Archives for category: Upcoming Releases

Yesterday, Microsoft unveiled their upcoming next-generation console, which they dubbed Xbox One.  This being the third in the series, the name was met with no shortage of head scratching, but most seem to be missing or simply not commenting on the significance of the name.

One.

The marketing speak would have you believe that the name represents how many electronic devices Microsoft believes you need in your living room, with their new system being your video game console, cable box, music library, etc. all in one.  And that’s technically true, the new system will be able to do all of these things, although technically so could the last one.

Hardcore gamers are upset that so much of the conference was based on things unrelated to gaming, such as the hands free Kinect functionality, the license with the NFL, and the Steven Spielberg produced Halo television series.  The only games shown were some sports titles such as Madden NFL, the racing series Forza, and of course Call of Duty.  Big titles, sure, but ones aimed squarely at fans a lot of gamers consider…well, what’s the worst word for them I could print?

Casual.

Quick, who won the last console round?  It wasn’t Microsoft, and it wasn’t Sony.  It was Nintendo.  The Nintendo Wii sold more consoles than either Sony or Microsoft by targeting demographics who previously showed no interest in gaming, using controls that didn’t require complicated button presses or dual analog stick controls.  You swung your arm, the bowling ball knocked down some pins, and you were happy.  The Wii had inferior graphics to the PS3 and the 360, it didn’t even play DVD’s, and with the exception of two Zelda‘s and some Mario titles, it didn’t even have any worthwhile games.

And it crushed the competition.

Did you think that Microsoft and Sony weren’t going to notice this?  That they were going to just let these huge demographic swaths just lie there on the side of the road without someone asking if they needed a ride?  So Sony created the Move, and Microsoft created the Kinect.  The Move is pretty much a bust, and the jury is still out on the Kinect as a game system, but the potential the Kinect has shown as a user interface is astounding.  It’s not going to go away, but is the new Kinect going to be a game-changing break from the previous one?

Everything we were shown was good, but what was new?  Nothing.  I think this was deliberate.

Innovation is exciting to a lot of us, but intimidating to most.  Most people fear being the early adopter on a dead technology, and the best way to bring in customers isn’t to offer them the future, it’s to offer them the past.  The familiar, the comfortable, the thing that they’re used to.  That’s what Microsoft is doing.  There’s no doubt that this new generation of consoles is going to push gaming to levels we haven’t even imagined, but that’s not going to put an Xbox One in every nursing home where the Wii’s are collecting dust.  This approach won’t make Microsoft cool, but it will make Microsoft money.

Xbox One isn’t the first Xbox you’ll own.  It’s the first Xbox that they’ll own.  And they might never play a game on it.  They might use it for Netflix and Hulu and Pandora and everything but games.

Oh my god, people might buy this system and use it differently than you would!

And that’s okay.  Game developers didn’t stop designing complicated games just because the Wii was a financial success.  The brains at Valve and Dice and Bioware and Irrational didn’t pull the plugs on Portal and Battlefield and Mass Effect and Bioshock because your grandma wanted to go bowling.  So relax.  The games are coming, and nobody’s going to make you play the ones you don’t want to.  The box may say Just Dance, but just don’t.  It’s a big tent, you can stand by the bar if you like.

But some people are just going to dance anyway.

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They released a trailer this week for The Bureau: X-Com Declassified, a game that’s been teased for so long that most have assumed it became last year’s X-Com: Enemy Unknown, which was in fact a completely separate game developed during the interim.  The trailer features a kid on a bicycle, a man walking through a top secret government ops center, retro music stylings, and a shot at some alien technology at the very end.  The trailer is a well shot enterprise, delivering a few minutes of suspense and tension and nostalgia shot through with paranoia, but there’s one thing that you won’t find in it.

The game.

This has become more commonplace in the world of video games over the past few years.  Publishers have spent lavish sums on over the top mini-movies to sell their games instead of actually showing the game, and sometimes this process has produced exciting short films, and sometimes it’s been a waste of money in every regard.  What I can’t fathom is why it’s done so often.  Making movies isn’t as expensive as developing games, but surely after three years in development a team would have enough gameplay footage to edit together an intriguing tease.  It’s certainly not done out of secrecy, because game developers are known for broadcasting their intentions to anyone who will listen for years in advance of release, in magazines, at conventions, and even just to people one on one (I’m looking at you, Randy Pitchford.  We need to have words).  I suppose the reason to do so is to sell the feeling of playing the game, something that’s not easily felt by watching others play, and this is probably the closest answer to the truth… but it doesn’t explain why so many of these short films feel nothing like the finished product.  The Halo ads have always been dramatic and haunting, and are probably the best of these movie-ads by a long stretch, but they feel nothing like crashing onto the sofa and stuffing yourself full of junk food between respawns while nine-year-olds spawn camp you from areas on the map that are supposed to be inaccessible.

