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The Difference Between “Hard” and “Frustrating”

I would like to preface this by saying I love hard games. I love Demon’s Souls and most Atlus games. I play Touhou, though I have only beaten one of them and only on easy mode. I measure difficulty in ‘Megamans’. I do not believe those who play easier games are lesser or inferior, I just like hard games. The thing is, “hard” is an ambiguous word. A game can be hard for a lot of reasons, but as far as I am concerned, there are two kinds of difficult games: those that are “hard” and those that are “frustrating.” As a final preface note, unless stated otherwise, everything discussed in this article is set to the “normal” difficulty.

“Hard” games are deliberately hard. They are designed to be difficult, and make you work to complete a level, to get an item, to win a fight or complete a puzzle. They are games like Super Meat Boy that kill you a lot but keep death a quick thing and don’t make a big deal about it, or games like Persona or Megaman that are simply difficult. They are nothing short of challenging, and despite the difficulty I rarely find myself frustrated when playing them. Dying a lot, for example, does not have to be a source of frustration, especially when handled correctly. Demon’s Souls is a great example of this. Death is so frequent it is actually part of the narrative and, more importantly, it is quick. There is no long game over upon death. The character simply falls over and respawns at the beginning of the level. All you lose are your “souls,” the sort of all-purpose currency/experience you have on hand, and you can always go back to where you died and recollect them.

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Love Game

Oh god, not the Lady Gaga song.

I stumbled upon the Digital Romance Lab this morning via this week’s Sunday Papers over at Rock Paper Shotgun. As Rossignol suggests, it’s a beautiful post so I wholeheartedly suggest you read it. More than that, it provides some context for this post.

There’s one bit in that post that intrigued me, a bit that is obvious but has interesting implications if taken at face value.

“Games create meaning through the gap between its rule-based procedures, and the player’s subjective response. This is what Ian Bogost calls the simulation gap. Therefore, in playing video games, we are able to critically reflect; to learn something about not just the game’s creator, but about ourselves.

Videogames are, then, excellent tools by which we can explore what it means to be human; to help us to explore, and unravel our subjective selves.”

Earlier the post stipulates that reading Pride and Prejudice allows the reader to learn something about Jane Austen, how she saw the world and, more specifically, how she saw romance. Objects like books are ”expressions of the way we see the world; or, at least, of how we want to represent it.” However, unlike books games are structured, easily quantifiable objective based systems. Romance often follows suit in that regard. Games tend to enumerate or somehow represent exactly where you stand with a possible romance.

This is where one might be inclined to criticize such a dehumanizing, inaccurate representation of romance. How can a game like Dragon Age Origins, for example, give you a special achievement for sleeping with specific characters? What does that say about how Bioware sees romance? Further, what does that say about what they think we want out of a romance?

It’s here that my mind recalls a recent conversation with a friend regarding relationships. He made a crack about how girls tend to look at the title ‘girlfriend’ as an objective that rewarded them with a type of ‘ascension’, a type of elevation in both status and treatment.  Romance unlocked!+5 kisses, +10 cuddles, etc. This came to me as a shock, initially. I’m not much for titles myself, I’m not sure I ever see myself getting married. What does a title or piece of paper prove, after all? Neither is necessary to have an understanding of monogamy if such is your thing. Thus I can’t help but wonder if its function is primarily a social one, like achievements (evidence of your skill and accomplishments to your peers) And yet for me the title had a facade; an expectation that came with it. An implied level of intimacy–we’re not talking purely physical here–which was exclusive to the title.

The expectation is somewhat furthered when I play games. Most of the time, I obsess over the romance aspect of games. At first this worried me–am I some maladjusted socially inept person or something? Perhaps! But I also realized it wasn’t just me, it’s the way some of the relationships are structured. If I wanted to get to know someone better, if I wanted to experience intimacy, romancing them was inevitable. A requirement, even. In Persona 3, getting to know any girl meant you were making them your girlfriend. There is no other choice. In Mass Effect, being cordial to someone is the same as romancing them. Romance unlocked! +5 deep conversation. Congrats. Often times, even when I’m not shoehorned into a relationship I still seek it out anyway: I can’t help but feel like writers only allow you to know characters the best if you pursue their love. A level of intimacy which is exclusive to the romance.

