Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Snow Level's Song for a Snowy Night

Midway through January and here I get my first real snow of the new year.  The grocery store was thankfully free of the usual crowds and the long walk home was silently uneventful.  Warmly fitted with nothing around but glowing street lights and cigarettes, it felt like a particularly opportune time to enjoy some music that was... wintry.

Not every album has a winter song at the ready and not every band can fit the mood.  Oh sure, there will be the odd Christmas song if you can stomach them, but Christmas is only a twinkle in the eye of winter.  It doesn't define the season, rather it is often the other way around.  But if we turn to games, we can find many, many soundtracks that address a heavy snowfall on a cloudy night.

Now, I could spend my time compiling a list of top tens and twenties to teach the lil' ones all about the classics and how great this snow level's theme or that snow level's theme is, but I'd feel a lot more satisfied to bring up just one good song: Donkey Kong Country's Ice Cave Chant.

What begins as slow intense build, almost ominous, is soon met with a sequence of notes in fast succession.  On one hand, the listeners feel alerted toward some impending hazard.  On the other, they feel excited.  Then comes the lighthearted, xylophone tapping and a child-like joy in the music.  This is only occasionally interrupted, so the fast pace, repeating notes can linger in the mind, reaffirming the mystery and excitement.

I' music theorist, but I understand mood.  And the one created in that song is a mixed one, like the snows of winter themselves.  The first heavy snow is exciting and beautiful.  It brings people back to their first snow, whether it be as a child or an adult, and it fills them with wonder.  Snowballs and snowmen, the snow is for laughter and playing!  Yet, it can be dangerous.  It's slippery and cold.  It's apparition white and obscures vision, making it as mysterious as it is inviting.

Snow encourages all those feelings, and that one song encapsulates them as well.  The two go perfectly hand in hand.  While I'd wager there are a number of video game tracks that can service this emotional state equally well.  Ice Cave Chant is the first that comes to mind and the one that's stuck the longest.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

On Hundreds

Let's not waste time dwelling on the past, making top 10 lists of games from the last year.  Instead, let's aim our sights on the future, the bright and glorious 2013, which has already given us a fascinating new release in the iOS title Hundreds by Semi Secret Software.

There are thousands of ways to make a puzzle game.  Games like Portal and Professor Layton, however different they may be, embellish their puzzles with plot lines and characters.  They create not only riddles for the player to solve, but worlds to explore.  On the other hand, there are games like Tetris that focus on simplicity.  The only characters are the player and the blocks he drops, and the only story is about how far the player gets before losing.

Beyond Tetris, there are some games that are not only simple, but minimalist.  These games use simple game-play and art design, not because they are limited by technology, but to make an artistic statement or create a specific effect.  Hundreds falls into this category.

Despite its title's implications, Hundreds keeps its game-play and visuals very small.  You see a series of balls bouncing around the screen.  Most of them begin each level at zero and have to be expanded until you reach the score of one hundred.  Complexity comes from your inability to let them touch while being enlarged, and the increasing number of little tricks and obstacles introduced the longer you play.

Visually, there are only four colors.  Black, white, and varying shades of grey are used for the backgrounds and balls when everything is static.  Red is implemented as the color of a growing ball and the game over screen.  Because of this, progress and failure are visually connected, as they are in game-play.  You cannot lose unless you try to make progress.

In Tetris, letting the controller waste away as the game runs will lead to inevitable failure.  Only by intervening can you stave off defeat.  In Hundreds, the little grey balls will just sit or bounce around, patiently waiting for you to take a risk, throw a splash of red onto the screen, and go for a hundred.  By touching the screen, you bring color and action into the otherwise banal world of Hundreds.  Poor reflexes or lack of forethought leads to a clash of two circles and the screen overflows with red.  You messed up, kid.  Too much, too fast.  And failure, like victory, is solely the responsibility of the player's actions.

