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narcogen's blog

[image:9359 left hspace=5 vspace=5 border=0] This issue has been stewing for quite awhile; and for a long time, I left it completely alone, hoping that it would just go away.

Except it didn't.

In the past two weeks, Wideload Games' debut offering, Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse, has garnered more press attention for its inclusion in a controversial list of games produced by NIMF, the National Institution on Media and the Family, than it did for being released as an interesting and entertaining Halo-engine game with an innovative theme, and that's just wrong.

The list purports to bring attention to games that parents should watch out for. The twelve "games to avoid" on this year's list included Far Cry, F.E.A.R., Doom 3, Resident Evil 4, Conker: Live and Reloaded, and at number four (with a bullet) our pal Stubbs the Zombie.

What's a zombie got to do for a little respect?

Supporters of the game industry were quick to point out that every single game on that list is rated M for Mature and not intended for children.

NIMF President David Walsh, asserts that the ESRB rating system is "broken beyond repair". How a voluntary rating system that correctly identified all of their 12 "games to avoid" as Mature is broken, I can't really fathom. If I was the NIMF, I'd be seriously worried that people would interpret this list to mean that all the other M-rated games aren't really that bad, and thus would be okay for children. Or that they'd be worried that the industry would respond that their games rated M aren't as bad as these on the list, and should perhaps be rated T instead.

[image:8446 right hspace=5 vspace=5 border=0] At the end of the day, the ESRB ratings, just like the MPAA ratings, are not enforceable as laws; individual retailers have to enforce them. And just like the MPAA ratings, sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. If they don't and consumer watch groups want them to, why they don't lobby the retailers instead of the ESRB or the developers, I've no idea. The idea solely seems to be to pick on the weakest child. The retailers are more interested in making money than pushing NIMF's agenda, and so are the console makers and game developers. The ESRB, as a nonprofit, is clearly the easier target. NIMF and others criticize them for failing to achieve something that isn't even part of their activities-- the enforcement of the ratings by retailers-- so they can muscle the ESRB out of the way and replace it with their own nonprofit group with its own ratings system that would most assuredly by ignored with just as much enthusiasm as that promoted by the ESRB.

Like most of the games on that list (with the possible exception of Conker) Stubbs is clearly intended for an adult audience. It's got adult themes, an adult sense of humor, and it's set in a time period that today's teenagers have only ever seen on Nick at Night.

None of this even touches on the most ridiculous part of NIMF's justification for including Stubbs on the list: that's right, cannibalism. I could waste my breath on how silly that sounds. Luckily, you don't have to. Wideload was also quiet about the list until last week; and while it may be true that all publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right, Wideload did respond to the allegations of cannibalism leveled at Stubbs, in a posting that bears the clear fingerprints of lead writer Matt Soell:

Stubbs is a zombie. Thus the title "Stubbs the Zombie." Zombies eat brains. That's what they do. Stubbs cannot just saunter into the cafeteria and order a plate of Freedom Fries. He has to fight for his meals. In fact, actual cannibals only make it harder for Stubbs to eat, which is why this "cannibalism" story is insulting as well as injurious.

It's no surprise that the all-human media cartel resorts to distortions and name-calling; their anti-zombie bias has been evident for decades, and Stubbs is just the newest target.

Of course, some might call Wideload biased in this respect. After all, they did make the game.

Columnist Dean Takahashi also took special exception to Stubbs' inclusion on the list:

But by putting this game on the list, along with "Far Cry" and "Fear," the institute also does a kind of dis-service. There's a stigma to getting on that list, as if the makers of the games were really producing reprehensible stuff with no redeeming social value. It is on the same list, for instance, as "Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories" for the PlayStation Portable and "True Crime: New York." The institute noted that the cannibalism scenes in Stubbs and Fear are more examples of the industry sinking to new lows. But in Stubbs, I don't know if you can call it cannibalism. The zombies eat the brains of live humans in a fairly comic manner, with gushers of blood coming as they do so and the humans screaming "oh you ate my brains" in the process. But they're zombies eating humans, not humans eating humans.

I don't consider cannibalism, in any case, to be an artistic and legitimate form of expression. Yet this game isn't the equivalent of "Night of the Living Dead." Stubbs the Zombie is a satire. It makes fun of the sterile environment of the city and the dumb people who populate it.

[image:9705 left hspace=5 vspace=5 border=0] "It's just the worst kind of message to kids," said Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman of Stubbs' brain-eating proclivities.

