Grant Rants

Archive for the ‘video games’ Category

Final Hitchslap for 2012: women and video games

- December 24th, 2012
kratos5

Kratos says: “why can’t I have nice things?”

HITCHSLAP: The process of utterly obliterating an opponent’s entire (usually religious or political) argument, usually in one or more succinct or terse statements, orally or in writing; employed almost exclusively by Christopher Hitchens.

This is not from the Hitch, but totally worthy of the title “Hitchslap” on the subject of how women are depicted in video games. It also contains the following brilliant line: “I’m sorry guys, but the likelihood that you are going to loose out on a job because you don’t remind anyone of  Kratos is astronomically low unless the job you are applying for is being Kratos.”

Let me know what you think:

Whatever became of Silicon Knights?

- November 6th, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

I’m not ashamed to say I am a geek of sorts. I’ve always been a fan of mythology, in particular Greek and Norse mythology. I suppose because, beyond their fantastical settings and adventures, they are stories about human life writ large. The triumph of it, the tragedy of it, the sexuality of it, the ridiculousness of it….it’s all there in starkly human terms.

It’s probably why some forms of science fiction and fantasy appeal to my literary sense – particularly classic stuff like H.G. Wells and Tolkien. Stories that play with the mythological themes that seem to be archetypal to the human experience.  This extends beyond books and films and reaches to some video games – particularly  narrative heavy stuff (Mass Effect, Alan Wake, Heavy Rain etc). I’m a writer after all.

So a few years back my inner geek roared with glee when local video game developer Silicon Knights released Too Human, a high minded idea that blended Norse mythology with an almost cyber punk sensibility.  The game, its narrative and use of Norse myth was a bold attempt, but deeply flawed (although not as horrible as some reviews said it was). In part because of the game mechanics, in part because it barely touches the surface of its source material, in part because of its storytelling.

Too Human was supposed to be the launch vehicle for a trilogy of games and the future of SK, then billed as one of the bright economic lights of St. Catharines. But things didn’t turn out that way. Too Human did not do nearly as well as hoped, certainly not well enough to put SK onto the same playing field as Canadian video game  giants  Bioware of Edmonton (makes of Mass Effect) and Ubi Soft in Montreal (makes of Deus Ex).

What followed the cool market reception of Too Human was a long period of silence from SK, which managed to acquire millions in government funding from both Queen’s Park and Ottawa. The funding, the press was told, was to hire people and position SK for the future. The only game the company produced since Too Human was X-Men:Destiny for Activision, a game that was an immediate critical and commercial flop upon release.

At the same time, SK was embroiled in a lawsuit with American video game company Epic Games. SK lost that lawsuit, and owes Epic some $4.5 million as a result. In 2013, it also has to pay back $4 million in federal loans. Another $2.5 million in provincial funding that was supposed to flow to the company never did when MPPs balked at giving tax dollars to SK when the company laid off 45 people.

No commercial success, massive debts and no word of anything coming in the pipeline that might reverse the fortunes of Silicon Knights, which has largely declined to speak publicly about any of these issues.

Now, writer Andrew McMillen over at Kotkau has published an “inside” look at what happened to SK during the production of the X-Men game.

McMillen’s narrative – which paints a picture of a chaotic, often dysfunctional company – is based upon interviews with anonymous ex-SK employees,  which always make investigative journalism problematic. Speaking only for myself, while I understand that granting anonymity to interview subjects is sometimes necessary, it’s something I try to avoid.  It’s always easy to criticize someone from the safety of the shadows, where you don’t have to take responsibility for your words. And it often leaves the journalist in the difficult position of attempting to confirm accusations that don’t have a great deal of corroborating evidence. Basing a story on an anonymous source is always a risk.

