Tuesday, June 28, 2011

All The World's A Stage: Xbox 360

An interesting aspect of the present times is the quickening advancement of computing. While microchips and networking have brought many advantages to societies that can afford to implement them, often the largest outward demand and symbol of success is the entertainment of a society. Entertainment media brings with it valued enjoyment, distraction, and relief, a required component of any society. At the same time, entertainment that may be described as art and/or literature is a reflection of that society. In the last two centuries, technological advancement has not only developed new ways to communicate, but with it new ways to express artistic vision, like film and recorded music. However, with advanced computing, video games have also emerged as a new medium that allows for an encompassing and unique expression of ideas and commentary.
The Microsoft Xbox 360 is an important part of this media. The device itself, while the result of synergistic efforts of engineering, design, marketing, and many other cutting edged talents, is really a key piece of a sort of stage, cinema or canvas. The other pieces being a television set and any entertainment center. While it does also support other media like film, photography and music, its primary media are video games which are designed and manufactured for its use. It is a standardized platform for others to present their ideas. In order to fully demonstrate the impact of the video game console’s ability, the study of supported video games would be necessary. Three games, Ea Digital Illusions CE’s Battlefield: Bad Company (2008), Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony (2009) and Number None’s Braid (2008) were selected for analysis. Each of these games explores different aspects of the medium. By assessing these games and how they are enabled by the technological design of the Xbox 360, an analysis of the evident ideas, values and how their interconnectivity through the Xbox Live service and other media venues allows them to reach wider society. The Xbox 360 is a device that allows for comprehensive video gaming experiences that allows the medium to fuel and support gaming in the greater global society.
The Xbox 360 Pro model is equipped with a 20 GB hard drive, a DVD Drive, Compact Disc reader, an Ethernet port, three USB ports and comes with an Xbox 360 wireless controller that has a built-in vibration feature. It supports Dolby Digital surround sound and it was the first video game console suited to display in high definition.(Xbox Pro Manual) This is just an overview of this model’s capabilities, but it is evident that while these components were installed with video games as the primary focus, there was an intent to make the 360 the entertainment hub of the household. Music can just be played from CD’s or even portable music players, but it can also be stored on the hard-drive to be played back, later or during a game. There are now multiple ways that films can be watched using a 360. It can play DVDs, but it can also stream video from a connected personal computer through an Ethernet cable. When connected to Xbox Live, movies can be rented through services like Netflix, the film being sent directly to the device. The console can also be used to display photographs, streamed from a personal computer or from a memory device. All this makes the 360 a convenient family entertainment device. These components combined, plus the other specially designed circuitry and processors, however, create a stage that is full of potential for game designers.

While many games are not made specifically of the 360, they were designed in a way that would accommodate and often capitalize on the 360’s capabilities. Like film, video games are available in different formats, including the traditional DVDs and downloading them from the Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA), an online market. When the video game is activated, the device’s technologies are instructed to pull the audience-protagonist into the designer’s vision.

Quite often that vision is part of a multimillion dollar franchise like Battlefield: Bad Company. Battlefield 1942 was a First Person Shooter (FPS) set during World War II which allowed players to compete in famous battles. Players were not only equipped with weapons from the past, but vehicles as well. This included everything from jeeps to aircraft carriers and many of the tanks, fighter planes and shipboard emplacements in between; this resulted in large scale multifaceted battles. After successive editions spanning newer wars in Viet Nam and the near-future, Bad Company was designed as a console focused title. Unique attributes that were added were a single player narrative, destructible structures, improved sound design and it would also include online multi-player through Xbox Live.

