Thursday, November 04, 2004

A Letter to The Los Angeles Times


Sir and Madame,

I've made a habit of avoiding the Los Angeles Times' video game reviews since Aaron Curtis' tenure as critic. I found the Senior Technology Editor to be a tad out of touch. His Andy Rooney-like diatribe against Sega's inline-skate-propelled graffiti crew simulator Jet Grind Radio (which I'd link to if your website didn't require registration) was enough to turn me off for good.

Many years later, I ran across across a copy Mr. Metzger's column. I was relieved to find that Pete genuine enthusiasm, but was a tad disappointed at the exceedingly breezy tone of his writings. When his reviews weren't wasting time being flippant they provided shallow and usually ungrounded generalizations about controls and graphics. I wrote the column off again. This time, because your paper was taking the low road – a sight better than shrill Curtis' high moral ground, but by not much.

Then today, my neighbor Mike hands me the Tuesday, November 4th Calendar Weekend. He thought I'd be interested in reading Metzger's review of Katamari Damacy. He directed my eyes toward the trite headline, "Game Gets Lost in Translation" (and I say trite because most conscientious editors should have called a moratorium on headlines evoking Sophia Coppola's movie for Japan-related articles a year ago). Mike, who is also an avid gamer, knew the piece would infuriate me and it did.

Metzger's closed-minded dismissal of the game for its strangeness was more than disappointing. In a time when the regularly off-beat subject matter of Japanese cinema (Kill Bill, The Grudge), anime (Pokemon, Cowboy Bebop) and even manga (Chobits) is now stirring up the waters of the often-tedious mainstream it's shortsighted and downright stupid to allow analysis of such a unique game to boil down to "Huh?" and "What?" But then again, this is coming from a critic who wonders "who comes up with" stuff like Bloodrayne 2 – a tedious hack-and-slash game starring (now here's a new one) a scantily clad, ass-kicking heroine.

Now, I may be a geek, but I'm not the kind of geek that fires off an angry letter every time he reads a negative review of something he likes. If I did, I'd never have the time to play games, watch movies and not pay enough attention to my wife. No, I'm perfectly capable of giving critics a pass. In fact, I love to read well-reasoned criticisms of films and games that I love. I often disagree with David Denby's taste, but I'm always engaged (as well as amused) by what The New Yorker's film critic has to say when he tears a movie apart.

Sadly, Pete Metzger's review of Katamari Damacy wasn't well-reasoned at all. It was mostly ignorant. If he doesn't enjoy the vaguely nihilistic pleasure of rolling up cats, dogs, people, cars and houses and firing them into space that's his loss. But to spend the entire review recoiling is mock-horror from the game's loopy setting is a waste of space. Near the end of the paragraph Metzger finally mentions that the game made him feel sick after ninety minutes of play. A better criticism of the game's apparent nausea-inducing point-of-view would have been a much better reason for his pan.

In my mind Katamari Damacy is one of the better games released in 2004. Both its subject matter and game play are wholly original. In a time when the market is flooded with sequels and stale rehashes of tried-and-true genres (first-person-shooters, I'm talking to you). Katamari Damacy's quirky sensibility and clever game mechanic come as a breath of fresh, faintly wasabi-scented, air. That's not to mention the game outstanding original soundtrack – an infectious mix of glitchy electronica and J-pop that serves as a much needed antidote to the awful major label fodder like Hoobastank and Breaking Benjamin that taint most games.

Still, my opinion is neither here nor there. It's Metzger's opinion that's in question. And it's absolutely valid. It's just poorly argued and completely out of pace with a the high critical standards of The Los Angeles Times.

And so I write this email, not just because I like Katamari Damacy and Peter Metzger doesn't, but because of your paper's historically poor track record when it comes to game reviews.

I fully realize that, despite the boat-loads of money being made by the video game industry, most of their output is nowhere near the level of critical and cultural relevancy of film. We still await our Cahiers Du cin?ema and we've yet to find our Pauline Kael (though Peter Olafson formerly of The New York Times came really damn close). But with critics the level of Kenneth Turan and (until this June) Manohla Dargis penning thoughtful, informed and entertaining film reviews in the same paper, it's my opinion that you ought to try raising the bar a little when it comes to video game criticism.

