Highbrow High Score

The Art of Gaming Intellectually

Archive for October 2011

First Thoughts – Batman: Arkham City

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After putting in a decent number of hours, I am so happy that I’ve only completed 17% of Batman: Arkham City. The experience is open without being overwhelming and the game play is as fun as its predecessor.  This was the first game I’ve attended a midnight launch for and I realized it was worth it after I finally went to bed at 4am that same day.

A break from your average Batman

As soon as the story is introduced, we find Bruce Wayne behind bars. Moments later we take control of Catwoman and go to town. This was every bit as fun as it sounds and not a “that’s what she said” joke. The game’s combat sequences are entertaining without a lot of strategy, but gaining successful strike combinations requires some timing and the beat-em-up aspect is very rewarding. The mechanics are solid and the learning curve is not steep in the slightest, but unless you pick your battles wisely with Detective Mode you could find yourself at a disadvantage. There are also a lot of side missions that serve to upgrade Batman’s equipment, meet new villains, and get a better feel for the city.

The game also succeeds in balancing out the classic comic noir feel of the first game with a dose of camp. There are a lot of great villains making a return or being introduced to the series and they all manage to mesh in the crumbling grey city with the looming threat of “Protocol 10” and a more immediate threat of certain doom for Batman. The game’s constantly weaving and changing threads enhance a feeling of loneliness and that the city itself is conspiring against you. I still have a long way to go with this game, but thanks to a well-timed vacation, I’ll be spending a lot of time with it!

Pow! Bang! Zing!

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October 24, 2011 at 3:28 am

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Of Explosions and Exploitations

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I was little late with this post, but a few weeks ago, we celebrated Banned Book Week and I know a lot of people were reading books that were once deemed “unacceptable” in America. This made me wonder about banned or hotly contested video games and if they would ever be celebrated in the same light. It’s interesting to note that a game has never been “banned” in the United States, but the ESRB can grant an “Adults Only” rating as an equivalent since major retailers will not stock AO rated games. One of the games that got the most media attention for a controversy of this kind is probably Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the infamous “Hot Coffee” glitch that had Hillary Clinton and Jack Thompson up in arms about the video game industry. The scene was publicized after finding the exploits in the game’s code and shows the main character having sex with his girlfriend.

Surprisingly, not the reason for the AO rating

Your Typical Shootout

Rockstar Games came under fire quite a bit for the Grand Theft Auto series in general and several other games published in the 2000’s like Manhunt and Bully albeit for extremely different reasons. But neither of these games were pulled from shelves en masse and only a handful of games intended for release had production halt completely because of the threat of an “AO” rating. After the “Hot Coffee” incident, the ESRB gave the game an “AO” rating and forced Rockstar to re-release it without the scene. Many game developers will try to soften the adult themes in their games in order to get an “M for Mature” rating.

I “acquired” one AO game that was leaked to the internet. Originally intended for the PSOne, publisher EA thought the fighting game Thrill Kill  was too violent to release. Although the graphical limitations of the original Playstation seem laughable now, the game does attempt to fetishize violence – the goal of each round is to cause enough bodily harm to the three other characters to fill your “kill meter.” Unlike traditional fighting games which have you monitor your character’s health meter, the “kill meter” determined whether or not you performed a “thrill kill” – an extremely violent fatality move.

While these are just two examples of games that have come under fire for “adult” content, it is interesting why they came under scrutiny in the first place. Although video game opponents have rallied against the GTA franchise for quite some time, it took a blatantly sexual scene to gain the unprecedented media attention and backlash San Andreas received. And if you’ve ever seen or read about Thrill Kill you know that one female character’s overt sexuality is also her main source of violence.

This is far too blocky to still be offensive

This aversion to sexuality more than violence plays a role not just in the ESRB, but also the MPAA and many other regulatory bodies in the US. In the highly publicized Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, several Supreme Court judges noted that violence was a lesser demon than sexuality. The distinction warrants a raise of the eyebrow, in my mind.

But what I am more interested in is why the “Adults Only” rating is a “kiss of death” for developers and retailers. Since adults make up a large part of the gaming community, why can’t those games containing sexual content or extreme violence be sold in regulation like the adult film industry or even R rated films? Is it because video games are still seen as a children’s activity? Or is the idea of performing certain actions, albeit vicariously,  somehow worse than watching it occur in film or reading it in a book? I would argue there have been a lot games published and sold with little more appeal than shock value, but have still received an “M” rating. Where is the line drawn? Should some games about certain subject matter never see the light of day or should game retailers enforce strict age limits?

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October 21, 2011 at 4:50 am

Posted in Video games

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Girlz Play, Too (but only if it’s pink or about cooking)!

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Let me start with this:

I rarely bring up gender in gaming voluntarily, but there’s something amiss with this picture. Maybe I’m looking into it too deeply, but I would attest this illustrates the world of gendered gaming pretty perfectly. Both released on the Wii with “E for Everyone” ratings, these games targeted a younger demographic of gamers and non-gamers and both set clear expectations of what the games are about.

Cooking Mama introduces a woman who cooks; Science Papa gives us a man who is (presumably) a scientist. Socially, this represents a dichotomous relationship between genders and professions. I have not played these games and cannot determine if they’re good or bad, but I assume they were never a “hot” item for the majority of gamers.

But the fact that such a binary relationship exists in video game form is not surprising. Games like Cooking Mama, Nintendogs, Catz, Horsez (think of an animal, but a “Z” in the title and you’ve got yourself a Nintendo DS game), and others pander to the perceived skills and social expectations set for women. I know for a fact that women play more games than the ones marketed to them, but even with that under consideration, most of the “video game culture” is geared towards a male audience. I noted this when reading a Game Informer magazine and counted how many ads were targeted at men (I don’t remember the number, but it was a lot) and how many were targeted at women: I may not have counted exactly, but it was in the neighborhood of one… And it was this one…

A purple PSP bundled with a Hannah Montana game!? My ovaries need this...

Whatever justification behind this ad, it was obviously released on the assumption that in order to market to the female demographic, “femininity” is defined by a love of all things pastel, pop music, and internet acronyms. This isn’t limited to Sony handheld’s; after reading an article on themarysue.com about female gamers, the phrase “shrink-it-and-pink-it” appeared quite a bit in reference to how games are sold to women.

In my mind, it’s pretty apparent that broad ad campaigns targeted at women and girls are sexist and stereotypical. But even after a quick Google search for “games for girls” returns results for cooking games, make-up, dress-up, celebrity, and Barbie games. (By the way, a search for “games for boys” yields “exciting action” games, LEGO building sims, and racing games) I am not convinced this is unintentional, but I understand that social constructs exist that make this dichotomous relationship possible – and it is interesting to note that while a girl can (and this girl did) play games “outside” of those sexist games marketed to her, it may strike a parent odd to find their little boy playing a dress-up game. What we find unacceptable is often more telling than what we find acceptable, but I digress…

This may have been a bit of a rant, but it’s something that (pardon my French) burns my buns. Ideally, games would be for anyone who found them interesting, regardless of their biological sex. What do you think? Can gaming transcend the fabricated societal norms?

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October 3, 2011 at 5:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized