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Top 5 canceled TV shows that need a video game

Puppies die. Ice cream melts. Short-sighted networks cancel fresh and innovative shows in favor of the seventh different version of CSI (Who am I kidding? It's not like CBS has ever had any good shows to cancel anyways!) In short, the world's not perfect. But that doesn't mean we can't dream of reviving our favorite shows in our favorite medium. That's right, folks, I'm talking about a Point-and-Click Arrested Development here! Okay, maybe that wouldn't work out too well, but the following list offers up some potential candidates that could find a new home in the world of video games. Enjoy!

5.) Twin Peaks – I have to admit that I've never actually seen Twin Peaks (I mean, it did originally air in the year of my birth), but the fact that people are still talking about it today proves that the universe is exciting enough to return to. And on the off chance that David Lynch would actually be interested in overseeing the video game adaption, can you imagine what kinds of wacky Eternal Darkness sort of game mechanics we might see?

Now obviously, one problem with this adaption would be the fact that Twin Peaks was a plot-driven mystery-thriller. But if a developer wanted to retain that same appeal, they couldn't simply port in the series' story because then, anybody who'd seen the show (which just happens to be the market this game is going after) would already know what happens and lose interest. But if a new story were created, it would essentially have to shift the focus away from the characters that fans have come to know and love.

But I think the series' unresolved cliff-hanger provides the perfect opportunity to write a new protagonist and new story into the universe while maintaining a connection to the show's endearing characters. As you may know, the show's protagonist, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, SPOILERS***
becomes inhabited by the demon Bob at the end of the second and final season.
So the next logical step is to make the show's hero the game's villain. Or at least that's what fans of the show would assume when their new character came to town to investigate a series of mysterious murders. What follows would be an equally deranged mystery involving the white and black lodges, spirits such as Bob, and regular old human crime.

The Twin Peaks game would probably work best as a Third-Person Adventure title: a sort of mix between Heavy Rain and Alan Wake but with a greater emphasis on character interactions and puzzle solving. The rich world that David Lynch created really opens up tons of possibilities for the game, and I think fans would snatch this continuation of the story up, even if it has been twenty years since the show went off the air.

4.) Veronica Mars – Yet another series that I haven't watched myself (hey, maybe I would have seen them if they hadn't been canceled so quickly), Veronica Mars "stars Kristen Bell as the title character, a student who progresses from high school to college while moonlighting as a private investigator under the tutelage of her detective father" (Wikipedia). I was always under the impression that the show was aimed more toward teenaged girls, but after reading a little more about it, I'm having trouble seeing where that pre-conception came from; a neo-noir set in the unconventional trappings of high school and college sounds unisexually awesome to me.

But how to make a game of it? Honestly, the show's format lends itself pretty dang well to a video game. Each season sees Mars working to solve an overarching mystery while cracking smaller, stand-alone cases in each episode. But just because Mars is a high school student doesn't mean she's staking out the vending machine to discover who stole the lunch money; rape, murder, and conspiracy all allow the series to explore some pretty dark themes that give the sort of life-or-death tension expected of video game plots. The only difference with this IP is that we get some witty high schooler dialogue thrown in the middle.

That's why I see this game as a potentially game-changing (har, har) title. It's L.A. Noire, but in a setting that relates to a hell of a lot more people. It's funny and it's serious. It turns a noir cliche on its head by casting a female in the lead. Pretty much, I'm saying that Veronica Mars could make for a fun mystery Adventure, but it could also break some stubborn barriers in the process. And given fans fierce loyalty to the show and its characters, I don't think it'd have much trouble finding an audience.

3.) Jericho – You know that quip I made about CBS not having any good shows to cancel earlier? Yeah, well I take that back. Jericho told the story of a small Kansas town's struggle to survive in the wake of nuclear attacks on America. But rather than setting the action in the ruins of destroyed cities, it tells a more interesting story of a small community that's forced to become self-sufficient in the wake of a governmental collapse. Different factions vie for power and offer aid to the struggling communities, but at what cost? The decisions that community leaders are faced with touch on important themes of freedom vs. security, cooperation vs. competition, and the strength and strife found within family.

The way I see this game adaption playing out is that it'd be an Action-RPG that crosses the America's backyard aesthetic of Homefront with the individual and communal struggles for survival found in Fallout 3's wastelands. Players would step into the shoes of series hero Jake Green and find themselves leading stealth sabotage missions on rival communities, fortifying strategic choke-points for defensive shoot-outs, ambushing supply transports, and so on. Every mission would deal with helping the community to rebuild and survive, and town discussions with community leaders like the mayor, sheriff, etc would present the player with dialogue choices on which missions are worth pursuing. In this way, the player would have a major hand in shaping the community's future; should they risk raiding another community for gas so they can run generators at the hospital, or trade too much of their all-important food supply to get the gas fairly?

Of course, staying true to the IP's canon becomes a bit of an issue here. I think the best way to solve it would be by having the main missions stick closely to the show's main plot points and offering less room for choice on those, while filling out the rest of the game with completely new material that does allow the player to shape the town's direction. In this way, the core plot would ultimately get the player into the same conspiracy-revealing escapade of the series, but the town of Jericho itself might not physically, economically, or morally be exactly the same as in the show. All of the major characters would still play their roles, but some minor characters could be swayed in one direction or the other, or maybe even die.

I truly think that this property could make for an amazing video game and a unique one too. While there's plenty of Shooter action and RPG choice, the focus on day-to-day survival for a real community of people could introduce some innovative new scenarios not unlike what's been promised for I Am Alive. There's a great cast of characters to mine and a story that seamlessly flows from character relationships to governmental conspiracy. It's perfect for a video game!

2.) Reaper – Okay, so Reaper's a show about Sam Oliver, a loveable, yet slacking college drop-out who learns on his 21st birthday that his parents sold his soul to the devil. As a result of this, he is forced to become a bounty hunter for the big D (hilariously portrayed by Ray Wise) and capture souls that have escaped from Hell. Each soul is captured with a "vessel" unique to that soul, usually a seemingly ordinary day-to-day object such as a Zippo lighter or a Nerf gun. The catch is that Sam has to figure out how to properly use the vessel in order to capture the soul and return it to the local portal to Hell (the DMV).

So as you can see, this concept lends itself to a video game pretty well. Sam and his best buddies Sock and Ben spend a little time investigating where they might find their bounty, then there's a boss fight unique to each soul. An overarching plot that deals with Sam's mysterious origins and the quest to get out of his contract with the Devil would keep things moving forward while an essentially limitless variety of bounties keeps the gameplay interesting. Obviously, ghost-busting would be the bread and butter, but puzzles, stealth segments, races, and more could all make their way in. And of course, the consistently hysterical cast of characters makes it a fun world to be in the entire time.

Reaper is the sort of thing I could absolutely see the Double Fine team coming up with if it hadn't already been done. The delightfully friendly Devil, the bumbling screw-up friends, and the oh-so-cute love interest all fit Tim Schafer's penchant for funny and likeable characters to a tee. So come on, Double Fine: branch out into the world of licensed IPs and find a way to make this work!

1.) Firefly – You knew it, I knew it, everybody knew it: but there's good reason why there's such demand for a Firefly game. First of all, any universe created by Master Joss Whedon is inherently interesting, meaningful, witty, and unique, but this one also just happens to be an incredible fit for video games (well, any of his shows really seem like great fits, but this is the only one that was canceled before it had a chance to resolve its character's issues).

Captain Malcolm Reynolds is just too good of a character for us not to inhabit, so the game would have to be an Action-Adventure, so as to highlight the character and not allow us to do anything he wouldn't (because things would probably go far too smoothly if somebody else were thinking for him). Along the way, there'd be all sorts of hijinks and misadventures with the crew of Serenity that eventually culminate in a larger plot involving the Alliance and crime syndicates like Niska's. Of course we'd have to sacrifice River's mystery (maybe with the exception of some smaller background quests) because that'd just turn the game into the movie (and we don't want that to happen for various reasons), but I think there's plenty of room for other interesting plots, especially if any of the show's writers contributed to the game. Not to mention, the game may be stronger as a sort of collage of semi-related events that highlight the characters without the constraints of a driving plot…you know, like the show.

Anyways, there'd be plenty of Third-Person Shooting, lots of brawling, some Puzzling and Platforming, and even some space-battles (Serenity will have to get some guns installed…). We'd get to see lots of different environments through different worlds, and of course, we'd get to find ourselves in hot water with just about every wretched proprietor of scum and villainy in the known universe. Did I mention that we get to spend more time with the crew of Serenity? Just pitch this thing as Uncharted in space and publishers will be all over it!

And that's that. Please feel free to chime in with any more shows that have wrongfully been cast into oblivion. Maybe if we all dream hard enough, someday, one of these games might get made.

Could RPGs be the new FPS?


With Activision recently putting the kibosh on the Guitar Hero franchise, and really, the Rhythm genre as a whole, I got to wondering if this console generation will see the collapse of any more genres. With escalating development costs, publishers are more eager than ever to turn their properties into annual tent-pole releases in the pursuit of short-term profits. The Rhythm genre, which many argued to be a fad in the first place, saw this gross mismanagement go to an extreme with literally dozens of games released within a five year period. And despite all of the lost jobs, lost investments, and lost opportunities, Activision doesn't seem to have learned their lesson.

