Archive for March, 2011

Game pricing

I just payed $30 to get a copy of .hack//G.U. Volume 3. I didn’t pay $30 for the first two volumes put together. This price disparity exists with other .hack merchandise as well; early volumes of the games are fairly easy to come across at any GameStop and are relatively cheap, but the last chapters are hard to find and very expensive. Some in the fandom think that the early games were produced in larger quantities, and that Bandai made fewer copies of the later games and sold them at a higher price to induce people to buy the game for its rarity (instead of, y’know, convincing people to buy it because the series is good, and you want to see how it ends, like how most series work).

Oh, look at me! I'm a rare game!

Shut up. The .hack series is not unheard of–it’s actually quite popular in Japan, and is at the very worst just slightly obscure in America (with most people aware of the series because of the well known and successful anime spin-off), so it’s not like there was never demand for the games so they only made 5,000 copies, like with some rare books. Now, E.T. for the Atari is a rare game, because pretty much all known copies were returned to the stores, sent back to Atari, put underneath a steamroller, crushed into fine powder, buried in the desert and covered over with concrete. Clearly, Atari took a page from Chernobyl’s book regarding dealing with failures.

1. Get a lot of concrete
2. Put concrete on top of problem
3. ?????
4. Profit!

Except that the toxicity of the area around Chernobyl is slowly dropping, and will be relatively safe for human repopulation within 600 years, whereas the toxicity of E.T. The Video Game will never decrease. Also, the disaster at Chernobyl didn’t result in the death of the entire nuclear power industry (and in fact encouraged great leaps and bounds in safety and plant construction), whereas the epic failure of E.T. pretty much resulted in the Video Game Crash of 1983. Think about it, if it hadn’t been for E.T., we might have had the Nintendo 3DS and the PSP2 4 years ago.

Atari's failures delayed second joystick technology by 4 years.

Back before Final Fantasy VII was released on the Playstation Network for $10 to download directly to your PSP or PS3, copies of the game were selling for over $100 on Amazon and eBay. Since the game’s release, eBay prices have crashed; the only copies that are being listed for those historically high prices are ‘collector’ quality, mint condition non-Greatest Hits still-in-the-plastic-wrapping-so-it-has-an-indefinite-shelf-life type copies, and even then, they’re not moving if they’re more than $50. Final Fantasy VII is what you could call a rare game nowadays–it came out 14 years ago, and everyone who bought a copy is liable to hold on to it, so used copies are hard to come by. The copies still out there available for purchase are the comes-from-a-smoke-free-home, intact-manufacturer’s-seal copies, and those are bought up by, you guessed it, collectors, not the average Joe who was told that FF7 was a good game and he should play it, but you can’t borrow my copy, brah, I don’t let anyone touch it, and I don’t have a Playstation memory card anymore.

The single biggest hurdle facing those who wish to play Final Fantasy VII for more than 4 hours.

But for the people who merely want to play the game, having to shell out $150 for a mint-condition copy of Final Fantasy VII just to experience the game for its historical value was ridiculous. Now that it’s been released on the PSN for $10, it’s the one of the top selling games on the Playstation Network, and sold 100,000 copies within 2 weeks of release. The beauty of it is that there are infinite copies of it now, so the value on having a hard copy crashed. (Now the prices on Amazon are catering more toward collectors. New copies of the game go as high as $235, but only have that much value to a collector, whereas prices on used copies have fallen to about $35. Ebay prices have fallen even further, though people still list their copies for $500 with a hopeful gleam in their eyes.)

The problem with pricing games for collectors is that not everyone is a collector–or at least, they’re not collectors on the level of ‘I must keep my game in mint condition!!!!!1!!1’. I collect games in that I buy them and tend to hold on to them, but that’s like saying I’m a sock collector because I buy socks and keep them. I hold on to my games because I’ll want to play them again in the future. That’s the value they hold for me, not some sort of hypothetical monetary value. Some people buy games because they want to play them, not because they want to put it on a pedestal.

That’s why I bought .hack//G.U. Volume 3. I wanted to play it again.

But I was hesitant to buy a new copy, and not just because of the price (I saw a price of $125 for a factory sealed copy of Volume 3). I know that there ARE people out there who collect games who would cringe knowing that I bought it to take off the plastic wrap. It’s the same feeling of worry that I get when I see an antique kimono sell on eBay, and imagine it being sold to someone who is going to cut it up for a quilting project. I die inside when I think about that. My friend who introduced me to .hack is a collector of .hack merchandise, so a mint conditioned sealed copy of the game would have particular value to her that it wouldn’t have to me. I personally don’t find a lot of value in a game that I can’t play because it would decrease it’s value. It would be like owning a Picasso, but not ever displaying it. Yes, it’s worth a lot of money, but how much value does something have if you have no way of directly enjoying it?

All through my years of collecting Pokemon cards, I wanted a Charizard. They were the rarest and most powerful card a 10-year-old could ever hope to own. And they weren’t rare like those bullshit Blue Eyes White Dragon cards that were given away at every Yu-Gi-Oh! event ever–you could go through your entire life playing Pokemon and never actually touch a Charizard card. That’s legit rareness. You can bet your ass that if I had ever actually acquired a Charizard, it would have gone straight into my deck. Why? Because the value the card had to kids who played the game was its strength in a deck, not just the fact that it was really rare.

I would have kept it nice, though--I'd have put in a proxy card in my deck for it, so I wouldn't bend up the edges, and kept it in a card sleeve.

I feel the same way about my games. The reason why FFVII costs $235 new on Amazon, and FFVIII costs $12 new on Amazon is that VII is a better game. It’s a better game, and I want to play it. I’ll put a Picasso up on my wall, I’ll put a vintage kimono on my back, and I’ll put a copy of FFVII in my Playstation. That’s how those works are meant to be enjoyed.

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Blog Update

The two blogs that I’m following are rather different from one another. Gamerant, for instance, is a news blog, while The Border House is opinion-based.

