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Me and Kevin Flynn: A personal reflection on Tron

After 28 years, Tron is finally getting a sequel.

I don't think Tron is a great film, but it's an important film that's worthy of admiration for its visual and storytelling ambition. It had a profound impact on me as a child, and, I think it's safe to say, on many members of my generation. Misunderstood at the time, it's a surprisingly complex film for one marketed and released by Disney as a family adventure. It left parents, who weren't prepared for a science fiction film with political and religious undertones that actually takes place inside of a computer, scratching their heads, while the children who were dragged to the film (like me) were deeply affected by it, but in ways that we wouldn't fully understand or be able to articulate for years to come. Now, the things Tron deals with--video games, computer programmers, software companies, cyberspace--are all a much bigger part of our collective social consciousness than they were in 1982. In that sense, Tron is almost a bit prophetic, or, at least, ahead of its time.

Before seeing Tron at the age of five, I was already an avid player of video games, and while the experience of playing games has changed so dramatically in so many ways since then, in my mind one difference is more significant than all the others. In the early 80s, you had to engage your imagination while playing games. If you were going to become invested in the Atari 2600 game Adventure, you had to meet the game 98% of the way, agreeing to accept that the little dot you moved around was a brave hero and that the duck-like creatures who attacked you were fierce dragons. You created the world of the game in your mind. Today, for the most part, games are so richly detailed that you don't have to put your imagination to work at all. It's not unlike the difference between reading a book and seeing a film. When you read a book, you collaborate with the author in creating the movie of the book that plays in your mind. The author's words form a basis, but you cast the parts, you do the set design, you direct the film, and the film that plays in your head is different from the film that plays in the head of any other reader of that book. With a film, we all see the same thing. With games today, all players see the same world, but in 1980, one player's imagination may have been engaged by Adventure in very different ways from the next player's.

The point of all this is that, when I stepped into that movie theater in 1982, I had already spent a great deal of time imagining that the actions happening on the screen when I played video games were, in some sense, real, that stuff was happening inside my Atari (or, if not there, then in some unknowable place). So when Tron showed me computer programmer and video game hotshot Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) playing an arcade game and then cut to the action "really" happening inside the machine, I was ready for it. I was thrilled by it. And although I came out of the film with only the haziest understanding of its plot, its visual style shaped how, for many years, I envisioned what was actually happening inside of computers, to the point where even when I read William Gibson's landmark sci-fi novel Neuromancer as a teenager, Tron's depiction of a realm of computerized information influenced how I imagined the cyberspace of his book.

The years since have tried to provide us with other cinematic cyberspace messiahs. The Matrix trilogy's Neo, in particular, is a cinematic Christ figure for the cyberspace age. But in my own heart, nobody has ever been able to compete with Kevin Flynn. Terrific at video games. A brilliant and somewhat arrogant programmer with a rock star charisma. He's like Bill Gates, if Bill Gates were cool. (Neo, on the other hand, doesn't even have the charisma of Bill Gates.) And it's no stretch to call him a messiah figure. Tron is replete with religious undertones and imagery. The relationship between users (people) and their programs is a spiritual one for the programs--when one program mentions his user, he's called a religious nut, and Flynn, a user called down from on high, walks among the programs, for a short time, anyway.

Now that those my age, the first generation to grow up with video games as a normal part of life and who saw Tron as young people, are adults, the time has come for a sequel. (How fortunate that the actor to play Flynn wasn't some actor who would soon be forgotten, but was Jeff Bridges, one of the very best film actors of the past 30 years.) Of course, the sequel could be terrible, but I have to admit that, when I see that they've taken the concept of Kevin Flynn as a messiah figure seemingly as far as it can go--in one trailer, a character calls him "the creator"--I get very excited. I hope that Legacy is the sequel Tron deserves; not just a sci-fi action spectacle, but a serious piece of cinematic mythmaking, one that may influence the next generation as much as the original influenced mine, or, at the very least, provide for me and my fellow Tron fans a rich and satisfying continuation of the story that has resonated in our minds for so long.

In the trailers, I especially love the shot of Sam, Kevin Flynn's son, returning to Flynn's arcade, a location bustling with life in the original film, and seeing the machines shut down, their screens covered in dust.

The era of arcades, sadly, is over.

But the era of games has only just begun.

I'll see you on the game grid.