Bad Company would be EA DICE’s first Battlefield title to have an effective story. From the suave swinging theme at the title screen, the tone seems different than the average FPS war game. As one begins the Single Player mode, the audience is met with a story about an expendable military unit of four in a war set in the a not-too distant future. The story, rather than the typical mission based narrative, has an amusing and sarcastic undertone and takes cues from films like the Dirty Dozen (1967) and Three Kings (1999). Supporting the narrative, the created game world reflects this tone while still keeping the combat somewhat gritty. The game displays a tight contrast that holds critical commentary on the world when the game was released. While the settings were satirized and exaggerated, the combat, online and in single player, were kept dangerously entertaining with the realistic destruction of structures. This allowed nearly entire virtual towns to be demolished brick-by-brick and resulted in battles (and battlefields) that were closer to resembling the real wartime ruins seen on TV news broadcasts. The innovative sound design helped to further immerse the player with more realistic interior firearm discharges, the simulated deafness from a nearby explosion, or the distant shouts of Russian soldiers. All this is designed to be heard through surround sound. As it was for previous Battlefield titles, multi-player games would be a fundamental part of Bad Company and the Xbox Live system would facilitate the matchmaking between players. Large detailed townships or lush lands would be the setting for players from all over North America, competing on opposite teams. Here there is no narrative other than the experiences of each player and the momentum of the game. However, like most games that have a single player and multi-player components, themes are carried from one to the other.

Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony is an add-on or companion part to Grand Theft Auto IV (2008), a highly successful and critically acclaimed title. It was originally released exclusively for 360 through XBLA and required GTA IV to be played, but it was later packaged with the Lost and Damned in a physical format. GTA IV’s highly detailed, complex satirical microcosm of New York City, called Liberty City, is the setting for this episode as well. The story corresponds and interweaves with that of GTA IV and the previous add-on, the Lost and Damned. The series, filled with third person action, shooting and driving, is notorious as a violent, controversial crime game. An interesting aspect of the series has been that the extreme violence has always been within the context of wide freedom in a highly simulated environment. The game world is a highly detailed, but spontaneous background resulting in one of the more realistic settings of any game. The real life boroughs of Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the state of New Jersey are mimicked by Bohan, Dukes, Broker, Algonquin and Alderney. Not only do the streets and buildings bring detail with subtle piles of trash or abandoned cars, but so the people of the specific neighborhoods. They differ widely, yet they look situated with their neighborhoods. The city is also filled with a wide variety of activities that encompass many of the different game mechanics. Everything from air hockey to illegal street racing are an integrated part of the game experience. There are a huge variety of mock versions of real vehicles for the player to take at will and travel around the city. This includes not only cars and trucks, but aircraft and boats as well. On top of this, a player can hail, or steal, a cab and use a subway system that connects most of the city. While in most vehicles, or while at the protagonist’s home, Liberty City’s soundtrack is represented by the radio. With a diverse line up of respected real life DJ’s, artists and comedians, the radio provides an edgy, dark, comedic, satirical and entertaining backdrop to the game. The story weaves though points located in the city and carries forward with the completion of objectives that usually take place across the large city map. The Ballad of Gay Tony focuses on the shady side of the high class Liberty City night life, which encompasses the functioning of night clubs. As with many other 360 titles, this game features online multi-player. This is interesting because of the freedom and scope allowed in the city as well as the different forms of play that include shooting matches and car races. Along with GTA IV and The Lost and Damned, this title helps to illustrate an encompassing crime drama located in a large immersive environment.

Standing in stark contrast is Braid, a succinct, whimsical platformer created by independent designer, Jonathan Blow. First released on Xbox 360, its relatively small storage size would allow it to debut on the XBLA. It retailed at significantly cheaper price than the typical large budget DVD format 360 game.(Gibson, Ellie. "Braid price cut to 800 Microsoft Points".) Although it was fashioned in the form of a traditional 2D environment, the signature graphics design was eye catching and was supported by an instrumental tapestry. Time is a major theme in the narrative as well as the game play. Braid’s relatively simple presentation grows more complex as the player is able to manipulate the way time effects the environment. Unlike Bad Company 2 and Ballad for Gay Tony, Blow developed Braid on a low budget. XBLA facilitated its success by providing a cheap and effective way for it to be distributed to potential customers. This model provides a low-risk opportunity, thus allowing for experimentation and expression.