Gamerant has been having a great month for news. With the release of the 3DS, the announcement of the PSP2, and the continuing delays of Duke Nukem Forever (which at this point shouldn’t be considered news anymore–it was news when a release date was announced and advertising materials were shipped to GameStops, but now that it’s been delayed again, along with my plans for a  ‘Duke Nukem Finally’ party, it’s back to the realm of ‘non-news’), they have had quite a lot to talk about. Many of the news updates about the 3DS are examining the value for the money on the 3DS. The console’s release price is $250, the same as the Wii, and the game library is sparse (as most game libraries are at launch) and rather casual–which makes the 3DS seem more like a gimmicky version of the existing DS or just the next version in the long sad line of Nintendo handheld revamps.

DS, DS Lite, DSi, DSi XL, 3DS, 3DS Lite, 3DSi, 3DSi XL...oh wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Both sides of the argument are blogged about, though–for instance, one blogger defends the price tag, arguing that the cost to produce a single unit is relatively low, but the cost of development is probably quite high, considering the technology presented in the 3DS, and the 3DS is backwards compatible with all DS games (but not with GBA games–perhaps Nintendo can remedy this by putting a library of GBA games up online as DLC), so on the other hand, the price might seem justified in light of that.

Similar remarks are being made about the PSP2, although the system was only just unveiled this year, and has no official game library or release price yet, so all of the current blog posts are speculative in nature. Some are predicting a failure for the PSP2 (mainly due to the release of the 3DS), and others are salivating over the prospect of that sweet, sweet second controller.

 

The Border House is a blog focusing on gaming from the perspective of minority opinions–in short, every gamer who is not a straight white 18-35-year-old male. However, one topic always comes up again and again on The Border House, and that is the representation of women in games. Currently, on the front page, half of the blog posts are about women and their portrayal in games, and the other half are split up between a ‘Happy Birthday’ post, a ‘community response’ post (‘Everyone talk about whatever you want! It’s Friday! Yay!’), two are about race and disability representation in games, and the last is the announcement of an open beta for a game by one of the blog contributors. (The next page of older posts is almost 100% on feminist topics.) While the blog is open to posts on any topic related to minorities and gaming, the topic of women is the most common. An earlier post which seemed less ‘I am womyn, and Duke Nukem has complete disregard for womynkind’ and which struck me as particularly interesting and relevant was the lack of diversity in a Nintendo DS dress-up game aimed at young girls. All of the characters had the exact same body type. Though the game represented other races in NPCs, all of the characters had the same size-0 body type, and there was very little diversity in the day-to-day customers in the player’s store. The blog praised the selection of clothing available (with consideration for the DS’s hardware allowances), but asked ‘when every character looks the same, how different can people really get’? And, more importantly, while an accurate representation of the world of high fashion, what is this subliminally teaching to young girls?

Aside from the fact that everyone in the world is apparently drawn by Ai Yazawa.

A lot of the posts on The Border House are amusing to read, but I can only stomach so much rage for so long on a topic that I don’t turn to because I’m looking for more rage. I game to relax and enjoy myself, and I don’t like it when I am forced to think about games in a non-enjoyable way. Discussing and debating the social merit of various games is enjoyable. Listening to someone rant and rave about how Duke Nukem is a horrible person because he’s a misogynist, and how it’s so awful that the press conference for the game was held in a Las Vegas strip club, and how it’s terrible that Duke Nukem doesn’t have any character depth or emotion, because those are traits that apparently make action heroes ‘pussies’ and were thus never applied to Duke, however, is not enjoyable to me. The irate bloggers are not wrong–Duke Nukem Forever is guilty of all of these things, but I don’t want to hear about it for blog post after blog post. I want to hear about positive portrayals of minorities in games, because I want to see the industry to be encouraged to move in that direction, and if people talk up games with positive minority representation, then that creates a market they can sell games to. It’s hard to sell games to angry people.

There is very little of the bloggers of The Border House seeking out games with these sorts of positive portrayals. Granted, part of that might be that it’s really hard to find a game that positively portrays black handicapped lesbians, but I have a feeling that even if such a game came about, they would prefer to criticize it. After all, Parasite Eve: The 3rd Birthday is coming out soon, and Aya Brea is a strong, independent heroine–men help her, but they never rescue her. However, the Border House’s remarks toward Parasite Eve 3 are almost entirely about the horrors of battle damage to clothing and sexy alternate costumes, and how it’s doing nothing but making Aya into an object of lust (which seems to imply that attractive women would never want to wear sexy clothing, or that people playing the game would never want to see an attractive woman in a sexy outfit, and regardless of whether or not these statements are true, women should never ever be portrayed as sexy for fear of making them into ‘sex objects’). One blogger, a fan of the Parasite Eve games, even went on record saying they hated The 3rd Birthday without ever having picked it up, and did not ever want to play The 3rd Birthday because of Aya’s shower scene. (Though they did not object to the shower scene in Parasite Eve 2, calling it ‘tasteful’.)

In the end, I probably won’t end up playing any of the games they criticized in The Border House, but that’s not because of the misogynistic portrayals of women, it’s because I’m not an FPS player who has been waiting eagerly for 12 years for Duke Nukem Whenever, nor am I a player who has followed the Parasite Eve series. I don’t begrudge them their opinions, but I do wish they could find games they enjoyed for all the right reasons, and would instead turn to praising them and supporting the studios that make games with positive minority roles.

Portal Analysis

Portal is a good game, pure and simple.

To summarize why Portal is such a good game, I think I would only need the word ‘simplicity’. However, that would be an entirely misleading way to describe the game, despite being true. After all, Pac-Man could be summed up by the word ‘simplicity’ as well, but comparing the simplicity between those two games would be akin to comparing the simplicity of the rules of tag to the rules of chess.

 

Tag: Five minutes to learn, a lifetime to master.

Visually, Portal has a very simple aesthetic design, with a color pallet of grays for the background, designed to make important objects, such as trigger buttons and your brightly colored portals stand out very clearly. Also of note in the aesthetics of the game is the contrast between ‘sharp’ edges and ‘curved’ edges; objects that the player is meant to interact with, such as doors and buttons, are round or have round features or designs (i.e. Cubes have circular panels on each side, and moving platforms have circles on them as well), whereas stationary objects and background objects such as wall panels are squared off.

A standard level design, demonstrating the muted background color pallet contrasted with the brightly colored interactive objects. Also note the fact that interactive objects are round in shape.

