions are pretty light on story. You pick up grimoires as you progress through the game which give you backstory on the different races, factions, enemies, weapons, etc. However, you can’t access this information in the game. You need to go to the Bungie site, or download the Destiny app on your phone. Seriously. Putting contextual information in the actual game is so passé.

I played with a friend and that made the normal missions more enjoyable, but then we did a strike mission which was terrible. We came up against this bullet sponge spider tank that took way too long to kill and would one-shot me any time I made a mistake. I’m only level 7 so far, so I’ll keep playing to max level, but it looks like it will be just more of the same. Neverending games really aren’t my thing, so I’ll likely finish the story missions, proclaim that I’ve beaten the game and not play again unless under duress (much like I did with Diablo 3).

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes

This is one I’ve been slowly making my way through for a month or two. Though I’ve always considered myself a fan of adventure games, they’ve begun to make me wary as the puzzles often make no fracking sense. Luckily, this is not the case for most of the puzzles in this game. Testament of Sherlock Holmes has an intriguing story, it looks and sounds pretty good, and best of all, the puzzles do not make me want to tear my hair out. The puzzles are logical and make me feel smart when I solve them. There’s no mindlessly trying to combine every object in your inventory here. Holmes is a dick and can be annoyingly loquacious, but he’s a genius so I can tolerate it.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes

Metro 2033

Metro is a game that interested me when it first came out, I just never picked it up. Since it got remastered for the latest gen consoles, I figured I should finally give it a go. I think I’m about halfway through Metro 2033 and I’m enjoying it. Though it bills itself as survival horror, I’d call it more of a straight up FPS. It has some spooky things in it, but it’s really not a horror game. One of the best parts of the game is the atmosphere. While I’m in the metro stations they are bustling; NPCs are talking to each other and reacting to my presence. The environments are wonderfully detailed. In the tunnels and above ground our character reacts to radiation and bad air, has to wipe dirt and blood off his gas mask. For the most part the HUD isn’t visible, so you don’t see health levels and only see ammo quantities while you’re reloading or bring up the weapons menu. The combat is challenging, especially before your weapons are modified and the mutants you fight come from everywhere, so it can get intense.

Pixel Puzzles: Japan

I bought an indie bundle last week because it had Lifeless Planet in it, which I wanted to try. I originally wrote off the other games, but when I actually looked at them, many seemed interesting. Last night I was looking for something I could play while catching up on the week’s Big Brother episodes, and discovered Pixel Puzzles. It’s basically just a collection of digital jigsaw puzzles. The images are all lovely and the pieces float around in a koi pond.
PIxel-Puzzles-Japan

Before I knew it, I had put together 11 puzzles. Pixel Puzzles – all the fun and relaxation of a jigsaw puzzle without the fear your cat will knock all the pieces onto the floor.


What have you been playing lately?

Gamergate

I didn’t want to talk about this topic because I wanted the whole issue to suffocate from lack of attention and die away. However, I find the whole thing so frustrating that I feel the need to write words about it to work through it and try to understand. I wrote a comment on a post about this (one of the few times I’ve weighed in on a public comment section) and the 400 other responses I keep getting emailed by Disqus have given me things to think about and things to rage about. I won’t claim to have read everything there is to read about the issue, it’s just too much shit to wade through. But I’ve read articles from both sides, I’ve read the comments, I’ve read through the GamerGate hashtag for as long as I could stomach it.

On the surface, GamerGate claims to be against biased and corrupt game journalism. Okay, being against bias and corruption seems like a logical thing. So where does the whole thing get so crazy?

Let’s look at some of the specific claims and complaints.

It is a conflict of interest for game journalists to have relationships with game developers. This could mean a writer is friends, or lovers with a game dev. It could mean a writer supports a dev’s work via Patreon. Yes, relationships can create bias. So can things like personal experience and tastes, but that’s beside the point. The important question for me is – what effect do these biases have?

A game writer gives publicity to a friend’s game it might not have gotten otherwise. Why is this something to get upset over? Having connections in an industry will give you more exposure in that industry. This is common sense, not corruption.

How about prominent game writers or developers coming to the defense of someone who is being harassed and attacked? Again, not corruption. This is a rather expected response.

Press and developers being too cozy? People in the same industry, with similar interests, who attend the same events will make friends. Maybe even start relationships. How many people have met a significant other or made friends at work? Why is games journalism a field where this is so taboo?

