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Advertising In Video Games

"No one learned from your mistakes,

we let our prophets go to waste.

All that's left, in any case,

is advertising space."

- Robbie Williams, "Advertising Space"

 

I remember the first time I encountered advertising in a video game.  This was many moons ago, in the NES era, and the game in question was the console adaptation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game.  It featured Pizza Hut logos in various spots throughout the adventure, and if memory serves, there was even a Pizza Hut coupon in the manual.  I was relatively young at the time, but even then, something felt strange about the whole thing.  My buddies and I were geeks - too smart for our own good - and we could already sense the disturbance in the Force.  Dirty deeds were transpiring!

I've always had a black-and-white view of advertising - you can either have commercials, OR a fee.  You cannot have both.  I don't have cable for this reason alone, and I've stopped going to movie theaters You hear a lot of talk about how advertising or product placement will be used to lower the cost of the product, but it never seems to materialize.  Most of the biggest blockbuster films feature rampant product placement, despite having bottomless budgets and making billions of dollars worldwide.  And since we've accepted it, by and large, the practice is now more or less inescapable.  (Case in point - car commercials with 'The Lone Ranger' tie-ins.  Wait, what?)

I bring this up because the topic has become hot in gaming again due to - surprise! - the debacle-in-a-box known as the X-Box One.  Figuring that their buzz was already so positive, Microsoft let it leak that their new console would be advertising-intensive, including the use of their wacky spy technology to better target the ads at consumers.  It's hard to imagine a more inept launch than we're seeing here, folks - it's almost like some kind of satirical performance art.  What features will we see next?  Combustible chipsets?  The console emits some kind of poisonous vapor?  Army Men as a launch title?

Advertising and games have never made a good pair.  I still remember the Wipeout HD debacle, where they patched commercials IN to the game after it had already launched.  They appeared during load screens, and increased said load times considerably, all of which went over about as well as you'd expect.  We've learned to tolerate commercials during television shows because they've always been there, and at least on basic television, the content is free.  But ads in a $15-$60 product?  Now we've got problems.

Even if the advertisements are "just" part of the console U.I., it's ridiculous.  I paid for X-Box Live and was livid when potato chip and deodorant ads started popping up.  Again, if Microsoft wishes to make Live an ad-based service and drop the fees, go nuts - but they can't have it both ways.

Of course, they can, and probably will - but I'm still going to complain about it.  So take THAT, Microsoft!

So what do you think?  Am I overreacting?  This is one of my pet peeves, so I'm liable to rant.

The Last Of Us: Battling Depression (And Fungus People)

"Armchair warriors often fail,

and we've been poisoned by these fairy tales.

The lawyers clean up all details,

since Daddy had to lie."

- Don Henley, 'The End Of The Innocence'

 

This blog will NOT contain any meaningful spoilers for The Last Of Us, but if you must preserve 100% story freshness, feel free to pass this one by.

As noted in my last blog, I'm on the other end of a tough battle with clinical depression.  Of course, you can rarely (if ever) defeat depression; you can merely outrun it, or beat it into submission for a while.  It's a monster that feeds on itself, and those are tricky beasts to contend with.

This isn't a metaphor for the fungal foes in The Last Of Us - or the human ones, for that matter - but it's still an odd state of mind to be in when tackling such a game.  In fact, I had come very close to cancelling my pre-order, figuring that I was in too fragile a state to be subjecting myself to a violent (and likely upsetting) game set in an American dystopia.  But the buzz was too strong, and my love for Naughty Dog too pure.  The Last Of Us would be my trial.

It's very difficult to explain depression to those outside of our warped fraternity.  Most people are too sensitive these days to offer up the usual platitudes like "try to look on the bright side!" or "get over it!", but they still THINK those thoughts and merely keep them to themselves.  To the healthy, depression is just a temporary state one occasionally endures, and not a permanent illness that hovers over one's mind like a dark shroud.  Like I said, it's nearly impossible to explain to an outsider.  My Mother came down with it many years before I did, and I just sort of shrugged and figured she'd get over it and stop being so melodramatic.  Chalk it up to irony, or bad karma.

