Friday, February 26, 2010

This Will All End in Tears

Goodness, I certainly hope not.

My weekly blog post will be a might bit late this time around, my friends. Reason being, I'm SICK TO DEATH of Blogger's shenanigans. There's a huge long list of problems, but the inability to reply to comments for no apparent reason this morning was the last damn straw.

So, we're taking this party to WordPress. For the next month or so, I will post notices here about updates at the webpage. However, if you don't already follow me on Twitter, you may wish to remedy that soon, as that's the first place I announce new blog updates.

On a related note, I have never used WordPress in my life. Needless to say, from what little I know about it already from research, it has a lot more buttons and functions than I'm used to. I beg your collective pardon, my dear readers, for all the inevitable mistakes I will make as I navigate this new publishing tool.

As always, thank you for reading, and my apologies for the inconvenience.

Friday, February 19, 2010

First Impressions, Part 1: Star Wars, The Force Unleashed

Who wouldn't be distracted by that? Doesn't it look like fun?

For the last 10 days, I have been struggling to write my review for The Saboteur. Short version, I greatly enjoyed it, faults and all. So you might be asking why it is so damn difficult to write that in essay form, genius, if you like it so much?

Believe me, dear readers, I've been asking myself that same question for more than a week. Was it the distraction of attending the UNC C.H.A.T. Festival? Was it all the time that preparing for a new job entails? I couldn't put my finger on it, though, until last night: I've got Star Wars The Forced Unleashed on the brain.

During the d'Adesky Q4 Game Consumption Frenzy of 2009, I grabbed a copy of this game for a few reasons. One, I really like the Star Wars universe. Two, the idea of occasionally playing as "the bad guy," is intriguing. Lastly, I read somewhere this particular game won a Writers Guild of America award for Best Video Game Writing.

Um, was everyone who liked The Force Unleashed playing the same game I am? Or did someone at GameStop decide to swap the game disc for a parody of the game and I'm just being punk'd? Regardless of the answer, I think all of those fans are insane, because this game is just bloody awful.

First Things First: Controls, Menus, and Other Management Stuff

For those of you who didn't play the demo, Force Unleashed is basically a hack-and-slash game with magic Force-wielding elements added for some extra fun. This is one of the few things about the game that I enjoyed, but is definitely far from perfect. Being able to wield lightning, infuse my sword lightsaber with electricity, or knock enemies away with a Force push is hugely satisfying. Force Grip, on the other hand, isn't nearly as much fun as it could have been because of the way they mapped the controls.

The problem is rather than keep things simple, someone on the design team thought it would be great to map one analog stick for horizontal movement and the other stick for vertical movement. This means in order to throw a Stormtrooper off a bridge or throw a truck-sized boulder into a sniper's nest, I have to first hold the R2 button, then navigate the object I'm holding with both hands and let 'er rip, all before my Force meter bleeds dry.

Oh, did I mention you get a finite amount of Force energy in the game? It works like a mana bar, essentially, and depending on what you're trying to do, that meter runs out FAST. Yes, it regenerates, but unless you squeeze a boatload of Force Points in a certain stat slot, that regeneration can be painfully slow.

This also means that if I use a Force-heavy power, such as Force Burst (which knocks back all the enemies in your immediate vicinity) I'm out of juice for several agonizing seconds. In the middle of a fight, this is very, very bad, as the only edge you have on most of the enemies in the game is your ability to use the Force.

Another thing of note about the controls is the targeting. Oh, good grief, the targeting. Sometimes, the best way to deal with a bogey is from distance, either because he's in an unreachable spot (like aforementioned sniper's nest) or because he's big and bad and if he gets too close, he'll squish you into a paste fit only for feeding his pet bantha. This means Force Gripping a heavy object and flinging it at him. As battlefields are rarely static, in the time it takes you to line up the shot, more enemies will close on your position, the autotarget will engage before you even realize it and you let loose your carefully prepared attack on the wrong damn guy.

As if that wasn't bad enough, if you're trying to use the Force to move an object to create a makeshift bridge or something, you have to be at a very precise angle to target said object in the first place, making things very frustrating. This results in more than a few accidental deaths and a flood of profanity.

