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What’s Mine is ‘Mine’: Denouncing DRM

Seems like every time I get online over the last few weeks, I see more controversy over “always online” DRM (digital rights management) restrictions.  Penny Arcade did a comic on the subject, and forums are aflame on gaming news sites from Gamasutra  to Rock, Paper, Shotgun.  The ire most recently stems from controversy over Blizzard’s announcement that Diablo III will require require a persistent Internet connection to play…even in single-player campaign mode.  Does this irritate me?  Absolutely.  Just as it irritated me last year to hear that Ubisoft was doing that very thing with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and sure, it irritated me more when sure enough, within a month, said DRM requirement backfired on the players.

But here’s the thing that really gets me.  When I saw the quote from Blizzard’s VP that he was “actually kind of surprised” over the backlash, at first I thought, how clueless can this guy be?  But reading the comments attached to the article, I see the problem…the fans lining up on either side of the fence are merely arguing the conveniences of the issue.  The argument of choice for those not offended by this seems to boil down to several variations on “It’s 2011.  If you don’t have 24/7 access to the internet, it’s time to crawl out of your cave, mmmkay?”  Those defending their outrage are actually responding on this level, going into great detail about rural connectivity, monthly data caps on some plans, the reliability of game servers, and whether they can Play On A Plane.

Mass effect 3

You wouldn't pass around an advertisement from Commander Shepard on the Citadel...

Folks…forget those arguments.  They’re valid points, but spending your time arguing about them diminished the reason you should be mad, in my humble opinion.  That reason is, and I want you to say it with me:


I realize my opinion is probably coming from an old-fashioned perception of ownership, and that my outlook is colored by having grown up pre-Internet, buying games on floppy disks and CD-ROM, books made from real trees, music on vinyl records, cassette tapes, and compact discs.  And I am not naive – I recognize the difference between my ownership of a disc and the author’s ownership of the work it contains.  I would not presume to believe that purchasing a CD gives me the right to use it for commercial purposes, or to reproduce and distribute its content to all my buddies.  But that CD – that one, specific CD – that is my property, which I happen to believe I should be able to listen to where and when I like, make copies for my personal use, or install on as many machines as I can cram into my house.

The increasingly intrusive DRM push is based on a lot of fallacies.  I’ve seen these issues raised online before, so I’m not exactly saying anything earth-shattering here, but hey, my soapbox, my prerogative:

1.  Increasingly draconian DRMs stop pirating and don’t punish paying customers.
2.  Piracy is some dread new crisis that will bring the entertainment industry to its knees.
3.  Nobody will pay for art if they can get away with pirating.

Progressively more stringent and frustrating DRM, much like the TSA, reminds me of the saying “closing the barn door after the cows have run off”.  Pirates find a way to hack the copy protection, so technology comes up with a new way to copy protect.  Which – surprise! – pirates are going to find a way to hack.  There is no such thing as copy protection that can’t be cracked.  There is only copy protection that hasn’t been cracked…yet.  And when it is, it is the pirates who have a quality, unrestricted copy of the game, while honest customers are being punished for paying for it.

video game piract

Damn it. We missed "Talk Like a Pirate Day".

Is piracy a new threat?  My parents were rather prolific pirates; you tell me (and while you’re at it, get off my lawn.  And turn that noise down!)  Oh, I didn’t think anything of it at the time…but looking back to the ‘80s, the dozens of games I had for my C64 were largely packed onto floppies with handwritten labels, several games to a disk, with phrases like “Cracked by SuperCoolGuy” on the title screens.  Our sizeable collection of VHS movies consisted of 2 movies to a tape, their titles neatly scripted in my mother’s handwriting, some recorded from TV but many copied over from video store rentals, as VHS was still fairly new and often unprotected.  My folks aren’t bad people…frankly, I think it was pretty common back then because people simply didn’t think too much about it.  Sure, I saw the FBI warning at the beginnings of movies, but my parents never copied and sold any movies or showed them publicly, and it just seemed harmless.  These days, however, every album/movie/game they have is bought and paid for, and I seriously doubt it’s because they don’t know how to make copies anymore; they simply do the right thing, as the vast majority of us do.  And you know what?  Despite the prevalence of pirating I saw in the ‘80s of VHS movies/games/cassettes before copy-protection became standard, the movie/game/music industries still flourished.  Moreso nowadays.