As with many cases, I can't pinpoint any specific cause to the depression.  There wasn't a singular event that shoved me down the rabbit hole.  If anything, my life would be seen as enviable by most people on the planet.  And yet, there I was, so close to suicide that I had to be submitted to a psychiatric ward.  I'm no Clicker or mushroom monster, but I know all too well what it's like to be infected, waiting for my disease to claim me.

Joel, the anti-hero of The Last Of Us, is an interesting contrast.  He DID have a defining event that shattered his soul, but he took the path of bitterness, erecting an armor of cynicism around himself so he could never be hurt again.  There are elements of depression to his character, of course - it's a freakin' dystopia - but he's firmly on the rage side of the scale.  Even minor inconveniences, like having to put on his mask, seem to set him off.  His 'stealth' attacks with bricks would make The Incredible Hulk nod in approval.

Ellie, of course, serves as the counterbalance; she's almost shockingly cheerful for a girl raised in a nightmarish hellhole.  A key NPC even remarks on this, as if a bit jealous.  (I even referred to her and Joel as the Bipolar Duo, waiting to see who rubbed off on who.  I'm sure you can guess the answer to that one.)  Truth be told, people like Ellie have always made ME jealous.  Optimists have an awesome power that I'd love to get a hold of.  The younger me used to find people like that weak; time has taught me otherwise.

During the game, I encountered all of the things I feared I'd come across - suicide victims, final letters, and other harsh reminders of my illness - and I would find myself clinging to little Ellie as a ray of light.  Amazingly enough, she often came through.  She usually generates extra conversation at the game's darker images, and never gets sucked in to the apocalypse.  The barbarism of her own species is a disappointment, not a clinical fact.  Better days are ahead, Clickers be damned.

If anything, the game's dirty secret is that the Infected are a minor concern when all is said and done.  You don't battle as many as you might think, and you fight fewer and fewer as the game chugs along.  Humans are the true monsters, and the fungal disease is merely the MacGuffin required to set up the game's shocking final act.  The Last Of Us has countless charms, but to me, the fact that I failed to guess the game's true story arc is chief among them.  My smug, genre-savvy ways were foiled, and I LOVE it.

In hindsight, the closest thing the game has to a depressive case is Bill, who is of course a homosexual machete-swinging militia man who lives in a twisted maze of nail bombs and zombie snares.  While a solid character on his own, his true purpose is to show Joel's other path, the one where he goes off alone without Ellie.  Joel sees a future where he could have been a sad and bitter madman that mutters to himself in an armory, alone and unloved.  Suddenly, Ellie's off-tune whistling doesn't seem so bad.  (You shouldn't fight the Infected alone, and that goes double for depression.)  

Most folks seem to find the game's ending "bittersweet;" I'd call it even darker than that.  And yet, as I took it all in, I found myself smiling.  Maybe I was just admiring the craftsmanship, but I like to think it was more than that.  I had battled any number of monsters, and come out on top.  I had beaten my first "serious" game since being let out of the hospital, having been deemed to no longer be a threat to myself or others.  Life is a strange old thing.

But it's a good thing.

Blame Canada

Not even going to look for clever song lyrics to put in the intro.  Just imagine the Rocky music is playing or something.

Yes, I'm back.  Sort of?  I don't do the 'big goodbye/comeback' posts; they just don't mean much on the Web.  Thanks to wi-fi, you can blog from a Hardy's toilet stall now - you're never really gone for good.  But people have been asking about me (and that meant a lot - honestly) so here's the short version.  I got fed up with GameSpot's cavalier attitude to their community and the site's technical issues, fell out of the loop, and just never fell back in.  I stopped gaming for a while as well, but that turned out to be a side effect of crippling depression, which took me all the way to a psychiatric ward that reminded me a bit of the Alice games American McGee put out.  Tough times, but I'm on the other side of it now.