The long, strange road to GameSpot (and other adventures in truth-telling)

As some of you may know, I've been privileged with the opportunity to freelance for GameSpot for the past few years. As a publication that I've read and respected for more than a decade, this has been a great honor for me.

You wouldn't know it by looking at my latest review, which was for Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes, but this was a special review for me to write. That's because it's the first review I've written as the newest member of GameSpot's in-house reviews team. I can't tell you what a thrill it is for me to be here, working with Justin Calvert, Kevin VanOrd, Tom Mc Shea and Chris Watters in the offices of this site that has meant so much to me for so long.

This may seem a strange shift in topics, but it's something that must be addressed, at least once. Those of you who have been reading my blog for many years will know this already, but it's not something I've talked about often, and it's not something I intend to talk about very often in the future. I'm not here at GameSpot to change the world or to make any kind of political statement. I'm here because I love games, I love GameSpot, and there's nothing I'd rather be doing than busting my ass for this site. But soon I'll start appearing in video reviews and making other appearances here and there, and this will no doubt raise some questions that need to be answered. So here goes.

I'm transgender, or as I usually prefer to say, TG. What this means is that, although I was born with a Y chromosome, in my mind, heart and soul I've always identified as female. The process called "transition" is, at least for me, a long, slow, expensive one, but in the meantime I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not. Being true to oneself is essential for one's happiness. Take it from me, I know. So if this should make anyone uncomfortable, I say: I'm sorry it makes you uncomfortable. I'm not doing it to make you uncomfortable. I'm doing it because living a lie sucks, and because I'm so much happier just being honest about who I am, and not hiding it or apologizing for it or being ashamed of it. Also, with the tragic wave of bullying and suicides of LGBT teens, I don't think this is any time for any member of the community to hide in the shadows, and I add my voice to the chorus of voices that are saying to young LGBT people in pain, "It gets better."

Here is a goofy video I made two weeks ago, my first in years, for National Coming Out Day. If you want, you can watch this to get a glimpse of the face you'll soon be seeing in videos on the site, and perhaps a better sense of what I mean when I say I'm TG.

So that's it. Again, it's not something I intend to discuss often. If you have respectful questions, feel free to ask. (I won't tolerate or respond to hate.) I am TG but being TG is not who I am, and it's not what I want to be known for. It's a fact of my life but it doesn't define me, and it's not nearly as interesting as video games, or as working for GameSpot, which truly is a dream come true for me.

In conclusion, let me just say: Super Meat Boy is amazing. I grew up with the Atari 2600, and later, the NES, which, along with the arcades of that era, provided many games that were just pure, simple, challenging tests of skill. Super Meat Boy is like that, and it's one of the very best of its kind, ever. Using only the simplest and most familiar elements of video games--you run and jump your way through 2D levels--it creates something that constantly finds new and surprising ways to challenge you, and the gameplay is just about perfect.

Yeah. Video games are awesome.

In Limbo

SPOILER ALERT: This entry discusses the endings for the film Inception and the game Limbo.

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The only detail in Christopher Nolan's Inception that struck me as truly dreamlike was not an intentional one on the part of the director. Actress Marion Cotillard famously played Edith Piaf in the film La Vie En Rose, and here, the Piaf song "Non, je ne regrette rien" is featured. This struck me as the sort of association our subconscious might make while we sleep, and suggested to me that cinema might be akin to a shared societal dreamscape. On the whole, though, while I found Inception to be a fascinating mechanical puzzle, I also found it cold, lacking in both genuine human emotion and in a willingness to embrace the full potential of the concept of dreams, presenting dreams that seem much more like levels from a richly detailed but sterile video game than from anything I ever encounter while sleeping.

In another bit of purely unintentional cultural intersection, the term "Limbo" is very important in Inception, referring to a state of pure subconscious, and it is also the title of an exceptional new game which creates an experience that's infinitely more dreamlike than anything in Inception.

One thing Inception gets right about dreams is the idea that we just find ourselves in them, never really knowing or stopping to think about how we got there. In Limbo, you find yourself in a forest; spooky, hazy, geographically only somewhat defined, a far cry from the elegant precision of Inception's dreamstates. As you press on, the landscape slowly shifts and you encounter new areas and obstacles, all with a simple, dreamlike iconography to them—boats to cross little pools of water, shadowy, malevolent figures, terrifying spiders. The simple but beautiful visuals and the sound, creating moods with menacing tones but rarely if ever forming into what most of us might call music, create a kind of reverie. Each time the boy died, it shocked me awake, Inception-like, but immediately I was transported back to the dreamworld of the game.

