Friday, March 28, 2008

I Can Prove It With Google Results

I'm starting to see the following expression used more and more in various publications these days, particularly by journalists:

Searching for X on Google produces Y results in Z seconds.

If you haven't seen this before, let me give you a couple of examples:


Online virtual worlds are wildly popular, attracting millions of people every day, and a recent Google search for MMORPG yielded approximately 32 million results.

From the Toronto Star:

Partner new Blue Jay shortstop David Eckstein and the word "scrappy" and a Google search will advise you of some 5,300 possibilities. In just 0.38 seconds, too.

From Jose Canseco's new steroid book, Vindicated:

Put in 'Alex Rodriguez' and 'infidelity' and you'll get like fifty thousand hits.

The gist I guess is that there is supposed to be some correlation between X and Y.

People, please stop this madness. Maybe you think it's a cute gimmick and a nice alternative to the old stock "Meriam Webster defines 'infedility' as..." type of intro, but all it does is expose you as a complete idiot. For the love of god, there is no correlation between X and Y. It's a firk ding blasting search engine, it goes and gets as many results as it can.

Allow me to demonstrate via the following examples of my own.

If there was any question that more dinosaurs are wearing pink hats now than ever before, just pair "pink hat" with "dinosaur" in a Google search. You'll get 635,000 results in 0.17 seconds.

I always thought bananas were funny looking, like they're from another planet. You might be surprised to hear that a Google search of "aliens plant bananas" yields 526,000 results in 0.29 seconds. Bananas may be the proof we need that we are not alone.

Recycling for the planet is one thing, but what about recycling what our own body produces for ourselves? A quick Google search of "lose weight by drinking raw sewage" gives you 153,000 results in just 0.32 seconds. It's obviously an idea worth considering.

To writers everywhere, I am begging you this last time to please stop this insanity, or so help me I will Google "[your name here] is completely brain dead", thus proving forever that somebody needs to pull your plug.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Great Game Throwdown: RPGs

Both the LastBestAngryMan and The Philosophy of Time Travel are way ahead of me here, but this marks the final installment of the Great Game Throwdown.

Being nerds of the highest quality, we have saved the best, Role Playing Games, for last.

5 - Planescape: Torment (PC)

One thing you'll find in common with most of these choices is the quality of the stories told.

What's kind of sad is that not many heard this particular story.

Made by the RPG kings at BioWare (now a part of the EA conglomeration), Planescape: Torment was designed on the same Infinity Engine on which the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale games were built. The world of Planescape, however, is a far cry from the prototypical stuff one associates with the Dungeons and Dragons franchise, and I think this probably hurt sales of the game.

Correction: Astute reader Dhruin correctly points out that the game was actually made by Black Isle Studios using BioWare's Infinity engine, not by BioWare itself.

The Nameless One, pictured here with his sidekick, Morte the floating skull

But that's too bad, because the story is nothing short of awesome. One of the major themes deals with "consensus reality", the notion that if enough people believe in something it becomes real, and that's really what the Planescape universe is all about. The game capitalizes on this in very clever ways, and in the end it is one of the more tragic plots I've played in a computer game.

A terrific game, and one I wish I could play again.

4 - Final Fantasy VII (PS1)

One of the things I've kind of been struggling with when doing these lists is what exactly the notion of "great" is.

For the most part I've been posting games that are great to me personally. Games, like music, are usually a matter of personal tastes.

But there are certain bands that whether we like or not, we can't deny they had a major impact on music in general. The same holds true for certain games.

Final Fantasy VII isn't my favorite game in the Final Fantasy series (that would be FF IV, which was actually FF II here in the US. I know, it's confusing), but it has to be considered one of the most important games in the history of RPGs, if not video games period.

The game had such enormous impact and such a complex storyline, unprecedented at that time, that it introduced an entire generation of gamers to the possibilities of the video game medium. When critics attack video games as nothing but murder simulators, it is games like FF7 that gamers present as their defense.

The iconic moment of Aerith's death in the game is one that anyone who has ever played the game remembers perfectly, and is often cited as the moment people realized that video games could be so much more.

Aerith, a gaming icon

Final Fantasy VII proved that this is a medium that can move people, and a medium that can move people can surely be considered art.

Yes, art. And I don't think the importance of FF7 in this argument can be understated. It's a game about which people have written books and graduate theses. Countless articles have been written about the game's impact. People still write fan fiction and chat about the game.

Is it a great game? I don't know. It's not really a sandbox like some of these other games, and you're kind of forced step by step through the story. But the story was unprecedented, the emotional impact real, and the significance, I believe, yet to be paralleled.

