A Very Thankful Weekend with Joker and Bats

Writing about my slight case of Thanksgiving Blues actually chased them away. By the time we sat down to dinner on Wednesday night, I was filled with holiday cheer and ready for the weekend to come. When work started back up on Sunday night, I had enjoyed a mini-vacation that was everything it could and should have been. Shockingly, it included a lot of gaming.

While my girlfriend proceeded to demolish Braid and The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition in the space of three days, I was hopelessly lost to Arkham Asylum. A lot of people compared it to Bioshock, but I’d have to say Arkham owes a lot more to Beyond Good & Evil. That explains why I never found myself getting bored and why I’ve gone back to the game on a higher difficulty immediately after completing it the first time.

The melee combat and the battle with Poison Ivy stand out in particular as areas where Arkham borrowed wholesale from BG&E, but the way Arkham keeps mixing up the challenges is very much in the same spirit. Before you have a chance to tire of beating thugs, you have a stealth sequence in which you pick them off one by one. Before the stealth sequence can slow down the game, you are working your way through the next section of the map. Then you fight a miniboss and get a new tool.

For the most part, I would say that Rocksteady were very careful about ensuring they never provided too much of a good thing. Although I must say that two encounters with Scarecrow would have been sufficient and I got a little tired of the fights against the super-thugs, since the trick was the same every time and Arkham Asylum goes to that particular well quite often.

Aside from those very slight missteps, Arkham Asylum was a smashing success for me. What I particularly loved was how the game consistently raised the stakes and tension every time I thought it had maxed out. The game opens with Joker seizing control of the Asylum and before you’re a quarter of the way through, you’ve had to rescue Jim Gordon and fight Bane. No sooner have you won that victory, and started thinking that you’re on the way to restoring order, than you discover Joker is planning on creating an army of Banes once he gets hold of some research materials. Even as you parry that attack, Ivy gets loose and starts to destroy the entire island.

Learn about Jokers fantastic retirement benefits!

Learn about Joker's fantastic retirement benefits!

At no point did I feel like the writers or designers were trying to stretch their premise and put some filler into the game. From the start it is clear that the Joker has a plan to keep Batman putting out fires throughout the long night, and it is totally in keeping with Poison Ivy’s character that she causes a completely unforeseen catastrophe midway through the game.

In fact, I was impressed with how right Rocksteady got each of Batman’s enemies. Fighting Scarecrow is a battle against insanity, and we get a deadly cat-and-mouse through Batman’s disintegrating reality. Bane is a knock-down, drag-out fight with a dangerous brute. Croc, as Batman says, is just an animal, and animals get trapped. Ivy uses plants to transform the battlefield until it favors her, and uses seduction to provide herself with cannon fodder.

I’m not certain how I feel about the final battle with Joker, because the thing about Joker is that he’s not difficult to defeat. It’s defeating his labrythine plots that poses the problem for Batman. Joker himself, however, is no great combatant. Rocksteady worked around this, but their solution seemed a bit off to me.

Somehow, this game always looks like a production still from a great movie.

Somehow, this game always looks like a production still from a great movie.

Still, it feels like a proper Batman adventure from top to bottom, and it was wonderful to hear Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles for this game. And I must thank Crispy Gamer’s Russ Fischer for highlighting one particular sequence that really nails what it means to be the Dark Knight. He writes:

Arguably, the two missing elements are Gotham City and Bruce Wayne. Both of these, however, are almost more useful as things Batman wants and can’t have. Gotham, no matter how corrupt, is a dreamscape compared to Arkham Island. The city’s skyline is bright and tantalizing and unobtainable. Bats has to see the night out; he can’t just run to the city and do an easier gig.

There’s a reason, too, that the big Wayne building dominates that skyline. If Batman wanted to truly retreat from the insanity of Arkham, Bruce Wayne is the shell to hide in, and that building on the horizon is a reminder of his existence. The horror of Wayne’s childhood is all that he is allowed to revisit, and the game’s story is stronger for it. If we’re going to wallow in the madness of the lunatics who burst into existence along with Batman, we should really wallow deep, and Bruce Wayne is the shallow end of the pool.

