Highbrow High Score

The Art of Gaming Intellectually

In Case You Missed It

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Despite how many times he insults me, I’m almost positive that a certain bearded  co-worker actually likes me because he supplied me with a Playstation 2 complete with Nerf controller. I will be repaying him soon with beers. If SNES and Sega Genesis were the consoles of my childhood, the PS2 epitomized my adolescence. I’m I proceeded to spend all of the trade credit I’ve amassed at a local used media store and got some classics as well as some games that slipped past my radar. Here’s a few that I didn’t get the first time around:

Space Channel 5

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

King of Fighters: XII

Kingdom Hearts

Psychonauts

First of all, I’m so happy to have a used console with one of the largest libraries of stellar games – especially those that I’d never played before. I’m thoroughly enjoying Kingdom Hearts as it’s so poignant yet extremely simplistic. Psychonauts has strikingly adult subject matter as seen through the eyes of kids with psychic abilities at summer camp. Space Channel 5 is probably the weirdest of the bunch – a rhythm game about aliens invading and forcing people to dance – but is still highly enjoyable for such a silly game. All in all, I expanded my library for relatively cheap and have a few long gaming sessions to look forward to with each game.

What are some games you neglected to play until years after they were released?

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Narrative Gaming

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“Don’t despair for Story’s future or turn curmudgeonly over the rise of video games or reality TV. The way we experience stories will evolve, but as story telling animals we will no more give it up than start walking on all fours… Rejoice in the twisting evolutionary path that made us creatures of story, that gave us all the gaudy, joyful dynamism of the stories we tell and realize that understanding the power of storytelling, where it comes from and why it matters, can never diminsh your experience of it.”

– The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall


After I heard this on a summer reading list from NPR, I was drawn to this idea of narrative and how it is viewed. Although I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, Gottschall seems to champion video games here as an evolution of how we tell our stories. The interesting part of this excerpt is the use of “curmudgeonly” to describe the old-world view of what the narrative is and what stories should look like – they should certainly not be experienced through video games, as if that would somehow degrade the art of storytelling itself.

But video games are not novels. We experience games distinctively, as both the audience and the author making the interaction idiosyncratic, rarely finding that blend in any other medium. Pieces like Heavy Rain and Shadows of the Colossus are heralded as narrative wonders of the industry. Beautiful though they may be, “quality” does not define content. Video games are more sensitive to subjective judgments like these because to be impressed by a story is rare in any form, but to be brought to tears by modern entertainment is almost unheard of outside of the gaming geek culture. To have a New York Times reviewer state that “no single-player game has made me feel as profoundly connected to the outcome of a story…” writing about Heavy Rain legitimizes video game story telling and it’s unique narrative form.

Yes, we have BioshockSilent Hill, and Final Fantasy that are engrossing stories that express emotion and narrative with depth and style. The art of video game story telling can be exciting for the player in action and in recollection of how it made him or her feel. And, yet…

There are still those who don’t see it that way, for whatever reason, and scoff at the idea. Literary elitist or technologically averse? Does content of Dead Space make it any more or less of a story than 20,000 Leagues under the Sea? Is it the audience or the marketing? Or just the curmudgeon’s futile dismissal of the narrative’s latest evolution?

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May 26, 2012 at 2:59 pm

The Retro Blues

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I recently sold my PS3 and all of the accessories and I wasn’t the least bit sad about it. Although I did invest a good deal of money into it, I found myself playing it less and less and instead focusing on my 360 and emulators on my PC. Although I enjoyed a few titles on the Playstation 3, new titles became increasingly less interesting.

I’ve mostly been focusing on SNES games as they seem to be the most readily available online and I’ve been feeling some nostalgia flaring up. I bought a USB SNES controller and it’s been great for Street Fighter (I’m a little ashamed to admit my girlfriend kicked my ass completely on this one). I’ve also been enjoying Super Metroid, Aladdin, and my personal favorite Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

RetroLink SNES USB Controller

Thank you Amazon.com!

I’ve also found new (old) games that I didn’t get to play the first time around like E.V.O. The Search for Eden, a platformer that follows forms of life as they evolve towards perfection with the aid of Gaia, the embodiment of Earth.

The vastness of the retro library is almost frightening and I sometimes find it hard to make a decision as to what I want to play. I’ve even been toying with the idea of buying an old Dreamcast or Playstation 2 and playing underrated games from that generation. But I don’t know if my nostalgia would fade after a few plays of Crazy Taxi. Even going to my parents and finding my N64 would be fun for a few hours, but could I replace higher powered consoles with Mario Kart 64?

In any event, I wouldn’t be out a ton of money even if I found all three systems and a few decent games for them. Any suggestions on older games from the SNES or Genesis generation or tips on which obsolete console to check out again?

Objectification in Pixels

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When I was around 14 years old, I played a game on PS2 called Bloodrayne. 

Although at the time I knew that feminine images in video games were more than slightly skewed, this game really rubbed it in the gamer’s  face. The titular character embodied the over-the-top indulgence of the game from her thinly veiled (if at all) innuendo to her gravity defying gymnastic style attacks – all clad in tight leather. Albeit blocky and pixellated, Rayne’s breasts were a jiggly extension of her overt sexuality.

Lara Croft

That's your fighting outfit?

But the game was fun and didn’t take itself seriously in any way.  I knew something was amiss with the representation of the female form, but I didn’t care and enjoyed it quite a bit.

The female characters in video games are almost always (if not always always) a vehicle for either direct or subtle eroticism. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing nor is it exclusive to the medium. The problem with women presents itself in every form of storytelling; women mostly tend to be extensions of the lead (presumably male) character in literature and she presents problems as a reminder of both sexual desires and the all but inevitable after effects of said desires: commitment, children, and an acknowledgement of mortality.

