Category: opinion

Left 4 Dead Review and Reflections

Through Valve’s SourceU program that the class I’m teaching tells I’m lucky enough to have gotten Left 4 Dead for free and I’ve been playing the heck out of it. It is a really fun game. The AI Director (or is it Director AI? I’ve seen both) might be a sign of things to come if it can be adapted to other games. Basically it means that the era of enemies being in the same place every time you play the game is over. The AI Director decides when, where, and how many enemies appear in the game so that “It’s never the same game twice.” If they put this into Half-Life 2 Ep 3 then it could be really awesome.

That isn’t to say that the game is perfect, however. From a design point of view tey made some interesting choices. I’m tempted to say that it suffers from “console-itis” but I’m not entirely sure that is the case. The first and most noticeable thing is the matchmaking system. It is braindead. They don’t let you pick your own server unless you use a console command. Is it some attempt to make people friend each other so that the Steam friends system has tons of people using it? Is it some plot that Valve can build up their friends database as a selling feature to get other game developers to use Steam features?

There’s also the fact that even if you get together with your friends you still can’t pick your own server. There’s not even any way that I’ve seen to pick a local server only. They also don’t represent your ping as a number but rather as cell-phone reception-like bars.

Once you get into the game there are also some interesting design choices. They worked really hard to make people play cooperatively and engineered in ways to encourage that. When you reload your character shouts out “I’m reloading.” When you heal your characters yells out “Cover me. I’m healing.” Valve started this with TF2 where players would automatically thank the medic for healing them and this brought it to a new level by these kinds of things as well as having your character say things like they are hurting or that they hear a zombie near and goes so far as to having characters say things that are purely character-related such as having Francis the banker comment on how he hates things such as tunnels, vans, and airports. This is quite a difference from the silent Gordon Freeman.

I’ve talked about the meaning of “cinematic” before and this game is one of the first that I think really does make things explicitly cinematice. Each of the four chapters has a movie-style poster that appears on the screen as the level loads and even have witty tag lines. Then the actual beginning of the level has an overhead shot that zooms back that is not only cinematic but serves to give a short overview of what the player is in for. The final level at the airplane is especially film-life in that it shows a smoking plane going overhead and eventually crashing in the distance as a start of the level. This film metaphor is carried through to when you finish the mission by having the scrolling film credits serve as a way of showing player stats. If a player doesn’t make it to the end of the mission the credits begin with “In memory” of that player. The credits end with a nod to credits for films featuring animals by stating “X number of zombies were killed in the making of this film” which cleverly serves as a way of telling you how many zombies you killed in the game.

One final thing which Valve did in both this game as well as Team Fortress 2 was to nail down everything. On of the aspects of Half-Life 2 that got a lot of attention and hype was the physics and that you could pick things up and do things with them. Half-Life 2 DM was all about throwing toilets and cast iron radiators. In both Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2 everything is nailed down. You can move very few objects. On some TF2 levels there are barrels you can break but they seem to have no impact on gameplay. In L4D there are very few things you can move. While I can understand why they did that – it opens up potentials for griefing and exploits – I wish they hadn’t done it. It places restrictions on gameplay and it disrupts the believability of the world when kitchen chairs are immovable objects.

There are more interesting game design choices in the game but these are some of the ones that I didn’t see mentioned elsewhere and that really jumped out at me. As time passes it will, as I alluded to earlier, be interesting to see how this game influences subsequent Valve games.

*Shock* Craig Anderson Publishes a Paper on Media Causing Agression!?! *Shock*

A study was published in the journal Pediatrics that got a lot of press this week. Among lots of places it appeared on CNN.com with the title, “Violent Video Games Linked to Child Aggression“.

Even before I read the story I suspected that Craig Anderson was involved. Anderson has never done a study where he didn’t find that something caused aggression. He sees aggression everywhere. Now I’ve read an interview or two with him and he sounds reasonable. He certainly doesn’t seem as if he wants to go all Jack Thompson or anything.

The problem with this Anderson’s work? At least in the papers of his that I have read (and as seems to be common in certain academic fields his name gets attached as coauthor on a lot of papers so it is hard to read all of them) he never offers a clear definition of “aggression.” This article is no exception.

In one paragraph the authors write,”‘Aggression’ also is defined differently by behavioral scientists than by the general public. Social and developmental psychologists typically define ‘aggression’ as behavior that is intended to harm another person who is motivated to avoid that harm. In other words, aggression is an act conducted by 1 person with the intent of hurting another person; it is not an emotion, thought, or intention.” (page e1068)

However, in the next paragraph they contradict the statement that agression “is not an emotion, thought, or intention” when they state, “Existing experimental studies demonstrate that playing a violent video game causes an immediate increase in aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive emotions.” (page e1068)

So does “aggression” include thoughts or emotions or not?

Regardless, both the Japanese and the USA groups involved self-reporting of “aggression” which puts the results in doubt and there’s no information on why the participants in each group were chosen (the Japanese group was actually data from another study) so there’s no way of knowing if games make kids more aggressive or if aggressive kids play more games.

Finally, the study was funded in part by the National Institute on Media and the Family (page e1070) which also calls the results into question since they are an outspoken group about the evils of videogames.

