Shin Megami Tensei Review, all Three Parts

I wrote this in 3 parts over at ThePortableGamer, and I’m reposting it here so put it all together, and maybe get some of your thoughts on the piece and the game, from a more “brainy” perspective. 🙂 As you’ll see, this is a game I really wanted to play and like. What has your experience with it been like? Feel free to comment when you’ve had a chance to play it, of course. 🙂 I also want to open the discussion to the idea of pre-release hype and how it affects us as reviewers, consumers, and ultimately gamers.

THE REVIEW:

Game: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona
Publisher: Atlus
Platform/Price: PSP / $39.99
Pros: Delicious storyline, honors the original Japanese version, excellent music and soundtrack
Cons: Isometric viewpoint controls strangely, difficulty ramp and learning curve is steep, ultimately a slog

In this first of hopefully weekly preview posts about Persona for PSP, I want to take you inside the game to help you get a sense of what it is that I find interesting, annoying, and ultimately fascinating about this ground-up remake of a classic game from the days of old (in gaming culture, that’s in the late 90s).

But first, some history.

Persona for the PSP is a remake of Revelations: Persona. Note the use of the word ‘remake’ and not the use of the word ‘port.’ This will become important later. Revelations: Persona was released for the Playstation in 1996, and saw a version make its way to the PC in 1999. The North American localization of this title saw many changes in characters and settings, to suggest that it took place in a more Western nation than Japan. Revelations: Persona was the first in the Persona series, which was a spin-off of the Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner series, which was itself a spin off of the original Megami Tensei series based on a book series called the Digital Devil Story. Perhaps to clarify this a bit, or to add to the confusion, Atlus has re-named the release for the PSP as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona.

The new game has been recreated for the PSP. Not ported, but created anew from the ground up. Cut scenes are newly animated and voiced, the resolution is now the native PSP resolution at 480×27, and the soundtrack, released on two CDs with every launch copy, is completely redone by the game’s director, Shoji Meguro. The title track is completely new, as well, and is well worth the listen, as it contains musical elements from throughout the game.

I just started playing this much-anticipated portable game. Let me tell you, it’s pretty fascinating. And complex. And not your typical JRPG. As with Class of Heroes, Atlus has taken the honest route: delivered a true-to-form classic RPG and brought it to life for modern audiences. This is not a hand-holder of a game.

It begins with a fully amazing intro movie, with a main song so full of j-Pop goodness, your head might asplode. Here it is in all it’s internet video glory:

Can you dig it? I figured you could. This does set the stage for what is proving to be a mind bender of a game. There are 5 characters I’m playing right now, all high school students. For some reason, the town has been taken over by demons. It’s hinted that the corporation in town is responsible, bu I’m only at the beginning of that story arc. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

personapsp_screens_17The dialogue is what you’d expect for a Japanese RPG starring high school kids, but it’s fairly tolerable. The battles have so much strategy and options in them, I know I’m just scratching the surface. You can hit them with weapons, shoot them with guns, guard against them, use your Persona skill (magic spirit power), guard, run away, and talk to the demons. Yes, I said talk to them. If you talk to them, you’ll try to match the type of responses you can give to the type of demon. A happy demon may enjoy a song, for instance, while a timid demon may do better with some taunting or bossing around. Don’t piss them off, though, or the battle will get that much harder. There’s a much-appreciated “Skip animations” setting that can be accessed with teh Start key. It makes battles go much faster, though, so I don’t use it as often, yet, as I may in later stages.

The “dungeons” are really buildings and corridors, from hospitals to schools, and the save system is accessed by talking to lovely purple trees arranged around town and in buildings. As you move from place to place, you may hit a random battle; it’s like going between towns in the early Final Fantasy games.

All in all, this game has its hooks in me, and I’m dying to keep playing it. Next week, I’ll give an update on how it’s going for me, as well as let you in on the different systems around demons, like cards, fusion, and creating new Persona skills to battle with.

Until then, make sure you go visit the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona website and grab some wallpapers for your PSP, some video for your computer, and read up on the characters and story. I need to get back to my PSP, though, so I’ll say goodbye for now.

