Tina K. Russell

November 23, 2009

The Click and the Dead

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 11:29 am

David Sirlin is a familiar proponent of increased simplicity and usability in video game interfaces. It's a principle he put into practice rebalancing Street Fighter II for Super Street Fighter II HD Remix. At Montreal International Game Summit, he continued the theme with a polemic that used the famous writing handbook The Elements Of Style by Strunk and White to argue that a design must do its best to avoid needless effort on the player’s part.

Using one of William Strunk’s celebrated style rules, “omit needless words,” as a basis, Sirlin took the audience through an entertaining series of case studies demonstrating obvious pitfalls overlooked by many developers.

via MIGS: Every Click Counts | Edge Online.

Hotel Dusk, a game that is very dear to my heart, had one glaring problem that came close to ruining the entire experience (and makes me tepid about the sequel announcement): despite being the most text-heavy game I’ve ever played, you could not press A to finish displaying a block of text. You had to wait for the text to draw itself, letter by letter, onto the screen, at the end of which you completely forgot what you were reading. It was maddening.

Okami made a similar mistake, except only for scenes deemed important by the developers. The thing is, Okami also let you skip entire cutscenes. I never wanted to skip the unimportant cutscenes because I could rapidly advance through the text and read it quickly, but skipping the important cutscenes was always a wicked temptation. That is, a decision they probably made to ensure you paid attention to some cutscenes only made me want to skip those ones. (facepalm)

The moral of the story: little annoyances matter. They can add up to a serious blemish on your game (and one, sadly, that reviewers will generally fail to point out).

July 19, 2009

Amazon.com’s memory hole

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 5:05 pm

In a move that angered customers and generated waves of online pique, Amazon remotely deleted some digital editions of the books from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them.

An Amazon spokesman, Drew Herdener, said in an e-mail message that the books were added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to them, using a self-service function. “When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers,” he said.

Amazon effectively acknowledged that the deletions were a bad idea. “We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances,” Mr. Herdener said.

via Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle Devices – NYTimes.com.

Two thoughts:

  1. I had no idea that my skepticism of the Kindle would be vindicated so soon. I never liked the idea, in theory, that Amazon.com can remove, remotely, any feature or purchase from your device without your knowledge or consent. I didn’t like the theory, and now it’s in the realm of practice. (Yes, they won’t do it again, they say… sure. Let’s see how they hold up the next time they’re assaulted by a gaggle of lawyers carrying pitchforks and legal briefs.)
  2. Wait… the bogus publisher placed pirate versions of Orwell’s books onto the Kindle store using a self-service feature? Amazon.com allows you to add books to the store on the honor system? That’s insane. And, incidentally, be on the lookout for the ultra-bestseller Twilight, now from Tina Russell Publishing, LLC, available on the Kindle Store in about fifteen minutes.

April 28, 2009

Gavin Newsom and the hedgehog vote

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 9:32 pm

When I heard that San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom was running for governor of California, I was very happy. You see, when the Walk of Game exhibit at the Sony Metreon in San Francisco opened in 2005, with Sonic The Hedgehog among its first inductees, Mayor Newsom spent some time hobnobbing with videogame heroes. (Presumably, he was courting the gamer demographic, which we could call “the question-mark bloc.”) Here is the defining picture of that event, and what I always think of when I hear the name “Gavin Newsom”:

newsom_and_sonic

That’s right. Mayor Newsom has his arm around a celebrating Sonic The Hedgehog. You have no idea how happy this photo made me: a politician, one with influence, is angling to be seen living it up with my favorite blue hero. (No doubt Fox News must have thought this made California look weak in the face of videogame threats.)

What amused me the most is to imagine a publicist fretting away at Newsom’s office that morning, pacing frantically and telling Newsom, “you know what you need? We need you to be seen putting your arm around… a blue hedgehog!” (You know, because you have to court the blue hedgehog demographic. You need to show that you care about animal and spectral diversity.) The truth is that it felt like he was doing it for me, for gamers everywhere, telling us that he gets the importance of videogames and modern technology, gets why I would like such a silly and idealistic hero. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t, but he made me happy that day.

