Other news

I was on BBC World Service radio as part of a panel discussing the U.S. Defense Department lifting its ban on women in combat roles.

— My friend David Forbes invited me to contribute to his group blog The Breaking Time. My debut is, of course, about video games.

— And episodes 2 and 3 of my Magicka Let’s Play with the lovely @asiangrrlMN are up!

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I finally finished Wings of Liberty

After owning the game for about a year and a half, I finally beat the StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty campaign Tuesday.

This might not be all that striking to other players. It’s not like I completed the campaign on a high difficulty setting – just “Normal,” which barely warrants an achievement on Battle.net. So why did it take me so long?

The first problem is that I’m easily discouraged, enough at least that I’ll look elsewhere for entertainment if things get too difficult or require too many tries to get through in one game. I put StarCraft II aside several times: once during an early mission called “Safe Haven,” where Raynor’s Raiders have to stop a Protoss mothership from leveling a terran colony after detecting Zerg infestation. The mission introduces the Viking unit, an air-to-air fighter that can transform into a ground-to-ground walking mech. There’s a timing element to this mission, as the Protoss ship will make its way to different outposts around the map, and the Protoss also periodically send sorties to attack your base. It’s one of the first missions where you’re forced to attack and defend on several fronts at once. It also takes quite a while to complete, and after failing a couple times, I threw my hands up and played something else.

Another mission I “gave up” on was later in the game, where you’re introduced to another air unit, the air-to-ground Banshee. Here again you’re pitted against the Protoss, and a special mission gimmick again forces you to act quickly – “supernova” fire creeps across the map from left to right, forcing you to pick up your base and relocate regularly. This requires building up an assault force and taking out Protoss encampments that you can move into and grab resources to make your final attack.

But two things happened that made me start playing with gusto again: one, Nvidia released new drivers for the graphics chip on my middling laptop, and I found a terrific game-boosting app from Razer. Between these two factors, my framerate in StarCraft II went from around 22-24 fps to 55-60 fps. I’ve never really understood PC gamers who insist on super-high framerates, but now I get it. The difference is incredible. It isn’t about the game looking better; it’s about how quickly you can react to what’s happening on screen.

Returning to “Supernova” after the upgrades, I found I was able to complete the mission with ease. In the remaining missions in the game, I only had to restart missions twice, including once on the final, campaign-ending mission.

So performance matters. Probably obvious, but it’s still pretty amazing to see first-hand how important framerates can be.

After finishing the campaign and dealing with that “end of a novel you really like” feeling, I picked Dawn of War II back up, since I had the “Chaos Rising” expansion campaign to work on. I was immediately struck by how it’s the inferior game to StarCraft II – not because it’s a bad game, but just because StarCraft II is so good. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the Chaos Rising and Retribution content for Dawn of War II, but they’re not about to supplant Blizzard as king of the RTS games.

A new year and a status update! Plus, links to other things I wrote.

Over the holidays I spent some time writing for Angry Black Lady Chronicles about video games and violence in light of the rekindled “debate” about the supposed link between the two in light of the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school. My initial post, “No, Video Games Don’t Cause Violence,” led contributor Nicholas Wilbur to respond with his post “Video Games Don’t Kill People, ‘Gamers’ Do.” I responded to this in turn – perhaps a bit too harshly – with “Video games still don’t cause violence.”

At heart was the research that’s been done over the last decades on the possibility of violent video games inspiring kids to act out the kinds of fantasy violence they see in video games. So far, no research has shown that this happens, although there are some indications – as well as many studies that show null effects – that playing competitive (or violent) games leads to spikes in aggression.

I have my own problems with some of the banner studies now being bandied about, and I hope I’ve explained my objections sufficiently in the posts linked above.

President Obama’s announcement this week that he was directing, the Centers for Disease Control to study the effects of violent media – including games – on youth made me roll my eyes a bit. Sure, let’s spend more money looking for a link which, even if it exists (which it almost certainly doesn’t), would be nearly impossible to prove as causal. And this to provide “tools for parents” that already do exist: see the E.S.R.B. or Entertainment Software Rating Board. This independent and non-profit advisory group assigns ratings to all games published in the United States based not only on violent content, but also on depictions of or references to sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and even “comic mischief.” The idea is to provide parents with an at-a-glance assessment of whether a particular game is suitable for their kids.

But anyone reading this blog – which has remained dormant for a regrettably long time – already knows all this. And you probably know very well that video games do not cause violence. It’s frustrating to keep having to have this “conversation,” because it detracts from what I think would be more constructive conversations about what the gaming community is doing poorly, and how the games industry at large is failing women and minorities.

Ironically enough, however, it was only last week that Dead Island developer Deep Silver decided to promote the European “Riptide” edition of their zombie slashfest with a gore-soaked statue of a severed, bikini-clad female torso. [Warning, graphic image of the statue behind the link.]