Well, it’s come to my attention that I have all of one week to play as much of this game as I can and give a thorough and well-reasoned review. So, I’d like to focus on a couple of things here in the second and last installment of my preview of this fascinating and unlike-many-other-games-I’ve-played PSP title, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona.

Like I said in part one, the Persona series is one of a larger franchise by publisher Atlus, originally based on a book written in Japan. The storyline follows a group of teens in a private school, St. Hamelin, in a Tokyo overrun by demons.

As in many RPGs I’ve played, I’ve finally hit the sweet spot. About 3 hours in, my characters are leveled up enough to make short work of the demons they encounter, and only rarely do battles take much longer than a minute or two, even with multiple foes. Battle takes place on an isometric playing field with your team and the demons layed out in opposition, facing each other. Some weapons and Skills are only viable within certain areas on the board, and if your character’s Skill or Weapon reach isn’t able to hit an opponent, you’ll need to just have them Guard or use an item to help the rest of the team.

personapsp_characterart_ellyI’m enjoying two things in the battle system, both just right for a non-hardcore player like myself. One, the Skip ability, is accessed by hitting the Select button and not having to watch all the little Persona and Magic effect animations that can eat up a lot of time in battle. The second feature is my favorite, “Auto.” This allows you to choose how your characters will act during battle, and it’s fairly extensive. You can, for example, have all your characters use guns, or all use weapons, or all guard. You can have it Replay the last actions each character took – a valuable time saver when you’ve figured out the right balance of gun/weapon/Skill usage for a particular set of demons.

Another fine feature is the Analyze option, in which you can check to see what each Demon you are facing is weak against, or what their personality is. Different Demon personalities will react differently to your Contact moves, so choosing the right conversational gambit will depend on your close analysis of each Demon type. One time, I made a certain Demon so happy, that it gave me a special card that I’ll be able to use later to create a new Persona. w00t!

That’s all I want to say now, as my review will be coming out sometime in the next week or so, and I want to spend as much time playing the game, rather than writing about it. While you wait for your pre-order to show up, or the retail version to arrive in stores, make sure you visit the official site. There are videos, music previews, forums, and game info that you won’t find anywhere else. Well, except for here.

I have a motto in life, and that’s this: if you aren’t enjoying what you do on some level, stop doing it. I don’t mean to say that every moment in life should be a box of kittens or all peaches and cream, because we all know that a little adversity and humility go a long way.Most people are more enjoyable to be around if they’ve had to work at getting what they have, where they’re at, and who they’ve become. If it’s all too easy, it’s not enjoyable.

The flip side of that is that when it’s all too hard, life becomes a slog.

I really wanted Persona for PSP to be the perfect combination of difficulty and enjoyment. I wanted it to be just the right mix of challenging and rewarding. Unfortunately, for me, this turned out not to be the case. I’m not panning this game by any means; it’s a quality game on a quality platform, by a quality publisher. I just cannot find in my heart, however, to want to recommend this wholeheardedly to everyone.

As many other Atlus games have shown me, there are a whole lot of games out there that do not conform to my Western-bred, modern video game perspective. I can find enjoyment in hardcore RPGs and in unclassifiable amalgams of games I’ve barely even begun to experience. The first two parts of my look at this game are fairly glowing, and I think that makes sense, coming from where I’m sitting right now: this game starts out with a TON of promise, flash, and bang. It ultimately gets weighted down, however, by it’s old-schoool mechanics and gameplay, which needn’t be a bad thing.

Persona begins amazingly well. When I say begin, I mean the first couple of hours. The intro movie and the beautifully made cut scene movies are of the highest quality I’ve seen to date. The story is well-set up, and mysteries are hinted at that typically entice me to keep playing a game. The music is well done, and there are some certifiable pop-hits among the tracks on the included CD, one that will come with every physical launch copy. Persona releases on UMD today, September 22nd, 2009, and will be downloadable via the PSN Store beginning October 1st. I applaud Atlus for being one of the first full game downloads for the new PSP Store. That alone might be worth the purchase.