The mega-publisher is devoting more and more developers to its wildly successful Call of Duty franchise. An annual release is the norm now, and multiple DLC map packs are practically a requirement for each title. There are rumors of a CoD MMO. Pretty much, Activision is milking this once innovative franchise for everything it's worth. And because it makes so much money right now, other publishers like EA and THQ are amping up their Modern-Military Shooter efforts. It's getting to the point where it can be difficult to differentiate all of the AAA FPSs released each year. So isn't a collapse inevitable with all of this over-saturation?

Yes and no. No, because the FPS is a more established genre than Rock-Rhythm games and it's had hardcore fans supporting it for just about twenty years now. But yes, because the past four or so years have seen such an influx of casual players–the kind of fickle consumers who bought into the Rock-Rhythm craze–that they're bound to do what casual players do and grow tired of their latest hobby. Now when I say casual, that doesn't mean that CoD fans don't play video games religiously–if anything, then probably play more hours a week than I do–but I do mean that they probably only buy three games a year and that those games aren't what we would call diverse.

So if we have consumers who keep buying the same thing, and publishers who keep putting out the same product with a different name on it every year, I simply don't see how this system can sustain itself. One day, these players are going to look at the four completely identical online Shooter experiences they have and realize that there's no point in buying a fifth. They might also wise up and realize that there are better ways to spend one's time than earning arbitrary medals that may as well announce to the world that you don't have much of a social life. If we look to the Rock-Rhythm genre as an example, the collapse of an over-saturated genre takes roughly five to six years. If those numbers hold true for the FPS (and that's a big "if" considering how different the genres are), then the latest hot genre will soon be seeing a massive decline in sales.

Now, as I said before, I think that the FPS has a strong base of core gamers that buy the games for more than a fleeting social experience, and for that reason I don't think the genre will ever disappear, or even cease to be a core genre, but I do believe there's a very real possibility that it could fall from its throne of most popular/profitable genre.

Which leads to the next obvious question: what genre replaces the FPS at the top of the mountain? Sports games have a broad appeal, but I can't envision a scenario in which there's a sudden surge of interest in them. Action-Adventures like Uncharted have proven to be successful with non-traditional markets, but games like that aren't truly that different from the reigning FPSs. I think the genre with the best chance of stepping into the spotlight is perhaps the nerdiest of all–the RPG.

Mass Effect 2 showed that by streamlining an RPG and offering a more action oriented package, the genre can sell just as well as anything else. And what sets Action-RPGs apart from Action-Adventures is the depth of narrative. No genre can suck a player into its world as well as the RPG. The ease with which RPGs can get players invested in their stories and universes means major DLC and sequel opportunities. We've already seen how RPGs can put the numbers behind the scenes and adapt to the visceral action Shooter fans have come to expect, and we've seen how the richness inherent to the genre's narratives is a natural source of value to the consumer that will keep them invested in a franchise. The only thing that needs to occur for this shift in power to take place is for casual gamers to get hooked on a concept that only RPGs can offer.

For Rock-Rhythm games, it was the idea of playing an "instrument." For modern FPSs, it's the online experience. For RPGs, I believe that the time has finally come for story to shine in video games. There's a much larger market of potential gamers who are interested in engaging characters and thrilling story arcs than either of the aforementioned hooks; all that needs to happen is for the FPS to fall from power, creating a vacuum for the RPG to fill. Publishers have proven that anything with enough marketing can sell well (Heavy Rain), and somebody will make the RPG with an angle that appeals to the masses. And hopefully, given the genre's focus on writing, its success won't lead to derivative copy-cats and over-saturation, but a new era of story-driven gaming that solidifies video games' place as an artistic medium.

At least that's my speculation. If you see a future of video games that doesn't revolve around character-driven DLC and choice-driven trilogies I'd love to hear about it; just don't tell me that Portal 2 is going to launch the great Puzzler craze of 2011-2016.

Disease in video games


It's terrifying to see what Snake's condition has done to his body.

I'm going to try and keep this feature relatively short, as I feel like I'm dying a little more with every passing minute and I'd rather have Beyond Good & Evil HD be the catalyst for any fever-induced hallucinations than the screen of text in front of me. With that said, what's up with the perfect health of video game characters?

Of course there are exceptions (Old Snake comes to mind), but I can think of very few games that implement disease into the game mechanics. The one shining example I do have is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and that dreadful infection known as vampirism. One of my most vivid memories from that game is when I realized that being a vampire wasn't that cool anymore; shop-keepers ran away from me, I could no longer admire the beauty of a sun-lit valley, and I was forced to change the way I had been playing the game. What made it even more meaningful was how much of a pain it was to complete the quest to find a cure.

So how come more games haven't explored disease? After all, it's one of the most profound and universal experiences in human life. We all know what it's like to be knocked out of commission because of a sickness (if you don't, just give it some time), and feeling like your body has betrayed you forces you to imagine what a terminal illness must feel like. Disease can take over and change a person's life, so how is it that no game developers have thought to examine this yet?

Obviously, there's the fact that diseases typically prevent the sort of world-saving athletics demanded by most video games, but there's nothing saying developers have to realistically model a disease. In fact, a video game portrayal of a real disease would more than likely fail to capture a fraction of the struggle involved and make a lot of people angry in the process. So that's why developers should make up their own illness with symptoms that game-mechanics could be built around.

What I'm talking about has to be more than a simple penalty to stats; it has to weave its way into the very mechanisms of gameplay. Make finding medicine such a high priority that you lose control of a limb if you go too long without a fix; make vision start to blur, induce hallucinations, slow reaction times by lagging button inputs. Or a developer could give you a limited amount of stamina to work with before your character starts to cough uncontrollably. An element such as this would force you to carefully think about how you want to tackle a problem; do you risk strenuously climbing a rock wall and hope that you can find enough rest spots to hang on, or do you take the long way around and risk not getting to your goal in time? Or maybe a steady joystick needs to muffle a coughing attack so surrounding enemies don't hear. Perhaps you need to meticulously hide your condition from party members and tension will rise out of that. Maybe there's a limited amount of game hours before your character's body starts to shut down.

These are all possibilities of how disease could work in video games, and if I weren't so damn hot right now I might be able to list of some more ideas. But my point is clear; managing a disease can require just as much careful thought as commanding an army or navigating a puzzle, especially if we factor in the side-affects of powerful medicines and the social dynamics of sick and healthy people working side-by-side. I'd like to experience what that -1 to my Constitution really means.

Gaming in 2011


It might not be the sexiest (or most original) feature you've read lately, but I think 2011′s line-up of games is so damn nice that it's worth looking at twice. Also this gives me an opportunity to share some of the ways that 2011 will be affecting me personally as a gamer. Namely, I've decided that after spending nearly $600 on video games last year only to realize that most of them weren't even that good, it's time to try out GameFly. I figure the $15 a month will let me play more games at a lower cost. If I come across a game that I'm particularly infatuated with, I can pony up for it then. Heck, I could buy six full-priced games in addition to the GameFly subscription and still come out ahead of last year's expenses. In fact, that's sort of what this list is all about; trying decipher which six games look good enough to buy as of right now.

Cream of the crop: The games I'm most likely to buy.

Batman: Arkham CityArkham Asylum was one of the best games of 2009 and probably the best super-hero game of all time. This sequel is taking the Dark Knight to a bigger open-world, giving him more stuff to do and things to do it with, and generally just making everything more awesome. The possibility of co-op is just gravy.

Bulletstorm – An obnoxiously vulgar shooter that rewards creativity over repetitive headshots sounds pretty fun to me. I'm sure the score-based gameplay will be endlessly addicting, especially with friends thrown into the fray.

Crysis 2 – Nobody seems to be talking about it, but Crytek's latest beauty could be the game to successfully marry fast-paced parkour action with the ultra-intense shooting we've come to expect in our games. Oh, and the guys who made TimeSplitters 2 are handling the multiplayer.

Dead Space 2 – I missed out on the first one, but from everything I've heard it was an instant horror cl*ssic. The more action-packed focus of the sequel could be cause for concern, but early reviews are glowing. Even the multiplayer aspect is supposed to be fun.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Despite never playing the first Deus Ex, I respect it immensely because its game-design embodies everything I think developers should be doing. Even the sequel, which by all accounts was incredibly dumbed down still rewarded player choice in a way that few other games have. I think you can understand why I'm excited for this story-driven monument to player-choice.

Dragon Age II – As much as I harp on all the things BioWare is changing about my beloved Dragon Age: Origins in this sequel, I'm still totally stoked for it. I have no doubt that it will be a better game mechanically, and the world is bound to be just as rich and engaging. If the king of WRPGs can manage to maintain real role-playing with their Shephard spin-off, Hawke, then this game will be epic.