Never in my journey through Limbo did I find anything as symbolically straightforward as an elevator down into the deeper levels of the mind, or some documents locked in a safe. And I found its ending--which I thought was perfect--shared a surprising parallel with that of Inception, leaving the same questions open at the moment of being reunited with loved ones: Is this moment real, or still a dream? And does it matter?

Great game endings

I finished Red Dead Redemption a while back, and was absolutely blown away by its conclusion. A game doesn't need to have a great ending to be great--games are generally more about the journey than the destination--but Red Dead's is so strong that I think it makes the whole game better. And as game stories become more sophisticated, how those stories wrap up is becoming a more important part of the memories we take away from the experience.

While their overall importance remains debatable, I've always cared about game endings quite a bit. I remember being insulted as a kid by tough-as-nails games that would reward all my hard work with nothing more than a screen that read "CONGRATURATION! THANK YOU FOR PLAYING!" I wasn't expecting much. Just some sort of artwork or maybe a little movie for my troubles. SOMETHING. A poorly translated text screen is a shameful acknowledgment of a hero's brave deeds. And just as a lousy ending can leave me feeling bitter toward a game I'd otherwise enjoyed, a great one can give that game lasting power in my memory. Truly great game endings are rare, but here are five endings that have stuck with me. I've tried to keep things spoiler-free here and just talk about them in general terms, though if you are planning on finishing Red Dead, I'd recommend not reading my comments on that ending until you've done so.

5. Grand Theft Auto IV
: The events that lead up to the final moments are determined to some degree by choices you make, but no matter what you do, there can be no happy ending to Niko Bellic's pursuit of the American dream. And that is as it should be. The entire arc of Niko's journey occupies a moral gray area from which there can be no emerging into the light, and the way the ending acknowledges this is so satisfying in its refusal to satisfy.

4. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories: An ending that's every bit as revealing and rewarding as the ending for this year's standout dude-with-a-flashlight game, Alan Wake, is obfuscating. Shattered Memories hits you in its final moments with a big reveal that forces you to reconsider the events of the game in a new light, but it doesn't feel like an ending that exists solely for the purpose of a big plot twist. Its surprise is perfectly consistent with the game's world, and enhances the emotional impact of protagonist Harry Mason's search for his missing daughter.

3. Super Mario Galaxy: Given how little emphasis Super Mario Galaxy places on story, I wasn't expecting anything special from its ending. But the finale here is a stunning piece of visual storytelling that brilliantly takes Mario's age-old struggles to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser and suggests that they will repeat again and again forever, as the universe collapses upon itself and is reborn. Heady stuff, but perfectly in keeping with Galaxy's delightful cosmic aesthetic.

2. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge: The first game ending to knock my socks off. It's a bold and risky conclusion that I recall upset a lot of people at the time, though I always loved it, and still think it's a charming acknowledgment on the power of childhood imagination.

1. Red Dead Redemption: For me, the best game ending ever, but more than that, the conclusion to the game that established incontrovertibly in my mind that we have entered the era when games can tell stories with real meaning and with value that goes beyond just serving as the framework for gameplay.

Like Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption is in its own way about the American dream. John Marston has made some serious mistakes. His is a history of violence. So, too, are the histories of the fictionalized but vividly imagined United States and Mexico borderlands where this tale takes place.

Now, all he wants is to be left alone with his family on their little ranch to live an ordinary life. But such a life is no more available to him than it is to Niko Bellic. The story takes its time deliciously building up to its shattering conclusion. John Marston gets close, so painfully close to this simple life that you can taste it. And then, well...violence breeds violence, and John Marston's legacy is inescapable. The climactic moment belongs among the endings of the all-time great Westerns, but it doesn't try to be a movie rather than a game, and its use of the game's dead-eye mechanic makes it all the more tragic. What follows is a denouement that's clever, sad and satisfying, all at once. It's an unforgettable conclusion to a masterpiece of a game.

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Please feel free to share your thoughts on game endings in general, or on those game endings that you particularly loved or hated. Can a bad ending ruin a game? Can a great ending redeem a game that's otherwise lacking?

