Tag Archives: xbox 360

I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1

Lately, it seems like all of the proper scares have been popping up from independent studios.  Horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender: The Arrival make players quiver in fear more often than the triple-A offerings sitting on store shelves.  Without having major focus groups to please or sequel expectations to fulfill, smaller studios can more clearly represent the frightening concept they want to convey.

Similarly, if an independent studio wanted to make a relatively simple and fun game about friends eliminating hordes of zombies to a goofy theme song, then keeping other cooks out of the kitchen might be the best way to go.

IMadeAGameWithZombies2

Officially titled as I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1, this delightful game debuted on the Xbox 360 in August 2009. Sold for only a dollar through Xbox Live’s Indie Marketplace, this game let up to four players mow down legions of increasingly difficult and absurd zombies in a top-down, twin-stick shooter fashion.  The simple controls and gradual difficulty curve emulates the arcade games of old, where a player’s only goal is to survive and set a high score.  What sets this fun little gem apart is the glorious music that serves as a single-song soundtrack to the carnage.

Instead of a chiptune background beat or a symphonic movie-style score, I Made a Game With Zombies In It features a roughly 14-minute hard rock journey from the developer himself.  The tempo of the song flows with the gameplay, featuring slower beats when the action cools and shreddin’ guitars when things get frantic.  Even the lyrics fit the on-screen onslaught, as they center around the game itself.  Right from the start, developer James Silva melodically welcomes you to his game and gives you basic instructions on how to play (zombies come shambling out from all si-aye-ides/you’d better shoot them, or you’re gonna die-aye-aye).  Since the game lasts as long as the song, the whole experience feels like some sort of awesome concert you have to fight your way through.

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Silent Hill: Homecoming – One More Soul to the Call

With the release of Silent Hill 3, composer Akira Yamaoka began to include songs with full vocal tracks on the series soundtracks.  This tradition followed the series overseas, with the release of Silent Hill: Homecoming in 2008.

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While many players believe the quality of Silent Hill took a sharp decline with the release of Homecoming, the soundtrack features one of the strongest tracks of the entire series.

The raw and rocking vocals of Mary Elizabeth McGlynn have been a great match for Silent Hill since the third game, and this song from Homecoming is no exception.  The lyrics mirror the tragic story of the game, telling the tale of a town that fulfills a dark ritual of child sacrifice to maintain stability and peace.

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New Blog Announcement: Games From the Box

We live in a strange age of gaming overabundance.  Due to massive digital sales and the sharp devaluation of video games, many players own fewer played games than not.  It’s become an odd situation where folks will brag about the number of untouched titles in their Steam queue, often missing out on worthwhile games because of the paradox of choice.

I am guilty of this practice in my own way.  I will frequently borrow games offered by my friends, only to let the discs languish on my shelf while I continue to rack up hours in whatever my latest obsession happens to be.  Whenever someone I know happens to be parting with a pile of games due to seasonal cleaning or life downsizing, I will gladly scoop up the orphaned titles, thus adding to my backlog.  Such an instance occurred recently in my life, but instead of letting these potentially fun games lay by the wayside, I have decided to take some initiative.

Games From the Box is a new Tumblr blog I have launched to tackle the most recent additions to my collection.  It is about playing video games that were given to me by a good friend when he moved to a new place. These games span several consoles, handhelds, and genres. Most of them are complete with their original packaging and physical media.

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Every two weeks will feature a single game: photos of the box, scans of the instruction manual, and some thoughts on the experience of play. I will be sure to include notes on the currently available means to enjoy each of these titles.  The blog will be updated with new images and/or text every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday.  The first post is live for your viewing pleasure, which details the humble origins of this project.

In preparing for Games From the Box, I have already enjoyed some games that were completely new to me.  Titles from a bygone era of games where experimental ideas were being tested on handheld technology.  I hope in sharing these games, you will be reminded of your own joyful moments of gaming’s past, and take the time to enjoy the titles sitting on your own shelves.  So please take a look at Games From the Box, and be sure to follow the blog for some great upcoming games.