After almost universal outrage and disgust from gamers and games writers following publication of the promo image [again, it’s included behind this link], Deep Silver issued a rather frank apology to Twitter (although as I write this, it’s still unclear whether they’re still going to sell the “Collector’s Edition” of Riptide with the statue).

There are those that do not agree that the statue is itself misogynistic, but the controversy over the piece has at least reignited the discussion of how women – and specifically, women’s bodies – are treated in video games. There’s little question that gaming still has a lot of growing up to do when it comes to sexism, racism, and homophobia. But it gets more confusing when it comes to actual content. If it’s true, as I’ve repeatedly claimed, that violent video games do not actually cause real violence, then why should it be different for, say, misogynistic content?

I haven’t settled on an explanation yet, but my gut tells me there’s an important distinction. I think it has something to do with the fact that video game violence is fantasy violence, whereas misogyny in video games is actual misogyny.

That thought needs time to jell, though, and I know there are some accomplished scholars out there who have taken this question up already. In the meantime, though, a couple updates:

–        My YouTube “Let’s Play” series of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is currently on hold until I decide to play the game again. After losing my squad, I kind of ragequit.

–        However, I’ve got another “Let’s Play” planned, this time with a co-host and a very clever marketing gimmick. More on that when I know when we’ll be able to get some playtime on camera. This won’t be XCOM, it’ll be the rather goofily self-aware Diablo parody Magicka.

Stay tuned!

Dark Souls diary 2 – I swear I’d never say it

…but yeah. Praise the goddamned sun.

According to this very blog, I’ve been rooting around in Dark Souls’ Blighttown since September. It hasn’t been constant — again, I hit one of those “I’ve had it” walls as Blighttown’s relentless poison, vertical drops, and overall misery finally overcame me and I looked elsewhere for fun (in the interim, I completed — I mean, 100 percent completed – Rockstar’s incredible Red Dead Redemption). I had made it as far as Blighttown’s bonfire, and had only further down to go.

Again note: this post will contain spoilers, so avoid it if you’re planning on playing.

Most of Blighttown’s indigent enemies aren’t really all that bad in a one-on-one fight. The toughest baddies are the ogres you find guarding the entrances and the boss’ lair, but they’re slow and can be easily circled after their clumsy (but powerful) attacks. The thin cave-dwelling humanoids fall to couple swings of the sword (but learn to avoid their lunges, as they’ll eat your face), as do the poisonous giant mosquitoes and fire-breathing crag spiders. But since this is Dark Souls, the odds are still rarely in your favor.

Although they’re weak, blowdart snipers are placed around the nightmare treehouse scaffolding that makes up Blighttown’s upper levels. They normally have a long time during which they can hit you with impunity, since it’s usually unclear at first how to reach the platforms they’re on. Their darts have a particularly potent that builds up quickly, making the fighting you have to do to reach and dispatch them much deadlier.

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On pewdiepie and the persistence of stupid

In the process of recording my XCOM: Enemy Unknown “Let’s Play” series, I’ve learned a bit about the online “Let’s Play” community. I’ve found a few favorites, but with the high-level of accessibility of video-capture software and relatively powerful video cards, the “community” has become very… democratized. There’s no way to see everything, but one quickly begins to understand that there’s a lot of chaff to a pretty small amount of wheat.

So, some Let’s Players rise to the top, and do so well with their YouTube uploads that they’re able to make comfortable livings from them (due to YouTube’s revenue-sharing partner program) and often find work in the professional gaming circuit as commentators. I’ve enjoyed the work of people like Sean Plott (a pro StarCraft player and “caster” who goes by Day[9]), John “TotalBiscuit” Bain, and Ryan “Northernlion” Letourneau.

As might be expected, not everyone who distinguishes themselves in YouTube’s gaming community is as professional and genuinely entertaining as these guys are. There are too many squeaky narrations of aimless Minecraft meandering to keep track of, and more shitty headset microphones than you can shake a mouse pointer at.

You don’t need to spend a whole lot of time sifting through popular Let’s Plays to find references to someone known as “pewdiepie,” whose rabid fan-base has propelled him to internet fame and wealth over the last two years.

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What makes XCOM work?

Having spent about 20 hours or so playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown (and recording a “Let’s Play” video series of my efforts), I’ve been thinking about what makes it work. There are two distinct aspects to this question — one, what makes it “work” as a modern game; and two, why does it have such appeal — as simplified as it is — to a fan of the original X-Com series like me?

First off, turn-based strategy games are not exactly a thing of the moment. It’s true that new iterations of Civilization do fairly well, but they’re certainly not the games industry darlings that, say, modern military shooters like the Call of Duty games are. In terms of audience share, turn-based strategy doesn’t have the appeal it did in 1993, when Microprose released the original X-Com: UFO Defense.

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