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Kevin-V Blog

My Top 10 Games of 2010: The Cubby Awards

Even before I worked at GameSpot, I posted a list of my favorite games of the year come holiday time. They are/were called The Cubbies, and in time-honored tradition, I am doing the same this year! But they come with a few caveats. Most importantly, this list is of my favorite games of the year, which isn't to say I think these are necessarily the best games of the year. But these are the ones that made the biggest impressions on me--the ones that defined 2010 for me as an individual. This is a very subjective list that casts aside the notion of objective criticism ("favorite," as opposed to "objectively the best"), and is not meant to replace GameSpot's official Game of the Year awards. Secondly, please note that I haven't played or finished every game released in 2010. For example, I loved what I have played of Red Dead Redemption thus far, but I haven't finished it, and my top 10 list is reserved only for games I have finished. (Or in the case of unfinishable games, for games I have played long enough to feel strongly about.) So Super Meat Boy, Dead Rising 2, God of War III, and other great games: I am sorry I haven't yet completed you.

So here you have: The 2010 Cubby Awards!

10) Heavy Rain

While I was playing it, I was convinced that Heavy Rain was one of the finest and most emotionally affecting games I've ever played. Once I was done, its many story and character inconsistencies dogged me. Then again, the fact that those unresolved plot strands still bother me is a testament to how memorable this story-driven adventure game is at a time when video game stories clearly have a lot of growing up to do. This was a good step towards making games an emotional medium, when Michael Bay-brand bombast still reigns supreme--and in a year sadly lacking in innovation. Here's hoping developer Quantic Dream can bring us an adventure that relies more on sincere feeling and character interaction and less on manipulation of the player.

9) Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Brotherhood and Bioshock II share an important commonality: when a game's impact relies so much on its fresh sense of place and time, it's hard for a sequel to rise above the original. Assassin's Creed II featured a new protagonist, a new art style, and a lot more that was wholly new. Brotherhood is a baby-steps kind of sequel--evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I've often said that the most amazing games are the ones that give me "the tingle." Roger Ebert calls this feeling "elevation," but whatever you choose to call it, it's the shiver you get when you know you are experiencing something special. Assassin's Creed II gave that to me; Brotherhood didn't. But what Brotherhood did do was refine the things that the series already did superbly, enhance (but not overhaul) its weaker elements, and bookended its open exploration with some fantastic missions and other scripted sequences. And whether you loved it or hated it, it concluded with a humdinger of an ending that rivaled Assassin's Creed II's for pure shock value.

8 ) Deadly Premonition

Some people are fond of saying that Deadly Premonition is so bad it's good--but I think those people are missing the point. Sure, there are parts of this game that simply aren't good. The driving is terrible, there are major sound design problems, the combat is awkward, and so forth. But this crazy-kooky-funny-shocking-twisted game has a quality that few games possess: the power to truly surprise you. I tailed a local from her house to a nearby hotel, where she went to dine. I sat with her and we ate lunch together; we had an entire conversation. This was not a scripted mission--just a thing that happened because I was in the right place at the right time. The story, the characters, certain gameplay sequences, the final two hours of the game, the constant delights you could stumble upon by exploring and just doing stuff--nothing I played this year rivaled the pure entertainment value these moments provided. I can't explain everything that happened, but I will remember most of it for years to come. This game is good because it's good: So says Mr. Stewart.

7) Tie: Just Cause 2 and Mafia II

I am cheating a bit with this tie, but I think these games are important halves to an open-world whole. Just Cause 2 gave you a huge, gorgeous world to play with and make your own fun in. It provided the tools to go insane and says, "Do what you will." You could jump out of helicopters, fly to mountaintops, yank people off of motorcycles, blow up statues. It was all a riot--pure entertainment. It's too bad that some sour missions and an absurd, poorly-acted story had to intrude so often. Mafia II took the opposite approach, dropping a well-acted, self-serious story into a beautiful open world that was more window dressing than anything else. Neither game lived up to its promise, yet I loved both of them for what they were. They represent two different kinds of open-world design philosophy, but both fulfilled me, albeit in very different ways.