So in the spirit of full disclosure and self-promotion, I'll finish by letting you know that part of my frustration with Metzger's column is that he's the competition. I'm a freelance writer working in (among other things) the video game press. For the past couple of years I've been writing a monthly game column for Hustler (laugh, see if I care) and I just recently landed a regular gig with Men's Edge. I also occasionally write for the enthusiast press (Gamespy and Game Over) when I can afford their miserably low rates.

Additionally, I'll be posting this letter on www.robotstreetgang.com a website where I post culture-minded game writings with the frequency of a true dilettante.

I mention my credentials out of a genuine concern for Peter. I know he has a weak stomach. And I know he has his hands full with his reviewing duties. The next time a strange-looking Japanese game comes across his desk send the reviewing duties my way. I'd hate for him to get a stomach ache over Katamari Damacy 2.

You've got my e-mail address.

Yours,

Gus Mastrapa

Thursday, March 25, 2004

ROTKing in the Free World


Game Developer’s Conference: Panel Report

I’m ashamed to admit that today marked the first time I’ve attended this event. Today I checked out a handful of lectures; the first came from a fairly mainstream position.

Neil Young, vice president and executive in charge of production for Electronic Arts (particularly Maxis Studios) shared his development philosophy in the a game design keynote address entitled, “Entertainment Experience First, Videogame Second: The Making of Return of the King.” He positioned Return of the King as a “mass appeal entertainment experience.” To highlight the difference between a game and an entertainment experience, he screened a game play clip of Super Mario Brothers 3. He contrasted it with a flash animation set to the soundtrack of Return of the King that depicts Bowser (like Saruman) planning an attack on the world of man. The clip garnered some chuckles and cheers. Only afterwards did one audience member point out that the clip had inherent entertainment power not because of it’s form (basically a cut scene) but because it merged two popular and well-known properties in a novel way.

Young defined the central organizing concept of his philosophy to be the service of the user fantasy. As such, he readily admitted that user fantasy of The Return of the King was to experience the vision of Peter Jackson,
WETA
and Howard Shore, the vision of Neil Young.

Most interesting was Young’s insistence that developers should be obsessive about the first 30 minutes of game play. “You only have once opportunity to impress a player,” he stated. He then showed the first thing a player saw when he powered up The Return of the King – The THX logo. He explained that this set the tone for the game, informing the player that they were going to experience game with cinema quality sound.

Regarding levels, Young made the assertion that levels of a game are like paragraphs. Long sentences with periods feel slow he said. Shorter sentences ending with explanation points (though a bit too Tales From the Crypt for good prose) makes for a more rewarding gaming experience. He spoke of dividing the gaming experience into milliseconds, moments and missions. “Developers,” he said should focus disproportionately on the milliseconds” (the meat and potatoes of the basic game mechanic).

There’s a good chance that Neil Young’s expression of his philosophies in this keynote will serve as further fuel in the growing bonfire of disdain against Electronic Art’s and it’s wildly successful efforts to mainstream and further commercialize the video game. I respected his honesty and the clarity of his game (or mass market entertainment experience) making goals.

For the haters, though, I'll include this interesting exchange during the Q&A regarding game difficulty. During the lecture, Young underlined the importance of making sure that the his studio's Lord of the Rings games weren't too difficult. An audience member took him to task, asking why EA's The Return of the King was much harder than their game adaptation of The Two Towers.

Neil Young's Mea Culpa? "My bad."

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about a fantastic lecture that countered Young’s lessons on audience service with the idea of the game developer as the auteur.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Merv Blogger


Mitch may change his tune about Blogger when he sees this River City Ransom template crafted by Egoant. The skin also comes in Black Tiger and Bubble Bobble flavors.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Pixel on Pixel Action



Blogger sucks, this doesn't. Enjoy. The Legend of Zelda example is particularly filthy. Here, Link's um, motions, remind me of the Jennifer Connelly scene in Requiem for a Dream. Via BoingBoing.