Unfortunately, I think more of us purchase games for our consoles that we actively wish to play to completion. Regardless of the statistics showing that most of us do NOT, in fact, finish a majority of the games we buy, I think we all get them with enough starry-eyed fervor that we THINK we will, and I’d like to think that I really only purchase games that I feel will motivate and engage me enough to at least attempt to do so.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona was not that game for me. It may be for you. The whole package is well designed, attractive, and I’m sure a fantastic peek into the franchise’s beginnings. I don’t believe it has enough power, however, as a game in its own right, to be called an unqualified hit. The isometric battle screens and complex menu system to engage in battles are interesting at first, but ultimately become frustrating after a time, as moving battle participants around can be cumbersome, but is often needed. The Persona ability is interesting at first, but really just becomes another menu to navigate, in choosing the right spell to match the weaknesses of the demons being faced. All demons have weaknesses (except those damn Yakuza), and choosing the right attack type and Persona skill is an endlessly rotating kaleidoscope of menu choice making. In the final analysis, though, I feel that the complexity hinders the game play and slows down an already slow process.

The map system, while omnipresent on the screen, feels constrained and difficult to navigate. Slowing things even more is the random battle instances, happening frequently enough to provoke eye-rolling and heavy sighs, rather than the rush of adrenaline at the prospect of battle. The save system is elegant and can be found in many areas, but the fact that random, annihilating battles can occur just a few steps from a save point is ultimately heart-wrenching.

Again, I really want to rejoice in this game. I just cannot get past the actual game mechanics to fully appreciate the story in all its mysterious glory, and the switch between well-animated cutscene, and difficult-to-navigate isometric perspective on-screen interactions are jarring, as is the switch from and to first person in the hallways and corridors of this game’s dungeons. I would have much rather had my hand held a little through the old school JRPG elements, or had some sort of difficulty-smoothing system in place to not have to slog as hard through many many many battles that really all begin to look and feel the same, I might stick with it a little longer.

Bottom line, if you are a hardcore JRPG fan, and want to challenge yourself to bring your group of characters through this well-made and appealing portable game, or you want to re-experience the joy of the Playstation hit from 1996 with better animation and widescreen graphics, this is the game for you. If you are, however, like me and prefer a less “beat me over the head” sort of approach for your handheld gaming joy, you might want to give this one a pass for now.

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Round Table Entry 1/09: Putting the Game Before The Book

CorvusE, over at Man Bytes Blog, does a monthly Round Table on Games and Gaming. Here’s what he challenged with for January ‘09:

Putting the Game Before the Book: What would your favorite piece of literature look like if it had been created as a game first? In a time when bits of Dante’s Divine Comedy are being carved out and turned into a hack-n-slash game, I find myself longing for intelligently designed games–games with a strong literary component–not merely literary backdrops. So rather than challenge you to imagine the conversion of your favorite literature into games, I challenge you to supersede the source literature and imagine a game that might have tried to communicate the same themes, the same message, to its audience.

Feel free to ignore the technical constraints of the era in which the book was written. In fact, feel free to ignore the technical constraints (within reason) of today and push the envelop a bit. Also notice that I didn’t specify video game. Feel free to imagine a board game, card game, RPG, or sport, that could have been created during the same time period as the book in question. Be as vague, or as detailed, about the design particulars as you like. Work together with another blogger, or work alone.

When I originally read the above, I started to think about the book I’d most like to see turned into a game. I had an entire blog post about it. Then I realized, based on closer reading of the above, that I had missed the question. It’s not “What book do you want to see as a game?” but rather, “What kind of game would engender the same reactions and responses that your favorite book would?”

This makes the playing field much larger for me. There are definite books I’d like to see as games, and many I can’t quite see an adaptation working out so well.

So, I need to start out with a quick discussion of what kinds of books I read, and why. Let’s start with the genre. Science Fiction, abbreviated SF to set it apart from the more mainstream film/television term, “sci-fi,” has long been my favorite genre to read. It seems as thought there’s been a resurgence of the style in the past 10 years, based on my own highly-unscientific observation of there being tons more new SF books in the library and in book stores.

I like all kinds of SF (remember, this is the written kind). These days, I particularly like what’s being called New Space Opera, with grand themes and at least an attempt to stay within the bounds of known and speculative physical reality. I also enjoy what’s known as “Hard SF,” which is much more rigorous in it’s depiction of science and speculation limited to known scientific fact or theory. However, the kind of Hard SF that I most enjoy is typified by writers like David Brin, Ian McDonald, and Greg Bear: SF that is scientific, full of cool astronomical reality, but is extremely concerned with the human experience within the greater scheme of reality. These books are typically character driven, and the technology never overshadows the very real emotions and motivations of the central and supporting characters. These books also rate high on my wonder and awe index: they tell stories that bring me face to face with the incomprehensibly large, alien and fantastic. Call it escapism if you like, but this is what makes my brain sing and my heart race.

