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The Vita Experiment

images-115It’s been over a year since I purchased a Playstation Vita.  I have made only two dedicated posts on the subject since which may lead people to believe that I have not enjoyed my purchase.  Far from it actually, as the Vita has been getting a lot of attention from me and has probably been played more than my 3DS over that same time frame.  Not all that long ago I made an entry about the Wii U and how it has been a disappointment for me since it’s launch last November.  The Vita has similarly been a disappointment at retail, though for different reasons.  And while I’ve enjoyed my Vita thus far, I’m not anymore optimistic about its future than I am of the Wii U’s.  If anything, I’m more pessimistic since Nintendo has a lot more riding on the Wii U and is further incentivized to make sure it does not fail.  While Sony similarly has invested a great deal in the Vita, I get the sense that Sony could afford to have it fail and move on (though such an admission would likely end Sony’s attempt at penetrating the portable gaming market via a dedicated gaming device).

Not much has changed regarding my opinion of the Vita as a piece of tech since its launch last year.  The device is quite nice and it functions really well.  I have had no problems with my Vita in the year-plus that I’ve owned it.  No game freezing, no glitching, no nothing.  The screen is large and beautiful, the buttons placed well, and the twin analog sticks much appreciated.  I’m not saying they don’t exist, but I have yet to encounter a game that makes annoying use of the front and rear touch panels as developers have, so far, resisted the urge to shoe-horn touch controls into their games.  Just judging the console on its own merits it’s fantastic and easily the best portable gaming device ever created.

Unfortunately, it takes more than cool tech to make or break a console.  The Vita’s biggest obstacle so far has been price.  The Wi-fi edition retails for $250, which is a lot to ask of consumers for a handheld game console.  And that’s not all, memory cards have been obnoxiously priced from the start and easily push the total cost beyond $300 for any new adopters looking to get just one game with their system.  Sony has put out bundles that help trim some of the costs but it’s still a pretty big investment to get into the Vita.  Especially considering that consumers can get a pretty solid gaming experience on the go via their cell phones.  While true that there’s no cell phone equivalent to Uncharted:  Golden Abyss, many consumers seem content to save the money and just play games like that at home.  Combating mobile gaming is not a problem unique to Sony, but Nintendo has done okay with the 3DS since lowering the price which seems inevitable for Sony if it wants the Vita to have a fighting chance.

Some titles have been promoted as a 2 for 1, in that buying one copy of the game earns the ability to play it on the PS3 and the Vita.

Some titles have been promoted as a 2 for 1, in that buying one copy of the game earns the ability to play it on the PS3 and the Vita.

Aside from price, the other make or break aspect of any gaming device is the software.  Namely, the games.  Vita had a respectable launch on that front with several quality portable versions of strong games being made available alongside the aforementioned Uncharted title.  Uncharted has been a successful franchise for Sony on the PS3, though it doesn’t move units like some of the other premier video game franchises and it apparently wasn’t enough to attract a lot of early adopters.  Ever since the launch, the Vita has been spotty on the games front.  Some Vita exclusives like Gravity Rush and Assassin’s Creed:  Liberation have come and gone, and have failed to impress critics.  It feels like every Vita exclusive has scored in that 6.0-7.5 range with reviewers.  They’re good games, but not exactly system sellers.  The rest of the Vita’s catalog has been reduced to ports of console titles.  Some of these ports are done well, like MLB The Show, and work with their PS3 cousins.  One such game, Sly Cooper:  Thieves in Time, even came bundled with the Vita version allowing basically free portable play while others offer discounts when buying both.  Being able to play a console game on the go is certainly neat, but is it worth the added cost of getting a Vita?  Other ports, like last year’s edition of Madden, were done poorly which is inevitable with this sort of thing.  Developers are going to spend the most time on the editions of the game set to make the most money-making the Vita port an after-thought.