This use of color is only one instance where the minimalist design is executed to create a beautifully complex effect.  The increasingly challenging goal of getting to one hundred stands in stark contrast to many puzzle games' endless and often arbitrary point systems.  Here, the numbers are invaluable.  As you expand the balls, their numeric value increases, as does their worth to you, and it becomes heart breaking to watch a tiny buzzsaw blade bump your forty-point circle, deflating it to zero and erasing any hard work and patience pumped into it.

The game, also, gives you no instructions on how to play.  Any language or narration quickly degenerates into nonsensical jumbles of letters, so you have to figure out the purpose of each new element by yourself and these things are often very clear without explanation.  Bubbles stop your ball from expanding and cannot be expanded themselves.  Pop 'em!  Each device is introduced in a vacuum, so you can become acquainted with them before they are combined for more challenging exercises.  Once again, the player is entirely responsible for himself.

Minimalism by itself can be just another neat visual trick.  However, Hundreds uses it to teach the player how to play.  The alarmingly bright red color of a growing ball signals a step toward both success and failure.  The simple goal is easy to understand and never changes, even as tools and obstacles do.  Instructions are nonexistent and the player has to guide himself.  All these things train the player to be responsible for himself and to think critically about his surroundings.  By being simple, by being minimal, complexity is crafted.

Friday, January 4, 2013

On New Super Mario Bros.: Grounded

Decent Mario games have always tried to deviate from the conventional formulas while staying true to the franchise's core mechanics.  This way each installment gives players a familiar, but unique experience.  Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels changed things up by toying with players' conceptions of the rules.  For example, the first mushroom you get in The Lost Levels doesn't making you grow, rather it kills you.  Super Mario Bros. 3 added flight to series.  Super Mario World provided a mount.  Super Mario 64 was in 3D and was a less linear experience.

During the 3D renascence of Mario titles, it seemed like there may be no return to the portly plumber's 2D platforming roots, until the Nintendo DS saw the release of New Super Mario Bros.  This game took an opportunity to "return to form".  But simply going back to the hallmark that was Super Mario Bros. 3 would only end badly.  People would always compare them, saying that NSMB was just a copycat and Nintendo was getting stale.  So something had to be done to make the game feel separate from its fellow titles.  How did they do this?  By clipping its wings...literally.

New Super Mario Bros. was grounded.  There was no flight in the library of power-ups.  Rather, the game focused on size manipulating mushrooms that could make one either very big or very small.  This changed how a player explored the level.  In most 2D Mario games, secrets tended to be discovered by going off the map.  You might leap above the ceiling blocks to run to a warp zone, or you could fly up into an otherwise hidden location.  But in NSMB, the secrets were right under your nose.  Miniature tubes, too small for regular Mario to climb into could be found on levels where the mini-mushroom wasn't even available.

This added an extra layer of challenge.  In most Mario games, power-ups do exactly as their name suggests - they "power" you "up".  However, the mini-mushroom was both a blessing and a curse.  It let you jump higher, fall slower, and fit in smaller spaces, but you were just as vulnerable as in your starting form.  One hit killed.  Secret areas and entire worlds were only accessible if you were willing to keep yourself in a constant state of fragility.

This one item made a world of difference to gameplay.  Look at other power-ups, in Super Mario World there was secret area behind an early ghost house where the player could get two fire flowers, two feathers, and a Yoshi.  No one ever picked up the fire flowers.  The feather allowed a player to fly, spin-attack, glide with Yoshi, and find any secret area.  Players only picked up the fire flower if they couldn't get a feather, and really there was no need to have the fire flower in the game at all.

In New Super Mario Bros., the fire flower was my default mode.  It was what I needed to survive a tough encounter.  But by sticking to the fire flower and keeping my power, I was losing the chance to explore all the nooks and crannies of the game.  I was even missing out on whole worlds I could be exploring.  To get to those places, I needed to sacrifice my power and put myself in a perpetual state of weakness.  The mini-mushroom didn't make levels easier.  It made them more exciting, because I was suddenly so weak compared to my previously flame spewing, three-hit surviving self.