6) Battlefield: Bad Company 2

I like Modern Warfare, but I like games with heart and soul even more. Bad Company 2's campaign is terribly underappreciated; it's full of personality and awesome action, and as a result, kept me invested from beginning to end. Compare its campaign to 2010's Medal of Honor, which was one of the most predictable and boring shooters I've played in some time, and one of my great disappointments of the year. But it's BC2's multiplayer that kept me grinning for months. It doesn't quite fill that gaping hole that Battlefield 2 left in my soul when I stopped playing it, but it finds a nice middle ground between the pure unpredictability and team-based cooperation of BF2 and the accessible, pick-up-and-play action of MW. Bad Company 2 delivered everything a military shooter needs to deliver, and did it with great care, panache, and great humor.

5) Alan Wake

I crave games that make me feel totally involved in what's happening on the screen. The gameplay is on the simple side (the shine-shoot mechanic never evolves), but Alan Wake never became stale for me, thanks to great world design, great voice acting, and incredible atmosphere. Furthermore, I have great respect for the title character; he could be a dick, and that went a long way towards making Alan an authentic and empathetic leading man. Redemption is an important element in many a good narrative, and it only strikes the proper chords when the protagonist is flawed. And while some of my colleagues disagree, I also liked the ending a lot, in all its Lynchian vagueness. I was upset when the game was over, because I wanted it to keep going, indefinitely, and I think that says a lot about the world Remedy crafted, and the refined gameplay they stuffed into it.

4) Pac-Man Championship Edition DX

Just writing this entry makes me want to go play Pac-Man CE: DX right now. As much as I adored Limbo, it's not a game I want to return to. Pac-Man, on the other hand, ensnares me in its web of patterns again and again, inspiring me to do just a little better than the last time. There's something about its pattern recognition that triggers my brain's pleasure centers. It's tense and exciting, yet simultaneously tranquil in the way its patterns drill themselves into your subconscious. When I turn on my Xbox 360, this is the game I end up playing, even if I originally intend to play something else.

3) StarCraft II

You couldn't accuse Blizzard of delivering huge heaps of innovation, but the products they deliver are absolutely pristine. Yet I cringe when people complain that this amazing sequel is nothing more than a prettier version of the original. I played StarCraft and Brood War right before playing StarCraft II; the leap is astounding, and I don't mean from the obvious technological perspective, but from a design perspective. The single-player campaign is great, tying interesting level design to its narrative in incredibly sensible ways. Context is important--so important that I am hoping to devote an entire blog entry to it. StarCraft II does an excellent job at giving everything you do in the campaign context, which enriches both the gameplay and the narrative. Story is more than just plot and dialogue (neither of which StarCraft II excels at). It's also about the narrative that develops through gameplay. (Half-Life 2 is a perfect example of another game that delivers gameplay-based narrative remarkably well.) In one mission, you control a single unit running from an onslaught. This is simple click-click gameplay--no combat, no strategizing, just maneuvering a single unit down a linear path. Yet context makes this simple action feel exciting and intense, and gives this gameplay sequence narrative weight.

Of course, none of this would matter much if StarCraft II didn't also play as well as any RTS that came before it. But the way the game feels, the way units respond, the way your tactics unfold on screen are exactly right. I am also consistently amazed at how versatile the game is. I constantly see strategies I have never seen before, which forces me to scout and rethink my own approaches--and also encourages me to experiment and try things I never tried before. This was an amazing evolution of an amazing game, and I can't wait to see what the next installment brings to the table.

2) Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 has been rightfully criticized in some circles for simply removing things from the original Mass Effect rather than making them better. Yes, it is streamlined, and perhaps you think of it more as a shooter than as a role-playing game. I don't care what you call it, however, as long as you call it one of the best games of 2010. It's amazing just how well each part of this game comes together the way it does. Mass Effect 2's very structure gives you a chance to form bonds with each member of your crew, so that when the time comes to make decisions, every choice you make carries emotional weight. In my first hours of play, I was surprised that your initial shipmates--Jacob and Miranda--were also the most boring. After I completed their loyalty missions, however, I saw them in an entirely different way. Not every character can be as stringently scientific as Mordin, or as conflicted and brooding as Jack. But by balancing the more strident characters with subtler crewmates, Mass Effect 2 kept the narrative engaging and personal. The game's plot is no great shakes. It's the dialogue, the emotional arc, and the visual storytelling that make this a world easy to lose yourself in. Oh, and let's not forget: Mass Effect 2 is also a lot of fun.