People will pay for what they like.  People can be outright antsy to give their money for what they like.  People will even pay money for something they already got for free – because they know that a dollar is a vote, and because when you’ve really wowed them, they want to say ‘thank you’ with their dollar.  When Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog was released freely on the internet, I fell so ardently in love with it that when it finally became available for sale, I bought it on iTunes…less because I wanted an iTunes copy of it and more because I’d been dying to pay them for what they had created.  And then I also bought a DVD copy as a gift for someone else.  It is also worth noting, however, that this was my first iTunes purchase and will be my last…because I had repeated issues with the “authorizing” the video, first when attempting to put it on my iPod, and again when I got a new laptop and got rid of my old one.  Yes, I managed to fix the issues eventually, but that’s not the point.  The point is that the hassle offended me on basic principle, as it became increasingly clear that I had not ‘bought’ the movie at all, but rather bought the right to borrow it indefinitely, just so long as I checked in with them any time I chose to do anything with it.  And yet we’re supposed to pay $50-60 for a disc we’re not allowed to use when and how we choose.  By requiring the persistent Internet connection, companies are essentially taking your money for a product, but insisting they ‘hold on to it for you’, so they can keep checking your receipt, over and over and over again.

Maybe I’m spitting into the wind arguing about it.  Concepts of ownership when it comes to digital material seem to be changing rapidly whether I like it or not.  But let’s not go quietly.  Don’t let them tell you it’s necessary, it’s inevitable, or that it’s just to ‘enhance’ gameplay.  If buying something does not give you the right to use and enjoy that something, be dissatisfied.  Tell them you’re dissatisfied.  And make it for the right reasons.

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Rating: 4.9/5 (8 votes cast)

Bastion: Review

bastion logo

I’ll admit it; I just wanted the bandanna.

It was day 3 of our family trip to PAX East in Boston last March, footsore and gamed out, when I came across Bastion’s demo booth. Somehow I’d missed them among the vast displays of the Big Guys all weekend; what I encountered now was a single demo station and a small stack of the very last of their swag – bandannas, kinda stylin’. I sidled over to pick one up; a young man caught my eye and introduced himself as one of the game’s designers. Oh crap, I thought. Guess I’d better try his game now.

Oh, that sounds bad. But don’t get me wrong – I didn’t travel 800 miles to a video gaming convention just to snag free T-shirts and lanyards. It had simply been a very full weekend already, and I was just cutting across the expo floor one last time on my way to gather the family and hit the road. And this wasn’t a crowded booth with distracted sales reps, but an actual designer, eager to show me the fruits of his labor. I was unnerved – it’s like an author handing you his book and expectantly watching you read. I’ve never been great at judging a game by its demo, and I was self-conscious as I tooled around with it. After a few minutes, I told him it seemed interesting, and scurried off with my bandanna.

Such was my introduction to Bastion, available on PC or Xbox Live Arcade from fledgling indie studio Supergiant Games. But I liked it enough to purchase it when it was released, and having now played through at greater leisure, I feel bad for blowing the guy off. If I ran into him again, I’d hug him. Because Bastion is freakin’ ART…and the longer I played it, the more it got under my skin.

Bastion: Story

“A proper story’s supposed to start at the beginning…ain’t so simple with this one. Now here’s a kid whose whole world got all twisted, leavin’ him stranded on a rock in the sky.”

With this cryptic introduction, the game opens to precisely that…the main character, referred to only as “the Kid”, sleeping peacefully in bed, in a crumbling remains of a stone room hovering in the sky. As the Kid snoozed, I waited for the narrator to continue, or for the Kid to get up, but nothing happened; I realized I was back in control already. I pushed the thumbstick.

the world of bastion

Kid wakes to find the world completely destroyed around him. Now that's a heavy sleeper.

“Kid gets up,” the narrator drawled in prompt response. “Sets off for the Bastion, where everyone agreed to go in case o’ trouble.”

Moving toward the edge of the platform, stones rise up from the depths to form the ground under the Kid mere yards in advance as I progress, recreating pieces of the ruined world. Why? What happened here? Who is the Kid, and who is telling this story? All we know is that the world has been destroyed in some event called the Calamity, the few survivors are gathering at a safe haven called the Bastion…and the Kid is somehow the key to making everything right again. The story unfolds largely through the ramblings of Rucks, a fellow survivor in the Bastion (charmingly voiced by Logan Cunningham). His narration reminded me fleetingly of Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski – gruff and folksy in a way that suits the game’s style perfectly, spinning a yarn that is grand and terrible, beautiful and sad. The narration is reactive, incorporating not just main story events but even the little things I do, from experimentally smashing the surroundings with my newfound weapon to customizing my supplies. It’s a choice that could very easily have become irritating or repetitive, but does neither. It flows easily as if my own actions had been scripted just so, and never repeats itself – giving me, even as I experience the Kid’s adventure firsthand, the feeling of listening to a fireside retelling at grandpa’s feet, the faint smell of pipe smoke hanging in the air.