Be careful out there, gamers. Looks like the dumb people have escaped from Punchbowl and are overrunning Congress.

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Joe Keiser at Next Generation has written an article statying why he agrees with Roger Ebert with regards to computer games being an inferior mode of storytelling. Ebert, in response to a letter from a reader, expounded on his comment, saying that:

Yours is the most civil of countless messages I have received after writing that I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Keiser rightly refutes one of Ebert's central points by saying that authorial control in most cases is never really relinquished at all, because the portions of the game in which the player has control does not normally impact the story. Think about Halo 2's story: how you play it has no impact whatsoever. If you survive, you advance to the next level, see another cutscene, and keep playing. If you die, you respawn and try again. Halo 2's story, for the most part, can be experienced in its entirety by watching the cutscenes that bookend each level, with only a few quotes from key characters missing here or there. The major difference between such a sequence of cutscenes and a computer-generated feature such as Toy Story is the quality of the graphics, as well as the quality of the performances by voice actors. But these are specifics relating to individual works, not an inferiority inherent to a medium.

However, this refutation does not go far enough. Keiser asserts that games can preserve their ability to tell a story well by creating the illusion of choice: "A storytelling game should give the illusion of control, the idea that you can do anything, while at the same time putting the idea in the player’s mind that they want to do a specific thing."

I think this is a cop-out. This is, in fact, what most current games do. It creates the illusion that you're participating in a story while in reality you're just along for the ride, and the only choice you really have is to proceed as expected, stop playing, or die. When you play the game as the developers expected, you unfold the story as the developers wrote it. Hurray for us.

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[image:9927 left hspace=5 vspace=5 border=0] Two more tidbits from the Halo script today. One features the Master Chief doing what he does best (killing Covenant) while the other features Cortana doing what she does best.

Talking, of course.

In the initial moments of Halo 1, between the Cryo bay and the Bridge, the Chief is unarmed and essentially cannot be harmed by Covenant units, all of which are separated from him by invisible walls except one. This portion of the game was essentially designed as a bit of a tutorial, as the game shows you how to do things like jump and crouch to make your way around obstacles.

The film, of course, has no such need for doing that; so before the Chief ever makes it to the bridge, he's picked up a couple of weapons and already started taking his toll on Covenant boarding forces.

That first Elite you see when you play Halo 1 the first time, that surprises you from behind a door and then quickly disappears down the corridor? Well, in the film script, the Chief comes up from behind him, takes out his shields with a melee strike from the assault rifle, and then finishes the job with half a clip (30 rounds). Even the number of rounds mentioned in the script here is correct.

Of course, in the game it wouldn't have been necessary to fire a shot had the melee strike come from behind. And on any difficulty other than easy, a single melee shot from the front would not have taken out the shields entirely.

Within the game, the silent melee kill mechanic works well-- it's about the only stealth option available in a game that is most decidedly not about stealth. However, perhaps it was worried that such an easy takedown wouldn't be believable on the big screen; so the Chief pumps the Elite full of lead just to make sure. Makes sense.

[image:9928 right hspace=5 vspace=5 border=0]After leaving the Bridge with Cortana onboard, there's a new exchange between the two that is not in the game, seemingly to establish for the audience the fact that most of the time, Cortana is a disembodied voice that only the Chief can hear. (There is a stage direction later in the script that reinforces the same concept.) The author even manages to make a humorous little scene out of it, a Taxi Driver moment where the Chief gets to ask, "Are you talking to me?"

This, and other touches throughout the script, seem to indicate that the film is being prepared for a wide audience, not just fans of the game who don't need this concept explained for them. While that seems like a good idea, it's also a road that just about every terrible, failed videogame adaptation-- I'm looking at you, Doom-- has tried to go down.

If there's a saving grace for the project here, it will be the involvment of Peter Jackson. He was able to produce a trilogy of movies that did a remarkably good job at pleasing hardcore fans of Tolkien's works as well as attracting a broad audience. It seems clear that Microsoft would want the Halo movie to do the same; they would want to expand the audience for the film to include nongamers without unnecessarily alienating the franchise's core fans. A nice little scene like this I think is a step in the right direction; it's short, unobtrusive, doesn't conflict with any known facts in the Halo story, gives a touch of humor and a helping hand to those not that familiar with the story.

What do you think? Post a comment below!