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Superman Doesn’t Drive

SaintsRowIVLeap

Why drive when you can fly?  From the moment I become faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound (or several bounds, depending on the height), any sort of conventional transportation is obsolete.  In spite of this, certain missions in Saints Row IV insisted on plopping my superhuman avatar behind the wheel.

I could understand the idea of using a car or motorcycle to blend in with the crowd.  After all, much of Saints Row IV takes place in a Orwellian computer simulation where an alien overlord exerts his will on the digital populace.  It would make sense for the savior of mankind to don a pair of spectacles and drive according to the speed limit in order to hide from the oppressive gaze of the villainous Zinyak.

SaintsRowIVClark

Except, this is Saints Row IV; the game that features disarming a nuclear missile while soaring above Washington DC to the familiar tune of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” in the first 15 minutes of play.  There is no need for Clark Kent in a world where Superman is an unrepentant-yet-lovable asshole who wants all of humanity to know he rocks balls.

The disempowered junctures of SRIV are not limited to mere driving missions; there are gang brawls, on-foot chases, and even a battle with a kaiju-sized can of energy drink.  All of these moments share the common excuse of “you don’t get your powers now because the simulation prohibits it.”  Most of the fourth Saints Row game takes place in a Matrix-esque computer world, and the malicious architect of this digital prison/playground often asserts his dominance by revoking your hacks and taking away your super powers.

SaintsRowIVNeo

This plot detail creates an odd sort of commentary on the world outside of the video game.  Just as the protagonist is subject to the whims of an alien overlord, so the player must follow the rules laid out by the developers of Saints Row.  When Zinyak decrees the hero doesn’t get super speed or telekinesis, it’s really Volition Inc. who decided that the player needed a different sort of challenge.

Unfortunately, it is this sort of disempowerment that turns Saints Row IV from a bombastically fun game into just another sandbox title in the vein of Grand Theft Auto.  Instead of feeling challenged or relishing a change of pace from my overclocked protagonist, these missions felt like doing chores to earn the chance to play as a sociopathic superhero once more.  It’s a good thing that these moments are few and (mostly) far-between in Saints Row IV.  I prefer my video games with great power instead of great responsibility.

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Reviving the Living Dead: I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1

Lately, it seems like all of the proper scares have been popping up from independent studios.  Horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender: The Arrival make players quiver in fear more often than the triple-A offerings sitting on store shelves.  Without having major focus groups to please or sequel expectations to fulfill, smaller studios can more clearly represent the frightening concept or story they are trying to convey.

Similarly, if an independent studio wanted to make a relatively simple and fun game about friends eliminating hordes of zombies to a goofy theme song, then keeping other cooks out of the kitchen might be the best way to go.

IMAEDAGAM3W1THZ0MB1ES!!!1cover

Officially titled as I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1, this delightful game debuted on the Xbox 360 in August 2009.  Sold for only a dollar through Xbox Live’s Indie Marketplace, this game let up to four players mow down legions of increasingly difficult and absurd zombies in a top-down, twin-stick shooter fashion.  The simple controls and gradual difficulty curve emulates the arcade games of old, where a player’s only goal is to survive and set a high score.  What sets this fun little gem apart is the glorious music that serves as a single-song soundtrack to the carnage.

IMadeAGameWithZombies2

Instead of a chiptune background beat or a symphonic movie-style score, I Made a Game With Zombies In It features a roughly 14-minute hard rock journey from the developer himself.  The tempo of the song flows with the gameplay, featuring slower beats when the action cools and shreddin’ guitars when things get frantic.  Even the lyrics fit the on-screen onslaught, as they center around the game itself.  Right from the start, developer James Silva melodically welcomes you to his game and gives you basic instructions on how to play (zombies come shambling out from all si-aye-ides/you’d better shoot them, or you’re gonna die-aye-aye).  Since the game lasts as long as the song, the whole experience feels like some sort of awesome concert you have to fight your way through.