This may lead you to wonder what I’ve been playing that has allowed me to enjoy my Vita as much as I have.  Well, I made entries on my first Vita purchases, Rayman Origins and MLB, and my experience with both was positive.  I have since added the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, which contains the first two Metal Gear titles along with Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3.  I also have Little Big Planet Vita, which is an all new Little Big Planet title created for the Vita and is just as good as the console games.  I also downloaded a PSN exclusive called Dokuro which is an excellent platform-puzzle game.  Lately, I’ve been player Persona 4 Golden, a port of the PS2 game with some added content.  I think my library of Vita games is a decent representation of the console.  Most of it is composed of ports with only two titles unique to the Vita.  Of them all, it’s tough to say what I’ve enjoyed the most.  Playing the two MGS titles in HD and on-the-go was pretty damn cool and I had not played either in quite some time so it was really enjoyable for me.  Rayman Origins is just as good as the console version, which I don’t own, and is a title that works really well on a portable, well enough that I may get the Vita version alone of Rayman Legends when that comes out later this year.  Dokuro was the nice surprise, and is so far the only Vita game I would tell all Vita owners they should get.  It’s fun and it’s cheap which is always a winning combination in my book.  It also sports a unique look with its chalk drawing graphics and the game is pretty meaty as well.  Persona 4 has definitely been the title that I’ve spent the most time with.  I’m currently at the 80 hour mark and still going.  I never played the original so that helps, but even if I had I’d like to think I still would have bought this.  It’s an excellent game, though it’s dated visuals mean it won’t be the type of game you would buy to show off the Vita’s capabilities.

Dokuro, a download-only title in which you play as a skeleton and try to lead a princess to safety, is perhaps the Vita's best exclusive.  And you get to shoot the princess out of a canon.

Dokuro, a download-only title in which you play as a skeleton and try to lead a princess to safety, is perhaps the Vita’s best exclusive. And you get to shoot the princess out of a canon.

I’m nearly finished with Persona 4 so I’m now looking ahead.  I may switch back to the 3DS for a while as I have some games for it to check out, but in looking ahead to my next Vita purchase I’ve basically settled on Muramasa:  The Demon Blade.  Muramasa is yet another port of a console title, this one being a Wii game from a few years ago.  It’s a side-scrolling action title with beautiful hand-drawn visuals.  I never played the Wii version so it will be a new experience for me.  Aside from that, I’m uncertain what’s in store for the Vita.  It had a fairly poor showing at E3 this year, and the only exclusives I’m aware of are a new Killzone and Batman title (with the Batman title being available on the 3DS too, though one would hope the more powerful Vita would be the lead console).  I’m not a fan of the Killzone franchise, and while I’m interested in Batman, I fear it will turn out like AS:  Liberations and just feel like a lesser version of the console franchise.  These games do not seem like they’ll be big system sellers for the Vita, which has lost the PSP’s biggest franchise (in Japan, anyway), Monster Hunter, to the 3DS.  Sony does have plans for the Vita concerning the PS4.  Right now the aim is to have every PS4 game playable on the Vita via remote streaming.  This is a feature the PS3 supports but never made good use of which makes me skeptical that it will be widely available with PS4 titles.  Even if it is, I can’t see it being something that gets a lot of people to buy a Vita.  It can’t hurt, but will people spend over two-hundred dollars for the ability to play their PS4 games on a small screen?  The Wii U can do that with several games but it’s something I’ve only made use of here and there (though I also only play the Wii U here and there to begin with).

The Vita really needs this game to kick some serious ass.

The Vita really needs this game to kick some serious ass.

All of this leads me to one question:  Can I recommend the Vita to gamers?  I feel as if the answer to that question is “Yes,” but with qualifiers.  If you want a good portable gaming device then yes, the Vita is a good and worthwhile system to have around.  I didn’t touch on it much, but there are quite a few indie developers out there making excellent games for the PSN that figure to be made available on the Vita.  There are some good exclusives, and there are console games out there that are the same, if not better, on the Vita.  And if you’re into playing remakes, the Vita seems to be home to many such titles with more to come.  There’s also a plethora of PSOne and PSP titles available on the PSN for download and play on the Vita.  However, anyone thinking about buying a Vita needs to look at the current crop of games and decide if it’s worth buying just for these games alone.  The future is murky and we may have already seen the bulk of Vita’s exclusive third-party titles.  I do believe Sony will support the system at least thru 2014, but if things don’t pick up third-party developers will just use the Vita as a dumping ground for inferior ports of their console games.  And since the Vita, which currently is at least on par with the PS3, will soon be lagging behind the major home consoles those ports will become more expensive to make and may be bypassed all-together.  Someone recently asked me if they should get a Vita for their kids this coming Christmas.  The question was actually phrased as an either/or between a Vita and PSP.  I told them the PSP is not worth investing in at this point, but also to hold off on the Vita since a price-cut may be imminent.  I also slipped in the fact that by Christmas the PS4 will be out and their kids may want that more than a Vita and the difference in price may make the PS4 less expensive if this individual was thinking of getting a Vita for each kid.  That will likely be my response for anyone who asks me if they should get a Vita.  Wait for a price drop, or get a PS4 instead.  The future is just too uncertain for the Vita to give it a full recommendation.