1) Vanquish

Leave it to Platinum Games to figure out how to take a stale genre and make it seem fresh and exciting again. For all the attention I have given to games with stories to tell this year, my favorite game of 2010 has almost no narrative depth, though it self-consciously skewers itself and its testosterone-fueled brethren. We could argue for days about Vanquish's attempts to subvert the characters and stories you encounter in typical third-person cover shooters. What's important is that Vanquish was the best time I had with any entertainment product this year. It may have featured most of the same mechanics as other similar shooters, but by adding rocket-powered knee-sliding and limited bullet time, it felt less of a shooter than it did a high-octane action game in which you happened to use guns instead of swords. It felt exactly right, and it clicked with me almost immediately. And just when things started to feel a bit repetitive, Vanquish mixed things up with a clever level quirk, such as an awesome sequence with a collapsing bridge, or a gravity-inducing rotating tunnel.

You can (with good reason) criticize Vanquish for being short, and for not providing any multiplayer options. Yet like sweet candy, I think Vanquish would have been too much had it been any longer--and technical limitations would have made multiplayer Vanquish, by necessity, feel somewhat castrated. I love it for exactly what it is: fun without filler. And even if you don't love Vanquish as I do, it's difficult to not respect a talented development studio for their creativity, when so many other developers seem content to make what they think we want, rather than making something awesome that we didn't know we wanted until we had it.

Honorable Mentions and Special Honors/Dishonors

Most Awesome Game Not Landing on My Official List: Darksiders

Derivative for sure. Kitchen-sink game design to the extreme. And incredibly enjoyable--a dark fantasy thrill ride.

Most Wasted Graphics Engine: Tie--Final Fantasy XIV/Lost Planet 2

Great technology. Disappointing games. This is what happens when more development resources are poured into making your game pretty than into making your game fun to play. I take comfort in the fact that Lost Planet 2's excellent art design put its tech to good use, even if the gameplay fell far short. I lament that FF XIV's amazing tech was further wasted on wide open spaces and bland green corridors that exemplify the game's total lack of imagination.

Most Hated Good Game: Tie--Final Fantasy XIII/Supreme Commander 2

It's popular to hate Final Fantasy XIII for its slow start, its linearity and its cast of characters. I think it's an imperfect, beautiful, and fun game that takes place in a great world that I enjoyed inhabiting, and has a terrific battle system to boot. As for Supreme Commander 2, it's a high-quality strategy game that many hardcore SC fans bemoaned for being more accessible than its awesome predecessor. If it didn't have the words "Supreme Commander" in the title, I think the same people would have had a great time--just like I did.

The Huh? Award for That Great Game I Couldn't Get Into: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Great characters, for sure, but what else? The movement mechanics are awkward. The game is too in love with its own constantly adjusting camera. The combat is shallow to the extreme, and you fight the same enemies over and over again. Every year there is one "I don't get the love" game. Last year, it was Borderlands, a great tech demo utterly devoid of meaningful content. This year, it's Enslaved, an interesting experiment that has far too many gameplay flaws for me to overlook. That hook that grabbed everyone else failed to dig into my flesh.

The Silicon Knights Award for Awesome Development Studio That Needs to Get Its Act Together: Obsidian Entertainment

There comes a time when it's clear that a developer can't deliver on its ambitions. All the great and complex ideas in the world won't save your game if you don't have the resources to bring them to life. Fallout: New Vegas is one of the finest broken games I have ever played, but broken it is (yes, even after patches), and not just because it was built on an aging game engine that could barely support it. Alpha Protocol, too, had all the ingredients for a special game, but the moment-to-moment gameplay was a failure. Mediocre shooting, awful stealth, awful cover mechanics, and--shocker--major (sometimes game-breaking) bugs and performance issues sullied the experience. Obsidian can do amazing things. But perhaps it's time for them to scale back the ambition and deliver an awesome and refined product that's lighter on ideas and heavier on execution. Think of the amazing things Obsidian could be doing if only they'd work within their means. Until then, they may never escape their reputation for creating bug-infested games.