But that's a story for another day.  There is far more crucial news afoot!  Do I refer to Microsoft's hilarious used game tapdancing? E3 news?  The fact that this year has already produced, like, three or four genuine classics?

Hell no!  I refer to the catty relationship drama between former lovebirds Sony and Ellen Page.  I thought those crazy kids were going to make it work!  *Sniff.*

Let us recap:

- David Cage locks her up to be the star of his next game, Beyond: Two Souls.  Page is an A-list talent who also has artistic credibility; in other words, she's what we call 'a good get.'  It's a Sony exclusive title, so hurray for the guys that gave away your credit card information a few years ago.

- Sony launches their big exclusive The Last Of Us, starring a plucky girl that is, for all intents and purposes, a teenage Ellen Page.  The girl's name is even Ellie, which I believe is German for 'I hope this isn't actionable.'

- Page lashes out at Naughty Dog for co-opting her image, probably while doing promotional work for the exact same umbrella company.  That is some weird crap.

There's already a kerfuffle about whether Page is just being an egotist, but let's be honest - Ellie is definitely based on her, consciously or otherwise.  I've been joking about this for months, loving how an entire gaming monolith seemed to have a hive-mind crush on a single actress to the point where they were putting her in every one of their key projects.  Ellie is essentially Juno in 'The Hunger Games.'   (Which should be terrible, and yet The Last Of Us is a modern masterpiece, so you never can tell with these things.)

My one beef with Page - her use of the phrase "ripped off."  WAY too hostile, even in the Internet era where every conversation essentially starts with arson.  The character of Ellie is an homage, not a rip-off.  I know, it sounds like a weasel word, but hear me out.  Page, whether she likes it or not, has fallen into a certain typecast, and it's one that Naughty Dog drew upon for a character that shared the traits they like about the actress.  Sure, they could've made the physical resemblance much less blatant, but again, it's out of love.  Possibly actionable love, but love just the same.

This may seem like a comical one-off event, but as we punch through the uncanny valley and more big names put on the ink suits, you can bet there will be more cases like this in the future.  Why pay for Will Smith when you can draw his digital brother and hire that guy from SNL to do his voice?

Long story short: Miss Page, please don't sue Naughty Dog.  They're one of the good ones.  Take it as a compliment; they wanted a fiery, intelligent brunette packed with admirable traits, and you leapt to the front of their addled minds.  There are worse legacies.

P.S.  Ellen Page is Canadian.  Hence, the blog title.  In case you were wondering.

P.S.S.  I could have just used 'Blame Canada' lyrics to launch the blog, couldn't I?  Man, I'm rusty.

Better The Devil You Know

"I live my life like there's no tomorrow
and all I've got, i had to steal.
Least I don't need to beg or borrow
yes I'm livin' at a pace that kills!"

- Van Halen, "Runnin' With The Devil"

Yes, I'm still here. I was gonna wait for GameSpot to fix all the bugs here, but, well, I'll be too old to operate a computer at that point.

Besides, there's nothing terribly interesting to impart. I'm still playing Diablo 3, and my buddies and I are enjoying the hell out of it. As you've already read a thousand times, it does nothing terribly new with the formula, but the gameplay is so slick and elegant that you can't help but tip your cap. The story has been utterly disposable so far - Cain dies with embarrassing predictability before the first act even ends - but nobody plays Diablo for the plot, so who cares. It's the LOOTS, baby, the loots.

I'm also enjoying Torchlight's effect on the franchise. To change with the times, Diablo has been completely streamlined. All non-magical loot is worthless, the town portal spell is just something everyone knows, and everyone can identify their own rare gear now with a click of a button. It's nice that the rares don't self-identify, though - the excitement of watching the identify bar fill up is good fun as the party eagerly awaits the new goodies.

