Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What Will I Create?

I've been thinking lately about what kind of  material I've been writing, and although I know I haven't been writing a lot lately, it's been all factual reporting. I know there's nothing wrong with journalism and opinion writing-I love it- but the truth is, it's easy. It's a lot easier to simply write your opinions as they develop, and to report on what's already there.

It's too easy. It's been bothering me lately, I need to truly create something new. I had a lot of fun making my short story, Heavy Rain, but besides that, I haven't really dabbled in creative writing for a long time. But writing that story showed me what I'm capable of. It pushed me to try something new, and it let me see that I have enough imagination to create a story with some significance. I really want to do more, but at this point, I don't know what I want. All I know is that I want to create.

Short stories are fun, often more powerful than novels, and are an easier way to express quick thoughts. I could write an episodic novel, releasing chapters one-by-one. I could even write a full-length novel and try to get it published, but I doubt I'm ready for that yet. Then there is always the question of what kind of world to create. I guess that's really the biggest question for me, and one of more awesome things about writing. There's really nothing like creating your own world, your own characters, and your own storyline, and it's a scary thought to think that you are the one who has to figure out how much to borrow from real life and how much is going to be pure fantasy.

I could write a story about real-life, or it could any kind of science-fiction, or anything in between. I  have to choose what will happen, how it will happen, where, and who wil be involved. It's a daunting task, but it's great fun. The question is whether I have the imagination to come up with a story. I've never thought of myself as someone who has a whole lot of imagination, but once I get past the initial writer's block, I find I can come up with a lot more than I would have expected of myself. But writing like this is easy, and it's too easy to get stuck in a rut of what's familiar, so I need to launch myself into a project that requires more than simply reporting on games or typing down thoughts.

I'm going to draw inspiration from somewhere; I don't believe anyone really creates something from scratch without having read anything before, and even if the material seems very original, it's been inspired by someone or something, however subliminal that influence maybe. Who would my influences be? I'd have to say C.S. Lewis and Chris Walley, author of The Lamb Among The Stars series have both had a profound influence on me, not visible in my writing yet, but I'm really thinking of creating something along the lines of The Lamb Among The Stars trilogy, probably my favorite books. It's a perfect blend of fantasy and science-fiction, with the suspense of a horror novel. I could go on with the interesting utopian setting, but I'd be gettting distracted.

Just as school starts, though, with University-level english and the school newspaper, I wonder if I'll have the time to write much. I haven't really taken advantage of the summer, I've wasted a lot of my time watching 24 and gaming, and I could have written on them, and I didn't. I need to get myself back on track for the school year, and I hope by being more organized I can also spend more free time writing and less gaming.

There's also a correspondance-based creative writing course at school, something I'm considering to replace my spare next semester. But having a free period could be good for studying or writing a book, even simply blogging. I'm thinking going for the course could be benificial in the long run if I plan on writing, so I'm leaning toward that.

At this point another thing I need is a base of readers. I know there's a few people that read my blog, but I'd appreciate it if you guys showed some signs of life! Blogging is, I'm afraid, becoming less popular. People seem to enjoy watching a video review or movie instead of reading a written work. Or, more likely, they just want to be entertained. I'm no less guilty of that myself, I just wish people would read what I'm blogging.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I've been staying active on the GameSpot PSP forums lately, and like many PSP forums, GameSpot tries to be ethical by prohibiting discussion of Custom Firmwares, backup loaders, and homebrew. Some agree, saying that these things are illegal and unethical, but the truth is, none of the things for which GameSpot disallows discussion are inherently illegal in and of themselves.

Custom Firmware simply allows the execution of unsigned code. Basically, this means code that Sony wouldn't want you to run. It might sound illegal, but Sony is not the law, and what they don't want you to do doesn't necessarily match up to what's illegal.

Now, unsigned code is anything that Sony either didn't make, or what they didn't approve of. Homebrew software is, simply put, unsigned homemade code. So homebrew allows you to do things with your PSP that you couldn't previously do. For example, I've turned my PSP into a universal remote, used it as a gamepad, controlled  PC(remote-play style), and I've even used it with a palm wireless keyboard. Another popular and controversial activity is to play legacy games using emulation. This can also be a legal and legitimate thing to do, if it is done right.