January 28, 2009

This might take you a moment

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:18 pm

A Day of Layoffs, Across Industries and Continents – NYTimes.com
And Texas Instruments said after the market closed on Monday that it would cut 3,400 jobs or 12 percent of its work force through 1,800 layoffs and 1,600 buyouts or retirements.

Surely it should be 58,008 jobs cut, right? After all, to reduce costs, sometimes you need to turn the company upside-down.

January 13, 2009

Don’t you know that overambition is waaaaaaay uncool?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:16 am

Crispy Gamer – Feature: Critic in Exile: Is It OK to Finally Admit That I Didn’t Really Like Fallout 3 All That Much?
I recently threw caution to the wind and whispered my anti-Fallout 3 sentiment to a fellow game journalist who edits a competing Web site. I was worried for a moment that this journalist would report me to the Fallout 3 Crusaders. I saw pitchforks and lit torches in my future. To my surprise, this journalist’s eyes got wide. She whispered, “You too? Man, I can’t play that shit, either; it just depresses me too much.”

That’s how I learned that I wasn’t alone.

I know of a least a half-dozen writers who included Fallout 3 in their top-10 lists who, I know for a fact, didn’t invest more than three or four hours in the game if that, and still felt compelled to vote for Fallout 3 — let’s go ahead and say it — because it felt like the right thing to do. In the end, it seems it’s not a question of how much critics liked or disliked the game, but rather an issue of not being able to argue with 1. the developers Bethesda proved with the Elder Scrolls series that they know what they’re doing, and 2. the game’s pedigree the first two Fallout games are already well-ensconced in the canon.

As someone who hated Shenmue, I feel this man’s pain. Shenmue was so profoundly overambitious, its gameplay ended up consisting mainly of talking to scores of fake people with dry and absurd dialogue. (“Hey, Mister!” and “I’m looking for sailors” are its legacy.) Shenmue was was so thoroughly saturated with hype and pretense at its release that the press honeymoon and fans’ cognitive dissonance formed an impenetrable shield against anyone who would impugn its “quality.” Shenmue’s action scenes, when present, were clunky. The mystery, such as it was, was thin, and the game was essentially a big-budget, next-gen, ultra-realistic episode of Blue’s Clues wrapped in layers of fluff about searching for your father’s killer (which somehow involves walking around the city asking about calligraphers). It was essentially an unprecedentedly realistic simulation of being bored, which is something I can already do for free. (Plus, the graphics are better.) It wasn’t until the series got an Xbox sequel with a wider audience that game publications woke up and started admitting the game was beautiful and empty. (EGM memorably gave Shenmue II the year’s “Shut Up and Hit Somebody” award, which they made up for the occasion.)

You may remember that my opinions about Fable are similar, but I played that game four years after it came out, so instead of going against the crowd by saying it was disappointing I went against the crowd by saying no, it’s not disappointing, it’s just bad. (It really was.)

All the time I see games try to be ambitious, be movies, be visual novels, be worlds, and I wonder when games will ever try to be games. (Jet Grind Radio and Katamari Damacy come to mind for me as games that relish in being games, as well as Crazy Taxi, Advance Wars… okay, all the games I like, basically. I hear Gears of War makes a similar accomplishment in form, by making the fine details as fun as the broad strokes.) When we try to cover up that aspect, the core gameplay of a work, we’re essentially being ashamed of the medium; if we try to “make games art” by making them more like other media, we’re essentially saying (against our intentions!) that games aren’t art. Games have story, games have visuals, games have voice, games have music, that’s all wonderful. Games do have expansive and beautiful worlds, and that shouldn’t change. Games are art, and that raises the standards we should all have for the medium: that the unique quality of gameplay, what only games have, should be used to tie all those disparate parts together into something greater than their sum.

December 11, 2008

Animal Cussing

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 6:40 am

Remember, the N word is okay, so as long as it ends in an “a,” the “a” has a grave accent, the “N” has a tilde, and it’s being said by an electronic sheep.