Monday, March 01, 2004

The Eugene Jarvis Interview



An interview I conducted with Eugene Jarvis of Defender and Robotron fame has just been posted on Salon. In it, he talks about his newest creation Target: Terror, pinball games catching on fire, and shooting terrorists in the nuts. Enjoy!

Video Games Remixed



In this Photoshop thread Fark's crafty graphical parodists take on our favorite pastime. The round's theme imagines the crossing of games with rock music. The results, as usual, are hilarious. Highlights include, cnelson's Activision's Moshpitfall, sofarked insertion of Courtney Love into GTA and TheBrownCouch's inspired merging of Buckethead and Frogger.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Classic RSG Gaiden


The reposting of old Robotstreetgang stories continues.

This batch contains Recurring Intelligent Cube, a harrowing account of video game mania by The Video Game Ombudsman Kyle Orland. Special contributor Ara Shirinian makes the bold statement, Dracula X is the Greatest Game Ever Made. Apologia Pro Vita Sua Voldo finds Bryan Younce communing with a kindred Soul Calibur character. Robotstreetgang Editor Mitch Borgeson examines the ongoing death throes of the arcade via a trip to Pakk Mann and an interview with coin-up entrepreneur Ryan Cravens in The Smell That Surrounds You.

Enjoy.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Mom Plays Manhunt

The following is a transcript of an exchange between Robotstreetgang editor Gus Mastrapa and his mother. To preserve the integrity and gritty realism of the dialogue, no edits have been made.

RSG: Mom, we need to talk.

Mom: Is it about your father again? I told you, I thought you two were wrestling all those years. Honest I did.

RSG: No. Jesus, Mom. It’s not about that. I just want you to play a video game.

Mom: Oh, that’s a relief.

RSG: So, you’ll play?

Mom: You know I don’t like playing your games.

RSG: I know, Mom. That’s why I need you to play it.

Mom: Oh. I don’t know.

RSG: I need your help. I’m going to write a story about it.

Mom: Can’t you get someone else to do it?

RSG: No, Mom. It has to be you.

Mom: I don’t think so, Honey. How about I just watch?

RSG: Okay, Mom. Maybe this will make you change your mind.

Mom: Oh my! Is that real?

RSG: Yes, Mom. It’s a real Glock, 9-millimeter pistol and its loaded.

Mom: Why are you pointing it at me?

RSG: Because I need you to play this game. It’s called Manhunt and it’s by Rockstar, the same people who made Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Mom: (silence)

RSG: You’ve heard of Grand Theft Auto, right?

Mom: You know me. I don’t keep up with all the things on the T.V.

RSG: Perfect.

Mom: I thought I raised you better than this.

RSG: You did, Mom. But in order to write a story about what may be one of the most gritty, realistic and violent video games ever made, I have to do something that will grab people's attention.

Mom: I see…

RSG: Mom?

Mom: How about I make you a nice costume or something?

RSG: That’s not good enough.

Mom: You looked so cute as Ms. Pac Man that Halloween.

RSG: Mom. No. Please just play along and nobody will get hurt. Okay?

Mom: All right.

RSG: Here’s the controller.

Mom: What are all these buttons for.

RSG: Don’t worry about that yet. Just watch the game.

Mom: Watch? Aren’t I supposed to be doing something?

RSG: Not, yet. Just watch.

Mom: Am I that lady?

RSG: She’s a newscaster. You’re the guy being executed.

Mom: Oh. Is the game over already?

RSG: No, you’re not dead. A secret organization has faked your death. They’re going to film you fighting for your life and sell the footage as snuff films.

Mom: Okay….What’s snuff?

RSG: It’s tape or film of people being murdered.

Mom: You see! I would have rather lived my entire life not knowing that snuffies existed.

RSG: Snuff.

Mom: Yeah. That’s why I don’t go to see movies anymore. They should make more movies about nice things. Like that Secondhand Tigers movie. Now, that was nice.