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[image:9922 left hspace=5 vspace=5 border=0] Just recently, Rampancy.net had an opportunity to acquire a copy of a document, in PDF format, that purports to be a version of the script for the Halo film, written by Alex Garland and dated February 6, 2005.

While there is no way to be absolutely certain, prior to the release of the film, whether or not this is real, it bears a close enough resemblance in its opening portions to the Halo script reviewed by El Mayimbe at LatinoReview and that we posted a link to back on November 8. El Mayimbe rated the script five stars.

While the two scripts might not be exactly the same, and either version might not be the one that ends up being shot, the review and the script itself have convinced me, solely by their content, that at the very least they are working versions of the script for the Halo film.

The script itself has actually quite impressed me as an adaptation of the first game, the plot of which it closely follows. Before anyone asks, it is not my intention to distribute the file widely, nor to "spoil" the film-- although I hardly think that is possible for this audience.

However, recent discussions about casting, about whether or not we'll see the Master Chief's face in the film, and whether the game's original voice cast will be used have proven interesting. So what I propose to do is periodically post small details from the scripts as discussion-starters; points of comparison where the film diverges (even if only slightly) from the games and the novels, to see how the community feels about them. Who knows-- if this script is, in fact, legitimate, and anyone involved in actually making the film sees these discussions, it might serve as food for thought.

[image:9923 left hspace=5 vspace=5 border=0] The first such point I'll post is a short part of an exchange that takes place during the Pillar of Autumn cutscene, as it has been rewritten in this version of the film script. In the game, Cortana points out to Keyes that the ship would be better off with her piloting it down to the surface of Halo. Keyes replies that since the Cole Protocol prohibits the capture or destruction of the onboard AI to protect sensitive information such as the location of Earth, that is not an option.

In the script version, Cortana is more insistent on this point, and Keyes' response seems to indicate that at times it has been necessary to use an "override command" on an advanced AI in order to get it to obey. This isn't necessarily a big change from the way AIs behave in the novels, but it is a change in the way Cortana is presented in the first game, where her trustworthiness isn't really called into question until she comes into contact with Halo's systems in the Control Room.

What do you think? Is the film version of Cortana going to be less reliable, perhaps more rampant, than the one in the original game? If so, what payoff can there be for doing this within the context of the first film? Is this setting up something that happens later-- in other words, are there already plans for sequels to the Halo film? Would those cover the sequence of events in the games, or in the novels?

What do you think? Add a comment below!

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PALGN, an Australia-based gaming site that humorously advertises itself as being both slow and late, has finally got around to recycling several busted rumors about Bungie and Halo into the bold prediction that Halo 3 is being done by a developer other than Bungie.

Now, to start off, this idea is not half as ridiculous as it sounds; I pondered it myself not a few weeks ago (although for the life of me I cannot find where-- it's possible it was done only in IRC).

What is ridiculous are the five points they cite as evidence of this:

  • Bungie has repeatedly refused to confirm the name of their next title. Why? If it was Halo 3, why would they bother not telling us?

There is a little something here. Bungie itself gave mixed messages right after the release of Halo 2, with some quotes indicating that the studio was going to do something different. Maybe they are. However, Microsoft's only other high-profile in-house development studio that would seem to be a match is Rare, and they have their own franchises, Perfect Dark and Conker, to worry about, not to mention the Xbox 360 showcase, Kameo. It's difficult to see what would be gained by shuffling work around like that.

If it was an external developer, no doubt they'd want to publicize their involvement with the Halo franchise to make maximum value of it. Nothing's been said at all. I'd guess that whether the logic is flawed or not, Bungie's reasons for keeping quiet about what they are working on are separate from the question of who, if anyone, is working on Halo 3.

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Doesn't anybody want an Xbox 360 Core?

Our own poll here shows that even people who don't want an Xbox 360 outnumber those who want a Core. It's understandable; hardcore Halo fans want to play their old Halo games on the Xbox, and that requires a hard drive.

In all seriousness, does anybody want a Core? Microsoft isn't even offering it in the Japanese market, where the old Xbox did very poorly, and so backwards compatibility is a non-issue. Xbox360News is reporting that the US may have upwards of a million Xbox 360 units for the launch date, but that a mere 20% of those are Cores.

Are even those going to be sold, except to people pissed off that they can't find a full-fledged Xbox 360, but are willing to add the HD and wireless controller later just for the privilege of getting their hands on the console immediately? If the percentage of Cores shipped was actually higher, I'd suspect a massive bait and switch maneuver was underway.

