Augmented Reality: Don’t Worry, It Won’t Bite

Though augmented reality (AR) is becoming more and more predominate in the gaming community, it isn’t likely to replace gaming as it stands now. Henry Jenkins (2008) notes that one of the most common fears of media based companies is the advent of new media. He reminds them that new media compliments- not replaces- existing media. This, I believe, is the same idea behind AR’s place in gaming. Still to this day, games built on 64 and even 8 bit graphics are very popular. Gamers tend to be motivated by the content of the game and less by the visual appeal (Yee, 2006). That being said, and in light of the fact that this is obviously a personal preference thing, immersion is absolutely a motivational factor for game play. However, the game has to be done right. Think of it in terms of The Lord of the Rings has to have a good plot, not just good computer graphics.

A good example of this is the  Spider-Man AR app. There are levels/missions that can be unlocked and achievements to be had by going through a variety of activities. Some of these activities involve computers, and some involve going to stores to interact with merchandise; a brilliant way to create consumer loyalty, resonance, and solidify brand identity. Though this game appeals to a variety of motivational types in gaming, (including immersion and achievement), it doesn’t quite fulfill all of them. We’ve seen how a variety of gaming styles, platforms, and media can be- and often are- used simultaneously or thoughtfully chosen between. The Wii didn’t bring an end to controllers and neither did the Kinect. The PS2 didn’t cause every N64 to evaporate off the face of the earth. Similarly, there are still several reasons why someone would choose the XBox 360 game over the AR app; not the least of which is the desire for escapism. Let’s be honest, combining your world with a different world doesn’t exactly let you ESCAPE your world, does it?

Don’t get me wrong, being able to put a contact lens in my eye in order to apprehend the Second Life style bad guy who happens to be running through the super market as I go shopping doesn’t sound like a terrible addition to my sometimes mundane life. But history has told us that retro never goes out of style with gaming, and sometimes you need the click of the mouse, the mashing of the a, b, x, and y buttons, or the “strumming” of the fake guitar to wash away your IRL blues.

References:

Jenkins, H. (2008). Convergence culture where old and new media collide. New York; London: New York University Press.
Yee, N. (2006). Motivations for play in online games. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 9(6), 772-775.
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Skullgirls: This Ain’t Your Momma’s Fighting Game

Let me start by saying this game is a field day for the senses. It appeals to nearly every one of my identities: girl, gamer, musician, media psychology student, analyst, and voyeur. Okay, while I’m not a voyeur in the psychological sense of the word, I do like to look at pretty art/graphics. But still, you catch my drift. This game has it all. It also has, however, a difficulty that any hard core, mortal kombat raving, fighting gamer would drool over like someone was ringing Pavlov’s bell. But, as frustrated as I tend to get when I actually have to put EFFORT into advancing in a game (RPG gamer much?), the art, sound, immersion storytelling, and all over style of this game mean I’ll never put it down; even if I never beat it.

Very reminiscent of Sucker Punch, this game is a 2D fighting game featuring a (VERY RANDOM) variety of somewhat jacked up girls all seeking to defeat the Skullgirl in the hopes of obtaining the Skull Heart. This elusive Skull Heart grants the girl who finds it, any wish she can come up with. The catch, as always, is that the girl be pure of heart (hey, this IS a girl gamers’ paradise, afterall). If the girl is in any way NOT pure of heart, the Skull Heart contorts their wish into something vile and repugnant (the loved one who is returned comes back as an undead monster? Blech!). As for the impure girl, the Skull Heart changes her into the Skullgirl, and she is the one who makes the horrors of her twisted dream come to pass. As you can probably imagine, the girls all have different wishes in mind, or some of them are simply doing their duty (whatever that might be) and protecting the innocent people of Canopy Kingdom from the monstrosity.

When I say that this game is a ‘girl gamers’ paradise’, I am in no way insinuating that males will find this boring. Quite the contrary. The adjustments on reality that are introduced via the characters’ special powers, are very creative, powerful, and crass (to some extent). From a symbiotic hair monster and an undead cat, to a militant princess and gadgets that would make Maxwell Smart proud, this game allows every character to have nearly endless combination possibilities, as well as the ability to combine 1, 2, or 3 characters per player to create a powerhouse team for you to control. Multiplayer is available online, as well as locally, so if you can’t beat the arcade storyline (/me hangs head in shame), there are still options for honing your skills against your less than worthy friends. If, however, you’re socially inept and have no friends (or maybe just don’t have the nerve to challenge them), you can play in the EXTENSIVE (3 chapters and over 20 lessons) tutorials. There is also an option for a training room, in which you can toggle options such as death, number of characters for you and the AI, and whether the AI even bothers to make any moves. This is helpful for working out combos, which, btw, are only listed online (for those of you who are constantly pausing MK to check out the moves list… you know who you are).

Which brings me to my next point: the website for this game is incredibly immersive, the developers of which should be sought out and applauded. Transmedia storytelling is storytelling which uses the strengths of various media, each of which tell stories that combine to create one large, all encompassing story. The Skullgirls site includes social networking via blogs, twitter, and facebook feeds, makes the soundtrack available on Amazon and iTunes, provides videos introducing each character and showcasing her skills, maintains a community for updates to the various platforms and news about developments to come. The game, then, becomes part of a much bigger picture; it becomes another way to enter the somewhat noir world of Canopy Kingdom.

Inside that noir world, whether you’re experiencing it via game or website, you find music and art which have the ability to steal the breath from your lungs. The music is very vibrant, while simultaneously being somewhat eerie, while the voice acting and audio clips sound like something from Bioshock. The art is hand drawn with vibrant colors during the fights, and chalk board type drawings on load screens. The site and game are consistently drawn, however, the site also encourages fan art (for ‘Fan Art Friday’) and features ‘White Board Wednesdays’. The raw art in some places, clashing with the incredibly detailed art in others, makes for an experience not unlike steampunk. The music fits the art theme brilliantly, and the entire experience, including the storyline and the difficulty, is intuitive; right down to the verbage on the tutorial instructions.

As far as the game, itself goes, the controls are adjustable but they’re preset with light, medium, and hard punches and kicks, as well as combos on LB and LT. In arcade mode, each girl has her own storyline which the fighting advances. Who the girls fight on their way to Skullgirl doesn’t seem to be ordered in any particular way, other than the unlockable characters come later in the lineup (obviously).  While you do get an idea of a day in the life of your girls in their initial movie sequences, the site provides information about each of them, down to their body measurements and personal likes and dislikes. The thumbstick and D pad seemed less responsive than I would have liked, but that could have just been the excessive speed with which the AI combo’d the bejeebus out of me. Difficulty modes range from ‘Sleepwalking’ to ‘Ridiculous’, but the bar set by even the easiest mode, tends to be more difficult than any other fighting game I’ve ever played. There is room for the most experienced player to struggle, while allowing every casual gamer to find some enjoyment as well.

This game is stylistically stunning, very creative, features immersive transmedia storytelling, and allows players at all levels a challenge. While the controls are somewhat frustrating, and players enjoying this game should NEVER volunteer for studies correlating aggression and gaming, only the very young or very naive should hesitate to grab this game. If you aren’t sure whether this bold style is for you, a quick stop at the website will tell you all you need to know. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way to New Merdian as I AM pure of heart and I have a wish to make.