End of Summer Pop-Culture Run-down!

Remember all that time I took off from writing? Well, I wasn’t idle during that time, but I wasn’t exactly working on projects. You see, I had just gotten Sherlock (my PC) back and started back in on my projects when I realized that this summer was drawing to a close and, between this, other projects and a full-time University course load, I wouldn’t have time to enjoy myself if I didn’t do it now. You can’t just let those summer months float by unacknowledged! So, I thought I’d do a quick pop-culture run-down of what I’ve been viewing and playing to bring you up to speed.

This last week, I was camping, so I didn’t get much watched. However, I did nail out quite a few short story frameworks for the coming month. I realize that this week will have to be a double-post to make up for the stories I’ve missed, but that’s okay. (And here they are! Actionable ContentSolitude and another revamped classic: About A Ham Sandwich) They’re ready and waiting for a final edit. I also got to play some Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn!

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Apparently, Squenix acknowledged that the original FF14 was tripe, so they built a new game from the ground up and gave everyone that bought the original a free copy of the new one. Now, that’s taking responsibility for your mistakes, and it’s a company policy I can really get behind. In my mind, they bought so much good will for themselves with that move that I’ll forgive the initial server outages and realm roll-out problems.

The game play itself is pretty standard. My friend and I rolled a Thaumaturge and a Marauder to compare the combat styles and how they’re dealt with. They’ve got pretty simple built-in rotations that won’t blow the mind of anyone familiar with World of Warcraft, but they’re functional. The game itself is beautiful. They didn’t use the always-in-season cartoony-WoW approach. They went for a full-on Final Fantasy graphical style. I know that sounds redundant, but anyone familiar with the FF art-style will know what I’m talking about. The biggest surprise of all wasn’t in the actual game-play, though. It was in the controls.

Your user interface can make or break your game, because it’s the set of tools through which you invite your player to explore your world. If your system isn’t fun or engaging, if it turns your game from an experience into a slog to grind through, then you’ll swiftly lose players. This is one of the reasons that PC games have had so much trouble adapting to console waters: the interfaces are just so different. Developers have tried to solve this problem in every way, from console keyboards to PC controllers, with greater and lesser success. FF14 solves this problem rather elegantly by using the bog-standard keyboard interface for the PC and a sleek, intuitive controller design for the PS3. Unfortunately, the 360, at time of writing, doesn’t support cross-platform play very well, so you won’t see a 360 release of FF14 any time soon.

The console controls are as follows: analog sticks to move, single buttons for simple commands, like targeting, and shoulder buttons + arrow-pad/ shape buttons for hot-keyed commands. Between this UI and the uncomplicated rotation I mentioned earlier, the game sets itself up for lolling couch-play rather nicely. There are options, but they add more than they complicate, at least during the level-range we played. There’s a Job system and cross-class-actions to build up; unfortunately, the game’s one fault is how poorly it instructs you to deal with these matters. But, as this game is a deep rabbit hole, we’re going to stop there and move on to…

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The World’s End! This is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years, even among the host of best-movie-I’ve-seen-in-years that have been released this summer. It’s funny without being crude and true without being too crass. It’s an overwhelming satire of itself, as well as notions held by both dominant cultures and sub-cultures. It’s both prophetic and, quite honestly, rather fair. Its deeper, harder-hitting points are masked by smashy-smashy-eggman fun and double-talk that seeps from its every pore. As insane as it seems, every aspect of it has been carefully crafted to add to its artistic value, satirical outlook and subversive humour. It’s a send-up of able-ism, digital imperialism, whining-without-doing, mass consumerism, personal psychology and brand creation. It even finds time to mock apocalypse movies and self-righteousness.

I’m not sure where it got the time to do all that, but it’s one of the best written movies I’ve seen in years. It quite honestly follows on from the previous movies in the trilogy, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, in spirit if not plot. There are the usual meta-jokes and your old-favourite cast of characters. I’m starting to wonder if British actors are always in the same movies together because of some cultural carry-over from the acting-troop days of old or if it’s just a writer-director preference thing, because after watching Spaced, I’m constantly having “OH! It’s you!” moments. Martin Freeman even shows up to assure us that he’s more than just a furry-toed hobbit that hangs around with a detective. I promise you: you will enjoy this movie. Everyone brought their A-game.

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Speaking of detectives, I went all-in on Castle this month, and it just keeps getting better. He’s somewhere between Jessica Fletcher and Sherlock Holmes. Fletcher because he’s a crime-solving writer and Holmes because his primary strength is creative consideration of the many horrors committed on one man by another. To top it all off, he’s played by Nathan Fillion of Firefly, Captain Hammer and Neil’s Puppet Dreams fame. Also, Nathan Fillion is from my home city, so I like him that much more. The basic premise is that Castle’s a famous mystery author that has, through his connection with the mayor, been authorized to shadow Detective Kate Beckett, while she investigates homicides, in order to do research for new books. I know it sounds a bit crazy, and it is. It only gets more absurd as the series progresses, but that’s okay.

