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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Sports games

I've never understood the appeal of modern sports videogames. Every year, a new edition is released which has, every time, a more powerful graphics engine and updated player stats. And sometimes, there will be some advance in the control so that you can play a more realistic game more easily. Notice anything in common with these updates? They all serve only to bring the game closer to realism, the ultimate goal. I don't know about you, IFs, but to me this seems ridiculous. Why put so much time, money, and effort into the technology that will bring sports a little bit closer to real sports, when we already have real sports without the technology?! Is it so hard to pick up a ball, walk outside, and [gasp] play the real game? The kind of realism you get that way is just astounding. Plus, it's a hell of a lot cheaper. But these imitators continue to sell in outrageous numbers year in, year out, for reasons I cannot fathom. Here is the second greatest and by far the most flexible medium for art in the whole of human history, and it is trapped in an Industry which promotes mimicry over creativity; an Industry thanks which the most successful game form of all is sports games. Pathetic, isn't it?

From a capitalist viewpoint, this is great. The average Joe sportsfan (read: "sucker") seems to be content with getting nothing more than a gimmick for his 50 bucks. Whoever figured this out is a genius at ripping people off. For the uninformed customer the words videogame and gimmick are practically synonymous, so he will be very satisfied by what he is getting. And so he will buy the same game year after year after year, the same game he could play for himself -and probably does- by picking up a ball, with the same athletes he could see for real -and probably does- by turning on his TV. He'll keep buying it over and over, because his expectations for sports games have been defined by the people who are selling him the game, and they don't have anything to gain (except for an insignificant thing called quality) for making those expectations high. If they were to let the consumer know that he'd have more fun if they were less interested in realism and more interested in letting him have fun, then they'd have to be creative, because their consumers would demand it. And if you're the head of a big business in the Game Industry, you feel much safer knowing that all you need to make a big profit each year is copying reality better, and not improving the game.

Once upon a time, there was a company that set out to make good games. While companies on the other side of the world tried to make games as banal, as familiar as possible, they went entirely in the other direction, making games that were first and foremost good games. So I don't know how to take this announcement:
Nintendo® Pennant Chase Baseball brings video game play to a new level of excitement and reality with fan-favorite players and teams... Nintendo Pennant Chase Baseball, developed by Exile Interactive and Nintendo, includes players from every Major League Baseball® team. Players will be able to compete in all 30 current Major League™ ballparks, as well as in a few from the past. To ensure a completely authentic experience, the game has been licensed by Major League Baseball Properties, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum®, with statistics and ratings provided by STATS, Inc... Nintendo Pennant Chase Baseball will feature new game modes that combine the authenticity of Major League Baseball with the great game play that consumers have come to expect from Nintendo.
Which is it, excitement or reality?! Is this Nintendo selling out, or are they really working to make this, as they claim, "the great game play that consumers have come to expect from Nintendo"? I have extremely mixed feelings on this. For one thing, it is artistically wrong and destroys Nintendo's integrity. But on the other hand, it makes Nintendo money. So there will be one of two possible outcomes: 1. Nintendo will have more money to make the artistically honest games I've come to expect from them. 2. Nintendo will realize that they can make much more money from artistically dishonest games and switch sides. The way Nintendo is positioning the DS has me inclined to believe the latter. So the question on my mind is: Which game is Nintendo playing?



Well, as it happened, this game was never released- Nintendo must have had second thoughts. Good for them.


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Monday, January 24, 2005

The elusive key to longevity, Part 1

From a post on Gamecritics under my alias, MoriartyL:
When I first played The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, I was convinced that it was a classic which would be playable for a very long time. That conviction has deteriorated rapidly with each successive playthrough. I find that each time I play, I enjoy it less than I did the time before, and now it seems the only enjoyment I can get from the game is watching other people play and imagining what kind of experience they must be going through. The other day, I tried starting the game again, got up to Windfall Island, and turned it off because of boredom, because it felt so old. I still like the characters, the art style, and to some degree the story, and the game is just dripping with personality. The first time I played, I was blown away. But for some reason, all that I liked about the game has disappeared.