If he hadn’t pointed this out, I would have missed the resonance of this one particular sequence midway through the game. Just after a truly nightmarish, harrowing encounter with Scarecrow and a tough slog through Croc’s lair, Batman breaks emerges from a tunnel built into one of the island’s cliff-faces.

It is the first clean breath Batman has drawn in what seems like hours, and the oppressive ugliness of the preceding scenes have done an admirable job of making you feel the same revulsion and emotional exhaustion he must feel. You stand on the edge of the cliff, a lovely promontory from which not a yard of Arkham is visible, and stare across the stretch of calm, moonlit water to the Gotham skyline. It is a sublime, peaceful moment.

Then you jump from the cliff and glide in a sweeping arc back toward the island, literally descending back to its madness and turning your back on the only peaceful vision you will see.

Mere Refinement

The other day, Troy Goodfellow was lamenting Crispy Gamer’s “Game of the Decade” bracket challenge, which saw Civilization IV and Peggle pitted against one another, with the result that Peggle came out on top. Now contests like these are patently silly, but they do spark conversation and the conversation that followed is where I started to get annoyed.

A number of people made the case that Civilization IV is “just a refinement of a previous design”, which diminishes its achievement, especially when compared with something like Peggle. Except they didn’t really make a case, because there’s no case to make with that statement. They just gave a sage nod in the direction of originality and Greater Significance represented by Peggle.

Not for the first time, I am thinking that the “IV” in its title does Civ IV a disservice. It creates the illusion that Civ IV is yet another iteration on Sid Meier’s old design, when the truth is that Civ IV is considerably more. Most of its mechanics don’t even appear in the first two games, and I certainly couldn’t have imagined fifteen years ago how Civ IV would be handling diplomacy, combat, religion, or governance. Culture would not even have occurred to me.

Perhaps the core elements of the design are the same, but if that’s the standard, then we can safely dismiss every FPS since Half-Life. Civilization and Civilization IV both take place on a square tiles, take cities as the chief game piece, and involve researching your way through human history in competition with other civilizations. But that’s about where the similarities end.  If you’re going to say that’s still “just a refinement”, then I never want to hear you breathe a word about the originality of a game in which you point guns at things and shoot, or take characters on adventures in which you gain experience and improve your skills.

Then there is the fact that so many in our little community race to denigrate anything that is not ostentatiously innovative and new. Like Daisy Buchanan attempting to impress Nick with her worldly disenchantment and entitled ennui, gamers are quick to sigh and inquire why everything seems so old and derivative. We are cultivating a studied boredom with everything that bears of a whiff of the familiar, while lavishing excessive praise on the accessibly novel. Truly great games like Civilization IV get lost between the narrow mainstream and the falsely discriminating taste of the enthusiast set.

A Long Way From Here

The truth is, I’ve never much cared for Thanksgiving Day. When my family used to host every year, it meant a day and a half of housecleaning while my parents became testier with every second that brought us closer to Zero Hour. Plus, I hated most of the food we made for the feast. Green bean casserole? A box of stuffing? That weird can-shaped blob of cranberry “sauce” quivering atop a china serving dish?

And turkey has never really deserved its reputation, when we get right down to it. It’s 50 / 50 whether it’s going to be tasty or bone-dry. My sister might have finally cracked the code last year when she brined the hell out of it, but that’s probably the only memorably delicious turkey I’ve had.

As for the celebration, well, for years that meant dealing with my mercurial grandparents and aunt. My grandfather was perhaps the only one who seemed legitimately happy to be eating with us, and most of that was sweet potato-induced. “Hooo!” he’d cry as he peeled back the aluminum foil over the dish. “Look at that!”

But my grandmother or aunt would usually decide, without warning, that it is time to leave right now and vanish into the car before the coffee and pie had been served. Sometimes my grandfather would just disappear after dinner, and then we’d look out the window and see him, arms folded, in the back of the Buick.