It both does and doesn’t take itself seriously. It never lets a little thing like plausibility get in the way of a good story, but it’s not so out to lunch that you’ll switch off in disgust. Its creativity deserves your suspension of disbelief. The gender politics are interesting and the characters feel real. They may be larger-than-life, but they’re also very human, flaws and all. When someone’s misogynistic, it’s because that character is, not because the show’s outlook is. It’s a balance that’s rare and hard to maintain.

There are some portions that are a bit too sensationalized, but that only serves to reinforce the quasi-pulp feel the show occasionally swerves towards. At times, it’s exactly like reading a trashy crime novel, which is appropriate, wouldn’t you say?

I also started up Papers, Please: a simple little indie game on Steam about working at a border checkpoint station under a thinly-veiled, oppressive, Communist regime. The mechanics are simple, the moral choices poignant and the stories compelling. If you’ve got some time to kill and you want to think about what you’re doing a lot harder than you need to, then pick it up!

I started watching Raising Hope. It’s pretty funny. Not to be taken seriously. Watch with liquor in hand.

Speaking of liquor in hand, Outlast dropped today and I’ve been itching to finish it up. Before I go, though, I want to talk about a pet peeve of mine: default keyboard controls. To me, Outlast and Final fantasy 14 are clear indicators that part of the industry is made up by people who game, because their input systems make intuitive sense to me as a gamer. The interface for FF14 was a refreshing surprise, but the default keyboard layout for Outlast actually made me smile.

It’s clearly set up with WASD and a simple mouse in mind. I always tweak a couple of things, but this time I really didn’t want to. It made me realize how often I’ve had to. So, I’d like to address the people who make these default button maps for a second:

Dear Designers:

I know it’s tough figuring out exactly where to put what buttons, but it’s important. Sit down and really get into playing your game before you make that decision. After all, you’ll need to have a game built before you have a default set-up, but, failing that, let me give you a word or two of advice as someone who has played games for many years:

1. Just because “crouch” starts with “C” doesn’t mean it’s the best button to bind crouch to. I know Warcraft did the first-letter-hotkey thing, but it doesn’t make sense in an FPS. There are going to be times you need to hit the crouch and enter commands at the same time and, given that “E” is usually enter, you’re going to get a lot of finger movement out of that one side. WASD should do for gamers what home-row does for typists: provide a safe place to return to. Try pressing “C” to crouch, “E” to enter and “W” to walk forward at the same time without moving your basic hand position. You can do it by moving your thumb up from the space bar, but you’ll either need to look to see the specific key for your thumb to press or know the area very well by muscle memory. With something like crouch, I could have all the time I need to check, such as when I go through a vent, or I might need it to hide like a scared fox when the twisted monstrosities come calling (Or, if you like, guys with guns that I need to take cover from). Give the pinky something to do: Keep crouch as control.

2. Consider the rate and urgency with which people are going to be pressing buttons relative to their position. If I have to hold a button to run, then don’t bind it to a finger-key I’ll want to do multiple things with, because running is a pretty big part of any game. Likewise, don’t bind it to a finger that never does anything simply to give it something to do. The ring finger on my left hand is highly untrained. Be kind to it. Also, if I’m going to need to switch off my flash-light quickly to hide a lot, then “G” is not the best key.

3. Use toggle keys judiciously. If I’m going to be toggling something a lot (like run), then make it convenient. If it’s more like the walk function in WoW, then not so much.

4. Lean functions are cool, but, unless they’re an integral part of game-play (like in Outlast), don’t mess with my “E” key.

5. Giving someone the option to have a “You just bound “_” to A, but A is already “__” You’ll be replacing “_” Are you sure?” pop-up on the control-binding menu would be nice for more complicated controller layouts.

6. Bind Journal to “J.” It’s what all the cool kids are doing.

7. Be very careful with where you put high-value buttons. My only problem with Outlast was that Reload was bound to “R” which is right next to Lean, which is “E.” So, when I went to Lean, I instinctively skipped over “E”, because it has been my Enter key for the last 20 years of gaming and reloaded my camera, wasting precious batteries. I rebound the key to “Caps Lk,” which solved the problem, but always consider  game-play layout precedents and the habits your players might have going in. It’s okay to shake up the formula when you do it well, like Outlast did generally, but I’ve seen it done poorly enough times to have to mention it. Also, if there’s a button we’re going to be pressing a lot, then it’s sort of a bad idea to place a button that wastes a valuable resource right next to it. Until I made the switch to “Caps Lk,” I wasted three batteries. For a psychotic survival-horror player like me, that’s unforgivably shameful on my part.

Thanks for your time and good luck with your game.

Okay, I knew I wasn’t really writing a letter there, but it would be rude not to sign off properly.

Speaking of, this has been Trivial Punk and I’ll see you on the Other side.

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