I think a big part of the problem is that people are taking game journalism way too seriously. They’re trying to impose very strict ethical guidelines in a place where they just don’t make sense. We’re not talking about coverage of politics (although this has gotten very political), or lawmaking, or international relations. We’re talking about video games. Most of game journalism is not news. It’s opinion. A game review is opinion. Social commentary about gaming is opinion. Agree with it, don’t agree with it, then move on with your life. If a journalist writes about a friend’s game and their bias clouds their review, is it the end of the world? No. And there will be 300 other reviews of that game that you could read which would balance their opinion. People have ridiculous expectations. Did gamers really see game journalists as infallible sources of consumer information before? Unless you’re reporting the specs of a new console, we’re not talking about facts. Whether a game is good or bad is not fact. It’s subjective opinion.

The inciting incident for GamerGate was Eron Gjoni writing a 9000 word manifesto on all the terrible things his game developer ex-girlfriend Zoe Quinn had done. Namely, cheating on him with some men who were game journalists. This caused all kinds of outrage and was apparently evidence of how corrupt the industry is. Zoe Quinn had slept her way to coverage and good reviews of her games. The problem was these reviews didn’t exist. One of the journalists had mentioned her game in passing, but it looks like this happened before they had any sexual relationship. What I took away from Gjoni’s post was not that the gaming industry was a vile pit of corruption, but rather that I probably don’t ever want to date Zoe Quinn or Eron Gjoni. What I take away from the shitstorm the post caused is that a lot of people erroneously think that this woman’s sex life is any of their business.

The term misogyny is getting thrown at GamerGate supporters a lot. Are they really upset about corruption in journalism, or are they just using this as an excuse to harass women out of the industry? While I believe that the true misogynists make up a small (though very vocal) minority of the people involved in this, it’s hard to reconcile the people who do not have this intent. Why is Quinn – who is a developer, not a journalist – bearing the brunt of this? If unethical journalism is the true target, why is she the enemy?

I won’t deny the possibility of corruption in any industry that makes money but 98% of the examples of corruption in journalism I’ve seen brought up by GamerGate are about Zoe Quinn. Give me more examples of actual journalists being corrupt. Show me how this has affected people’s lives in real negative ways. Otherwise, it’s pretty easy to write the whole thing off as an excuse to harass people.

Gaming sites are attacking gamers. After the Zoe Quinn “scandal” was brought to light, and after Anita Sarkeesian released a new Tropes vs. Women video, both women were subject to harassment and threats. Soon after this a number of gaming sites published articles with titles along the lines of “Gamers are Over”, which denounced this behaviour and condemned gaming culture as being toxic and entitled. The gamer stereotypes, lonely white males in basements, were presented as being on their way out, and angry because their hobby was evolving while they were not.

First of all, I think inflammatory titles like “Death to Gamers” are unnecessary and do more harm than good. Biting the hands that feed you is also pretty stupid. I identify as a gamer. However, I’m also a reasonable human being. When gamers are decried for being angry, socially inept douchebags, I don’t feel personally attacked. I know they aren’t talking about me. I think that people could be more careful about their language to avoid the appearance that they’re making sweeping generalizations about certain group, if for no other reason than it would not encourage the creation of more stupid hashtags.

Ultimately, this is all semantics. Gamer doesn’t have a set meaning. It means different things to different people. Gamers come from all walks of life, like different games, and have different opinions. Staunch support or opposition to “gamer” culture is silly because it’s not a single, definable thing.

Social Justice Warriors are destroying gaming and game journalism. People criticize the things they love. Suck it up, buttercup.

There are two main complaints here. The first is that gaming journalists are using gaming sites to push radical social justice. People just want to play games and have fun, they don’t want political agendas shoved down their throat. No one wants games to stop being fun. However, many people want to raise concerns about certain issues in games to raise awareness and hopefully encourage games to evolve. If you think reducing the amount of people who are marginalized by games will make them less fun, there’s probably something wrong with you. If this isn’t an interest of yours you don’t have to read these articles. Even in the most left-leaning of gaming sites that I frequent, these articles do not make up the majority of what gets published. There’s plenty of other kinds of articles – straight up reviews, previews, news, interviews. If you don’t want to read someone’s opinion on lack of female characters in the new Assassin’s Creed, no one is forcing you to.

The second type of complaints seems to stem from games like Gone Home getting well reviewed. Apparently, enjoying games that do things differently is a threat to the more traditional games. Or positively reviewing this type of game means you’re corrupt because how could anyone enjoy a “walking simulator”. This one seems almost too silly to respond to. The industry evolving is good. More choices are good. No one is taking your preferred games away.

Game journalists are glorified bloggers and have become irrelevant.

