Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why I'm Forever Changed; To Those Suffering

I don't know if you've managed to pick up the latest issue of OXM, but if you didn't have the chance, my flagship feature, "Healing Through Games," is now available on the web. It's an article where I talked to professionals and researchers about how games can help with pain and was very candid about my own illness. It was the hardest, most emotionally draining article I've ever had to write. It was also one of the most fulfilling writing experiences I've had to date.

For a long time, I tried to hide that I was sick. I did so much suffering in the background that no one knew about – and I liked it that way. Why would I share my negative experience with the world? I'm not here to bring anybody down or garner sympathy. It was in the middle of writing Healing Through Games that something broke inside of me. I had a hard time fully opening up about my illness; there was a wall I couldn't break. Then one day, I sat and told myself: This is part of your identity now – how can you hide it with shame? The first thing I did was I ordered myself a bracelet that said the words "fibromyalgia," so I'd be forced to see it constantly. It represents that I'm not the only one dealing with a chronic illness... a constant reminder that I have to fight, too... for something more - for something better than being the girl in pain. It's one of those pivotal moments that I'll never forget. From that point forward, I would see the positive of my illness and never look back.

Do you know where I found a lot of that positive? When my article hit newsstands and people opened back up candidly, writing to OXM about their own experiences with pain and how video games helped them just as much as they had me. Many of these letters made me misty-eyed because for the first time in a long time, I didn't feel so alone. Pain can be one of the most isolating foes to enter your life. There's many times you live your life on the sidelines; you can't go out, you're stuck alone, shackled to a bed just trying to get through it. The mental toll is one thing, the physical is excruciating, and then there's the gripping fear that it's always going to be there. I always knew I wasn't alone with this, but seeing the letters… it's confirmed to me that we're all fighting to be something more than our illnesses, and that's inspiring.

My biggest goal with that article was to turn something negative (my illness) into something positive – and your responses have confirmed that. I never thought I would be sick in my 20s, but if anything it has forever altered the person I am. And dare I say – it's for the better. Having an illness so young has taught me to appreciate so many of the little things in life – when the sun is shining outside, when I can just go to dinner with my friends, having the opportunity to share my words with others, to name just a few. Somebody asked me the other day how I handle being in an industry that's so negative – I told them I don't think you can go wrong in a place where there’s passion, and this industry has a ton of it. I'm not going to sugarcoat it and say some days I don't open my twitter feed and think, "we're debating review scores again!?" But you know what? These people have also come together to help me through one of the toughest times in my life, and I've never been more thankful to find them. The majority of the people who keep me going are ones I've met in the industry – the ones willing to sit and play Mass Effect 3 multiplayer until the wee hours of the morning with me just because they know I'm having a tough day. They've been vital to my support system. They've helped me in my fight, and if anything that's what I'm trying to give back to everyone around me.

Not only do I want to show that you can still have success living with a chronic illness, but I want to inspire people to fight hard against whatever foe they combat. If that final boss keeps respawning – keep killing it each time, admire that progress you have made, and then when he re-awakens, face him just as fiercely once more. I'm not bitter about the cards I've been dealt. I'm done with focusing on the things my illness has taken from me. It's time to say I'm stronger because of this and I will keep proving what the doctors project wrong.

It's easy to get smothered by the darkness of a chronic illness – the voices in your head are constantly screaming, "you're worthless, you can't do it." The only way to survive is to wake up every day and think, "I'm still here; I can still impact this world in any way I choose." Take every day as a new possibility, watch it unfold, and if it doesn't go the way you want it to, remember that tomorrow is a new opportunity. People are beating the odds everyday - remember to wear those battle wounds with pride. Life may be forever changed for you, but it doesn't mean that it can't be for the better. Cling to what ignites you – and don't ever let go.

Thanks everyone for the support you’ve given this article. I will never be able to put into words the emotions I felt hearing your touching words. It's time to paint a pretty picture over the ugliness of chronic pain. I'm game, are you?

Friday, March 2, 2012

February Character of the Month

I have two words for you: Tear Grants.