The Wasted Potential Award: Tie--Aliens Vs. Predator/Star Trek Online

Aliens Vs. Predator is a fan service game, so it has a following among those devoted to the license, but taken on its own terms, it simply isn't good. And that's frustrating, because the recipe was already solidified years ago with AvP2. Rebellion is a talented studio that inexplicably gave us 2009's truly awful Rogue Warrior, and then delivered a wholly mediocre sequel to a beloved classic. Cryptic Studios is in a similar rut. I liked Champions Online a lot, but Star Trek Online was even more devoid of content than its superhero-themed brother, and much of the content that was there was frustratingly subpar. Cryptic relies on a segmented MMO model that splinters content into chunks at the expense of a truly massively multiplayer world. That approach has served its purpose, but I think it's time for Cryptic to try a different one; the cracks in the foundation are showing.

The flOw Award for Game That Made me Feel Most Fuzzy: Chime

Philip Glass. That is all.

The Don't Forget This Awesome Overlooked Game Award: ModNation Racers

The single-player portion of this superfun racing game was shockingly difficult, but I persevered, because dammit, I was having a blast. But the most joy I had was playing online on user-made tracks. The ModNation community comes up with some outrageously cool designs, and the game makes it oh so easy to bring your own imagination to life. Or, if you lack imagination, it does a superb job of filling in the gaps.

The What's Wrong With Just Being Fun? Award: Singularity

Nothing, that's what. I think that a game needs to be more than "fun" to be great, however, and the most special games inhabit your brain and heart in ways that surpass being simply fun to play. Singularity isn't special in the way Bioshock, Half-Life 2, or No One Lives Forever were special, but it's still a quality game that makes it fun to shoot stuff. It's unoriginal. It isn't the prettiest shooter on the market. Its story is absolute nonsense. But its level design is great, its guns are a blast to shoot, and the pacing is fantastic. I appreciate good pacing a lot (Half-Life 2 may still be the best example of awesome pacing in a shooter), and bemoan games with no sense of tempo or timing (Too Human is still my go-to example of how bad pace can detract from an experience). Singularity moves along at the perfect speed, taking time to build tension, and then pushing you forward at exactly the right time to provide necessary release. Rebellion, take note: this is the game to use as inspiration for your next AvP game.

The It Doesn't Have To Be Easy To Be Awesome Award: Monster Hunter Tri

I still think the Monster Hunter series relies too much on overly long animations for providing a challenge; my single largest gaming pet peeve is when a developer can't tell the difference between challenging and cheap. Taking control out of the player's hands and forcing him or her to powerlessly watch events unfold is cheap, not a challenge, and Monster Hunter Tri doesn't always land on the right side of the fence. (It is no Demon's Souls, which always played fair.) Yet don't misunderstand the negativity--I love Monster Hunter Tri. It was tense and exciting, and some of the most memorable moments I had all year involved bringing down huge creatures with Justin Calvert and other players.

The It Doesn't Have To Be Hard To Be Awesome Award: Lego Harry Potter

On the other side of the fence are the Lego games, which are clearly aimed at younger players, and yet are rewarding for gamers of any age. Past games in this series focused too much on lame combat and slippery platforming. This time, Traveler's Tales fully embraced the smash-collect-rebuild mechanic that makes its games so delightful. I would like to see the developer fix this series' continuing flaws, but at least they weren't in the spotlight this time. Lego Harry Potter was super easy, but it was also super charming, and super satisfying.