Duke Nukem Forever – I'll be honest with you; this one is really only here because after 14 years of defining vaporware, I'm pretty damn curious to find out how DNF will turn out. It's in the hands of a good developer, and the Duke is an American hero in my book, so the odds look good for this one.

Gears of War 3Gears of War pioneered a brand new genre (okay, maybe some of that credit should go to Resident Evil 4) and still executed like Epic had been pumping out Over-the-Shoulder Third-Person-Shooters for ten years. Its sequel improved on the action in every way and added in the insanely addictive Horde mode, which has become a multiplayer staple in Shooters ever since. Now the conclusion to this epic trilogy is adding giant mutating enemies that can burst out of the ground and eat you? Please sign me up.

Homefront – I'll say it again; Call of Duty meets Half-Life 2. Add the script-writer of Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn to that action and atmosphere and there's a whole lot of potential.

L.A. Noire – This one's all about the faces. The new MotionScan technology Rockstar is using for L.A. Noire maps facial animations so realistically that the studio decided to make reading faces a core component of the gameplay. That's right, detecting a liar's tell in an interrogation is a pillar of the game. Throw in Rockstar's usual attention to detail, some traditional gun-play, and a thrilling story about detectives in 1940′s Los Angeles and…well, have I ever mentioned that L.A. Confidential is one of my all-time favorite movies? I have? Hmm, well you probably still haven't watched it, so I'll keep telling you to until I'm occupied with this game.

Mass Effect 3 – The conclusion to video games' first trilogy to ever adapt to players' choices from beginning to end, thanks to imported save files. How could anybody not be excited for this? Even if the games weren't connected, the Mass Effect universe is undisputedly one of the best sci-fi universes out there, and Mass Effect 2's core gameplay was sublime.

Portal 2 – First of all, it's from Valve. That should be reason enough. But let's say it's not. How about the fact that it's the sequel to one of the funniest games of all time? Still not doing it for you, huh? Okay, consider that it's upping the complexity of the first game's divinely satisfying puzzles by adding property-altering materials to your already unique arsenal of time-space portals. Then put all of that into a longer single-player campaign and top it off with a dedicated co-op campaign.

Rage – It's the first new IP from id (Doom, Castle Wolfenstein, Quake) in over a decade, it looks as technically astounding as you'd expect a John Carmack game to look, and it combines mutant shooting and buggy-racing in a post-apocalyptic open-world that's got a hell of a lot more pizazz than most other post-apocalyptic worlds. I'm certainly ready.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Teacher, mother, secret lover! It's Oblivion (one of the greatest WRPGs of all-time), but like ten times more awesome. I've arrived at this number by way of a complex formula centering mainly on the presence of dragons.

Tomb Raider – This reboot of a cl*ssic franchise sounds like a cross between Far Cry and Uncharted 2 to me. If an open-world Uncharted that makes survival a core gameplay mechanic doesn't excite you, then I don't know what will.

Downloadable games: The "small" games that always seem to leave the biggest impact in my mind.

Bastion – The gorgeous visuals and omnipresent narrator make this Greg Kasavin title a heck of a lot more aesthetically pleasing than most of the crap being churned out every year.

Rayman Origins – The beautiful art direction is one reason to follow this game, but I'm more interested in seeing if Ubisoft's UBIart Framework, technology specifically developed for small-team development (only five people are working on this game) can set a successful precedent. Smaller teams means lower development costs, which in turn means riskier games.

Stacking – After the deliciousness of Double Fine's bite-sized Costume Quest, I'm eagerly anticipating the studio's next unbelievably original effort. A cast of Russian nesting dolls is certainly a good place to start if you're looking for something out of the ordinary.

The Witness – We don't know a whole lot about this game other than the fact that it'll have us solving puzzles on a desolate open-word island. But all anybody really needs to know is that Jonathan Blow is making this.

Games that I hope come out this year, but most likely won't: Not going to comment on these because there's just no sense in jumping on the hype train before the tracks are laid.

Beyond Good & Evil 2

From Dust

I Am Alive

Metal Gear Solid: Rising

Spec-Ops: The Line

Games I'm moderately interested in: Not going to comment on these, because, well, I'm only moderately interested in them.

Battlefield 3


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Hitman 5

Max Payne 3

Mortal Kombat

Red Faction: Armageddon

Shadows of the Damned

Silent Hill: Downpour


Game I'm excited about but don't have the means to play: I certainly won't be buying games for systems I don't own, but I hope to get some hands on time with them in one way or another. Hope my friends aren't too attached to their PS3s this year!

Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection – I've already experienced the cl*ssic that is Shadow of the Colossus, now I just need to play its predecessor.

Infamous 2 – People tell me the first one was great, so it follows that this second outing will be at least as good as the first. Still, based on the trailers I've seen, a little more personality wouldn't hurt this title.

Journey – A downloadable title from the makers of Flower, this art-house game values the journey through a mythic desert more than some arbitrary destination.

Kid Icarus: Uprising – If it weren't the Super Smash Bros. games I wouldn't even know who Pit is, but this premiere 3DS title is drawing me in with its spectacular rail-shooting and boss fights instead of nostalgia.

Killzone 3 – The sequel to one of this generation's deepest multiplayer experiences ups the ante with jet packs, mechs, and gargantuan set pieces.

Little Big Planet 2 – If we completely forget the irresistible cuteness and crack Platforming, there's still that whole part where you can essentially CREATE YOUR OWN GAME! I don't know if I've ever seen such a sophisticated set of creation tools in a game, and the thought of crafting my own deranged cut-scenes has the stuffing frothing from my stitching.

Resistance 3 – That other PS3 Shooter is actually considered the better Sony franchise by many, and given the epic scale of some of the enemies, not to mention the robust co-op and competitive offerings, I won't argue otherwise.

Star Wars: The Old Republic – BioWare has said again and again that their first MMO will be "KotOR 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 combined. If they can deliver on a fraction of that, then this game will have been worth the wait.

The Last Guardian – Hey, if HD remasterings of six and ten year old games from Team ICO are on this list, then you better believe their newest title is going to make an appearance. Nobody makes games like Fumito Ueda, and I can't wait to see his PS3 debut.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of TimeAs you might know, I've never played Ocarina of Time and I've always felt bad about that. And because I'm too poor to buy a 3DS, I probably won't have done anything about that come the end of the year. But that doesn't mean I can't hope and long!

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – When I said I had never played OoT before, I actually meant to say I've never played any Zelda game ever…yeah, I know. This up-coming Wii entry of the series looks chalk full of fun gameplay that's accentuated by Nintendo's Wii Motion Plus accessory. If only I had a Wiimote to go a-chopping plant enemies with.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – If it weren't for my six-year-old piece of garbage PC, I'd be buying CD Projekt Red's latest on day one. The dark, dynamic, and mature story of the first Witcher always sounded pretty awesome to me, so a sequel with smoother, more visceral combat and better graphics is obviously pretty appealing. Please bring this consoles in 2012. Please.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception – After Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog would probably have to make a conscious effort to make a bad game. Fortunately for us, Suda 51 isn't working for them. Zing!

So there you have it. That's a heck of a lot of games coming out this year. I'd have to say that as of right now, the six I'm leaning toward with my perpetually thinning wallet are Dragon Age II, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Gears of War 3, Mass Effect 3, Portal 2, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I'd love to hear arguments for other games or against these, as I want to make the most informed purchases possible this year. No more Alan Wakes or Splinter Cell: Convictions.

And as a non-software related bonus, I'll briefly comment on the gaming trends I'm interested in this year. Hand-helds really aren't my thing, so I don't really care about the 3DS or "NGP." I do have in interest in 3D, though. Unlike film, where it's just a cheap gimmick, I feel like the field-of-depth provided by 3D could have some meaningful ramifications in gaming, so that's something to watch. It'll also be fun to see where Kinect goes. Hopefully it evolves past the cheesy party-game device it currently is. Oh, and are there going to be any new IPs that sneak up on us this year? I'm looking forward to finding all this out and I know you are too. Feel free to vent your expectations and anxieties here.

2010 Game of the Year


It's that time of year again; that wonderful time when we place an arbitrary crown on a single video game for rising above all the rest and demonstrating what video games should be. But before we recap the year that was 2010, I'd first like to continue an InsaneBear tradition and re-evaluate 2009′s Game of the Year…Alright, and with that re-evaluation process completed, I've decided to amend the scores of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Borderlands from Good to Great and Great to Good, respectively. That said, Dragon Age: Origins retains the honors of GotY. It certainly has some interface problems and the combat is a little clunky, but the world and cast of characters are sublimely rich and the Origin stories are a thing of beauty. Few games have allowed me to embrace real role-playing so readily, and for that, Dragon Age: Origins lives on in my mind. Let's just hope the sequel is as good.

