The Audacity of Hope, for Better Political Games.

Politics in games are usually limited to people-of-history-cameos or one-click “diplomacy” (as seen in Civilization 5 [Civ 5]) but where are the in-depth politically focused games? Yes, there is the election series The Political Machine 2008 (and the original The Political Machine 2004) that lets you run an election campaign by touring the country to raise money, build election headquarters and hire political consultants. It is the one shining star of a barren genre.  If you have an interest in politics that is just merely above the average American than you should buy it (http://www.politicalmachine.com $9.95) and should more importantly expect to enjoy it.

Civ 5’s diplomacy screen. Where's the proposition option?

That’s it though. Out of the ocean of video games none of them totally embrace the political aspects that make up our divided, dishonest and disenfranchised educing political system. The Political Machine 2008 is like our only beacon of hope in a tea-bagged sea of video games. So where are the other potential “leaders” in the political video game genre?

Some games take aspects of modern day politics and and water them down to make them a bit more approachable – see the Tropico series and its communism/capitalism play between Cold War Russia and the USA. The aforementioned Civ 5 allows you to feel like you are engaging in diplomacy by exchanging goods and gold for alliances but neither of them are political games at their heart.  Again, where are the potential “leaders” in the political video game genre?

The Political Machine seems to be our only leader as of now and it is not known if they will hold up this mantle. The Political Machine 2012 has not been officially announced and the only mentions of its possibility are found in forums. I do find it hard to believe that Stardock (the publisher/developer of The Political Machine) will let the possibility of The Political Machine 2012 slip through the cracks like an election ballot chad. With the games announcement Stardock will receive one of the largest no-cost marketing blitzes in history, the actual 2012 elections. With a game cycle of 4 years and free media attention as well, given to it by the actual elections, Stardock would be crazy to drop this title from its potential candidates of  games.

In asking myself why there are not more politically based video games I have found the answer by looking closer at our current state of political affairs in the United States, and with some help (through comedic therapy and actual insight) from John Stewart (http://www.hulu.com/embed/ZZMbXY71Y8A_DneKdQuCIw) and Stephen Colbert. Who wants to try to escape to a virtual reality that represents a real world nightmare? Disenfranchised middle class people (more accurately used to be middle class) do not want to spend their free time immersed in a politically based game even if it’s just a virtual representation.

However, we cannot allow our disenchanted state hold us back from hoping and demanding better political games and on a more serious note, voting towards a better political atmosphere.

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If You Build It, Kills Will Come.

I’ve been holding on to my Windows XP rig for about 4 years. It is still a fine machine with an Intel Core 2 Duo 2.8GHz (overclocked to 3.2GHz) processor, a GeForce GTS 250 video card and a XFX NVIDIA 750i SLI Motherboard but it was showing the signs of becoming elderly in online play and while running multiple programs while researching online. It will continue to be a fine machine for my girlfriend who will now be able to write her English papers in lighting speed and, when she plays, game on a rig far superior to her Deckard-Cain-ancient laptop. For me though, it was time for me to move on – to say goodbye to a great companion and allow her to benefit someone else. After shedding a few tears and deciding to use a piece of my severance pay, I started scouting out potential parts like Dr. Frankenstein and make an investment in to a rig that will outlive my last one.

I first perused my last couple of issues of PC Gamer magazine looking at the companies advertising their custom built PCs. Many spend a lot of time deciding on AMD or Intel and I will admit for my first self built rig, this was an intense debate in which AMD won out due to my budget at the time. After spending the last 4 years with an Intel processor I was hooked and admittedly, am now a brand loyal “Intel-lite”. With the processor brand in mind I took to the internet and to the custom built PCs company websites. I took a brief look at the current rigs Alien Ware were producing and then ended up on www.ibuypower.com were I built a couple of rigs within my budget and with all the goodies I required. Once I had an idea of my specs I passed on the info to a friend who did a similar build on Micro Center’s website. At this point I had the itch and only a new rig would be able to scratch it. So after determining on Wednesday that my friend and I would start the build on Saturday, I called him Thursday to start early.