So let me get this straight. Game journalists are just bloggers (which is apparently a pejorative term? ouch). They are irrelevant. So, if they are irrelevant and their opinions carry no weight, why are people so mad about them saying that gamer culture is dead? Who cares what they think? Why do they need to live up to such high ethical standards in order to talk about games? Make up your minds, folks. Either Polygon and Gamespot and Kotaku should be sources of unbiased, unadulterated, objective facts about video games, or they’re irrelevant and their integrity shouldn’t matter.

If you really think that game journalism should no longer have a place in the industry, then stop visiting gaming sites and giving them revenue. Watch YouTube videos, read personal blogs, or get opinions from your friends. Let game journalism die its slow (inevitable, according to many GamerGate supporters) death. That many are opting to harass journalists instead calls the true motivations of GamerGate into question.

Doing it Right: Remember Me

Doing it Right is a feature that looks at games that I think are making positive strides in regard to females and representation in games. While it’s important to call out games when they are sexist and reinforcing negative stereotypes, I think it’s equally important to recognize the games that are succeeding at elevating themselves away from that. 

Remember Me was released by Dontnod Entertainment in June of 2013. It’s an action-adventure game set in future Paris, in a world where memories have become a commodity. A large corporation, Memorize, has developed technology to allow people to upload and share their memories, as well as get rid of the unpleasant ones. This gives the corporation an immense amount of information and power as they have access to everyone’s memories and the ability to erase them. The main character Nilin is a memory hunter who can steal and remix people’s memories and is intent on taking Memorize down.

Remember Me Nilin

Review

Remember Me was not very well received and the reviews were mediocre. To each their own, but I thought the game was very enjoyable. It looks great – it’s really cool to see the familiar Paris landmarks in a futuristic setting. It reminded me a little bit of how Earth is portrayed in The Fifth Element. I appreciated the story because it was something different from the norm. The specifics were kept a mystery for much of the game and you didn’t always know if you were working for the right side, so it kept me intrigued.

Remember Me - Future Paris

The combat was fun, and quite similar to the Arkham series with basic melee attacks, combos, dodging (instead of countering) and a couple ranged abilities to take advantage of. However, unlike the Arkham games, I never felt like the fights were excessively long and hand cramping. Every so often you’d get access to a new special ability which kept a sense of progression throughout the game. You could also create your own combos which gave combat a surprising amount of depth. You could add attacks that regenerated health or reduced the cooldowns on special abilities, allowing you to tailor combat to your enemies or your personal preferences.  Aside from combat there was also a lot of fun, though not particularly challenging, platforming. All of the action was very fluid and slick-looking.

The one part of the game I had the most issues with was the memory remixes. Though this was a very innovative idea, I didn’t think they were executed all that well. It was interesting to watch them, and see how a small alteration could result in a vastly different outcome, but they weren’t that fun to play. The controls were irritating and the solutions were pretty much a guessing game. However, there were only four of these sequences in the game so they didn’t detract too much.

Overall though, I’d definitely recommend the game. Nilin is a great main character with lovely voice acting, and the story will keep you entertained. Some of the dialogue occasionally veers into melodrama, but I found those instances rather fun and campy. I played this on PC and it took about 10 hours to finish. I really recommend playing with a controller rather than mouse & keyboard if you play on PC, the controls are 100x better (if I had played through with the keyboard my rating would have been lower).

Rating: 9/10 – Smooth combat and platforming, a beautiful futuristic setting, and a novel story concept make this game well worth playing. There is the occasional sequence that is less well done, but overall the game is a lot of fun.

Nilin

Remember Me’s protagonist Nilin is one of the most powerful and well-known memory hunters. Before the game begins the authorities had arrested Nilin and attempted to wipe her memory because they feared her and what she could do.

Remember Me Nilin

Nilin is a mixed-race female who stands in stark contrast to the bevy of stoic, white males who usually lead games. While there are actually quite a lot of female protagonists, they are also generally white so it’s refreshing that Dontnod wanted to represent someone else.  The developers know that different can be scary to some consumers, but thought it was important enough to do it anyway.

“…we wanted Nilin to stand out. I think these sort of issues become self-fulfilling prophesies; people saying that only white males sell so then everyone only does white males. If you start believing these things you get your head inside this cold marketing strategy that you cannot get your head around. It becomes a pretty fucking racist and misogynistic way of thinking about lead characters.”
– Jean-Maxime Morris (source
)

Nilin is capable, sarcastic, and compelling. She’s also very human. She has to make a lot of difficult decisions throughout the game, she hurts and manipulates people to achieve her goals and we get to see that Nilin is internally conflicted about many of these actions. When it comes time to act though, she never lacks conviction.

Remember Me has a distinct lack of the male gaze when it comes to Nilin and the other female characters. Nilin is beautiful, but the camera never treats her as a sexual object – there are no gratuitous butt shots in the game.