The test chambers themselves are also uncluttered and clean, delineating the break after Level 19 between actual test chambers and the innards of the Enrichment Center very clearly. The ‘back rooms’ of the Center are rusty and grimy and cluttered with things like broken turrets, work benches, overturned desks and computers, and stashes of canned beans. (Not to mention the visual cues of graffiti left by previous test subjects behind the walls of the test chambers.

Though Portal makes use of simple aesthetic design, it manages to pack a great amount of minute detail into every wall panel and floor tile. The wall tiles are not simply blank stretches of gray, each one has character. Scuffs and marks abound on each object on every floor, indicating a lifetime of use. And once players make their way behind the walls, they find huge amounts of detail in rusty pipes, swaying wires and broken staircases. Though simple, the visual design of Portal is rich.

Musically, Portal is very simple as well. There are very few musical cues throughout the game, usually marking important events in the game. For instance, a subtle musical cue plays when the player obtains the portal gun, when the player obtains the orange portal upgrade to the portal gun, and when the player is descending into the incinerator at the ‘end’ of Floor 19.

Notice the lack of background music until 2:20 in the video,
when background music begins, signalling an important game event.

The lack of background music throughout contributes to the feeling of the game taking place in a laboratory, where unnecessary outside stimuli could have an effect on the test subjects. (I remember, for instance undergoing a test in Diff A&P back in high school, where we were monitoring changes in heart rate while people breathed in and out of paper sacks. One student turned on the radio that was normally on during lab days, only to earn sharp reproach from the teacher, who informed us that music affects heart rate–as if being yelled at by a teacher doesn’t.) The lack of background music also has a practical gameplay application; the overall silence of the soundtrack means that things such as important audio cues (often contained in the ambient noise of a level) don’t get lost in the background music. Many objects in Portal have specific, but subtle audio cues. The sounds of the Energy Pellets, for instance, are unique, and can be heard from the other side of the map, but the sound of a distant pellet could be easily drowned out by even a quiet ambient soundtrack. Other cues, such as the lines spouted by the gun turrets, hint at whether or not you are currently in the line of sight of a turret (a very important thing to know), and the vibrating hum of the moving platforms can help players judge when to jump while they keep their eyes on other parts of the room. As Salen and Zimmerman would say, the lack of background music actually helps make play meaningful by presenting all sorts of auditory cues which would be drowned out by ordinary musical filler.

In fact, there is only really one song in Portal, the ever famous Jonathan Coulton track, Still Alive.

Including a copy of Still Alive should have been a requirement for our analysis.

Story-wise, Portal is also very simple on the surface. The player character’s name isn’t even revealed in the course of the game, and only one character ever speaks. The object is also very simple, with GLaDOS explaining to you that you are supposed to get to the elevator at the end of every level. The objective for the entire game is essentially ‘get out’. However, though the story is simple, GLaDOS’s interaction with the player goes through many iterations. In the beginning, she is a somewhat helpful, if generally benign overseer, who gives you helpful safety tips (“Do not look directly into the operational end of the device…”). As the levels progress, though, she becomes less benign and slowly more malignant. The first real demonstration of this is in her ability to outright lie, a trait not commonly associated with computers, and one which any fan of sci-fi should be nervous about. The next worrying step is her adding water floors and informing you that the consequence for your failure would be death. Her disregard for human life becomes more and more apparent as she sends you into a live fire course, attempts to incinerate you, and ultimately begins pumping a deadly neurotoxin into the Enrichment Center in an attempt to kill you.

GLaDOS’s lines are also amusing to listen to, and are very cleverly written. GLaDOS slowly goes from being a very mechanical-type voice to being a very human-sounding character who happens to speak with a computerized voice. For example, GLaDOS doesn’t use computer-like terms while you are running around outside the parameters of the test chambers, but attempts to cajole you into returning to the test chambers with promises of cake and parties. She doesn’t return to speaking about tests and mechanical terms until you encounter her in the final battle, and even then, it’s only passing remarks, like ‘deploying surprise’ and ‘that crazy thing is not part of any test protocol’, and are juxtaposed against lines such as ‘The only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart’ and ‘If you love that thing so much, why don’t you marry it?’. At once, GLaDOS is a nagging mother and a juvenile annoyance in her interactions with the player…at least until you destroy her morality core.

And this is to speak nothing of Portal’s place in the larger picture. One could easily play the game without ever knowing of it’s greater connection to Valve’s big game franchise, Half-Life. For example, the projectors running in some of the meeting rooms show information about Aperture Science and Black Mesa, the latter of which is the company responsible for the technology in Half-Life, and which Aperture Science often competes with for military contracts.

A vast amount of viral marketing occurred in conjunction with Portal as well, including websites like aperturelaboratories.com, which featured subtle hints about the game from the perspective of the doomed employees of Aperture Science, as well as hidden features like a timeline of Aperture Science history, which mysteriously ends with the entry noting GLaDOS’s first activation (coinciding with Aperture Science Bring-Your-Daughter-To-Work Day). There was also a 50 question ‘application test’ viewers could take to determine their eligibility to become future test subjects, which featured a series of questions that began fairly innocuously (‘How would you describe your pain?’), but eventually descended into lunacy (‘On a scale of 12 to 11, with the numbers arranged like on the face of a clock, how would you describe your awareness of physical tics?’), rather like GLaDOS herself throughout the course of the game.

The simple appearance and presentation of Portal makes it a very accessible game, while still having great depth beyond the simple surface of the game. I think in Portal’s case, this is what makes it a good game.

Portal Play-by-Play

This will be at least the fourth or fifth time I’ve played Portal all the way through. I’m waiting until my clock reads exactly 8 to start, so I can have a decent idea of how long it takes me…although to be fair, this won’t be a strict time attack, since I’ll be pausing at the end of each level to make notes and comments. Sadly (pssh), I’m playing on my PS3, so I can’t take my own screenshots…though approximately 178 billion people* have played Portal, so I should be able to find screenshots for any particular instance of anything.

* - Approximation based on the population of just one planet in the section of the galaxy ruled by Xenu

Well, 8:00 is almost here, so I’ll have to return to this later.