By coming back to earth, New Super Mario Bros. didn't only give me a familiar Mario experience.  It actually helped me see flaws in the earlier Mario titles and appreciate items as not only "power-ups" but as "power-exchanges".  It really showed how doing something as simple as having the developers remove flight positively affected the game design and made it feel fresh once again.

On Kirby's Epic Yarn: The Invulnerability Problem

Kirby's Epic Yarn might be the most aesthetically pleasing game produced by Nintendo, or maybe anyone. It is visually gorgeous with its mixture of storybook and yarn art that effortlessly engrosses anybody in its world.  When Kirby jumps behind the game's fabric background, a believable, little bump puffs against it where he is.  When Kirby grabs hold of an enemy he can yank them to shreds or knit them into a ball.  It's one of the most reasonable excuses for not putting a game in 3D too.  Everything is made out of fabric, and if you've ever looked at a horrible Christmas sweater, you know that aside from little bumps, the image is two dimensional.

However, Epic Yarn is let down by one significant flaw: invulnerability.  As a whole, the gameplay is both very good and very unique for a Kirby title.  This time round, the player doesn't eat foes to steal their powers and he can't fly.  That adds a new strategy to a familiar franchise.  Now jump distance and combat are limited.  But Kirby still remains an introductory platformer for young gamers.  The developer, Good-Feel, seemed to interpret that as cause for making the game virtually toothless.  There is no death and there is no failure.

I remember playing a level late in the game where I fell down into a pit (sadly, the same pit) two or three times.  Every time, a little, yarn angel would lift me up and guide me back to a safe spot.  During this period, I lost all the gems I had collected throughout the level.  In a game like Sonic the Hedgehog collecting rings is important, because without the rings you die in one hit and the more rings you have, the better a chance there is to pick them up after being struck.  But in Epic Yarn, the gems only allow you access to extras.  The only penalty is to your chance at 100% completion and unnecessary to actually winning.

If that sounds fine for a children's game, then you aren't really giving kids enough credit.  Children don't need instructions on how to walk in a game.  Put a d-pad on a controller and a wall on the left side of the screen and any developmentally healthy kid will know exactly what to do in seconds.  In fact, the game I just compared to Kirby, Sonic the Hedgehog, was designed for children back when home consoles were new.  It didn't start with any tutorial stages, and kids learned how to play fine.

Sonic may have been better at educating children than Epic Yarn could hope to be.  After all, vulnerability in a game teaches.  It teaches important lessons about failure, pattern recognition, and persistence.  The natural first reaction a person has when they fail at something is usually to dust themselves off and try again.  Exceptions only appear when the danger of a second attempt outweighs the reward.  Touching a hot stove in real life is a lesson learned that a child soon won't repeat, because the penalty for failure is far beyond what the reward is worth.  However, failure for running into a spike trap in Sonic and having to restart the level may be met by a second attempt to seek the reward of a new level and the external, schoolyard victory claims.  It also ensures that the child is aware of the spike trap during the second play and the mistake (probably) won't be made again.

Sadly, the "invulnerability problem" with Epic Yarn could have easily been fixed without having the player restart a level every time he ran into the an oncoming, cloth spear.  How?  With gems!  The gems Kirby collects throughout his adventure could have been used as a progress bar.  For example, only by collecting gems throughout previous levels could one progress to the next stage.  This would make the reward for big gems in precarious locations worth the risk to get them.  While that idea is imperfect, it still would add a layer of importance to failure (when you lose gems).

Challenge is part of what keeps people engaged in... anything.  If a viewer is not feeling even slightly challenged by a film then he might start checking his phone or texting his friends.  But by being forced to think with a story, he is more likely to keep eyes on the screen.  And the same applies to video games.  Tetris keeps a player constantly challenged and that game's success practically determined the commercial future of the Game Boy by itself, because people liked the challenge.  Epic Yarn, on the other hand, does little more than provide a pretty coat for an otherwise dull experience.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Game

It seems like every pocket of the arts and entertainment has a special reserve dedicated to Christmas.  Famous and unknown artists alike have devoted countless works to this single holiday, regardless whether they focus on the religious or secular aspects of it.  That's really no surprise.  People love Christmas.  More importantly, people love the idea of Christmas.  They love to celebrate with food, family, and giving, and they naively love to believe that there is at least one time of the year when we can set our differences aside and enjoy all the good within humanity.