In sharp contrast stands Metroid Prime. The first time I played it, I considered it a very good game, but nothing spectacular. This is because I had yet to internalize the revelation that it was for me- that the point (in this particular case) was not the gameplay, but the environment. The second time, I was already used to the interface, and I knew what to expect from the gameplay, so I was blown away by the beauty of Tallon IV. But my appreciation of the game didn't end there, as I find that each time I come back I seem to enjoy it even more than the time before. Counterintuitively, my familiarity with the game world enrichens the experience of exploration rather than trivializing it.

I wondered if the problem with The Wind Waker was an inherent flaw in Zelda games in general, so I started up Ocarina of Time. I didn't even need to get into the first dungeon to realize that it was infinitely more playable than the newer game. Immediately I was reminded subconsciously of why I loved the game so much to begin with. My familiarity with the game (having already played it countless times) does not enhance the experience ala MP, but I don't think it seriously detracts from it either. In trying to explain to myself the clear distinction I have between the two Zelda games, the best I can do is that OoT is more subtle. But I'm sure that's not it, and besides, that's a pretty vague assessment. So I turn the problem over to you, in the hopes that you will be able to make sense of what I cannot. Why does Metroid Prime get better with age, and why does The Wind Waker get worse, while Ocarina of Time seems to stand still?



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Oh, no. Conflicted about the blog? Already?!

Imaginary Friends, I'm only a few days and two posts in, and I'm already wondering how the blog should work. You see, IFs are typically pretty quiet, being imaginary and all. But sometimes, as in the most recent issues I have been thinking about, I don't have answers, only questions. For these cases, I need feedback so that I can get a clearer view and update my opinion accordingly. And I'm sorry, IFs, but I don't trust you to give that kind of feedback. So I have decided to bring my issues to the forums whenever I am particularly confused. I'm not sure how to involve this personal blog in such matters, so for the time being I will post my thoughts at the beginning (taken directly from the forums, when possible, to save time and effort, as I'm quite lazy) and end (the point when I have acquired a greater clarity) of these debates. Feel free to post any comments if you have them.



I'm tired. Why am I still online?!
Go away blog, go away. I need sleep.


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Friday, January 21, 2005

Myst and Mirages

A few days ago, I finished the original 1993 game "Myst" for the first time. If you haven't played it but enjoy puzzles and exploration, I highly recommend it. The ending in particular was spectacular. It was something like this:
"Oh, by the way, thanks for freeing me from the prison in which I would have been stuck for all eternity if not for you."
[continues scribbling in his book casually as if nothing has happened]
"Oh, and I don't have any reward for you."
[more scribbling]
"I'll need your help in the sequel to rescue my wife from another world, after which I'll still have nothing to offer you in return. Bye now."
Okay, so maybe the ending wasn't so great. But the rest of the game was. As with some of my favorite games (most notably the Zelda series), it tries to allow the player complete immersion in the game world. It is often challenging, but the effort you put in is always (excepting the ending) rewarded. There are few experiences as satisfying as solving a puzzle effortlessly precisely because you had the intuition earlier on to make a detailed hint of something which seemed like a clue. That experience is the essence of Myst, as getting to know the environment is the essence of Metroid. And while I'm already mentioning Myst and Metroid in the same context, I might as well point out that both models are carefully crafted to encourage exploration, although in completely different ways. So it's appropriate that I played Myst immediately after Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.