A World of Women

Remember Me’s future Paris is filled with women characters. The game opens with an image of a woman. And not just a woman, an older woman, a demographic which gets very little representation in games. Though this character is only used to help set the stage for the game world, choosing her face as the first one we see makes me feel like the developers aren’t afraid to do something different.

Remember Me Memorize ad

Women play many of the most important roles in the game and they are all powerful, smart women with their own motivations. Women get to be both the protagonists and the antagonists.

Besides Nilin, we also get Astrid Voorhees, the power-hungry and sadistic governor of La Bastille prison, who delights in wiping the memories of her prisoners. She respects Nilin’s power, but also considers it a challenge to overcome.

Scylla Cartier-Wells is the president of Memorize and built it up to become the most powerful corporation in the world. Though brilliant, she’s also bitter due to events of the past and approaches the business of memories without thinking about who is being hurt.

Remember Me - Scylla Cartier-Wells

These are strong, independent women who are real characters. They have their own backstories and goals.

Even the characters who are more minor still get fleshed out and we learn something about them. Olga Sedova is a feared bounty hunter trying to make money to save her sick husband and one of the only opponents that manages to give Nilin a real challenge. Alexia Forlan is in the midst of leaving her husband because she doesn’t want to be his trophy wife anymore when Nilin comes into their lives. Kaori Sheridan is one of Paris’ most brilliant architects and holds the secrets to gaining entry into the most secure places.

It’s very clear that in the future world of Remember Me there are a lot of women in the most powerful and respected jobs.

Overall

In addition to being a fun game with a cool story, I found Remember Me to be a very positive experience from a feminist perspective. Nilin was presented as a strong, capable woman, but not a perfect one. I think that showing game protagonists as complex and nuanced characters is a great thing, not just from a feminist standpoint but also from a writing standpoint. Most people aren’t all good or bad, most people aren’t 100% confident they’re doing the right thing all the time. Creating more characters like these in video games will take games to a much deeper and powerful place. Aside from Nilin, Remember Me was full of female characters who had their own stories and were often leaders in their fields. It’s really nice to see a big budget game where females fill so many of the roles and none of them are being exploited.

Dontnod has just announced they are working on a new title – Life is Strange – with Square Enix. It looks like another game that will be full of interesting female characters and I’ll be following it closely.

A History of Control(lers)

Video game controllers are something I have a lot of strong feelings about. When a game has a multi-console release, I don’t care too much about framerates or 720p vs. 1080p. Exclusive content usually doesn’t sell me on one or the other. But the controller – how comfortable it feels in my hands, and how intuitive playing the game will be – that’s important to me.

So today, I’d like to go through a (completely biased) history and review of all the console controllers that have been a part of my gaming life.

NES (1985)

I remember the good old days. Days when controllers were simple. When ergonomics was a term I had never heard. When I didn’t spend all day in front of a computer with my hands on a keyboard and need to worry about repetitive strain injuries. I was 7, and holding a blocky NES controller was second nature to me.

NES controller

Looking back, it’s not a pretty controller. And it’s definitely not a comfortable controller to hold. But it did its job for me at the time, and having only 2 buttons was good enough for the games of that era. Of course, I’m not 7 anymore and my hands are no longer child-sized. Games have also become much more complex. Luckily, controllers evolved.

Sega Genesis (1988)

The Sega Genesis was released in North America three years after the NES and it introduced a much nicer controller.

With the jump to a 16-bit CPU, Sega introduced a controller with a third button. Though the positioning of the buttons was a bit odd, the extra button was nice (and a few years later they introduced a 6-button version). The D-Pad allowed you to push in 8 directions. The shape of the controller was a huge improvement and much more comfortable to hold.

SNES (1991)

Nintendo entered the 16-bit era with the SNES.

Super Nintendo Entertainment System controller

The biggest improvement over the NES controller was the introduction of more buttons. X and Y were added and the diagonal placement of the buttons really worked and became a mainstay for most future controllers. Left and right shoulder buttons were also introduced, bringing the button count up to six. The D-Pad remained pretty much the same and though they added some curves, the way you held the controller didn’t change much.

Playstation (1995)

Sony entered the console wars with the 32-bit PlayStation.

Original PlayStation controller

This is console the one that spawned my love of RPGs. It’s also the one that added the phrase “No, I don’t want to come outside, I’m playing video games” to my daily vocabulary. The PS controller was an absolute joy to use after so many years of Nintendo bricks. PS added another pair of shoulder buttons (L2/R2), but other than that the button configuration was pretty much the same as the SNES. The the four face buttons were labelled with shapes/colours, likely so they weren’t directly ripping off Nintendo. The grip handles were the big selling feature for me, and (thankfully) soon every major console controller would have them.