On a more personal note, I wanted to express my gratitude to everyone that reads the site, and everyone I work with. I am extraordinarily lucky that I get to do something I love so much for a living. Games are a subject a lot of people have very strong feelings about. We have passion for these products that give us so much joy and sorrow, hence the strong words so many gamers use to communicate their thoughts about them. I get incredible messages of encouragement from fans and hateful messages from those that lament that I didn't say what they hoped to hear. But I am thankful for all of those people, and everyone else too. I have grown as a person, a writer, and a critic in the last few years. Ten years ago, I could never have imagined my dream of writing for GameSpot would come true, and not a day goes by during which I don't remind myself of that incredible blessing.

I wish all of you the same kind of blessings. I wish you health and joy. I wish you many years of gaming thrills. I encourage you to be kind to each other and to yourselves. And I implore you to stay passionate, because your passions will lead you to greatness.

With undying respect and admiration,

Kevin VanOrd

Twitter username: fiddlecub
Xbox Live: fiddlecub
PSN: fiddlecub
Steam: fiddlecub
AIM: gamespotkevin
Raptr: fiddlecub

Kevin VanOrd Ornament

This blog is a part of the ornament scavenger hunt.

Share a couple of items on your Christmas wishlist this year.
An extended life battery for my HTC Evo phone
A jean jacket
A pair of hiking shoes

What games will you play during the holidays?
Red Dead Redemption
Halo: Reach (XBL gamertag: fiddlecub, or PM invite are both good)
Assassin's Creed Brotherhood

What are the kinds of food or drinks you must have during the holidays?

Turkey and ham with stuffing and mashed potatoes
On New Year's, corned beef and sauerkraut
Egg nog with nutmeg sprinkled on top


Assassin's Creed Tattoo: Complete

The task, it is done. As many of you already know, this was tattoo week. After a long and thoughtful process, I finally decided to get a game-related tattoo. As I outlined in my previous blog, I wanted art that was meaningful in multiple ways, as to minimize any future regrets. I am thrilled with the result (though today, day #2, it is scabbing just the slightest bit in a few places). Want to see how this process went down? Take a look.

My artist is Marie at Fura Bodyworks in Castro Valley, CA. We had two appointments before the actual work was done to discuss the art. For the inspiration, see my previous blog post. The process wasn't terribly painful. I expected the first insertion to be the worst, when in actuality, it was just a mild pricking. Towards the end, she was working skin that had already been needled several times before, so it did start feeling a bit raw, but overall, the pain was minimal. If you;ve considered a tattoo but have balked because of pain, don't let that be a major consideration.

Things are coming together. The black marker lines you see above my wrist and below my inner elbow, by the way, are markings to line the image up when Marie first placed the stencil on my arm. It goes without saying, but the arm is not a two-dimensional surface, and my idea of a lined-up image might be different from someone else's.

The outline is done, and shading has begun. Marie went over the outer edge twice to make sure it was particularly bold. (One of my qualifications for the tattoo was bold edges.) Now, you see her using gray ink for shading. Some people find the shading to be more painful, and some less. For me, it felt much the same, only instead of drawing a line, she's essentially scrubbing the ink in, as if she's using a little colored pencil. After this, she added red to the ruby embedded in the crown, and used white to give depth and help certain edges pop. Note the mark in the center of the image; that scar tissue has been there since I was a teenager. It's not usually noticeable, but not only had Marie shaved off all my arm hair (obviously), but by that point, much of the surrounding skin was inflamed, making that poor scar really stand out--particularly because it had a little ink smudged on it!

A few hours later, I took the bandage off for the first washing and ointment application. This was taken right after. You can tell I was ready for bed; you can see the paisley markings of my boxer shorts! (And that's my humidifier in the corner.)

Two days later and I am still happy with my decision and with the result. I've got a few weeks before it will be done healing, but I've been careful to follow standard aftercare instructions, and I expect that while I might need to touch up a few lines later, everything will heal smoothly and properly. If you want to see more images from my excursion into the underworld, you can see them here. Next project: cut off my middle finger, allowing use of a hidden blade.

I'm kidding, I'm kidding. As we all know, Da Vinci used a modified design. I can don the blade without any amputation!

P.S.: In the previous blog, the title was a reference to Devo's song Whip It. No cookies for anyone!

Tattoo Detective

I'll send a cookie to anyone that knows what I am referring to in my blog title.

