A Few Games for the Week

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English Country Tune

English Country Tune is a 3D puzzle game which forces you to think in one extra dimension than you may be used to with most puzzle games. You play as a rather non-descript square that flips end over end as its method of locomotion. It maneuvers over sometimes excruciatingly complicated polygonal maps which resemble 3D tertis pieces stuck together. Tough to imagine, but then again, this is a game unlike any other puzzle I've played. You're ultimate goal is to lead spheres, called larva, into cubes on the map by pushing them. However, the larva will fly off the map if you push them off; they are weightless, but simulate gravity by "falling" in the perpendicular direction to your little flat square's plane. That makes pushing them from the right surface imperative. You can have many of these larva on the same map, by the way. The levels will increase with difficulty to ridiculous levels.

The best thing about this game is the reward from completing a puzzle. Once these puzzles really start get challenging, you start to battle against your mind's preconceptions of what it is capable of. These puzzles are not intuitive, so solving them requires a lot of experimentation to attune your brain to the puzzle's physics and orientation. Solving the puzzles which previously looked impossible is where the best of "English Country Tune" shines through.

There's a trailer here and you can download a demo here. Get to it!

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Realm of the Mad God

'RotMG' brands itself as the first mmo bullet-hell game, and I'm not going to dispute that. Designed in the currently retro-hip large-pixel/minecraft fashion, RotMG is a simple looking game with a simple plot to go with it. In summary, kill monsters, collect better gear, kill oryx as many times as possible with as much individual contribution to that damage as possible. The game, as an MMO, requires that you have some friends (often very many) to help you kill some of the bosses, but you are always in competition with others to get the best loot (the more damage you do personally, the better loot you get.) Servers fill with up to 85 people each, and you will find yourself teamed up with them all in at least one dungeon.

So there's not much with regards to plot or graphics (aside from their 'cute' factor) to keep the player interested in the game. The game's value comes in at it's difficulty. You will die, often, and sometimes in very frustrating ways. The highest level you can achieve is 20, but that alone will offer almost no protection against the stronger enemies. Stats are boosted after level 20 by collection rare "stat pots" which raise your character's stats by 1. These pots have become a sort of unofficial currency among players who wish to trade for better items. Still, even the maxed out character is doomed after absorbing a few closely placed bullets. Lag is rampant in RotMG, so you will die through no fault of your own more than a few times. And all that hard work spent getting the rarer gear is lost. You get a free vault with room to hold 8 items, but that won't satisfy the player after he gets better. The game is free to play, but some in game luxuries cost real life money.

The rewards for creating a strong character and collecting better loot are what will keep the player coming back. Showing off rare gear, collecting fame for your guild and increasing your rank through personal fame achievements provide replay value.

Play it through your browser here. You can also pick it up on steam. Oh, and turn off the crappy background music before it rots your soul.

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i was going to write more but forgot that I only got to two games this week. Oh well, next time then!

A Game of Thrones

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I sat down to read this dense, epic fantasy novel with some reluctance. I am assigned to read almost 200 pages of Literary Theory and British Literature every week as of late, so knowing that these epic fantasies can steal away hours in the blink of an eye, I was a bit apprehensive. I came unto this book by recommendation of my friend (who is not an avid reader.) He doesn't read that often and it's hard to find people I can tolerate who also read books I am interested in, so I couldn't pass up this chance to start up conversations. The book is a bit over 800 pages, and I read it over a period of three days.

Now, don't let that confuse you. The first entry in George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series was not particularly good. I can read quite fast and intently, however, and reading through popular fiction these days is quite challengeless. There is nothing below the superficial in Game of Thrones (GoT,) so there isn't much thinking needed. It is a long, if straightforward, depiction of a struggle over a contested kingdom through the lenses of at least ten different people. That means that there are at least ten different storylines through the length of the novel, which explains its girth.

As I stated, this tale was written for one reason only: to entertain on a superficial, relaxed pace. To that extent, the book is a success. But anyone looking for a bit of subtlety of plot or deeper meaning is going to be disappointed.

The challenge in this book is not related to plot structure or character complexity or anything like that. In fact, the steepest challenge is finding the good in this book outside of the mundane, average storytelling.

So what is done well here? I would say that Martin has a good grasp of when to inject suspense and how to divert a storyline with an unexpected plot twist. It may be that the entire impetus for continuing this book is located in the suspense that each chapter ending leaves you with. Martin writes as if he were creating the script for an episode of "24" - as if he were worried that the reader would get bored at the end of each episode and needs to make sure he is left on edge to ensure that the reader tunes in next week. He should be rightly worried. Each chapter starts with a mild release from where the previous entry of that particular storyline left off, and then we spend the large part of the chapter trudging through the filler to get to the next cliffhanger. Martin is good enough with those small segments to inspire enough reading to continue.