Level 00 – Start time: 8:00PM

Commentary: ON

The game starts you out, as the commentary remarks, in a visually unique room as a way of demonstrating how portals work. The only way to leave the room is through a portal which appears, and the portals are positioned in a way to guarantee that the player can see themselves/Chell. It’s also, thus, positioned in a way that you can see where you were and where you are going. The commentary remarks that some players thought Portals put you in another dimension, or into some sort of ‘Portal Space’, rather than simply putting  you out on the other side of the portal.

The commentary points out the observation windows. Having played the game before, I know that there is no one behind them, but they are placed rather conspicuously, with just enough detail visible to make out tables and chairs, desks, computers, etc. First-time players will likely never notice that there are no people behind the windows; I certainly didn’t. Now, of course, the emptiness of the observation rooms is glaringly obvious, and disconcerting.

The test chambers have a hint of grime and dirt to them, which a player might not notice if they’re not looking for it (despite the fact that everything has a very antiseptic look to it, with everything being in clean whites and grays).

Notice, for instance, the rust(?) stains beneath the tube feeding into the bed in the Relaxation Vault, and the scuff marks along the side.

This is our first introduction to GLaDOS, as well, who really doesn’t give you much direction in this area, mostly just exposition. There are several commentary bubbles here, if you play with commentary on, which remark on things such as demonstrating immediately how portals work by forcing you into one, as well as leaving an ‘audio cue’ in the form of the radio, showing you that you have, indeed, been placed exactly outside the room you were just in. The commentary also references Narbacular Drop, and how they took the player feedback from that project and used it to refine Portal. Remarks are also made about how the entire game is basically one long tutorial. Sort of puts the ridiculously long tutorials of many new games into perspective; the tutorial for FFXIII may have been, like, 20 hours long, but at least it wasn’t the entire game.

ATB Tutorial TL;DR Version: Mash X.

Level 01 – Start Time: 8:27 PM

Commentary: ON

As we saw when this level was played in class, a lot of first-time players have difficulty figuring out where they’re supposed to go for this level. They had a tough time with the timing, as well as figuring out what, exactly they were supposed to do. The commentary remarks that this room can be solved with no fewer than 5 portal movements, so it requires a solid understanding of the game mechanics in order to proceed. I was able to get in and out very quickly, but it was designed so that stumbling around aimlessly would lead you to dead ends. The level is trying to get you to understand that a firm idea of your destination is necessary to proceed in the game. This room also makes use of frosted glass, teasing you by showing the rooms you need to reach are right next to you, and if only you could use the cube to break the glass, then you could waltz right through. The game has not yet introduced the mechanic of ‘portals can’t be placed on glass’, though.

Fun fact: when you play this level with the commentary on, the length of time the first commentary bubble takes to play is the exact length of time necessary for the portal leading to the Cube Room to pop up.

Level 02 – Start Time: 8:35 PM

Commentary: ON

The Portal Gun is now in my possession. This is the first level in which GLaDOS starts to seem less than benevolent (though still, at this point, relatively benign). She remarks on the Material Emancipation Grid removing teeth, and informs you of how dangerous the Portal Gun is (though she assures you the portals themselves are safe, a mechanic taught in the first chamber).

Commentary reveals that early players would miss the fact that the Portal Gun was even there, and so a mandatory waiting period behind glass was introduced, to allow players to see what was making the portals all this time. The fact that there are big arrows on the floor pointing to it is a good hint, as well. They also added some really loud audio cues to indicate something was there, and made big, flashy particle effects. Interesting to me, by the way, was the fact that our first-time players were afraid of the Portal Gun particle effects; whenever they saw a portal being fired in their direction, they ran. Granted, the Energy Beads would kill you, but the penalty for touching the beads (instant death) carried over to any shiny thing flying through the air. Our new players thought that the portal particle effect would harm them as well.

Level 03 – Start Time: 8:43 PM

Commentary: ON

The commentary reveals that this level was designed to demonstrate that Portals are bi-directional; you are forced to go in and out through both colors of portals, showing that there is no ‘in’ or ‘out’ portal. Just like how there are no ‘up’ or ‘down’ stairs.

And these stairs don't go anywhere.

The commentary also remarks on how the ‘fizzlers’ (Emancipation Grids) are used to keep people from portalling across level loads, and how the idea was used in later levels, much to the frustration of players everywhere.

This is also one of the first levels in which you can remove all of the cameras. Doing so can earn you an achievement in the Xbox and PC versions. (Shockingly, the Orange Box doesn’t have any Trophies for the PS3 version. Not shockingly, this is touted as a disadvantage regarding the PS3 version next to other versions.)

Level 04 – Start Time: 8:52 PM

Commentary: ON

In this chamber, curious players can find that it is not possible to press buttons with the weight of the observation cameras you knocked off of the wall with your portal gun. You have to use something at least as heavy as Chell, i.e. Chell herself, or a cube.

The commentary explained how early test floors were designed to have only one solution, in order to properly demonstrate the mechanics being taught. This required redesigns of early levels, since many of their play testers were remarkably practical. In this level, they had to add barriers to keep people from just portalling across the level without actually using the button/cube mechanic.

The glass barrier between the button and the exit was not originally there. This level is the first to use 'You can't put a portal on glass' as a rule.

As a consequence, this room also introduced the ‘non-portal-able’ surface of the ‘black wall’.

Chamber 05 – Start Time: 9:07 PM

Commentary: ON

This floor really demonstrates the idea that the chambers are modular, as pointed out in the commentary. It shows that raised platforms are sometimes raised by hydraulic lifts, and gives the impression that the area beneath the test chambers is somehow heated (warm red-orange glow from under the grates). I also had fun removing the cameras here, which prompted dialogue from GLaDOS, despite the fact that she wasn’t supposed to talk to you in this room.

The commentary also remarks that the early floor layouts involved more clutter, like in Half-Life 2, which was distracting. They eliminated the clutter from the main testing floors, which really served to delineate the early floors from the final test. (This idea of cluttered floors also seems to be coming back in Portal 2, which makes sense in several contexts.)

Level 06 – Start Time: 9:15 PM

Commentary: ON

On this floor, players meet the High-Energy Pellet, and learn that it is rather uncaring for human life. The walls of this room are made entirely of ‘black wall’, and cannot be portalled on. The only surface which will hold a portal is the floor and the ceiling. This is also one of the first rooms where death is easy; in past rooms, if the player could somehow maneuver their way underneath a cube drop spot, they could be killed, but the cubes were often dropped before players could even reach the delivery chutes. Here, however, there is a moving energy pellet that can kill you.