I can’t help but think about the seemingly rat-raceish nature of it all. Finding ‘the one.’ Settling down and getting married by age 30ish, have a kid, what have you. Do it and you’re playing the game right, you’re winning. Love becomes a marker of a successful maturity into adulthood, as the NYT puts it, ”Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.” Of course, what that article ends up conceding is that such milestones and the way we go about achieving them is currently being redefined. Some might acknowledge this as an inevitability given how archaic and arbitrary they are as markers of…anything. Will we start seeing this cultural shift reflected in games?

By no means am I implying this is a standard parsing of the human experience. Not everyone treats life as a series of achievements. Nonetheless it’s interesting to look at that approach when thinking about the way games position love–can we truly say it’s a completely off-base representation, speaking structurally? Or is it actually representative of the ‘real’ underbelly of love? Let us not forget that romance doesn’t have to be be structured as just another game mechanic.

Check Out Catherine’s First Trailer

Unless you speak Japanese, you won’t really understand what’s going on, but who cares? It manages to look interesting, somehow, anyway. If there’s one thing I would note about this, it’s that even though there is some erotic flair here, the “adult” part of Catherine may be grounded more in a creepy, mature theme. Certainly welcome in my book! Plus, it’s Atlus in HD. ATLUS IN HD. From the people behind Persona! C’MON.

But if you want to be BORING and know what’s going on in that trailer, then head on down to Andriasang: they’ve broken it all down for you.

Well Of Course I Saved The World: Thoughts on the Ending of Persona 3

(Spoilers for Persona 3 follow.)

Well, Persona 3 duped me. I honestly thought that I’d get my ass kicked at the final battle, since that’s what the game told me. That’s not what the protagonists thought, of course–they were confident that they were going to defeat death somehow. Crazy kids. I thought they were just being stupid, but no, they actually did it. We kicked Nyx’s ass and saved the world.

I just feel as if there was such a huge missed opportunity here: why not make it impossible for me to win? Why not make that the ending, the fact that we went up against death itself and lost? Yes, this is seriously what I am saying: that the game should make the player fail at saving the world. Sure, Persona 3 sort of did this: Ryoji gives you the option of forgetting about everything, and if you do so, then you fail at saving the world. But, I doubt very many people chose this option–why should they, when the other choice promises the “better” ending, where you get to save the world once more? It’s really more of the “I’m a terrible person, look at me not care about what happens to the world” option, which only utter, utter dicks took.

Yes, having us go up against death, losing, and then having the world end would have been mightily depressing. Who wants to play that? I guess I do. It would play heavily with my expectations of what I should be able to do in a game, and very few games toy with that notion. I’d be tempted to say that perhaps this approach shouldn’t be taken by Persona 3, but then again, what better game to present such an ending? The entirety of the game is depressing. We are continually reminded that humanity “asks” for its death, that we long for it, what have you. It’s not as if the themes of P3 are particularly uplifting.

The only way this could work, though, is for the rest of the game to become worth it. FES calls that first part of the game “The Journey,” and, if the journey is the entire point, then this ending wouldn’t have been so offensive. Yes, I ended up caring a lot more about my friends in acquaintances once I knew exactly what was at stake–and this was me thinking it was all futile. But, it was sort of a “you poor, poor saps. you have no idea of what’s going on, do you?” I’d be lying if I said I thought that the relationships the game offers you are good enough to sustain this proposed ending. There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re decent enough for me to care slightly, but after playing Bioware games, my standard of “engaging interaction” was not one that was met by what Persona 3 offered. So, the relationships are not particularly special–and they’d need to be striking and engaging in order for the whole idea of the “journey” to hit home. Yes, you’re going to die. Yes, you can’t do anything about it. But you have all these things to show for it, you’ve made all these fantastic connections, and maybe, just maybe, everything was worth it anyway. The only way this could work is if the writing and characterization was excellent, and right now, they’re just okay.