So anyway, it's been a while, right? I am cooking up some more substantial blog posts for the coming week, but I wanted to share something a bit more personal: I am getting a tattoo. Yes indeed, my previously unmarked, porcelain skin will be filled with ink forever soon, and of course, I have given this a lot of thought and effort. Tattoos are a big decision, and over the years I've played around with various ideas, but I hadn't settled on exactly what I wanted until a few months back. My goal was to find something attractive that was related to games, but also made a statement that had meaning beyond the game.

In the end, I settled on the Assassin's Creed symbol:

The choice is partially because I have a lot of passion for the series; partially because I adore the associated adage, "Nothing is true; everything is permitted;" and partially because the symbol is attractive in its own right. I felt that on its own, however, the symbol was too plain. After seeing photos of other tattoos using the symbol, I knew I wanted something somewhat more elaborate, and I also knew I didn't want any script.

My original idea was to have the symbol on my inner forearm, with the point facing my wrist, just as if it were a hidden blade. But elaborating proved tricky, and most of the ideas the artist and I came up with didn't feel right. We looked at a lot of designs and other artistic takes on this symbol, and finally found an idea that hit us like a ton of bricks. Once I was willing to be more flexible about where the tattoo would go, we found a springboard that worked:

The tattoo will recreate the symbol, as well as the crown, jewel, and wings above it, and will go on my outer forearm. I am anxious to see the final art, which should be finished tomorrow. If all goes well, I will get the tattoo this Friday evening. I am nervous and excited all at once, but I think things will go smoothly. I like the artist and her work, and the studio is clean, well-organized, and well regarded.

Have you had a tattoo? What was it like, and what did you have done? How painful was it for you? I'd love to hear your thoughts on my upcoming tattoo, as well as your own experiences.

Edit: Two hours before my appointment the studio called and rescheduled to Thursday. I have to wait six more days, which peeves me, since I had a lot of emotional energy wrapped up in tonight's appointment.

The Three Es: Electronic, Entertainment, and EEK!

It has been far too long since I have posted an update. I hope you can forgive me: my time has been divided between games for work and games for fun. If you hadn't noticed, there have been a ****load of good games coming out, and too little time to play them. And of course, next week is E3--the yearly nerd get together that happens to feature a lot of games.

As I head into E3 2010, let's start with Shaun McInnis's last-minute home video in which myself and other GameSpotters give you a quick taste of what we're most looking forward to.

Of course, the greatest pleasures usually come from the games that surprise us. I am excited to hear about Crysis 2, Mafia II, Infamous 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Last Guardian, and loads more. But who knows what Valve has in store for us? Half-Life 2: Episode 3 perhaps? Or--heart palpitating--Half-Life 3? A new and exciting IP? (If it's Left 4 Dead 3, I might cry. I sincerely hope Valve doesn't continue to rely on that particular brand.) Will we see more about the recently-announced Wheel of Time game? And beyond that, what will be this year's Witcher, Guitar Hero, or Demon's Souls? You know--that game buried in the nether regions of the convention center, or the one garnering too little attention, that ends up being an instant classic, or at very least, a cut above the rest? My first E3, it was a little-hyped game called Okami that blew me away, though the convention center was plastered by posters for Gun, and people were lined up for just a glimpse of Quake IV. Gun and Quake IV were fine, but I know which of those games I'd rather play given the choice.

And so I will be peering under rugs, peeking into corners, and sniffing out empty crannies, because that's where we'll find those future game of the year candidates that will make us think about games differently. Don't worry--I'll be getting chills over the biggies like the ones I mentioned above. But it will be the undiscovered gems that will cause me to lose sleep due to the sheer thrills.

In any case, I want to make you as much a part of my experience as I can. As you can see, GameSpot has all sorts of ways you can keep tabs. We've got live coverage of all the press conferences, virtual booth tours, a guy roaming the floor that you can help direct, stage shows, and loads of written content besides. Just click that banner at the top to see all this awesome stuff. But I'd love for you to come along for the ride with me, or at least, come along for the fun bits. (I don't think you'd enjoy watching me sitting in the GS booth and typing on my laptop.)