3 - Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (PC)

The Elder Scroll games have built their reputation on being insanely open-ended. On the one hand that usually means the main story isn't particularly tight (at least I found that to be the case with Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall). But it really doesn't matter because the game is more like a huge sandbox anyway.

Portals to other dimensions are great space savers for your closet or garage

I know LBAM picked Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind on his list but I've got to go with Oblivion for the following reasons:

- Story felt tighter and more interesting.
- The side stories/quests were better quality for me.
- Game was significantly less buggy.

They're all great games and you can easily get 100+ hours of gameplay out of any of them.

2 - Chrono Trigger (SNES)

The best game ever to come out on the Super Nintendo, hands down.

Chrono Trigger has a terrific plot line that actually uses time travel and makes it not suck. Wonderful, clever characters. For my money the best soundtrack a video game has ever had. Multiple endings. A mode where you could start the game from the beginning with all of your existing experience and gain access to even MORE endings by beating the game at different times in the plot line.

I've always wished they'd release an updated version of this game for the Nintendo DS or something. I'd buy it the second it became available.

You know it's the final battle because there are, like, LASERS in the background

A sort of sequel, Chrono Cross, was released on the PlayStation and was a decent game in its own right, but it didn't capture the pure magic of the original. If you can find this anywhere, even on an emulator, I really encourage you to do so.

1 - Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (PC)

Here's the thing about BG2: everything I said about every other game in the list applies here, and then some.

Did BG2 have the incredible cultural impact that FF7 had? I highly doubt it. But for me it's the coming together of dozens and dozens of other great design ideas into one flawlessly executed package.

Great story? Check. Great characters? Check. Great soundtrack? Check. Open ended enough to feel like you're not boxed in? Check. It goes on and on.

The hand painted backgrounds still look good

Even the expansion pack, Throne of Bhaal, which ends the story once and for all, is incredibly satisfying. But BG2 is capable of standing alone. This is BioWare at the height of their powers.

Worst Ever - Neverwinter Nights

Maybe it's harsh. Maybe the game wasn't really that bad. Maybe it's simply crazy for me to criticize the same company that produced the Baldur's Gate games.

But I remember sitting at GenCon in Milwaukee the year this game first got demoed. I remember being blown away by how easy it looked to create your own adventures, control your own story, etc. BioWare was selling this as the game that was going to be able to bring the tabletop experience to computer gaming. I left absolutely convinced that Neverwinter Nights was going to make it possible for my friends to play D&D together forever, wherever we might end up.

I realize now that translating the tabletop experience to a video game is just an impossible goal. The developers probably knew it too. It was probably just a marketing ploy. But none of that makes the end result any easier to swallow.

It's not just that the multiplayer aspect of this game fell way below the hype and expectations. The single player game is actually several steps backward from games like Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale, games the same company made.

The storyline is cookie cutter. The combat is elementary. You can only control one character plus one sidekick. The initial release of the game had a horrendous bug that crashed your game after the 4th chapter. The dialogue trees would repeat themselves. None of the attention to detail and careful QA was in Neverwinter Nights that we say in every other game made the company up to this point.

BioWare would bounce back with Knights of the Old Republic, which barely didn't make this list (it would come in at 6th). They made another classic with Jade Empire after that. Now that the company has been purchased by EA, I'm skeptical that they'll ever release a really excellent game again, but I'm willing to wait and see.

But Neverwinter Nights was truly a low, low point for me. Not only did it fail to deliver on what was promised, it failed to deliver on anything really fun.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

RIP Gary Gygax

The "Father of Dungeons and Dragons", and really tabletop gaming period, died today.

I don't think Gary Gygax's influence in gaming today can be overstated. Along with Dave Arneson, the man basically helped invent an entirely new way to play games, and in the process, an entirely new way to make friends.

It may seem nerdy and cheesy to those who have never sat down with others to sling dice, enjoy good company, and hopefully tell a good story together, but his impact on my life is, as one friend said when he heard the news, "greater than any of us might care to admit."

But it was huge. When I got married a month ago, the guys that were standing up there with me were guys I had played Dungeons & Dragons with.

Even today, modern computer RPGs use systems that Gary Gygax helped pioneer. They use design paradigms that we take completely for granted now, but somebody had to invent them. Mr. Gygax was that guy.

Part of getting old is seeing your heroes pass away. Here's hoping the hobby he created lives on for a long, long time.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Great Game Throw Down: First Person Shooters

There is no genre in gaming that kicks the crap out of me like First Person Shooters. For reasons unknown, I am just not very good at these. That's kind of a funny thing, because I've played quite a few of them, and college was full of FPS sessions on the campus network. There was a game or two where I became competent, but at some point these games got too fast and confusing for me to handle, and I now spend most of my time getting fragged.