So what does this study show? I’m not a psychologist but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t show much of anything.

Are all MMORPGs the same?

I’ve only really spend any amount of time playing two MMORPGs: City of Heroes and now Lord of the Rings Online. I did play Anarchy Online for like 5 minutes when they first went free and everyone there was also playing for the first time and none of us could figure out where to go so I uninstalled it. I never paid for any MMORPG. City of Heroes had a free trial in a magazine and has given me free weekends 3-4 times a year ever since and I got a 7 day trial with Lord of the Rings Online. So I haven’t had all that much experience with MMORPGs.

However, I’ve come to a conclusion: Even though City of Heroes and Lord of the Rings Online are allegedly different backdrops (superheroes and magic and elves) they are the same game. I kind of realized this when I noticed that my technoblaster and my dwarf hunter were both basically the same. They both shoot the bad guys from a distance. I also tend to not play with other people and just play to get new powers and armor. They are both just about running around, killing stuff, trying to complete objectives and are all about stat and abilities.

So what makes one MMORPG better than others? What is the difference? Is it just setting? Is it all a matter of style?

One of these days I’ll get around to playing World of Warcraft and maybe I’ll figure out what makes it so great…

Videogame Ethnography class

I thought I would give an update on the videogame ethnography class I’m teaching:

The class I’m teaching on videogames is going quite well. The discussions are pretty good but could of course always be better. I’m a bit concerned that I’m not emphasizing the ethnography aspect enough though.

Gameplay-wise I have been moving them from single player Half-Life 2 to the eventual goal of Team Fortress 2 with various digressions along the way. Because not all students are videogame experts I’ve gone slow, trying to make sure that they can get used to the controls before I throw them to the wolves. Balancing playing time with enough time to discuss the readings is difficult. I can’t really ask them to play the games on their own time since some don’t have computers at home good enough to play the games. I’m thinking about holding a mini-LAN party to simulate the real thing.

Authenticity in games — coverville?

A few years ago I saw Molly Hatchet play at a county fair. It was only after I got home that I went online and found out that at the time there were no original members left in the band. So the band that I saw — which spent at least the first set playing songs from their new album — had little or nothing to do with the band that wrote Flirtin’ With Disaster. In essence, they were a cover band. So could I actually say that I saw the “real” Molly Hatchet?

I’m wondering how or in what way authenticity applies for videogames. Is there a notion for an “authentic” Mario game? Is there anyone working on Mario besides Miyamoto who worked on the first Super Mario Bros? Does that matter? Is there anyone who would say, “Well, Madden 2009 isn’t a ‘real’ Madden game because no one involved with the original game made this one?” Would that even make sense?

Similarly, is there a such thing as a “cover” of a game or is “remake” the same thing as a cover?

It does seem as if the one place where authenticity is taken into account by videogame fans is when it comes to emulation. If the game doesn’t have perfect emulation then it does feel as if it isn’t “really” the original game. I know that in some version of Tetris I’ve played if you can’t move the piece over one spot just when it lands then it doesn’t feel right.

Big Lots > Gamestop

I’m a lover of Big Lots which, despite its slogan, “Brand Name. Closeout Prices.” basically sells crap that other stores couldn’t sell. One of my most prized possessions is a can of Steven Segal Energy Drink that I got for 50¢.

I am moving so I need to make sure that all the lightbulbs in my old apartment work so that I don’t get charged for them. I figured that Big Lots would be a good place for cheap highly inefficient light bulbs. Well, I didn’t find light bulbs but I did find some sweet computer games. I got City of Villains for $4 and some random FPS game for $4 too. I also got the Species Trilogy for $7.

Gamestop and EB Games are dead to me. Big Lots is my videogame store now.

Spore is the new Black & White

I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t really get Spore but I have serious doubts as to whether or not this game is going to be any good. I fell fo rthe hype with Black & White but it was a better idea than a game. I’m not making the same mistake twice. I’m guessing that Spore is a better idea than game. I guess it will appeal to the same people who like the Sims but don’t see what is so great about it.

Once you create your creature then what? You set it loose and…? That is not my idea of a good time, baby…

There are different kinds of mods. Do we need more precise terms?

There are mods and then there are mods. Sure the general definition, say the wikipedia one, of the term mod fits a lot of them out there. Whether it is something like Counter-Strike which started off as a mod and introduces new gameplay styles or something like Minerva which is a single player mod for Half-Life 2 that could fairly easily fit into the world of Half-Life. Then there are unofficial patches like those for Vampire The Masquerade – Bloodlines. One one hand we have the creation of new content and on the other we have the fixing of content.

Recently, however, I ran into something that is somewhere in between. I bought Resident Evil 4 for PC a few months ago but only started playing it recently. I took so long to play it because I had heard that it was an inferior port from the console versions. However, then I ran across a website for Resident Evil 4 mods.

Now they call them mods but are they really? What I downloaded was a texture pack with textures from the Gamecube version but also a few newly made textures. Is it fixing the game like an unofficial patch? Is it creating new content? I don’t know.

I’m also curious as to why they go to this trouble. I’m glad they do so I can get a better experience playing the game but I’m just not sure what is in it for them?

I would write some more about it but I’ve got to go play some more…