Level 07 – Start Time: 9:23 PM

Commentary: ON

The rooms are starting to feature more ambient sound and music, such as mechanical noises, and sounds associated specifically with the energy pellet. Observant players will even note that there is a visual change in the energy pellet as it grows closer and closer to its own evaporation; it grows dimmer and dimmer before popping out of existence. While standing on the moving platform, players can hear a lot of mechanical ‘whooshing’ coming from the open vents underneath the light track, and can see gently swaying cords and pipes.

This floor introduces the moving platform, as well, and the commentary describes the difficulty in implementing an appropriate track. Originally, the track was a physical rail, and players would run across it to the end rather than actually playing the floor out. The programmers then introduced death as a penalty for touching the rail, which proved to be too frustrating for players (since now, a miscalculation in timing your drop onto a platform would kill you). The programmers finally settled on this harmless laser beam. Audio cues become more important here, to help the player time their drops onto the platform; even though touching the rail no longer results in death, it still results in ‘missing the platform’, which is still a little frustrating.

As I moved between floors, I noticed that all the elevator doors had the same faded rust stains, seeming to imply that it’s the same elevator over and over again…or, perhaps, that all of the floors are just the same two floors, redesigned by GLaDOS over and over again. (We later find that isn’t the case, but it certainly appears to be possible.)

Floor 08 – Start Time: 9:36 PM

Commentary: ON

This playthrough is the first time I noticed that there are subtle indicator tiles on the ceiling to help you position portals for dropping onto platforms.

This is also the first floor to introduce the grody water. The subtle musical cues are still there, but now there is a gross bubbling underneath it from the floor. Ick.

Commentary reveals that this was originally the first floor with the energy pellets, which resulted in too many new mechanics at once (water, energy pellets, and moving platforms), as well as too difficult a puzzle for two brand-new (and deadly) mechanics; essentially, when this room was the first energy-pellet room, it was teaching ‘basically, anything new will kill you’ and ‘all of the floors from here on out will be ridiculously challenging puzzles’. Instead, they added the two prior floors to introduce the pellets, then pellets and their relationship to platforms, and then finally water.

As our first-time players showed us, this redirection puzzle is actually fairly difficult. Our players had a compulsion to go through every portal they made, it seemed, heedless of the dangers ahead. They saw an orange portal, and even though there was an energy pellet flying right in front of it, they felt they had to go through it immediately.

Fun Fact: I ended up glitching  the game here by activating the commentary bubble, then walking through a portal immediately above it. Creating the portal above the bubble resulted in a little semi-transparent box appearing next to my blue portal, which caused me to ‘catch’ on my downward fall by about a fifth of a second. Ironically, the commentary bubble was discussing the mechanics of ‘collision’ involving portals, or, how the game renders the player’s ability to go through portals and how the portals affect objects on the other side. (An earlier commentary bubble explained that originally, it took 500 milliseconds for the portals to appear, because the game had to re-render the room on the other side, which resulted in a noticeable lag in gameplay. The programmers instead created things such as a limited fixed camera inside the portals, which only showed a limited field of view for the image of the portal itself, and created a ‘bubble’ of temporary altered physics to allow for objects such as cubes to pass through portals without the 500 millisecond delay.)

Floor 09 – Start Time: 9:51 PM

Commentary ON

This is the ‘impossible’ room. I hung out here for a while to hear all of GLaDOS’s lines. She offered me immediate cake if I quit right now. I also discovered that you cannot see your own reflection in the hydraulic elements of the rooms. Our first-time players in class had a lot of difficulty in figuring this room out, and I remember having difficulty with it as well. The fizzler grid proved to be a challenge for new players in general, who kept trying to carry things through the grid. Granted, they had never tried carrying anything through a grid before (i.e. the radio from the relaxation vault, a cube, a camera, etc.) so they had no reason to think they couldn’t carry a cube through (I don’t think they quite caught it when GLaDOS explained that you couldn’t carry things through the grid).

I’m fairly certain this room is the one which you replay during the final area, as a demonstration of how much easier the game has become now that you have mastery over not only both portals, but all of the game mechanics.

The commentary here points out that the visual design of the game involves ‘sharp’ vs. ‘curved’; ‘sharp’ objects and shapes denote background areas, while ‘curved’ objects and shapes denote things the player can interact with (i.e. buttons, doors, elevators the faces of the cubes even have circles on them). This was not something I had ever actively noticed and connected (‘Hey, the doors and buttons are all round–that must mean that ’round things = interactivity’!).

Floor 10 – Start Time: 10:04 PM

Commentary: ON

This floor introduces the ‘fling’ maneuver, and, as the commentary describes, they had to explicitly state what the object for this room was, which they don’t do for any other rooms. The commentary for the game also pointed out something that I hadn’t noticed before while playing–checkerboard patterns on the floor indicates that the player is supposed to place a portal there for flinging purposes.

so I herd u leik figurin out wher 2 pur ur portalz by trial and errur

Floor 11 – Start Time: I forget

Commentary: ON

So, yeah, this was the floor where you get the ability to fire orange portals, as well. The key phrase for this level is ‘hurry up and wait’. You have to wait for the orange portal to appear where you need it before you can carry out your next steps. However, there are many timed elements, such as the buttons on pedestals. The ticking clock sound cue informs you that you’d better haul ass, but the fact that the floor is made of death encourages you to move slowly.

The commentary also remarked that the design of this floor was meant to keep the orange portal gun in view at all times, thus the large amount of glass in this floor. This is a floor where checking the ‘content labels’ on the floor number panel becomes very useful; it indicates, for example, that there is an energy pellet flying around somewhere and the floor is made of water, so you’d better be careful. Apparently, many a tester ran headlong through the portals in this level to their doom by not checking where they were going. Aah, life lessons, portal-style.

"For instance, the floor here will kill you. Try to avoid it."

Floor 12 – Start Time: 10:31 PM

Commentary: ON

This floor is essentially an exercise in reminding the player of how to fling. It also introduces putting portals on angled surfaces to direct your flinging. Something else interesting about this floor is that in order to solve it, you have to go back a few steps after reaching a certain point in order to proceed. You can also solve this floor by placing one portal only once, and simply adjusting the location of the other one when necessary. (This level demonstrates the fact that portals cannot be placed on moving objects, and that portals placed on previously stationary targets disappear when the object begins to move.)