Bastion’s Story Gets a 5 out of 5

Bastion: Gameplay

At its base, Bastion is a classic isometric hack-and-slash adventure with a rather linear progression. Bits of the old world spring up at the Kid’s feet, but don’t go thinking you can save the world with an extended jog – they are fragments, memories of old sidewalks and narrow trestles, just enough to guide you to your next destination. The world can only be repaired through the Bastion, which itself must be repaired through the use of cores that you gather from the various levels. I was clumsy with the controls at first, and I fell off the world – a lot. A minor setback, though, as falling off platforms simply cause the Kid to be plopped back onto the platform with a small damage penalty.

As you improve the Bastion, you create buildings that allow you to upgrade the Kid’s items, weapons, and even tweak the game’s difficulty level, making the experience fantastically customizable. Build the forge, and make upgrades to your weapons that, once unlocked, can be swapped at will. Build the distillery, and have your pick of ‘spirits’ that give the Kid different perks (as you level up, the number of spirits you can carry at a time increases). Build the temple, and you can invoke various gods, earning higher XP and money accrual for taking on extra challenges, like stronger enemies or scarcer health potions. Effects are stackable, so you could make your game a walk in the park, a living nightmare of difficulty, or anything in between.

There’s a wide variety of distinctive weapons, each with advantages in different areas. Acquiring a new weapon unlocks an accompanying “Proving Ground” at which you can practice your skills in competitions to win prizes – upgrade materials or special weapon skills. Story levels and proving grounds, once completed, cannot be returned to; but, if you still find yourself wanting more practice before advancing the story, there are additional bonus levels that eventually unlock within the Bastion itself, which can be played as many times as you like. Beware, these are long – survive 20 waves of enemies to win – and I recall yelling unkind things at the screen about the virtues of checkpoints after dying on the 19th round once or twice. But they shouldn’t be missed, as they contain some revealing backstory on the Kid and his companions.

Bastion’s Gameplay gets a 5 out of 5

‘But is it Art?’

(Graphics/Music: 5/5)
When I say that Bastion is art, I mean it’s art. This is a game that proves Roger Ebert wrong. This is where Bastion rises above the standard hack-and-slash, and I ain’t just talkin’ about pretty pictures.

But the pictures are pretty, make no mistake. The graphic style of Bastion has an almost watercolor look, and the inhabitants…well, I originally thought “cartoony”, but I realized that’s not the right word. Illustrative, perhaps. Brightly colored and fanciful, the world looks like illustrations out right out of a children’s storybook, adding an even greater sense of wonder.

Even the nomenclature of the game is artistic. In keeping with the rustic narration, creatures of the world sound like they were named by the locals – you’ll dodge flocks of Peckers, fight Gasbags from the mines, and watch your step in tall grass to avoid the Anklegators. If you wanna upgrade your your weapons, you better get your hands on Something Heavy, or perhaps Something Pointy. Need a boost? A swig of Werewhiskey might just hit the spot.

bastion the kid reaching for a drink

In Caelondia, you're old enough to drink if you can reach the shelf.

And the music…the music is exquisite. Darren Korb’s soundtrack is easily the best game music I’ve heard in years. The style is described by the composer as “acoustic frontier triphop” – clearly a description of his own invention, but it hits the mark. The music combines old with new, fantasy and science fiction and Wild West. Remember how you felt when the “Serenity” theme would play at the beginning of each episode of Firefly? Yeah. Like that. Sometimes twanging, sometimes pulsing, always with a keen feeling of lonesome blues and loss. But don’t run over to the website to listen just yet – trust me. Part of the beauty is discovering each piece as it is introduced, perfectly enhancing the tone of each segment of the game. It may not fully grab you at first. But as you experience the music with the story, it will seep into you. Some of the game’s characters even have their own beautiful theme songs with vocals…and when they eventually blended together into one haunting ending theme over the credits, I got goosebumps, I really did. (In fact, I bought the soundtrack, and I never buy video game soundtracks.)

Bastion’s Graphics / Music gets a 5 out of 5

Bastion: Overall Score

I wanted to dig up some complaints about this game and give it a 4/5 on sheer principle. Spare the snark, spoil the studio, you know? But in the end, I just can’t do it. I may have gotten frustrated over some difficult battles, or fallen off the world a few (dozen) times, but even my minor complaints melted away with just a little practice. At about 10-15 hours of gameplay, you’re just not going to spend a better fifteen bucks on entertainment this year.

Overall Bastion gets a 5 out of 5

Buy this game. You’ll be supporting a promising up-and-comer (did I mention that Supergiant Games is currently a handful of friends working out of someone’s house?), and you’ll be upgrading your game collection with Something Special.

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Rating: 5.0/5 (4 votes cast)