Take the dichotomy of the Madonna and the whore used and cited excessively in literature. It’s the basic idea that a woman is pure until she is not and represents itself in a myriad of ways from Desdemona to Lolita. This also plays well into the idea of the male gaze in film meaning that women are a reflections of the male lead, the male creator, and perhaps most importantly, the male viewer and their perceptions.

Now, take those two ideas and fast-forward to the age of the Xbox. Although the origins may not be as visible, the conceptions of femininity are still constructed quite tightly around them. We see a female character in a video game as either something to desire or protect (Princess Peach, we’re lookin’ at you) and the mere fact that they are women is cause enough for either.

There are some female characters that defy these conceptions, sure, but they are exceptions to a rule that the art of storytelling has made for us. Female protagonists seem to try to empower and titillate, contradicting themselves as action-oriented characters and objects of lust at the same time. However, being aware of these constructs, games like Bloodrayne serve as a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the extreme and if you’re in on the joke, you can gawk intellectually.

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March 29, 2012 at 3:22 am

High Score’s Best Scores

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Silent Hill: Downpour was released earlier this week, but I decided long ago that I would not be buying it. Not only has the series lost the atmospheric and unsettling feel (which it lost quite a few releases ago), it also lost one of the main reasons I continued playing.

Akira Yamaoka served as the musical motor behind the series from the original game through the embarrassing Wii rerelease of the original as well as the few great ones in-between. Listening to the soundtracks for the first three games, it’s obvious that Yamaoka had a clear sense of the creepy, haunting ambiance the player would experience and his music heightens the experience. When I learned KoRn would be providing some of the music for Downpour and Akira would not be composing any pieces, I hung up any second thoughts of buying or playing the game. Joystiq also shared some of the same sentiments in their review saying the loss of Yamaoka is possibly the game’s “biggest detriment”

That being said, I don’t want to focus on terrible in-game music. Instead, we’ll listen to some of my favorite gaming scores. Feel free to add yours in the comments!

One of the best musical compositions in a game comes from one of my favorite games: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Symphony, while also being my first foray into the Castlevania series, made me more aware of atmosphere in games. Voice acting aside (“Have at you!”), Symphony brought a more holistic approach to gaming – not only was the gameplay fantastic, the music and art served as an incredibly immersive experience for that console generation. Composer Michiru Yamane gave us the ethereal and classic pieces that are as timeless as the game itself.

Some music fits the game so perfectly, it’s almost impossible to play without it. Garry Schyman’s Bioshock soundtrack and score are the best examples of this. The decaying world of Rapture was almost magical when coupled with his haunting compositions while the in-game licensed music heightened the “roaring twenties” aesthetic, the mingling of the two made Bioshock ‘s ambient sadness a little more perceivable.

And of course, who could forget the Tetris theme? It was the first bit of gaming music that continually got stuck in my head. Wikipedia guesses that Hirokazu Tanaka is the likely composer of this piece. Here’s a dubstep remix… for some reason…

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March 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm

What Games Can’t Teach

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I remember when the first Guitar Hero came out on the PlayStation2. At the time, I was drinking Smirnoff Ice (in hindsight – Ew), playing Twilight Princess on GameCube and going to class in what was my freshman year of college. Video games were what I did in between naps and homework, but Guitar Hero changed a lot of what I thought about gaming at the time.  It was frustrating, fun, accessible, and even if I was just watching a friend play, it was still entertaining.

Since I actually played guitar, my friends and I were surprised when I was terrible at first. Then with practice (probably too much practice), I worked my up to expert and by the time Guitar Hero 2, 3,  Rockband, etc. came out, I could rock some plastic peripherals like nobody’s business.

But now, I’d be hard pressed to even want  to play any rhythm based music game because I’ve played them all and would rather play an actual video game or actual music. Not only did the market become over-saturated with peripheral based games, some attempted to capitalize on the craze by suggesting certain games could help you actually play guitar. While I can’t speak to how true those claims were, it’s clear to see that these types of games have fallen out of favor after dying a very slow death of release after terrible release.

What I find most interesting is the fact there are certain kinds of games that try to crossover to more “tangible” skills. When I see commercials for any dancing games like Just Dance, I’m reminded of Dance Dance Revolution and how that craze gave way to Guitar Hero, etc.  It seems to me the people creating these games are perpetuating an idea of gaming as a means to an end, instead of an end in itself. Either that or they are constantly recycling trends that make consumers feel like they’re doing more than “just gaming” and then gutting whatever falls by the wayside to make profits off customers outside their normal demographic…

Little bit of both?

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March 15, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Gaming is Life (Except when it isn’t)

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What do you do when you’re not gaming?

Sometimes, the answer is that we are doing things that we ultimately need to do to provide time and money for our hobby. Working, school, chores, etc. Sometimes, we have other hobbies that enrich us in other ways. For instance, I enjoy playing guitar and music in general. It’s often hard enough to find time to sit down for a decent gaming session, let alone a gaming session and time alone with an instrument. We have to work, then workout, then we want spend time with loved ones, then have time to do the things that fulfill us personally. Unfortunately, I find my days falling exactly in that order and by the time I have a moment to myself, I’m too tired to do anything about it.

That’s a lot to keep up with. I’ve been visiting a blog called zenhabits which details the habits and behaviors that may prevent us from doing the things we enjoy. Although the author lists gaming as a “bad habit,” I think the tips he gives for cutting out the unnecessary and the negative can help give us more time to focus on whatever we enjoy doing.

So, is gaming something you do out of boredom or is it an activity you actively try to make time for? And how do you do that?

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March 10, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Posted in Life, Video games

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