Dessert conversation among my parents, sister, and brother-in-law usually revolved around what was that all about? On the television, we’d make a desultory effort at watching the Lions get their asses kicked, but the Lions have been unwatchably bad for as long as I can remember.

So I’m not really very sorry not to be celebrating Thanksgiving Day with my family this year. I feel terrible that I’m now reduced to seeing my sister and her family about once or twice a year, but the holiday itself has always been a bit too much trouble, too strongly associated with anxiety and inconvenience.

But I am crushed to think that Wednesday night, for the first time I can remember, I won’t be sitting down to spaghetti casserole by candlelight with my parents. We won’t be watching Jason Robards’ You Can’t Take It With You, which my parents recorded off PBS many many years ago, or drinking my father’s chocolate eggnog at the intermission.

Almost as bad, I won’t be putting up the Christmas tree this year, which traditionally marks the first time my parents break out The Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin and the John Denver & The Muppets Christmas album. Thanksgiving itself might be the heart of the holiday, but the real family traditions lie on either side of it. And this year I couldn’t make it.

My partner and I have a nice weekend planned, and God knows we need a break. We couldn’t spare the time to make it back to Indiana, so we made reservations at our favorite restaurant in Cambridge. We have some great movies to keep us company through the weekend (I’m looking forward to introducing her to Easy Living) and plenty of sweet treats and relaxing beverages. My mother passed along the spaghetti casserole recipe, and my father air-mailed us a copy of You Can’t Take It With You. I have the supplies for chocolate nog. It will, in some ways, be the first Thanksgiving that is my own, and in others it will be very much like home.

But I can’t shake this sense of dislocation. For over twenty years I’ve been home for Thanksgiving Eve and I’ve hung decorations on Friday afternoon. Even when I was away at college I made sure to make it back no matter how hellish the traffic got around Chicago. So as I drink my coffee here in Central Square, and watch last light fading over Mass Ave., I keep asking myself, “What am I doing here?”

The High Cost of Wargaming

Before I ever heard of Doom, a wargame made me a lifelong PC gamer. It was Adrian Earle’s Fields of Glory. Hardly anyone seems to remember it now, and in fairness it had some significant problems. But the little marching soldiers, crackling musketry, and drummers beating the attack made it about the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen.

I didn’t go to Babbage’s looking for a wargame, but my intentions were lost the moment I saw the box art and read the copy. My father had promised me a game that day, something to see if PC gaming was all it was cracked up to be, and that was what I wanted. We ignored the action games around us, and took home a wargame. A flashy one, true, but a wargame nonetheless. From that game flowed a lifetime of strategy and wargaming.

That couldn’t happen today. Wargames have been driven from store shelves to make room for acres of Sims expansions, real-time strategy clones, and a prodigious selection of shooters, many of which no clerk should sell in good conscience. The specialty software shops are gone, their place taken by the protracted adolscence represented by GameStop and the lowest common denominator approach championed by the trinity of  Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy.

Most outlets no longer bother to review most wargames. The service that PC Gamer, Computer Gaming World, and Computer Games Magazine provided in their heyday has been dropped by their online replacements. When these magazines slapped an Editor’s Choice award on a gnarly, stat and hex-heavy wargame they were saying, “If you are a gamer, of any sort, you need to play this.”

They were right to agitate against the narrowing of the mainstream gamer. Steel Panthers was a brilliant game, and people would see that if they just gave it a chance. Writers like Bill Trotter encouraged gamers to take that chance.

But let’s not overlook just how difficult wargame publishers have made it for gamers to justify taking those chances. Glancing through their catalogues, it looks to me like they have given up on doing anything to win new customers and have instead decided to milk their core players for every penny.

A few nights ago, after getting bulletins from GamersGate, Steam, Impulse, and Direct2Drive about a bunch of intriguing sales and almost pulling the trigger on a few of them, I felt guilty because I never remember my old friend the wargame when it comes time to grab a new title. So I cruised over to the Matrix Games site and started browsing the catalogue to see if the $20 I was debating spending on Demigod or an indie-game compilation could be spent on a wargame instead.