That, oddly enough, brings me to another point: The File Save System. Very few games, in my opinion, strike the right balance between autosaves and manual saves. Some rely strictly on an autosave function, so you're at the mercy of checkpoints, while others don't autosave nearly often enough. In those situations, you'd better save after every single frakking confrontation, cut scene, and dialogue exchange, or you will be SCREWED when it comes time to reload after a boneheaded mistake.

At first, The Force Unleashed seems to have a workable (if not overly fantastic) balance between the two, by autosaving at pre-determined checkpoints but still allowing you the option to manually save in the menu screen. That seems to be the case, anyway, until you try saving in between those checkpoints and then hit 'resume' after that first trip into a lava flow.

Even if you choose to go back to the main menu to reload instead of choosing 'resume, it puts you right back at your last checkpoint, like you'd never even bothered to save the game in the first place. Here's a tip for game developers: DO NOT GIVE ME THE OPTION TO SAVE MY GAME IF YOU ARE GOING TO IGNORE IT. Why include it at all if you're just going to reload a checkpoint instead? LucasArts, did you guys originally plan to let players manually save their games, but pulled it at the last moment and simply forgot to erase that option from the menu screen? If so, SLOPPY. If not, SCREW YOU.


While discussing this game with my buddy Sam yesterday, number three on my list of biggest pet peeves in video games came up: The Quick-Time Event. For those of you new to video games, the Quick-Time Event (QTE for short) is a game mechanic that allows a developer to include pre-rendered cinematic sequences in a game while allowing the player to maintain a monicum of control over what's happening through on-screen button prompts. The most noteworthy examples of good QTE utilization are Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones and the God of War franchise. Those sequences were so well done that nearly every other instance of the mechanic pales by comparison. That may be setting the bar unfairly high. . .actually, no. No it isn't. You know why?

It isn't an unfair standard because those were games from the last console generation. You cannot convince me that game design cannot improve or at least maintain that level of functionality now that we're midway through the latest hardware cycle. If this is supposed to be "the new revolution in game design," then how can you settle for being outdone by games that were developed for (supposedly) inferior hardware?

Anyway. . .

Why is the inclusion QTEs important to this discussion, you may ask. Well, I'll tell you. When it comes to hack-and-slash games, there is no good reason I should have to resort to a sequence of button presses to take down a monster. Now, while the game does allow you to kill a boss-level character the old fashioned way, the likelihood of you surviving long enough to deliver the killing blow in this game is slim at best, mostly due to sluggish response time from the controls. As such, you're practically required to rely on the quick-time events in order to finish a battle and move on to the next level. To paraphrase a reviewer I admire, "this feels more like a battle of fucking attrition than meaningful gameplay."

To put it less than eloquently, that sort of thing drives me apeshit bananas. I'm a professional game tester, for the love of cute fuzzy puppies. I'm not saying that I'm the best there is, but if I get paid to play games, you better believe that I'm not your average controller jockey. This should NOT be that damn hard for me since I do it almost EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Granted, after a long day at work, my reaction time is slower than it would be were I well-rested and pumped full of caffeine, but riddle me this, Gilligan: If the professional in the room is having trouble getting through your game, how do you think Jane Q. Gamer is going to fare? Food for thought.

Originally, this was going to be a single post on my first impressions of the game. Seeing how long this post has become, though, I'm going to be nice and divide this rant in half. Stay tuned for Part 2!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Gamus Interuptus, or "What's With All the Cut Scenes?"

**SPOILER WARNING: I talk about several recent game releases in the latter half of this post, so if you've not played Uncharted 2, the Modern Warfare games, or the God of War series, (but plan to eventually) you'll want to avoid the area between the asterisks.

I just don't understand why people have such a problem with cut scenes in video games.

The advent of the cut scene (or "game cinematic" as it is commonly called these days) was huge way back when. The ability to see your favorite video game characters fleshed out in a well-defined way, as opposed to those heavily pixelated renderings offered to us in-game, was nothing short of mind-blowing. Even before sound effects and voice overs were prevalent, these cinematics offered an additional way to relay story elements to the player and to drive the story along.

These days, the argument has been made that cut scenes are no longer needed. Some say these cinematics are the hallmark of the last console generation (or three) and they should be abandoned so that game design can evolve further. "They break the flow of the gameplay," some cry. "They take scenes that would be fun to play through and relegates the player to the backseat," shout others.