Thanks to this holiday, we've not only been given a large number of Christmas media, but so many "Christmas Classics."  We can credit much of contemporary Christmas to Charles Dickens' wonderful novella, "A Christmas Carol" and we've seen it retold and parodied countless times.  We have children's poems like Twas the Night Before Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas that manage to stay part of popular culture long after poetry's virtual death.  Christmas specials like Charlie Brown and The Simpsons keep their respective franchises dear to our hearts.  And there are many classic Christmas films that we watch every year, like It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street.  Then there's all that music...

Christmas NiGHTS
But I can think of one particular medium that almost entirely lacks the spirit of Christmas - video games.  Why are games so bereft of seasonal themes?  You would think a medium that does not only let you see or read a story, but be part of one, could easily find Christmas excellent source material.

There are a few sparse examples.  Christmas NiGHTS was a Christmas-themed sequel to an obscure Sega Saturn game.  The Costume Quest DLC, "Grubbins on Ice" took place in winter... though new additions to the game were not particularly Christmas-y.  The flash game Winterbells has you playing as a rabbit, ringing bells in a snowy landscape.  If those are the best I can think of then there certainly is a broad deficiency of Christmas games.

Grubbins on Ice
The problem comes from both game developers and audiences alike.  Most "hardcore" developers will make games for a teenage, male audience.  Teenage boys are not known for being the most... festive... company.  Sure, they like Christmas.  They get new games on Christmas, but they don't particularly care about "The Spirit of Christmas."  Developers look at their wallets and say, "Should we invest tons of money in a seasonal game with limited appeal and an undetermined audience or make Shoot Gun Kill 4?"  They already know which one the kids in the forums are salivating over, so the choice is obvious.

Sometimes developers might issue a holiday edition of their games.  This is a cheap, re-skinning of an already successful property.  One can see it done by games like Angry Birds.  But these are as arbitrary and novel as the forced "Christmas episode" of any Sit-Com, but with perhaps less effort put into them.  What possible message can be derived from putting Santa hats on the enemies in Killing Floor?  Is... is it supposed to be funny?  H-How is it funny?  I don't pretend to understand these superfluous expansions of the game.

Angry Birds Seasons
It's a genuine shame that a classic Christmas game does not exist.  There really should be a game you can pop into the console every winter and play to recall the child-like warmth and spirit of the holidays, like one can find among so many other works.  But sadly, there aren't any.  There aren't even many games that take place around the holidays.  So we'll just have to keep experiencing the sensation of Christmas cheer through books and film, and the old fashioned, interactive way - in reality.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Nintendon't in South Korea

Nintendo is the most famous name in gaming and one of the most famous companies world-wide, but here in Korea, even it finds it hard to break through to mass success.

This is probably because like all other console manufacturers, they just don't move a Korean audience.  Koreans are PC gamers.  PC Bongs (Rooms) dot every city and it costs barely anything for teenage boys to go to one and spend a couple hours between class, away from mom and dad's watchful eyes, playing League of Legends with their friends.  In this way, games in Korea are not only things to do, but places to go.  They aren't just a pass time, like television.  They are an event, like arcades and movie theaters.  Games are even broadcast on TV and professional gaming is a legitimate form of competition, especially when it comes to titles like League of Legions, Starcraft, and Sudden Attack.

There's not a lot of room for console developers to move in such a PC-centric environment.  But that doesn't seem to stop a company like Nintendo from trying.  On a recent trip to the COEX Mall in Seoul, I couldn't help but notice all the effort Nintendo had put into a 3DS campaign.  Big signs advertising the 3DS and Nintendogs lined the walls and a station was set up for people to watch and play 3DS games, just in time for Christmas.  And that marketing was trying to catch everyone, adults and children alike.

