Sunday, December 21, 2014

Things People Say: "I'm Proud that my Daughter has Never Played a Video Game"

     Today I'm writing about something that was recently said to me, and that struck a funny chord for me. Recently I was at an event in which my entire extended family was in attendance (let's code-name it "Thanksgiving"). Like with many families, my relatives all fell from the same metaphorical tree, but they each landed in a radically different spot in the viewpoint orchard. I can say (hopefully without sounding too immodest) that most of my relatives are pretty smart -- above average IQs, recipients of good to great scholarships in higher education, etc.
     And yet, with this general air of intelligence floating throughout the family, my uncle (whose sarcasm button is mildly broken in that you can never tell if he truly means what he is saying), upon seeing my brother and me playing LittleBigPlanet on the PS Vita, commented in a proud tone that his daughter (who was sitting across the table from him) had never played a video game in her life. An argument then ensued when a different cousin (from different parents) commented that he KNEW he had seen the 18-year-old daughter in question play a Pocahontas PC game when she was younger. This drew forth from my uncle the comment that Computer Games are not the same as Video Games. They're Educational (capitalizations intentional). The conversation ended there when more pressing matters were brought to our attention (namely: food).

     What disturbs me about this conversation is that even among well-educated and critically-thinking people, the perception that video games are a "bad influence" or "non-educational" runs rampant. Now, I am well aware that this is just a situational inconvenience of our time. We are in one of those important time periods where video games need to be defended and people need to be educated. There has been a time like this for every major form of media, from ancient times up to and including the present day. Bannings and burnings have been an ever present concern for written literature, music, and more contemporary media forms such as film and, of course, video games. Just look at the current Sony Pictures controversy for a relevant example. But the disturbing part is not that a large fraction of the human population has moral problems with specific games. It's that such a large number of people believe that those specific games represent the entire media form known as "video games." It's like thinking that Lord of the Flies is the preeminent example of a work of written literature (For more fitting examples, take a look at this list) and then judging all other works on something someone told you about that one book.

    Perhaps if the media form were given a name that did not include the word "game" (which has juvenile and/or unrespectable connotations and origins) it would be taken more seriously. This is a large philosophical issue and it is not for me to determine how we need to lexicographically change the way in which we refer to the medium of the video game.

     The entire discussion presented here reminds me of a specific passage in the first European novel, Don Quixote. The chapter is titled, "Of the diverting and minute scrutiny performed by the curate and the barber, in the library of our sagacious hero" and consists of Quixote's "friends" removing all of the books from his house and burning them one by one:
While the knight was asleep, his friends came, and demanded of his niece the key of the closet in which those books, the authors of his misfortune, were kept. . . . [T]hey went into it in a body, house-keeper and all, and found upwards of an hundred volumes, great and small, extremely well bound. . . . The licentiate . . . desired of the barber to hand him the books, one by one, that he might see of what subjects they treated, because they might possibly find some that did not deserve to be purged by fire. 'There is not one of them, replied the niece, which deserves the least mercy, for they are all full of mischief and deceit.' (75)
The book-burners do look briefly at each book (and some they remember fondly), but in the end, as Don Quixote begins to wake up, they hastily throw all of the books onto the bonfire. I feel that this is what general society is currently doing with video games. Because some dislike the idea of specific games existing, instead of performing extensive research they decide that it will be easier to throw all of the games onto the bonfire and be done with it.

     Finally, I want to remark that the irony of the conversation with my uncle was fairly extreme, since my brother and I were playing LittleBigPlanet, possibly one of the most innocent, educational, and creative games ever made. If ever a game inspired creativity in children and adults alike, it was LittleBigPlanet. But because of pre-conceptions about video games and their supposed lack of educational value, some people will never be able to experience the joys of games such as this one.




Works Consulted:

Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. Trans. Tobias Smollett. New York: The Modern Library, 2001. 
     Print.
Schmidt, Michael. The Novel: A Biography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014. Print.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Giveaway Winners Announced!

Hello all! I apologize for being so late with wrapping up my Sci-Fi Month Giveaway. A death in the family caused all other things in my life to be put on hold until everything settled down a bit. I finally have the winners to announce, however! First, here is the link to the original Giveaway page: here. I have used Random.org to determine who wins which place.

So, without further ado, here are the winners!

FIRST PLACE: Rinn! (Chose Darksiders!)
SECOND PLACEMs. Misantropia!
THIRD PLACE: Paula!