So which of these folks is my favorite author? None of them. I would have to admit that overall, my favorite author in SF has to be Orson Scott Card. He is definitely not a hard SF or New Space Opera writer. He tends to defy categorization. He writes in many modes, from literary horror to SF to more Fantasy/Alternate History. My favorite story of his, of course, is the SF classic, Ender’s Game, and it’s host of sequels.

Why is Card my favorite author? Well, he does the two things I appreciate in my fiction: he brings a sense of wonder, and he respects the character, and by extension, humankind. As a Mormon, Card has specific beliefs about religion and politics that I do not share. But his writing, even the overtly religious writing, never devolves into what I would call moralizing or preaching. He has a profound respect for people in all their diversity, and a strong sense of younger characters and women characters. His characters are not always perfect; in fact, they are usually far from perfect, full of the same conflicts, desires and contradictions that we all have inside our fragile, funky human bodies and minds. In one early novel, Songmaster, the main character is overtly and specifically homosexual within the story. I always found it incredibly wonderful that a religious person could write such a book. My experience with highly religious people has never been that they are very open minded. It was refreshing to meet one, albeit through his books.

So, what kind of game can I envision that respects human kind and brings the sense of wonder and awe that I crave? Why not actually make it a video-game, since that’s what I mostly write about here. And let’s make it a super-high rez, current or next-gen (next-next-gen? gen-cubed?) gaming experience, with high end TV set, sound, and incredible broadband connectivity. What could such a game look like?

The one thing I really want to see in a video-game is a cooperation component. Not a two man team gunning down hordes of enemies and progressing through what essentially is a single player story line, but true cooperation. I believe that this true interactivity is what bring s gamers to Role Playing games in the first place. It’s a way to involve each other in a shared story, and bring the human element in. Us with our petty, noble, confident, insecure selves.

My video game would be set in a science fictional universe, and while I’m at it, let’s put it in the Ender’s Game universe. And please, let’s not just recreate the Battle Room.

How about we do this: we make the game have two essential components: an acting/roleplaying component, and a cooperative battle component. Just to keep the violent sides of our nature appeased along with our creative sides.

Let’s take the basic universe and storyline from the first book for our first game. Keep in mind that we can do this with many of the sequels. In the novel version of Ender’s Game, there seem to be two main story streams: one about Ender Wiggin, and his progression from youngest child chosen for Battle School to final hero of Humankind, and one about his siblings, Peter and Valentine, who are fairly genius themselves, and their rise from stars of the world network to rulers of the Earth government.

In my dream game, we can use all the story streams and characters, because here’s how it would go. Keep in mind I’m not a game designer. I’m an ideas guy. So here we go.

Our acting / role-playing sections would be all about the narrative scenes from within the book. We would take each player involved in the game, up to 8 at a time, and let them choose, or assign them, a role. They can play specific roles in the scene, or they can be the director, camera operator, and score musician. The actors in the role would have to manipulate their avatar/characters to best interpret what was on the page (yes, reading is required for my dream game). The behind the camera folks would, in real time, direct and score and move the camera around to best capture the performance. I’m guessing this all could be captured procedurally, like MIDI captures music performance. The performance files are then placed onto game servers, where online friends of the players will be allowed to rate and judge the final scene. There might also be options for other fans of the game to start rating and judging performances online.

Like any acting production, there would need to be large amounts of preparation, rehearsal, and…cooperation. It would be interesting to see if traditional roles would inform the play styles of individual gamers. Would the Directors be auteur-focused, keeping track of all the details and running the story with an iron-vision? Or will we see collaborative scenes, built with little to no preparation into live-streaming performance art? How far off book will people go, and what are the potential for worldwide, language-barrier cooperation to ensue? The mind boggles.

