Sexualized Saturdays: Discussing Gender and Genre within Portal 2

Glados_AwakensI love the Portal series, especially the sequel. The gameplay is solid, the narrative is pretty funny, and it has a great atmospheric soundtrack. But I always thought the series had a little more to it. I found the games’ takes on gender to be interesting and subversive.

Spoilers after the jump. Continue reading

One More Post About The Last of Us. Muahaha!

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So I struggled for a long time with what to write about for this post. To be perfectly honest, most of my morning was spent letting my brain be melted by the stealth-bomb gesamtkunstwerk that is Beyoncé’s newest album, which if you haven’t heard, appeared at midnight on Friday the 13th, without being announced or leaked at all. Spooky, but awesome.

Speaking of things that are spooky, yet awesome: The Last of Us. If you don’t know, The Last of Us is a highly rated zombie-survival third-person action/adventure which tells the story of a jaded mid-aged smuggler and a young girl making their way across a United States awash in fungus-zombies and bandits. It is also a game that I am completely obsessed with and have talked about in no fewer than three other posts. I had said something about not doing any more posts about The Last of Us, but I am completely untrustworthy. 2.5 months have passed since I last wrote about it, and so much has happened. Continue reading

On Games and Giving

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Gentle readers, I was raised Catholic, by a mother who believed that you could pray all you want, but if you weren’t going out and actually doing good work, then your faith was half-hearted, and that half was the easy half. Now, that’s just an opinion, and it may not be shared by all reading this. But since Sundays were the day we went to church, they were the days also devoted to charity and volunteerism. I wasn’t always psyched for it, and for much of my childhood I wished that I could play video games instead of volunteering. As it turns out, you can do both! So today I’d like to tell you about some good deeds being done at the intersection of gaming and good intentions.

Continue reading

A Heavenly Sword Prophecy

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About one thousand years ago, in 2007, a friend showed me a trailer for a video game called Heavenly Sword. At this time, the PS3 was less than a year old and while I had one, I mostly used it for playing a game called LocoRoco, or a PS2 game called Drakengard, for which I still possessed an inexplicable affection four years after its release. Below, the trailer for the first PS3 title I was really looking forward to:

If you were a Playstation gamer back in ’07, you probably saw some version of it. I was so excited for the PS3 to start building a library of quality titles. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (which I planned to play, but didn’t get around to for two years) was to be released about two months after Heavenly Sword. I filled most of that gap by playing Everyday Shooter (which, go play if you own a PS3 and haven’t already) instead of doing my homework.

heavenly-sword-07aHeavenly Sword tells the story of a warrior woman named Nariko, born in the year of a prophesied male hero who wields the Heavenly Sword and becomes a savior. Her clan takes her gender as a sign of impending calamity. She fights the evil King Bohan to prevent the destruction of her clan, despite the price for wielding so powerful a weapon: her life. The game was rather short, but had an impressive attention to detail as well as a combat system so versatile and engaging that the game was dubbed “Goddess of War,” in comparison to the popular God of War titles.

King2Looking back, however, the game shines most brightly not in its combat system, but in its art direction, storytelling, and character design. The seventh generation of gaming consoles offered developers the potential to more fully realize facial details and emotions. Much like the acting in a play, expression and physicality are important in telling a convincing story. For a long time, gamers didn’t have access to that kind of detail and so, lived without it. Heavenly Sword was part of a generation of games that would change that. The devs do a better job of explaining than I do, so please check that out here.

So the reveal that I’ve been warming up to is this: in the absence of a much desired sequel game, Blockade Entertainment will be making a CGI film which will likely tell the story described in the video game. It seems fitting that one of the first truly cinematic games, compelling and widely popular, should have its own movie. In fact, it seemed inevitable, so much of the groundwork for such a film having already been laid. Here’s a first look trailer:

More information will be released as time goes on, I’m sure, since we’ve been left with a number of black boxes on this new film. Chief among those being the apparent absence of Andy Serkis, the motion capture genius who did much of the work for the first game, and whom you may know from his mo-cap work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films. As Kotaku notes, this is hopefully a sign that he’s working on Heavenly Sword 2: The Swordening, or something like that. If you’d like to see what kind of material the films creators will be working with, check out the animated shorts that served as prologue and publicity tool for the game, enshrined in this Youtube channel.