Winners will be contacted individually, and may let me know which game they choose in whichever form of communication they prefer (a comment on this page will also suffice). Also, I ask that if you have not already, winners should at least temporarily friend me on Steam (my username is Ringwraith10) so I can transfer the game. I will contact each winner in order of their placing so that the first place winner can claim a preference, and so on.

Thank you to all entrants. I look forward to next year's Sci-Fi Month and to the possibility of more Giveaways in the future!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

How Final Fantasy XIII-2 Contributes to Time Travel Folklore

I know, I know. It's Sci-Fi month and I'm writing about a Final Fantasy game. But with all the time travel, futuristic cities, and robots in this game, I just can't see the fantasy through all the science fiction. 


     Writing about time travel is difficult, especially if you are not a physicist. I'm going to try to give it a shot. Over the years, a number of works -- both scientific and fictional -- have given us a set of standards to expect when encountering a story that uses time travel as a plot device. Some time travel stories don't give detailed explanations of the mechanics of how time travel works. They just go with it and hope that the audience will suspend their disbelief long enough to watch a silly time travel scene (here's an example appropriate for the holiday season). Other stories do a better job of explaining how their time travel system works. Being a J-RPG (and thus being a very long game), Final Fantasy XIII-2 attempts to explain the time travel that drives the plot (while also trying to be less opaque than its predecessor) in great detail. The avenue through which the protagonists travel through time in this game is called the Historia Crux, and is described by the game's narrator as, "the
crossroads between the Time Gates. It is a separate dimension connecting one age to the next." While this description is wordy and confusing, a playthrough of the game allows the game's audience to see exactly how the timeline is shaped and changed through the creation and fixing of time paradoxes. Below is an image from the game that shows the timeline with all of its paradoxical time periods along with the correct (or fixed) time periods. Each numbered spot is a place in time that the player can visit throughout the journey in the game.


     The next image is the selection screen where the player chooses which time and place to visit.


   Those familiar with time travel lore and classic '80s movies may feel that the timeline matrix shown above looks a bit familiar. This would be because it follows the theory of alternate timelines explained by Doc Brown in "Back to the Future: Part II". 


     Where "Back to the Future: Part II" shows merely one alternate timeline, however, Final Fantasy XIII-2 creates numerous alternate times that players will encounter, which can be quite confusing. To try to make the Historia Crux less daunting, different instances of a time the player has already visited are denoted with an X in the numbered part of the year. For instance, if the player has already visited the year 10 AF, an alternate version of that time is listed as 1X AF. 
     So how can we consider this a contribution to time travel folklore? Up until now, one of the most detailed and well-remembered definitions of time paradoxes in popular science fiction was the one presented by Doc Brown. Final Fantasy XIII-2 takes the same theory and ,provides many more examples, or incidences, to help its audience understand the daunting concept of multiple time dimensions.

   As an aside, because this post is a part of Sci-Fi Month, and because I'm sure someone who is reading this is thinking about it, I want to mention the TV show "Stargate: SG-1." Over the course of ten seasons, three movies, and countless spin-offs, this tv show has confused me to the point of extreme frustration when it comes to its creators' take on alternate dimensions and time travel. They couldn't just travel through space: they had to travel through time, as well, and boy did they make a mess out of that. I'm sure someone out there understands that timeline/dimension-line perfectly, but I sure don't. Honorable mention in the hall of time travel confusion goes to both "Star Trek" and "Superman".

     For more discussion about time travel theory, watch this clip from the tv show "The Big Bang Theory": 


    And again, remember that there is one week left to enter the big Sci-Fi Month video game GIVEAWAY! There are only a few entries so far, so you have a good chance of winning a game if you enter now!


Saturday, November 15, 2014

To the Moon: 16-Bit Graphic Style Does Not Equal Poor Storytelling!


     As usual, a few disclaimers first: yes, there may be spoilers in this article. This time, however, I must confess that I have not quite finished the game (I have been so busy working on my thesis, playing games is almost a thing of the past these days). So I do request that no one spoil the ending for me this time! Also, I understand that this game is not technically 16-bit because that would require that it play exclusively on a 16-bit console. The art style is definitely inspired by 16-bit era games, however.