So follow me on Twitter: my username is fiddlecub. While our calendar is filled, appointments are subject to change, so I am not sure yet exactly what games I will be covering. But I will be tweeting frequently to tell you where I am going, and asking you to send any questions you might have my way. Not every appointment will give me an opportunity to ask questions, but I will do my best to ask developers the questions you find most important and speak to them in the article or interview. And if you are at the show, you are welcome to stop me on the show floor and say hi. Just be patient: sometimes I might be rushing to an appointment, or furiously typing up a preview. But what I am doing wouldn't be any fun if I didn't get to share it with you, and I hope I can bring you to my E3 in my own small way.

For now, tell me what you're most looking forward to. Get me excited about a game I may not have been excited about! I can handle it, I swear!

Charms to Soothe a Savage Breast

In my last blog, I implored you to link me to a video for which I could write a small musical score. Choosing which video to use was harder than I expected. When I know the game's music already, it's hard to remove it completely from my bag of tricks. In other words, how can I write music for a Final Fantasy clip without using using ascending and descending arpeggios?

But write it I shall. Congratulations to Mastastig for providing the clip I chose to write for: His Final Fantasy montage. Good sir, send me a private message with your name and address, and let me know which game you wanted me to send you. In the meanwhile, I'll get to work on my little musical project.

Thanks, by the way, to those of you that uploaded and linked me to your clips. If I can, I may actually write soundtracks to a few of those as well, time permitting. It's good to have a composition project on my plate at last.

Soothing the Savage Beast -- Blog Contest Inside!

Did you know...

...that I double majored in violin performance and music composition?

Not many people do, but my musical background makes me very particular about game music. I have really strong feelings about how music can impact a game. This year, Heavy Rain has been one of the best examples of what a soundtrack can do for an experience, but there are other good soundtracks in 2010 already, and I'm looking forward to hearing more of them.

But I am in the mood to make my own music the last few weeks, so I need your help. I want you to upload and/or link me to a video clip from a game made in the last couple of years. Here's the trick: It shouldn't have any music in it. You can either remove the music if there was any, or choose a selection without any (feel free to leave in dialogue). Or of course, you can just find some random game clip without any music too. Point is, the clip should have no soundtrack!

That's where I come in: I am going to write one for it! Now obviously, I am in no position to write oodles of music for a long clip, so let's try to keep it under three minutes or so. Link me to this video, and if I choose yours, I will write music for it--but I will go one step further: I am going to send you a prize if I choose the clip you provide. What prize, you ask? Why, a game of course! In this case, either a copy of Final Fantasy XIII for the PlayStation 3, a copy of Mass Effect 2 for the PC, or a copy of Supreme Commander 2 for the Xbox 360. Your choice!

So here are the basic rules:

1 -- You reply to this blog with a link to a video for which you would like me to write a soundtrack.

2 -- This video may pre-exist, or you may upload it yourself to the video hosting site of your choice.

3 -- The video must contain no music, and must be under three minutes long. Other sound, such as dialogue, is fine.

4 -- You should provide this link by Wednesday, March 24, 9PM PST.

5 -- From the videos linked, I will choose the one I think is best suited for the task.

6 -- If I choose the video you link, I will mail you a copy of Final Fantasy XIII (PS3), Mass Effect 2 (PC) or Supreme Commander 2 (X360).

7 -- I must be able to use a mainstream shipping company (UPS, Fedex, Airborne Express) to send you your prize, and you must be willing to provide me your shipping address and email address. Overseas entrants are welcome, provided I am able to ship you the game using a standard carrier.

8 -- I will post the winner here and contact the winner via GameSpot private message.

9 -- I will post the clip with the soundtrack I composed for it at a later date in this blog.

So what do you think? Would you like a free game and test my musical abilities all at the same time? So get cracking!

The Winds of Change, They Blow

And for some PC gamers this last month, the don't just blow--they blow hard.