IMadeAGameWithZombies3

Unlike the other two games in our zombie round-up, I Made a Game with Zombies In It is available for download on Xbox 360 and Windows phones, so there is no excuse to miss out.  The ease of play and frantic multiplayer fun make this game a welcome addition to any ghoulish gaming gathering.  So be sure to check this one out.  Besides, it only costs a dollar for you to play-aye-aye.

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Tomb Raider (2013)

Game: Tomb Raider
Released: Square-Enix/Crystal Dynamics/Eidos, March 5th, 2013
System: Xbox 360
Game started: March 6th, 2013
Amount completed: Finished the single-player campaign, currently trying to achieve 100% collection completion, haven’t even touched the useless multiplayer.

Chip’s Thoughts

TombRaider2013Whenever controversy hits a video game, the quality of gameplay and story seem to take backseat to media coverage of hot-button topics.  GTA: San Andreas became, “the title with a hidden sex mini-game” after the Hot Coffee debacle, Modern Warfare 2 was touted as a civilian massacre simulator thanks to the “No Russian” stage, and here we are now with Tomb Raider’s infamous near-rape scene.  When an interview with the executive producer implied that Lara Croft is captured and nearly raped by island scavengers, the Internet was aflame with comments and condemnations on the trials the beloved heroine was forced to endure.  Later, an E3 trailer showed the world that while Miss Croft manages to defend herself from her assailant, she would still face many violent and gruesome challenges in the reboot of Tomb Raider.  The developers were forced to defend their design and narrative choices before the game had even hit store shelves.

With the tagline, “A survivor is born” at the game’s helm, Crystal Dynamics explains that the suffering Lara Croft goes through is meant to establish her evolution from a bookish archeology grad into a hardened adventurer.  Now that I have played the game, I can confirm that Lara Croft does undergo a serious change over the course of Tomb Raider, but not necessarily for the better.

TombRaiderZiplineInitially, much of the gameplay in Tomb Raider revolves around the premise that this is Lara’s first adventure.  She does not have the experience of a battle-weary warrior, and the player’s limitations express this notion quite well.  For the first few hours of the game, Lara must rely on stealth and simple weapons to defend herself.  The player does not have an option of hand-to-hand combat or a melee weapon for quite a while; a crude bow and arrows are the only weapons provided.  Fortunately, the bow combat and mechanics are some of the best in gaming, so the gameplay is fun and engaging.  During this first half of Tomb Raider, the player is treated to gorgeous views and immersive environments where they must climb, sneak, and solve their way through this treacherous paradise.  But over time, Lara acquires the usual trifecta of guns (pistol, shotgun, rifle) and cover-based combat starts to creep into the game.

TombRaiderGunshotAfter a denouement where Lara and her crew discover there is a supernatural element keeping them on the island, Tomb Raider quickly devolves into a series of uninspired and increasingly crowded gunfights.  The young woman who used her survival skills and intelligence to save her friends has transformed into a vengeful bad-ass who mows down anyone who stands in her way.  Even the final moments of the game become nothing more than walking in a circle, slaying wave after wave of enemies, culminating in a bull-fight with a “big guy” enemy, and quick-time events with double pistols.

Overall, Tomb Raider is a beautiful game with responsive controls and plenty of interesting ideas.  It is a shame that what starts off as a product that stands out from its action-adventure brethren comes to rely on tired gunfights to get the player through the story.  How strange that after all of the trials Lara Croft has experienced, the survivor that was born turned out to be just another action hero cliché.

Laura’s Thoughts

It is not hard to see that Crystal Dynamics wanted to make Tomb Raider as good as it could possibly be, in order to appeal to a broad audience. It’s obvious that they tried really, really hard to make something that would appeal to the modern gaming community while not outright offending its female audience. For the most part, it does really well. I do love playing this game. Once they gave me the bow, I was in love. The bow is so much fun to play with and it is by far and wide the only weapon I use if I can help it. The environments are breathtaking. The cinematics are intense. This is undoubtedly a great game.