McMillen is up front about this and acknowledges this issue in his piece, I should note, and it’s not his preference either. However, he goes on to say none of the eight ex-staffers he spoke to would go on the record unless they were granted anonymity, although he confirmed they worked for SK.  It’s also worth noting that no one from SK would grant McMillen an interview. But then, SK has been all but silent for sometime now, not granting interviews to reporters and only issues short statements.

So keep that caveat in mind when you read his piece. If it’s accurate, the story is somewhat grim reading for SK fans and, when combined with the millions it owes the federal government and Epic Games, the once bright future of SK seems seriously in doubt.

Mass Effect 3 and Charles Dickens

- March 22nd, 2012

Greetings heathens, zealots, web denizens, and the rest of you!

So readers of the rant may have become painfully aware of my, um, obsession with all things Mass Effect. I luurrves it! (Yes, “lurve” is a word. It’s perfectly cromulan.)

In my last blog post, I wrote about the fanboy rage over the game’s ending and this insane demand that Bioware, the producer of Mass Effect, change it. Nonsense, said I. The ending is great. It just isn’t spoon fed to you and a writer stays true to his or her vision, even if people hate it. QED.

e717d89aa85b6e51c5c3e2c20422a746

Is there a DLC in that light?

Well, if you hop over to fellow Sun Media blogger Matthew Dykstra, you’ll see that Bioware is…well not changing the ending so much as perhaps “clarifying” it with some downloadable content in about a month’s time  to address said fanboy rage.

This still strikes me as a spark of the burning stupid from an artistic point of view. Interactive medium or not, you write your story and let the chips fall where they may. What you don’t do is bend to the fickle will of an audience, right? Right?

Putting aside, for the moment, the principle that an artist puts their work out there to be judged for what it is without compromise, there is, as it turns out, precedent for this sort of thing.

Many moons ago, before people had evolved the skill to text, drive and drink coffee at the same time (Ah, not that I know about that…That’s really dangerous you know…really…no responsible adult would do that…) people read books and went to the theatre. What’s that you say? Well, citizens of the future, books are funny little things where words are printed on, gasp, paper. And theatre? That is sorta like TV without the box. (Speaking of which, be sure to check out the Standard’s Angela Scappatura in Cabaret by Garden City Productions. It’s an excellent show that runs for two more weekends.)

Ok, I was totally going somewhere with this….oh right, ok…so the point was, in this distant past without electronics, there was a charming fellow named Charles Dickens. You may have even heard of him. He wrote a brilliant book called Great Expectations.

The original ending was not well recieved. For most of the tale, Great Expectations’ hero Pip deeply loves the cold hearted Estella. But it doesn’t work out and Pip bravely moves on (although forever remaining single) and one day comes across a life beaten Estella on the street. He walks away saying that time and a hard life had “had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.” (Zeusdamn brilliant line that is.)

A bitter sweet, if sadly realistic ending.

Dicken’s had fanboys before there were fanboys and they freaked. One shudders to think what they would have done to poor Charles if the internet was kicking about back then. You can imagine the internet postings: “Charles Dickens has ruined my life. I demand he changes the ending of Great Expectations or I will never buy another one of his books….oooh wait, what’s that? Bleak House? Coooool. Saw the trailer. Looked awesome…”

The ending was too sad, they said. Estella should see how awesome Pip is and be with him. They’d be happy, for crying out loud and the poor guy’s patience and love needed to be rewarded. Why can’t she see that? Whhyyyyyyy?

(Seriously, they made the people who flipped out over the Star Wars special edition DVDs look reasonable.)

I suppose Dickens was, in his way, like Bioware. Or maybe Bioware is like Dickens. Whatever. In any case, he listened to his readers and rewrote the ending so that Pip and Estella met after her husband died, and they get to spend their twilight years together. Never mind that Estella should have wised up before that and….*sigh* never mind. I’ll start ranting. Point is, most copies of the book you find today do not even contain the original ending and most people remember Pip and Estella finally becoming a happy couple.