Undiscovered country: Early thoughts on the world and story of RDR

It'll probably be a long time before I can comment on how Red Dead Redemption ends, but I can say that it starts brilliantly. In the opening scene, your protagonist, John Marston, rides a train to the town of Armadillo, giving you not only a glimpse of the beautiful, untamed frontier country where the game takes place, but also a glimpse into the issues that loom large in this rapidly changing America of 1910. Two old biddies behind Marston bicker about the intersection of money and politics, while in front of him, a young lady expresses some bold new ideas about the nature of good and evil, only to be gently but firmly set straight by the traditional preacher who accompanies her. Indeed, Red Dead Redemption seems to be largely about the collision of the old and new, of shifting ideas about religion and politics, but also of the products of industry—cars and telephones both make early appearances--starting to dramatically change the way people live their lives. In the superb Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar demonstrated an earnest desire to explore the cultural forces that shape this country, and Red Dead Redemption seems poised to follow in that game's footsteps.

Of course, every great Western needs a great protagonist at its center, and Marston seems to be made from the same mold as some of the genre's greatest. An early scene provides him with the motivation for revenge that drives him in at least the earliest part of the story, but reveals little about him, leaving him with that hint of a shady past and that aura of mystery that can be so alluring in a man on horseback. He's not so reticent, though, that we can't connect with him. On the contrary, he treats kind people with the warmth becoming of a gentleman, and has an invitingly self-deprecating sense of humor. Of course, to a large extent, who John Marston is is up to you. My John Marston, like the person controlling him, seems to be something of a ne'er-do-well, and has spent more time in the Armadillo saloon playing poker than exploring the frontier, doing good deeds for troubled strangers. Clearly, this country was built by harder-working people than me.

But now that I'm sitting here at work on a lunch break, I'm positively desperate to get back to the world of Red Dead Redemption, to see what's waiting for me out in that wild landscape. It's clear, even at this very early stage, that this game is something special, a product of rare ambition and quality, and, if it delivers on the promise of its earliest moments, of rare meaning, too.

High Hopes for Game Room

Wanna come over and play Asteroids?

The reactions I've seen to Game Room have been pretty divided. A lot of people just don't see the appeal of using a powerful modern console to play ugly, thirty-year-old games. And I can understand this, especially if you're not old enough to remember these games in their heyday. It can be hard, after playing visually stunning games like God of War III, to see beyond the simple graphics and one-button gameplay of Outlaw and understand that this is what once passed for thrilling multiplayer competition.

For me, the appeal of Game Room is clear. But then, I grew up with the Atari 2600 and with smoky, neon-lit arcades in which you couldn't hear yourself think over the noise of all the machines. What wonderful times those were.

People say that games today are better. In many cases, that's true. But I also think that games today are different in a crucial way. Most games today are story-driven, and most of those games establish a difficulty that makes it possible for just about anyone to complete that story and have a satisfying experience. That's all well and good, and I adore many games that fit this description. But I think there remains something to be said for games that are pure, unforgiving tests of skill, just you vs. the machine, where your only goal is to earn as high a score as possible. The appeal of this philosophy lives on in newer games like Geometry Wars and Pac-Man: Championship Edition, but the best early examples of this are timeless. Asteroids Deluxe, probably my favorite Game Room launch title, is a game that remains a thoroughly captivating test of skill. Most games in the Game Room launch may not hold up quite so well, but I've sunk over 45 minutes into Asteroids Deluxe, with much of that time spent trying to surpass a friend on the leaderboards. (Game Room encourages this by having banners above each machine that display the name and score of the highest-ranked person on your friends' leaderboard.) When I finally did it, the result was a sense of accomplishment of the sort the mostly relatively easy games of today seldom deliver. The faithfully recreated cabinet, so detailed that I can read the fine text on the front as I'm playing (selecting Cabinet view in the Graphics options) is icing on the cake.

There are definitely some serious, frustrating bugs and performance issues in Game Room that need to be ironed out. And it's disappointing that, while the cabinets for the Atari arcade games have the authentic artwork, the Konami ones are utterly featureless. But in addition to Asteroids Deluxe, I find Centipede and Gravitar to be so pure and simple that they're as compelling to me today as they ever were, and I've even been introduced to Shao-lin's Road, a fun game I'd somehow never heard of before that's a follow-up to Yie Ar Kung-Fu, an arcade cIassic I once loved. And the versatility of the Challenge feature means I can test my skills against those of my friends in ways that were never possible in the good old days, when all I could hope for was to enter my initials on a machine's high score screen. Now I can get creative, establishing challenges that start at any point in a game, based on score or survival. It's awesome, when it's working properly.