On the portable tip, well, there hasn't been squat. (To be fair, I only have the 3DS. No Vita yet.) Luckily, my aging memory cells reached back deep and reminded me that there was a second Devil Survivor game for the DS I never got around to buying, and I whipped out the wallet. (Viva backwards compatibility!) I replayed the original - still a classic - and am loving the sequel as well. Obviously, if you're not a Shin Megami Tensei fan, these won't win you over, but they're wonderfully brutal RPG goodness. Not quite as enthralling or deep as the latter Persona games, to be sure, but the terrific combat and demon-fusing systems make the train commute disappear.

It's all devils, all the time here at Rottenwood Corner. Make of that what you will.

Attack Of The Wild Sea Monsters

"'Cause I tell you now, I'm the biggest beast that's rappin'/when I step on stage, announcers yell 'release the Kraken!'"

- Jakki Da Motamouth, Freestyle

I just spent a lovely little vacation at the Cape, trying to sneak it in before tourist season explodes in full. The weather was a little less than cooperative, but the family and I still got some boating time in, where my wife spotted what she thought was a 'giant white thing' in the water that turned out to be a sandbar. Will I ever let her live that down? Signs point to "no."

Anyhow, I've come back to a new comments system that doesn't seem to work quite right (gasp!), so that's always fun. Sadly, I have no gaming news or wisdom to impart: the only thing I'm playing now is Xenoblade, and once Diablo comes out, I dunno how much insight I can offer. Hell, it's Diablo - you know how it goes down. Maybe I can offer some snide commentary on the DRM or real-money auction house.

I can't even really plug a Kickstarter project: Larry got all of his cash and Jane Jensen's new project just hit the goal. (Although she could still use stretch dough for more content, if you're interested in her work.) The first major scam project was also uncovered - viva opportunism!

Oh, and Lollipop Chainsaw seems to be launching at $40-$45 - the beauty of the free market, or an omen of bad buzz? Gulp.

The Leisure Suit Larry Reboot Comes Prematurely

"Every man has to settle down eventually. You know why you gotta settle down eventually? Because you don't want to be the old guy in the club."

- Chris Rock, "Bring The Pain"

The Al Lowe-headed rebirth of Leisure Suit Larry has hit its funding goal of $500K, with a week of "stretch" funding to spare that will lead to expanded content and increased localization/porting. With Telltale working on King's Quest, Jane Jensen doing Pinkerton, and the Two Guys From Andromeda about to make the leap, it looks like Sierra is back in business... despite those pesky 15 years of dormancy.

If you want to help Larry's quest for a bigger game (or simply place a "Kickstarter pre-order"), go nuts:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/leisuresuitlarry/make-leisure-suit-larry-come-again

I'm still keeping a shoebox of money in an old tree stump on the off chance that Spellcasting 401 or Star Control 4 get launched, though. A $2000 bid to be in the background art of Meltingwolf Hall? SOLD!

Crap I'll Probably Buy Soon

"Money, it's a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash
New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I'll buy me a football team!"

- Pink Floyd, "Money"

I'm gonna be buying some new games soon. And relax: these ain't more of my hippie Kickstarter games, but proper AAA boxed retail releases where all the profit goes to non-creative scumbags poring over spreadsheets all day - like it was meant to be. To the cash register!

May - Diablo 3 (PC)

"The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist." - Charles Baudelaire

I've put hundreds of hours into the Diablo sinkhole; what's a few dozen more? The game is pure smoke and mirrors - a bunch of hot-keys and mouse-clicking, guided by the lust for loot and skill points - but it's just SO well done. Add in cooperative multiplayer with my grizzled crew, and this should give us many months of mindless, meaningless monster-mashing. I enjoy games that are dark, cerebral, and avant-garde... but sometimes, I wanna click and make a demon go boom.

Bottom line is, Blizzard has an open tab with me. I've bought all their games without fail, and while some were better than others, I've gotten my money's worth every time. Until that chain is broken, they're on "buy" status without any fuss. I've been assigned to the Witch Doctor in my team: prepare for some bad mojo.