With that out of the way, we can move on to the lineup of 2010 contenders. Once again, I'm ashamed to have no insights on the many great PS3 and Wii titles that came out this year, but I am what we would call a poor college kid. Feel free to dig into those deep pockets of yours and make a donation. And yes, if I had any faith that any of you would actually make a donation I'd totally go through the effort of putting a fancy link on "donation" that would allow direct deposits into my the InsaneBear bank account. Hmm, I wonder if I can write this site off as a business expense? I really just want to say that I'm writing things off…

Alan Wake – This game makes a pretty bold move in casting a washed-up writer as the protagonist, but those elbow patches on Mr. Wake's jacket grew into my heart and convinced me that Remedy has created one of the most interesting new characters of the year in Alan Wake. The supporting cast is equally strong, and the story is a unique one for video games. The cinematic presentation really allows for the game's interesting light mechanics to shine (get it?) and the atmosphere is startlingly alive.

BioShock 2 – This game takes all the mechanical aspects an all-time cl*ssic in BioShock and makes them better. More weapons, more plasmids, and more enemies combine with smoother combat for some truly intense and unique FPS action, and it's all brought to life by phenomenal art direction, graphics, and sound design. Against all odds, Rapture manages to maintain its mysterious allure and keeps players coming back to explore more of the seafloor city's ecology. Plus, 2K Marin provides a fun multiplayer offering full of unique BioShock twists.

Costume Quest – Double Fine's first stab at the downloadable market rode its adorable visual design and Halloween theme all the way from my hard-drive to my heart and I can't wait to see what the studio brings to the table next. A quirky story infused with plenty of laughs is the main draw, but the turn-based combat is a blast too. I'm still in awe of the snazzy costume design; I mean, that french-fry arachnid thing is a thing of terrifying beauty.

Fable III – Lionhead's third entry in the Fable series maintains the charming audio and visual direction of the franchise while amping up its signature humor to side-splitting magnitudes. The combat is super smooth and the story is probably the most interesting Lionhead has produced so far. Oh, and co-op is fully functional this time around.

Halo: Reach – The Halo formula has defined FPS gaming for the better part of a decade and is still just as addictive today as it was in 2001. What makes Reach so exceptional is that it dares to build on that formula in a meaningful way with the concept of armor abilities, which really allow you to approach combat however you choose. Beautiful visuals and sound complement an infinitely replayable collection of game-modes that accommodate loners, competitive types, co-operative buddies, level-builders, and machinama-makers. Each mode is further enhanced by dozens of customizable modifiers which are contained within amazingly simple and intuitive menus. From a gameplay and value perspective, Bungie's final Halo effort is the pinnacle of a series that many consider to be the greatest FPS franchise of all time.

Mass Effect 2 – Without a doubt the most polished game BioWare has ever put out, Mass Effect 2 is a game that transcends genre. While the choice-driven dialogue trees scream of WRPGs, the shooting is so astonishingly smooth and intense that it can compete with any Third-Person Shooter on the market. The cast of wonderfully voiced characters occupy a distinct universe which is inspired by the ****c aesthetic of sci-fi giants like Blade Runner, and the narrative is good enough to go toe to toe with most sci-fi greats. But what's most impressive is to see the grand scope of the franchise when your choices from Mass Effect 1 show up in this greatly improved sequel. If Mass Effect 3 can rope it all together, then Commander Shephard's space-faring trilogy will go down as one of the greatest in the history of video games.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit – 2010 could go down as the best year ever for the Racing genre, what with titles like Gran Turismo 5, Split/Second, Blur, and more. But in my mind, this Hot Pursuit reboot is the best of them all (keeping in mind that I haven't actually played any of the others…I just like cop-chases). Whether you're racing the computer, talking trash online, or desperately trying to top your friend's best time, drifting through a corner at high speeds in a $2,000,000 Bugatti is immensely satisfying.

Perfect Dark – An HD face-lift and online capabilities for one of the best games of all time? It's hard to imagine Perfect DarkPerfect Dark. Oh, and did I forget to mention the local split-screen options? Thank the gaming gods for allowing this remake to be made. for Xbox Live Arcade being anything but good. Sure enough, the core gameplay is just as fun now as it was in standard definition ten years ago. The ridiculous number of weapons, all with secondary functions, the superb enemy animations, the programmable multiplayer bots, the insane amount of stat-tracking, the plethora of different game-types, all of that makes for one of the deepest and most fully realized FPSs of all time. Add in an unforgettable soundtrack and a really good story, and you have to wonder why more developers aren't copying

Red Dead Redemption – What can I say? Rockstar's take on the wild west successfully creates the single most organic game-world I've ever experienced. When you're purposefully ignoring fast-travel just so you can take in the awesome beauty of the world around you, you know the developers are doing something right. Add in a cast of supremely written characters, a cl*ssic Western tale, an innovative and daring ending, great graphics and sound, as well as a robust multiplayer feature, and you've got the ingredients for one hell of a game.

Splinter Cell: Conviction – Sam Fisher's latest tale of espionage boldly goes where no stealth game has gone before and rewards players for being aggressive "predators" instead of the ghosts of the past. The innovative "Mark and Execute" system keeps the pace charging ahead on all cylinders and consistently has you feeling like a bad ass. The dedicated co-op campaign is a welcome addition too.

Honorable Mentions – Games that I should have played but didn't…

Civilization V – It's supposed to be the most accessible Civ game yet but it doesn't sacrifice any depth to achieve that. I'm almost afraid to play it for fear of becoming addicted.

Donkey Kong Country Returns – Cl*ssic Platforming at its finest and a great aesthetic to go with it. And I hear that the challenge certainly gives you your money's worth.

God of War III – There's never been a game with such visual scale as this grandiose beauty. The seamless zooms from the back of a Titan to the mountain he is climbing and back again are astonishing. Kratos' third bloody adventure is undoubtedly one of the best looking games of all time.

Heavy Rain – Quantic Dream's daring interactive thriller is unquestionably the most unique AAA title of 2010 and is worth playing simply to experience something different. Everybody who's played it seems to say that it's got some of the most memorable moments of the year.

Kirby's Epic Yarn – Is it possible for something to be so cute that it locks you into a permanent smile? Probably not, but Kirby's fabric-fueled adventure can't be accused of not trying. This title definitely has the most appealing art st*le of any game I've seen this year.

Limbo – Looking back, I'm sort of surprised I didn't get this game. I'm thinking I'll probably correct that situation over the next few days, because countless critics have cited this as the most emotionally engaging and thought-provoking game of 2010. But forgetting all of that artsy stuff and looking at it from a practical standpoint, those puzzles are supposed to be devilishly satisfying.

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker – Dude, it's MGS. Does anything more need to be said?

Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty – I've never been one to go nuts over RTSs, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that Blizzard's sequel to one of the all-time greats looks really fun.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 – This follow up to Mario's Wii Debut essentially takes everything that made that game a GotY contender (in 2007!) and makes it better. Miyamoto-san knows how to do one thing above all else and that's how to make fun video games. SMG2 is supposed to be the pinnacle of 3D Platformers.

Vanquish – This futuristic Third-Person Shooter from the creator of Resident Evil has been winning a lot of "Best Game Nobody Played" awards for its ultra-intense shooting and jet-sliding mechanic that always has you on the offensive. There might not be much more to it than shooting, but that shooting is supposed to be some of the best this year.

And now for the awards…

Best Biceps – I really wanted to pick Clay Matthews III here, because, well, the man looks like he could murder you with his bare hands. But Madden NFL 11 doesn't quite do my favorite Green Bay Packer justice, so I decided to give it to a fictional character who does murder people with his bare hands, Kratos. Mass Effect 2's Grunt and the really big bandit who smokes cigars in Fable III were also in the running.

Game of the Year Runner-UpMass Effect 2.

2010 Game of the YearHalo: Reach. In a three-way race between Reach, Mass Effect 2, and Red Dead Redemption, Bungie's final effort on the series that made them a house-hold name emerges as the all-around best game. RDR's game-world is more technically astounding, and ME2's story and characters are far more memorable, but Reach has the least flaws while managing to still be innovative. It doesn't hurt that this game is more fundamentally fun and has more value than anything else that came out this year.

And that's that for 2010, a relatively disappointing year for video games. But the future looks mighty bright in 2011. I'm looking forward to evaluating the ridiculous number of great looking games at the end of the year. Until then, let's focus on more important things, like Most Serenading Voice of 2010.

Re-evaluating death

The Witcher 2

In The Witcher 2, playing on the Insane difficulty gives you one life for the entire game.

If you indulge in the fine, fine listening that we call the InsaneBearcast around here then you might have heard me talk about this subject before. But death in video games is a pretty important topic in my mind, and it's certainly worth revisiting in greater detail. What is it that keeps bringing my mind back to this issue? I'm certainly not one of those hardcore old-school gamers clamoring to repeat entire levels after death. But at the same time, I have a big problem with the diminishing significance of death in video games' recent history. To put it simply, I have a major problem with developers' approaches to one of gaming's fundamental elements and I'd like to explore some alternatives here.

Before we can move on we must first take a moment to understand what death represents in video games. On the most basic level, death is failure, and it is the fear of failure that gives our victories meaning. Without anything on the table to lose there just isn't much incentive to play the game. It is the possibility of losing that creates tension, whether it be our own defeat or that of a character's. In films, the suspense of a good narrative elicits this fear of failure in the form of empathy for characters. But any gamer will tell you that the stakes are higher when you're personally invested in the gamble. That's what makes video games so exciting; it isn't just Solid Snake facing enormous odds, but the player too.