So, The Bureau.  A game that was originally just referred to as X-Com, long since thought to have gone dark, now apparently coming out this August.  X-Com fans don’t number as prominently as Call of Duty fans, but they are nothing if not devoted.  They’ve even dissected this tease frame by frame for analysis in hopes of cracking its secrets, searching for easter eggs.

In last week’s Mad Men, two competing firms are asked by Chevrolet to pitch a car that they haven’t even seen.  The firms seem to be sacrificing everything for a shot at an unknown entity that they assume will be fantastic because of who’s making it.  They both agree to launch a campaign that doubles down on the mystery of the car by refusing to show it.  The car is the XP-887, which was later revealed to be the Chevy Vega, a notorious lemon for the company.  I don’t worry too much about the fictional advertising firms prospects, however.  They’ll have one hell of a future selling video games by showing everything but the game itself.

So there’s this game, and it’s not out yet, but it’s received some notoriety online because it’s a game you can help fund through kickstarter, and the protagonist is a toddler, and the toddler apparently can die in the game.

Still here?  Good.  A lot of people can’t even entertain the idea of a toddler dying in any way, much less in a game (a word that many can’t separate from the word “fun”), because why would you want to?  So I wouldn’t blame them from surfing on to the next picture of cats up to shenanigans, and I’ll be joining them as soon as we’re done having this conversation, but I’m glad you’re still here because if you care about this medium as much as I do, then it’s a conversation we need to have.

We want new things.  We want new ideas, we want new experiences, we want to say “I’ve never seen someone try that before.”  We want to reward the innovators, the pioneers, the first to sing “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah.”  Every day, people try to satisfy us with the same things, over and over, and eventually when we hear “She loves you,” we think “Yeah yeah yeah…”

Every Tuesday I think, “Yeah yeah yeah.”  “Ooh, I’m a space marine, yeah yeah yeah.”  “Ooh, I’m a gangster, yeah yeah yeah.”   “Ooh, I’m one of the few survivors of a zombie apocalypse, everything’s been turned upside down and I’ve got to do whatever it takes to survive, yeah yeah yeah.

So why do we fall into the same old patterns over and over again?  Why do we accept the same predetermined roles that this medium gives us over and over again?  Don’t we want to be more than just a space marine?

We want power.  All of us, every single one of us, want power.  We say we want more money, but we really want the power to buy things.  We say we want more time, but we really want the power to do what we want with the time we already have.  We say we want to be strong, but what we really want is not to be weak.  Games have grown up over the past thirty years by giving us power, more and more of it, consistently and without hesitation.  What’s the first memory you have of a game really resonating with you?  For a lot of us, it’s probably standing alone under a clear blue sky, stomping on the first thing you see and killing it, and then eating something that made you twice your size.

So the guys over at Krillbite Studios decided to offer you something different, to let you be something less powerful than a space marine.  Less powerful than anything, really.  A toddler has no power at all.  A toddler has wants and needs like the rest of us, but not the ability to satisfy those wants and needs without help.  Actually, that’s not entirely true; a toddler does not believe that it can satisfy its wants and needs without help.  That’s why toddlers cling so tightly to their parents.  To a toddler, parents are the world.  They’re safety, they’re security, they’re survival.  That’s why it’s such an inspired choice as a protagonist for survival horror:  it’s a universal set of goals and fears that we’ve all experienced, one where the idea of failure (not finding your mommy) feels like the end of the world.

We grow out of this stage of helplessness, thankfully, but we never truly forget it.  That lizard brain in the back of your head, the one that seems to come alive in poorly lit neighborhoods late at night when you’re not sure what’s around the corner, that lizard brain never forgets what it’s like to be that young, to be that scared, to be that powerless.  And that’s why some people reject the ideas behind Among the Sleep outright, and say it’s too controversial, it’s in poor taste, that it shouldn’t be done.

Because people don’t like to feel powerless.

We’ve seen plenty of games where the idea was to evade combat rather than engage in it, but even in those games we usually play as a ninja, or an assassin, or Batman.  I can’t think of many occasions (or any) where we’ve played as someone with no combat experience whatsoever (unless you count Sherry Birkin’s level in Resident Evil 2, but that was more of a side note to an existing game, where everyone else was decked out with guns and knives).  We’ve played hundreds of games set in WWII, but never from the Jewish point of view, trying to avoid capture or detection.  We’ve played hundreds of games set in the middle east, but never from the point of view of a kid trying to make it home without being shot up or bombed in the street.

We’ve seen stories of the powerless told before, and told powerfully.  From To Kill a Mockingbird to The Diary of Anne Frank to pretty much everything I’ve ever read by John Steinbeck, powerless protagonists have provided us some of our richest glimpses into the universal pain and glory of being a human being.  Why can’t gaming do the same thing?  Why shouldn’t it try?  Why should we judge Among the Sleep by how it plays when we fail, and not by the exhilaration we’ll feel when we succeed?  What may seem like a baby crawling through the dark to its mommy, might be the first act of courage in a long heroic life, rarely glimpsed by us or even remembered by the hero, but no less important.

After all, do you think space marines just fall out of the sky?