For the second part of my dream game, we’ll do something a bit more traditional, with a twist. Imagine, if you will, a typical Battle Room scene in the book: there are two armies of 4 – 8 individuals entering a giant sphere with no gravity in it (or sometimes gravity, or unpredictable gravity, just to mess with the participants), and no up or down. It’s a space battle fought in spacesuits, with varying obstacles and penalties for being “hit. think of a game of laser-tag in space. Let’s design our game to force people to cooperate. It’s how Ender ultimately promotes through the ranks: by creating cooperation and helping his team think creatively and quickly on the battlefield. This is a traditional game experience, in that it would have leader boards (team based, only) and online rankings, and the like. The twist is that there are 4 – 8 individuals in that space, each with their own sense of space and field of vision, all trying to work together to cooperate to win the simulation. They may have voice communication ability in one battle, and none in a different battle. There may be lights on in one simulation, off in a different one. Gravity conditions fluctuate, as do the amount of penalty at being hit. Some suits might freeze up in the middle of play, some might lose control of specific limbs.

The gamers in this kind of game will need to figure out ways, built up over time playing with each other, to communicate, cooperate, and ultimately direct themselves in battle to meet the conditions of a win. I would love to see the varying personalities play out. Who would dominate? Would there be Generals created, each nurturing or terrorizing teams to win battles and move up the ranks? Will ad-hoc groups be able to compete with well-rehearsed tactical groups? What happens to the lone gunmen of the groups? Can they survive long as a member of any team?

Record these battles with the same procedural MIDI-esque system as the acting ones, and then have a third component to the game: movie editing. Create your own version of the book, edit together a completely different version. Create a Pulp Fiction style anti-linear narrative and change sound effects and voice overs to create whole new meanings. Join an editing team and build a fantastic feature length movie, which can then be submitted to the Gamerdance Channel, and voted on by millions of players all over the world.

Seriously, though, this is the game that could inspire a novel, or six. It would be a new way to role play that doesn’t involve giant manuals of dice tables. It could be a platform for all kinds of interactive storytelling and genre -skinning. imaging the Star Trek TNG mod, where the team must act out episodes from the beloved television series, and then cooperatively pilot a Starship in a battle with an equally piloted Romulan vessel. Think of all the horrible fart jokes that could be edited into a very serious production of the third chapter from Ender’s Shadow.

Granted, i have NO IDEA how to design, create, and/or market such a game. But with incredible visuals, well-created acting and production tools, this could bring that sense of awe and wonder that I crave from storytelling, along with the tools and support to tell some amazing stories along the way. Finis.


Because this blog is hosted on WordPress.com, the iFrame code that would give you a cool looking drop down menu to all the other blogs posting on this topic isn’t showing up. Instead, hit the link below for the entries for the month of January, 2009.

Please visit the Round Table’s Main Hall for links to all entries.

Therapy by Immersion

I write a monthly “editor’s blog” over at GamesAreEvil.com. It’s a news/reviews/features site, and we’re doing our best to only publish stuff that matters, and to keep things this side of the joystick/1up/kotaku line. I hope that my little articles can be a part of keeping it there. As always, I appreciate the founder of Games Are Evil, Jason Evangelho, for allowing me to do my thing there.

Here’s a short pull quote, and the blog roll I placed at the end of the post, for further reading, and to continue the tradition:

Immersion Therapy: Fable II and The Tough Choices

One man’s attempt to immerse himself in the world of big name video-games, and come out the other side saner and, hopefully, wiser. This month: Fable II affects Rob in ways he didn’t expect.

generic-oakfield-03-800.jpgI just finished the main story-line of Fable II, not including the Knothole Island DLC. I don’t have a real long post planned, here, but I’m feeling…unsettled. The ending that, I assume, I had a hand in creating through my choice in the Tattered Spire, has left me feeling spent, and a little unhappy. I think that may be the most ambiguous feeling I’ve had at the end of a video game.

Since Bioshock, I’ve heard game developers say that they offer gamers a choice, nuanced and subtle, about what kind of person they want their in-game persona/avatar to be. I’m not so sure they’ve done it, yet.