In both large and small games, game mechanics and effects often help to not only bring the virtual environment to life but also indicate ideas and values about these fictional societies, and in turn real societies. Even in an aggressive game like Bad Company, the characters in the narrative express a lack of enthusiasm for their assigned mission. It is an interesting dynamic coupled with the devastating power that can be unleashed by the player and computer controlled Non-Player Characters (NPC). The player takes the role of Preston Marlowe who is sent to Bad Company which consists of three other devalued soldiers. They are given the most dangerous, dirtiest missions. Not long into the story, the squad decides to eschew their responsibilities to their command and pursue gold bullion held by the enemy. This goes hand-in-hand with the tone and it also brings an interesting view of the United States military around the world. Even during battle, the NPCs spew funny quips with each other, bringing a realistic camaraderie to the intensity. The exaggerated ability of a four man team to completely obliterate overwhelming opposing forces, including their towns and countryside, underscores American military dominance; yet the reasoning behind the war lies in purposeful ambiguity and cliche. This emphasizes the disconnect between the military command and the grunts who face the most risk. The military’s disregard for Bad Company justifies their greed; another justification is the ideal of the American Dream, represented by the various plans of the soldiers as they look forward to stealing the gold. This also carries across to the multi-player aspect because as a player achieves objectives (usually capturing gold) and gains experience, he or she is rewarded with greater ability and a wider range of weapons. While there is a lot of light hearted amusement, the combat does retain a certain realistic immersion. This, as mentioned before, is strengthened by the graphics and sound. While compared to many other war-set FPSs, the combat game play is not entirely realistic, the experiences allowed through the destructible environments were a new realistic feature to the genre (Wilson, Mark. "Battlefield: Bad Company Impressions.") The real dangers that face troops in Afghanistan and Iraq became just a bit clearer.

Grand Theft Auto, set in a large satirical city is filled with game mechanics that reflect certain ideas about American society. This episode is about Luis Lopez, a former street hustler from Algonquin who was mentored by a gay club owner named Tony Prince. They are business partners in two clubs, however they are also partly owned by the mob which forces Lopez to use the skills he learned in his violent past. One game mechanic that is central to the game is the protagonist's use of his cell phone. It connects the user to the fictional relationships throughout the city and it also serves as a menu to enter Xbox Live and the multi-player aspect. It is somewhat customizable, allowing the player to impress themselves into the game world. Like real cell phones it is capable of taking pictures, which can be used for things such as identifying people through police computers. Even minute details like the distortion of the car radio when Luis is receiving a call was included to add to its realism. It's most important use, however is the connection to the other characters. It facilitates the story when other characters call, but is useful for playing the side entertainment as well. Your relationships with friends often need to be nurtured, rewarding the player with benefits. An example would be Armando's ability to provide arms for Luis. Another would be the ability to dial 911, which can bring a response of a police cruiser, a ambulance or a firetruck. These can help the player, but they can also be crudely taken advantage of. Throughout the game, Luis is feels conflicted by his widely differing loyalties to Armando and Tony. They represent two different worlds: Armando is from the poor, gritty street life and Tony is from the gaudy, superficial high life. Despite these vastly different worlds, they’re both accessible through Luis’ cell phone. Relationships are nurtured by calling a friend up and spending time with them which consists taking them to enjoyable places around the city. The social aspects of the game, while limited, does help the player to relate to the friend characters and become situated in the simulated environment. While the main story arc, including some of Luis’ friends like Tony, are scripted and follow a mission structure, the everyday interactions between Luis and his friends Armando and Hermanique are under the player’s control. With the freedom allotted in this game, this means that much of the game, accompanied by NPCs or not, follows a narrative specific to the player. The player makes choices like whether to refill their health with a quick hot dog vendor, or to invest the time with the NPC friends and eat with them. Of course, being Grand Theft Auto, there are many possibilities for entertainment while accomplishing this and it is really up to the player how mundane “everyday chores” are. Therefore the cell phone is a central organizational tool in this world created with little restriction. But at the same time the use of the cell phone in the game is not very different than it is used in a real world context. The cell phone as a game mechanic is a central part of the game, and it serves to question whether the cell phone holds such a position within the lives of people today. Is our world and the interactions within beginning to be organized and structured by our phone interfaces? Perhaps cell phones are becoming a screen that allows people to look at their own public entirety with a glance, the information contained within becoming less and less separable from our identities. Grand Theft Auto serves as a successful and detailed separation from society so that possibly one can evaluate it from a different point of view.