N64 (1996)

Nintendo, not to be outdone by Sony, released the 64-bit N64 a year later. It was a more powerful machine but still relied on expensive, limited-capacity cartridges rather than moving to CD-ROMs. In terms of sales, the N64 was hugely outperformed by the PlayStation.

Nintendo 64 controller

Here is where the slow descent into madness starts. The N64 controller was odd in that there were a couple different ways you could grip it. It could be held in the traditional way, with the left and right grips – meaning you had to use the D-Pad, and would not be able to reach the analog stick or the trigger (Z-button) underneath. Well, actually you could reach those, but it wasn’t comfortable. I don’t even want to tell you how I held this controller for my first few months of playing Goldeneye. The other option was to hold the center grip and right grip – this way you could use the analog stick and trigger, but couldn’t use the D-Pad or left shoulder button. Not being able to easily reach every button on a controller was a very strange design decision. Nintendo also recreated the wheel by dropping the X and Y buttons and replacing them with 4 smaller C-buttons.

In 1997 the Rumble Pak was released, making the N64 controller the first one that could vibrate in response to in-game events. The Rumble Pak was a separate peripheral that got plugged into the memory slot on the controller.

PlayStation DualShock (1998)

It didn’t come with a new console, but Sony released an even better PS controller a couple of years later.

Playstation Dual Shock controller

In 1998, the DualShock controller was released for the PlayStation, which added a number of new features. Most obvious were the two analog sticks, which gave gamers a choice between the D-Pad or the stick for movement, and opened up the door for camera control using the right stick. You could also press the analog sticks down, giving two more buttons to play with (L3/R3). Sony one-upped Nintendo’s Rumble Pak by adding internal vibration motors. The DualShock’s rumblings were far superior to the Rumble Pak’s loud and jarring gyrations.

PlayStation 2 (2000)

Oh PS2, how I loved you. What a great console with an amazing library of games. And that backwards compatibility… It’s the best-selling console of all time for a reason.

PlayStation 2 - DualShock 2 controller

Functionally and aesthetically, the DualShock 2 was not much different from the DualShock 1. Kudos to Sony for not messing with a good thing.

XBox (2001)

In 2001 Microsoft began their journey into the console market with the XBox.
Microsoft XBox controller
The original XBox controller was a hulking beast. I don’t even think that people with large hands liked it much, as even though it had a huge surface area, the buttons were inexplicably squished together. For me, Microsoft’s best design choice was swapping the positions of the D-Pad and left stick, which made everything feel much more balanced. The XBox controller had nice solid feeling trigger buttons, and also added two small black and white buttons (which I honestly can’t even remember a use for).

Nintendo GameCube (2001)

After the N64, which had some great games but lackluster sales, Nintendo released the GameCube, hoping to turn things around. Unfortunately, the sales were still dwarfed by the PS2.

Nintendo GameCube controller

The GameCube controller was quite different from the N64’s. They got rid of the middle grip, which was good. However, they also completely reconfigured the buttons again. Now we were back to 4 buttons (A, B, X, Y) on the controller face, which had 3 different shapes. There was a left and right Trigger, and the Z-button got moved above the right Trigger and changed into a shoulder button. There was no corresponding shoulder button on the left side. Like the XBox, the GameCube controller put the left stick above the D-Pad. I think the GameCube controller is funny looking, but it’s actually my favourite offering from Nintendo.

XBox Controller S (2002)

The next year Microsoft released a more reasonably sized controller for the Xbox, which became the standard.

Microsoft XBox controller

The A, B, X, Y buttons were moved into more standard positions with better spacing, though Start and Back got moved got moved to the left side because giant logo placement is clearly most important. It wasn’t quite there yet, but Microsoft was well on its way to creating a very good thing.

XBox 360 (2005)

Microsoft got a head start on the 7th console generation by releasing the 360 a scant four years after the original XBox.

XBox 360 wireless controller

And here it is. The XBox 360 wireless controller – the pinnacle of gamepad design. I love everything about this controller – the shape, the weight of it in my hands, the perfect placement of every button, trigger and stick in relation to my fingers. It’s sleek and smooth, the black and white buttons from the original XBox controller were removed and replaced with left and right bumpers. The center Guide button was added to turn the console or controllers on and off, or access the 360’s menu. If I could use this controller on every console I’d be a happy girl.

Of course, the problem the best controller being released in 2005 is that the future designs just feel inferior (some more than others).

 PlayStation 3 (2006)

Sony came out with two controller for the PS3 – the Sixaxis and the DualShock 3. However, they’re almost identical so I’ll address them both at once.

