Sunday, February 27, 2011

First Life

Over the years, I've watched trends in the integration of on-line existence with the real world. This has included the decline of print journalism, people making supplemental income off of MMORPGs like Second Life, and even how we communicate more through our various gadgets than we do by talking to people on the phone (something I've never really enjoyed, save for rare occasions) or those sitting near us in the same room. Part of me still considers this to be antisocial behavior, while another side wants to accept that it's just a different form of interacting with the world and our social circles (this still does not excuse people from sending text messages while out for a romantic encounter, or laughing at a funny picture that a friend posted to Facebook, while one is in the middle of a business meeting or job interview).

Then came passive competition, driven by marketing wizards, nicely bundled in the form of social games. I'm not talking about the product placement by Coca-Cola or automobile manufacturers that one sees in select console games, or playing Jewels in the Crown with your car air fresheners (look it up). I'm talking about the ones where we do the placement ourselves -- where we become the advertisements.

Follow the geo-cached ad

I first noticed this with FourSquare, where a person can earn points when checking in at a particular venue and announce it to one's social circles, or the internet at large. You can write reviews, leave tips for other people who venture to your location, and earn "badges" based upon your social activity. Some places have even jumped on this to offer discounts or free appetizers (depending on the establishment) to the person who checks in the most, creating a competition to announce a particular place's, well, place on a map, and deposing other FourSquare users to become that spot's "Mayor," or "Marquess," or "Viscount," or whatever title they apply to such a ranking.

This became even more obvious last year when Gowalla, really the only competition FourSquare has, decided to partner with other companies to offer discounts on store products. They would run micro-campaigns, where if users did something like say, travel to Best Buy, take pictures themselves with an employee in the mobile electronics department, and post it to Gowalla along with the location, those users would be eligible for discounts on new, shiny iPhones, or something similar.

Who wants a banana sticker?

Some people don't care about announcing their locations for the sake of discounts, or getting close to the teenage employee at the mall for a picture (which would be specious at best, in my world) to become eligible to win a new N-Gage, or similar thing people think they want but ultimately don't. Some people like doing things that don't require wasting gasoline.

For those of you who aren't traveling abroad to announce "OMG BEST WENDY'S BURGZ EVAR!" there's GetGlue, which is pretty much FourSquare for shut-ins. GetGlue allows the user to check in when she/he uses or experiences "things." Check into Netflix if you use the service. Are you listening to music? Let GetGlue know which artist, album, and song. Are you using a fork? "Like" it on GetGlue. Are you using GetGlue? Announce it to the world via GetGlue and start a feedback loop that has us all wishing for a large stalagmite at the bottom of the rabbit hole.

GetGlue awards points for checking in, the frequency of check-ins, and also reviews and comments. The points and badges you earn aren't theoretical. After you earn so many badges (or "stickers," in this case) GetGlue will actually send you a sheet of decals of the rankings you've earned.

Not only that, but this service can be integrated with many sites, like Wikipedia, IMDB, Amazon, and others, thereby showing the things you've looked at elsewhere on your account. This is marketing genius for those who want to tailor on-line advertising to the individual user, based on viewing trends and interests. (Though what ads I'm going to see from trend analytics trying to correlate Danny Cooksey, The King In Yellow, and  anime should be a big surprise, should I pay attention to advertisements.)

Pure Personal Enjoyment

On the side of personal enjoyment, there are sites such as Goodreads and Both of these sites allow the user to keep track and announce what he or she is reading or listening to, respectively, with minimal advertising, and without "earning" or "winning" anything. Read or review a book, and announce such (as all the sites I've mentioned are able to be integrated with Facebook, Twitter, and even Google Buzz) for your friends or others on Goodreads to see. Sometimes reading what a good judge of books has to say about a particular title is better than what any New York Times Book Review or Amazon paid advertisement User Review can impart to the potential purchaser/reader.