First came Supreme Commander 2, a truly great game that represents a streamlining of an extremely broad and complex formula. Unfortunately, this changes don't sit well with a strong-willed Supreme Commander community, who see SC2 as a "dumbing down" or a "console-ization" of the original. And it's easy to understand; They don't just see a game--they see a representative of something to be feared and loathed: the end of PC gaming as we know it. Supreme Commander 2's quality is secondary; it has taken on a much more sinister meaning. The vestiges of PC gaming, the complex mechanics of a beloved game, the shift to a more casual audience--if Chris Taylor isn't immune, they worry, then no one is. Who's left to take the reigns?

This is actually a great game, but was it what you wanted?

I don't think things are all as drastic as that, and I don't think the mostly excellent Supreme Commander 2 deserves all that baggage, but the baggage is heavy and we're looking for scapegoats. Who's to blame? Where do we turn? How do we unite against the evils of the game industry, which we perceive as abandoning our PCs and focusing on the larger console audience? We've watched our respected PC-focused developers leave our platform of choice behind. Epic; id; Ensemble; Digital Illusions. We cling to what's left, to the developers and publishers we still feel understand our plight, even just a little--the Valves, the Stardocks, the Relics, the Biowares.

If you're a PC gamer, you know that feeling. The one you get when you're playing the game and you see Xbox 360 button prompts pop up. When there are few graphics sliders, if any at all. When you can't use the mousewheel to switch weapons, when the interface takes up half the screen, when you need to use the keyboard to navigate menus. Trust me: we feel that pain together. I felt it playing Assassin's Creed 2 and I couldn't play a single-player game because Ubisoft's servers were down. I feel it when I play Dawn of War II and I have to load up Steam and Games for Windows both. And like you, I don't know what to make of it, but I'm not giving up. I'm not willing to accept that Farmville is the future of the PC.

Did this gamble pay off?

The Internet tantrums I watch unfold don't work, but I struggle to provide an alternative. They give us a sense of camaraderie (we're in it together after all), but they don't lead us to solutions. I feel bad knowing that Command & Conquer 4 has joined the list of scapegoats. It isn't an awful game by any stretch, but it too represents that feared change. "Another one bites the dust," some might say. Again, a revered series becomes fodder for ridicule. It's actual quality is secondary; like many developers so often do, EALA took a gamble. But for those anxious to see the series close with a massive explosion, the few brief fireworks they got instead was a letdown. And so the masses speak, spreading their displeasure by going to our gamespace, to IGN, and to Metacritic and spamming review scores of 2s and 1s. I wish it was the quality of the game that mattered most, but these games aren't just games anymore--they're false idols, to be cast into the fires of hell. And it stings me that it's become such a concern, it stings me that good games get saddled with bad raps, it stings me that we feel our voices are so insignificant that we have to scream so loudly.

I'm not so pessimistic. I can't be. I've lived 37 years--amongst gamers, I'm an old man, what with my balding head and my growing collection of wrinkles and nose hair. I've heard about the death of PC games before--and adventure games, and god games, and city builders and other odds and ends. Much of the hate is unreasonable, the standard mountains we make out of molehills when we face change. But even I get disheartened at times. So when I see my sisters and brothers banging their fists against the walls that are closing in, I understand. I wish I knew where to direct our energies. I wish I knew how to deliver the message in a meaningful way--a way that doesn't make matters worse rather than better.

Well, I guess things could be worse!

What do we do? How do you and I keep PC gaming alive? We speak with our money of course, but that too is a double-edged sword; do we give money to the publisher that just saddled an anticipated game with crazy DRM, or delivered a half-hearted console port that doesn't support the mouse, let alone anti-aliasing? How do we make the message--PC gaming, and PC gamers, matter!--heard, without rewarding those that make the decisions we hate?

I'm hoping one of you might have the answers, because I'm out of them, myself.

A Scary Gaming Moment You May Have Missed

Unreal II: The Awakening isn't a classic, but its a fun sci-fi shooter that I always wish had gotten the praise it deserved. It also contains one of my all-time favorite moments in a first-person shooter. It involves an elevator ride that doesn't quite go as you planned. I'll let you watch to see exactly what happens:


I took this footage a few moments ago using FRAPS. If you like what you see, I recommend taking a look at Unreal II. It's selling for $14.99 on Steam.