A feisty, determined, kindhearted soul, Tear is one of the characters that absolutely made me love Tales of the Abyss... and that's exactly why I'm shining a spotlight on her. What I love so much about Tear is that she's written so realistically - she's the type of person who doesn't want to ask for help. Not only because she wants to prove to herself she can do it, but also because I think deep down she doesn't want to put anybody out. Tear tries to put on a front as you start the game, trying to encompass the heart of a soldier, but her past shows that she's damaged inside. Losing her parents as an infant, it's not hard to see its impact on Tear, and I like how Abyss does show that Tear is fighting many feelings. But where Tear really shines is that she perfectly exemplifies the human condition - she tries so hard to suppress her emotions, only to have them coming flooding back tenfold. But let's not take away from the fact that Tear is also one tough cookie; let's face it, she's willing to stand up to her brother - the only real family she ever had - all in the name of doing what's right. She's a noble girl, indeed.

And the best part of Tales of the Abyss is watching her let her guard down as her journey deepens with Luke. Honestly, their banter is one of the best parts of Tales of the Abyss. And what makes their dynamic so great is that they both started the game out with walls, and we slowly watch them disappear. It's like they both went on this personal journey of finding their true selves together. That's what makes their bond so genuine and what makes that scene at the end of the game really count. You know, when Tear finally breaks down with her true feelings. Yes, it pulls at the heart strings, but damn if it wasn't so realistically done. That simple whisper just says everything. So, Tear Grants, your heart, determination, growth, and will to fight, are only a fraction of why you're so great... a great part is that you have layers, and there's much more to you than what's on the surface.

Oh, and her love for Mieu? Now that's just icing on the cake. It's proof even the people with the hardest exteriors can be big softies on the inside. ;)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What Grinds My Gears: Free-to-Play Games That Aren't Really Free

Recently, I've jumped on the iPhone train, and so I've downloaded some games to play while I'm in waiting rooms to pass the time. Since I'm on a budget and I don't want to drop bucks on a game without playing it first, I decided to browse the free games and download a couple to see what they have to offer. I've downloaded more than a few, but I keep coming back to a game called, "Pet Shop." Pet Shop is nothing novel or amazing - basically bring new pets into your store with the money you earn and then you're constantly upgrading parts of the store. Each day, you can log in and collect a bonus amount of money, and throughout the day your pets continue to earn you more cash. I like Pet Shop because it's simple enough for short play sessions and because I enjoy simulation games. But Pet Shop is never a game I would actually drop cash on because, honestly, it's little more than the same situation over and over. Sure, it's fun to get new puppies and breed them for even more pet options, but outside of that there's not much of a game here.

Here's the thing, I understand games need to profit somehow to stay "free" and I'm perfectly okay with that. It didn't bother me at first that I couldn't access certain breeds because I didn't have these special purple gems that you must cough*BUY*cough to advance. These gems can also speed up your breeding speed, but I didn't mind waiting, even if sometimes the wait was a full two days. That was fine, but what really was the kicker and what grinds my gears was when these gems were required to expand my pet shop. At this point, I've filled my pet shop to the point where there's no more space for new animals - I'm at a complete standstill. These gems you have to pay for have locked me out of playing the game any further. The game does offer one way to get around paying for the gems: You can ask other people over the social network to give them to you. Umm... something just doesn't seem right about that, why would complete strangers give me gems that they had to pay for? And, seriously, if I let them, what kind of hidden social contract am I entering into? Paid content is fine to keep your game afloat, but it comes an issue when you lock out the non-paid subscribers from playing the game. My point here is you might as well make your game paid then.

I've learned my lesson here - I'd rather spend a one time entrance fee to a game than be led on that it's free and be manipulated into spending money on it later. The problem with Pet Shop is that these gems are costly - you can't just buy one or two - the smallest package is 24 for $4.99, while you can go up to buying 580 for $99.99. Let's be honest, most iOS games cost .99 to $3, and only the triple A titles cost more - Pet Shop is not a triple A title, but it expects you to invest money into it like it is. So, Pet Shop, you've taught me a valuable lesson - very few things in life are really free, there's always a hidden agenda. Forcing the player to invest in the game to move on is just absurd. By removing the option, you remove my desire to support the game at all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Blog Resurrection!