Of course, this is just all idle speculation. I don’t know if Persona 3 would be any better by giving you the ending I’m proposing. Still, it’s an interesting idea, no? I’ve never seen a game that denies you the opportunity to be the hero, I don’t know if such a thing exists. Ultimately, saving the world isn’t really the point of the game. It’s about friendship and appreciating the small things in life–saving the world is just a pretense. And you know what they say, you don’t really appreciate what you have until it’s gone. I enjoyed Persona 3 as is, but I can’t help but wonder if I wouldn’t have loved it all the more if it had dared to do what no game would ever do.

Smugleaf & Aigis: Silly Things That We Want

Now that I finally beat Persona 3, my life feels empty. This is what happens when you play something non-stop for a month. One day you wake up, plug the system in, and then you remember that you’ve beat that game. It’s just…awkward. I felt it at the end of Dragon Age, Mass Effect…but, other things can make me happy, too. Like being able to buy these cute little figurines. Really, I just want the Aigis toys–maybe Mitsuru too, but I’m not sure she’d look that great chibi-fied.

Tom, Tom wants something else.

Even in clay form, Smugleaf is the real winner.

Not-So Weekend Note: It’s Persona 3’s Fault

Yup. That’s why there was no weekend note last week, and there almost wasn’t one this week! Last week, there was only a month or less left in my game, and I figured that I could burn through it and move on to P4. How wrong I was…there’s still 10 days left and they’re taking forever to go through. Today, however, I am confident that I will finish the game. Nyx is gonna taste my shiny metal ass in just a few hours. It’s funny how the end of the world can be stopped by a bunch of high schoolers…

Seriously, playing P3 is just about the only thing I’ve been doing for a while. I don’t even know why, I just can’t stop playing it. I did, however, manage to beat Uncharted 2 during my downtime. I still haven’t gotten to the Indiana Jones movies, so that review won’t be coming for a while. One of the best games I’ve played in a long while was followed by just about the worst final boss fight…but I’m not sure that could have been helped. Actually, it’s better than the final “boss” on Alan Wake, so I guess I can’t say it’s the worst final boss fight. Still, the villain was pretty terrible to begin with, and so the final battle couldn’t have been much better. After finishing U2, I realized that I would probably enjoy a game that allows me to climb up stuff…and so I bought Assassin’s Creed 2. SO MANY GAMES….but, I have confidence that I will be able to get through my backlog.

With that out-of-the-way, I’ve started on Heavy Rain. Man…I can already tell I’m going to play this game a couple of times. Sure, it has a much slower start to Indigo Prophecy, but I can tell it’s going to be a fantastic title nonetheless. On that same note, research on the likelihood of the ARI tech existing in reality is starting tomorrow…hopefully that article can see the light of day this week. Aside from this, I will start playing Eternal Sonata concurrently with Heavy Rain…and I very much look forward to the famed flashback of the earlier part of a certain cutscene. Many lols will be had.

In other news, the Alan Wake book–along with a few others I mentioned in an earlier blog post–will be arriving sometime tomorrow afternoon. Stay tuned as I bring you my impressions on that…I figure it can’t be worse than this excerpt of ‘Departure’ from Alan Wake. Seriously…I think that’s almost Twilight level. Without any sparklies or vampires. Hopefully Rick Burroughs brings something good to the table.

Aside from that, I’m sure I could keep babbling on about nothing but you should probably go watch some fireworks or something. It’s a holiday weekend, people!

The Friday Post Would Love to Be a Pepper Too!

Look at these fucking peppers. They look delicious. I want only a taste of them. But we don’t have time for that, because things! You can read! Must be posted!