In parallel, I've been working (in the so-called "Real World") on a musical composition I started nearly a year ago. It started out (back then) when my composition teacher, very professional and also a very nice guy, advised me to write a piece based on a dodecaphonic (serial music) theme. If you're not familiar with that style of composition, then a little extra knowledge can't hurt: Arnold Schoenberg, a 20th century composer, invented serial music after having completely done away with the tonal system which music had always been based on. He knew that a new discipline of music was required to give music better structures, so he devised a method of composition, where the musical theme would be composed of all twelve possible notes in a specific order. Okay, that's a little too much- I'm getting bored myself. Anyhow, I quickly came up with a theme which not only follows the laws of serial music strictly, but sounds tonal. I liked that, because I've always liked tonal music more than atonal music anyway. Then I expanded on it into a very short piece of only around half a page in a way that resembled a Bach fugue- the theme weaved in and out of itself in the various voices. I put in the theme's opposite order, and the theme's "opposite" theme, and the opposite order of the opposite theme, having all these weave in and out of each other, and somehow managed to make it sound nice despite its complexity. I was so proud of myself, I could have valiantly declared it a triumph for the spirit of mankind, the symbol of man making beauty of meaningless but complex (in a fun way) systems, etc. Of course my teacher didn't like it. He said, "It's nice, but I feel that this should be the fourth variation!" In other words, it didn't have a satisfying beginning. Undeterred, I set to work on another page to precede it, this time using a more simple harmony to not only provide a nice contrast to my original page, but also to feel more like the beginning of a piece and less like an exciting climax. I now had a nice short piece, with a beginning and an ending, and a nice symmetry because I had designed the new page to be similar in structure to the old one despite being completely different in style. I took it to my composition teacher, who said, "It's nice, but I feel this should be the tenth variation!" I was afraid that if I wrote ten new beginnings I'd find myself on the 957th variation, so I scrapped what I had done and started over on an altogether more ambitious piece.

I later named that piece "Variations on V.O.V.", and that should give you a concept of how complex and precise the structure is. ("V.O.V." stands for "Variations on V.O.V.", in case you didn't figure it out.) Although it frequently makes complete changes in styles and musical disciplines and is constantly (I hope) surprising the listener, it actually follows a rigid path in which the composition is made up of seven variations on the piece itself. To clarify, the structure of each of the seven variations is based carefully on the overall structure of the entire piece, which as I said contains those seven variations. I finished up four or five variations in an early draft (knowing, of course, what the complete structure would be like), and brought it to my composition teacher. I'm sorry, Imaginary Friends, but I don't have a quote of what he said because I don't remember precisely what it was, but the gist was that he thought it could be much better if I just added a little bit here, and removed that part there, and shortened this thing, and lengthened that thing- i.e. destroyed the extremely delicate structure I had set up. Not to insult my teacher- I'm sure he didn't realize how much damage he'd be doing to the piece's integrity. But he clearly didn't see the brilliance of the structure which I had spent weeks working on perfecting, if he saw the structure at all.

Around a week ago, I got back to work because I had found out that I might be able to play an original piece for my piano exam instead of a horrid -no, repulsive piece of junk of some modernist Israeli "composer", and I use the term loosely. I refined some parts that I hadn't felt worked well even when I wrote them, corrected one tiny mistake (it was only one measure) and completed another half a section. I brought it to my piano teacher, who has won many international awards for her playing, who had nothing to say about its structure, because she didn't even notice it. She told me that she is a pianist, not a composer. To which I wanted to yell at her, "And what exactly are you playing on the piano if not music which you are capable of understanding?" But of course I didn't, despite my general lack of manners, because I understood that she genuinely had no idea what effort I had put into it.

Now, you might ask, why am I writing about Myst and Variations on V.O.V. in the same post? To which my answer is, I'm writing this, not you, and who do you think you are to tell me what is connected and what isn't?! I don't need to justify it to you! I can write a post about two unconnected subjects if I want, and I certainly don't need to explain the connection to people who don't see it themselves! Ha!

Getting back to the subject, when I saw how little reward I was getting for my hard effort, I started thinking to myself that if life were released as a $50 videogame, it would be universally abhorred, because it would be quite a lousy game. Let's compare Earth and Myst, shall we?

In Myst, every book you come across is filled with interesting information. Moreover, you always know that that information will come in handy sooner or later.
In the real world, every book that is shoved down your throat in school was written by people with PhD's in Boredom Development. Moreover, you always know that the information contained in it will come in handy on the exam which will be designed only to discover whether you have digested the material so well that it is imprinted on your brain, and you are guaranteed that after that it will never be useful again. Ever.

In Myst, your time is spent walking around, enjoying the scenery, learning about the areas, and being mentally stimulated. This is fun.
In school, your time is spent sitting in one place, staring at your watch, having a "disciplinarian" spout out gibberish you are meant to recite back to them later on (so reducing your mind to the usefulness of a tape recorder is advised), and watching your brain cells melt away. This is boring, which is good because it prepares children for the rest of life, which will be much worse.