In Bioshock, it was a non-choice. I’m not going to kill little girls. Period. I don’t even care if you say, “it’s just a game.” Not gonna happen. In Mass Effect, there may be several options, but it’s fairly easy to discern the good, bad, middle responses in the conversation trees (and I’m not so sure they really had much of an impact, either way). It felt like a forced choice between an alternative LEAST like me, and one MOST like me. It wasn’t’ a real choice; it didn’t involve my emotions.

See the whole post: http://gamesareevil.com/2009/01/immersion-therapy-fable-ii-and-the-tough-choices/

The Chainsaw Gun of Gore: a GamesAreEvil Repost

This is a repost of an article I wrote over at Games Are Evil entitled “Critical Thinking and the Chainsaw Gun of Gore,” reprinted with permission of the Author (me) and the Associate Editor (me, again).

firing from coverI’ve been trying for a month now to wrap my head around some unifying structure that I can put my thoughts about video gaming into. I’ve wanted to contribute to an Editor’s blog here on Games Are Evil, but just couldn’t find any theme or rationale for doing so.

I want to thank the Brainy Gamer, first and foremost, for introducing what, to me, is a whole new way to approach gaming journalism: a critical discussion of video games and their purpose in our culture. Michael Abbot produces a monthly podcast and a written blog that elevates the field in many ways. The new Gamer Confab structure to his podcast has introduced me to another ton of critical thinking games journalists, including The Quixotic Engineer, Acid for Blood, Design Rampage, Sexy Videogameland, Insult Swordfighting, and Man Bytes Blog, among others. [note: since writing this, I’ve since found a ton more worthy blogs. See my sidebar to the right for the ones I keep in my RSS reader]

The topic that I am seeing discussed across all of these varied and well-written websites is, to my mind, twofold: a desire to think beyond the typical “graphics/gameplay/controller” review to the deeper, perhaps even transcendent nature of video gaming as well as a willingness to ask questions for the sake of finding that deeper meaning. These excellent writers are, more importantly, critical thinkers engaged in both an inner process of reflection and analysis as well as a public, ongoing discussion of these cultural and personal issues. I find that the give and take in this section of the blogosphere to be most resonant with my way of thinking about the world and video gaming.

My theme, therefore, is the question: “Why do we play games?” I’m hoping to spend some time each month here, on other gaming sites, and on our forums, engaged in this very personal and very interesting conversation. I don’t think the point is to answer the question, but to think about it deeply.

And Let Slip the Gears of War

So let’s get right to it. I’ve been playing Gears of War 2 quite a bit lately. For me, as a father of two young children, a husband and full-time employee with a web design business on the side, video gaming is something I need to shoehorn into my life as I can. With my duties [at games are evil] as Associate Editor, as well as Portable Editor and general web-hack, I’ve been playing a lot of games on a lot of consoles.

So, for me, playing a game quite a bit means more than an hour at a time. It means devoting the kind of time many other gamers take for granted, in 6 or 7 hour shifts. Yes, I’ve spent that kind of time on this game. Why is that? What is it about this game, in particular, that has me hooked?

Let’s look at that question a little deeper. I’m a fairly non-violent guy. I abhor physical violence and warfare as a solution to ANY problem, large or small, private or national. I think boxing is a barbaric and ultimately stupid sport, and killing things with weapons is something I’ve never done in real life. I’ve played many violent games, though I tend to shy away from the more realistic ones, like Call of Duty, or Grand Theft Auto. I just can’t make myself do it.

I can, however, play games with more science fiction or fantasy violence. If it’s swordplay, or laserbeams, I’m able to get past my hesitance. The closest I’ve come to realistic gaming is Resident Evil, or Doom, wherein the enemies are clearly monstrous and horrible. There is little or no connection to a real human involved. Which, in its own way, is how I was able to connect to Gears of War in the first place. It was sci-fi themed, which is right up my alley, the enemies are fully non-human, and it had an immersive storyline that felt, to me, like a movie I was taking part in. I was able to get past the realistic ammo and “hoo-rah!” attitude of the main characters. The tight controls and the mechanic of cover and fire really brought me further into the game, as it’s how I’d probably react in a real bullet-fight: I’d hide, and take shots at available targets.

Violence Isn’t the Answer, Is It?

