A Call of Duty edition of Newsweek?

I was in the grocery store Monday and decided I would check out the magazine rack. I was surprised to see a magazine devoted to Call of Duty with the Newsweek logo on it:


While there have been special issues of magazines for specific videogames before and whenever someone famous dies it seems like there are special “tribute to X Collector’s Edition” magazines on the stands just days later, it seems weird that Newsweek would be the one to have their name attached to this. Of course, because I love gaming magazines I had to buy it, so I guess the combination worked.

blogroll updated

As promised  I’ve updated the blogroll over on the right. I would have done it earlier but I got caught up in rolling around in all that darpa money that digra gets in their think tank which employs tons of people…

blogroll pruned

I’ve deleted some of the links in the blogroll over in the sidebar.As someone who is having a hard time finding a job, I can’t blame some of the people if they have left academic game studies since I might have to be doing it myself (of course it seems more like academia leaving me than me leaving academia…) Regardless, it did hurt to delete some of those links but if they haven’t updated since 2012 I have to assume the site isn’t being updated any more. I’ll be adding some new links in the days ahead.


Analog keyboards and rumble mice

Back in December I got a PS3 for the first time and more recently I’ve been working on a side project that involves looking at a bunch of gaming stuff from the 90s. Recently these two interests have combined in a way that made me think about the lack of progress in the way pc games are played. Ever since the Atari 5200 came out with a different controller than the Atari 2600 it has become common for console controllers to change with each new console. Most of the time the new controllers don’t just look different but they add in new/different features. Some of those features then go on to become more or less universally adopted.

This really isn’t the case with pc gaming. Aside from incremental improvements such as using a laser instead of a ball in a mouse, the mouse and keyboard for the earliest computers isn’t really all that different than modern ones. Sure, mechanical switches are the hot thing now but those are really just coming back. No matter how many leds and lcd screens they add to a keyboard or mouse it is still basically the same and doesn’t really change your gaming experience.

There was a time, however, when there was more experimentation on pc controllers. There were controllers that basically tried to make the keyboard more comfortable like The Claw, the Wolfking Warrior, the Z-board which offered replaceable keyboards for a specific game, or the Razer Orbweaver and similar products but all of these are just putting buttons in the different spots.

My research reminded me of one controller that tried to have analog movement: the Spaceorb 360.

Spaceorb 360

I remember when this came out and while it seemed like a cool idea, I never saw one in person. Unsurprisingly it failed because it was weird looking. (a somewhat similar looking controller was the Microsoft Sidewinder Dual Strike but it used the ball thing to look and not move like the Spaceorb). Apparently the Spaceorb has its fans since someone made an Arduino interface to make it work with modern versions of Windows. The thing that is appealing about the Spaceorb is something I’ve wanted in pc games for a long time: variable speed. How nice would it be in a FPS to be able to easily be able to control how fast you move? Here’s what I want: analog keys on a keyboard. Maybe just for WASD or whatever but imagine keys that would work like triggers on a controller where you could push them down a little to go slowly and all the way to run. I know it might make the clicky keys weird but surely they could just put in a potentiometer or something on the keys to measure how far down the keys were pressed without making them feel different.

Running across the Spaceorb reminded me of the other old control device that never took off but seemed really cool: the rumble mouse. Logitech released a couple different kinds of these over the years. The first was the Logitech Wingman Force Feedback Mouse. Check out the video of how this thing works:

Maybe it is just me but it seems like it would be pretty cool to have a mouse that could do that. Unfortunately, to make it work the mouse was apparently attached to the pad which meant you couldn’t really move it very far.

The other line of force feedback mice Logitech came out with was the iFeel mice which looked like regular mice. I never used either of these but I would imagine that the iFeel didn’t have as much movement as the Wingman because it wasn’t attached to a mouse pad. It was, however, apparently useful outside of gaming as it could be used to rumble when you moved the mouse over a link, a window border, or something else. That seems like it would be kind of neat and could come in handy when trying to move your mouse to just the right spot to resize a window or move a text box border. Unfortunately, like the Spaceorb, the rumble mouse also failed to catch on.