June - Lollipop Chainsaw (PS360)

"That girl's got a million-dollar body and a nickel brain." - John Bradshaw Layfield

Official sign I'm getting old - the unrelenting fanservice of Lollipop's protagonist Juliet is actually kinda creeping me out. I mean, granted, she's 18, and looks like no real 18 year-old ever seen, but still - she's a high-school student. I'm getting perilously close to "she could be my daughter!" territory. And she's fictional, for crying out loud... imagine how I feel at the movies. Add in what appears to be a near-childlike level of intelligence (the typical ditzy blonde) and it's like "To Catch A Predator: The Video Game." (Which, come to think of it, would actually be kinda hilarious

And don't even tell me her outfit would fly with the High School Athletics Commission - it would barely be legal in Amsterdam.

Anyhow, busty cheerleader aside, this is another Suda 51 mind-screw I'll be picking up. He also has an open tab with me, albeit for different reasons than, say, Nintendo does. Suda's games aren't always masterpieces - some are flat-out inexplicable - but he's always gnawing at the edges of conventional gameplay and good taste. Those brave enough to ignore conventional wisdom deserve our support. Plus, you get to mutilate a ton of monsters with a giant chainsaw, so there's that.

June - The Last Story (Wii)

"Now look, son, we all know that usually when you bug me like this, I give in, so I'm not mad at you for trying. It shows you've been paying attention." - Homer Simpson

Well, I helped pressure Nintendo to release this game. I should probably buy it.

My relationship with Operation Rainfall has always been academic, rather than emotional. The JRPG is a genre I don't care much about, and these are games for a system I hardly ever use anymore. But I just liked the IDEA of them - Americans who love a good JRPG should have the option of buying them, and Wii users deserve more than just motion-control mediocrity. I may never go to that Mongolian bakery down the street, but darn it, people should have more options than the same six chains everywhere.

And to be fair, Xenoblade Chronicles has rekindled my love for the JRPG - time for Last Story to take advantage.

Xenoblade Chronicles: Celebrating The Wii's Annual Game Release


"The apples turn to brown and black, The tyrant's face is red.
Oh war is the common cry, Pick up you swords and fly.
The sky is filled with good and bad that mortals never know..."

- Led Zeppelin, "The Battle Of Evermore"

There's something endearing about the Wii, even if it goes dormant for months at a time in my home. I booted it up for the first time in eons to play Xenoblade, and it just turned on and was ready to go. No long firmware updates, or codes to download, or some gaudy new display with commercials all over it. Just the same ol' simple interface it had when I bought it. It was strangely soothing, like catching Bob Ross on public television.

Wife: "Wow, you're gonna play the Wii? Toejam and Earl time?"

Yes, I primarily use the Wii these days to play an old Sega Genesis game. You can see why I was stumping so hard for Operation Rainfall. And now, at last, we have the first crop of the harvest.

XC is a wonderful game, but there's no denying that it looks strikingly dated as soon as you fire it up. It does the best it can with the Wii's cobwebbed hardware, but at the end of the day, it's the PS2 all over again. It's no wonder that the Rainfall Three - XC, The Last Story, and Pandora's Tower - were celebrated for their amazing gameplay, as they're fighting an uphill battle on the production front. As a contrast, Final Fantasy has kept its AAA status by coasting on production values for a decade now... chrome and a brand name can keep the lights on for a LONG time. And I'm not really a junkie for flashy graphics (see: Toejam and Earl, above) - imagine how the kids must be reacting.

The game delivers everywhere else, though. The music is gorgeous, the combat is clever and complex, and the characters are surprisingly endearing given how cliched JRPG heros are in 2012. The best I can say about JRPG characters these days is "I don't want them to die horribly," and XC manages this feat. It sounds like a backwards compliment, but it's a legitimate kudos. Even the goofy "WHATTA BUNCHA JOKAHS!" celebration cry - already a meme before the game hit American shores - has a certain awkward charm.