The current cover looks more vivid and attractive than this.

And, well, for as long as the book is, there is very little advancement as far as plot is concerned. Because there are so many plot lines and Martin's apparently urgent need to follow a familiar structure for each chapter, the book moves painfully slow. And the end, the reader will feel as if he spent each and every day that passes in the novel actually present in that universe. Yes, that is a good thing at times. But real life is more often monotonous than not, so these islands of suspense are drowned in the tedium of things like court intrigue and lore building.

Oddly enough, the most compelling storyline has very little to do with any of the others. It is a unique break from the tired tropes of castle fantasy and medieval battle. It sits apart from the rest of the plot lines as if it were intended to intersect them five books later, a curious sidetrack that ends up besting the others in quality.

All of these independent plot lines could very well stand completely alone as their own books. This is the other well constructed part of GoT. Instead of multiple narratives linked directly with the central plot, as in The Lord of the Rings, GoT feels more like an actual universe in the sense that one thing happening here or there need not affect the rest of the world as if the central plot line dictated the entire welfare of the universe it is set in. Think of the continent of Asia; an event happening in Damascus is unlikely to affect to any large extent the history of Bangkok. This is a world in which no plot line sits above the others. Each one stands as its own story and this organization gives an immense depth to the world it is set in.

Only, that depth is truncated by the necessarily small increments of time that passes in each chapter. Each storyline needs its own separate and equal development, so one can imagine that it is going to take a long time to get anywhere.

There are two achievements in GoT: the successful use of suspense (key to the novel's readability,) and the effect of scale contributed by each plot line. Outside of those two, there is little else here to get excited about.

The characters themselves are all one dimensional. They have fixed personalities and predictable actions. One character is self-centered and conceited, and all of the associated scenes are informed by those qualities, making for very predictable behavior. The novelty of each plot twist ends once the characters are brought in, as their actions are already known ahead of time. Furthermore, for the scale of the book, any character development is stunted by the large amount of parallel storylines. If the characters weren't one dimensional, it would be impossible to convey their complexity without doubling the size of the book.

The atmosphere and setting of each storyline are all mediocre at best. If you've read any medieval fantasy ****novel, you've seen these places before. The world is bland and uninteresting if one does not preoccupy themselves with the plot line. The atmosphere is adequate, I suppose, enough to keep the plotlines from freezing up, but they are otherwise of no significance.

There is one advantage to the huge scale of this novel; it makes it especially easy to create sequels (especially since so little time passes in the first entry,) so martin has set himself up to be able to easily continue the storylines for many more books to come. These sequels though are almost certainly flavored exactly like the first, so you would be well advised to really like the story enough to get heaping servings of the same in the next entries.

I am still under a bit of pressure to continue into the next book by my friend's eagerness, so I cannot say that I won't be reading the next installment. However, if not for that impetus, I would not continue reading. There is just too much volume to this novel without enough advancement or depth in the plotlines. I wish I could know deeper and more ably written fantasy outside of LOTR, but the only way to know is to read, and this particular example is not inspiring in me any desire to further explore the genera.

Save The World; Buy Our Products

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There seems to be a running gag in Nike commercials. I can watch them and never see a single product. What am I watching then? They seem more like public service announcements, something that a non-profit might air to get people to stop smoking or put on their seat belts. I don't know what to make of them anymore. One of them, an ad for... well it was some kind of clip shown during commercial break - it showed people of all walks of life engaging in some sort of physical activity. They extolled the health benefits of sports, self-confidence, brings communities together, and nations together, is free from issues of race and class. All this and they won't even hurt the environment. Wow. They aren't selling products... they're selling... world peace?

"Our mission is to make the world better through sport." ~ Nike Slogan

Quite the lofty ambitions there by Nike, which is otherwise the largest manufacturer of sporting goods in the world. I won't link to these ads, you can find them easily enough on your own. You've probably seen enough of them anyway. All in a single ad, we see people of all races and genders, free from class restrictions, sexism and preconceptions. After all, isn't sport the great equalizer? We can see that Nike even seems to emphasize the non athlete in these sport "ads." One clip showed an old man jogging while another showed a wheelchair race in a action while another showed our legendary blade runnerOscar Pistorius in full motion. Sport is, what, egalitarian, democratic, free...