Helpfully, Matrix has a $20 or less section in its store. Less helpfully, this section includes add-on packs and strategy guides along with complete games. Only a dozen items can be purchased for less than $20 at the Matrix Store, and most of them only digitally. The way it sounds on the store site, Matrix only makes the digital copy available to the purchaser for 30 days. While I would hope customer service will provide extra downloads after that date, the given terms do not seem like much of a deal.

Outside of that section the convenience and security of physical ownership comes at a steep price, one that seems immune from the passage of time. 2007′s Guns of August is $45. 2006′s Conquest of the Aegean is $70!  2003′s Korsun Pocket is $40.

Matrix not an outlier by any means. You’ll get as fair a deal from them as you will anyone else, except maybe some of the specialty shops you can find online or in big cities. The entire wargame market is significantly pricier than the PC game market in general, and rarely grants discounts.

This creates a problem for me, because I feel like I am being punished for not fitting the traditional wargamer demographic. I’m 26, at the start of my career, and my disposable income is minimal. Matrix Games, HPS, and the rest of the gang have a business model that only seems to work if you’re a little older, a little farther along in your profession, and a little wealthier. That, or you simply value wargaming so far above other genres that a good wargame is worth two or three lesser titles.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with me. There is no way I can justify to myself, and certainly not to my partner, that I should spend $40 – $60 on one game when my typical game purchases are less than $20. And I can’t honestly say to myself that I’ll get more enjoyment from a game like Guns of August than I will from buying, for the same price, Stalker, Company of Heroes Gold, Europoa Universalis 3 Complete, and Psychonauts. That’s a steep opportunity cost.

Now I’ve spoken with wargame designers in the past, and I know that making a profitable computer wargame is forbiddingly difficult (which is why so many of the greats stick to the tabletop formats). And Matrix must be doing something right to be thriving when so many of the old publishers have folded or come under the Matrix umbrella.

But I guess I just don’t see a future in it. I’m a gamer who has been conditioned to pay $5, $10, and $20 for his games and, on balance, I spend quite a bit of money each month on new acquisitions. But I expect a certain amount of utility for my money, and the ratio seems all wrong with wargames. So all of it gets siphoned into other genres, where publishers are more willing to discount their back catalogue titles.

Worse, I can’t convince my non-wargaming friends to give the genre a chance. Ten or fifteen years ago, I could sell friends on Steel Panthers, Close Combat, and The Operational Art of War. Now they are likely to nod while I talk about how great TOAW3 is, but they get to the website, look at the screenshots, look at the price… and they pass. Better to stick with the familiar rewards of JRPGs and RTSs than dive into something that looks like Spreadsheets and Hexagons XII.

The risk to publishers, I suppose, is that they will dismantle a business model that works (however tenuously) in favor of going after customers they are not certain exist. If they start cutting older titles down to $20, and the existing customers just start playing the waiting game while new ones fail to materialize, the publishers are sunk.

But frankly, I don’t think that would happen. How many devoted wargamers would wait three years for a price cut? How likely is it that someone is abruptly going to decide to buy, at full price, a wargame that he has ignored for six years? On the other hand, how many gamers might give themselves the chance to get hooked on wargaming, if publishers would only make games available to them? I could personally guarantee a half dozen titles that I would jump on tomorrow if they hit the $20 price point. I can also guarantee that I won’t buy any of them the way things stand right now.

Nothing Good about 2001

I told Troy Goodfellow that 2001 would be a problematic year for me in the decade retrospective that he is running. Still in high school and not working a job, I had a small gaming budget and could only buy one or two new games per year. Being an impressionable idiot, I decided to give that honor to Black & White.

I’m sure there were good strategy games that came out that year, but I missed all of them in favor of spending weeks with a game that didn’t work. Now, at the close of the decade, I can finally tell my tale.

The Magical Mystery Tour of Teamwork

I still don’t understand Left 4 Dead group dynamics. Why is one group of four people an unstoppable killing machine, cutting through each level like a surgeon’s knife, and another is so inept that they’re all dead within one hundred yards of the starting area? I can explain the tactical miscues and individual failings that crop up during a failed campaign, but the source of success and failure remains a mystery to me. When I play the game now, I’m spending most of my time watching the group, trying to catch a glimpse of the variable that drives the game: how well four people can come together for a common purpose.