However, the 3DS is still a hard sell in a country that's not only dominated by PCs but smartphones.  Every kid is walking around with a portable game system that they can easily justify to their parents, and their favorite game at the moment is free physics platformer called Bounce Ball for the Android.  A couple days ago, I had a student walk into my class with both a 3DS and his phone and he spent his break playing Bounce Ball, entirely ignoring the handheld designed specifically to playing big, sweeping action games.

I find myself almost rooting for Nintendo.  "Yeah!" I think, "Introduce kids to the adventures of Mario and Link!  Show them what classically good games are!"  I think that forgetting I haven't bought a Nintendo console or game in years.  I think that forgetting how stagnant the Nintendo production cycle has become and how New Super Mario Bros. titles are becoming as annual as Call of Duty and Madden, and just as interesting.  I think that forgetting Nintendo is not an underdog.

Like Korea has been for a while, the United States is certainly moving away from the console and handheld gaming systems and farther into the realm of PCs, tablets, and smartphones.  Maybe the Koreans have it completely right when it comes to gaming.  Maybe consoles and handhelds are relics.  Most of those independent and experimental, artsy-fartsy games that I love are found on PC and smartphone.  So why should I be rooting for a giant cooperation to conquer yet another nation?  Perhaps I'd rather keep my local PC Bong in business.

Originally posted early today on my other blog: Museum of Bad Ideas.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Suggested Gaming: ...But That Was [Yesterday]

...But That Was [Yesterday]
by OneMrBean is a browser game platformer, simple in gameplay but narratively complex, created for's Casual Gameplay Design Competition. It essentially follows the same set-in-stone Mario platforming conventions, always move right. But there is an obstacle in the way of the player which he must learn to avoid in order to travel forward. This post is going to be spoiler heavy, so if you haven't played the game (which seems likely as it was just released yesterday) GO PLAY IT HERE NOW BEFORE CONTINUING. It's a short game (won't take ten minutes).

The main character of ...But That Was [Yesterday] is a man caught up in his past and the losses he has suffered. It opens with one option, to run head first into a dark, sputtering wall which brings back swarms of memories from the character's past. The wall instructs the player to run into it repeatedly and it immediately becomes clear that this is the only time you will want to avoid instruction. A dog approaches from behind and tells the player to look away from the wall. The wall will shrink away, allowing the player to continue.

This is how you will learn to play the game. There are three major sections of the game, each one divided by an sparse, grey level. After learning how to avoid the wall with the help of the dog the dividing level is a straight run. Then the player will meet a friend who teaches him how to jump. They will travel across rooftops in a simple Canabalt style level. After losing his friend the player returns to the dividing level, this time with gaps meant to jump over. Then the player learns to swing with a lover. Once losing her, the player is taken back to the dividing level, but now there are swings.

Instead of a pointless instruction screen that pops up to teach a player how to do a new trick, the game provides one with instructors. Once each one gives you some new information, helps build the character through new mechanics, the loss of these instructors becomes slightly more painful to the player. Many video games try to convince the player to connect with NPCs via dialog or just telling them "this character was important to you!" ...But That Was [Yesterday] actually attempts to give the player a reason to become attached to NPCs. They're helpful.

During the final dividing level of the game, the player's actions are mirrored by a shadow of the person who instructed him. When turning your back on the wall, the dog appears, when jumping the friend appears, and when swinging the lover appears. Through the remnants of these people being part of the character, and positive ones, he becomes able to hold to and appreciate the past without being hindered by the sad memories of loss.

That's the big thing I really wanted to mention, but there's a lot of other great elements to the game. The music is splendid, with wistful acoustic guitar melodies and upbeat yet soft electronic tracks. The art work in the game is lovely, with painted backgrounds and characters that are remarkably expressive for faceless, monochromatic bodies. And the gameplay becomes increasingly fun as the player learns new abilities. The swings, especially, add a lot to the short gameplay.

You can check out other games by OneMrBean at his website HERE.