XC certainly doesn't lack for content, and it gleefully poaches from every beloved idea an RPG has ever spawned. Gem-crafting, skill trees, quest-givers with Gold Exclamation Points, chain attacks... it's like a Greatest Hits Of RPG Gameplay.

And therein, I think, lies the game's ultimate charm: it serves as a homecoming for JRPG holdouts like myself that haven't played one in ages, but still have some fond memories from Ye Olden Days. It's the best of both the old and new, and I'm glad every region can get their grubby mitts on it. So if you're looking for an excuse to dig the ol' Wii out of your attic, here you go.

Revenge Of The Old People

"We're not like you other MC's, riding fake props
I'll be in this rap game till my f***ing heart stops."

- R.A. The Rugged Man, "Till My Heart Stops"

Kickstarter is traditionally the domain of scrappy youngsters looking to launch their dreams, but a new tribe is taking over the site's video game division - OLD PEOPLE. Like, even older than me. Crazy old.

These folks used to have celebrated careers in computer gaming. Al Lowe had Leisure Suit Larry and various side projects, Jane Jensen had Gabriel Knight, Schafer has half a dozen amazing games to his credit including Day of the Tentacle, and so on. Others are simply bringing their aged glories back to life, such as the Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun projects helmed by their original designers. All of these games have (or will) easily cleared their ambitious funding goals and go into the millions, allowing for a broad spectrum of additional content, OS ports, and production chrome.

It's a fascinating phenomenon - as if the industry just went into stasis for a decade or two, and then snapped back so that old hands like Brian Fargo and the Sierra crew could get back to work. Al Lowe was essentially retired; now he's three weeks away from being handed a seven-figure check collected from random people and told: "you know, do that thing where the middle-aged loser in the polyester is about to score some hot chick, but gets stuck in a revolving door/goes into the wrong hotel room/somehow sets his remaining hair on fire/etc."

I remember when the old giants starting falling after the Doom-Ization of PC gaming, and people would constantly say things along the lines of "can't we just send you money to make a new game?", in absolute desperation. Now it's becoming a secondary industry. In a strange way, the carnivorous mega-publishers are a big part of this - note that every one of these Kickstarter games touts that they're "DRM-free." The growing public dissent with the Activisions of the world has really helped spur this quiet revolution. (EA was recently voted to be the worst corporation in the world - an utterly absurd notion, given the competition, but still a telling sign of the marketplace.)

Good times. It was sad, watching the creative heros of my youth become abandoned by the industry they helped create, as the suits that replaced them went hunting for the next mega-hit FPS. Now they're getting another chance to craft exciting adventures, and go out on their own terms. Give 'em hell, you crazy old bastards!

Crazy Kids And Their Video Games

"I've been laying, waiting for your next mistake
I put in work, and watch my status escalate."

- Gang Starr, "Work"

As I mentioned before, I've been Kickstarting a lot of games lately, and one just launched: Loc, a nice little puzzler put together by a group of scrappy kids from Vermont. (I think they're college-aged, actually, but anyone under 23 is a kid to me now.) Hopefully it's the first step of a long and successful career. If you'd like to buy the game for a mere $5, go right ahead:

http://birnamwoodgames.com/games.html

Birnam Wood is a MacBeth reference, so that's swanky right there. It's also a female-run company, headed by the colorfully-named Marguerite Dibble. She's apparently a Star Trek fan and enjoys exotic birds, so she's got that going for her.

Polly want a career in gaming!

Behold! The terrifying new face of gaming! It's all... girly and stuff! Where's the middle-aged puffiness? Where are the doughy old white guys in cheap polo shirts that signify quality?!?

Hey, Pokecharm - if you insist on buying a new game every day, go for this one. It's only five bucks and the money goes to a handful of aspiring young game designers, and not bloated guys in suits thinking of new ways to sell you map packs. Sure, they're hippies, and will probably spend your cash on organic soy and cruelty-free socks, but it's all good.

$5 for a year's hard work - you can't beat that price!