Probably more controversial than emulators or homebrew, backup loaders are what lets pirates download and play games illegally. It's also what lets legitimate game owners play all their games on their memory stick, while their UMD is safely tucked away somewhere. It's completely legal to have one copy of your game as a backup, which on paper, means to ensure your original copy isn't lost or damaged, but in the real world this offers more portability and faster load times. None of this is illegal, as long as you have only one extra copy besides your original, and as long as you don't give copies to others, you can enjoy the benefits without a guilty conscience.

I know that custom firmware is a touchy subject for many gamers, and simply hearing the word 'hacking' brings thoughts of online cheaters and pirates who want free games. But having a 'hacked' console of any type doesn't necessarily make you a bad person(although it would make piracy and illegal activities much easier), it only lets you do things you previously couldn't. Custom firmware unleashes the full power of your PSP, and while some might wrongfully say that's illegal, I think the end-user has the right to do what he wants with his console, and it's only fair, since Sony decides to restrict homebrew software and limit the PSP's potential.

But keep in mind, custom firmware is powerful. Perhaps too powerful. While this power can be used for good, it is too often used for what's illegal and unfair. I'm not condoning piracy, I'm only endorsing custom firmware, and trying to get across the point that piracy isn't the fault of the people behind the custom firmwares, it's the fault of pirates that take advantage of the system used for backup loaders.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Indie Gaming: Game or Art?

Besides being caught up in Just Cause 2 for the past month, I've lately been getting more and more of a different side of the gaming industry: Indie games. We all know about Assassin's Creed 2 and Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, but what about the real hidden gems under the radar?

The term 'indie' is used simply to describe independence, and in the case of game development, this means independence from a game publisher. It's (most often) a Game developer coming out and creating a game without restrictions or gimmicks based on profits. It's not something that's advertised very much, if at all, another reason why indie games are so unknown. Choosing to develop without a publisher means less financial support, a smaller development team, and of course, publishing is no longer free. But these aren't necessarily problems, and in fact, they all help the initiative to break away from the norm and create something completely new.

You may have heard of a few well-known indie games: World of Goo is one of WiiWare's best-selling titles, Braid was one of Xbox Live Arcade's best, and games like flOw or flOwer have made quite an impression on the Playstation Store. The reason why indie games don't often receive attention is that they are rarely sold outside of digital distribution stores, like the Playstation Network or Xbox Live Indie Games; The games' meagre budgets won't allow for expensive advertising or mass-produced CDs or DVDs of the game, so the developers rely on word of mouth and media attention for their game to gain popularity.

You're probably thinking, "If indie games have no budget and virtually no development team, aren't they bad games?" Not at all. In fact, having limited resources lets the devs create something even more along the lines of art than game. Of course, it's not really art, but indie games aren't afraid to test out never-before-seen gameplay elements and try out new art styles, if you've ever played an indie game, you know that there's nothing else quite like it.

Independent game developers rarely borrow from other games' success, but major developers generally like to play it safe with tried-and-true gameplay elements, they don't usually fund anything that breaks the mould. This is normal, since a system consumers know and trust will almost always make more money than anything unfamiliar. Risk is something big publishers like Electronic Arts or Nintendo will take cautiously over many years. Small developers without ties to a publisher can take all the risks they want, and with a smaller group of people, risks aren't so dangerous. If all members of the team are aware of the vision behind a game, innovations can work wonderfully. Money, or the absence thereof, is an obstacle, but it also means the team is held together by more than greed, and the members are usually working to develop a great game, not just to collect another paycheck.

With only a little money, how do you manifest beautiful 3D graphics and record and pay for professional voice actors? Somehow, indie developers find their way around expensive obstacles like these, and it works out nicely in the end. Indie games express themselves more artistically than traditional games, characters communicate through body language and thought cartoons in Amanita Design's Machinarium, and the story is told in panels of witty writing by "The Sign Painter" in 2D Boy's World of Goo. The graphics, though not always, are usually done in a cartoonish, uniquely artistic style. Machinarium is done with completely hand-drawn backgrounds and characters, World of Goo follows a cartoon physics-based graphical style, and flOw is a simple two-dimensional plane of water, with soothing blue and greens. Every indie game has a unique visual style of it's own, usually without using a flashy 3D engine(flOwer is an exception), yet still, indie games' graphics bring back beauty through simplicity.