Me? I think people are looking at this issue from the wrong angle.

Look. Games are not the only place where "flow" is broken for any number of reasons. Every time I'm forced to put down a novel I'm reading to take a phone call or go to sleep, the flow of the story is broken. Every time I have to pause a movie or TV show on DVD to tend to a pot of pasta boiling over or let the dog out, the flow is broken. Every time I'm about to hand someone their ass in a game of Clue, and someone accidentally spills a glass of Dr. Pepper across the table. . .well, you get the idea.

Video games are no different. Every time you pause a game to visit the little space marine's room or grab another can of Red Bull, you're breaking the flow of gameplay. Why should cut scenes get all the blame? (Boring, repetitive, or ridiculous game mechanics, on the other hand, should get more flak, but that's another rant for another time.)

I LOVE cut scenes. Want to know why?

I may be showing my age, here, but I love cut scenes because my hands get tired and having a reason to let go of the controller or mouse (BioWare games not withstanding, obviously) for a moment or two without having to stop the game is a HUGE comfort to me.

What? Your hands have never gotten tired while playing a game? I'll believe that when I see a porcupine book a first-class flight on Jet Blue.

The main reason I love game cinematics, though, is that some parts of a story are best told through images and sound alone. Just as in theatre there are some stories best conveyed through music and lyric,and some stories that should stay away from the Broadway musical format like a diabetic should avoid the Hershey factory, (I'm looking at you, Titanic and Saturday Night Fever), some things are best experienced when watched instead of played.


There's a moment toward the conclusion of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves where the survival of a much-beloved character is in question at the end of a particular battle. The protagonist is shaking her frantically, screaming her name, urging her to wake the hell up. . .and the screen fades to black, without giving you any clue whatsoever whether that character lived or died.

At the beginning of the next scene, our plucky hero is standing in front of a shrine with a trinket in his hand, looking pensive and chatting quietly with a friend. The fate of the missing character is still hanging there, like a shroud. The moments tick by, much is said, and still no mention of the missing party member. He places the medallion on the shrine, quietly says his farewell, and continues talking to the person standing next to him.

The seconds tick by, and you begin to fear the worst. This determined young woman whom you've become quite attached to throughout the telling of this grand adventure may be gone forever. Just as you start to rage and sob and scream in disbelief, there's the sound of an argument out of frame. Our hero turns around. . .lo and behold, there's our girl, battered and bleeding, but alive, and refusing to be coddled just because she took shrapnel from a grenade at extremely short range.

And the player lets out the breath she didn't know she was holding.


I once asked David Jaffe, the creator of the God of War franchise, why he took camera control away from the player. His answer? "We wanted to keep the pacing steady, and the best way to do that was to control where the player's eyes roamed when he entered a new area. I didn't want that frantic adrenaline rush we were building to be broken by giving the player the ability to look in every nook and cranny in a room."

I'm paraphrasing, of course, but you get the idea. As much as I hate, hate, HATE (did I mention 'hate'?) fixed cameras in games, I understood what Jaffe was going for with that decision. In other interviews, he's stated that he wanted the players to feel some of the rage and frustration Kratos was experiencing. As a storytelling device, lack of camera control definitely got the job done in that regard, because I have never, EVER screamed in absolute rage while playing a game the way I did while playing God of War.


By contrast, sometimes giving the player limited control during a scene is much more evocative than wresting control from her entirely. Two-thirds of the way through the single-player campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, you and your British SAS counterpart are betrayed by the general in charge of your operation. He offers you his hand in congratulations, and instead of a handshake, you get a high-caliber bullet at point-blank range.

You hit the ground, eyes still seeing, your vision slightly blurry. In disbelief, the player starts frantically pushing buttons, desperately hoping that there's something that can be done. The general's goons pick you up, and toss you into a hole in the ground you didn't notice before.

Then you see the cans of gasoline.

Again, the player starts slamming buttons and pulling triggers, even though you know all you can do is move your head a little bit to look into the face of the monster who is ordering his people to douse you and your teammates in flammable liquid. The same man who recruited you for this operation, the man who assured you that your work would save thousands of lives, sets your body ablaze after lighting up (yet another) cigar.

And all you can do is move your head around a bit, desperately seeking the help that will never, ever come.