However, as I played through the story it was made abundantly clear that I was not the target audience for this game.

TombRaiderBowAt the beginning of the campaign I was given a bow and I loved it. I should have given it a name, I loved it so much. And all I wanted to do was make my bow as big and shiny as possible and shoot bad guys with it. And then huzzah! I got a stick! And oh, what a stick it was. I could climb with it and open heavy chests with it, and surely I would be given some sort of melee attack. But no. I don’t know if it was because of my frail woman-ness or general ineptitude but I was not really allowed to hit bad guys with it. This was a skill I needed to cultivate.

…ok fine.

TombRaiderFirstKillThen we come to the infamous scene where the player must help Lara fend off the unwanted sexual advances of a crazy island dweller… with quick-time events…  but don’t worry, if you don’t manage to “push x to not be molested” in time, you get to watch Lara get strangled to death. Every. Single. Time. Until you get the sequence and timing perfectly. About the third time this happens, it’s not fun anymore. By the seventh, it’s obnoxious and the gravity has long since dissipated. And by the twelfth, I want to strangle Lara myself for being so dependant and incompetent that she needs me to walk her through all of this again.

She then proceeds to have a rather noisy breakdown in the middle of an open field, where the guys she just snuck past, not 20 seconds prior, could easily hear her. Maybe after 20 minutes of watching Lara get murdered again and again, they got bored and went home. Otherwise, this part is a very good example of “things that are fun to do as a writer” and not “things that are fun to do as an audience”.

So now I have a gun. And this is when the game and I begin to disagree with each other. I was perfectly happy with my bow and was prepared to stealth-kill my way through this game because, quite frankly, I’m a coward. But now that I had a gun, the game seemed to think that I wanted to use it. Frequently.

So often it would try to tell me “Look! We gave you this noisier, less effective weapon. Isn’t that great?”

To which I reply “No thanks. I’ve got my bow. I’m good.”

“See!” The game retorts, not listening “You’re going to have so much fun with this” As waves of much better armed bad guys show up with assault rifles and flaming arrows and machetes.

To this I ask, “Can I just have flaming arrows instead? Those guys have them.”

“What? No, you can’t have flaming arrows. You haven’t even used that perfectly good pistol we gave you.”

“But I don’t like it”

“Well, too bad. You can’t have flaming arrows until after you learn how to hit people with that stick you’ve been carrying around the whole game.”

“Why do I need a gun before I learn to hit people with a stic–”

“STOP ASKING QUESTIONS!”

So I left it at that and continued with the story, which first seemed so engaging, then degraded into a series of WTF moments, including the three or four occasions where Lara could have simply shot the lead bad guy in the face (with my bow and arrows of course), but didn’t (particularly when she would just shoot the guy next to him instead).

After that, I really stopped caring about the story, and tried to trudge through it so I could actually have fun with the game. I made Chip play most of the frustrating bits since I continued to use my bow and arrow when it was not appropriate to do so.  After all, Chip is a boy, so certainly he loves shooting guys and blowing stuff up, right?

GIMMGPLara_Croft

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Skyrim

Game: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Released: Bethesda Games, November 11, 2011
System: Xbox360
Game started: December 25th, 2011
Amount completed: (Chip) Level 25 Harbinger of the Companions, Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, just fought Alduin, and now I suppose I have to catch a dragon in Whiterun. (Laura) Level 17 Kitty-Cat Vampire Lord, running around with a topless elf dude.

Chip’s Thoughts

In the past, when I would play a game with a character creation system, I inevitably made a virtual copy of myself as which to play.  Whether I traversed the ruined cities in the Capital Wasteland or repaired the world as a Sentinel of the Starry Sky, I always tried to imagine what decisions I would make in every game situation.  However, as Laura and I began our quest into the world of Skyrim, we decided to take a different approach to character creation for this title: we would make our virtual children and send them off into battle.