     To the Moon is a small game that has a story that could be easily sold on the big screen. Like The Time Traveler's Wife, the story involves an unusual form of time travel and a tragic romance. The story begins with a dying man and two scientists who are tasked with bringing about his greatest wish: to visit the moon. In order to do this, however, they must use futuristic technology to enter his mind and view the history of his life one moment at a time -- in backwards order. Though they are not technically traveling through time (they are, in fact, standing in the room with the man while they operate their machinery), their consciousnesses are transported into the man's memories, and they must use important objects that he remembers to continue to travel further back into his older memories. All of the characters in this story have deeply three dimensional personalities (even if they are portrayed in a two-dimensional art format), and the player is able to become very empathetic with them early on. For instance, it is made clear that there is something unusual about the dying man's wife. Eventually, players discover along with the two scientists that the woman had Asperger's Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. Players live this man's life, albeit backwards, through the course of the game.

     The concepts presented in this game are new, unusual, and highly literary. There is the traditional format of romance and science fiction, but these are only large blanket terms that barely begin to describe the complexity of the time travel dynamic involved in the science fiction, or the irregularity of the relationship between the central figure and his wife. Some may dismiss the game because of its older graphic style and assume that because the graphics aren't flashy, the game must be very primitive. In truth, however, the simpler graphics allow the player to become more immersed in the story, since he or she is not distracted by the graphics. There is no lack of beauty in the game's visuals, though. 16-bit graphic styles can be very pretty (and have a cult following because some believe they are the most beautiful graphic form), and in place of cut scenes, there are some gorgeous works of digital art dispersed throughout the game.

Even with an already intense plot to rest on, the game adds other entertaining elements to the mix. For instance, there is one hilarious moment early in the game where the RPG genre (to which this game arguably belongs) is clearly parodied. One of the scientists (whichever one the player picks to control) is taking a tour of the grounds with the housekeeper's two children. The children begin to discuss fantasy role playing, and the scientist, trying to seem cool, begins a "random battle" with a squirrel. See the scene on YouTube here.

    As with many a complex story line, fan theories abound with this game. If you have already played and finished the game, browse the Steam community discussions to see what I mean.

Finally, don't forget to enter the GIVEAWAY for Sci-Fi Month! The giveaway ends November 30th.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Ready Player One: Teaching Research Methods with Video Games

     We did something really cool at my library this semester. Every year, incoming freshmen at Georgia College and State University are assigned a book to read which is chosen for the students' enjoyment, but also for its ability to impart wisdom to unsuspecting college students. Every year in the library, we also host a scavenger hunt that teaches new students about how to use the library. This year, the book that was chosen for the Freshmen to read was Ernest Cline's Ready Player One


     In tandem with the Ready Player One spirit of hunting for clues within a video game (which is essentially an extremely condensed plot of the story -- click the link on the book's title for more information on the book itself), the library's annual scavenger hunt was centered around 8- and 16-bit games from the '80s and '90s. First students had to find clues that taught them about the library and how to use it for their research needs (an example of a clue used is as follows: "In the book Ready Player One, Wade Watts shares a piece of dialogue from a John Hughes movie on page 62. Find the movie in the library. Flip over the DVD. There’s a painting at center in a picture on the back. Give the name of the painting to the Gatekeepers at the print desk as your pass key.") Once a student solved the day's clue, he or she had to take it to the circulation desk. If the student had the correct answer, a special room was unlocked where they would play one round of a game (the game and the clue changed each day of the event) and then record their score on a scoreboard (just like the scoreboard in the book). At the end of the event, all of the scores were tallied and the students with the highest scores were awarded prizes. 


     This is an excellent approach to using video games and popular literature as both incentives and actual tools in teaching students how to use their educational resources and succeed in school and in the rest of their lives. Though many people who are unfamiliar with the complexity of video games as a media form would claim that video games have no educational value whatsoever, this event clearly established that video games can easily be incorporated into academic life.

    Cline's book was also used as a venue to introduce students to various entertainment choices held within the library's collection. Because the decade of the 1980s is so central to the book's plot, a display of '80s movies was erected in order to introduce students to the vast collection of movies and other media that the library owns. As any literature scholar or bibliophile knows, introducing impressionable young minds to the wonders of the library is always a wonderful thing!

(An aside: don't forget that the GIVEAWAY is still going on until the end of the month!)



Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sci-Fi Month GIVEAWAY!


You heard that right, I'm doing a Giveaway! This is my first time doing this, but if all goes smoothly three happy people will end up with video game prizes at the end of the month! So here's what you want to hear: how to enter!