Discussion questions:

  1. Do androids dream of foulmouthed electric sheep?
  2. Those accent marks would roughly describe how the word is pronounced by Colonel Stinkmeaner of The Boondocks, wouldn’t they?

December 10, 2008

Know your platform

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 9:29 pm

Edge on The Conduit, the upcoming first-person shooter for the Wii (and the Wii’s major test in that genre):

The Conduit: Back to Basics | Edge Online
High Voltage Studios has been very vocal lately in decrying what it sees as the technical under-achievements of other developers’ work on Wii. The Conduit is therefore the studio’s line in the sand, an intended new benchmark for Wii’s graphical capabilities.

[They discuss the game’s beauty and detail; not on par with Xbox, but quite impressive for Wii]

The payoff, however, is that the demo we’ve played takes place mainly in identically styled dark, dingy corridors, occasionally lined with crates and boxes for cover and taking a right-angle turn now and then.

[…] In all, the level design feels distinctly last-generation, with much valve turning and switch pressing to be done. Enemy AI, meanwhile, will generally manage to find cover and retreat from heavy fire, but otherwise shows little intelligence – a point the game perhaps tries to explain by referring to them as puppets.

[They discuss the story and the control schene]

But as close as the scheme can feel to a mouse and keyboard at its best, at its worst it’s more awkward than it needs to be. The main problem is that accessing such controls as the minus button (reload) and D-pad (to switch weapons or zoom in) tends to throw out your aim. The issue is with the Remote’s less- than-ergonomic button layout for anything other than A and B, and it’s one that makes you question Wii’s fundamental appropriateness for games that require controls as complex as those needed for a modern FPS. The Conduit, nevertheless, could well prove Wii’s best example so far, even if that’s rather faint praise.

Here’s what I wrote in the comments:

This makes me kind of sad because it seems like the developers didn’t realize they were making a Wii game. With Metroid Prime: Hunters (for DS), the developers knew they had to keep controls simple, colors bright, and silhouettes distinctive, and they created a deep and engaging game from there. Likewise, if it’s hard to push any buttons other than A and B while aiming, the devs should have had the game focus on those two actions (say, jump and shoot) rather than try and stuff a PC FPS onto the Wii Remote. (Then again, what do the Nunchuk buttons do? Those are pretty accessible.)

In addition, it seems like they tried to make the graphics look like a 360 game, which anybody could have told you is a fool’s errand on Wii. In fact… everything about it sounds like they made a last-gen game by trying to make a PS3 or 360 game on a platform that is, by the narrow standards of PS3 and 360, last-gen. Of course, Wii has its own tricks up its sleeve that make it a great console, different strengths and weaknesses to set it apart from the competition, but it sounds like the devs didn’t capitalize on them.

Even capitalizing on the weaknesses could have been a bonus! By simplifying graphics and controls—to avoid direct comparisons to PS3 or 360 games that this game would lose—they could have found space to innovate in new and exciting ways. Dammit!

Limitations can be freeing, because they tell you what not to focus on.

December 3, 2008

The Cutting Edge

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 7:24 am

From Edge’s review of Mirror’s Edge (no relation):

Review: Mirror’s Edge | Edge Online
Its story is so ethereal you barely know it’s there,‭ ‬and when you do you wish it wasn’t.‭ ‬Its puzzles scarcely evolve beyond the obvious,‭ ‬its combos beyond sequences its levels can’t sustain.‭ ‬Attempts to infuse the recurring,‭ ‬utilitarian environments with something‭ – ‬anything‭ – ‬dynamic produce disastrously signposted boss battles,‭ ‬bumbling arcade sequences and the gross indulgence of Faith’s lesser-known talent:‭ ‬turning valves.‭ ‬Run,‭ ‬grab it,‭ ‬run

But the real tragedy of the game,‭ ‬with its dedicated time-trial modes and leaderboards,‭ ‬is its failure to capture anything of what popularised parkour to begin with.‭ ‬There’s no freedom or empowerment in constantly failing to make a predefined jump hemmed in with dead ends.‭ ‬Nor is there sustained momentum,‭ ‬nor any real sense of verticality beyond what passes beneath your feet.