However, it has been more than a decade since the rumble mouse was released and nearly twenty years since the analog controller so I think it is time for someone to try these ideas again. Come on Razer or Das Keyboard and give me a keyboard with analog keys and a rumble mouse! (seriously, give me one because I’m poor and couldn’t afford to buy them if they came out).

Wolfenstein: The New Order Review

One of the weird things about Wolfenstein: The New Order is that apparently it is a sequel to Return to Castle Wolfenstein and 2009’s Wolfenstein (which I didn’t even know existed. and seems to be out of print since even used copies are going for over $70 and I can’t find it digitally distributed anywhere). Since this game takes place in an alternate timeline, it seems strange that they would make it in continuity with these other games (if that is the case). Even if it is a sequel, there’s nothing in it that marks it as such and the game is a pretty fun experience with a few other weird things thrown in along the way.

Most of the weird things about the game are elements that it carries over from the original Wolfenstein 3D such as the ability to eat dog food to gain back health and the collecting of hidden gold which doesn’t seem to really have any impact on anything as far as I can tell. These overtly game-y elements clash with this story which goes to some length to show the cruelties of war in general and the Nazis in particular (spoilers: the Nazis were not nice.)

That ludonarrative dissonance extends to things like having to hit “E” to pick things up which is a real pain when you have to pick things up all the time because enemies drop bits of armor as you hurt them. While the trope of picking up armor, health, and bullets didn’t really strike me as clashing with the storyline because they are conveniences, having to hammer “E” really did because it was an inconvenience.

Another weird aspect is the perk system which adds a bit of RPG to it. It is weird because you level up from doing things but the perks are automatically applied to a stat boost so you can’t pick a skill to improve. So you get better at doing the things you are already doing which seems kind of pointless. I only played the game through once so I don’t know how being better at something else really changes the game.

(Similarly, there is a point where the story branches and since I only played it the one time I don’t know if the different paths are really all that different. )

Perhaps the worst part of the game are the boss battles which don’t really vary from the old “hit the boss in one place then another” or “wait for the boss to expose its weakness before shooting it.” Thankfully it does refrain from the worst boss battle sin of having to nearly kill the boss only to have the boss regenerate and then have to kill it again and again.

While the gameplay does have some of these quirks, it is otherwise pretty solid FPS that has a nice variety of shooting and more stealthy things like crawling through conveniently man-sized vents, hiding from security cameras, and stealth. Likewise, the storyline of a world where the Nazis won is pretty well done. Many people have noted the Bioshock Infinite-style alt-universe covers of pop songs and there are some interesting bits where you will see an obviously pro-Nazi-biased newspaper clipping about how wonderful things are under Nazi rule.

The strongest part for me was the part where you have to infiltrate a prison camp. I really liked going around and getting quests from different prisoners. It reminded me of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay which isn’t surprising since this Wolfenstein: The New Order was apparently made by many of the same people who made the Riddick game.

Unfortunately, the prison level also results in trivializing the experience of concentration camps and prisoner of war camps because you end up escaping from it the same day you get there which makes it seem like the prisoners are clueless weaklings incapable of doing it themselves. It ends up giving the message that “all it took was a real man.” There was a moment when I thought the game was really going to force you to work in a prison factory but that lasts all of about two minutes. It would have been a really brave and interesting game if they had forced you to do some meaningless button mashing for a while. Of course, it also would have been a very different game, as well.

Another plot point that borders on venturing into problematic territory is the existence of a secret Jewish society called Da’at Yichud.

Some minor spoilers here….  See, the reason why the Nazis have robot dogs and moon bases and stuff if because they stole it all from Da’at Yichud. The problem is that this concept of a secret society with super-science risks perpetuating stereotypes that Jews are secretly holding out on the rest of us and maybe they are controlling things behind the scenes. As a plot point, they use it as a simple way to explain why the bad guys have robots and moon bases in the 60s but by making it a secret jewish society it gives the Nazis a kind of justification for their genocide. It doesn’t go that far but it does border on it which makes me wish it had just been a multi-ethnic secret society or something in order to sidestep those kinds of issues.