Floor 13 – Start Time: 12:00 AM

Commentary: ON

Took a long break to nab some noms. After the dinner of champions (Easy Mac, grape soda and Ben & Jerry’s) and some time monitoring eBay to unwind, I sat down to continue.

This is the floor that inspired a thousand crushed dreams. It was the inspiration for the challenge levels of Portal, which my neighbor insists you must complete in order to actually ‘beat’ Portal. In the in-game iteration, a lot of the game’s mechanics are included, with the exception of flinging and water floors. The challenge level for this room includes water floors, and I believe it removes a cube or some other silliness. Having played this floor before, the solution is quite obvious to me, but I can remember it being difficult on my first playthrough–I kept looking for a third cube, rather than going back to retrieve the first one. I had been trained through prior levels that I couldn’t easily go back, due to not having control of both portals.

This room’s commentary explains that the game’s programming checks to see if players have somehow managed to destroy or otherwise remove a cube from play, and then gives you another one via the Cube Delivery Chutes.

Floor 14 – Start Time: 12:14 AM

Commentary: ON

As the commentary reveals, this floor has a secret ‘ninja solution’, in which the player takes the idea used to solve the first element of the puzzle, and simply applies it to solving the end of the puzzle instead, bypassing about 3/4ths of the test. Rather than fixing the chamber to prevent this (as the did in the challenge level version), they let the ninja solution stand.

The commentary also points out how they designed the squares on the ‘black wall’ to direct the player’s attention upward, a classic problem in video games. They put as much lighting emphasis as humanly possible on the cube, by putting a skylight above it, the observation window across from it, and by aiming the player’s eye upward via both the ‘black wall’ blocking and by having the pellet receiver in the same room (which casts its own light up onto the ceiling, which gets players look up in the first place). The cube is also a much lighter color than the black wall around it, making it stand out in its environment.

LOOK AT ME WHEN I'M TALKING TO YOU.

Floor 15 – Start Time: 12:32 AM

Commentary: ON

This is probably the first really hard level, because it is the first to incorporate all of the game mechanics introduced up until this point, while also introducing the Double Fling maneuver. Flinging, fizzler barriers, energy pellets, moving platforms and water floors all make an appearance here. I died at least twice on this level (with one additional death due to some weird glitch where I stopped moving while the platform kept going–I don’t even know). The game has reached the point where the designers stopped including visual hints and cues for every action you can take, and instead have begun to encourage the player to start carving their own paths. Immediately after introducing the double fling, they place you in a room where you must double fling to escape, without including the visual cues for double flinging. As they said in the commentary, this is very important for the end game.

The most frustrating part of this level is having to place a portal while falling, especially since the visual cue they give you (the checkerboard ‘landing pad’) is placed slightly off from where you actually land. If you place your second portal on the checkerboard section, then you will come out from the ceiling, hit the ground, and skid into the second portal on forward momentum; when you come out again, you will fall considerably short of your target, and you get to start over from the stairwell. The key is in the fact that you have to start placing portals where you want them to go, and just because the game suggests one solution doesn’t mean you can’t try to find your own.

Floor 16 – Start Time 12:54 AM

Commentary: ON

"The Enrichment Center once again reminds you that android hell is a real place where you will be sent at the first sign of defiance."

Ah, the turret level. The new mechanic introduced on this level is something that is actively trying to kill you, unlike the energy pellets and the water floors from before, where death was due to your own negligence.  The commentary describes how they wanted a turret different from the turrets in Half-Life (which are basically just machine guns on tripods). Once they had the design for the turret mapped out, they realized it was a sort of cute robot, and in the words of the commentary, ‘a robot isn’t truly cute unless it talks’, so the Portal Turrets have adorable voices and innocent, passive-aggressive lines.

This VG Cats comic pretty much sums it up.

The floor itself is very straightforward; no flinging, no energy pellets, no water floors, just a lot of turrets shooting at you. This level introduces the idea that you can use cubes as shields, though, which is about to become very, very useful. The floor tends to be rather dark, making the red laser eyes of the turrets stand out.

This is also the first floor where we see signs of the Rat Man, one of the previous test subjects. This is the first time we are able to get behind the walls of the Enrichment Center, and lets us see into the belly of the beast, as it were. The player gets to see rusty machinery and dirty, grimy walls, as well as the disturbing messages left by previous occupants.

The Rat Man Den

However, from here on out, the astute player will find that the Rat Man has left clues to future puzzles, which also become very handy.

The player can also find another radio in a room full of cubes. There’s also a coffee cup and a wrench. On one playthrough, I managed to break the coffee cup. Though it does lead one to wonder, what on earth was someone doing with a coffee cup and a radio in floor 16?

Floor 17 – Start Time: 2:04 AM

Commentary: ON

Okay, it took me a really long time to find that screenshot of Data coming out of the pool of plasma coolant, so that’s why it took me an hour to move from level 16 to level 17.

This is probably the most famous level of the game, the level featuring the Companion Cube. It is surprising, how popular the Cube became, considering it only makes one appearance throughout the entire game. I think what really made the Cube so popular, though, is how important the game made it. The only thing GLaDOS talks about through the entire floor is your Cube, and reiterating the fact that it cannot speak, and thus, will never threaten to stab you. It’s somewhat akin to the urban legend about SS officers being given a puppy to raise, then having to kill it, or like having to murder Aerith yourself.

lol spoiler alert

Floor17 really cements how amoral GLaDOS is. If you make it to the end, but just sit instead of actually going through with destroying your cube, she will continue to instruct you to destroy it, and no matter how long you wait, she congratulates you on destroying your cube in ‘record time’.

Floor 18 – Start Time: 2:45 AM

Commentary: ON

I keep getting distracted. I’ll probably leave off here for tonight, and write up my run of floor 19 and onward tomorrow morning.

Floor 18 is one large flinging puzzle, with a nice break in the action provided by a room full of turrets. The only room where I ever die on Floor 18 is in the turret room, and this playthrough is no exception. I died twice, and neither time was due to turrets. I think the primary purpose of this room is to build up anticipation for how difficult Floor 19 must be.