This is what I sincerely appreciate about Edge. A lot of game publications spend so much time previewing a game, hanging out with the developers, fighting off PR reps, etc. that when they finally review a game, they feel a sort of obligation to gloss over its faults. Edge feels no such obligation; whatever you think of their opinions, they’ll give them to you straight. They can also, in the manner of Zero Punctuation (spectacularly filthy language and visuals warning!), be counted on to complain about the things that bug you about games, all the little annoyances that chip away at a game’s unique world.

On the subject of Mirror’s Edge… I’m disappointed that the game isn’t more freeform. Some of my favorite games—most notably Crazy Taxi and Jet Grind Radio, both masterpieces—are basically simulators of getting from point A to point B, repeatedly, whilst avoiding obstacle C. (That’s really the basic premise of Pac-Man, a founding document in gaming culture.) The trick is to give the gamer an open city in which to do crazy cool stunts, so he or she can keep finding new ways to cut corners and show off, to look cool and get the job done. In Crazy Taxi, Jet Grind Radio, and Pac-Man, you’re never given a preset order, and are forced to make things up as you go, which is at the core of what makes them fun. In Mirror’s Edge, it sounds like, levels are more linear and predetermined, which sounds like exactly what would kill a game like it, which is tragic because I liked the idea of a first-person game where it doesn’t feel like your character is a human Steadicam.

Note to the uninitiated: Most first-person games, defined as games in which you see the world from the eyes of the main character, have you move forward and look around with robotic precision, unlike the real world in which your viewpoint bobs around as you walk, run, or do crazy stunts while avoiding totalitarian government agents. The idea of a first-person game with no guns, one about using your wits and athletics alone to escape the Man, sounded really compelling to me. It’s sad that it sounds like the game didn’t reach that distant rooftop it was leaping toward.

November 26, 2008

New Experience Required

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 4:12 pm

Tina’s Xbox Live avatarI have tried Microsoft’s vaunted “New Xbox Experience.” Hmmm… I can say that what I was most looking forward to was making my avatar, at right, which was fun. My impression was that Microsoft had found the happy medium between too simple (Wii’s “Mii” system) and laughably overwrought (PlayStation 3’s euphemistic “Home”). The “NXE,” as they call it, made it simple and fun to make an avatar that looked like me and carried a real visual weight. Yes, it has big heads, unlike on PS3, but they also have discernable bodies, unlike on Wii. Here’s a tip: use a “chiseled” chin for some transsexual chic.

I picked the green shirt, plaid red skirt, and “Goth Boots,” but I also enjoy trapsing around (in my imagination) with the yellow spring dress and matching pumps. For once, somebody at Microsoft has my number. (Really, I just enjoy any fantasy in which I look good in anything I want to wear. Eat that, Tina’s body.)

To the service’s shame, only one game so far really uses these avatars for their intended purpose as game characters: the downloadable title A Kingdom for Keflings, which I must admit was amusing. The demo had me giggling with its simple tasks and lovable presentation. That said, it gave me no confidence that this enticement held up over time; as my brother observed, “it’s the economic part of an RTS” (real-time strategy, like StarCraft or something). It’s the build-up, but without any competition… and unless I can customize things to my liking, as in Animal Crossing, there isn’t much to the power fantasy of building a self-sufficient society on my own. …Well, there is, but it wears off. I don’t just want my kingdom to love me; I want to ride through the streets on a human-carried sedan, wearing a bikini and sensually holding a fan, while citizens clamor to catch of glimpse of their beautiful leader.

…I may have issues. In any case, strolling around a forest as a giant, picking tiny people up and putting them down to get them to do work for me, and in time building up a beautiful kingdom for them to live in, is a pretty enticing proposition. I just want to be sure that, in the end, they roll me in shimmering gold dust and proclaim me their golden matriarch.