Unfortunately, the current conventions of death aren't satisfying this customer. My biggest problem with death in video games is that there is nothing less immersive than a Game Over screen. It completely tears us out of the game-world and shatters narrative validity. It's hard to get invested in game stories when they're constantly restarting with no acknowledgment of player action. At the same time, it's hard to get invested in gameplay when there's no challenge presented to the player (as I'm currently playing Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit I am astounded at what little consequences there are for flipping your car at 200mph).

Now, when I harp on lack of consequences for failure, I'm mainly talking about games with checkpoints every thirty seconds and stuff like that. But really, how bad is it to have to repeat a level in more traditional games? It's certainly tedious and frustrating, but the punishment hardly seems fatal. What I'm looking for is a meaningful form of "death" that punishes the player enough to keep things tense while maintaining narrative credibility. And guess what! It's your lucky day because I've got a few swell ideas on how this ideal could come to fruition.

Addiction to expensive drugs increases with every death – This one works best with a game that features an economy, but there are ways around that. Still, the basic premise is that you take some not-so-soft drugs every time you become incapacitated. Maybe that's alright the first couple of times, but pretty soon you will develop an addiction that requires a fix just to keep your vitals stable. The catch is that this highly addictive drug is highly expensive as well. Or in the case of a game without an economy, it could be an item that's only found it certain high-danger areas. Whatever the case, if you aren't careful about how you play the game then there's a good possibility you'll develop a debilitating addiction. And for all those wimps who want to play on Easy, I guess we could throw in a rehab option for a small fee.

Each death takes you a "level" deeper and extends the game – Taking the concept of dream-levels found in Inception and applying it to death, I think there's potential for a pretty cool game. The key is that death needs to be welcomed in this game. I'm envisioning a difficult Platformer that can be beat in a single brief sitting if you're good enough to avoid death. But, the intense difficulty will ensure that most players aren't that good, and they'll get sucked a level deeper into the spirit world. Each death will take you down another level and require that you make it through a level unharmed in order to advance back to the previous level. If you die 50 times, then you've got 50 levels to crawl back through. Dying again on your ascent won't send you all the way back to your lowest level, but it will send you down a standard level. The only way to beat the game is to return to that fateful first level and ascend to the heavens.

If you die you have less time to complete the game – This particular suggestion would also alleviate one of the issues I've always had with RPGs; we're supposed to be confronting impeding doom and saving the world/universe/girl (how come we never get to play as the guy trying to destroy these things?), yet those side-quests are just too irresistible to pass up. What we get are cut-scenes telling us what little time we have and gameplay that allows us to entertain the requests of every troubled schmuck from here to Kyoto.

Considering how much I adore side-quests and the general feeling of completing everything a game has to offer, it'd be a meaningful consequence to have my failures result in less time to do those things. Instead of calling it death, we can just say the player-character was incapacitated and needed a few weeks/months of recovery time. This way the narrative doesn't star some silly respawning jerk and there are still tangible in-game consequences for poor performance. Depending on how many times you die, you might have to sacrifice some smaller quests in the name of the greater good. If you really suck, then you'll run out of time and the world will wish it had a hero who spent more time training and less time recovering. Either way, this alternative would heighten both narrative and gameplay tension while keeping us invested in the game-world.

If you die you take over a party member – This one probably works best with party-based RPGs, but I also think it's one of the most effective proposals. RPGs are rarely so difficult that death is a frequent issue, but they do need to have enough moments of challenge to maintain player interest. So if we assume there are roughly a dozen potential failures throughout the game, then the number of deaths matches up pretty well with standard party sizes. Imagine you're playing Mass Effect and instead of reloading when Commander Shepard dies, you simply assume control of another party member and continue the mission in his or her shoes. Not only does this create for some terrific narrative tension, it'd also make the gameplay pretty damn intense when enough party members die that you're heading into combat with a short-handed team and everything to lose. Playing as a new character with every death would also force you to utilize different skills and learn new st*les of combat, which sounds like a surefire way to keep things fresh.

The only problem I can see coming out of this scenario would be the potential for players to completely negate a character's narrative development once they take over. I wouldn't want to restrict anybody's role-playing choices, but it might be a good idea to put in some sort of incentive to stay in-character. Oh, and if everybody dies then the galaxy's screwed because you killed off the only ten people capable of saving it. No pressure, :) .

Lose the equipment you had when you died – Not a whole lot to this one, but it'd be effective nonetheless. If you wreck your car in a racing game then you should lose that car. If you get knocked out in an RPG then you should lose whatever equipment you were wearing to looters. Sure, that could really piss some people off, but any decent RPG should have a variety of suitable equipment on standby. Failure demands consequences!

Mental deterioration with every death – Like horror games? You know what's really scary? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now just imagine that every time you're brought back from the brink of death (for the purposes of a horror game where you're all alone and no medics are likely to come, the narrative will have to explain these timely saves somehow–God? Cyborgs? Cats?) you suffer some permanent consequences. Namely, you'll periodically have hallucinations that reenact and intensify your death, but as the player you won't realize they are hallucinations. You'll just have to hope that the guy cutting your head off isn't real. And the more times you "die," the more frequent the visions will become. Maybe you'll start to hear strange whispers too. That'd be creepy. I'm pretty much just hoping that by the end of the game you'll be so cracked out that you won't know what's real and you'll be terrified to step around every corner.

Now you might be saying to yourself that the game couldn't possibly be scary if you really can't die, but what if you become so traumatized that you go into your own little wacko world? It'd have to be a game with two endings, one for the good players and one for the people who were driven mad by their suckiness, but that'd be a hell of a twist at the end, wouldn't it?

Rescue mission if you die/resume as new character – This idea isn't quite as radical as the others, but it would allow for death to make sense in the narrative. Most effectively applied to Military Shooters, this spin on failure would actually let you die. But instead of instantly respawning at the last checkpoint, you would take control of another nameless soldier and complete the mission. After the mission's over, you would then have to play a rescue mission in which you backtrack through still-hostile territory to retrieve the body before advancing to the next level. I also see potential for a non-action segment where you take on the role of the soldier informing the deceased's family of their loss.

And those are my ideas on how to fix death in video games. I realize that most of them would still require you to replay the level you died on after extraction, so some tedium remains, but overall I think the long-term consequences I've proposed in each scenario make failure much more meaningful. And most importantly, each proposal is designed to maintain a believable narrative that doesn't just reboot whenever you screw up.

Top 15 games I need to play before I die


How can I go on without experiencing breast physics!?!

Some people might get the impression that since I run a website about video games then I must know everything about them. I'd like to think I'm pretty knowledgeable, but the truth is that there a lot of cl*ssic games I've never even played before. This list is a look at some of the titles that slipped me by but have managed to stand the test of time and keep calling out to me. I'd like to try and play all of them before the great arcade cabinet that is life sucks all the quarters out of me. Hopefully publishers will humor my superficiality and do some HD-remakes!

But before I begin to destroy any credibility you guys thought I had, I'd just like to note how interesting it was to look back through pages of near-perfect review scores and see how many of the games on this list scored lower than games we'd be hard-pressed to remember these days. I also spent quite a bit of time deliberating on titles like Diablo II and Starcraft before coming to the conclusion that their sequels will likely (no guarantees) make them obsolete.

To me, it seems like especially memorable games do more than innovate mechanically; most of these games are driven by a cast of iconic characters that transcend gameplay. While the aforementioned Blizzard titles do feature iconic characters, their cut-scene cameos aren't what players remember those games for. I think for a relatively storyless game to outlast its sequels, the game mechanics it introduces have to be nothing short of revolutionary. So sorry, every major RTS game that didn't make this list, you're just too similar to your predecessors. Now without further ado…

Beyond Good & Evil – A cult hit with a unique world full of unusual characters (whoo, female protagonist!) and an atypical game-mechanic (photography) make this a game that was before its time. There's still a thriving fan-base begging for a sequel today.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – What can I say? I've never played a Castlevania game. I feel bad about it, considering they essentially defined an entire genre along with the early Metroid titles. From what I hear, Symphony of the Night is the best of the bunch. Even if this game's influence on modern titles is minimal, it's still worth playing to experience the peak of a genre.

Chrono Trigger – Of the many, many JRPGs I've never played, this one is one of the most referenced anywhere I go. I don't know much about it, but I do know that many people consider it to have one of the greatest stories video games have ever been graced with. Since I'm a story-telling sort of guy, that's of interest to me. I'd also like to play Chrono Cross.

Deus Ex – I feel especially bad about this one, because I downloaded it for free before and couldn't get past the first level because I've become just a graphics whore. I'm sorry, but 3D games looked pretty bad back then. Still, I really should play it, considering its design principle of letting the player choose how they want to solve any given problem is what I think every game should aspire to. Also, it's supposed to have a superb sci-fi story, which is totally my scene. And considering I really loved its sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, which seemingly everybody who's played the original game hates because it waters so much of that experience down, well, I feel like I'd probably like Deus Ex if I gave it a fair chance.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem – I don't know if this undeniably unique and bizarre title should be taken as horror or comedy, but I do know that no other game breaks the fourth wall in such interesting ways. There really isn't another game out there like this one, and I'm all for games that explore the essence of interactivity and the relationship between developer and player.

