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I finally saw Wreck-It Ralph over the Thanksgiving break. It was heartwarming, delightful, charming. It nudged at some big-name titles in ways that made me giggle and nod in recognition. It covered the bases of a handful of video game tropes. It made jokes in the form of clever puns and cute character behavior.
But my favorite part about Wreck-It Ralph was an admission. An admission that, hey, sometimes what's unintentional in a video game is what's best about it.
Let me explain. If you don't know, Wreck-It Ralph brings the arcade environment to life. I don't mean that the film resuscitated the dying era of quarters used in exchange for playing games amongst fellow gamers in a public setting. I mean that video game characters come to literal life in the film, all connected to one another in this arcade world.
[Minor Wreck-It Ralph spoilers follow]
One such character is a little girl named Vanellope, living in a made-up racing video game called Sugar Rush. As a glitch in the system, she's been shunned from the rest of the game's community of characters, fated to live out her virtual days in some hidden cave she can glitch her way into. She's not allowed to race with everyone else—for fear of her pixlexia (as she calls it) having a negative impact on the game—even though racing is what she wants more than anything.
But being a glitch makes Vanellope a unique racer. She can jump and blip in and out of place, acting sort of like a power-up boost and in effect confusing everyone around her. Is that a heinous crime against the game's programming, though? Flat-out cheating? Or is that just a nifty, granted unintended feature when used properly?
Those unintended features sometimes make games even greater. Take Left 4 Dead 2, also known as one of the most addictive games I've ever played. Seriously, I've played every DLC, every mode, and every special event that game had to offer. And then I replayed it.
But one of my best discoveries in Left 4 Dead 2 is a particularly awesome glitch that completely lags out the game.
Why would you want to intentionally lag your game? Because Expert difficulty is damn hard. Or at least that's why a group of Xbox Live friends and I first decided to do it. Before it evolved into one of the most fun, community-created unofficial modes.
Here's what you do. Grab dual pistols, find a melee weapon. Swap between dual wielding the guns to quickly grabbing the melee weapon. Being crammed into a corner usually helps. Eventually you'll start to create a huge mass of duplicated pistols spawning hilariously out of your back.
When enough duplicates are made, your game will start to lag out. As a bonus, I liked to play the Mutation DLC that grants you unlimited chainsaw fuel (known as Chainsaw Massacre). Lagging the game out feels like you're skipping through the map, generally keeping to the main path and trying to avoid zombies, stopping only to slice your way through any that happen across your immediate path. The goal is to rush through each level straight to the safe room.
But what's fun about that? Besides cheat-winning your way through each map on Expert mode, you'd be surprised how much this glitch impacts the way you play the game. I mentioned that it's best to speed through to the end of each level, avoiding bumping into zombies as much as you can. You can essentially run at your normal pace, while the flesh-eating creepers struggle to catch up to you. Playing with unlimited chainsaws is optimal, because you can easily tear through zombies even at the Expert level.
But what about tanks? Oh man, let me tell you about the tanks. Tanks are sort of terrifying in Left 4 Dead. The music starts and you know you're in for some shit. You'd figure all lagged out, the tank wouldn't be nearly as terrifying. But you'd be wrong in thinking that.
If you've followed my advice and play using chainsaws, you'll have to get in super close to strike the Tank down with it. Which means you're at risk of getting Hulk-smashed and immediately knocked out. That Tank is a mean one on Expert. But you can't quite tell when he's about to get a hit in, because his lagged-out animations certainly won't be an accurate indicator. You get hit before you see yourself getting hit. So fighting a Tank becomes a game of guesswork, trying to identify when it's safe to go in for a slice before he can get a swing in. It goes: run in for a slice, run the fuck out, repeat. You're always just one fraction of a second away from getting hit, which, if that happens, you're likely to be left behind by your teammates. It's an unspoken rule that getting through Expert on a lagged-out, all chainsaws round of Left 4 Dead 2 necessitates that you don't linger around for fear of getting incapacitated by a nasty special infected. The adrenaline throughout fighting this lagged-out Tank is, as you might imagine, pumping vigorously.