I feel I have to take a pause here, because throughout this article, it may seem like I'm bashing the world of marketing, like it's become the Player Piano or They Live it's always been, at heart. Such is not the case. I fully acknowledge that web sites, or indeed most services have a cost and need to maintain their overhead. I'm also in favor of sites and people who want to generate a profit. Nor am I above being susceptible to seeing shiny new things and buying them even though I truly don't need them. I've toyed with placing ads on this site, but don't actually see them enticing the readership.

Making the loathsome entertaining (and possibly back again)

I enjoy games. Role-playing games, to be specific. Give me dice and tomes of source material, or a screen and a good story, and I can dive in for hours at a time. In the former scenario, I enjoy the social aspect and the absurdity that ensues from such gatherings. In the latter, it's all about exploration and uncovering every tidbit of information about the world, characters, and (of course) items and treasure.

I've played games in high fantasy settings, interstellar space, 1920's New England, and even the (surprisingly hilarious) dystopian future. I'd rather roll random numbers for an evening than say, do laundry, pay bills, and wash windows.

Enter Chore Wars, a site similar to the ones listed above, minus the advertising, that attempt to turn everyday activities into a game, where one can earn points. The user creates a character, picks special abilities (scrubbing the toilet, ironing, vacuuming, etc.) and earns experience points for doing chores. As with the others, it's mostly based on the honor system, and there's really no sense in claiming to do the dishes twelve time a day (which may hint at something bigger than wanting to "level up") in order to surpass everyone else playing.

The +1 screwdriver helps with most chores, in my world

For those still not baffled by this, there is the option to join parties to share in the experience. (If you think you're being clever in making a "World of Chorecraft" joke, govern thy tongue, it exists.) This could be a novel approach to getting things done in a house full of bachelors, a fraternity/sorority house, or just an attempt to making getting rid of grime and folding clothes seem not as horrible as it is for some. (I rather enjoy the mental imagery of a nixie, a minotaur, a human paladin, a werewolf, and a dragon engaging simultaneously in domestic activities while wearing little aprons, armed with feather dusters and cans of oven cleaner.)

I've yet to decide whether or not to create an account at the last site. Perhaps after I relocate. We'll see.

I think what I'm getting at is that we've gotten to the point where our individual lives can be social experiences, if we choose them to be. The digital æther is not longer something we use just for information, or to escape reality, but more something we can use to augment the here and now, without losing a sense of self (and possibly having some fun along the way).

Monday, February 07, 2011

Magicka: A Review

I recently invested in a new computer, as the laptop started giving me trouble when I had more than two applications open apart from the ones I generally use for work. The new Infernal Machine has afforded me not only the ability to begin exploring the multimedia development side of things (the ability to watch Blu-Ray movies, as well as fooling around with audio recording software and equipment), but I can now dive back into the world of (modern) gaming.

I admit, my investment was spurred on by good friend and co-host, Shane, giving me the Obsidian gaming bundle from Steam for the holidays, which included Fallout New Vegas, among others. (As an aside, I think the game is as good or better than Fallout 3, with the open world, and ability to actually influence the game through one's decisions, both in conversation and through one's actions.) When not working, letting my mind wander to think of role-playing adventures, or reading (and yes, there will be a number of upcoming reviews of books given to me by another close friend and hermit), I enjoy fully immersing myself in various games. I find them fun, sometimes challenging, and make no apologies for this pastime.

Due lack of a capable computer, my tendencies toward gaming had become casual at best. A rather hypnotic game of Zuma here, or a frenetic round (or five) of Plants Vs. Zombies there. Apart from that, I would dive into the world of console and (older) computer emulation (one cannot deny the staying power of some classics like Phoenix or Mike Tyson's Punch-Out). Going through older games and exploring the origins or what made certain games so popular many years ago is one of my favorite excursions through history (mostly because the resident canine refuses to dress like Mr. Peabody).

On a whole, I leave the action gaming realm to the consoles. Yes, I had my late-night bouts with Diablo II back in the day, and Doom (and it's various clones) if one wants to go back even further, but for the most part, I never really got much out of  said games. The stories were weak at best, and I could only hear someone doing a bad Sean Connery impersonation telling me to "Stay a while, and listen," every single time I came within a few pixels of the character.