Sound design is something almost all indie games manage to perfectly execute, without orchestras or voice acting. It's an excellent soundtrack, usually made by just one individual, that conveys the game's atmosphere flawlessly in so many indie games. World of Goo has a moody score that fits with the game's slightly dark story, and Machinarium has an industrial ambient soundtrack. Some games go the extra mile and incorporate the gameplay into the soundtrack, so the music changes depending on the situation. flOw is a good example of a game with a dynamic score, as you go deeper into the ocean, the music changes, and different notes resonate when you eat an enemy or swim deeper into the water.

But what really matters in the end is the fun factor, and the gameplay will not let you down in an indie game. Again, it all starts with simplicity. Many indie games take a simple idea and turn it into something brilliant. World of Goo, for example, takes the idea of stretching balls of goo into towers and bridges, but the game's unique and challenging situations turn the simple concept on it's head. Flow, you could say, is just another Feeding Frenzy, but adding some soft, dark colours and a calm, beautiful ambient soundtrack makes the microorganism food chain feel as relaxing as dream. Braid adds a special time-control mechanic to basic 2D platforming. Other games are slightly more derivative in their gameplay, Machinarium is a simple point-and-click puzzle/adventure game, but finding the right items in a post-apocalyptic hand-drawn world with some of the cutest robots ever seen in a video game makes for a nice twist of originality.
Indie games are also gaining popularity, with the Annual Independent Games Festival held last March, and major game critics are starting to pay attention to indie games more as of late. So what are you waiting for? Indie games are innovative, charming, and inexpensive. World of Goo and Machinarium are only Twenty dollars, flOwer and Braid are only around ten, and flOw is but eight dollars. All the games mentioned in this article might not be for everyone, but if you enjoy something original, thought-provoking, or relaxing, you should definitely check out the indie gaming scene.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Heavy Rain

A short story I did for English class. Enjoy!

Staring at his grimy, useless legs, he wondered how he would get to this man. Three years had passed since the well-dressed, calm man met him. "Call me Nemo," He had said, lighting a cigarette and adjusting his fedora in the heavy rain. They walked, discussed baseball, politics, and women, and by the end of it all, the man didn't even know who he was talking to or why he had chosen to meet with him. Nemo managed to dodge all his questions, while keeping him interested and open. The intriguing character's speech made him feel safe, trusting, and without worry. Before boarding a taxi, all Nemo told him was, "If ever you're in trouble, just follow the yellow subway line to the south end. I won't be far." After this cryptic message, his mysterious friend's tall figure disappeared into the door of the rain-drenched taxi.
That was before the accident. Before he knew how much his osteoporosis would ruin him. Before both his legs were broken, before his wife left him, before he lost his money and home.  It seemed only after all the pain and heartbreak subsided that he remembered this encounter. With nothing left cling to, with no reason to live. He knew that finding Nemo was the only way he could ever survive. He didn't know who Nemo was, if he could help him or why, but somehow he knew this was the only person he could truly trust. He didn't know how, but he would get to him or die trying.
The only obstacle that was truly holding him back from finding Nemo was his crippled legs. The last time he'd broken them was on the first day of a construction job, and by then he'd run out of money. His legs hadn't healed properly without medical help, and now they were limp and nearly unusable. He needed to find a way to get around, anything other than crawling on his arms. Darting his eyes quickly around the nearly empty alley, looking for anything he could use as a method of transport, he noticed an old, rotting wooden square with wheels attached. He managed to place himself roughly on the surface of the weak board, wincing in pain as he struggled to keep his legs out of the way of the wheels.
He'd nearly forgotten where the subway stations were, but after a risky exchange with a few gang members and a near brush with the law, he finally found his way to the yellow subway line's station. It had taken him nearly six hours to reach the station, using only his arms to propel himself forward, taking back alleys and poor districts to avoid police officers and guard dogs. He'd taken a man's wallet along the way, but felt no remorse for his actions, knowing he had no other choice in this city. Luckily, his victim was carrying a year-long subway pass, allowing  him to freely enter the gates-provided he could get into the building without either getting caught or injuring himself.
Rolling himself to the ticket booth, he gathered up all his willpower to stand on his deformed, weak knees. Grinding his teeth, he crawled along the edge of the counter, stopped to catch his breath, and mumbled “Year-round...,” showed his card,”P-pass.” The woman behind the glass gave him a worried look, but waved him through obligingly. Hobbling painfully to the escalator, he sat on the stairs, and by some miracle made it to the subway's doors. When the train came to it's final stop, he tottered through the sliding doors, pulled his way up the stairs and crawled out of the station into the cold, sunny winter air. Staring across the street, he noticed a small French cafĂ©. A lone, middle-aged man was seated at an outdoor table. The man instantly recognized him, and began to run eagerly. His left leg shattered inside him like so many times before. Sprawled on the ground, the man yelled, ”Nemo!” Nemo turned and smiled a warm, calm smile, and the man knew he was safe once again.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Two RPGs