Final Fantasy VII – Yup…I've never played a Final Fantasy game. That's just the way the cookie crumbled. So why pick VII? I don't know. Seems like that's everybody's favorite. That or X. And X would be easier on the eyes. But regardless, I want to experience the series that seems to have the must success in wrestling some emotion out of gamers.

Half-Life – How is it that I've played Half-Life 2 and its expansions multiple times and absolutely love it, but I don't even know what the first game is about? Oh, yeah, that six year gap between the two! It saddens me to think that many eventual Half-Life 3 players will have no idea what Half-Life 2 was all about. But anyways, I want to know what made the first in the series so revolutionary. How were the puzzles implemented? What was the story about? How was it fun without a gravity gun?

Ico – Bro, it's from the dudes who did Shadow of the Colossus. It has the same beautifully minimalist aesthetic, and the story is supposed to be just as touching, if not more so. It's also got some great box art.

Metal Gear Solid 3 – Now I've played Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4. I Loved them both. A lot. So when many people make the argument that Metal Gear Solid 3 has the best, most emotional and mature story in the series, it sort of makes me feel bad for the couple hours I spent in a borrowed copy. This is a game that I need to see through to the end. Especially this game, given its frequently talked about ending. I haven't played it myself, but just from reading about it, it sort of sounds like the greatest ending to a video game ever. I should also play the original Metal Gear Solid.

Metroid PrimeMetroid Prime's unique brand of first-person puzzle-solving and shooting has earned it enough critical praise to always be listed as one of the best games of the decade. Its sequels are rated just as favorably. Given that I've never played a Metroid game, and my preference is the first-person perspective, I feel like this would be a good place to start.

Psychonauts – Tim Schafer has a way of garnering rabid fan-bases for his cult-cl*ssics that do a better job of marketing them than publishers ever did. Of the many unique, witty, funny, and endearing games Schafer has made, many consider Psychonauts to be his crowning achievement. The very premise of playing in a dream-world sounds radtacular, so I don't know why I haven't played this. I mean, I've liked ever Schafer game I've played before, so what am I waiting for? Probably an HD-remake. Hey, while they're at it, how about a remake of Grim Fandango so I can play that too?

Resident Evil 4 – I'm gonna let you in on a secret; of all the Resident Evil games, I've only played the fifth one to completion. Luckily I have played a sizable portion of RE4, so my impression of the series doesn't end with a boulder-punching, not-very-scary affair. What I did gather from my experience with Resident Evil 4 is that it is a superbly crafted game which is largely responsible for the new over-the-shoulder aiming mechanic that's all the rage these days. Many professional game critics consider this to be one of the greatest games of all time, so I really have no excuse for not experiencing all of its story. I should probably play the first three games too, just so I can say I know the fear that comes with a zombie-dog cheaply crashing through a window.

Silent Hill 2 – While we're on the topic of horror games, I can't tell you how many forums and message boards have told me that this is the scariest game of all time. From what little experience I have with the Silent Hill series, I remember some pretty atrocious controls, but maybe I can endure them in order to experience the psychological terror of this game's story. And hey, I haven't even had it spoiled for me yet!

System Shock 2 – My favorite game of all time, BioShock, is this game's spiritual successor. And from what I've read, SS2's game mechanics and systems are deeper than the console-friendly BioShock. Plus, it's supposed to have one of the most memorable villains ever. Why haven't I played this game?

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Umm, sooo…yeah. I'd probably feel really awkward revealing this if I hadn't said it like four times on podcasts already, but I've never played a Zelda game. I know, terrible person here. I picked Ocarina of Time above the rest because that's how most people seem to rate it, although Link to the Past has an equally impressive camp. Personally, I always thought the premise behind Majora's Mask sounded pretty sweet, but if I'm going for a pure Zelda experience, then OoT is probably the way to go.

And that's it. It probably would have been a more interesting list if I'd done the top 15 cl*ssics you haven't played (then I could have talked about Thief), but I felt this was my duty as someone who writes about games to disclose all my guilty secrets. That, and I was too lazy to change it once I started writing. Now it's your turn, folks!

Defining video games as a medium


Is the art in what the developers are saying to us, or what we're saying about ourselves?

It might be stating the obvious, but video games are not movies. They are not books. They are not songs. Video games belong to a distinct medium with its own strengths and weaknesses. As I've been studying the origins of avant-garde film the past few months, I've been faced with this question of how a medium defines itself and celebrates its uniqueness. I think it's worth looking at what sets interactive entertainment apart and how video games do or don't embrace that.

See, the formative years of film saw Hollywood firmly entrench narrative films as the standard way to experience cinema, but even back then artists working in the medium wanted to explore what makes motion pictures different from photography, painting, and so on. Ambitious young film-makers began to make movies that didn't rely on the crutch of narrative to keep the audience's attention; their films celebrated the moving image and the unique capabilities of a camera–slow motion, fast-forward, rewind, stop-motion, superimposition, etc. This drive to experiment with the medium and make works unique to film generated and continues to generate what are generally regarded as the highest and most respected works of art offered by the cinema.

Now before we get too far ahead of ourselves here, let me just say that most experimental and avant-garde films are highly inaccessible, borderline pretentious, and exponentially less entertaining than more traditional works in the medium. That's not to say they're not enjoyable, because many of them are, but I've found that the techniques developed by these experiments in art are best served supplementing a traditional narrative structure and embellishing it in a way that only film can. On their own, visual tricks tend to feel self-indulgent and meaningless, whereas they noticeably enhance a narrative and its themes. In other words, David Lynch films are so delightfully strange and unique because he barrows so heavily from the techniques of the avant-garde, but his work is also vastly more entertaining than the films he steals from because he actually utilizes characters and stories that we can relate to.

So now that we've gotten that tangent out of the way I can get back to my point. Every medium has its wacko artists who push the boundaries and explore the capabilities of their field. Every medium has corporate suits who cater to the lowest common denominator in the pursuit of cash-money. And every medium has sensible artists who find a comfy middle ground that allows them to access large audiences and make money whilst maintaining artistic integrity. But video games, being as young as they are, are still trying to sort out this hierarchy.

We all know about the people who are only interested in money (Bobby Kotick), and there are plenty of people who develop in the middle ground (Ken Levine), but the expected cl*ss of starving artists is a bit lacking. Of course there are some out there (Jonathan Blow), but even within the Indie community, most developers aren't experimenting with form itself. It seems like 2D platformers have become the default mode of artistic expression for developers with riskier stories to tell. Where are the developers who want to redefine what interactivity can be?

At its core, interactivity boils down to us hitting a button and affecting the game-world in some way. For some reason, most people have just come to accept that shooting, jumping, and accelerating are the only ways to interact with a world. Films are limited to what can be accomplished with the technology of a camera, but video games' potential really knows no bounds. Whatever a developer can dream up can be programmed in. The player hits button X and causes effect Y. So why in God's name is nearly every video game a carbon-copy of another video game?

Obviously the high cost of development means there's a greater commercial influence for video games than independent films that can be made for a few thousand dollars, but every new place developers take interactive entertainment to is an untapped and potentially lucrative market. Who would have ever thought The Sims would go on to become one of the most successful video game franchises of all time? Pretty much every game genre is based on a game mechanic that was innovative and risky at the time of its inception. If no publishers were willing to support experimental ideas then we'd still be playing Pong.

So where am I going with this, you ask? Hmm…that's a good question. Just kidding, I totally know what I want to say here…Errmm, yes! Who are the people out there defining this medium before our very eyes? Who is producing content that could not be created in any other mode of artistic expression? Most shooters seem to be trying their damnedest to copy Hollywood blockbusters in every way possible, what with the heavily scripted gameplay and cut-scenes and limiting player choice to "shoot or die." Many RPGs of late have adopted systems of moral choice that significantly affect the narrative, but in all honesty that isn't anything a choose-your-own-adventure book can't do. What games are celebrating player choice and the cause-effect relationship between the controller and the game-world?

As much as I hate to say it, maybe motion-control games do have some merit. True, most of them are garbage, but they are advocating a new way of interacting. Microsoft's Kinect technology in particular has the potential to open up entirely new ways of interacting with game words. For example, Lionhead's Fable III made a pretty big deal out of NPC interaction and physical touch, but to me, pressing the left trigger to hold somebody's hand and escort them somewhere felt like a gimmick. But imagine a touch-based game with Kinect. The technology could allow for much more subtle interactions and infuse a virtual world with some real humanity. I'm not an expert on the tech, but I don't see why a developer couldn't simply map the user's hand gestures to a realistic avatar and not some goofy caricature. What's to stop us from having a game-world as fully realized as Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City, but with motion controls supplementing a traditional controller for character interactions?