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Taso at High Impact Halo did an interview with none other than me, about the Rampancy.net Bungie fansite and other things.

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The dismal reviews that the Doom movie is getting so far-- check Metacritic.com for a summary-- normally don't have anything to do with Bungie or Halo.

However, when the Halo movie is finally released, the comparisons will be inevitable; Doom was the first popular first-person shooter, and Halo is the most popular Xbox shooter.

So I got a kick out of this quote in the Austin Chronicle's review of Doom:

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Longtime Bungie fans will recognize the name Matt Soell. For many years Soell was the public face of Bungie, the guy who read (and posted) on the message boards, who wrote the original weekly updates, who gave cryptic hints about wall-hugging hippos in Halo, and whom many strongly suspect was the wit behind the Letters to the Webmaster feature.

Now, Soell is the writer responsible for fleshing out the story of Stubbs the Zombie, the new Xbox title by independent developer Wideload Games in Chicago, founded in Bungie Software's old stomping grounds by none other than Alexander "The Man" Seropian, Bungie co-founder, and including the magic number-- you guessed it, seven-- ex-Bungie employees.

Even while Wideload put the finishing touches on Stubbs for release this week, Soell took time out to answer a few questions for Rampancy.net.

Narcogen: When the founding of Wideload Games was first announced, the focus was placed as much on Wideload's business model, combining a small staff with independent contractors, as on the company's Bungie heritage and new intellectual property (Stubbs the Zombie). With that game nearing completion, how has Wideload's new business model worked for the company? What advantages does it have compared to the previous two situations, and what disadvantages?

Matt Soell: I think it's worked out pretty well. We're still around, we're actually shipping a game, we haven't had to sell our souls to anybody, we've got the same core staff of eleven people we started with, we all still like each other and so on. So yeah - you CAN make a game this way and have fun doing it.

Advantages and disadvantages are pretty much what we expected. You can get a lot done with a small creative team and a lot of contractors - and it's less expensive for sure. The disadvantages are that such an arrangement forces you to have your shit together early in the process and communicate really well with all your contractors. Sometimes that's tough. I'm not just talking about the logistics of synchronizing our Chicago schedule with an art house in Ireland or what have you, although that's part of it. When everyone's in the same room, or at least the same building, it's a lot easier to make sure everyone has the same basic understanding of what we're trying to achieve. It's not an insurmountable problem by any means, but it reared its head more than once during the development of Stubbs.

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A recent back-and-forth in the HBO forum, as well as numerous references to quotes involving Halo, possibly Halo 3, and release dates in the past year led me to want to try and collate a bunch of these references.

First, let's take this quote from Robbie Bach at Microsoft:

"We're going to ship it when it's ready. [...] You have to be careful with franchises like this."

That sounds like Halo 3, doesn't it? Sound just like what Bach said about Halo at X05, right?

Wrong.

That was about Halo 2, back in January of 2004. The upshot? Halo games get released "when they're ready".

Is that true?

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Yesterday, Kotaku reported on a thread in the TeamXbox Forums that supposedly had a "leaked" copy of the script for Halo 3, in the form of a 119 page (barely 118 not including the cover, looks like the author was shooting for 117) PDF file entitled "Draft4". Shortly thereafter, the thread in the TXB forums was taken down. Kotaku updated their story with a link to the original source-- this thread in the RichesWillRust forum, to which many new users flocked to register and download the file. Meanwhile, several pages of comments on that thread were apparently deleted by a forum mod.

What's in the file?

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Buried in the news about Microsoft's global launch of the Xbox 360 console starting this November was the revelation that unlike the controversial two-tiered pricing system in the US, where the unit without the hard drive is $300, and the unit with the hard drive and some extras is $400, the Japanese market will get a single configuration-- fully loaded, with the hard drive, for less than $350.

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Louis Wu at HBO called 1UP's Broken Halo article a broken record by a whiny writer, but myself I find it hard to shrug off all of it's criticisms, even if they are old hat by this time.

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The following is excerpts from the transcript of the online chat with Microsoft's J Allard that Major Nelson posted on his blog. Some of the answers I thought bore a little extra scrutiny, so I've added some comments below.

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There's been much discussion of late about the way matchmaking works in Halo 2's implementation of Xbox Live, with regards to cheating, griefing, and other misbehaviors, and as compared to other kinds of venues and methods for enjoying networked games, such as LAN Fests and server browser-based PC games.

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