Seriously, I've gotten so bad at these games that there are some of them I can't beat even with cheat codes.

I'd also argue that this is a genre that has stagnated worse in the last few years than any genre we've covered. The Philosophy of Time Travel does a good job in his list of going through some of the landmark games innovation-wise, but you'll note that most of the "innovation" is really just graphic improvements and quality storylines. Those are nice things, but they're not innovative. With First Person Shooters however, I'm not sure how you really take them anywhere new because I think this is also a genre where people have very definite expectations now about how the game is supposed to work. Improvements to physics engines (I can blow more stuff up) and graphics (it looks really pretty when I blow stuff up) are as close as it gets.

But I'm also far from an expert in this category, so I could have it completely wrong. Here's a look at my list anyway, a list that will probably appeal to people who are also terrible at these types of games.

5 - Heretic

This game was built using the Doom engine (we'll get to Doom in a second) but was set in a medieval setting. The engine was modified to add the ability to look up and down. I liked it because you got to shoot things with a magic staff, although I constantly ran out of ammo. Fortunately that's where cheats come in.

The game was successful enough to spawn some sequels, but I really can't figure out what the order is supposed to be. The incredibly hard Hexen, for example, was based in this world (Hexen, incidentally, was strongly considered for the "Worst Ever" award due the crippling difficulty of its puzzles/key chases. This is the kind of thing that hard core FPS players probably consider one of its strengths).

4 - Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast

This was a really cool game but another one that was tough to beat without cheats (for me). But any FPS game where you get to swing around a light saber has to be considered reasonably awesome, and this one was better than the first in every conceivable way. This was developed by the same company that made Heretic, incidentally, and a lot of critics still consider it one of the best Star Wars games ever published. I might agree with that if I was any good with this genre, but the ability to deflect blaster shots with the light saber was pretty great.

3 - Duke Nukem 3D

Probably not the greatest game, but it was one that I was actually good at for a short period of time. This was the shooter of choice my first year of college. I don't think it really introduced too many innovations (except possibly the jetpack, but I don't know for sure it was the first to do that), but it was a well executed game that was certainly fun.

The sequel to this game, Duke Nukem Forever, is something of a running gag on the internet. The game was officially announced in 1997 and has been in development ever since. It received the Vaporware Lifetime Achievement Award from Wired in 2003.

Ever hopeful, 3D Realms put up a new teaser in December of 2007. They just don't ever stop making this game.

You can read all about its hilarious, tortured history here.

2 - Doom

This game provided me with two very important developmental moments in my life.

1) The first time I killed something in a game with a chainsaw.
2) The first time I played real live mutliplayer against somebody.

The days of Doom were the days of 2400 baud modems and the like. All the modems were so different that it took heroic efforts to get them to talk to each other for games like this. My buddy and I spent an entire day back and forth on the phone trying to adjust the settings on our modems, attempt to connect, reconnect, etc. The problem also was that neither one of us had a dedicated phone line for the modem... the notion was considered real extravagance back then. So we'd try to connect, then have to hang up and call each other back, often getting busy signals as one guy was trying to call the other guy or still attempting to connect.

It was worth every second though, because I'll never forget how excited I was when we could actually see each other walking around on the screen. For awhile we didn't even shoot, we just ran around in circles and chatted, almost unable to believe it actually worked.

Thinking about Doom reminds me just how far technology has come. It's pretty awesome.

1 - Quake

I can certainly appreciate this game's significance. It's basically a standard now against which other FPS games are compared. Even the sequels are measured against this game (some favorably, some not so favorably).

I have to wonder if Quake got it so completely right that there was really nowhere else to go? I mean the physics are basically perfect in terms of deathmatch. The weapons are all awesome and basically get copied in every game since. The modding community has made it so you can play it so many different ways. I mean, what's left really to do?

Worst Ever - Extreme Paintbrawl

The most hilarious video game reviews I have ever read to this day remain written about this game.

In fact, they were so funny it made me actually want to get the game just to witness the spectacle. So I ended up picking it up one day out of a bargain rack.

This isn't just the worst shooter ever, it's absolutely the worst game I've ever played in my entire life.

The AI is coded up like this:

1) Run straight
2) Goto 1

I'm not kidding. This means that your teammates just end up getting stuck in corners.

But that's if the AI is actually working. Otherwise they just end up sort of violently twitching in place until they get shot.

"Practice" mode consists of dropping you into one of the game's five fields and leaving you there - no targets, no practice opponents, nothing. You can basically practice running around in circles.

Paintballs often get stuck in midair.

Keep in mind during all this that since this is paintball, you're out as soon as you get shot.

Ironically, the game actually uses the Duke Nukem 3D engine.

Read TPOTT's list here.

Read LBAM's "list" here.