For my game, I created our daughter, the headstrong Wood Elf, Zoe, while Laura produced our reckless Khajit son, Locke.  How does a couple make an elf child and a cat child, you ask?  What can I say, genetics are a tricky business (my grandfather was a Khajit warrior, while Laura’s mother is a powerful Wood Elf tracker, duh).  With our children born and raised from the outset of the game (thanks, Bethesda!), we gave them a bit of money for the horse carriage, and sent them off into the world.  What sort of advice would Laura and I impart unto our brood as they sought to fufill their destiny as Dovahkhiin(s)?

The first advice I gave our daughter as I pushed her out the door with the family helmet was a classic line every parent feeds their child: ‘You can be anything, as long as you put your mind to it.’  I was surprised when she took me at my word quite literally, and became the Harbinger of the Companions, Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, a servant of several Daedric Lords, and a werewolf, too!  One would think being a member of so many guilds and noble houses would fill up a schedule rather quickly, but it seems that there is no pressure to finish any request with urgency in Skyrim.  Zoe has several contracts and jobs that are well beyond their prime, but no one seems to take issue with poor punctuality anymore.  Sigh, the youth of today have no scruples.

As I am getting on in years, I find that making lists and notes to remind myself of tasks is important.  That is why I would tell Zoe to take a page from her brother’s book, and save her progress often.  So many letters to home from my daughter have some complaint of losing hours and hours of work due to her forgetting to save.  You would think that Skyrim would have a robust auto-save system to deal with this problem.  I know that most games seem to autosave with the frequency of a hummingbird’s wing-flap, but only saving at major doorways is a bit ridiculous when exploring a massive dungeon.  It would be nice to at least have a quicksave button, instead of paging through three menus to perform a hard save.  But a moment’s preparation can save hours of lost time, so I hope Zoe can learn to save more often, even if it is an inconvenience (and breaks immersion, hard).

When I was young, my father taught me the importance of proper manners and ettiquette when meeting new people.  That being said, I would warn Zoe not to be put off by the vacant, sometimes dead stares of the citizens of Skyrim.  True, their expressions are better than the denizens of Tamriel, but one can still be unnerved when the eyes of a new friend pierce into your very soul.  Also, I have noticed that the local militia all seem to have a similar dialect and vocal inflection.  While I am sure they must come from a very large family with a pride for defending their homes, such a relation doesn’t explain how they all seem to suffer from the same war wound of an arrow to the knee.

Finally, I would tell my daughter to always appreciate the blessings of having steady work.  Sure you have to kill every majestic dragon you encounter, but at least you get to hear a fantastic theme song every time you murder a graceful mythic beast.  I know you would rather make peace with the dragons, and try to make the world a better place with their ancient knowledge and power, but you simply do not have that option (unless you download a mod, I suppose).  Back in my day, we used to be lucky to even see a dragon, much less get paid to slay them, so I don’t want to hear your complaints, young lady!

Good luck, my darling girl, and remember what your grandmother used to say, “Always check for traps, pookie!”

Laura’s Thoughts

I have now officially quit playing Skyrim about 7 times, I think. Each time I get frustrated,  put the controller down, saying that the game is too hard or I’m an adult, I don’t have time for this. I have more important activities to attend to, like yoga, or cleaning, or pinning things to my various Pinterest boards. Then I dramatically vow to never play it again. But low and behold, the next week ( j/k, j/k the next day), there I am again, controller in hand, trotting along.

Despite how little I normally play games, this is the sort of game I love. A big, open, fantasy world with lots to explore and many adventures to have at my leisure. And most importantly, I can have a dog. However, when I watch Chip playing this game, it occurs to me that we approach this type of game in very different ways.

Chip will kill things without thought or discrimination, while I will try to sleep with everyone without thought or discrimination. Our amorality is quite polarized in this way. This is why Skyrim is more suited to Chip than it is to me. I can’t rampantly seduce in the same way that Chip can rampantly slaughter. It is my only real complaint about the game (also I would rather be friends with dragons rather than slay them). So while Chip’s needs are met by the Dark Brotherhood, I have to make due by refusing to allow any of my questing companions to wear clothing. So poor Faendal gets to scale the mountains of Skyrim in little more than a loin cloth.   