Rules:
  1.  Post this giveaway page to a social media outlet of your choice. To make it easier, you can use the buttons at the bottom of the page. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Livejournal -- anything goes.
  2.  Make a comment in the comments section of this post, and name a game or two that you think would fit the theme of video games as literature. If you want, you can give a short explanation about your choice. 
  3.  At the end of your comment, include a link to your social media post. Also provide information that will allow me to contact you (your Twitter, Facebook, etc. will suffice).
  4. Entrant must be age 17 or over AND must either have a Steam account or be willing to make one (the Steam platform can be downloaded for free here). 
  5. Only one entry is allowed per person.


Three winners will be chosen randomly from among the commenters. And here are the prizes!


Overlord
Fallout 3
Darksiders

First place winner gets one game of choice, second place chooses from among the remaining two, and third place wins the last game available.

The giveaway ends on the last day of the month.

These games were chosen as the prizes for a number of reasons. Fallout 3, of course, is one of the games I have already discussed on this blog, though there is a good chance I will have more to say about it in the future. Overlord is a great game that parodies the many cliches of the fantasy genre (especially those presented in The Lord of the Rings) -- it's also been called "Evil Pikmin". I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's certainly a thing. Darksiders similarly uses literary influences to tell its own story. Most importantly, (with the possible exception of Overlord) these are all relevant to Sci-Fi Month -- the reason for the Giveaway!



Saturday, November 1, 2014

Sci-Fi Month November!


     This month I will be participating in Sci-Fi November! This is an event hosted by the awesome girls over at Oh! The Books and Rinn Reads. Though the majority of participating blogs are book blogs, there are definitely a plethora of Sci-Fi related video games! Two video games I intend to write about this month are Final Fantasy XIII-2 (yes, it has "fantasy" in the title, but in my post I will definitely show how it is more of a science fiction story than fantasy) and To the Moon (as already promised). If you want to read my thoughts on any other science fiction video games, just let me know in a comment! 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Changes, Updates, and Surprises!

     You may have noticed some changes to the site! I've made some updates to the design in preparation for a big surprise event that will be starting November first. Come back to see what's happening (there may even be a giveaway)!

     Here's a small clue regarding what I will be writing about... but this certainly isn't all that's in store: 



Thursday, August 7, 2014

How "The Amazon Trail" Made Me Smarter Than My Science Teacher


     This post will be a bit different than the others -- I want to write about a personal experience, so rather than writing a formal article I am writing an informal, memoir-like essay. I am inspired to write this in part by this article, which I feel gives a passive aggressively negative view on video games, and also particularly by this tweet, which is my response to a self-proclaimed educator who reacted very strongly to the previously mentioned article. For some positive news about video games, read this article, which made me feel that at least some parts of the educating world are on the side of video games. That said, on to my essay.

     I'm not afraid to deny it: The Amazon Trail was my all-time favorite game when I was a child. I played it constantly, and when the second game came out, I played it even more (there was a third game that sort of ruffled my feathers, but we won't go there). This game initiated my life-long obsession with the Amazon Rainforest, Incan Civilization, and everything related to South America. So of course, when I was assigned in my seventh grade honors science class to create a project about a famous scientist, I chose famed ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who is featured in the game. Oh, haven't you heard of him? Well, neither had my teacher.

See, look -- he's a real person!

Rather than be curious and ask for more information about this brilliant man, my teacher decided to make the mistake of many an ignorant soul and insist that I had made the name up. In front of the entire class, I was told that I was misbehaving, was essentially called a liar, and was told to choose a real scientist for my project. Of course, this made me mad, and when I get mad, I turn to Google... or what in that day was called HotBot (because this was the early 2000s and Google wasn't really a thing yet). I found some information on Schultes, printed it out, and proudly presented it to my teacher. I'd like to say that I included a, "Hah, so there!" when I gave it to her, but I really was a rather shy kid back then and likely was very polite. And yes, she let me do my project on him. I do recall vividly that there was no apology given.

     My point with this story is that The Amazon Trail, a [*shock*] video game, taught me so much, and influenced my life to such an extreme extent that it has shaped my decisions regarding what I want to do with my career and adult life. It inspired me to perform extra research on a multitude of aspects of Amazon history, biology, and other areas. And yes, it was one of those oft-shunned "educational" games, but I know many of us have very fond memories of its older brother, The Oregon Trail. I mean, that game has spawned recent internet memes, for goodness' sake (Though the phrase I like to quote is Amazon Trail's "Oooh, you have bubonic plague" or "Oooh, you died.").