I have a large collection of both PSP and PC games, but there are some better than others, and I can be easily distracted. Still there are some amazing games I just can't get away from. I happen to be playing two of some of the best on both systems.

The first game, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, is what I'm currently playing on PSP. I had played Crisis Core about the same time last year, and haven't gone back to it until now. I was amazed when I first played it, and am still amazed when I play it again. Like nearly every Final Fantasy, Square Enix has perfectly melded technology with brilliant storytelling. With an amazing cast of memorable characters, a moving soundtrack, great voice acting and writing, and an innovative battle system, what more can you ask from a game? It may not be for everyone, but for those that enjoy powerful storytelling, this should be a game that sticks with you for a long time, with characters you refuse to let go at the end of the game(and maybe even inspire you to play the original, Final Fantasy VII). I don't want to give away any of such an incredible  story, but it's safe to say you just might shed a few tears before the credits roll.

The second game currently in progress is Mass Effect 2, a rather new game that I've been tracking for a while, having played the first Mass Effect. Mass Effect 2 follows two years after the events of the first game, Shepard has been rebuilt from death in Project Lazarus, a secret project led by Cerberus, a pro-human organization with questionable methods, led by a shady character known as the Illusive Man. The Illusive Man gives you clues and ideas, but for the most part, you are in complete command of your vessel, the Normandy SR2. You're given your ship, your crew, and two Cerberus operatives to help you in your quest to stop a strange race known simply as the Collectors. Beyond that, you're given the freedom to assemble your squad however you want, and to explore the galaxy at your own pace.

 Now, all this might seem a lot to handle, but the small part of the story I've already told you could easily happen in the first hour of gameplay. The rest is completely up to you. There's some pretty huge(and small) decisions to make throughout the course of the game, and they all impact the story in one way or another. Brilliant writing, complemented by extremely detailed character models and animations, all come together to make a great cast of credible, mature characters. Mass Effect 2 feels completely different yet completely similar to Mass Effect, with some drastic(and well-appreciated) changes to combat and space exploration. Others are more subtle, such as interruptions in speech, are small but keep the system fresh and new.

Watch out for my review of Mass Effect 2, coming out sometime in April!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Is PC gaming dying?

I've noticed that the regular mentality lately is that PC gaming doesn't stand a chance against the Xbox 360 or the PS3, and I strongly disagree. The PC has had some competition when both consoles were first released, but at this point, the specs of both machines don't compare to modern gaming PCs. I think that, if anything, console gaming is limiting the potential of PC gaming. As developers produce games primarily for consoles, they are creating them for less customizable systems, making them easier to make, but also limiting the technical potential of the game. The reason is that console games are generally more popular and advertised greatly on television and the internet.

The reality is that consoles are simply a computer, a computer with a specialized OS and proprietary hardware. This makes development easier, but also means that for simplicity, the hardware will not improve over time. When developers create a console game first, and then port it to PC(this happens more often on the 360), you get a game hardly better from a technical standpoint, but the public won't say anything, because the expectations are already there for the console version. Therefore, the PC is classified instantly as a gaming machine no better than the console versions without good local multiplayer.

There's a few ways we could restore the Personal Computer back to it's gaming glory. After all, if the PC is a more costly system, then why should it be in any way worse than a console? First of all, developers should start with the PC as a base system for development, then downgrade when porting to other systems, the PC usually being the far more powerful machine in general. The perfect example of a game like this is Crysis, and although it wasn't ported to other systems-CryEngine 2 not being portable-this showed what a dedicated PC game engine could do.

I am primarily a PC gamer, but the one thing that ticks me off more than anything is the lack of any split-screen multiplayer on pretty much any PC game. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't mind resorting to controlling Call Of Duty 4 using a gamepad if I could play with three other friends. Since a basic corded dual-analog gamepad on a PC is cheaper than what you can find for either major console, I wouldn't mind picking up a couple of Logitech Dual Actions so I could play COD with my friends. The PC is a great system, it's just not "cool" to play with friends at this point. We have a few great cooperative games(Lego Star Wars, anyone?), but these are usually limited to only two people, and we have very few options for playing competitively.