Bioware is likely to be criticized by the likes of me for bowing to fan pressure by, perhaps, compromising the integrity of their original work.

But then again, I’m one of the few who prefer the honesty of the original ending of Great Expectations and really, who am I to argue with Charles Dickens?

Why Bioware SHOULD NOT change the end to Mass Effect 3

- March 20th, 2012

Greetings heathens, zealots, web denizens, and the rest of you!

Alright, some disclaimers right off the start here: if you hate video games or simply do not understand we geeks, leave now. The level of geek here is about to reach a level beyond geekdom. Also, if you are one of my people and haven’t finished ME3 first, shame on you, second, there will be spoilers about the end – you have been warned.

So lately there has been this fanboy web meltdown about the endings to Mass Effect 3, a work of interactive entertainment that, at this point in video game history, is the Citizen Kane of video games. I can think of no other game that transcends the tropes of the medium to present us with something that is this visionary and entertaining.  It stands, in my view, with other science fiction works like War of the Worlds. It’s not just empty action. It has a brain. And it assumes we, the audience, have one too.

If you want spoon fed action, Mass Effect is not for you. The trilogy is not brainless, but the final game in particular is striking in its intellectual and emotional content.Mass Effect 3 Teaser Wallpaper

For those who do not know, Mass Effect has become for video games what Star Wars was for movies or, a closer analogy would be what LOTR is for books. An expensive deeply rich, fictional universe that invests you in the characters and every last little detail of what makes it believable and interesting.

The story follows the tale of Command Shepard, an archetype hero who is archetypal because you, as the player pretty well define what and who he or she is. Shepard’s gender, sexual orientation, attitude, politics, interpersonal skills , methods of problem solving and fighting style are all defined by you. Bioware, the company behind Mass Effect, draws you in with a compelling story, and graphics and characters. But you are in control of a great deal of what defines how the game plays out. Bioware sets the stage, but you play the part.

The first game is a cosmic whodunit, where Shepard works to identify and defeat a threat to galactic civilization, stumbling upon a genocidal race of god like machines called the Reapers bent on wiping out all advanced organic life in the Milky Way. The second game is built around a sci-fi version of the Seven  Samurai: (Or the Magnificent Seven, for the less cultured.) Shepard builds a team of unlikely heroes to confront agents of the Reapers, who are harvesting human beings.  (yes, that is just as creepy as it sounds – a sci-fi take on the Holocaust really.). By the third game, billed as the last (but probably won’t be) the Reapers finally arrive in force. The galaxy is in a full blown war for survival. It is a battle against extinction.

Along the way, you confront ethical dilemmas about war and politics, religion, about science and ethics, about race relations, about what it means to make a hard choice in hard circumstances, about what it means to be human. It even has  a healthy dose of romance and while it is not exactly J.R. Ward (lacking that level of steam), the story is written well enough for you to feel invested in the romantic subplots. (For instance I, along with a lot of Mass Effect players, were more than a little excited to get our Shepard’s girlfriend back after she made only an cameo in the second game. Shepard’s girlfriend’s back and she carries a frakin’ pulse rifle, so yer gonna in trouble. Hey, nah, hey,/ nah.)

None of it is trite, as someone who doesn’t know modern video games might think. But presented in a very mature, often challenging fashion.

But what has people tied up in knots is the ending of the trilogy. (Spoilers my fellow geeks. Twice warned is…well, twice warned).

Mass Effect does not end with Shepard winning the day and riding off with his lady love (or man love depending) into the sunset. Bioware takes the notion of total war very seriously, and the story is as grim as it is engaging. Victory is possible, but not without heavy loss and the total alteration of the status quo. The game can end in several ways, depending on how you play. Even the best victory scenario comes at a price, resulting in the death of friends and allies. In Mass Effect, as in life, you cannot always get what you want and you have to make the best with the options you have, even when those options are not good.