Hello all,

I've missed you dearly. I ran into a couple of busy months, but I'm happy to say I'm back. I've also decided to make this blog a little bit more column-driven. So far, I've decided to have a monthly post where I talk about about well-written characters. Also making a debut - in homage to Peter Griffin - will be a "What Grinds My Gears" post, where I talk about frustrations in gaming and the community. I plan to also up my retrospective pieces, since I think it's important to discuss what made these games great and how they can better impact our future. I also just got a big bad Gaming PC, so I plan to chronicle my descent into PC Gaming from being a console girl for practically all my life. Although, I will admit: Myst, Doom, and Leisure Suit: Larry were formidable in shaping my gaming childhood. Expect a little "pizazz," to hit this blog (not the Jem villain, but the awesome.) I'm excited to see what I can provide for your entertainment.

As always, I'm curious, what games are you most looking forward to? I'd be lying if I didn't say Mass Effect 3, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, and Tales of Graces f weren't the highest on my list. And I can't wait until we get a confirmed release date for Bioshock Infinite and the Tomb Raider Reboot. And, of course, I'm still waiting for that Kingdom Hearts 3 announcement, but Dream Drop Distance will have to do for now. :-) It's time to give this blog some swagger!


P.S. I'm also considering having a podcast randomly appear here every so often!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fight For Your JRPGs!

I've always been one that when you tell me, "no," I'm just going to come back at you that much harder. In the end, I want to make sure I never stopped at nothing to achieve what I want or let something slip by because it seemed futile. And that's exactly how I feel about this Nintendo of America situation. For those of you who don't know, there has been some serious campaigning going on to get some JRPGs released on the Wii. The targets are three big-name titles: Xenoblade, The Last Story, and Pandora's Tower. Fans are coming together for what they call "Operation Rainfall," and the support from the community has been high. While it's a struggle as we hope to see these titles localized, I love times like these, because as gamers, we unite and ignite our passion all in the love of our hobby. As RPG fans, this has been especially important, as fewer Japanese RPGs have found their way to our home consoles. So we've been starved - very starved - we're longing to play these games, and Nintendo is underestimating us. They decided yesterday to make an announcement that there are no current plans to bring any of these titles stateside, despite the overwhelming response from passionate fans. They broke hearts, dashed hopes, and left many devastated. I could see the hurt all over my twitter feed, and so I tweeted at Nintendo that I understood not bringing all three, but why not try one to test the waters? This would make sense as Xenoblade's already translated due to a release in Europe.

And this is what is really bothersome about the situation, fans have expressed there is a market for these games. The Wii has just been dying more and more as each month goes by without any solid releases. Core Wii owners are starting to feel the sting, and this is especially an important time for Nintendo to step up with Wii U coming. Fans want to know they can depend on NoA to bring over the titles they want, and what we have here is Nintendo's unwilliness to throw their fans even one bone - to make a statement that they care. The worst part is the lack of an explanation; all Nintendo was willing to do was throw in a tweet about it, not stating what is at stake. Nintendo has the rights to these games, but they could easily pass them off to a third party publisher. The problem? This is Nintendo we're talking about here, they aren't exactly known to do this. As consumers, though, we do play a vital role in cementing what there is a market for, and I really don't want Nintendo's resistance to ever make fans feel like they aren't heard. Nintendo's acknowledgement of the Operation Rainfall campaign is a great step for them for public relations.

As an RPG lover, I'm here to tell you all don't stop fighting for the genre. I've been watching the Japanese portion of the market wither the past couple of years, and that's unfortunate. The problem is the economy - no publisher wants to take a chance unless the market is there. So what are we to do? Keep proving that market exists and have hope about it. We're going to eventually come into a new generation of consoles, and it's best we start paving the way for the genre to flourish again. Let this localization fiasco inspire you, and don't ever let the love die. Even in the end, if we can't convince Nintendo, we've at least voiced there's a market for these games. I'm sure other publishers are taking notice, and I can only hope this brings them more confidence about the JRPG. I don't think this battle will be in vain, I'm extremely optimistic that it's sent a strong message. Consider this blog me endorsing Operation Rainfall's efforts. If anything, this whole thing has reminded me why I fell in love with the genre in the first place, it's how much love these games can truly foster within us all.