RSG: Yes, Mom. Are you finished?

Mom: Yes. What now?

RSG: You missed the whole explanation. There was a guy talking to you. He’s the ringmaster of this whole thing. Run forward by pushing the R1. This button right here.

Mom: Okay. I’m running.

RSG: Go pick up that plastic bag.

Mom: I’m supposed to clean up litter?

RSG: No, the bag is going to be a weapon.

Mom: Tsk. What’s that circle at the bottom for?

RSG: That’s your radar. It tells you where your enemies are and which way they’re facing.

Mom: The little man has a radar?

RSG: Well, sort of.

Mom: Couldn’t I just hit the bad guys over the head with my radar machine?

RSG: You don’t have a radar machine. Your guy just knows where the enemies are and which way they’re facing.

Mom: Oh. So my man is psychic or something?

RSG: No, mom! He’s not psychic! He just knows. It’s the game designer's way of making up for the fact that you’re not really in the game.

Mom: Hmm. It’s not really very realistic then. Is it?

RSG: I guess not, Mom. Let’s just move on.

Mom: Honey?

RSG: Yeah?

Mom: Your gun is pointing towards the ground.

RSG: Oh. Thanks.

Mom: If you sat up straight the gun wouldn’t drift down like that.

RSG: I know, Mom. Jeez. Can you just focus on the game?

Mom: Don’t get snippy with me, young man. I’ve been co-operative, haven’t I? I mean, I do my best to do things for you and your sister and sometimes I get the idea that you two take me for granted. Things haven’t been easy for me, you know. Sometimes a little respect is all…..Honey! Don’t point that thing at your head! Point it back towards me. That’s better. I’m sorry, Gus. Don’t cry.

RSG: Mom…(sniff) can we please just play the game so (sniff) so I can write my article.

Mom: Sure, honey. What do you want me to do?

RSG: Walk towards that man.

Mom: Okay. Did he just say the “S” word?

RSG: Yeah, he did.

Mom: You know how I feel about that kind of language.

RSG: I know, Mom. That’s why I want you to kill him with your plastic bag.

Mom: You want me to kill the foul-mouthed man?

RSG: Would you do it for me, Mom?

Mom: Sure, Honey. You know I’d do anything for you. Oh. It says the “F” word on the wall next to him.

RSG: Yeah, Mom. It’s written in blood. Gross, huh?

Mom: Yeah. Did I ever tell you the story about how your father almost passed out at the hospital when he saw you getting stitches?

RSG: About a million times.

Mom: Oh. He said “prick” this time.

RSG: The only way for you to stop the cursing is to kill him.

Mom: Okay, I’m going to do it.

RSG: Hit the button!

Mom: Oh, he’s hitting me.

RSG: Fight back, Mom. Hit the “X” button.

Mom: Okay. I hit it.

RSG: No. You have to hit it a bunch of times.

Mom: It says scene failed.

RSG: Yeah, he killed you. Let’s try it again. Give me the controller.

(extended silence)

RSG: Okay. Take the controller. Sneak up on him and hit the “X” button.

Mom: I’m killing him!

RSG: Yeah, Mom. You sure are.

Mom: Who’s filming me?

RSG: Hidden cameras.

Mom: But how about that close-up? That camera was really close to me and at knee level.

RSG: So?

Mom: You expect me to believe that there's a camera hidden in the air right in front of me? You keep saying that this game is so realistic, but who was shooting that footage? It had static and those numbers on it like it was real video, but there’s no camera men around to shoot the footage.

RSG: I give up. This isn’t working. You’re supposed to be shocked and outraged, not so…so…critical.

Mom: Come back, Honey!

RSG: No, Mom. You always do this.

Mom: You forgot your gun!

(footsteps and a door slamming)

Mom: Well…shit.

This writing is a work of fiction. No similarities to mothers living or otherwise is intended. All imaginary gunplay was executed by professionals. Do not attempt this scenario at home. No mothers were hurt during the writing of this post. Please do not sue me.