Sony PS3 Sixaxis control

Sony seemed to like the design of the DualShock, so the appearance of PS3’s DualShock 3 and Sixaxis controllers was very similar. The Analog button was removed, and a PS button (which functioned much like the 360’s Guide button) added. These controllers also used motion sensing technology to experiment with motion controls. Heavy Rain was the only game I played on the PS3 that used this (actually, it was the only game I ever finished on the PS3, period) and the motion controls weren’t as obnoxious as I expected.

Wii (2006)

The Wii was the last of the 7th generation of consoles, and with its release came the realization that I was definitely not Nintendo’s target audience anymore.

Nintendo Wiimote and nunchuk

Nintendo went off the motion control deep end with the Wii Remote. The Wii Remote is long and skinny, designed to be used with one hand and pointed at the motion sensor. The labelling of the buttons was completely changed – again. Now there was a 1 and 2 where A and B would usually be. A was now a big button near the D-Pad, while B was a trigger on the underside of the remote. Start and Select were now + and -. Some games used the Wii Remote on its own, while others added the nunchuck which gave players an analog stick for movement and a C trigger button. I guess using completely awkward controls and flailing around could be fun if you’re: a) a child, b) playing Wii Sports with a group of people, c) drunk, but otherwise these controllers are total bullshit.

Wiimote horizontal grip

Some games let you hold the Wii Remote horizontally… I have nothing nice to say about this.

Wii Classic Controller

If you hated the Wii Remote, Nintendo also sold the Classic Controller (along with about 90 other accessories). With the exception of the analog sticks, the Classic Controller has a very similar design and shape as an SNES controller. Because of all the controllers you could replicate, why not copy the one released in 1991? Attach the cord to the bottom instead of the top just to show what a special snowflake you are as well.

Wii U (2012)

The Wii U was marketed terribly, and sold accordingly (though it seems to be improving now). As someone who pretty much stopped paying attention to Nintendo after the Wii, I was under the impression that the Wii U Gamepad was the new system, rather than the controller for a long time. Sigh. Nintendo, why don’t you want me to love you? (I could probably write a whole post on this).

Wii U gamepad

The Wii U Gamepad is huge. Like a handheld console, except even bigger. The thing that drives me crazy about many Nintendo controllers (well, one of the things) is that no matter how big the device gets – whether it’s the Wii U Gamepad or the 3DS XL – the controls stay child-sized. The D-Pad is small, the buttons are tiny and close together. My hands aren’t even large, but I pick up a DS and think “wow, this definitely was not designed to be held by me”.

The one cool thing about the Gamepad is that you can use it like a handheld and play in bed or something while the console is in the other room (you do have to get up to put the disc in though). However, playing with this monstrosity when you’re sitting in front of the TV the Wii U is connected to is so completely unappealing. It just isn’t at all comfortable to hold. The touchpad is used to as a 2nd screen to supplement gameplay in a lot of games. That can include things like displaying the track map in Mario Kart 8 (a feature which does not offend me), or having to blow into the microphone or rub the screen to reveal secrets in Super Mario 3D World (a feature which is fucking obnoxious).

Wii U Pro Controller

Thank goodness Nintendo had the sense to release a proper controller for the Wii U, because if I had to use the Gamepad or a Wiimote I would never touch the thing (which would be a shame, because Mario and Donkey Kong are fun). The Pro Controller looks like a rip-off of the 360 controller. I don’t know how Microsoft feels about this, but I think this was an excellent design decision. For some reason they’ve swapped the positions of the right stick and A/B/X/Y buttons, which makes this controller more awkward than it needs to be, but it’s still 100x better than the other options for the Wii U.

PlayStation 4 (2013)

The PlayStation 4 is currently the most powerful console. Apparently, with great power comes great responsibility… and the need to “improve” on an already very good controller.

PlayStation 4 DualShock 4

The DualShock 4 is pretty similar to the DualShock 3, but made a few changes. The grips are wider apart and the Start/Select (now Options and Share) have been moved to the top in order to make room for an gratuitously large touch pad. In games like Tomb Raider and Murdered: Soul Suspect, the touch pad is used open the game menu or map which is okay by me, even though it’s too big for this to be the main function. However, a game like Infamous: Second Son makes you swipe the touchpad to perform certain actions, which feels totally unnecessary. They also added a large light bar along the top edge of the controller. Apparently it’s used for player identification, though the light will often change colours based on things happening in the games. Generally the bar glows a really bright blue, so if you’re playing in the dark don’t tip the controller up if you don’t want to be blinded.

The speaker added to the controller is kind of cool, and the motion sense is still there, but has been used sparingly in most games I’ve played.