Free... that's right. You can see clips of poor Africans playing soccer barefoot. Wait... aren't shoe sales one of Nike's biggest bringers of profit? Urban basketball courts with poor kids in shabby clothes? I think I get the message. You don't need Nike equipment to be an athlete! You don't even really need anything except the will to... "just do it.™" What's this in my gut, is it awe of the power of sports? Or is it nausea?

I feel like that ad I saw isn't selling a product. I saw nothing that has anything to do with Nike except their logo at the end. Maybe that's our clue... All that idealism, that democracy, that leveling fo the playing field - then the Nike symbol. So... am I supposed to associate all of that lovely high-minded goodness with Nike? Let's back up for a moment though. In that ad, I saw everything from superstar LeBron James to a semi-crippled old man struggling down the path. But no Nike products; just the love of sports. This concept, this... community? Anyone can join it. Just get out there and participate and presto! You're an athlete and you have accepted all of these democratic and egalitarian principals into your life. Stunning how simple it is, right? Everyone from superstars to disabled can partake of this new community but just doing it. Huh.

Nike's symbol at the end... is it there to remind us of who brought these ethereal principals to our minds? Or something more? Is it possible that Nike is integrating itself into this new community? Well, you don't need Nike shoes to be an athlete, of course. But is Nike saying that even if you choose not to buy their stuff, that they are still a part of this lofty community? Of forward thinking, freedom-loving, democratic idealists?

I saw another ad featuring basketball semi-star Andre Iguodala teaching what is probably supposed to be an audience of youngsters how to properly defend against an attacker. The key moment: Andre points out the device putting pressure on his legs which supposedly helps build endurance. But... "If you don't have the Nike Spark Bands, just hold your stance for a good 30-35 seconds just to get that muscle memory right." There it is again! You don't need Nike products to get better! Just improvise! Of course, you could go without these products, like the poor kids and the old man... but Nike is always there if you want to step it up to the next level. There you have it! All you need to do is buy Nike products and you're automatically supporting the principals of freedom and solidarity, among many other lofty ideals!

What they've done then is to make people buy into this new concept of the sports community which transcends issues of race, borders, sex and state of health. By signing these huge stars, putting them back to back with old men and poor kids, then subtly placing their logo and slogan at the end, their trying to tie their name in integrally with all these new lofty values. You're not the devil if you hate Nike, but you're working against these people who push democratic and idealistic values which better the world. You're a scab. When you have big, successful sports icons saying to your face, "I better the world through sport," it's hard to argue. I'd say they pulled this off pretty well.

What then, a great company Nike is! They help improve people's health and self-confidence. They bring communities together, and nations together, free from issues of race and class!

And Child Labor! And selling products with hip drug innuendos! All of course made in the fairest of sweatshops! Never mind that a company's number one focus is profit, and that they will do whatever they can to increase those margins, no matter how manipulative or exploitative.

Gee, this post took a sudden turn, didn't it?

Not really. You can tell that this is all sardonic irony, right? I guess Nike and I share in that regard.

The Ratings Game

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I just recently looked back at my two most recent reviews and noticed that I gave them the same score. The problem of course is that these two games are vastly different in terms of breadth and gameplay. The two are Civilization V and Bastion, both rated at 8.5. Aside from the fact that a scale out of 10 with intervals of 0.5 is extremely vague and imprecise, rating Bastion 8.5 when I rated CivV the same score really stuck out to me as wrong.

Taking a look at both games, Civ5 is clearly the one with better overall quality. It has scores of content and replayability, brilliant graphics and great stability. I'm not saying that Bastion lacks any of these, but there is a clear difference between the two when we ask ourselves, "Which was the better game?"

It may be that you hated Civ5, or perhaps you despised Bastion. Maybe you loved them both, as I did. Feel free to exchange the two games for games of similar quality: Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Super Meat Boy. Make up your own pairing. Both are incredible games but both vastly different in almost every way. Whether it is CivV or Super Meat Boy, how can I possibly accurately rate these two games on the same scale, using the same standards for each?

In fact, I find that I didn't do that; I rated them based on what I expected out of them, using what I have experienced playing countless other games. This obviously is a very problematic strategy, and yet it was the only way I could possibly cough up a number to put beside my review. For all the games I have played, I have passed over 10 times more. How could I possibly rate something like Bastion an 8.5 when I've never played anything like it? Even if there were similar games that I might be able to juxtapose Bastion against, I would have no idea what to say about them considering that I do not even know what they're called. Anyone trying to do so is fooling themselves. The ever knowledgeable GameSpot staff, all their expertise included, cannot have played every game and are thus lacking in terms of their ability to create impartial and complete evaluations of games. They're always going to be rating a game based on their own set of experiences and retinue of games played; there's no way an accurate rating can ever be produced by someone like that. Those little numbers GamSpot displays prominently beside each game in bold Helvetica are practically meaningless for choosing which game to buy or pass over.