…I’ve gone too far, again. Download the demo, though; watching yourself pick people up like that and order them around is a sight to behold, as is helping them build beautiful houses for them to live out their happy tiny-people lives in. Awww…

I should discuss the rest of the “Experience,” besides building avatars to fulfill my narcissistic messiah-complex fantasies. (What else is there?) Um, well… I haven’t been using my Xbox 360 in a while, and, given that Sonic Unleashed (breaking my heart!) has had a lukewarm critical reception, I probably won’t use it for a while longer. Meanwhile, hard as Microsoft tries to proclaim its system as some kind of gateway to orgasmically joyful media consumption, it’s difficult to believe they’re doing me a favor when you must pay by the pound at a steep price for everything. I mean, there’s nothing inherently wrong with charging two dollars a single half-hour TV episode laden with DRM on a system with an estimated lifespan of two more years, you just won’t see me clamoring to take them up on the deal. Their movie “rental” service, with its arcane rules, is more sensible to one’s budget ($3 for regular, $4 for HD… I think), in the sense that it does not involve physically going to a decaying Blockbuster outlet and hoping that it is not out of business within the five-day rental period. However, it’s simply not a substantially better deal than other services, and the selection is lousy. Every movie studio is willing to hand over its dregs, and only its dregs, to this experimental Xbox movie service, so you have the second two Matrix movies but not the first one, Shanghai Knights but not Shanghai Noon, etc. This service has been around for two years and its selection is still pathetic. Hmmm, I wonder if Microsoft could score a deal with a hip new (in relative terms) movie rental service to enhance its selection?

That’s where Netflix comes in, at full throttle, you might say. The “NXE,” which I refuse to type unless I can use quotation marks, adds the Netflix streaming service to the Xbox 360. It works if you have a Netflix subscription and an Xbox Live Gold subscription, which are fairly pricey together. Fortunately, my brother has both; a Netflix subscription so that he can watch the TV shows and movies culturally assigned to him in college, and an Xbox Live Gold subscription so that he could play Carcassonne with potty-mouthed 14-year-olds (no doubt trying to figure out how to “hump” your opponent in a board game). I can indulge my brother’s overabundance of free time, then, by using his Netflix account to watch old movies and TV shows. And boy, if you thought the Xbox Live movie rental service had slim pickings…

I think Netflix’s movie streaming service (in which you pay by subscription, as God intended, not by the title) actually has a substantially bigger library, in volume, perhaps by orders of magnitude, than Xbox Live’s movie rentals. However, the Netflix streaming service manifests Netflix’s reputation of having “the obscure stuff” in an unfortunate way… it has an implausibly random selection of completely obscure stuff, and there does not seem to be any rhyme or reason as to what’s on. Seriously, browse the selection.

Oh, wait, you can’t! In an impenetrably stupid marketing move, you cannot see the Netflix streaming library, what titles are in it, unless you have a Netflix subscription. Actually, maybe that’s brilliant; you have no idea what you’re signing up for! I used my brother’s subscription to browse the catalog, and do not worry… you aren’t missing anything. Well, unless they happened to stop the wheel on your favorite obscurities, in which case… auuugh! Netflix’s marketing “logic” is cooking my brain.

As a sample, here’s what I picked out, one lonely night, from the catalog to place on my “Instant Queue”:

  • Heroes, season one (I like ’em cheesy and idealistic, and I hear this show delivers… too bad the exposition appears to be at least a third of the freaking season)
  • Heroes, season two (Back for more punishment)
  • Transamerican Love Story (I have to admit, if there have to be vapid TV dating shows—and after seeing half of the first episode and failing to finish, I can tell you it’s predictably awful—it’s nice to see trans-positive vapid dating shows. Maybe we can see trans-positive emptily pretentious cop dramas, or trans-positive HBO gutter serials. Oh, what a bright future…)
  • Girls’ High (I can’t remember why I picked this one. It’s an anime. Their anime selection is also maddeningly arbitrary.)
  • Some other anime with a strange name. I haven’t a clue why I picked it.
  • Air (I watched the beginning of this anime, and it did seem cool, except that it confirmed that Netflix only streams anime dubbed, gyaaaaahhh!)
  • Justice League: New Frontier (because they didn’t have those Avengers DVD releases, and I like superheroes)
  • Our Brand is Crisis (about American political consultants exporting our, uh, brand of democracy abroad; it sounds interesting)
  • The Beauty Academy of Kabul (I’ve heard of the story before, and it sounds interesting)
  • Yes, Minister (an old British comedy series about politics; it’s funny)
  • Network (I’m mad as hell that I still haven’t seen this movie, and I’m not going to take it anymore)
  • Easy (it’s a cheesy romance movie. It sounds pretty stupid. Hannah, I’m too ashamed to ask this in person: want to come over and watch it? If it turns out to be too awful at the start, we can watch something else.)
  • Sonic Underground, volumes one and two (this deserves its own paragraph… or two)