But we don't even need new technology to push the boundaries of interaction. Fully destructible environments are a perfect example of a world reacting to how a player interacts with it. Any game-world that organically changes based on player interaction would be impossible to replicate in any other medium. There was a game a few years back by the name of Fracture which by all accounts wasn't very fun, but it introduced this mechanic of altering the game-world's terrain in real-time as a means of combat. Hell, on that note, could you imagine an open-world game with world-altering abilities like that? Everybody's world would be different. Everybody would solve problems in different ways. Jesus, what about an open-world Portal. My head would explode.

Okay, so maybe that's a little overboard, but you get the point. It's great when players are given the power to make their game-world unique from everybody else's, just as it's great to make our characters unique from everybody else's. Anything that makes our play experience unique from others' is good. That's why Real-Time Strategy games are such a great example of what makes a video game a video game. The entire genre is based on player choice. How do I want to build my base? How do I want to attack my enemy? Who do I want to attack? No two RTS sessions will play exactly the same. And the choices presented to the player have more meaning and value than the illusion of choice offered by most other genres. Still, RTSs aren't so different from ancient board games like Chess. So there's room for improvement.

As you can probably tell by now, I don't have any shining example of a video game that's uniqueness is exclusive to the medium of interactive entertainment. Video games are the culmination of traditional games, the visual arts, the aural arts, various forms of story-telling, and more. Games combine the elements of other mediums like no other medium. But at the core, there is something unique about video games. I think it deals with the relationship between the player and the game-world and it values choice. I like to imagine a dynamic open-world game, driven by player choice, where the player can solve any problem their own way and the world will react accordingly. Ideally, the most basic interactions would have tangible effects on the world, like painting color and life into the world of Okami with the press of a button.

I don't know if we've truly had a game like that yet, but then again, maybe we've just become so conditioned to interactivity that we take it for granted. It's easy to praise the innovations of form and structure in film because there's only so much a person can do, but interactive entertainment is only limited by the technology of the day. Given that thought, I don't know if games will ever be viewed as fine-art on the merit of form alone. Narrative might be the only path to artistic respectability for us. But that doesn't mean developers should stop experimenting with new game mechanics, because like I said before, every new mechanic is a genre waiting to be born. Maybe if developers stop trying to emulate Hollywood and start examining their own medium we'll get some truly revolutionary advancements.

Video game characters' famous counter-parts


In a perfect world, there would be a video game equivalent of Neil Patrick Harris.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, "Wait just a gosh darn minute! You've already done this feature before." You'd be wrong, though. See, this particular feature focuses on the personality and reputation of the characters I'm comparing instead of their very handsome mugshots. So sit back, have a few laughs, and be reminded yet again of my utter lack of knowledge when it comes to Japanese game characters.

Augustus "Cole Train" Cole (Gears of War franchise) – When we consider Cole Train's larger than life personality and his love for the game of Thrashball, it's kind of hard not to think of Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. They both love talking trash, they both celebrate their victories quite vocally, and they both seem to disappear for large stretches of the game. But in all fairness, even Cole Train isn't so egotistical as to legally change his last name to an incorrect Spanish translation of his number.

Dante (Devil May Cry franchise) – It's hard to look at Dante and not tremble in his badassery. The same could be said about one Mr. Vin Diesel. That dude is just cool. Or at least he was cool in the early 2000′s. Then he seemingly fell of the face of the Earth. Diesel's fall from fame is tragically similar to Dante's. Back when the first Devil May Cry came out he revolutionized action games with his stylish shooting and insane combos. Then he progressively lost prominence on the action scene and new anti-heroes like Kratos or Bayonetta took his place. I just hope Vin Diesel doesn't return with an awkward emo make-over like the one Dante's receiving for the recently announced franchise reboot, DmC.

Duke Nukem (Duke Nukem franchise) – How this character has managed to maintain such a following after over a decade without a proper game to his name is nothing short of astonishing, but actor Bruce Campbell's cult status is just as ridiculous. Campbell pretty much made his name in Sam Raimi's 1992 cl*ssic Army of Darkness (yeah, the previous two entries in the Evil Dead franchise were great, but this is the one everybody knows) and he's been living off that fame ever since. With the exception of his recent role on the moderately popular television series Burn Notice, Bruce has filled out his resume with voice overs for animated movies and a slew of B movies, most notably one in which he plays himself, mistaken for his character from Army of Darkness. The point is that people still treat this guy like a god despite the fact that he really hasn't done anything of note in nearly twenty years. Oh, and if the long-awaited Duke Nukem Forever doesn't make any ill-advised changes to the character, then they're both still self-absorbed, wise-cracking womanizers. Should I feel bad for liking them so much?

Ezio Auditore da Firenze (Assassin's Creed franchise) – Face it, Ezio's far more personable than his predecessor Altair was. In fact, he's so damn personable that he's getting his own spin-off game in the Assassin's Creed franchise. But what makes this guy so charismatic? Is it the way he forcefully pushes through crowds of innocent bystanders like they aren't even there? Maybe it's the fact that he sweet-talks women into bed and then jumps out the back window the first chance he gets. Oh, I almost forgot the killing and stealing! Seriously, this guy is a total jerk. We're just all in love with that sexy Italian accent for reasons that have never quite made sense to me. So who might Ezio's real-world doppleganger be? Russel Crowe, of course. That guy is a belligerent drunk and everybody knows it, but that soothing Aussie accent keeps us coming back for more.

Guybrush Threepwood (The Secret of Monkey Island franchise) – I generally don't like doing Bush jokes because I'd find it hard to get out of bed every morning if I had to deal with as much hate as he does, but just imagine him saying, "My name is George W. Bush and I want to be the President!" in Guybrush's voice.

HK-47 (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic) – So you know how we all adore HK-47 despite his utter disdain for organic beings on the whole? It's sort of like when rich white kids put Obama stickers on their parents' BMWs. Seriously, Barack "Let's socialize everything" Obama may as well be planning the demise of all those hard-working meatbags we call rich people, yet people still love him because somebody else gave him some good lines.

Kirby (All the stuff Kirby is in) – Kirby is just a slightly pudgy guy thing that flies around the world and eats stuff, and we love him for that. Given Guy Fieri's success doing the exact same thing on Guy's Big Bite, I'd say Kirby should be calling the Food Network up and looking for a deal. He might have to do something with his hair, though.

Kratos (God of War franchise) – Sony's ultra-violent mascot likes nothing more than to tear into those around him with the intention of inflicting pain. He feeds on it. And hey, that works for him. Another guy who uses hate and anger to get into character is Christian Bale. Flipping out on stage-hands and threatening to beat them up is just what it takes to build up the level of intensity Bale likes in his characters. I'd just avoid giving him any chains with blades attached to the ends of them.

Mario (All the stuff Mario is in) – Maybe Mario's never faked a retirement before, but there's no denying that he's clinging onto the spotlight harder than a mountable green dinosaur and storming onto the scene whenever the public starts to forget about him. Mario, meet Brett Favre. Brett Favre, meet Mario. The two are the perfect match. They're both absolutely self-absorbed, they're both kind of sell-outs (Mario with his annual slate of party games and kart racers, Favre with his Wrangler commercials and a steakhouse that he hasn't had the nerve to step into since leaving Green Bay), and they both supposedly play the game like fun-loving kids. Oh, and if the NFL investigation regarding the less-than-appropriate photos Favre is said to have sent to a New York Jets employee turns up anything, maybe Nintendo should look into what Mario's got going on the side.

Mordin (Mass Effect 2) – Mordin is essentially a super-genius scientist who has the ability to explain very complex things like the Krogan genophage to mere simpletons like you or I with ease. I don't know about you, but that makes me think of super-genius scientist Michio Kaku. That guy can make anything sound simple. I also have a hunch that he enjoys a good sing here and there.

Nathan Drake (Uncharted franchise) – I like to think that Nathan Fillion lives every day of his life with the adventurous spirit and witty quips that define Drake's treasure-hunting yahoo of a character. Hey, I wonder if he's ever thought of playing Drake in the inevitable Uncharted movie?

Princess Peach (See: Mario) – I bet if Peach were a real person, she'd probably be best friends with Kim Kardashian. You know, because they're both in that inexplicable club of famous people who have done nothing of note besides being born into a rich family.

Solid Snake (Metal Gear Solid franchise) – Snake has long occupied the role of the wise old lone-wolf who can really ruin your day if you look at him wrong. He's a man's man who lights his way with burning cigarettes and steely gazes. Sounds a lot like no-nonsense bad ass Clint Eastwood, huh? Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that they're both full-time bad asses.

Weighted Companion Cube (Portal) – The sheer talent and moral integrity make the comparison to Lady Gaga obvious.

Your character in Fable III (Fable III, obviously) – Given that keeping all of the promises you make to your followers will likely require some semblance of a long-term plan, I can't help but believe you'll fail miserably and try to cover your short-comings up by turning to faith instead of justifying your actions with science. You should probably name your character Carlton Cuse and your dog Damon Lindelof.