I look forward to more games like these, old favorites that have stood the test of time as well as cIassics I've never played before, hitting Game Room. With my own arcade, I can finally fulfill my childhood dream of being like Ricky on "Silver Spoons."

We all had that dream, right?

Two thumbs up for the thoughtful critics

As someone who really values good criticism, it troubles me a bit to so often see people trying to use criticism, particularly game criticism, in a way that's almost contradictory to what I see as its purpose. On message boards, many people seem to look to reviews to reinforce and validate their own opinions of a game, often opinions that they've made up even before playing the game reviewed. And when the review doesn't match one's opinion (or preconceived notion) of a game, he or she often finds many different, colorful ways to say that the review is meaningless. Clearly, the writer is biased against Sega! He only gave Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing an 8!

This goes without saying, of course, but reviews are not written to reinforce any individual's or group's existing opinions about something. Any such piece of writing passing itself off as a review is duplicitous.

But what is a review's purpose?

To an extent, I think it depends what the review is for. A movie review, to me, has a somewhat different purpose from a game review. A movie review may serve as a guide to help the reader decide if the film is of interest to him or her. However, this is secondary to the greater role of film criticism: to contribute to the cultural discussion of a work of cinema and of film as an art form, and to illuminate and enhance the reader's understanding and appreciation of that work and that medium. I'm not talking about the goofy entertainment reporter on your local news who announces, "The Bounty Hunter hunts down entertainment...and DELIVERS!" in the hopes of seeing his quote appear in national ads for the flick. Such "reviews" are worse than useless. They are harmful. I'm talking about serious film writers, people like Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, and so on. Thoughtful amateurs, as well, like Grace Wang. Opinionated, articulate, and all very passionate about the movies. People often say that they like a certain critic because they generally agree with him or her. But reading writing by people like this, it doesn't matter if I agree with what they say or not. I enjoy reading their work regardless. In fact, sometimes I want my opinions to be challenged. Even when I disagree with a well-stated opinion, it helps me better understand my own feelings about something.

As a very small personal example of why I think this kind of writing is important, I recently saw the films Green Zone and The Ghost Writer. I was fascinated by the thematic relationships between the two films--both deal in their own ways with issues relating to the Iraq war--and with how stylistically different the films are. The Green Zone's director, Paul Greengrass (who also directed the latter two Bourne films and the haunting United 93), uses shaky camera movements throughout, creating a sense of disarray that reinforces the chaotic conditions on the ground in Iraq. In The Ghost Writer, director Roman Polanski's approach couldn't be more different. That film is comprised of long shots and very smooth camera movements, contributing to that film's almost oppressive sense of rigid order. These are comparisons that wouldn't have occurred to me if I didn't avidly absorb film criticism. Some may say, "Who wants to think about movies like that? That's no fun!" I simply disagree with that, and I can say without hesitation that I enjoy movies more as a result of considering them like this, of making connections and comparisons.

I'm not saying that this kind of writing should matter to everyone. Perhaps, in the larger sense, it doesn't really "matter" at all. But then, nor does it matter which team wins the World Series each year; that certainly doesn't stop millions of fans from caring very deeply about baseball, and most of them would probably say that their passion for the sport enriches their lives in some way. I can't possibly argue about which team has the best chance of winning the Series this year. But I'll certainly talk to you about the brilliance of L.A. Confidential. As film critic A.O. Scott recently said, "It's always been true that people can go to the movies without reading what critics have to say about the movies. Criticism matters to the people who care about it. It's not that everybody out there in the world needs to hear what we have to say, but some people want to. And there is still, I think, an appetite."

Enough about movies, though. What about game criticism? Game reviews are certainly less cultural commentary and more purchasing guide. But I think that, like great film criticism, great game criticism can go beyond just telling you whether this game is worth your time and money. Read enough really good reviews and you will probably find your own opinions about games coming into clearer focus. You'll better understand why you love a game, or why you hate it. And with that better understanding may even come richer enjoyment of games. I read reviews by writers I respect, whether I have any interest in the game they're reviewing or not, because there may be insights therein that will be of value to me.

I'll close with this quote from F.X. Feeney, who was writing about film criticism, but I think this sentiment can be expanded to some degree to refer to good criticism of any kind, be it of books, music, film, games, food, or anything else:

"Film Criticism at its best is nothing more or less than the practice of literature. A humble corner of literature, to be sure -- but talent, depth of comprehension and communication are the arbiters of what's good and true. They always were, always will be. The topic is fleeting, and today's insight wraps tomorrow's fish, but the abiding joy comes of saying what you've experienced so truthfully and so well that strangers get your meaning whether they agree or not."