I can’t blame Netflix too much; they’re excuse for why the pickings are so slim is that they have to go through the arduous process of licensing every movie in their massive stockpile all over again. I’ll extrapolate further: movie studios are loath to “cannibalize” the sales of their good movies, so they prefer dumping their refuse onto any promising new service that asks. Now they can say they’re “with it” and working toward the future, except that the new service can’t survive under the weight of such mediocre titles. Thus, the service remains unpopular, and the existing, increasingly outmoded business models are saved. I think the lesson they’ve taken from Apple’s conquering of the digital music market is simply not to license good content; keep that in the physical realm. (The lesson should be to get the jump on Apple with a superior service, but telling content holders to innovate is like telling overcompensated CEOs to earn their fat paychecks. Oh, wait, it is telling overcompensated CEOs to earn their fat paychecks. My bad.)

Remember that big content holders tried to stop FM radio, tried to stop home video and are furiously trying to stop BitTorrent. Holding back the future seems to be easier than adapting to it, in the minds of the already powerful.

I’ve been using the streaming service, now, to watch entirely too much Heroes at a time (maybe, in the next episode, something will happen!), to watch Yes, Minister, and… Sonic Underground. This is a cartoon that I’m quietly resisting bringing up… it was made in the late nineties (before Sonic Adventure), which is by far the most miserable, most abominable period of Sonic history, surpassing (yes) even the current malaise. This is a cartoon in which Sonic wears a magical medallion that transforms into a three-necked guitar that shoots laser beams… and believe it or not, it’s all downhill from there.

I will say one thing in its favor: Sean Connery makes a guest appearance (at least one, as far as I’ve seen), telling Knuckles “the fate of Mobiush is in your handzsh!”, and I will treasure that forever. If he later speaks of the “Chaosh Emeraldzsh,” I will die happy.

UPDATE: I’m heartbroken to have to retract that about Mr. Connery; I became curious when I did not see his name in the credits to the relevant episodes, and can now confirm his name is no longer listed on the IMDB page for Sonic Underground (I’m pretty sure that was my original source). Instead, IMDB now lists Maurice LaMarche in that role, no doubt doing a pretty good Sean Connery impression. (LaMarche does appear in the credits; however, with the exception of Jaleel White as the three hedgehogs, character and actor names are not matched.)

As it happens, I can’t find any independent source to verify that character’s actor. The closest I can find is an offical press release, from the distributor, for a Sonic Underground boxed set (I didn’t know that show had 40 episodes! Painful), boasting that Sean Connery appears in that role. Since IMDB is so widely used, even in professional copywriting circles, I can’t really accept that as definitive. All that would convince me now of Connery’s involvement in that sorry chapter of Sonic history would be confirmation from DIC, or for that matter, Connery himself. Given that LaMarche is about nine million times more likely, I’m going with that for now.

Remember, IMDB is not an official source. It’s pretty reliable for run-of-the-mill stuff, but if you see something that makes you say “holy $@#!,” you should probably check it first. If you make the mistake of believing IMDB implicitly, you’re not alone; I made that mistake just now. (The same goes for Wikipedia. It’s really a wonderful source; just make sure it’s not your only source.)

November 18, 2008

Animal Crossing

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 11:25 pm

I thought y’all should be made aware that I’m now the proud owner of a copy of Animal Crossing: City Folk, and that those interested should come visit the town of Elysium at the earliest convenience! Here’s my info:

My name: Tina
My town’s name: Elysium
My Friend Code: 5112-6939-3711

Leave a comment if you’re interested! Bring your town fruit!

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