Roger Ebert and the Great Debate: Video Games as Art

super-mario-mushroom-artNearly three years ago a blog entry popped up on famed film critic Roger Ebert’s site that ignited a response from the gaming community in a way usually only reserved for the likes of pro-censorship groups and individuals.  The title of this blog, Video Games Can Never Be Art, was a bold statement that seemed to cut to the core of many gamers and industry types.  It has attracted nearly 5,000 responses and spawned numerous rebuttals of various kinds.  Ebert, who passed away recently, never showed much desire to revisit the topic over the years preferring to let those words just hang in the air.

I do wish Ebert had chosen another title for his post as the absolute tone it takes seems foolhardy to me for someone so well learned.  The title is actually a quote and one he had given earlier intended as more of a throw-away line in a much larger discussion.  Ebert chose to return to it because it received more attention than he anticipated and elected not to change it, but did acknowledge its weakness.  Her clarified his opinion to something more along on the lines of that video games are not art presently, and no one currently alive will live to see them regarded as such.  That is definitely a much better argument as it’s impossible to predict where tastes are heading.

However the argument is to be phrased, gamers around the globe seemed to take it personally that their chosen recreation could be perceived as something other than art.  Most of this stems from the fact that many who elected to respond to the piece apparently did not get past the title.  Again, Ebert is partially blamed for that but it is important to understand where he is coming from before forming a proper rebuttal.  Ebert’s opinion resides on the game itself.  Components of a game are considered forms of art.  Still images, music, animation – these are all considered artwork.  I don’t know if it was asked of him, but Ebert would probably consider the directors of some games as artists of some kind.  He also expressed a sense of surprise in how his statement was received, noting that the likes of Michael Jordan and Bobby Fischer never seemed to take it personally that their games are not considered art.

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It’s this lack of understanding of where Ebert is coming from that makes a great many of the responses to his opinion ill-conceived.  So many want to focus on the parts of a game that Ebert would consider a form of art and fail to understand that it’s the game that Ebert is declaring as non-art.   Another thing hampering Ebert’s argument is the fact that he openly declares he does not play modern games and had no desire to do such, thus we’re left to assume what first comes to mind for Ebert when the topic is brought up is Pong as opposed to Bioshock.  That’s not entirely relevant though, as is playing a game of virtual tennis any more or less artistic than shooting bad guys in high definition?  Neither is art, but modern gamers would immediately point to the story contained in a title like Bioshock, to which Ebert would point out that it ceases to be a game and is a representation of another form of art.  In other words, if your argument for games as art is that it’s an interactive story then Ebert considers it a representation of a novel or film and not really a game.  He does not, however, go on to say such games are forms of artwork so if there was hope for a compromise between the two camps it seems that door was shut.

On that level, I tend to side with Ebert on this one.  I love video games.  There have been times in my life where games have been my primary source for entertainment and it’s possible I’ll enter another phase later on where they will be again.  Video games will probably be a part of my life for its duration which certainly separates me from Ebert and is perhaps something he forgot.  When Ebert was born television was still fairly new and the only way to see a film was to go to a theater.  Video games were never a part of his life save for maybe on the periphery at times.  And even tough they have been a large part of my life, there still is no singular game that can stack up as art when compared with works from other accepted classes of art such as music, film, and poetry.