The end also is not straight forward, no matter what scenario plays out. The entire end of the game appears to be an exploration of the human mind. Bioware has taken a page, it seems, from Inception, making it unclear what exactly is “real” what and isn’t. My own view of it is the final sequences of the game are all in Shepard’s mind, as he attempts to fight off a process of Reaper brainwashing called “Indoctrination”. It’s surreal, unsettling, and makes you THINK about what is happening and why. It makes you consider every choice you have made up to this point in the series (one of the clever aspects of the series is that Bioware allows you to import your Shepard from one game to the next, coming with all the choices you have made, good, bad and ugly. Shepard always has baggage.) It makes you question your own assumptions and motives on several fronts, and how you deal with that impacts your final choices.

You do not come away from the end feeling happy. It is, regardless of what you do, a visceral punch to the gut, punctuated with the smallest ray of hope – a ray that is only there if you made particular choices through the series.

Some rabid fans of the game do not like this. They have started web petitions, written blogs, made Youtube videos all about how the end of ME3 “sucks”. There is not typical, flashy, shoot out with a final enemy to win the day. There is no triumphant hero pumping his fist in the air in victory. There is no simplistic, action movie, final moments. You are left instead, to think long and hard about what just happened and why  (which has interestingly resulted in some very cool talk about it, including my favorite bit of fan speculation known know as the “Indoctrination theory” about the end of the game.)

Bioware, which pays close attention to fan reaction to games and often includes tweaks to its products based on that feed back, has said it is listening and knows some fans need more “closure” to the story than the endings presently give, suggesting they might offer up some downloadable content that will change how the story ends in some fashion.

This could be a mistake, in my view. Yes, yes, the fanboys will rant and rave and claim the ending is horrible because, basically, they are not being spoon fed a happy ending. Life doesn’t guarantee us happy endings, loose ends are not always tied up, something Mass Effect has accepted since the start of the series. What Bioware has done is craft an ending one has to deeply consider and interpret, a very rare feat in a medium that is still maturing into a full blown art form: Did Shepard really defeat the Reapers? If so, how much of what we saw was “real” and not just in his head?  The end offers up more questions and it does answers.

Rather than change the ending, my hope is that Bioware will do what it has always done – offer up downloaded additions to the game that expand the universe and lead us in new direction. But change the ending because some players have an over the top, fanboy meltdowns over it? No. We shouldn’t be asking to be spoon fed base pap. There is a legion of sitcoms and awful science fiction programing and lunk headed fighting games for one to delve into if you want that. What Bioware has created is something unique, that should be allowed to stand and players should learn that it is ok to have to think. The low common denominator they appear to ask for isn’t worth it.

Sorry, busy fighting the Reapers. You’re welcome, galaxy.

- March 12th, 2012

Greetings heathens, zealots, web denizens, and the rest of you!

Saving the galaxy, one planet at a time. You're weclome.

Saving the galaxy, one planet at a time. You're weclome.

I know this blog is usually the place where I can vent spleen about robocalls, religion, religious robocalls and Glee.  Or maybe religions that robocall about Glee. And I would like to do that right now, I really, really would.

Thing is, Mass Effect 3 has recently been released. Which pretty well means my regular life is now consumed defending you, citizens of the Citadel, from the Reaper invasion. It will be harder for me to  blog for a bit, as I travel about of the galaxy cementing alliances to defeat the horrible mechanical menace. And before you think I am being silly, why don’t you try and get the Korgan and the Turians to get along. I mean, really! I don’t see YOU volunteering to do it.

I also realize only a small number of you may actually know what in the name of Harbinger’s metal tentacles I am talking about. But I don’t care. BECAUSE MASS EFFECT IS AWESOME!!!!!

“We fight or we die, that’s the plan!” GEEKGASAM!

- June 29th, 2011

Ok, so I am going to geek out on here for a second. EA and Bioware recently released a new trailer for new year’s Mass Effect 3. And, not to sound like a teenaged valley girl here, but OH. MY. GWAD!