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The F.X. Feeney quote and the A.O. Scott quote were brought to my attention by recent posts in Scanners, the excellent blog of Jim Emerson, editor of rogerebert.com. For anyone interested in thoughtful discussion of the role of criticism, I highly recommend these recent entries:


How to become a film critic (or not)


Confessions of a lousy critic

A few quick thoughts on Heavy Rain (spoilers are marked and hidden)

I powered through Heavy Rain today.

Let me start by saying that this game is an incredible ride. In scene after scene it creates tremendous tension and delivers real, nail-biting thrills. The individual elements work spectacularly. I was totally engaged in the game moment-to-moment as I was playing it, and found myself constantly yelling at the screen in terror or exhaling in relief. I think Heavy Rain demonstrates that storytelling like this is legitimate and can be engaging and moving.

When you take those individual elements and think of them as a whole, there are some problems. There are definitely some significant issues with the plot, some major questions left unanswered and some simply misleading aspects to the narrative that seem designed solely to string you along and don't seem plausible within the overall story of the game. An effective but not exceptional Hollywood thriller might be forgiven for one such plot problem over the course of its two-hour running time. At around five or six times the length of such a film, Heavy Rain also features around five or six such plot problems. They certainly don't ruin the experience, because the game is so good at delivering thrills that while you're playing it, you're probably too caught up in the excitement of the moment to let them bother you too much. But they're there.

The environments in this game are exceptional. The architecture of the motel feels completely authentic. The old-fashioned design of the refrigerator in Scott's apartment is beautiful. So many wonderful details like these work to really pull you into the world of the game.

And the ARI stuff didn't bug me the way I thought it might after playing the demo. I like how they decided to have a little fun with it, letting you do stuff like bounce the virtual ball against the virtual wall while waiting for the police captain. It worked for me.

Do you think love can bloom, even during a murder investigation?

The big question: To play it again or not? I probably will at some point. But not right away. Going back in and deliberately making different choices just to see how it affects the plot would be fun on one hand, but it would also reveal the machinery behind the game's storytelling, the THIS ACTION = THAT RESULT formulas, which might, as David Cage said in an interview, "kill the magic" a bit. Right now I'm content to live with the way things played out for me.

And now a few specific details about some of my issues with the game. If you care about this sort of thing, I strongly suggest not reading the spoilers unless you have completed the game yourself. I do reveal the identity of the origami killer and go into detail about some aspects of how the game played out for me. I don't want to hear any whining!

The biggest plot issue for me is probably...

[spoiler] Ethan's blackouts, waking up with the origami figures. What the hell is that about? It seems to serve no purpose other than to make you think he might conceivably be the killer. How is that happening? Is the actual killer drugging him and putting origami figures in his hand or something? I just can't figure out how that makes any sense, unless maybe it's explained in some scene or plot departure that I didn't experience. I also found it really hard to accept that he actually believed he had some kind of split personality and had kidnapped his own son but just couldn't remember where, which he stated during a police interrogation scene. [/spoiler]

Another huge story issue is...

[spoiler] Madison's dream sequence early on. So far as I can tell, it exists solely to mislead the player, to make you believe that she's actually staying at the motel because of terrible insomnia and nightmares, when in fact that's not it at all. Also, I'm pretty sure that when I first arrived at the motel as Madison and saw Ethan, she referred to him as a "stranger," in her own thoughts. But didn't she know exactly who she was, and wasn't she there solely because of him? [/spoiler]

And a question about Scott...

[spoiler] Was he actually hired by the families of the victims? In the end, I really didn't think so. I thought that was just a ruse so that he could go around and collect evidence. And never once do we see any such person who has hired him, or hear their voices on the phone or anything. But then during a news report in my ending, the reporter makes reference to this again, him working for the families of the victims. Weird. [/spoiler]

One other minor factual slip-up I encountered:

[spoiler] When you're at the first crime scene, Jayden says it's 2011. I'm almost positive that at some point during some ARI investigation while I was looking over victim profiles or something, some reference was made to a date in 2012, leading me to believe that maybe a year had passed since that initial crime scene investigation. But then during the ending, a tombstone of a character who died during the climax of my game read 2011, so this clearly wasn't the case. [/spoiler]

And now a quick run-down on a few of the major points of how my game played out, and the ending I got.