"When on the brink of complete discouragement, success is discerning that... the line between failure and success is so fine that often a single extra effort is all that is needed to bring victory out of defeat." - Elbert Green Hubbard

Operation Rainfall's Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/OpRainfall Blog: http://oprainfall.blogspot.com/ Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/op.rainfall

Monday, June 27, 2011

Should Endings Feel So Incomplete?

I don't think any movie, TV show, or video game can ever truly have complete closure - aspects will always be left up to interpretation. This isn't a bad thing, as it leaves the audience room to ponder; however, some endings can just feel so unfulfilling, especially in video games. One reason I love to play games is to get swept up in stories that take me to an entirely different place. For me, the gameplay is always second fiddle, something to complement the journey, the struggle. The problem with video games is that they can be a significant time investment. Many games near the 20-50 hour mark, so it's especially essential to make the player feel like they've spent their time well. It's one thing to have fun with the gameplay, it's a whole other to stay glued to the controller because you can't wait to see where the story will take you. Yet, there are so many times I get to the end of the game and I find myself unsatisfied. I don't set my expectations sky high, but I want something that makes me walk away from the experience feeling good about it.

Recently, I finished up Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. I was surprised just how addicted I became to the game, because the story wasn't really drawing me in as much as I had hoped. Once I reached the ending, though, it started to matter to me - because what I walked away with was sheer anger and disappointment. The game ends on a cliffhanger because they're trying to lead into Revelations, but something about it felt so incomplete. First off, there is a huge dramatic moment in the end that is impossible to see coming (I will keep this spoiler-free, I promise). I liked the unpredictability, but the build up and pacing up to this particular moment wasn't dramatic enough. It didn't feel like there was enough at stake - it happened very quickly, without any foreshadowing or subtle hints. One could argue that this added to the moment, but it didn't feel planned, just abrupt. In fact, this is a key character development complaint I have: the game didn't feel the need to illustrate the importance of the characters and this moment. I was shocked, sure, but I didn't feel much of anything, except for a big, "Brotherhood, how could you?!" It seemed far too easy to end it that way than provide further setup. I know whenever there are multiple entries in a series, the endings of each game up to the finale should keep people wanting to know more for the next game, but I still believe there should at least be some resolution in it all. This is especially essential, because in this economy there are no guarantees that a series will make it to their desired destination. Disappointingly, Brotherhood's ending just felt like a cheap trick to get me to buy Revelations - giving no importance to the steps I'd taken to reach this point.

It's funny that this entry on the importance of endings is appearing after I finished L.A. Noire, a game that I found lacking in many areas. The ending, however, was extremely intense, unpredictable, and said something about the standards we hold for characters. What did Brotherhood's ending do? Nothing except shock and establish a cliff-hanger that could have been so much more than it was. It's hard for me to write more specifics without spoiling, so this entry has to remain rather cryptic. But Brotherhood got me thinking about endings - how many actually meet our expectations? Does there always need to be a grand finale? Just how incomplete should an ending be when leading up to a sequel? I'll admit, I like a little ambiguity, but I also want to feel like the entire journey was worth that monumental last moment. It should not only keep you wanting more, but also leave you with a sense of contentment with where the story has taken you. I think most endings aren't going to get the message across entirely as they should, but they must give the player something to hold on to - otherwise the experience was all for naught.

Friday, June 24, 2011

L.A. Noire - Genius or Pretentious?

Sigh, I know what you're thinking: Kimberley, how could you call such an avant-garde piece of visual storytelling pretentious? Oh gosh, did I just lose cool points? Sorry, but I must be honest here: L.A. Noire was one of my biggest disappointments this year. It's a game that I didn't wait on a price-drop for - I bought it on release day, because everything I had read was indicating that it was an experience I couldn't miss. I thought it was so suited for me, I'm a big fan of games where you have to play detectives and piece things together yourself, but something about L.A. Noire didn't make me feel very detective-like.