    I'm sure many other children and adults have played similarly life-changing games, and my strong hope is that many children will be allowed to share these experiences in the future. Please feel free to comment if you would like to share any of your own video game experiences!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas: The Post-Apocalyptic Middle Earth?

       Originally, I thought I would write on the Elder Scrolls series. Right now that's looking like too huge a task, so I will instead take a look at its post-apocalyptic sibling, Fallout. Fallout (in this case, I will be speaking mostly about Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas) is huge. The world in which this series takes place is a post-nuclear apocalypse United States: specifically what was once Washington D.C. (the Capital Wasteland) and Nevada (New Vegas/ The Mojave Wasteland). While these cities are familiar territory in our time, the Fallout series makes them a whole different world: one in which each character, city, and object has its own deep history and back-story. Some of the history of this world is based in true historical fact -- and the 1940s theme present in the music, dress, and atmosphere of the game leads to an incorrect initial impression that the apocalypse took place during World War II. Instead, the "Great War" took place in 2077 -- several decades in the future. The history of the Fallout alternate world is well thought out and complex. If you visit the timeline compiled on the Fallout Wiki, you can read a long alternate history that is so detailed it seems as though it could be real. The information on the timeline mainly comes from the famed "Fallout Bible" -- a series of documents used by the game's developers to keep track of the world they are creating. Much of the information, however, also comes from clues within the games themselves.

Source: Fallout: New Vegas

For instance, the above picture is a screenshot of a still-working computer that contains journal entries from the day the bombs were launched. All across the large open world found in Fallout players can discover little clues here and there that help tell the overall story of what has happened to this world.
     The deep history of the Fallout world is not the only story present here, though. Many characters, even minor ones, have long histories that players could spend hours discovering. In several of the games, but most notably in "New Vegas," the protagonist picks up followers -- NPCs that can travel with your character. Each of these NPCs has their own quest, which you can only obtain once you have spent time with the characters and gotten to know them.
Source: Fallout: New Vegas

Pictured above is Boone, one of the first potential followers a player will likely encounter in the Mojave Wasteland. His story is rich with drama and hardship -- involving time spent serving in the NCR military, a disastrous event that causes him mild PTSD, and the eventual sale of his wife to Legion slavers by a neighbor. That's a novel's worth of information right there, and this is a character that the player may never even meet while playing the game (he is not involved in the main quest in any way). Boone is just one of many people in the Fallout universe that have detailed back-stories for the player to learn.
     So how does any of this relate to Tolkien and Middle Earth, as the title suggests? Few authors take their work so seriously that they create an entire world in which to set their stories, but both Tolkien and the creators of Fallout have done just that. In both cases, the world was created before the stories that are set there, and the world itself almost seems to be more important than each individual story. Instead of updating the world as the story goes along, Tolkien and the Fallout creators mapped out their worlds almost in their entirety before anything was published. Though Tolkien has died, and all we have left to discover from his world are the few remaining unpublished notes that his family and heirs have yet to unveil to the public, the Fallout universe seems to be alive and well. It will be exciting to see what new stories and information Fallout's creators have to share with us when they finally reveal their next game.

Works Consulted:

"Fallout: New Vegas." dir. Josh Sawyer. Bethesda, 2010. Video Game.
"Great War." Nukapedia. n.d. Web. 13 July 2014. <http://fallout.wikia.com/wiki/Great_War>.
"Timeline." Nukapedia. n.d. Web. 13 July 2014. <http://fallout.wikia.com/wiki/Timeline>. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Updates

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Hi all!

This post is not a review, but rather an update on the status of this blog. First off, you'll see at the top that I have added this blog to the website "Bloglovin," which is a nice new resource I found for following your favorite blogs. If you use it, please follow my blog there!

As a grad student who has a pretty big, stressful job, I'm sure you can understand that I have a lot going on and very little time. I try to write in this blog when I can, but often I can't find the time. I have a whole list of games that I most wish to write about in the near future. That's where you come in! I want your feedback -- please comment and tell me which of the following games you're most interested in reading about!

Without further ado, here's the list:

Alan Wake
Bastion
Fallout: New Vegas
Final Fantasy X
The Lion King (Sega Genesis)
The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
To the Moon