The Latest Casualty of the Government Shutdown?

Gentle readers,

If you’re from the USA, you know that our government has been shut down for two weeks now. If you’re from outside of the country, you might be ridiculing us. Which is okay, I guess. We have egg on our face. Our international standing aside, it is well known that the shutdown is having serious domestic impacts. These include the shuttering of the Office on Violence against Women (that petty, non-essential thing), a failure to fund Head Start, and delay or denial of survivor’s benefits to the families of fallen soldiers. So that’s, you know, awful.

I’ve written about the military re: geek stuff a fair amount lately. Put briefly, the military is using technology ostensibly reserved for video games to prevent active-duty and veteran suicides, and to combat the current military sexual assault epidemic. Video games are important to the lives of servicepersons for the aforementioned reasons, to say nothing of the fact that games are fun and that people like to play them.

There’s a photo going around the internet that suggests another repercussion of the government shutdown: a breakage of the link between soldiers (and sailors, marines, and airmen) and their video games. It is this image:

pokemcomissaryPurportedly taken from a store on a military base, the photo indicates that bureaucracy and the closing of non-essential programs have prevented the shipment of Pokémon X and Y to this store. This is unverified, and a little backtracking will take you to a Tumblr post 3 days ago. Hopefully, a little more detail will come in the next couple of days, probably in response to Kotaku’s or Go Nintendo’s coverage, and I’ll update this post.

Fire/Psychic

Fire/Psychic

Whether or not this is genuine, there’s a lesson here. A shutdown like this, especially as a reaction to laws regarding major policy, might represent a failure of civil society and our representative democracy. It’s detrimental to law enforcement, the safety of and provision for the most vulnerable members of our society. It also affects the little things we treasure, petty amusements that are nonetheless important to our lives, whether that’s good or bad. Frankly, I hope it’s fake, since I wouldn’t want any of our brave men and women to be unable to play the first game in four generations where the fire starter doesn’t evolve into a Fire/Fighting.

A reminder: Operation Supply Drop, a charity that delivers video games and gaming gear to servicepersons overseas and veterans in military hospitals will be hosting its second annual “8-Bit Salute to Veterans.” The 24-hour sponsored gaming marathon will aim to break last year’s high score of $58,000 in games, cash, and gaming supplies. If you’re interested in helping out, please check out OSD’s website here.

Tom Clancy, Combat Simulators, & Suicide Prevention

tom_clancy_death_66I’d like to start with a moment of silence. If you’re reading this in your room alone, with the lights turned off, feel free to hold your cheetos-covered hand to your heart. Tom Clancy, best-selling author of many action and military/spy thriller novels, passed away last night at the age of 66. In addition to his many other endeavors, Tom Clancy was instrumental in founding Red Storm, from which he would develop many notable games, like the Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon games. From Ubisoft’s Facebook page:

We are saddened to learn of Tom Clancy’s passing and our condolences go out to his family. Tom Clancy was an extraordinary author with a gift for creating detailed, engrossing fictional stories that captivated audiences around the world.

The teams at Ubisoft, especially at the Red Storm studio, are incredibly grateful to have collaborated with and learned from him, and we are humbled by the opportunity to carry on part of his legacy through our properties that bear his name.

A light has gone out. As such, I think it is fitting to discuss how video games, perhaps the medium in which he was most successful, can help prevent other lights from going out. One of the biggest issues facing our military, besides (but not unrelated to) rampant sexual assault and a failure to try those crimes seriously, is suicide. Rates of military and veteran suicide remain troublingly high, despite significant efforts toward prevention. Many of these suicides are linked to PTSD.

So, what’s to be done about this? We’ve tried a number of solutions, and maybe they’re working, but we need more. What can we do?