-This week’s big controversy around the internet was Japanese developers saying they’re so much better than Western developers. Well, maybe not. That’s what we were told they were saying, at least! But Masahiro Sakurai (also known as the Smash Brothers Brawl website guy!) and Shinji Mikami of Resident Evil fame both had things to say about it. And we had things to say about them, too!
-We reviewed a large collection of Mario games: both the New Super Mario Brothers “remake” for Wii and Super Mario Galaxy Additional Fun Time 2. As you can tell, not a lot of enthusiasm. Maybe we’re just picky.
-Graham writes with the conviction of an 18th century Great Awakening writer about new IPs. Personally, I think him and Dragon Age should get a room and consummate their love, but that’s just me. What do I know? That’s right, nothing!
-Patricia wrote many spoilers about Persona 3, my favorite game ever. Read the rest of this entry

Forget About Saving The World, You’re Dead, Kid

Wake up at 6, and, within seconds, I’ve already screamed at both my mom and my sister. No breakfast. Get to school two hours before it starts, maybe do homework I couldn’t do last night. Listen to people talk, in this almost detached way. They’re going to college, it’s right here in the state–it’s a dream come true, isn’t it? They don’t have to change a thing. Eh…they’re not my friends, not really. Go to class, maybe take notes–hey, I’ve still got that last exam coming up in a few weeks. Maybe it’s soccer season, maybe I’ve got practice. Go back home, nothing changes. And the next day, I do it all over again.

I’m leaving, soon.

To say I led a trite life back in high school would be an understatement. I had to go.

Here I am, years later, playing Persona 3…at first, I was annoyed by how close its portrayal of tedium and routine hit to home. During the day, you’re just a normal high schooler. Go through the motions, the routine. Go to class. Make friends, listen to them rant about their daily lives and problems. You’re top of your class, going out with the most gorgeous girl available….but there’s so much more, than this, isn’t there? This is a game, I’m supposed to be the bloody hero, aren’t I? And sure enough, during the night, nobody knows it, but I’m saving the goddamn world.

So, yes, I didn’t appreciate its school sim aspect at first. There’s a reason I left this life. I hate it. I dread the thought that one day I might work in a cubicle in an office, leading a completely mundane life. Why do I care about what these pixellated and simplified representations of friendship, the details of their lives? Hell, why is any of this worth saving?

Spoilers following the cut.

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Weekend Note: YaAaaaaaAAawn

Sleep, the true breakfast of champignons.

I pretty much disappeared this weekend, I know, but I was also pretty busy/tired/lazy. I pumped out posts last week like a freaking psycho. I apologize for this weekend, though, but I will also note that I have like 15 open tabs with material that I want to write about this coming week. Oh my goodness I’ve yawned like 10 times in writing these three sentences.

Now E3 is over, and…wow, does life have any more meaning after that? Without flail and Kevin Butler? Truly, I do not know.

Things that I want the most from E3: Donkey Kong Country Returns, RAGE, Medal of Honor. Other things, sure, but not as much.

Been trucking along in Persona 3. I’m still a sack of lifeless bricks that just happens to be able to nod his head and thrust his crotch. Both of these abilities, are, of course, instrumental in my life as a so-called human being. Somehow, Persona 3 thinks I’m a smooth motherfucker just because I’ve drunk enough coffee to give a grown man a heart attack. I guess I’m not going to argue, and it now better explains why people like to throw themselves at me for simply existing.

I’m not even halfway through Uncharted 2 yet, but it’s only getting better to me. Nathan Drake is the dude of all dudes, and Claudia Black is her usual typecast, which really, is the best typecast that has ever existed. Ever. Now, if she didn’t have demon eyes…like seriously, have you tried looking at them? It’s horrifying. I will assume, therefore, that when Nate and Chloe sleep with each other, that Nate has his eyes closed firmly shut the entire way through. The eyes see through your soul, though, so it’s pretty useless.