Unlike that scenario in Uncharted 2 I mentioned, I all but sobbed during this scene, because I felt completely and utterly helpless. Having just that little bit of control during that sequence was enough to convey to me the hopelessness of the situation. The only way they could have driven the point home further is if the controller had the ability to heat up.


There are many ways to tell a story. No one method is necessarily better than the other, and no single method works 100% of the time. The major problem is that some franchises use cinematics as a crutch to support lackluster story and/or gameplay. (I don't really have to mentoin Metal Gear Solid 4, do I?) Just because cut scenes get overused, though, doesn't mean that cut scenes are inherently bad. The goal shouldn't be to eliminate this storytelling technique altogether; we should, instead, strive to achieve better balance between gameplay and cinematics.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


I thought long and hard about what my first post would be after my self-imposed media fast.1 Should I outline what I did with my time during my hiatus? Would my readers like to know what I learned from the experience? Did anyone even notice I was gone?

After much inner dialogue with my Thought Hamsters, it was decided I wouldn't really talk about those 3 months all at once, opting instead to mention specific scenarios when they seem appropriate to the topic at hand.2 Suffice it to say that some good stuff and some bad stuff (and some really boring stuff) occurred during that time, and I'll talk about it all. . .eventually.

For now, I'm taking a note from my buddy Chuck Wendig and delivering a splatter post straight into your face, like forcing you to stare down the barrel of a paintball gun at point-blank range just before I turn your world (and your face guard) bright purple.


What I'm Playing

In the middle of my media fast, my husband John finally ran out of excuses and conceded to my rabid need for a Playstation 3. I rationalized that as long as I didn't play online, I was still holding true to my self-imposed lurking.3 That purchase triggered a game consumption frenzy never before seen in the d'Adesky household. Not just PS3 games, but games in general. Here's the rundown:
  1. Uncharted
  2. Uncharted 2
  3. Assassin's Creed 2
  4. Batman: Arkham Asylum
  5. Brutal Legend
  6. Dragon Age: Origins
  7. Modern Warfare 2
  8. Left 4 Dead 2
  9. The Saboteur
  10. Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 2
  11. Borderlands
  12. Mass Effect 2
  13. Prince of Persia (2008 version)
Note that those are just the games I've been playing. Were I to include the games John's been playing, all the games we bought that we haven't played yet, Facebook games, older games revisited, and the board games we've been playing with friends every few weeks, that list would be two-to-three times as long, easy. The only thing I haven't done is get back into tabletop RPGs. (Though the year is still young, so who knows?)

At some point, each of those games will get it's own post, but for now, I need to replay a few things to make sure I'm not mixing up details from different games. That's what happens when you take notes using a pen and legal pad, then lose said legal pad. *sigh*

Whistle While You Work. . .
  • First, a word or three on the subject of GameX 2010. There's been no official update on the show as far as I've heard, though it has been confirmed that VGXPO has NOT renewed their show slot on the Pennsylvania Convention Center schedule for 2010. Interesting. . .we shall have to see what's left after the dust settles.
  • Anyway, no GameX means no concrete job at the moment, other than my online boutique business, and that's only paying for the kibble my dogs enjoy every day. I'm not bitter, though, because at least I can make my fur kids happy, plus John is very supportive of this wild dream of mine to work full-time in the games industry. (How the heck did I get that lucky?)
  • Of course, there's always the game testing gig. That, though, is only part-time work and I'm in the phase of rotation where I don't get called into the office for 6-10 weeks. (This particular company does it's level best not to burn out their testers, and for that I am very, very grateful.) I suppose part of the reason I've been on a video game binge is to keep my chops, so when the testing pool rotation comes full circle I can hop right back in the saddle with no problem.4
Projects A Go-Go5