Regardless, I had fun playing Wolfenstein: New Order because it is a decent shooter, the Nazis winning WWII is an interesting premise which gives the game to have some purely evil bad guys (the scene on the train is a standout) and it is quite long for a modern game so even though there is no multiplayer you do get your money’s worth.

five thumbs up

“B.J.” Blazkowicz
Saves the world in the end but
he is no Doom Guy

Whatever Happened to 80s Anti-Videogame Advocate Ronnie Lamm?

In the last post I mentioned I was doing some researrch on history of gaming for a side project. In the history of videogame censorship, one of the earliest and most notable people was Ronnie Lamm who was quoted in lots of interviews and appeared in many tv segments back in the early 1980s.

When I read about people from decades past who fight for a losing cause, I often wonder what became of them. I think it would be an interesting project to do a real “Where are they now?” with people involved in news events in decades past. Interestingly, I ran across a 2009 article from the Long Island Press that did talk to her. In the article, she is quoted as saying:

“It was a very interesting time of questioning,” Lamm, now a grandmother, tells the Press. “This is something new, something that parents were embracing, possibly for the wrong reason, and school districts at the time had concern about children cutting out of school to go to [play] video games. But our initial concern was the safety of children in bar lobbies, in luncheonettes. Where were these machines? Were they in the backroom? Were they being watched? Children are hanging out here… What was their supervision?”


History and Research

I’ve been doing a side project that involves tracking down some release dates of videogames. Because I’m a bit obsessed with finding authoritative sources I’m finding it difficult for some things. Strangely, although wikipedia has tons of release dates on games, hardly any of them are sourced. Perhaps stranger is that although wikipedia loves to put [citation needed] on everything, hardly any of these uncited dates have that tag.

Some release dates don’t seem to be known. For example, the exact day that Space Invaders first came out seems lost to the ages. And even though things like the ET Landfill thing were well documented in Atari Inc.: Business is Fun, there was still tons of coverage reporting that it was thought to be an “urban legend” and “no one knew what was buried there.”

What wikipedia does have though is a couple videogame sources that I wasn’t aware of until I stumbled on them the other day:

  • The first is wikipedia’s list of videogame source that they call their “reference library.” It contains links to gaming magazines and websites online and off as well as books and other things.
  • The second is wikipedia’s list of “books on video games” which is, cleverly enough, a list of books on videogames.

Neither of these is earth-shattering but they are useful sites to keep in mind when looking for something.

This is a man and he has a name: Edge gets bylines

A short followup on something I wrote way back in November of 2007 when I noticed that Edge magazine doesn’t give author credit on its articles.

Well, as a couple months ago that has changed because Edge now lists the authors of their articles:


The weird thing is that although the editorial for the first issue where they started listing authors they noted differences in some of the columns and layout but they didn’t mention giving authors credit.

Last of Us Review

Last of Us box artThe last Last of Us review? I’m reviewing the actual Last of Us game itself and not the DLC that just came out. Yeah. I know I’m late. Maybe I’ll write about Flappy Bird some time in 2015…

Now, I’m not a console gamer. So part of my dislike of the terrible shooting in the game might be because I’m part of the Glorious PC Gaming Master Race. Regardless, I’m really surprised that Last of Us won basically every award ever made. That isn’t to say that I didn’t like it. I did like it. But the parts I really liked were the parts where you are just ransacking houses which probably makes up a total of 30 minutes of the whole game.

So why didn’t I like it? Well, the reasons for that can be split into two categories: gameplay and story. And since the actual gameplay itself isn’t really much of a surprise, I’ll start with that in case there are any people that a) haven’t played Last of Us and still might and b) read this. So for the two or three people on the planet that this applies to, I’ll start off trying to avoid any spoilers and then move on to the spoiler talk.

Tastes a Little Gamey.

The worst part of Last of Us’ gameplay is just how game-y it is.