Getting to the game late


Since coming to college two weeks ago I've come to realize that not many people share my passion for video games, or if they do, they're doing a very good job of hiding it. It's understandable, though–games still tend to be viewed as childish toys by the general public. But even those who acknowledge the average age of gamers (32 as of 2010) still assume video games to be a strictly male pastime. To be fair, adolescent male power-fantasies do make up the majority of content out there, but there is so much more that the masses just don't know about. So my question, as a person with a passion for video games (and someone who is hoping to garner some more readers for this here website), is "How should gaming veterans go about introducing the uninitiated to this world we love?"

A good starting point is to examine how the game industry is presenting itself to the public. Ten years ago nobody would have imagined seeing video game commercials on television, let alone in prime time slots like the NBA finals. So it's clear that video games are becoming more mainstream and culturally acceptable, but it's important to note what kind of games are achieving this status. Generally, the only games with marketing budgets big enough to secure those prime time slots are Military Shooters or Sports games. The family-friendly offerings of the Wii also get quite a bit of exposure, but you're more likely to find those ads on Lifetime than during the Super Bowl (hmm, there's that male/female dichotomy again). The fact of the matter is these are the types of games that sell big and define the industry in the eyes of the public.

While it is true that games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) regularly make hundreds of millions of dollars on the day of their release alone, there is still a vast and untapped market of people who've never touched a controller out there. Simulated war just doesn't interest most 20-year-old girls or hands-on grandfathers. Those are some of the demographics that Nintendo has tried to tap into with the Wii, and that console's staggering sales figures (74 million and still going) show that casual party games and cute mascots can be more profitable than space marines. The only problem I have with this representation of video games is that most the the Wii's titles really are toys. Sure, a game or two of Wii Sports can be fun, but it just reinforces the notion that video games have nothing important to say. And frankly, the gameplay of these casual titles is so shallow that I don't see anybody becoming truly passionate about them and showing them to their kids like our parents introduced us to Star Wars.

If I wanted to show scoffing non-gamers just how artistic video games can be I'd make them play BioShock (2007) (the original, because the sequel is just a cheap cash-in). Sure, the gameplay still boils down to basic Shooter mechanics, but the thoughtful and provoking examination of Objectivist philosophies is something most people would never imagine finding in video games because they still think it's all about Mario saving the princess. The only problem with that is the very Shooter mechanics that made the game safe enough for a publisher to green-light it. If the developers couldn't say, "It plays like this game or that game," then the publisher never would have approved such an original vision.

So this raises an interesting point–how does someone who's never played games before jump into the increasingly complex worlds that inhabit the gaming landscape today? Twenty-five years ago everybody and their sister played Super Mario Bros. (1985) because all you could do was run and jump. The gameplay was simple and intuitive enough to instantly pick up and play, yet it was fun enough to sustain interest. Today, most people have trouble moving their character and looking around the screen at the same time. What is second-nature to me through years of play time is completely foreign to non-gamers. Even if somebody wants to jump on the Halo bandwagon it'd be so difficult to learn how to play and have any fun in the ultra-competitive online community that it's just not worth the admittedly pricey $60.

But at the same time, the rise of online gaming, social networking, Massively Multiplayer Online games, and so on demonstrates a clear desire for social interaction in gaming. As much fun as I can have in the 60 hours of solitude offered by a good Role-Playing Game, that experience probably isn't appealing to everybody and might even come off as slightly unhealthy to some. So if people want social interaction with their games but the competitive online communities of said games are too inaccessible for them, then what's the point in even trying?

I totally get this sentiment. Losing is never fun. The laws of the internet dictate that anonymity turns everybody into a total jerk. Put two and two together and you'll probably never want to play that game again. So it seems that a new gamer's only choice is single-player gaming. Personally, I prefer this type of gaming because I play for the interactive stories offered by no other medium, but as I stated previously, epics like Mass Effect 2 (2010) are probably a little intimidating to newbies. And I love me some First-Person Shooters, but on the whole, their narratives aren't anything to write home about.

Third-Person Action-Adventure games like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009) or Assassin's Creed II (2009) seem to offer a good middle-ground between an FPS and RPG's lengths while letting the player learn the intricacies of gameplay at their own pace. And the freedom offered by Sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) or Red Dead Redemption (2010) is very appealing to just about anyone. The only problem I see with starting in these genres is that Action-Adventure games typically lack the social aspect we're looking for. As for Sandbox games, there's almost too much choice. Just look at a casual player enjoying a session of Grand Theft Auto–"Oh, you can nail a hooker before brutally murdering her and taking your money back? Awesome!" I appreciate that these types of games allow for so much player freedom, but most people seem to resort to the digital equivalent of dick-drawing without narrative structure and guidance. GTA is supposed to be a social satire and commentary on how easily a person can fall into the thug life, not a game about how fun it is to run old women over.

So returning to my original question, how should I go about introducing someone to video games? RPGs are too long and solitary. FPSs are too competitive. Sandbox games throw players into the wild without teaching them how to properly appreciate the beautiful game-world that's been crafted. Action-Adventures lack the social side of things and are such a mixed bag in terms of quality and innovation that I wouldn't want someone's first impression of games to come from that field. Casual titles like Rock Band (2007) are fun but misleading when it comes to how far video games have come. That applies to Sports games too. This essentially leaves Platformers, Puzzlers, RTSs, and MMOs. MMOs like World of Warcraft (2004) are so different from the rest of the industry's content that I'd just steer clear of them in general. It doesn't help that they're shallow and boring. Real-Time Strategy games are way too complicated to jump into blindly and are probably more competitive than FPSs. Puzzlers can be a lot of fun but are generally just time wasters, with the exception of a few narrative gems like Portal (2007). So that leaves Platformers.

Fiendishly fun titles like Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010) prove how healthy the 25-year-old genre is today, but the 3D worlds they inhabit are undoubtedly more confusing than the side-scrolling 2D adventures of the past. Luckily, 2D Platformers have experienced a phenomenal resurgence over the past few years thanks to digital delivery platforms such as Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. Not only are these simple games fun and easy to pick up, they're also cheap (usually $10-$15). Most importantly, there is a great deal of artistic expression and experimentation going on in this genre right now, largely due to the inexpensive development costs which have allowed publishers to give developers more freedom in taking risks. While there generally isn't a social component to these indie-darlings, the low cost and short length make them prime candidates for introducing people to single-player gaming and the narrative possibilities that come with it.

So this is what I would propose. Start the new recruit off with a 2D Platformer like Braid (2008) or Limbo (2010). These visually stunning games set the tone right away and let the new player know that games are making an effort to be more than ultra-realistic looking Military Shooters. The gameplay is simple enough to learn quickly and the narrative themes will force the player to reconsider any notion of what they thought video games were before.

From there, it could be a good idea to transition from 2D Platformers to 3D Platformers with the PS2 cl*ssic Shadow of the Colossus (2005). This utterly unique Puzzle-Platformer left a friend and I discussing its thematic intricacies for hours after beating it and I would hope that it would have the same effect on new players. It's also relatively simple to learn and is old enough that it can be found on the cheap.

Now that the gamer has some experience in a 3D plane it's time to learn how to control a character from the first-person perspective. I wouldn't push them right into a Shooter, though, as that would just be too much to take in all at once. This makes Portal (2007) the perfect candidate. Technically speaking it is a First-Person Shooter, but rather than shooting bullets at hostile enemies the player shoots space-altering portals around elaborately designed levels as they solve physics-based puzzles. The slower pace would allow the player to become comfortable in the more difficult first-person perspective and the devilish puzzles would convince them that games can require quite a bit of thinking. Not to mention, the sarcastically monotone robot who claims to be your friend but is actually trying to kill you is just the sort of thing to demonstrate how much personality and character games can have. This game too, is short and can be had for under $20.

Next up on the road to becoming a gamer would be a traditional FPS. But frankly it might still be too early to throw the player into the shark-infested waters of online-competition. The previously mentioned BioShock (2007), a single-player FPS, might be a good stepping stone for someone trying to familiarize themselves with shooting mechanics. But regardless of how many Shooters a person has played, the online world is always at another level. That's why the new wave of cooperative-focused titles is so great. Games like Left 4 Dead (2008) or Gears of War 2's (2008) "Horde Mode" have players working together against computer-controlled opponents instead of mindlessly killing each other. When your level of skill directly benefits other gamers, they'll be much more likely to help you learn.

At this point our hypothetical new gamer is probably prepared to leave the bridge of cooperative gaming and jump into the direct competition of games like Call of Duty. If they're anything like me they'll get sick of all the online jerks and move on to other genres. By now the gamer should be versed enough to handle the learning curve that comes with any kind of game and they'll probably want to expand their tastes. RPGs like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006), Stealth-Action games like Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008), Survival-Horror titles like Resident Evil 4 (2005), and so on.

The point is that games have become very complicated and inaccessible in some respects. New gamers today should start in the same place that veteran gamers started 20 years ago. They should try to experience a little bit of every genre so they can decide for themselves what they like, if they're a solitary or social gamer, if they're cooperative or competitive, if they just play for fun or if they look for artistic expression in their games. Video games are here to stay and you're just denying yourself a profound entertainment experience if you aren't willing to give them a chance. Many of the games I've mentioned in this article are cheaply available and can run on most new PCs or laptops. Embrace the medium of the 21st century.

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