The majority of Floor 18 is made up of black walls with water floors, which makes the walls and floors where portals will stick stand out strongly. There is also a Rat Man Den in this floor, containing a radio (though it is turned off), and a commentary bubble from Ellen McLane, the voice of GLaDOS, talking about how the voice direction she received for the game was wonderful, and lamenting how rare it is that she gets a line that is supposed to be ‘explosively vehement’.

Level 19 – Start Time: 4:16 PM

Commentary ON

Got all the way to the turret room before I got super distracted by my weekly webshow at 4:30.

Level 19, Turret Room – Start Time: 5:56 PM

Commentary ON

Finished up at about 6:15, so I get to jabber now.

It’s been a long time since my first playthrough of this game, but I know I struggled for at least twice this long when I first played Level 19 and beyond. I also had lots of trouble with the final battle with GLaDOS; I kept placing the turret redirect portals on the wall at GLaDOS’s level. It wasn’t until watching a new player attempt it that I discovered an easier way involving placing the portal on the floor beneath GLaDOS.

The player gets the chance to go inside the observation rooms, as well as the chance to replay floor 11, which becomes much simpler when the player has both portals available to them. As the commentary remarked, it was a way of showing the player ‘running amok’ through the facility.

As I’m playing the Orange Box version, I didn’t get to see the updated ending that our associates playing on Steam got to see:

 

But that’s okay, because I have the internet. As such, I also got to look up the third-person version of the new ending–the one where Chell is shown as a gray box instead of a person. I also got drawn into a YouTube comment fight with idiots who were saying that if there was a robot there to escort you after you assumed the party escort submission position, then that means that GLaDOS really wasn’t trying to kill you, and there really was a party, and that Chell is a monster for killing GLaDOS (who was, y’know, flooding the Enrichment Center with a deadly neurotoxin for funsies). In the end, they were just trying to justify liking GLaDOS, despite the fact that she’s evil. I don’t have this problem. I like evil characters for being evil, not because I invented some twisted solution to my moral dilemma by making the bad guy good and the good guy bad (even though to most villains, that is how the story actually plays out–the villain is the hero of his own story, after all).

Whew, hopefully this will be enough ‘research’ to build my commentary on.

Excelsior.

Violence in Games and it’s (lack of) effect on players

I’m kicking myself for not saving the article, but every time I think of it, it makes me want to drop in out of the ceiling an Air Assassinate someone want to calmly sit down with uptight anti-video game nuts like Jack Thompson and put 6 rounds perfectly through his head with my full Dead Eye meter explain to him that video games don’t actually promote violence in children but the business-end of my Masamune does.

The popular argument is that viewing violent acts (like in movies or on TV) or worse, participating in “mass-murder simulators” (code-speak for video games, which suddenly makes Sesame Street: Cookie’s Counting Carnival sound like the next installment of Grand Theft Auto) leads to people emulating that behavior in real life.

Hide yo kids, hide yo wife

These crusaders take up tragedies like Columbine and tout that if it weren’t for video games, it never would have happened. For years, the rumor has remained in circulation that the shooters at Columbine had created a replica of the school in Doom, and used it for ‘practice’. This is, of course, not true at all, but people always try to search for meaning in meaningless acts. Nobody wants to think that a kid who goes on a shooting rampage at school had less than a happy life, because nobody wants to think that kids lead unhappy lives. They want to find something to blame, something that could take what appeared to everyone to be a normal child, and turn them into a monster.

Many years ago, that prime target was fiction novels. After that, it was movies. After that, it was television. Now, it’s video games.

People fear the things that they don’t understand, and in many parents’ cases, the things they don’t understand are ‘everything the kids are doing these days’. My own grandmother barely understands Facebook and longs for the days of typewriters, so any technology from about 1989 onward scares her. Every time I take out my cell around her, she asks ‘What’s that now?!’ as if I’m going to stick it in her face and ask what the combination to the bank vault is. Every text I send, she wants to know what I’m saying, because if she doesn’t know, I could be texting the nuclear launch codes to my Jihadist accomplices right under her nose. And when I tell her that I only texted ‘Sure’ or ‘XDDDD’, she rolls her eyes and asks why I would bother texting that. I love my grandma, though, so I don’t have the heart to quip back ‘Why would you bother asking?’

When I visited her for Christmas, I dreaded her looking in my bag of prezzies from the mall, since I’d just picked up my copy of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. Granted, the cover is fairly innocuous, and though my grandma is ignorant to the ways of modern gaming, she’s not a moron; she knows what an assassin is.

The least violent image from Assassin's Creed ever. And it's only not violent as long as you don't know that Ezio is about to kill every other person on that cover

My grandma is exactly the sort of person who would think that video games cause violence, if anyone ever told her that they did. She believes those e-mail forwards about how you have to send it to 5 people or else you won’t get your check from Bill Gates and AOL for helping them gauge e-mail traffic. She thinks this because she doesn’t understand them. She is the sort of person who would accept violence in movies or on TV because ‘that’s passive entertainment’, whereas in video games, the player is ‘actively participating’.

And now we come to the point where I’m kicking myself. Countless articles have been written about violent video games, and one in particular that stands out in my memory regards a man who said that after playing Grand Theft Auto for just one hour, he found that his response to seeing a cop car had become ‘run away’. His analysis of his experience of ‘Play GTA -> get in car -> see cop -> want to run’ was that he was being subliminally programmed by the game to act the way he had played the game (which in his case, probably involved a lot of driving on the right side of the road, waiting at traffic lights, and wondering which button controlled the turn signals).

I thought his statement was ridiculous for a number of reasons. I’d argue that after smoking marijuana, robbing a bank, picking up a hooker or driving over the speed limit without a license for just one hour, your response to seeing a cop would become ‘run away’, too. I mean, even after going through a whole life’s worth of perfectly legal activity, I still find myself wary of cops, even though I’ve got numerous friends and acquaintances on the force. It’s like how people who are afraid of clowns aren’t afraid of clowns who aren’t in make-up.

 

Quick! Which one is more terrifying?