I think the worst example of this is the dumpsters. Throughout the game there are sections where you have to get over a fence or a wall but it is too high to climb over. So you have to find something to push up next to the wall so you can climb up on it and then over the wall. Almost always that thing to push is a dumpster and even though it is years after the apocalypse the dumpsters still roll around and move more easily than any dumpster I’ve ever tried to move (not that I’ve tried to move a lot of dumpsters. Maybe there are some that are super easy to move even after years of neglect but I haven’t seen them.)

If there aren’t dumpsters nearby then there is sure to be a conveniently placed ladder or board around which gives the game an excuse to have a nice interaction with the girl, Ellie, who is often tasked with being boosted up to wherever the ladder is.

Now, these scenes with dumpster moving and ladder fetching do make for a nice diversion from the combat as it gives you a chance to flex other mental muscles than shooting. Unfortunately, I needed that break because I hated the combat in the game. Again, maybe it is because I’m not a console player, but the aiming and shooting of the game was just painful.

<minor spoilers>

….. The few times you play as Ellie, the shooting is better. I read someone mention that Ellie is a better shot than Joel but I didn’t interpret it that way. I interpreted it as the game making it easier because Ellie is a kid. When playing as Ellie it seemed like Clickers went down easier than they did when playing as Joel. But, I might be wrong…

<end of spoilers>

OK. Let’s talk about the crafting system. It is really just terrible. I hate games where you have to gather items to make something that will just break or wear out so that you have to find more stuff. I’m looking at you Dead Island… In Last of Us, all the zombies and crafting made me feel like I was back looking for the red herb in Resident Evil. Luckily, because I could make shivs to open doors I didn’t need to be the master of unlocking… (Ha! in searching for the famous RE clip I found out that Last of Us does have a “Master of Unlocking” trophy!)

While the presence of so something like the crafting system is an obvious feature, one thing that I found equally annoying but less obvious was the ever-present waist-high wall. A big part of the combat is also crouching behind things. Conveniently, everything in the world is just the right height to hide behind. Even in sections where you aren’t fighting, the presence of these waist-high obstacles makes it feel like you are going to be fighting in that space eventually.

Last of the Plot

OK, now I am going to start talking about the plot.

Big Spoilers ahoy ….

The place where the waist-high walls was most irritating was also the point where the writing was the worst: the power plant. When Joel’s brother says something like, “We’ve been getting some bandits attacking us lately,” is there any doubt that as soon as you get done arguing with the brother that the power plant is going to be attacked?

And that predictability is one of the main problems with Last of Us. With a few exceptions, everything about the story is cliched and predictable.

Another example is the cannibals. Now, it wasn’t entirely predictable that the cannibals would turn out to be cannibals but it was obvious that they were Bad Guys™. Similarly, there’s a scene near the end where they are trying to build tension by not showing if Ellie is alive or not. But of course she is because she is the main character and they have already killed off one girl so they aren’t going to kill off another one. But they hold the camera on Joel for a really long time before panning over to Ellie to try to build tension and for me it was just tedious.

(Spoilers in this clip for the end of the game)

Tedious also describes how I felt about all the billions of cut scenes. I really don’t understand why developers so often feel the need to put in little cut scenes when it would be more dramatic to allow the player to actually do things. Maybe it is limitations in the game engine and it seems like Naughty Dog is pushing the PS3 pretty hard. But it is still frustrating to me because in too many instances it is hard to tell when the cut scene ends and I’m allowed to start playing again.

I think a lot of this comes from trying to be “cinematic” (whatever that means) but one scene early on shows that despite all their aspirations not everyone at Naughty Dog understands how cameras and editing really work. It can be seen in this clip about 10:55 in:

In that clip we have Joel’s brother save Joel from a zombie and blood splatters on the camera lens. Then the cut scene switches to an angle from inside the overturned truck and the blood splatter is still on the camera lens. That isn’t how it works. That would be a different camera and it wouldn’t have any blood to be splattered on it in that exact same way. Now, it could be argued that because the blood fades quickly that this was not a misunderstanding of how camera angles work but it was distracting enough that I remembered this scene from early on in the game and I even took the time to find a clip of this scene to make sure I wasn’t misremembering it.