In fact, the game pretty much abandoned the logic it initially taught you to tell if someone was being truthful, doubtful, or lying to your face. You're supposed to watch for visual cues and use your brain to piece together what's actually going on. However, the visual cues get tossed aside as the game goes on. I even double checked this after completing the main game, when I played a case that took place earlier in the timeline that I received for free DLC. It was so much easier to figure out the right line of questioning people here. Was L.A. Noire just trying to be sneaky? Yes, it's somewhat realistic, as you're not always going to know perfectly how to read everyone. I'm not sure there, but what I do know is that the gameplay is severely flawed, but I'm supposed to ignore that because the storytelling going on is standout?

But it's not. I solved many cases during my time with L.A. Noire, more than 20, and you know what? So many of those cases felt like filler content, I didn't care what happened as I finished them. What emotion did get gleaned was frustration; I was particularly infuriated by the lack of closure in many of them. People run from you, you catch them, you get a small blurb at the end. I'm sorry, but when I'm helping out a preteen girl who has been victimized, I want to see my detective make sure she gets back on her feet alright. Perhaps it would have provided deeper characterization, because while Phelps rises in the ranks after several humdrum cases, his character is mostly stagnant. While you could argue not every case will be exciting, if Phelps is supposed to be the protagonist, at the very least, missions should improve him. Instead, while playing L.A. Noire, I was bored, forcing myself to play through it because I wanted to see where the game would end up. I guess I'm an optimist in the end, because I wanted the game to prove me wrong. And maybe it did save itself with the ending, but did the ride up it to have to be so lackluster, so unfulfilling?

See, the game doesn't pick up until you're on the last couple cases, which initially feel just as empty as their predecessors. However, the repetition stops, and we get some answers. This last part of the game is where the story wins, because it tries to do something different, both in what we're expecting and in how it tells its story. I'm keeping this blog entry entirely spoiler-free, but it felt like even in the end, I had mixed emotions - it felt genius, but still very pretentious. Somebody asked me if I was expecting a nice, tidy, happy go lucky ending. Actually no, with a game named L.A. Noire you really don't, but as I watched the credits roll, I could see the magic of what the game had been doing as I went along - building up these grandiose ideas regarding the main character. I'll give the game credit for making use of multi-dimensional characters along the way, as plenty of the characters walked the line of morality many times in the game. For this I give kudos, but something just felt off for me about L.A. Noire, as if they game was sensationalizing itself along the way. Being a detective, you encounter sad cases and corruption, but sometimes it felt it was throwing in some sickening, over the top element to place characters in a dark light, and it just felt unnecessary.

I've never been quite so angry and conflicted about a game at the same time; it's riling me up, so maybe that's a good thing. However, I think the anger stems at a place of seeing a great idea for a game poorly executed. At first, when I loaded up L.A. Noire, I was in awe of the world Team Bondi created - they captured the time period perfectly. I really thought the gameplay was going to follow suit and be extremely intellectually stimulating, but that wasn't the case. I know people will stand by this game, because I think it's one of those you want to love. How often do we get a new IP that tries to change the way we play video games? Not often. And so we want to give credit where credit its due, and I can see some of the great things that were done here. But, in the end, L.A. Noire is probably one of the most frustrating games I have ever played. I don't even want to buy any of the download content, because this game lacked the action that was necessary to truly capture the player.

In the beginning, when I saw others write negatively about L.A. Noire, I thought they just weren't getting what Team Bondi was trying to do. But as I played it, I began to see the love I found initially turn to hate. A great ending can only pan into so much when the rest of the game is less than stellar - a walking contradiction within its gameplay mechanics. Somebody said somewhere that L.A. Noire could have been a movie, and maybe that's what it should have been, because it would probably cast aside all the boring, filler cases. Team Bondi did get something right, the title really did look like a movie; I've never seen such realistic looking character models, where the expressions were highly accurate. In the end, I think the project lost sight of being a game, and what it takes to keep players invested the whole way through.

I'm sad to say it, but L.A. Noire was a dirty trick. A game that promised so much - and failed to achieve everything that it set out to do.