In Myst, all effort you put in is rewarded.
In the real world, effort is useless.

In Myst, you have a goal which is attainable but challenging.
In the real world, any long term goals are unattainable, so you must become more flexible and learn to follow the singular boring path the world has prepared.

...And so on. Is it just me, or is Myst more real than the real world?



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Thursday, January 20, 2005

Who am I?

Dear Imaginary Friends,

Hello. This is my blog. I don't actually expect anyone to read this, but as long as you're here, I ought to get started. So, um, hello. As I said, this is my blog. And I, uh, didn't expect you to be here. Should I get started? Or maybe I should just ramble on a little longer, or-
Disclaimer: The writer of this blog does not take any responsibility for extreme boredom, headaches, dizziness, nausea, mental stimulation, comas, or any other unpleasant symptoms caused by the reading of his posts. You come at your own peril. Leave now. Don't say you weren't warned. We mean it. Go now-
Okay, okay, that's enough. You're scaring away all the imaginary readers! And beside, my posts are harmless! They'd never do anything like tha-
Disclaimer: There may be complete lies in this blog.
Oh, be quiet!

Thank you. I would like to assure you, Imaginary Friends, that I will always try my hardest to be honest. Apart from that, I can't guarantee the quality of this blog. I'll tell you what- why don't you expect that everything I write will be the worst garbage you've ever had the misfortune to read. That way, you won't be disappointed. :)
Actually, I'm just writing this blog for myself. I've got so much nonsense to spout out, but no one who will put up with it, so this seems like a good idea. I don't seriously expect any real people to put up with me anywhere in the world, but that's okay. My Imaginary Friends all over the world will do nicely, as will this wall here. Hey, that's not a bad idea. Wait a minute...

[three hours pass]

Oh, are you still here? I've just come back from the most pleasant conversation with a wall. I discussed with it my theories on videogame design, my philosophies and my emotions. The wall has unfortunately broken down as a result, but I am feeling much better. I haven't had anyone listen to me so carefully in months! Such a shame it had to end so quickly.

Who am I, you ask? (Okay, so you didn't, but let's say you did.) My name is Mordechai, but you can call me Mory. I am an Orthodox Jew, but I go to a secular school despite the very large number of religious schools here in Israel. I am now in the 12th and final grade, but I haven't actually learned anything in the miserable decade I've spent trapped in the school system. As a matter of fact, I'm not making any effort right now, even though all my tests are coming up and I'm sure to fail them. Somehow, they don't seem important. And despite this feeling, I am at a very good school - the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, where I study (or at least am supposed to be studying) not just all the mundane subjects which other schools teach but also mundane musical studies. This, despite my not being very interested in music. Oh, and I compose. I have also been playing the piano for years despite never putting any effort into it. I'm not a good pianist mind you, not even good enough to play my own pieces properly, but somehow it was good enough to get me into this school, which I accepted despite my lack of interest because they'd let me in.
My class is very interesting. It is effectively split into three groups. The members of each group are friends with other members of that group, but there's virtually no contact between separate groups, despite going to most of the same classes. It's not that they dislike the other groups, more a sort of lack of desire to realize that the other groups exist at all. First, there are the dancers, who seem to be interested only in the shallowest things. Second, the musicians, who don't seem to be interested in anything at all. The third group is me. I like watching the dancers, and I like listening to music, but my love is for videogames, which I believe encompass the future of all of art-
Disclaimer: The writer of this blog will often enter mind-numbing passages and ramblings on the gloriousness of videogames. This is not enjoyable. Escape now, while you still can!!

So where was I? Oh, right, I was giving my boring autobiography, but I think that's pretty much it. If all the contradictions I've mentioned prevent you from getting a clear idea of who I am, I don't blame you. In every group I belong to, I'm apart from the crowd. So who am I, in a nutshell?
I am not.

Welcome to my blog. It may be incomprehensible, it may be meaningless, it may be a mess, it may be selfish, arrogant and self-degrading all at once, but- but....
You know what, let's just leave it at that. Welcome to my blog.



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