So, along comes Gears of War 2. It’s horribly violent. Death is gory and messy and loud. I’ve walked through rivers of blood, and chainsawed locusts and wretches with aplomb. I don’t cringe when my teammates cheer at the end of a particularly difficult Horde level, or when Marcus Fenix says something incredibly military. I’ve been known to yell, “Suck it!” into my XBox 360 microphone during a pitched session of Wingman. Who is this guy I’ve become? And why am I allowing it to occur?

The answer is, of course, complex and full of ambiguity. I’m going to mention a couple-three things, though, that seem to help me understand this phenomenon: participation, immersion, and gaming resonance. There are a lot more things that inform my thoughts, but these three, for now, are what I want to talk about. In the interest of furthering the discussion, I’d like to point you all to the comments, below, […]. Let’s have a discussion. Why does this game resonate with you?

Participation is the sense of, as Mr. Abbot says in one of his Brainy Gamer podcasts, being part of the discussion. I bought Gears 2 on launch day, and brought it home. When I popped the disk into my Xbox, my entire friends list was playing the game. It was the first time I’ve been there from the beginning (I got Halo 3 a full year after release, so that tells you the kind of buyer I am, as well). Suddenly, I was one of the cool kids, engaged in a discussion of which levels were great, how the multiplayer was shaping up, how far I’d gotten in the single player storyline, etc. I was, finally, part of the discussion. So here I am sharing it with the blogosphere, to get a broader perspective, as it were. This participation is immensely appealing to me, and goes beyond the simple, “now I’m cool” dynamic that I half-flippantly state above. It’s the same feeling I get from playing through Fable II, and then reading about it in articles like this excellent series of posts by Corvus over at Man Bytes Blog. If you have Fable II, I highly recommend going to read what he has to say.

Immersion Therapy

Now that I feel a part of the ongoing conversation, what also resonates with me is the immersion Gears of War 2 allows me. I’m taking part in a scifi action movie with all the high quality audio and video that implies. The story is only one part of the equation in any Hollywood blockbuster, and that’s also true here in the game. The music, sound design (bullets whizzing, chainsaws buzzing), and incredibly high-resolution graphics and animation complete the scene, if you will, for my falling in love. It’s like high-octane candy for the mind, with the extra-added value of being able to control the main actor for the stunt scenes. In addition, as I mentioned above, the gameplay mechanics fully mesh with the way I would act in a similar situation (if, of course, I were a highly-trained, foul-mouthed, cynical son of a bitch embroiled in a huge world-ending war with similarly equipped monsters coming in wave upon wave against me). I’d duck, hide, roll, vault barriers and throw grenades. I’d use long range weapons when possible to avoid up close fighting, and melee only when there’s no other option. This is immersive in the sense that it meshes with the way my brain already works, placing me into the action and story without realizing that I’m really only sitting on a couch, pressing colored buttons at specified intervals.

Marcus Fenix, at his best, resonates with me on another level. If I was the veteran of hundreds of pitched battles, with only my comrades and wits and serious boxes of ordinance to protect me and my world, I’d be just as cynical and battle-weary as him. I can sense his frustration and disgust with what he has to do. He’s a human being, in other words, who does what he has to do because he’s good at it. Who can’t relate to that? The designers of this game really kicked up their story a notch with the way they characterize the main people in the game. I wish they’d gone a bit more into Dom’s worry for his wife, though I haven’t completed the main single player story yet (I’ve sunk most of my available gaming time into the Multiplayer action), so I can’t comment too much on whether they fulfill the promise of such a characterization premise [note: Now that I *have* finished the single player campaign, I’d have to say they don’t. He’s kinda upset for a short minute or two, but then goes back to being Marcus’ backup shooter]. But again, who can’t relate to worrying about your loved ones? I worry about my partner and children when they’re a few minutes late getting home from school pickups. How much more intensely would I worry if they were missing, and I in a state of warfare with humanity’s future balanced on my personal actions? It’s all resonant with me. If the heroes of this story enjoyed what they were doing more than they do, I would probably not be such a huge fan of the game. Yes, it’s satisfying to yell at a nasty alien that almost got the drop on us with their own blunt-edged power-tool, but I only allow myself to do so with the understanding that I have no choice.

Final Thoughts?