[spoiler] I didn't complete the fourth trial. I didn't feel that murdering someone was justifiable.

There was a moment when Madison, the incredibly sexy girl, said, "Time to play the sexy girl." Girl, PLEASE!

Lauren died in Scott's car as it was sinking. I felt bad about that. I don't know if she can be saved or not. I liked her. I kinda wanted her and Scott to form a lasting father-daughter-styIe relationship. I had the sense that they would be good for each other. Of course, that was before I knew about Scott.

After Lauren died, Scott went on a spectacular spree of vengeance back at the McBucks' (whatever their name really is) mansion. That was awesome. During that sequence, there was something in him for me of an older, fatter Bud White, the angry cop played by Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential.

Not having completed the fourth trial, I didn't have a complete address to work with in the end, and had to pick just one location to check out from three possibilities. That was a terrific moment in my opinion, needing to use the sound clues to pick the correct location. I really felt like a huge amount was riding on my choice and that it needed to be right.

As implausible as I thought much of the narrative was, Shelby's twisted motivation for doing what he did--trying to find a father who was willing to do what was necessary to save a child in that position, after his own father, drunk and negligent, failed to lift a finger to save his drowning brother--worked for me on a purely emotional level.

In my ending, Ethan saved Shaun, and Madison showed up and walked out with him to face Blake and his snipers. Jayden and Shelby fought on an elevated conveyor belt and Shelby wound up falling to his grisly death.

Ethan, Madison and Shaun then move into a new happy home. Jayden, apparently having kicked the tripto habit, is now a celebrity after helping to bring the origami killer's rein of terror to an end. We see him on a talk show. Then we see him working in an office with the ARI glasses. Some miniature, computer-generated tanks crawl up onto his desk. He takes off the glasses but can still see the tanks! Say whaaaaa?! THE END! [/spoiler]

2009 may have been the year of Street Fighter IV...

...but that was just child's play. NOW IT'S TIME FOR:

Yes! When Ken's not kicking ass on the street fighting circuit, he's inventing a super-substance called cyboplasm with his friend Troy! This year, Ken implants some bionics and pursues Troy's killers across the frontier worlds! His journeys will even take him to the wonderfully named desert planet of SANDDUNE! (God, I miss truly terrible localization.) And in case one bizarre Capcom series tie-in isn't enough, this game is determined to confuse the hell out of you with the subtitle The Final Fight! But alas, Metro City Mayor Mike Haggar never shows up to help Ken on his interplanetary street-fighting adventure. What the hell, Capcom?

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year!

The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection: My Top Ten Games of 2009

The best games of 2009, for me, were marked not by innovation, but rather by doing the very same things that games have been doing for a long time, but doing them better than they've ever been done before. (That's not to say that this was a year without innovation. On the contrary, GameSpot's pick for Game of the Year, Demon's Souls, is boldly innovative and utterly uncompromising, and I respect the hell out of it. I just didn't personally enjoy it all that much.) The two best games of the year for me were particularly exceptional in this regard. Forza Motorsport 3 and Street Fighter IV are like well-oiled, nearly flawless high-performance machines in their respective genres.

Forza 3 is a game of such elegance that I feel like I should be eating excellent French cheeses and sipping fine wine whenever I play it. But not in a stuffy, oppressive way. No, it's an elegance that's perfectly befitting of the beautiful, fine-tuned automobiles it celebrates. And the experience of playing it is about as close as a game has ever gotten for me to being transportive. The handling, the sounds, the visuals are all so convincing that I could almost swear I can feel my car soaring down the Sebring Raceway. I'm such a devoted fan of over-the-top arcade racers over simulation racers that I often catch myself wanting to press A to trigger a vehicle boost, Burnout-styIe. But where so many other simulation racers have left me cold, Forza 3 is one I can't stop admiring. In addition to the absolutely top-notch driving, the way the game rewards you for each victory, constantly opening up new cars, new events, and new benefits as you earn experience makes playing "just one more race" nearly irresistible.