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To Hell, To Heaven, and Back Again

Another post, another warning about spoilers.  Only this time, the warning is a bit more relevant.  The following article discusses the endings of Shadows of the Damned and Journey, two very recent games.  I think everyone should play both of these games, so if you do not want anything spoiled, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Over the previous weekend, I was able to accomplish something I have not had the time (or the focus) to do since college: I completed not just one, but two (COUNT ‘EM, TWO) video games!  The first title that I finished was the over-the-top, and super-gory Shadows of the Damned, while the second was the simple, yet deeply moving Journey.  At first glance, these games have almost nothing in common (save for both being excellent), but upon further reflection, the trials that each of the main characters must face, as well as the outcome of their respective journeys (HA!) are not so different after all.

I must admit, when I first played Shadows of the Damned, I did not plan on seeing it to completion.  It was not that it was a bad game, how could it be?  This title is the love-child of three game developing greats: Suda51 (creator of Killer7), Shinji Mikami (creator of Resident Evil), and Akira Yamoaka (composer of Silent Hill’s soundtracks).  With these titans of gaming at the helm, I knew I was in for a treat.  No, it was the excessive violence and gore that started to deter my progress. 

Now, I am sure many of you are thinking (or shaking your head whilst saying), “But Chip, Shadows of the Damned is a game about gunning your way through the Underworld in order to save your girlfriend from demons.  Surely you didn’t expect the path to be paved with sunflowers and rainbows!”  Well, of course I didn’t, that would be silly.  But it is one thing to have a game where you shoot at stuff and kill your way to victory, and it is another for a title to contain the following elements:

-Almost every headshot follows the bullet trajectory through the cranium, resulting in a gratuitous explosion of grey matter.
-Enemies spawning from pulsing sphincters built into the scenery, or tearing their way out of convulsing near-dead bodies.
-Walls composed of guts and tortured people. 

I could go on, but all of these issues began to turn me off from playing this game.  But Shadows of the Damned handles it in such an over-the-top sort of way that I just couldn’t take offense from any of this.  The dialogue between the hero (who is a stereotyipcal Mexican badass) and his talking demon gun (who is a terribly dry British gentleman) provides a silly banter that breaks the grim environment around them.  Combine this excess of tongue-in-cheek humor with excellent gameplay and variety, and I simply couldn’t stop playing. 

Through the course of Shadows of the Damned I encountered third-person shooting, block-turning puzzle gaming, a bowling minigame, a tower defense set-up, and a side-scrolling space(kind of) shooter.  While most games that pack in such variety tend to be collections of half realized ideas (read: disappointments), Shadows of the Damned manages to provide a satisfying experience with each type of gameplay, and none of these excursions overstay their welcome.

Journey is on the opposite side of the design spectrum from Shadows of the Damned, providing the player with simple gameplay and uncluttered design.  In Journey, you take control of a red-robed traveler, who awakens in a vast desert with little idea of how he/she came to be in such a desolate place.  The only clue that lies before you is a shining beacon at the top of a mountain, far towards the horizon.  So you begin to make your way towards this glowing marker, finding the remnants of a lost civilization as you travel.  Within these ruins you encounter pieces of fabric that float within the air, which are drawn to your own clothing, and provide your character with a scarf that allows them to jump and even fly for short periods of time.  There are no special items to fill an inventory, no health meter or score count to clutter the screen; just your character, a scarf, and the Journey towards the unknown. 

You are not completely alone in this desert, as Journey is a multiplayer game.  As you make your way through each part of the ruins, you may run into another traveler along the way; other players from the online world.  While most games would allow you to use a headset or text message to communicate, the only way to do so is through a musical resonance language that your character may hum at anytime.  The identity (read: Gamer Tag) of the other player will not be known to you until the credits roll.  So the idea of getting to know each other outside the world of Journey is removed from the equation completely, allowing the two of you to focus on helping each other make your way to that mountain in the distance (or not, if you are a jerk).