To keep myself busy (and, by extension, out of trouble), I've lined up a lot of projects, of both the geeky and not-so-geeky variety.
  • In the world of self-determined curriculums, I'm still trying to learn the ins and outs of Adobe Creative Suite 4. I have no idea why it is so hard for me to grasp these programs. It is what it is, though, and so I keep trudging on, determined to use this down time to my advantage. I have vowed that I will not pick up another program/software suite to learn until I've finished with at least 3/4 of what CS4 has to offer. That means Unity, Unreal Engine 3, and Python are all waiting in the wings for their turn in the spotlight. Here's hoping the Thought Hamsters don't start poking them with sticks, or this could get ugly. Like, putting-a-box-of-donuts-backstage-at-a-beauty-pageant-ugly.
  • Hanging out with self-guided education on the stove is the revamping my resume and plumping up my writing portfolio. Not terribly exciting to most of you, but there it is.
  • Gearing up for the season that is games industry conferences. No GDC for me this year, though PAX East, UNC C.H.A.T. Festival, Triangle Game Conference, and GDC Austin are all possibilities.
  • Also on the stove, but relegated to the back burner (for now), is a video project my pal Josh Loomis brought me in on. I can't talk about it much at the moment, but I promise you when this thing goes live, The Escapist Film Festival won't know what hit them.
Life, the Universe, and Everything Else
  • We've reached something of a breaking point with our living situation. The housing situation is the biggest obstacle that continues to pop up in my personal and professional life. For the unfamiliar, John and I have lived in a barn (that we built with our own two hands before we were even officially dating) for the last 3.5 years. This video on my YouTube account, while somewhat embarrassing, from this time last year pretty much says all that needs to be said on the matter that is the Abarnament.6
  • If (a really big IF) I can find more work, be it a series of 1099 gigs or a regular W-2 job, we should have enough assets pulled together to finish building our house by the end of this year. I say "finish building," but what I really mean is, "bulldoze the old foundation, as it has been exposed to the elements for 5 years, so we need to start from scratch." (I rarely talk about such things on this particular blog, so if you want to hear more on the matter, you can always ask to add me over on LiveJournal. Otherwise, I won't bore you further.)
  • For those of you who don't follow me on Twitter (and I can't say that I blame you, because really, I'm not that fascinating), let me update you on some family stuff. John's family hails from Europe. . .and Haiti. From that statement alone, I'm sure you can surmise what has been at the forefront of my thoughts for the last 4 weeks. To answer your unspoken question, yes, we've heard from those who live in Port au Prince, and miraculously, every single one of our family members is alive and uninjured. Their homes and businesses, though. . .well, we won't know until the properties have been inspected just how badly damaged they are. All proceeds from last month's sales at the Etsy store (minus shipping and administrative fees, obviously) are being pooled into a single donation for our family members abroad.
  • In addition, 50% of all the sales my web store garners for the month of February will go to the Red Cross. John will also be giving blood sometime this month, and once the doctor gives me the green light, I'll most like be giving blood for the first time in my entire life.7 The blood banks are pretty well depleted right now, so if you're strapped for cash but still want to help, I urge you to consider this as an option.
And that, as they say, is that. If you stuck it out until the end of this post, you deserve a cookie. Unfortunately, I'm too broke to provide you with one via USPS, so you'll have to settle for the clever footnotes I've stashed below instead.

See you on the flip side.


1--To clarify, "media fast" is a term I first encountered in The Four-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss. It means to take a break from most, if not all, media in order to recalibrate your mental compass.
2--Yes, I have thought hamsters. (Shut up.) Instead of running around on exercise wheels, though, they form a conga line and tromp through my brain in a constant loop. When they have something to say, they stop and convey their concerns via posterboard placards. What?
Do NOT bring up the fact that I was still using Twitter and Facebook during this time, or I will sick Luna on you. She may look harmless, but don't let that face fool you. Make not mistake; she's lethal. She will lick you to death.
4--Oh, hi there, Rationalization! When did you drop by for a visit?
5--I listed "Projects" separate from "Work" because I don't consider those projects work. I guess I should be a good hostess and get Rationalization set up on the couch, because it seems he's going to be staying a while.
6--We have a ceiling now, and the place is much cleaner now that the ceiling construction materials are gone, so don't worry overly much about us. As long as we can get into a proper dwelling before next winter, we'll be fine.
7--I had the misfortune of contracting meningitis nine years ago, and as such, there is a certain period of time that must pass before you are deemed "fit" to give blood again. (Actually, a certain amount of time must pass, AND your blood work must show no anomalies.) Before that, I had a string of bad luck where, without fail, I ALWAYS had a stupid cold that came about two to three days prior to any blood drive I signed up for. I kid you not. Somewhere, the Universe is sniggering, the smug bastard.