XBox One (2013)

The XBox One is the most recent major console release.

XBox One controllerMost of the development for this controller was focused on refinement, while the design was left relatively the same. The textures of the analog sticks have changed and gotten a little smaller. The Start and Back buttons were relabeled. The biggest improvements are on the bumpers and triggers – they feel really nice, solid, and responsive now. The Guide button now glows white instead of a muted green. I’m not sure what it is about the latest generation and making the controllers glow so brightly – isn’t the glow from the tv enough? I don’t find the XBox One controller quite as comfortable to hold as the 360’s, but it’s pretty close.

Top 5

Here’s the TLDR version of what I’d rate the best major console controllers from 1985 onwards.

  1. XBox 360
  2. PS DualShock 2
  3. XBox One
  4. Nintendo GameCube
  5. PS DualShock 4

And the worst? Pretty much everything else from Nintendo, with the Wii Remote taking home the award of “controller I’d most like to throw in a fire.”

What do you think? What are the best and worst console controllers?

Two Telltale Tales

I’ve been playing through Telltale’s A Wolf Among Us, since the first episode was released last fall. After my great experience with The Walking Dead, I was ready to continue my ride on the Telltale train.

A Wolf Among Us is a gorgeous game with the same, heavily-outlined, cell-shaded art as TWD. But it also has some of its own style, with an atmosphere that looks like a cross between Heavy Rain and Vice City. The story (based on the graphic novels Fables), what I’ve seen of it so far, is good. It’s filled with interesting characters and situations. I love the premise of having fairy tale characters living, in secret, in the real world.

The game is usually referred to as an adventure game but in reality it’s more of an interactive story, with quick time events. Ninety percent of the game requires no interaction at all; it’s mostly watching characters interact with each other. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, as the characters are very watchable and the writing is well done. When you do actually get to play the game, it mostly involves walking through a room and examining things, or making dialogue choices (plus the quick time events whenever you end up fighting someone). Really, the formula is identical to TWD. Heavy on narrative, light on game play.

So I’m left wondering… why did I love The Walking Dead, while my experience so far with A Wolf Among Us is only mediocre?

I think part of the problem is the episodic nature of the games. TWD fit into episodes very well. Though they were all part of the larger story about Lee and Clementine, each episode had a logical endpoint which wrapped up the smaller narrative. Episode 1 was about the characters dealing with the initial zombie outbreak and finding a safe (for now) place to stay. Episode 2 dealt with finding another group of survivors on a farm, etc. Episode 4 was the only one that ended with a real cliff-hanger, something that wasn’t wrapped up within the episode. Wolf, on the other hand, is not so neatly broken up. There are no smaller stories; it’s all about Bigby searching for a serial killer within Fabletown. So when an episode ends, I don’t feel as if I’ve really completed anything, I just feel frustrated that I’ll have to wait another 3 months to get the next part of the story.

Time between episodes is also a big problem. Whereas I didn’t start playing TWD until 4 episodes were already out, I’ve been playing Wolf as it’s released. With TWD I felt like a got a solid 8 hour game, followed by a short wait for the finale, while with Wolf the ratio of game time (episodes take about 90 minutes to finish) to waiting time seems insane. My interest level has gone down with each episode.

There’s also a problem with the characters. The Wolf story and characters aren’t gripping me like they should. This is odd, as the atmosphere and story of Wolf are way more appealing to me than TWD on a surface level. But for some reason it’s not grabbing me. With Lee in TWD I felt very close to his character – decisions he (I) made had an effect on me, and how the rest of the characters saw him was important. With Bigby, I’m just an observer. Whether the other characters respect the tactics he uses to get what he needs doesn’t really matter to me, I just want him to solve the mystery. TWD’s decisions felt like moral decisions. Wolf’s feel somewhat less than – is it really immoral for a wolf to rip out someone’s throat? TWD, for me, was a role-playing game. Wolf is a story, and one I could get through much faster if I just read the graphic novels.

Another aspect that makes Wolf feel more like a story than a game to me is that I’m not finding any of the decisions I make or conversations paths I choose make much of a difference. I know that in TWD the ending was set – your decisions didn’t change what ultimately happened; only who was with you in the end, but regardless of that, the choices felt important. I wanted to make decisions that would make Clem strong, so she would survive (side-note: having a child character so prominently featured in the game who I wanted to save rather than knock off was quite a writing feat). I wanted the other characters in my party to trust me. I wanted to save as many people as possible. In Wolf, I don’t feel any of these things. When the text pops up “Toad will remember that,” I think “so?” he’s going to give me the information I need whether or not I backed him up in the previous chapter. Choosing to visit one location over another makes me think I’m going to miss a small scene, but I don’t think it’s impacting the outcome in any meaningful way.