At Micro Center, with parts and DirectX 11 graphics in my head, we went about bargain hunting without cutting quality and below are the final results:

Diabotek EVO ATX Mid Tower (w/4 x 12cm Fans & LED Lighting)

GeForce GTX 570 HD (1280MB GDDR5) Video Card

Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4/3.7GHz Processor

GIGABYTE Z68XP-UD3 Motherboard (SLI capable)

Patriot PC3-12800 1600MHz 8GB Kit (DDR3 Memory)

Seagate Barracuda 1TB 32MB CACHE 7200RPM Hard Drive

Antec 650 Watt ATX 12V V2.3 Power Supply

Sony 24x DVD RW AD-7260S

Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus Fan+Heatsink

Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit OS

Microsoft Office Home and Student 2010

Wyatt Kovich 2011 Edition (Friend with superior CPU building knowledge) – P.S. Thanks again.

Below is a summary of the build:

Mother fu... I mean board.

Motherboard (in tower) awaiting to be impregnated by processor.

Motherboard/processor sex is hot so you need to cool it.

A very hard drive (lower) and DVD RW disk spinner in place.

Motherboard tag team: GeForce GTX 570HD inserted to board.

Patriot PC3-12800 1600MHz 8GB Kit DDR3 Memory inserted into motherboard (right of cooler fan,background) and Wyatt Kovich 2011 Edition (foreground).

Final steps: installation of the Windows monopoly.

Running bright and ready for the online fight.

Almost Heroes: Exploring Open Worlds

Jean Luc got exploration right.

Unfortunately Janeway did not.

This large world, please let me get lost in it. Open world environments in video games are becoming a must for any successful Role Playing Game [RPG]. Open worlds provide us gamers with explore-how-you-want and go-where-you-want video game settings (also the same marketing slogans used on open world RPG box art). They are far beyond the constraining atmospheres presented in early side scrollers like Super Mario Brothers and Contra and even the more recent first person shooter [FPS] with invisible constraining walls. Open worlds enable us to tap into one of our species biggest desires,  “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”.

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Sadly Star Trek Online didn't get the open world right but patches and updates have made it more fun to explore.

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Fett (my Fallout: New Vegas character) is my virtual version of Magellan and Shepard (of Mass Effect fame) is our gaming pixel equivalent of Buzz Aldrin. Virtual exploration is the poor mans version of globe trotting. It allows us gamers to feel the freedom and excitement of exploration without the deep hit to our pocket books or deep cuts to our fleshy bodies. Open worlds give us a sandbox to play in (another phrase used to describe open worlds = sandbox) and lets us explore, kill and/or save lives within it.

Within the wood panels containing the sand of our video game virtual worlds are narrative influences (quests) that the gamer can either decide to interact with or not – so the freedoms in an open world do not just reside in choices of exploration. These narrative influences, rather they be a Dragon (as will be the focus of upcoming open world game The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim) or a lost traveler looking for assistance or partnership, can help shape the sandbox or can be ignored so the gamer may shape it on his own. This freedom to choose is at the core of our desire to explore and exploration – freedom in choosing ones own path. It is these facets of open worlds that make getting lost and having a game that is built large enough to get lost in, exciting to us gamers.

Skyrim's explorable area will be 3-4 times larger than Fallout 3's.

Freedom of choice in exploration, interaction with in-game groups or individuals and the awareness of the unknown make open world gaming as attractive as the New World was to Columbus. For RPGs, open worlds are a key component to being able to actually role play your avatar as demanded by your human desires. Open worlds provide marketing ability and legitimacy amongst the RPG gaming faithful.  It keeps the gamer guessing, exploring and wondering, what is over the next hill or toxic dump site.

A Boy Named Sue: Freedoms of Gamer Tags.

Everyone has a nickname, good or bad. A name your friends called you, affectionately or in jest, when you were younger. There is a new “nickname” phenomena that is present and has been since online gaming went mainstream, and even before. Instead of a nickname, like Tbone or T (my youth nicknames), children and adults both have replaced the everyday nickname in favor of an online persona – a gamer tag.

A gamer tag is your online id, your banner leading you into war (well, at least a digital version of war). It is the name that is placed next to your online score and is most likely accompanied by a picture. Now the picture, like the name, doesn’t have to be directly related to you but could be an internet meme reference or a picture tied into a passion of yours (i.e. an anime picture or a character from a movie). It also can be a ridiculous photo that is full of irony considering the platform it is presented on (see below).

Mandingo's Steam gamer tag "photo id" and his online gaming sidekick Judas.

A gamer tag is the name your friends know you by online. It acts as an unique reference for conversation during a teamwork based multiplayer or as an ongoing joke. It also becomes burnt into the memories of those you slay online if your good or is easily  forgotten if you live and die like a noob. It is something you can yell into team-talk, if you are doing well, to motivate your team and get a laugh. It is something you can yell into team talk as you sacrifice your online self in the hopes of victory or just for a laugh.