There are two important things the PC needs. The first is more cutting-edge games like Crysis, and the second is some old-school split-screen multiplayer.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

WTF: Work Time Fun

I got a crazy Japanese game yesterday, which is funny, considering I usually can't stand anything crazy or Japanese(anime, manga). But WTF is crazy, in a great way. It's got a crazy premise, crazy minigames, and a crazy title, but it all works together to make one of the funniest, enjoyable and satisfying games I've played in a long time. Like Gamespot's review stated, Work Time Fun shouldn't be fun. It's games are repetitive and mundane, and many of them are blatant rip-offs of popular arcade games. Yet it's the game's unique craziness that makes it different, and cracks you up at every corner. Replay value is incredible with hundreds of (useless, but often very funny) trinkets, 40 minigames to unlock, and enough weird humour throughout the whole package. WTF isn't for everyone, but for those that can leave their sanity at the door and have a good time, WTF is some great addicting fun.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My Opinion/Review of Mass Effect

Developer Bioware has quite an arsenal of games under their belt. From the famed Knights Of the Old Republic to the classic Baldur's Gate, Bioware has always developed top-quality role-playing games. Once again they have created a masterpiece of a game, combining the satisfying gameplay of classic RPGs with groundbreaking character development and exciting action.

Every RPG has choices, but how many actually effect matters of life and death? Thousands of games let you pick answers, but with no effects on the story. A few create branching storylines, but in the end, all roads lead to the inevitable ending of the game. But there are a select few games that let the player shape their own story, and even decide the fates of their teammates. It's games like Mass Effect that raise the bar for the term "moral choices", bringing the player to a world that depends on them for leadership and protection. A world where great power means great responsibility.

Mass Effect puts you in the combat boots of commander Shepard. The only limits are your character's name and race(human). Everything else, facial features, hair, gender, and even your character's background can be dynamically changed to fit your preferences.  The game puts you right into commander Shepard's role as a military officer in the Human Alliance Navy, where you must complete a mission aboard the Navy's top vessel, the SSV Normandy. I won't spoil the story for you, but in the events that follow, Shepard's role becomes much bigger, as a threat greater than all organic life in the galaxy is slowly revealed.

However, it's not the game's great story that steals the show, but it's the deep, likable characters. Most of your squad members aren't human, yet you will learn to understand each of your soldiers' back story, culture, and even their views towards other races and squadmates. The game's script is detailed and involving, worthy of any science-fiction book or movie, and the fact that you choose your own dialog only amplifies the sense of control over the relationships you make with other characters. It's even possible to pursue relationships with some characters, as well as friendships and trades. A new system called the “conversation wheel” lets you choose between a self-serving, ruthless path, a selfless, kind path, and options for ending the conversation quickly or drawing it out for more detail.

The graphics are top-notch, even for a game released in 2008, and many modern PCs could run it at max settings. The sound design is complimented by an interesting synth-heavy soundtrack, and plenty of science fiction sound effects.

The gameplay may be it's weakest point, but that's not saying much. Shooting is simple at best, but is still satisfying and fun enough due to the heavy RPG influences. Weapon-modding is extremely intensive, and if you don't play RPGs, you could be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of items at your disposal. Action sequences aren't hard at normal difficulty, but some battles will have you rethinking your tactics. There is also some slightly awkward planet exploration missions using your six-wheeled tank, the Mako. The gameplay, while slightly lacking, is still extremely fulfilling and weapon modding is a great game mechanic. There are many other parts of the game I don't have the time or space to list, but overall, the gameplay is Mass Effect's weakest point, but it is still excellent.

Bioware's efforts in sci-fi RPGs have paid off in the Star Wars universe, and they've done it again, this time creating a world that draws you in, and this is a world you won't wish to end. You'll want to save the galaxy, if not only for the sake of the great characters, then simply for some great, satisfying gunplay. The setting of Mass Effect is a galaxy that you won't soon forget.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I need to review a new game, what will it be?

I've just finished my review of Mass Effect, hopefully to review Mass Effect 2 next month for the school newspaper. Now I don't know where to go next, any ideas?