Even the quick time events aren’t as exciting to me. In TWD I was afraid that being slow meant that I (or someone else) would get eaten by a zombie. Wolf’s combat is much more prolonged and there’s a lot of spamming of the A button, which often doesn’t even feel like it’s doing anything. You also need to fail a number of actions before you face any consequence (i.e. death).

To make a long story short (too late), I’m disappointed. TWD was one of my best gaming experiences last year, I got totally immersed in it, and the end left me choking back sobs for a good 10 minutes. Wolf just isn’t doing it for me. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I’ll finish the game – hopefully the final chapter will elevate my experience a bit since there will be some closure and no more waiting. Chapter 4 is out next week, so I’ll let you know if it changes my opinion at all.

Have you played both of these games? What do you think?

Footnote: As a life-long inverter of y-axes, I’d really appreciate the ability to do this in future Telltale games. My quick-time responses could be much quicker.

Moebius: Empire Rising

Moebius: Empire Rising is the newest game from Jane Jenson, creator of the classic adventure game series, Gabriel Knight – one of my favourites. The game released on April 15th after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

As I backed this game on Kickstarter, I obviously really wanted to like it. Sadly… I didn’t.

In Moebius, you play Malachi Rector, a brilliant antiques appraiser whose social skills are lacking. Malachi is hired by a mysterious organization to do a mysterious job which takes him all over the world. As you get deeper into the story (minor spoilers alert) you find out what you’re actually doing. The group Malachi is working for believes in a “Moebius pattern” where the lives of people in history are being repeated in the present. They hire Malachi to find key historical figures who could bring about an era of stability and prosperity. Basically. Summarizing the plot to this game in a coherent manner was harder than expected.

The game does have some good things going for it. I did find the game occasionally enjoyable, especially at the beginning. The dialogue was decent, as was most of the voice acting. The background images were pretty and the music was good – very evocative of Gabriel Knight. There were also some unique kinds of puzzles. As your main objective in the game was to relate people to historical figures, one of the main puzzle types was matching up their characteristics. This was both interesting and educational, though once I had done it a couple of times, I figured out that just guessing was often quicker than reading though all the information.

My favourite feature of the game was a button that highlights all objects on the screen that could be interacted with. While using this could be considered easy-mode, I found it incredibly useful. Pixel-hunting for objects is not something I’m interested in doing, and this was totally prevented.

There were a few things that started out as positives, but turned into negatives. Adventure games are often far out there in terms of reality and physics. Adventurers often walk around with shovels, coffee tables and iron statues in their overcoats. Where do they put them? In this game, the protagonist often refused to pick things up until he saw a need for them. At first, I applauded that. Why would you walk around with a can of motor oil? But after a while, it got very frustrating. For example, at one point I needed to get into the VIP tent at a political rally. In order to lift a pass off someone I needed to go back to my apartment to pick up an mp3 player I hadn’t been able to pick up earlier. Once I used that to bribe someone to be a distraction I needed to go back to the apartment again to pick up some scissors. When I successfully stole the pass and had to go back to my office to get some superglue that I also was unable to pick up before. Then back to the rally to get into the tent. That’s a lot of back and forth that could have been avoided. Not picking up every single item in sight makes sense, but as it turns out, that kind of realism in video games is not a great idea. “How irritating” Malachi remarks. Tell me about it.

Items and inventory use wasn’t all bad though. I enjoyed that you were never overloaded with items and there weren’t any nonsensical item combination puzzles. No cat fur mustaches in this game.

Some of the puzzles fell flat. Malachi was able to analyze people to learn more about them. Sounds like a neat idea, but in practice it mostly involved guesswork and the process of eliminating the most ridiculous options.

The most unforgivable part of the game was an excruciating 50+ screen underground maze at the end. There’s only something to do/interact with on maybe 5 of the screens. The rest is just running through dark tunnels. Considering how the rest of the locations in the game (like France, Egypt, New York) have only a handful of screens, dedicating so many to this awful, dismal, repetitive place is almost insulting. Who could have possibly thought this was a good idea?

Moebius runs about 8 hours long. Though there were parts of the game I enjoyed and I’m glad I finished it (other than that awful maze), it was disappointing overall. The story was so-so, the characters were a bit flat and some of the animation work was downright bad. The game lacked the charm and historical detail of Gabriel Knight and really did nothing to advance the dying (dead?) point-and-click adventure genre, or even replicate it at its height.

Hopefully the other game projects I’ve backed (Tesla Effect – May 7!) will deliver more bang for my buck.