In order for a game to transcend into art it needs to incorporate the game itself into its argument.  Okami is a delightful game to look at, but physically playing it is not a remarkable experience when ignoring the visual style and plot.  Heavy Rain is an example of film-quality story-telling and a game I enjoyed very much, but it too falls into that representation of a film category Ebert mentioned.  In that game, the actual game components are fairly minimal and oftentimes are the biggest hindrance to enjoying the game as simply controlling the characters is awkward and, at times, a chore.  Many of the other games often cited by gamers in the comments section are too preoccupied with the game’s narrative and their emotional response to it.  Separate that narrative though and could it exist on its own and still instill such a response?  Or strip away the player control and just watch the “game,” how much does the emotional response change?  While I’m sure it would be affected in some way, probably not as much as some people would like to think.

Ico (2001)

Ico (2001)

In searching my brain I could only come up with one game I’m even tempted to make an argument for as one that toes the line between game and art:  Ico.  Ico, at its core, is not remarkable in a sense that it should be considered art.  It’s a fairly basic three-dimensional platform game.  The player controls the main character and has to negotiate jumps, push blocks, and fight enemies with a stick or sword all while attempting to defeat an ultimate bad guy and escape the castle.  Where it hits on a different level is through the non-player character Yorda.  Yorda is a helpless girl that needs to be lead through the castle and protected by Ico.  It’s the interactions with her that make this game different.  In order to progress, the player must take Yorda’s hand and guide her through certain scenarios.  This simple gameplay convention is remarkable in that it adds a semi-tangible element to a non-tangible experience.  When interacting with a game, we as gamers can only interact by ingesting the story being fed to us and with a controller in our hands.  This act of reaching out and grasping Yorda by the hand is an extension of that controller and it’s a simple mechanic that imparts so much.  We’re now a caretaker and this girl is entrusting us with her life.  She speaks a different language so there is no other way to communicate with her.  The game’s setup of giving us control of a character marked for death, has already made this an us against the world type of game, but in Yorda we have another purpose.  She isn’t so much an ally as a goal.  As a player, how much do we actually care for the main character?  And yet, I know when the evil shadow monsters are dragging Yorda down to a dark demise because I failed to protect her it’s not the same as when Ico misses a jump and falls to his death.

Ultimately, I do not know if I would go so far as to proclaim Ico a work of art, but I do know it’s one game (perhaps the only) where the act of playing it caused me to experience something I may not have while engaging other forms of art.  It is a remarkable experience and one I recommend others try.  I’ve played other games that borrow heavily from Ico, most recently Dokuro on the Playstation Vita, but none are able to resonate the way Ico does (not to say that Dokuro is a bad game, it’s quite the opposite, if you have a Vita you should absolutely have a copy).  In the end, I guess I side with Ebert on this one.  I recognize that many aspects of a game are forms of art, or collaborative art.  I think someone like Hideo Kojima is an artist of some renown even if his chosen work is not on par with other forms of art.  Where I differ with Ebert is that I do entertain the notion that in my lifetime games may take on a higher purpose.  They’ll never be as highly regarded as film or sculpture, but there is a movement towards games as art that probably can’t be stopped.  As long as they continue to become a larger part of society appreciation for them will continue to grow.  In the meantime, whether a video game is considered an important work of art or not is irrelevant to me.  If it’s a good game, taking into account there are many ways for a game to be good, I’ll enjoy it no matter what it’s place in the great debate may be.

As a postscript to this entry, I did want to offer my thoughts on Roger Ebert’s recent passing.  Ebert was a part of my youth through his television show with fellow critic Gene Siskel.  As a kid, I gravitated more towards Siskel when it came to criticism but as I got older I sided with Ebert more and more.  His website was a weekly ritual for me as I checked out his thoughts each Thursday on the latest releases.  He was always eager to champion the cause of animation, notably the works of Studio Ghibli, and it’s something about him I really appreciated.  Even though I didn’t agree with all of his reviews, I like to think we had similar tastes when it came to film and regardless of how he scored the film I could often tell if I would like it or not simply by reading his review.  There were even times where I felt like he was speaking for me instead of to me.  His review of Batman Begins so well captured my response to the movie and phrased it in a way I could never hope to.  He was a brilliant writer, and his blog was oftentimes more entertaining than his film criticism.  Since he lost the ability to speak, that blog became his outlet and he was not shy about putting his innermost thoughts on the internet for all to consume.  As a result, myself and many readers felt connected to Ebert in a way different from other mainstream writers, be they reporters or other critics.  I felt like I knew him without ever meeting him and was extremely sad to hear about his passing.  I will miss him.

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