Well, last week, I saw an advertisement for a game that intrigued me. It allowed the player to combine various elements to create spells and cast them in a rather linear world. It had connections with social networking, but I wasn't sure how deep that went -- I certainly didn't want yet another Zynga or PopCap variant on my hands, because I just cannot get into Farmville or some sort of Mafia Wars. I like my games to be something other than a very slow ProgressQuest.

On Saturday, after reading a good (though one-sentence) review, and seeing the price point of $10, I decided to take a risk and download a full copy of Magicka, and thus far, I've been really pleased with this "action" game.

The whole point of the game is that the player takes on the role of a robed (and hooded) wizard, traveling through the realm to aid the surrounding kingdom from an infestation of goblin armies, ogres, and many other comically ferocious beasties. The camera angle is isometric, and the role playing aspect is minimal.

"Hypocrite," I hear you saying. "Didn't you just state that you didn't care for Diablo-esque games?"

Well, yes. Don't get me wrong, I don't care of the mentality of one-button hack n' slash games for the sake of getting gold/items/magic to use on Battlenet (or whatever the meeting space is called now), just to die and lose everything. However, Magicka is unlike that in many ways.

First of all, the ability to play and not be forced into situations that require one to cooperate with others (my teachers in elementary school were very right in their comments) is a huge plus for me. The solo adventure is quite satisfying, and you can play with others only if you so choose. Magicka isn't designed as a massively multi-player on-line game, and is contained to your hard drive. You can opt to play with others, but it's completely unnecessary in order to have an enjoyable experience.

Now for the particulars.

The graphics are bright, colorful, and non-threatening. Some might think they're a bit cartoonish, but given the setting of the game, I personally would be a bit put off if the designers made them a bit too realistic. The sounds are rich and detailed, without much repetition in music or audio effects as one travels throughout the countryside.

The game play mechanics are very simple. You are in control of the elements (fire, water, earth, lighting, etc.) and can combine them in various ways to create spells (the game encourages exploration). The game is also smart enough to include alchemical opposites -- you can't combine fire and water and expect to cast a spell, and harnessing lighting in the middle of a rainstorm is a great way to cause your character to explode.

One can also pick of various wands and weapons to enhance how effective one is with fighting or casting certain spells. A scythe will do more damage than a spoon, and a frost wand will enhance freezing spells better than spells to light candles on a birthday cake.

I think the thing I like most about Magicka is that it goes well-beyond not taking itself too seriously. From your mentor Vlad, who doesn't-quite-try to mask that he may be a vampire, to monsters from Dungeons & Dragons, the Diablo and Dungeon Master computer game series appearing, to borrowing lines and actions from movies, books, and songs (at the sight of an invading force, one rural inhabitant screams, "Run to the hills! Run for your lives!") popping up all throughout the game, Magicka will have you laughing even as you're shouting expletives at the screen because you are being trounced. The (subtitled) language may be best described as Simlish, though if you listen carefully, one can hear a consistency in what is said, and certain words aren't exactly clean (though they are heavily masked as this fake Northern European dialect).

The game even has "achievements" that one can earn. My little wizard, for instance, acquired a machine gun on one of the levels, and opened up fire on an invading group of goblins (unfortunately for the townsfolk, there was a lot of collateral damage in my heroic endeavors) and suddenly the little announcement of "New Achievement: First Blood" appeared as bullets mowed down everything in my path. (In the very same game, after defeating a dark wizard specializing in electricity, the king picked him up, sparks flying everywhere and cast him down a pit -- because games like this wouldn't dare dream of appealing to geeks by borrowing from nerd culture of every meme out there -- See the "I put on my robe and wizard hat" achievement or the "It's a trap!" scene.) The game nods not only to its predecessors and the internet, but also Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Tolkien's works (but what doesn't, in this genre?), Highlander, classic science fiction, and so much more!

If you like casual gaming, and want a break from the post apocalyptic/deep space/the world falls apart games -- or if you want something more substantial than Angry Birds without having to dedicate late nights just trying to complete a single level -- all served with a more than generous helping of humor, I highly recommend Magicka.

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