Unlike a nickname, your online gamer tag is normally chosen on your own and not by some bully looking to score a cheap shot or by a friend complimenting your ability to garner the affection from the opposite sex. A gamer tag is a living thing in the since that it can change with you and in conjunction with your hobbies/passions and what is going on in your life. It can change daily if you want it to (The PC based social gaming network Steam allows you to change your gamer id infinitely but not all platforms [Xbox and PS3] are as user friendly). Your tag is controlled by you as is the accompanying picture. For some, a gamer tag is the only thing they have complete control over in their life. It is the only aspect of their day to day routine that they can attach a meaning of their choosing to. If the tag is a persona it can be a chance for the player to not only play whatever game is running on their screen but also act out and “play” their persona.

A gamer tag can be something  humorous, pornographic or humorously pornographic. It can cause online friends and foe alike to do some search engine exploration.  For example do a ‘SafeSearch off’ Google image search of Mandingo and cringe at the results (WARNING: NOT SUGGESTED FOR THOSE UNDER THE AGE OF 18).

The best part of a gamer tag is it can be, most of the time, whatever you want it to be (some restrictions, rightfully, apply for tags that are blatantly/obviously vulgar, racist etc…). Your real name can be changed, which is a good thing if your parents were assholes (See Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue below) but the effort involved is a bit more involved then changing your gamer tag and wont result in as much fun.

Replay Value: Sh*t and Shinolah.

I was taking a look at my Steam library this weekend and viewing my hours played for each game I own. One thing, well two things, became very clear to me. The first being is I play waaaaaay too much and the second, the games making up my favorites list all contain some element of replay value. Upon further reflection I realized that all my favorite current games and fondly looked upon games of my past all have aspects of replay value.

Replay value, the second word being just as important as the first. If you go to a bar and buy a double, once you finish it you have nothing to show for it (except maybe a slight buzz) and no way to enjoy it again unless you purchase another. A game that contains some facet to it that will bring you back  again and again means you have a game with replay value. It is not a game where you play through it once, blow your load, and decide never to call it again (See the indie game Braid. Great game but once you finish it, will you ever return to it?).

Trying to find an antithesis to games that contain some replay value is a difficult task in today’s gaming market and nothing against Braid because its focus was always the single player experience and the story that goes with it. Publishers and developers are well aware that a games digital shelf life is important to its profitability and gamers realize its important to their happiness and bank account. Replay value is now a part of almost every game released. Some games do it well and make it a focus of the games development cycle from start to finish. Some games try to just stick in some replay value so they can put it in quotes on the back of their retail copies or within their trailers (Cough! Cough! Ghostbusters: The Videogame.)

Shit

Two routes seem to be the the most effective in creating replay value. Creating a game that is centrally focused on mulitplayer (i.e. Battlefield Series) or a  game that is focused on game useful collectables and exploration (i.e. Diablo series). The games that seem to have the shelf life of a radioactive isotope have found a way to creatively do both, focus on multiplayer and in-game items.  Team Fortress 2 is the shining example of this method of creating and replay value. Its original release (in 2007) was as a much anticipated multiplayer shooter with a purchase cost. It has now transformed to a free-to-play online shooter with an item drop system and money making item cash shop. An example of a game focusing on exploration (crack) and items (meth) is the Re-Logic’s Terraria. This side, and up and down, scrolling adventure game was crafted from start to finish to use collecting shinies, creating shinies from those shinies and repeat, as its main focus and draw – with great success. It has 4 player multiplayer (Four player multiplayer seems to be a gaming norm now. So everyone, make sure you only have four friends.) where you can explore and hoard shinies together.

Shinolah

Games from here forward will continue to be multifaceted experiences that pay heed to our social (multiplayer), inquisitive (exploration) and addictive (shinies) character traits. Games are getting better at appealing to our guttural desires and our recession styled pocket books. Games, and their publisher and developers, are now replay value focused. Just a bit of caution though, some publishers and developers will be creating games that they want their customers to play persistently, enjoy and do contain quality replay value. Others will just try to market to you that their games contain quality multiplayer and item hunting adventuring.  So when considering a purchase whose marketing mentions keywords associated with replay value consider the following video:

So I leave it up to you fellow gamers (and those of you who haven’t picked up the hobby yet) to be able to determine shit from Shinola.

Battlefield