Bastion is a relatively small indie game that a good gamer might be able to get through in 10 or 15 hours. It's got excellent art and a solid control scheme, but lacks in the plot and replayability department. Civilization V, on the other hand, is a sprawling, dense, complicated game in which many a gamer has sunk countless hours of their lives. The game has great graphics for a turn based strategy game, impeccable stability and almost an unlimited variety of play. It lacks in its poor AI (Civ V is best played with other meat bags,) implementation of city states and is surprisingly almost disappointing in light of its revolutionary predecessor, Civ4, even considering the excellence in Civ5.

Bastion Looks Like a Hand Drawn Cartoon

They are both great games, all things considered. But in reality, they're not even really competing on the same playing field. Civ5, after all subsidiaries are accounted for, is under the wing of Take-Two Interactive, one of the largest companies in the video game industry. Bastion on the other hand was developed by Supergiant Games, which undoubtedly had a smaller budget in hand (though of course I am not privy to either of their financial situations.) Most tellingly, Bastion was released for $15, Civ5 for $45, which is cheap compared to the $60 demanded by most blockbuster games as of late.

Where this gets tricky for me is comparing a game which clearly was not supposed to be as big and broad an endeavor with one which probably takes the record as far as depth and replayability go. One is a linear action game where the goals are in plain sight. One leaves you almost completely alone in a word where you have countless ways to go about your domination of the world. One can beat the first play through of Bastion in 5 or 6 hours if he or she wanted, one single game of Civ5 can last that long. When you look at bastion's graphics, it's difficult to imagine that they could have done more and still set the game so cheap. Bastion is more of a work of art in that sense than most other video games; the graphics are supposedly hand drawn and they look it. But the world is stiff and lacks the depth that a 3D game can offer. That overhead, isometric view can only go so far in an action game. Of course, Civ5 has that isometric view as well (one can zoom in and out) but the graphics are fully three dimensional and are superb at that. Landscapes are immaculate with a sufficiently powerful system. With Bastion, you'll have trouble finding a computer that can't run it. This just goes to show how different the playing field is.

You'll need a fairly powerful machine to get the most out of CivV's graphics.

Should a game be judged based on how well it achieved its intended goal? How am I even supposed to know what the developers had in mind when making any game, let alone these two? Earlier I criticized Civ5 for not being as revolutionary as Civ4 (yea, great insight there.) But I don't even have the slightest idea how to begin making a game like Civ5 in the first place. It's like asking a layman what Lie algebra has to do with Quantum Mechanics. Where do you even begin? And then you ask him to evaluate a research paper which coves that topic. "I don't know man, I just play the game."

I don't even know why I bother to review games but that's a different story. It's pretty clear that rating Bastion and Civ5 on the same scale is pretty ridiculous as a serious attempt to judge the quality of each game on in its own right. Should we then judge a game based on our own interpretation, and then compare it to others to see what we may have missed? Sounds pretty basic and pedantic, but what else is there? I don't really pay attention to GameSpot staff's rating of a game; it's always the user score average that I care to think about. The same way I wouldn't expect anyone to use me as a resource for Lie algebra, I don't accept a single review, even if it is by GameSpot staff, as a definitive measure of quality. [Insert obligatory GameSpot is paid off by EA et. al. tidbit.] So don't freak out if GameSpot rates Hard Reset too low (they did) because they're only one person. There's probably not even a consensus among GameSpot staff on that point. Or maybe they're the Borg. That actually sounds cooler. GameSpot is an ineffable hive mind which can never be wrong. Problem solved, you just wasted your time reading this far.

I suppose I am just sick of looking at those reviews and seeing a huge evaluation condensed into a vague two digit number. They even went ahead and reduced the precision of their ratings from 0.1 to 0.5 somewhere back. Like it wasn't already too imprecise as it was? It's actually quite absurd. I would be completely fine with a review that lays out in blank, objective prose what I can expect for the game and how things like game play and camera angles and features are implemented. No ratings necessary. There's really no reason to be given the reviewer's personal feelings and opinions on the game, unless you're that person's ideal clone or something. I realize that my reviews are chocked full of bias and judgment, but never do I claim to be a reliable source for video game quality evaluations. What you see is just a layman's personal feelings are, not a profession who makes his living playing and reviewing video games. And in the end, that's all a professional video game developer can be, a layman with his own opinions and viewpoints. Only with those professionals, bags of salt are not included.