In conclusion, I hope I’ve been clear about what I want to do with this, my little piece of the blogosphere. Video gaming has become, in my view, something worthy of a critical analysis and depth of thought that goes beyond the typical review or fanboy site. It’s my intention, with varying success, I’d guess, to spend time talking about my own reasons for gaming. Why do we game? There are as many answers to this questions as there are gamers. I hope that this post has begun the process for any one of you to begin thinking about your own gaming perspectives. I, for one, am by no means finished with my talking and thinking about this game. The joy of such a huge triple-A title is that there is a ton of content and playmodes to get through, experience, and enjoy. So, stay tuned for monthly posts in this vein, and let me know what resonated for you in the comments[…].

Frere Jaque? WTF?

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Wii Music is as simple and kid-centric as everyone says it is. Except that it’s not.

Seriously, this game is a ton of fun. I’ve just walked away from it after playing with my daughter for the past hour or so.

From Destructoid:

So, the fact that Wii Music will provide us with the opportunity to act like we’re playing a game is the reason why we should gravitate towards the title? I’m sorry, but the idea seems to be lost on me. I realize every game doesn’t have to be competitive, but at the same rate, there has to be something present that is more engrossing than our own imaginations. I understand the sentiment when relating it to the uber-casual gamer, but for everyone? I guess we’ll have to see later when we get our hands on it.

Why are we endlessly chasing our tails with this whole, “hardcore gamers” label? I like gaming. I like Halo 2 and 3, I like Gears of War, I play RockBand, I play a PSP and a DS, and I play games on my iPhone. There’s nothing casual about it. But I also enjoy Wii Music. Why?

Because it’s fun. It gives me a different sense of playing music than Rockband does. Rockband is about hitting the “correct” notes in sequence, in the way they’re written. Wii Music is about finding the notes and rhythms within a common tune. It’s about expression and gentle melodies. It’s about traditional and classical music. Wii Music is about songs I know and have hummed for years, many of which I didn’t even know the names of.

If I want anything for my son and daughter, it’s to have an appreciation for music and an aptitude and interest in playing an instrument or singing. It’s something that defines our family. This game is as educational as I’ve seen, in a real way, not in a “Mario Teaches Typing” way. It’s not a slapped-on mascot on top of a boring educational game. It’s actually a game that allows for learning. It even has lessons, but they’re fun, non-threatening, and really well put together. As the graduate school gamer says:

When Shigero Miyamoto introduce WiiMusic to the enthusiast press he emphasized that it was less a game and more of an inspirational toy. When you play WiiMusic it is not meant to simulate the actual instrument but rather to inspire gamers to actually take an interest in music or even pick up a real instrument.

I do wish, though, that they’d spent some time recording the text in these lessons and in the menus, so my pre-reader could follow along. It’s not horrible to have to sit and read the dialogues for him, but I’m sure he’d enjoy feeling like he was learning in the same way his sister is, alone, privately, and with no one there to tell him what to do or how to do it besides the game. Without a parent looking over his shoulder, as it were.

That being said, Wii Music has become our favorite party game. Wii Sports is fun with other people who aren’t musical, or really into that sort of thing. This game, however, is like our family’s Wii Sports. It’s a way that 2 or 4 of us can play along. The Games section is a ton of fun, as well, and really enriches the other multiplayer activity, Jams. There are three games to play, each allowing 1 – 4 players to play real music with different instruments. One, Harmony Hand Bells, is just a hoot, with each person getting two different color hand bells to shake (via WiiMote) in time. In retrospect, it’s almost exactly like the other music/rhythm games, as you watch handbells cross a line, and shake your own colored handbell in time with the song, and as the bell icon passes a specific line.

No, I wouldn’t recommend to only get Wii Music. It’s not the only music or rhythm game I want to play. But it’s definitely one of few I’m glad to own, and play, and continue to play. Alone, with others, and so on.

Some other great thoughts on Wii Music (a big thanks to David Carlton, who suggested this in a wonderful blog post):

Stephen Totillo (mtv multiplayer): http://multiplayerblog.mtv.com/2008/10/17/how-wii-music-works-as-a-game/

Michael Abbot (brainygamer): http://www.brainygamer.com/the_brainy_gamer/2009/01/unlock-the-door.html

Steve Amodio (8bithack): http://www.8bithacks.com/2008/10/wii-music-why-even-doubt-ead-anymore.html