Just reading the descriptions of these two games seems like they could not be more different, but they share many similarities if you look beyond the basic design elements.  As Garcia Hotspur (the hero of Shadows of the Damned) makes his way deeper and deeper into Hell, he often sees a tower in the distance.  This tower is the castle of the Lord of the Underworld, and serves as the prison where his girlfriend is being held.  Hotspur is forced to endure many trials along the way, most of them involving watching his girlfriend being killed over and over, never being able to fully pass on.  Each time he witnesses these horrors, Garcia is given a glimmer of hope, that maybe he has finally saved his beloved.  And each time she is violently taken from him, and he is forced to continue his way to the tower in the distance.

Similarly, as you complete each area in Journey, the traveler is given time to meditate, and he/she is visited with a vision from the civilization that inhabited these ruins previously.  In each vision, the mountain is closer than before, and the avatar of the past seems to encourage the traveler to carry on.  But as you return from these visions, the mountain still looms far in the distance, and a new set of ruins lies before you to be traversed.

In these two games (along with pretty much every game that ever existed), the player will reach the goal at the end of the road.  Garcia ultimately saves his girlfriend at the top of the tower, and the traveler makes his way to the light at the top of the mountain.  But victory for each character is met with the realization that these quests are part of a cycle that cannot be broken. 

Garcia finds out that his beloved is a demon hunter from the past, who had challenged the Lord of the Underworld and lost.  She was cursed with amnesia, and forced to be the demon’s bride, left with a lingering feeling to want to return to Earth.  After defeating the Lord of the Underworld and returning to his home, Garcia receives a curse of his own.  Hotspur receives a phone call that implies his girlfriend will always be pursued by demons, and he will have to fight his way through Hell over and over again to save her.  In Journey, the traveler passes beyond the gate of light at the top of the mountain, finally being able to rest after an epic march to enlightenment.  But just as he/she crosses into the light, a shooting star bursts forth from the mountain, and travels far above the desert, over each of the ruins you have just crossed, back to… the start of the game.  The star lands, the glow fades, and there your traveler sits, only to wake up and start the Journey again. 

Both of these games find the hero ultimately trapped in a cycle of trials and tribulations, but in each of their quests, the main character learns much about themselves, and the world around them.  Thanks to the demons Garcia faced(both literal and figurative), he learned just how far he would go for love, and how much his feelings are returned by his beloved.  The traveler in Journey discovered a little bit about where he/she came from, and had a glimpse into the mistakes of past civilizations along the way.   Video games can be a way to pass the time or even escape reality, but they can also be excellent means of storytelling that allow a player to learn something about themselves reflected in a fictional character.  What will you learn as you search for lost loves or journey to that place of enlightment?

Personally, I learned that Shadows of the Damned and Journey are both great games.  So maybe you should check them out.

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Achievement Unlocked: Stopped Caring About Achievements

If you have been a regular reader of our blog(or if you just want to take a moment a scroll through the older posts.  It’s fine, I can wait), you will notice that I enjoy making lists.  I am a rather checklist oriented person in my daily life.  Maybe it is because of a degree in science.  Could be the result of my upbringing.  It might even be due to some slight OCD(which reminds me, gotta check if the oven is off, be right back).  The point is, I enjoy making lists and then completing the tasks in a reasonable time.  So when Microsoft introduced achievements with their 360 console, I became a bit… obsessed with getting as many of those damn points as I could.

Now, for those of you who do not own an Xbox 360, or who never really seemed to pay attention to that little message that popped up every so often while you were playing, allow me to give a brief primer on achievements.

Each game that is released for the 360, whether it be a full-fledged, buy-at-the-store game disc, or a downloadable title, has a list of tasks to complete in the game that will earn you Xbox Achievement Points.  You average game has roughly 1000 achievement points to unlock, while a download title will normally have 200 achievement points to earn.  These points can be spread out in various increments over several tasks, normally based on the difficulty of the in-game achievement.  For example, playing through the campaign in Halo:Reach on normal difficulty settings will earn you 25 achievement points, while playing through on extra hard difficulty(Legendary Mode, for all you sticklers out there) could net you an additional 50-point achievement.  These achievements and their respective points are displayed in your Xbox Live Account so that all those who see your online avatar may know just how well you completed(read: totally dominated) a game.