This is going to kick more ass than Bruce Lee whomping on Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon. And yes, Norris is a wus compared to Lee. You can argue with me, but you’d be wrong.

Anyway, Mass Effect is maybe the best video game series ever produced. A fantastic combination of powerful story telling and character study combined with great action and its just….OH. MY. GWAD.

Anyway, check it out:

The stupid, it burns: future Darwin Award winner edition

- February 23rd, 2011

I am actually as close to being at a loss of words as I have ever been about anything. I have no clever jokes, no jabs, no funny retorts. Basically this is something so inane, insane and moronic that you actually think that yes, this is the level of stupid that will cause civilization to come to a crazy end.thestupiditburns

To what do I speak? Oh, this idiot in Japan who decided to deep fry his Play Station Portable and then try to eat it. See what I mean? How do you even make a joke about that? You have no where to go with it.

Why did this brainac do that? Who knows. I can only suspect brain damage or a mental illness is involved. Perhaps he wants a career as a circus freak who will eat anything and wants to be discovered on Youtube Justin Bieber style.

Nothing bespeaks having your own personal stuff together like trying to devour a portable gaming device. His parents must be so proud. If this cat isn’t a future Darwin Award winner, I’m the Queen Mother.

Anyway, this is the sort of thing that you just have to watch. It’s probably helpful too because no matter how craptacular your life might seem at least you are not THIS guy (skip to about the 6:30 mark to witness the epic stupid in action):

Silcon Knights’ Xmen Destiny screen shots

- January 19th, 2011

Greetings heathens, zealots, web denizens and the rest of you!

Mass-Effect-2-590x368

I'm Commander Shepard and this is my favorite blog on the internet.

Among my non-journalistic hobbies and pursuits – boxing, reading comics, collecting classic books, jazz, pointing out the evils of Glee – are video games. The best video games really are akin to great movies that you interact with. Titles like the God of War and Mass Effect franchises really are upping the ante on this sort of entertainment beyond mindless fun to dealing with big political and philosophical ideas.

That’s why I keep an eye on St. Catharines developer Silicon Knights. I know of some of people that work there and they are a creative, fun bunch. SK hasn’t had a big break-out hit yet for the present generation of gaming consoles – the PS3 and the XBox- 360.

347016-toohuman_wp3_1680_super

Balder from Too Human

Their last release was Too Human – a sci-fi take on classic Norse mythology. I love Norse myths. The ancient Poetic Eddas are beautiful stuff and the stories endlessly compelling.  SK did some really interesting stuff with Too Human, I thought. They played around with Norse myths in a brilliant way infusing it with a kind of cyber-punk sensibility. The result of was a completely fresh universe to tell lots of stories in.

However, while I like the game and still play it now and again, it feel short of being something on the level of God of War or Mass Effect or BioShock. The story concept and plot is brilliant, the story telling itself suffered in several places, with the end result not being as compelling as it could have been. I  dismiss most of the complaints about gameplay (although, for those of you who have played it, I will agree with the Valkyrie appearing every time you die gets a tad tedious) because I enjoyed played it. Sure, gameplay could have been made more dynamic and less repetitive, but I didn’t have that many complaints. Still, the end result was a game that just fell short of what it could been and its unclear if a sequel will ever be developed. I hope that it is and SK can up their game for it.

8891620110117_175048_6_big

screen shot from X-Men Destiny

But the lukewarm market reception of Too Human was not the end of SK. Presently the company is working on a X-Men game called X-Men Destiny. Not a whole lot has been released about the game to date beyond some trailers that really only announced the game and gave a hint that the player will have their own character that play in the X-Men universe. Today, some screen shots were released. They appear to my admittedly untrained eye to perhaps be somewhat rough (unfinished at this early stage?) – looking more like the old PC game Freedom Force than say, DC Universe Online. Still, take a look and feel free to voice your thoughts here!