Braid’s commentary on relationships and time is a lot more obvious. This may be due to its independent development, but it is hard to argue the game does not represent artistic expression. It is explained that the protagonist Tim, heartbroken from a faltered relationship with a princess, sets out on a quest to rescue her from a monster. The game’s levels reflect Tim’s feelings about the past as he tries to rectify it. His introspective views are translated as game mechanics, graphic design and the enchanting soundtrack. Each World is centered around a game mechanic and preceded by a text reflection which connects this mechanic to his thoughts. World 2, which is actually the first level, begins with Tim’s regrets about his relationship with the princess and her inability to forgive him. In connection with the first game mechanic, the ability to reverse time, Tim wishes that when his past mistakes were forgiven, they were forgotten like they never happened. The puzzles in this world require the player to think in this fashion. It is an interesting connection, in a way the player has to try to fit Tim’s frame of mind to be successful throughout the game. The main goal of each world is to collect puzzle pieces that recreate an images from the past. This is analogous to a man scrambling through broken memories trying to figure out where it went wrong. The player may feel something similar to this when trying to complete the levels and assemble the puzzle. It is an indirect, metaphorical way to express that emotional information. In World 6, Tim reflects on how others responded to his ring, possibly being a signifier of his love for the princess like a wedding ring. He felt as if others were cautions or wary of its presence. In the level itself, Tim is able to place the ring in a stationary position. This effect is particularly impressive because time moves slower as it gets closer to the ring, representing how Tim feels people react around it. Away from the ring, the time and anything in that space moves at normal speed. This is an entertaining mechanic and makes the puzzles unique. Overall this game is short and sweet, but it leaves an expressive impact that holds true meaning and reflections about Blow’s past relationships.

While these games may vary, and may be designed for different audiences, they all use the Xbox 360 to relay certain messages and ideas. However, like any other medium or art form, their effects do not end there. On the contrary, the video game format on the Xbox 360 allows for the creation and promotion of societies situated around gaming and greater establishment of the medium in society. Through Xbox Live, subscribed customers are able to compete with each other in The Ballad and Bad Company. The Achievements and Gamerscore system awards players with award and points for accomplishment specific to the game. Furthermore, the success of these titles have had wider influence on society, sometimes stirring controversy.

At the beginning of 2010, Xbox Live had 20 million suscribers, 10 million of which were non gamers.(Grant, Christopher. “Xbox by the numbers: 20m Xbox Live users, 10m nongaming, 39m Xbox 360 consoles worldwide.”) It allows for voice chat and the Xbox 360 Pro had come with a mic. While each game can differ substantially, Xbox Live allows players to communicate regardless of what they are doing on their 360, as long as it is on. It also assists in match making, linking players of similar skill when possible. For Bad Company and The Ballad, this creates an environment of ease, facilitating quick action.

Bad Company includes a Single Player mode, but multi-player has always been the focus of the Battlefield series. Players are able to face each other, gaining merit and virtual reward for their actions. While rank does not hold much command power except for seniority, it establishes who is experienced or skilled and who is not. Competitors are spurred to improve because with advancing rank comes a greater range of tools and weaponry, allowing the player to choose a combination that matches their playing style. The Battlefield series has always been based in team play and while not everyone is a team player, extra points are given to those who do. A common result of matches is that those who work better together will win. In this context, video games can be likened to sport as personal contribution, pride and skill are put to the test. As mentioned before, destructible environments was a new factor for the genre, so it added some variety to the game. Like many multi-player games, success in this game could mean merit in wider society, although this is probably more likely in social groups where gaming or this specific game are a shared activity.