Tetris-Might-Be-Effective-PTSD-Treatment-2How about Tetris? Research suggests that playing Tetris is more therapeutic re: PTSD flashbacks (which are different than simply remembering a traumatic event, in that the subject relives the trauma), than quiz and trivia style games, or no particular activity. As quoted in the above link, Oxford professor Emily Holmes hypothesized “that the visual-spatial demands of Tetris disrupt the formation of the mental imagery involved in flashbacks.”

The military has been moving on research like this for over a year now. Take a look at this: The Army has awarded contracts to Vista Life Sciences, Empirical Technologies, and Aptima, Inc. to develop a video game app that is enjoyable, but also collects data on reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and other markers. Michael Lutz of Vista Life Sciences, looks to develop “a game that accurately charts mental health.” That might go as far as investigating whether a soldier’s performance markers drop significantly from an established baseline after an explosion or the loss of a comrade.

Over at the University of Southern California, researchers are working on a simulation that would, essentially, inoculate soldiers against the horrors of combat. PTSD is commonly treated using what’s called “exposure-based therapy.” This therapy helps the subject to recall the event without being forced to relive it,by bringing the subject into real or imaginary contact with visual and aural stimuli related to the traumatic event. It is often effective, but is also somewhat risky. This research, headed by Dr. Skip Rizzo, would seek to expose soldiers to the sights and sounds that might potentially traumatize them before they have to experience the actual situation. Preliminary work suggests that it may be effective, not only in “inoculating” soldiers, but also in identifying those soldiers who are most likely to develop PTSD.

The technology is quite immersive and does not simulate only sight and sound, but also vibration and smell. This is (minus the smell) a similar model to many video games, especially with gaming’s current push for hyper-realism in terms of sensory input. You can see firsthand how it might help soldiers to cope with these events, and hear “PTSD Exposure Therapy” explained by none other than Rizzo, here:

operation-supply-dropWith a military that is increasingly using video game technology to address many of its problems, one might be tempted to think that “welp, now that they’ve got Mario, and Pac-Man on the case, it’s taken care of.” Not so fast. Video games can help to fight PTSD, they can alleviate stress, or just make life a little easier, which can make all the difference in the world. You can help. There’s something called Operation Supply Drop (OSD). Their Facebook info page is here, and lists many of the potential benefits of video gaming for soldiers. They’ve raised around $300,000 dollars to send video games and gaming gear to soldiers overseas and to Walter Reed Military Hospital. You can read more about their work over at Kotaku, as well as testimonials by soldiers on how important these things can be in their lives.

OSD will be running their second annual 8-Bit Salute to Veterans, which is an all-day sponsorship gaming marathon. Last year, they raised 58,000 dollars, which is nothing to sneeze at. If you’re interested in that, or in other ways of getting involved, check it out here. It’s a simple thing, but it makes a big difference in the lives of soldiers, veterans, and their families.

via Kotaku

On Old Hats and Orson Welles

You know what was a legitimately amazing game? The Last Of Us. Yes, I’m still on about this. I’m probably going to be on about it for a while. It is one of the best games I’ve ever played, hands-down, and this is as close to gaming’s “Citizen Kane moment” as many people are ever going to agree upon. I’ve heard the argument that this isn’t possible because of the way that we relate to adapting video game technology, and that older games are too frustrating, clunky, and obsolete for generations of newer gamers to play. I don’t buy it.

orsonwellesLet me explain, briefly, what is meant by “Citizen Kane moment.” It’s not a perfect metaphor. The film‘s 1941 release was not met with the great fanfare that our cultural nostalgia would indicate. The film fared poorly at the box office, and won a single Oscar for Best Screenplay. It wasn’t until film theorists and film history buffs looked back on the film in the late fifties and sixties that we decided that the film was a masterwork. Keep in mind that when Kane was released, Welles was a first time film director, a 25 year old theatre director a few years off the shutdown of the Federal Theatre Project. It may have been overtaken by Vertigo, but the idea is that looking backwards we see something truly great and groundbreaking. The metaphor is imperfect because The Last of Us is great right now. Continue reading