Regarding cut scenes, I think the choice of what to cut out in the cut scene was also frustrating for me because I found the cut scenes tended to cut from combat to combat (or puzzles where Ellie has to get onto a floating platform again) and I would much rather have had more of the moments where they were just driving or walking down the road. I guess I wanted more of a The Road feel (even though I really hated a lot of the movie so much and I’ve resisted reading the book). One of the parts I liked the best was the part where you play as Ellie hunting down a deer. It was such a nice quiet and methodical scene that I wished that there was more things like it in the game. Now, I don’t want to turn the game into Big Buck Hunter but, like the parts where you are going through drawers in abandoned houses, I wanted more exploration and self-paced scenes.

The last thing I want to write about is the end.

“Apparently, there’s no way to extricate the parasite without eliminating the host. Fancy way of saying we gotta kill the fucking kid.

Oh noes! They want to kill Ellie!! Who could have ever predicted that? Except for anyone that really thought about it, I mean.

So the scientists wanting to kill Ellie was really cliched. It would have been more interesting if, like the college, there wasn’t anyone there. But that isn’t the worst part.

The worst part is that the reason they want to kill Ellie makes no sense. Because people turn when they get bit, they have established that the fungus that causes people to turn is in body fluids. So whatever prevents Ellie from turning has to be in her blood too. So they could just look at her blood. Even if it is in her brain why do they have to kill her? Can’t they do a biopsy? When someone has brain cancer they don’t just kill them (and there is also the fact that the fungus is not a parasite.). While you could argue that this is an extreme situation and they don;t have the facilities to operate, the very least Naughty Dog could have done is put in a line like that.

OK, so trying to kill Ellie doesn’t make any sense. Fine. I also really hated that I didn’t have any choice as to how I reacted to the news that they were going to kill her. I really didn’t like the fact that the game didn’t allow me to choose whether or not I would allow Ellie to die. That would have been a much braver game design choice.

There’s a post over at where they try to argue that it is a good and powerful storytelling choice to not allow the player to have a say in how Joel reacts because the player is not Joel. In the post Chris Plante wrote:

I like to think of the player as the driver on a road trip and the hero as the person riding shotgun. The player can steer the action, but ultimately the hero thinks and behaves on his own. And the player and hero are having a conversation, reacting and responding to one another, over the course of the journey.

I believe that if the player has complete control of the story — and I’m talking exclusively about big, cinematic games — then the writer has no control. Forcing the player to shoot the doctor is an elegant way of explaining this via action. You’re a participant in the story, but it is not your story to tell.

Personally, I disagree. For me the character is me and I am the character. I play a game because I want to control things. If I want to experience a person whose thought and behaviors I can’t control then I’ll read a book or watch a movie or tv show. I don’t want to ride shotgun. I hate rail shooters and this line of reasoning makes all games into rail shooters. If I can’t make the big decisions about how to behave in a certain situation then why should I make the small ones about who to shoot (and to write that who to shoot is a smaller decision than anything else in games is, of course, a commentary on what games do and don’t value. Not to mention that Joel has killed literally hundreds of people but balks at killing one more to save everyone… (and why does the game give you stats on the number of people killed at the end? Is it trying to make a statement or is it just some stat that we are meant to try to improve in the future?)).

Then there is the very end which I don’t really know what it means. I don’t mean Joel lying to Ellie. For me that was overshadowed by the choice to have Ellie be the playable character at the end. In the beginning of the game Joel’s daughter is the first playable character. Then when Joel is sick, Ellie is the playable character. Then at the end the player controls Ellie as they walk to the town where Joel’s brother is. Why? What does it mean that we are controlling Ellie and not Joel? Is it to make some kind of symmetry between the beginning and the end? Is it a symbolic handing over of the reigns to Ellie? Was it just a design derision so that the game could more easily show Joel lying? In an interview the designers talk about it a bit but it still seems like an odd choice to me.

The End.

Despite all these criticisms I liked the game a lot. I like it despite these criticisms because I think if these things had been addressed more satisfactorily for my tastes then the game would have been so much better. Maybe it would have won three hundred game of the year awards instead of just 200 or something…

Six thumbs up.

I usually
love zombies. I hate them here.
That’s award worthy…