The Ballad of Gay Tony, however is a more widely known title. While not known for its multi-player as this feature has been absent for several iterations, the game provides a unique, enjoyable experience. The game’s signature freedom allows for chaotic street battles including the weapons from the single player game. Depending on the mode, players are also free to hijack any vehicle they desire allowing for unrestricted battle in the city. There is also the option to participate in races. The player is able to customize their character, choosing to represent themselves (or not) in the virtual space. The Ballad, which was designed with more focus on single player aspects would also have limited merit outside of gaming circles.

There is another way the players of these games may gain greater merit. For all Live members, including those who do not pay, the Achievement and Gamerscore system awards players for performing specific tasks in a game. Game designers place these goals in order to add another level of competitive complexity in games. Achievements can be gained in single player or multi-player. Some are awarded just for progressing through the game while others are difficult and require skill, and possibly, practice to get. With every achievement also comes the points that create the Gamerscore. With the introduction of Live onto the new mobile Windows operating system and its integration with social networking, it seems evident that Microsoft intends for these awards to have an even greater part in society.(Miller, Paul. "Xbox Live for Windows Phone 7: your Xbox isn't in your phone yet, but we're getting there".) Perhaps the choices and accomplishments in video games will be tied closer to one’s identity. This may result in greater social standing, or on the other hand, maybe judgements or discrimination of decisions made in video games, especially in games like Grand Theft Auto.

Grand Theft Auto, despite its brilliant satire, holds notoriety as a symbol of extreme violence and sex in video games.(Chruscinski, Dan. "A Decade Of Controversy: A 'Grand Theft Auto' Retrospective") Although the series does contain some of this content in a satirical context, it has always been designed and designated for an adult audience, signified by its Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating of M for Mature. On the other hand, Grand Theft Auto is also known for its widespread critical acclaim, and success. GTA IV is one of the highest selling video games of all time.(Terdiman, Daniel. "Can any game break the 'GTA IV' sales records?") The series has arguably become an impactful part of popular culture, even the subject of a skit from another cultural icon in Chapelle’s Show. The radio is loaded with shows hosted by legendary DJs from various genres including DJ Premier, Iggy Pop, Max Calavera, David Rodigan, Statik Selektah and a sanctioned Bob Marley station. Also included are a wide range of legendary artists, some of who contributed exclusive music to the game. Altogether, the cultural impact of the title is large. While GTA IV was not exclusive to the 360, The Ballad was exclusive for several months. For many, the experience with this title is also an experience with their 360.

Braid was also exclusive to 360. Hailed as an example of the 360 and XBLA’s support of independent gaming, the title may have had great influence on the gaming community. Recent successes like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game (2010) and Super Meat Boy (2010) have continued on this path. It is possible that XBLA now represents an alternative way to develop and sell video games. This provides opportunities for independent and major developers to experiment, make cheap, yet effective titles and even expand existing franchises in other ways. Without the cost and risk of pressing physical DVDs, fresh designers could be able to distribute their work anywhere as long as they meet the standards of the market. XBLA also releases revamped video game classics like X-Men (2010) and Super Street Fighter II HD Remix (2008) which is important because many older gaming consoles are discontinued or in disrepair. Without efforts like this, it would be difficult to maintain an active video game library that comprised of classics from the past. Therefore, the Xbox 360 may be a stage for the creations of game designers, but it is also a multimedia initiative that supports and promotes video game designers, players and culture.

On its own, the Xbox 360 is a powerful device. It assists people to bring their imagined worlds to life and allows others to interact with it. It consolidates many different media and technologies together to awaken true feelings, even if the situation is not true. It dispenses more information than just stats and accomplishments, but complex ideas like Bad Company’s subtle protests of war, The Ballad’s reflection of communication technology and relationships or Braid’s ruminations on time and relationships. Concepts like this may require the player to reflect on themselves and how they feel towards their own actions. The 360 is more than just the device, though. It is one part, along with Live and XBLA, of Microsoft’s movement to expand the social value of gaming so that it may continue to become the main entertainment medium and art form of the century.

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