The Left 4 Dead 2 demo put me in the mood to revisit the original game, and I find myself enjoying it as much as I did when it was new. The community is a bit thinned-out, and it takes a little more patience to start a good game, but I’m still fascinated by the strange chemistry between players.

Friday night I decided to try some Expert campaigns. The “What Are You Trying to Prove?” achievement (awarded for surviving every campaign on the highest difficulty) has been taunting me for a year, and while I have completed every campaign on expert, the game has ignored some of my victories and, in others, my character has perished while the rest of the team made its way to safety.

Much to my surprise, the random group that assembled to play through Blood Harvest turned out to be cheerful, laid-back, and unbelievably proficient. We spoke little, but soon slipped into a groove where we seemed to be sharing one brain. I wouldn’t say any of us were remarkably skilled players, but somehow we were beating the AI Director at his own game. We rallied just before each horde arrived, fought them off with a minimum of fuss and no panic, then sprinted through the levels, stopping just before the Director’s next wave could catch us off-guard.

Friendly fire incidents were minimal and nobody seemed resentful of any mistakes we made. Just four guys, hanging out on a Friday night, kicking zombie ass.

We were working so well that after beating Blood Harvest, we went after Dead Air. I noticed that, as a group, we were growing deadlier as the evening wore on. No sooner would a Smoker latch onto one survivor than another would coolly blow him apart with a rifle burst to the head. The last stand at the end of the campaign was so perfectly managed that it was almost sedate. Each one of us covered a quarter of the field of fire, and every one of us knew the others wouldn’t let any infected through. I saw one coming at me out of the corner of my eye, but didn’t stop shooting the zombies coming from behind some wreckage. The zombie coming after me was not, after all, my responsibility. I knew that the guy to my right would stop him.

It was a perfect playthrough from four strangers who barely talked and only made plans a couple times each campaign. We just knew our roles.

The next night, Saturday, I played with another random group and understood, instantly, that we were doomed.

There was nothing I could really put my finger on to explain why we were a terrible team. Individually we all seemed competent. We mostly tried to stay together and provide cover. The guy playing as Zoey was, I’ll admit, problematic. He racked up three times as many kills as anyone else on the team in the first section, but he did it by constantly racing ahead of the group so that the group became 3 and 1 instead of 4.

But the biggest problem was that nobody seemed comfortable playing a role. Guys were shifting around in firefights when they shouldn’t have been, so now you had to worry more about giving and receiving friendly fire. Trust never formed between us, and I can’t explain why. We were all nice guys and didn’t mind our occasional screw-ups. In most of the identifiable ways, it was the same kind of group as I’d played with on Friday. But there was something in the way we moved across the may that made me certain that we didn’t have the chemistry.

That single, intangible factor was the source of a disastrous evening. After a few failures, desperation creeps in and new problems compound the old ones. The Saturday group had one guy (who sounded a bit like Bill Murray voicing Garfield) who decided that he had to take charge. Except his only idea was to go hide at the top of a tower at the start of the level, so we left him behind. He called after us, “Dudes, where are you going? What’s wrong with you guys? Jeez.” Then, as we were wiped out by the tank he refused to come down and fight, he said, “See. Toldja.”

We never made it to the fourth stage. Mistakes got more bone-headed. The guy playing Bill fell off a ladder on the wrong side of a fence and made us wait for a long minute while he trekked back to our position. He never made it: we got to him just in time to see the Smoker finish him off.

Another time, about two minutes into our journey, I realized I had never grabbed ammunition for my assault rife. I was down to my last clip halfway through the level.

The best failure, however, came when the guy playing Francis said, “Hoo, we’re off to a pretty bad start, huh? Wonder what’s gonna happen next?”

He got his answer as the tank exploded out of the shed three feet behind him. He was laughing as his body went flying into the woods.