Now, one who is not familiar with the system may ask, “So what can I spend the achievement points on, anyway?  Surely they are used to buy in-game bonus content, or could even be used to buy entirely new games online, right?”  Well, sorry to break it to you, imaginary gamer(who I assume has been living under a rock for a while).  Xbox achievement points (and their PS3 cousins, Trophies) cannot be used to buy, well, anything.  Now you may be asking, “Then why the hell did I waste my time trying to carry a gnome statue through an entire game to earn some achievement points?”(shout out to my friend, Bobby, who did get this achievement in Half-Life 2)  That’s a good question, and one I asked myself on several occasions, after (regrettably) playing many crappy games with easily unlockable achievements.

It was not when I first purchased my Xbox 360 that I was bitten by the achievement bug.  It took about a year and several games before I started showing symptoms of this disease.  There were the initial signs: increased heart-rate when I would hear the delightful little “achievement unlocked” sound effect, a rash of late night play sessions to perform stupid tasks in games that held little merit for the overall experience of play, and of course, a fever for playing a title on the hardest difficulty, even at the expense of having fun while playing a game.  But enough of the sickness metaphors.  The real point that I became obsessed is when I realized that my friends had a similar investment in their respective “Gamerscores.”  Now we had a competition, and that is the only reason young men need to do very stupid things.

In our circle of friends, we each had our own little way of beefing up our gamerscore.  I signed up for Gamefly in order to rent several crappy games at little cost to me (save for time and dignity, no big deal).  My friend Bobby would play games he enjoyed to 100% completion.  While this seems like the most tame of actions, trust me, it is not.  When a first-person shooter asks you to only use one bullet for the entire game (the single bullet is used to shoot a lock that bars progress) for a measly 40 points, you know this not a casual event.  Our buddy Grant had a sneakier way of getting points.  In older 360 games, there were only 5 to 10 achievements on average, which meant each achievement gave you roughly 100 to 200 points each.  So he would purchase or rent games like NBA Live, King Kong, and the Avatar: The Last Airbender to grab some quick achievement points and take the lead. 

These hours spent playing crumby games and performing mind-numbing taks continued for some time.  I can remember there was a point that I was sending pictures of my gamerscore to my friends with my phone every time I took the lead.  That is how silly this competition became: I was bragging about having the most points in a game I did not really enjoy playing.  The whole achievement craze died down at one point, when each of us slowly realized how even playing games we enjoyed became a chore since we would spend our time looking for lame in-game collectible items instead of immersing ourselves in the story.

While the creation of Xbox achievements has lead to several dark tales like the one I have just shared, there are some benefits that have grown from these imaginary tally marks.  Many games have extended replay value thanks to giving the player a list of interesting tasks to complete outside of core goals.  Entire online communities dedicated to amassing achievements have sprung-up, providing people with new hobbies and strategies to share with like-minded individuals.  Some titles have even used the achievements system as a way to make jokes that break the fourth wall (like the, “Press Start to Play” achievement from the Simpsons Game).  The achievements system is not inherently bad, but it would be nice to see these points used more often as a way to better immerse the player in a game’s environment, or as a means to buy more content for a title, as opposed to coercing someone into wasting their time trying to beat a boss without getting hit even once.

About a year ago, my friend Grant had to buy a new Xbox 360, as well as make a new avatar and gamertag for his fresh console.  In doing this, he had to start from square one, with a gamerscore of zero.  When the dust had settled from our previous “competition,” he was the player with the most achievement points, so I was curious to see how the champion felt about having to start over.  He said it was great.  Since there was no pressure to collect the points, he could just sit back, relax, and enjoy playing video games.

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