What Forza 3 is for driving games, Street Fighter IV is for fighters. It hits the sweet spot between pick-up-and-play accessibility and tremendous depth. The incredibly tight controls and exceptionally balanced combat ensure that fights are always exciting and intense for me, and even losses feel rewarding as a chance to observe the techniques of more skillful players and very slowly get better. And the better I get, the more I appreciate how incredible this game is, as I slowly come to grips with things like the focus attack system that adds layers of depth onto the core, tried-and-true Street Fighter II model. If I could stop time for a while and spend unlimited hours playing any one game from this year, this is the one I'd play, because as much as I enjoy it now, I know that being a truly competitive, outstanding player would only deepen my appreciation and enjoyment of it still more.

The quest to capture big, Hollywood-styIe adventure movie thrills in game form is certainly nothing new. Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2 pulls it off more effectively than any game has before. Expertly paced, with one terrific setpiece moment after another, and an excellent cast of characters whose relationships make you feel invested in the story.

Modern Warfare 2 was far and away the year's best shooter for me. Sure, you can rightly criticize the brevity of its campaign, but its whirlwind globehopping adventure packs more terrific locations and more memorable moments into its five hours than most games four times as long can manage. (By contrast, I have a hard time coming up with a single truly memorable moment in Killzone 2's campaign.) Add in the exciting and challenging cooperative Spec Ops missions and the highly addictive competitive multiplayer and you've got a well-rounded and consistently outstanding shooter.

Not an Arkham Asylum screenshotWhile I have a soft spot for the moody Burton-influenced visuals and catchy tunes of Sunsoft's excellent 1989 NES game based on the first Michael Keaton Batman film, I have to admit that Arkham Asylum represents far and away the most compelling and effective representation of the Caped Crusader in a game. Everything you love about Batman--his gadgets, his detective skills, his use of stealth and shadow, his scarred psyche--is manifested here to terrific effect. It's so effective, in fact, that even if you go into the game not knowing or caring much about Batman, Commissioner Gordon and the other characters who populate Gotham City, you'll probably come away from it with a real appreciation for what Rocksteady has done with them here.

There was very little doubt that The Beatles: Rock Band was going to be good, but I was nonetheless surprised at just how superb it turned out. Harmonix could have taken the lazy route with this one and still sold a bazillion copies on the strength of the Fab Four's catalog of timeless and incredible songs. But instead, they went all-out, creating a rich Beatles experience jam-packed with the kinds of little details that imbue the game with the warmth and reverence the material deserves. Time spent playing this with friends was perhaps the greatest source of pure joy I got from any game this year.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was perhaps the biggest WOW of the year for me. No other game revealed previously untapped potential in a platform as dramatically as Chinatown Wars did with the DS. No compromises here, this is GTA reimagined from the ground up for Nintendo's handheld, and it is fantastic.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is the latest and greatest entry in AlphaDream's consistently excellent series of RPGs starring the Brothers Mario. Endlessly inventive, irresistibly charming and completely hilarious.

I'm still inching my way through Assassin's Creed II, one kill at a time. While I find the gameplay a smidge too easy to be completely gripping, the varied, richly detailed and atmospheric cities make this breezy ride a very enjoyable one, and pulling off a stealthy kill in broad daylight, then walking away and leaving no one the wiser is immensely satisfying. I recall the negative reactions of some to the sci-fi concept of the animus when the first game was released, but here, I find that all the crazy conspiracy theory elements woven into the game make it feel all the more epic and compelling, creating a sense of high stakes and of an age-old conflict that extends far beyond Altair, Ezio or Desmond as individuals.

What Borderlands lacks in story, it more than makes up for in sheer addictive playability. It brilliantly merges the loot-finding and character-building that makes games like Diablo II so habit-forming, with...guns.

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An honorable mention goes to Dragon Age: Origins, another title I haven't found the time to conclude yet. In fact, I've still got a long way to go on this epic journey. The pace lagged for me in the early stages, but now that I'm starting to make some serious progress on the main quest, I'm finding myself becoming more absorbed in the fully realized fantasy realm of Ferelden. Bioware's signature talents for creating richly detailed worlds and compelling moral dilemmas are in full effect here, and I'm determined to see this quest through to its blood-spattery end.

In my opinion, the year's best downloadable content was The Ballad of Gay Tony. Rockstar continues to challenge notions of who and what games can be about. Terrific nightclub atmosphere brings a previously unseen side of Liberty City to life, and the outrageous missions help bring GTA IV to an explosive conclusion.

And since I'm listening to it right now, I'll add that my favorite original soundtrack this year belongs to Shatter. It's a catchy and gorgeous collection of electronic compositions that are as incredible on their own as they are in the game.