However, I found myself having a similar experience just this year. I’d been playing Red Dead Redemption for quite some time (read: it’s what I’d been doing for the last three and a half weeks prior), and part of what you have to do in that game is shoot basically anything that surprised you by moving. I realized I was hungry, so I set the controller down and headed for the pub. Not ten steps out from Jordan, I noticed something move out of the corner of my eye. I went through the exact same set of responses I had when playing the game, the same sudden jolt of adrenaline. I then realized it was just a squirrel.

The next time I saw a squirrel on campus, however (probably within the same trip on the way to the pub), I didn’t have that reaction. I just continued onward like I normally do, and have not had that reaction to a squirrel since. However, it allowed me to understand what Forced Anonymous Article Writer meant when he said he felt like he was being influenced.

But I still think he was being stupid, even after having an almost identical experience. For one, there is a vast difference between playing a digital game and doing anything in real life that isn’t pressing a button over and over again. My reaction to the squirrel did not involve me going through the motions of reaching for my Winchester repeater for massive overkill. As someone who has actually fired a gun, I can assure you that ‘press L2 to target’ is nothing like ‘pick up the gun, look down the barrel and pull the trigger’. For one, the real world has no auto-target. Two, a real gun the size of John Marston’s Winchester would be heavy, loud as all hell and would kick like a mule, which are three descriptors I have never applied to an experience with a game controller. Three, my initial reaction was not actually ‘Kill whatever that thing is!’, it was ‘Quick! Something’s there!’. I think FAAW misjudged his reaction to seeing the cops after playing GTA. I don’t think his reaction was actually ‘Put your foot on the skinny pedal on the right and press that baby to the floor!’, it was probably the same ‘Quick! Something’s there!’ reaction I had.

Video games do condition you, in a sense, but not to carry out violence. They condition you to see things you wouldn’t normally be looking for. My reaction to notice small movements was fine-tuned by the time I was mauled by the third or fourth mountain lion in Red Dead Redemption, and I carried that sense over to the real world. His reaction to notice black-and-white cars with disco lights on top was probably fine-tuned after the very first time he obediently pulled over for the cops in GTA and was promptly dragged from the car and beaten Rodney King-style. Video games punish you for not seeing things, and once you leave the game world, you will continue to see the things the game asked you to see.

 

Although in the grand scheme of things, you probably won't see a Zombie Bear very often in real life.

For example, if I take someone into a classroom with the math problem 1+1=? on the board, and they answer 2, and I smack them and say the answer is 1+1=10, then proceed to teach them about binary, then they’ve learned a new system. I could keep them at binary problems for hours, until they’ve gotten as used to performing calculations in binary as they are used to using decimal. Then, once I let them out of the classroom, and they see a problem like ’10+10=?’, their initial reaction may be to say ’10+10=100′, because I’ve been asking them to see binary equations for so long. Once their brain catches up to itself, however, they’ll realize that in the real world, we use decimal, and they will answer ’20’, just as they should. However, if they answer ‘100’ and are told they’re wrong, I can almost guarantee that their reaction will not be to attempt a Hadouken.

I can understand why people might think that playing violent games causes violent behavior. After all, if someone is trained in using martial arts to defend themselves, they’re going to use martial arts the next time someone comes at them with a knife. Or if they have anger management problems, and their therapist suggests ‘venting’ (i.e. hitting a pillow, screaming, etc.), then the next time they actually ARE angry, they are much more likely to carry out the action associated with their venting (i.e. hitting something that is less of a pillow and more of a face). However, the actions associated with carrying out violence in a video game are completely different from the actions associated with carrying out violence in real life. Pressing a button is in no way similar to performing a kick, and reloading a gun is in no way similar to ‘shoot offscreen to reload’. In that sense, playing a video game is no more ‘actively participating’ in a violent act than a director working on filming an action sequence is ‘actively participating’.

 

For further viewing pleasure, I recommend the Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! episode on video game violence. However, it’s only fair to warn that Penn swears just as much as Teller doesn’t talk. So watching this video with the volume on full blast over Spring Break while you’re visiting Great Grandma’s house probably isn’t the best idea. My commentary on this video would be a whole other post’s worth of jibber jabber, so I’ll leave my final comment at ‘I agree’.

Oh man, that makes my thumbs hurt just looking at it…

And I mean that in the best way possible.

I love my PSP, I really do. And it looks well-loved, too; there’s all sorts of scratches on the screen and worn paint. I bought it to keep myself entertained on the road trip to my first year of college; I’d already been buying games for it, so it was in no way an impulse purchase predicated solely on the fact that I could get it bundled with Dissidia Final Fantasy.

Thing is, I also love having physical copies of my games. Though they might get scratched up, they’re easily replaceable. I can loan a game to a friend for a weekend if they want to see how much they like it before they commit to buying. I also really like the aspect of going to the store and browsing games, chatting with other people in the store, and shooting the breeze with the sales clerks while they deliberately make the checkout process go slow because omg there’s a girl in here and she’s talking to me about video games. I had that experience buying my PSP, and all of my PSP games so far. I had that with almost all of my games. I didn’t have that experience with Flow, and I didn’t have that experience when I downloaded all 3 PSX Final Fantasy titles. I instead had the joy of waiting for three very large game files to download over AC internet. All aboard the failboat, destination failure.

But yet again, I really enjoy the specs the PSP2 is coming out of the gate with. I’m especially pleased with the second joystick, and the fact that it’s not just the same hardware repackaged as a slide-out piece of junk with a smaller screen than its predecessor and with no way of transferring ownership of your previously purchased UMDs to your new device. (The PSPGo, obviously, wasn’t just a trip on the failboat, it was a trip on the Fail Shuttle to the International Space Fail to perform routine fail inspections and to deliver the next year’s supply of fail for the failnauts living there.)

I think the strong points of the PSP2 outweigh my disappointment that my collection of UMDs are ultimately as outdated and obsolete as they looked the first time I laid eyes on them. My biggest hope is that there will be some way of officially transferring ownership of UMD titles to DLC versions, or those slick little memory cards that they showed in the announcement panel. There was no system in place for transferring your game library from the PSP to the Go, which was yet another notch in its fail case. I can’t imagine what system would be feasible, though…only that I want a system, and I want it yesterday. After all, there are several PSP titles coming out this year that I plan on buying, and I don’t like buying the same game twice at full price.