A new, still incredibly fun way of playing Left 4 Dead 2 was born. And all because of one simple duplication glitch. That's the beauty of the unintended in video games: you can discover new ways of playing your favorite games. Whether that's a hidden corner, an unintended use for a grenade, or something that's a complete game-changer, it doesn't matter. Because it's fun to discover what you can and can't do in a virtual world that's effectively your playground.
Obviously some glitches are bad. They can ruin the experience. Old school Counter-Strike comes to mind, where players would bounce on each other's heads for an aerial view of the map where they were essentially untouchable. No one has fun with that (except maybe for the glitch-cheating player).
But sometimes glitches involve awesome discoveries. And that's exactly how Wreck-It Ralph portrays Vanellope in the film. She's misunderstood and mistreated. But when you finally understand what she can do within the bounds of reason, she's reasonably everyone's favorite character.
Halloween is on its way, and while ghosts and ghouls may have been the undead horrors of decades past, here in 2012 it's all about the zombies and their ilk.
What better way to get in the mood for spooky doom than with this weirdly lovely, thoroughly instructive image from Left 4 Dead 2? See zombie, apply flamethrower. Now that's useful advice for the ages.
Click the image to expand to its full hi-res gory glory.
Open Up [Dead End Thrills]
Here's the problem: Borderlands 2 has a ridiculous number of lootable things. Like, they're just everywhere. And even if I loot them, next time I boot the game up, there they are again. Full. Waiting to be opened. So I do it again, and again, and again. It never ends.
Picture this: a frenzy with badasses flanking me left and right, friends down and needing reviving, and what is my dumb butt doing? Getting shot in the face while elbow deep in shit: bullymong scat is also lootable.
It didn't used to be like that. But then I took a look at Borderlands' challenges, which award you badass tokens that you can redeem for stat upgrades. One of those challenges is called "Open Pandora's Boxes," and it involves opening any and all lootable objects.
It's so simple, and I can get perks for doing it—so of course I indulge. Under normal circumstances, Borderland's challenges, like those in many games, are okay: they encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and try new things, or they reward you for something you already do. I can get behind the well-crafted challenges.
"Hurly Burly," for instance, requires me to shoot bullymong projectiles out of midair—it's not something I would seek to do on my own, and it's a difficult thing to do, so I appreciate it's inclusion. Games like Left 4 Dead 2 in particular have countless number of amazing achievements and challenges: CL0WND has you honk the noses of 10 clowns, which you do by meleeing, (silly but amusing!) and Chaos Generator requires you to have all of the generators running at once in "The Sacrifice" (extra challenge, because each generator gives you a wave of zombies!)
But why give me incentive to do something that's not fun or meaningful? It's one thing to open a chest with guns in it—who doesn't get a little wide-eyed and single-minded when they see a chest? Chests are great. I want to open chests. There might be awesome guns in there.
The only reason I open the toilets scattered around the game is because I need ammo: a necessity, but not something I enjoy doing necessarily. But the second you introduce an achievement or a challenge, everything changes—regardless of how enjoyable it actually is to do. I'll do it anyway—and I think game designers sometimes abuse this compulsion.
For example, there are countless games with achievements like "kill x number of enemies with y gun." The issue is that the reason I don't use the gun in the first place is because it was awful or because there's a better gun. But instead of giving me a gun that's fun to use, I get a challenge to use the gun instead. So I'll use it, but I'm not going to be happy about it.
Stop that, game designers. It's a shortcut. You get me to do what you want, but it's not because you designed something worthwhile. You know you've got something on your hands when the player gravitates to do something, to experiment, without being explicitly told to do so. Not that I'm saying that's easy to design or anything—if it was, I'm guessing that more games would achieve it!
It's not all mechanical stumbles—sometimes, the problems rewards pose are more ideological. Bulletstorm has a special system called "skillshots", which give you extra points depending on how creatively you kill your enemies. The points flash up on the screen, and the whole idea is to try to one-up yourself with more elaborate kills as you go along. It turns out that the love of points above all else can be betraying. Brendan Keogh puts the experience of playing Bulletstorm best when he says:
It's all good fun. It's all satisfying and violent and everything you want from a shooter. But then my partner walks into the room while I am playing and sees what I am doing. Or I write it out in an essay like I just did, and it feels kind of… wrong. Whereas most shooters attempt to justify the endless violence with some kind of framing narrative or an unredeemably evil enemy, Bulletstorm is more honest. It is a murder simulator, and it doesn't try to be anything else.