Graham has been chugging away at MGS2, because MGS1 hates me. We kept saving our game, only to have it disappear mysteriously the next day. And it’s too bad, too, because so far I think 1 is incredibly superior to 2. No one is memorable in 2, the closest person to memorable is Vamp and he’s just a strange homosexual vampire. Also, nearly everything in 2 mirrors some event in 1. And Raiden is such a pussy. And what is wrong with Rose? Jesus christ no I do not care about our anniversary RIGHT NOW. Mei Ling was terrible, but boy do I want her back. Also, I have the distinct notion that the environment in 2 is cell shaded. Seriously. Go back and play 2, look at the big shell’s exterior, and try to tell me that shit ain’t cell shaded. Or the part with the inverted mic? That. Is. Cell. Shading.

I’m sure our writers are playing something, too, I just didn’t ask them what this week. So basically, I’m useless.

Make sure to follow us on twitter if you’ve got an account! We will probably hold some sort of contest on Twitter soon, which admittedly are lame but hey, what can you do?

Onward, to next week!

Weekend Note: Uncharted Awe

Things! They happened last week! More things! They are happening right now.

I will don last week as the ‘week of trailers,’ because we posted lots of those in our news items. You see children, the awesome marketing tactic used pre-E3 is to blow your load early so people talk about your products instead of those products getting lost in the mix. If my education is worth anything, I, too will be one of those geniuses that designs those marketing strategies someday.

Next week is E3 and so undoubtedly we will have that much more quips, observations and bitching for you to consume. Who knows what those crazy kids at the big 3 will unveil? To make things interesting, Graham, Schwartz and I will be partaking in a drinking game during the show on Monday. We don’t quite know what the conditions for the game will be just yet, but we will make sure to let you know the results!

In the way of less business-like things, today I plan to sit down and play Metal Gear Solid for the first time…I plan on beating it today, too. I played through the remake on the Gamecube, which I enjoyed at the time but since I was perhaps 11 or 12, do not remember anything about it. I’m told that to like that game is to be sacrilegious or something.

Graham and I are making our way through playthrough 2 of Borderlands, intent on getting the most insane guns we possibly can from the game. Chances are, we’ll run through playthrough 3 to see if we can top what we find on playthrough 2. But aside from that we need to cap our levels to even think about entering the Knoxx DLC, so that requires more than 1 playthrough to achieve.

Also been playing through Persona 3, have made it to somewhere in the 20’s in the Tartarus. To be honest, I don’t know why I like the game–there are many tediums–but I can’t stop playing it. Its like Animal Crossing all over again. Plus I am intent on figuring out whether or not I can romance our party members–if not, why does the game keep giving me hints as to what Mitsuru looks for in a man? Also, why does she look like 27 to everyone else’s 14? Why is Junpei such an idiot? Why do I just stand there when people tell me very personal things? I feel like a heartless brick or something…not that bricks have hearts, but, you know. It’s just he way I stand there looking blankly at them…I weird myself out. But people keep throwing themselves on me and everyone wants to be my friend! What the hell!

I ended up trading in MAG…I just couldn’t enjoy the game. Lots of neat ideas, sure, but it just couldn’t deliver. MAG has very little soul…and less of a lot of other important things, like gameplay. I got Uncharted 2 as well as the Sonic energy drink, which I will write a review of…sometime soon. Anyway, I played through the first couple of hours of Uncharted, and man, I’m just in awe. Not only is the premise fresh and interesting–you’re the supposed descendant of the explorer Sir Francis Drake; a treasure hunter with a shady past looking for the fabled lost ships of Marco Polo. And the production values on this game is just plain insane–it reminds me a lot of Avatar. Avatar presented such a rich, living world–small details like the glow of the flowers at night to the majestic landscape made my imagination run wild with the sheer beauty of what it was witnessing. It’s the same thing with Uncharted, and the narrative benefits all the much more from it. People will tell you that it’s always gameplay over graphics. Rubbish. I want them both. And either way, we’re primarily visual creatures–whats wrong with wanting something that entangles your strongest sense? Still, video games have a long way to go in terms of narrative and storytelling. It’s always a pleasure when you get the best of both worlds, though.

Onwards, to next week!