Similarly, I get uncomfortable thinking not so much about what the game has me do, but the way in which it has me do it: points. Points change things, give me incentive, yes—but more alarmingly, in this case, points help dehumanize what's happening on the screen all the more. In Brendan's case, being rewarded for killing creatively turns out to be revealing inasmuch as it is betraying: it forces him to wonder if he enjoys the murder and the mayhem after all.
Bulletstorm doesn't tell me that I should feel bad for what I do in violent videogames. On the contrary, it tells me without a flicker of irony or doubt that this is and should be enjoyable. Actually, that isn't quite accurate. Bulletstorm doesn't tell me anything; it forces me to admit that I enjoy this. It's a strange, non-judging passive-aggression. Oh, you like murdering people in gory ways just for more meaningless points? That's nice. Here is a guy you could decapitate for twenty-five points. You don't have to, but I think we both know you want to.
The game acknowledges that we like what it has us do, doesn't it? Maybe points have nothing to do with it. Or maybe points just end the charade and make it all blatant. Where does the sadism begin, organically with the player, or via the encouragement that the reward brings? Are we just kidding ourselves by trying to draw a distinction?
Reward with caution, game designers: challenges, achievements and the like change everything, but not always for the better.
From one of my favorite YouTubers—and in the spirit of zombie week—comes this short and sweet clip of a very...unique encounter with Left 4 Dead 2's tank.
I never thought I'd feel bad for a zombie until now. There he was, minding his own business on a flushable porta potty when Coach decides to shoot him immediately after violating his privacy. Now, if he was reading a quantum physics book on the other hand...
Two in the Tank [YouTube]
When tech guru and Linux fan Michael Larabel visited Valve yesterday, he promised more info and pics than simply saying Steam was coming to Linux. Looks like he's come through.
Larabel has posted images of Left 4 Dead 2 running natively on Linux, and says a release of Steam itself - likely in the form of a beta at first - should be later this year.
In addition to Left 4 Dead 2, selected because of its "stable code base", he says Valve will be bringing other titles to the platform as well.
We're still waiting to hear back from Valve for an official comment on the matter.
Peter König is a concept art legend. Over the past quarter of a century his creature designs, sculptures and animation work have been featured in blockbuster hits like Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers and Cloverfield.
Which is all well and good, but he's also spent the last four years working as a concept artist, modeller and texture artist at Valve, where he's lent his talents to the Left 4 Dead series, Portal 2 and DOTA 2.
While there sadly aren't any images from Portal, and only one from DOTA 2, König's Left 4 Dead stuff is a treasure trove of the walking dead, rotting flesh and rejected designs for special infected that involved shooting rats out of a zombie's stomach.
You can see a nice collection of König's body of work, both in games and cinema, at his personal site.
Iain Andrews' site Steam Postcards has long been my wallpaper supplier of choice. Why? Because he plays games and takes screenshots that aren't the kind of thing you'd find in a magazine or popular internet video game website.
He instead takes, well, postcards. Scenic shots of the background, or the walls, or the sky, or whatever, finding stuff that just looks good, instead of stuff that makes the game look good.
His current subject of choice is id's RAGE, but scroll down the Tumblr page and you'll see games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mirror's Edge, Mafia II, Team Fortress 2, Red Orchestra and even Kane & Lynch.
The images maybe aren't nice enough to print out and frame, but like I said, they're perfect for wallpapers!
Steam Postcards [enwandrews]
The importation of original Left 4 Dead maps into Left 4 Dead 2 rolls on, with the latest update to "Dead Air" delivering a new version of the Terminal map. Valve says the update brings matters "pretty close to being complete" but "at this stage what we really need is more testing." It's found a way to get you to do that.
Play a complete game of Versus in "Dead Air" and you will get an achievement, Valve says. When 60,000 people earn that achievement, the beta version of "Blood Harvest," the next map to be released, will be unlocked the following weekday.
"60,000 is going to be hard," L4D2's team writes on the official blog. "You can't rage quit and you need to work together."
Valve asks that gamers who get the achievement help others reach it as well, and post feedback and bugs to the Steam Forums and on the game's Facebook page. Progress toward 60,000 will be announced via Twitter.
Connecting Flights [Left 4 Dead Blog]