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.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dinner Date & Video Game Realism

Literary realism is narrative form of story telling in which the writer tries to depict reality through commonly occurring events in order to make a point about our own lives. This is a style which could be interestingly used by video games, but almost never is. Instead of trying to depict reality, video games will often try to be realistic (more often than not through violence, as in realistic violence, or visuals like those in Heavy Rain or Uncharted).

There are only a very sparse examples of realism I can think of for video games, and this may be because in an interactive visual medium where the possibilities are endless, not a lot of people may want to plow the fields or brush their teeth to find meaning, when they can go shoot space aliens for fun. But there are a lot of interesting things one can do with realism, without having to be 100% realistic that can be used in gaming and still be entertaining.

Likely the most popular game series to use realism are the Harvest Moon games, which have the player break logs, farm crops, buy seeds, and tend livestock. These games are no where near realistic, but they do represent the real struggles one is faced with in the life of a farm. Animal Crossing tends to depict the continuous life of debt a rural survivalist faces in the world of capitalism, though I'm sure that was never the intent of the game's creators. Both titles lack any violence and can often be termed "casual games," but are the closest a mainstream video game comes to realism.

Stop. Yes, these games feel more like realist works than things like Bad Company and Modern Warfare. Those game romanticize war, even in the death and brutality. They are not works of realism, in any way. The grandiose scale and extreme speed surrounding events, and the over-the-top conspiracy theory plots in most war games make great excitement, but lack the elements of realism which are most important. They could probably be categorized as romanticism.

A few examples of realism in gaming would be Desert Bus, The Graveyard, Pigeons in the Park, Snowdrift, and Home. These more fringe, independent (often freeware) games are more down to earth and realistic, showing daily activity, than most anything in the main stream.

Desert Bus is an old Sega CD game about traveling across the desert. It's played for laughs, by managing to be obnoxiously real. The game probably points out what many would believe about realist games - they would be boring.

The Graveyard is an extremely divisive game by the extremely divisive Tale of Tales, where you play an elderly woman walking through a graveyard. It's barely interactive, but the good intentions and the five dollar asking price for the game make it hard for me to honestly hate. Not to mention the purpose of the five dollar purchase is clearly stated by the creators. If you buy the five dollar game instead of just playing the demo, the only extra you receive is to watch your character die. It's a bizarre concept, but an interesting one. A neat experiment, really.

Pigeons in the Park (as well as many of the games) by Deirdra Kiai is a very realist game, where the player just talks to another person while sitting on the bench. It's pretty good. The conversation is very interesting and you get the chance to explore two very different people's somewhat fragile minds. Definitely recommended.

Snowdrift by increpare and Terry Cavanagh is a game about getting lost in a snowy wilderness, and you definitely feel lost during your time out there. I sometimes wondered if there was a chance to actually make it back home in the game, or if you were always destined to freeze to death. This also could be noted as a naturalist work, a facet of realism. There is nothing in the game that could not happen in reality, and it's well worth playing for a bit.

Home by increpare is probably my favorite of these realist games. Like The Graveyard you play as an elderly person, but the gameplay is interwoven with the narrative much more thoroughly. The character has to maintain his food, bowls, and other stats as his body slowly deteriorates and his mind dulls. It displays the helplessness and pain of aging perfectly through the medium.

Especially with the last three games mentioned, realism can be used really well in games. A developer doesn't have to make an especially realistic world, they just have to make a realistic scenario and integrate it well with the gameplay of the medium. Reality is hardly dull, and like most realist works in literature display, it can be very challenging. And challenge is one of the key elements in most games.

I'm curious to see the game Dinner Date in action, as it is exactly what a realist game may want to be: an experience of events in order to empathize with a person in a situation while still connected to reality. And the designer sounds like he has made some very encouraging decisions for the game, like the player control the lead character's subconscious instead of controlling his entire body. That may serve to add an extra layer of depth to play, and serve the medium properly.

We'll see if it can pull off being an exceptional game in an under-used genre in just a couple days.

You can play or download Snowdrift, Home, and Pigeons in the Park at the links given in this sentence.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Surrounding Meat Boy: Machinarium

By far one of the best games of the last year was a PC adventure game called Machinarium by Czech developer Amanita Design. Just over the last couple days it's lead character Josef was announced as a playable replacement for Alien Hominid in the PC version of Super Meat Boy giving me ample excuse to discuss the game.

Machinarium takes place in a world entirely occupied by robots. The game opens with the main character being deposited into a garbage dump just outside the city the character will spend most of his time within. Actually, it's questionable whether it is actually a dump or this is just what the world looks like, thrown out wreckage littering every part of the world. While many elements of the environment can be called cute, it is an unwelcoming and lifeless place creating a reasonable understanding for why Josef spends the game trying to rescue his companion.

Yes, this is another Save-the-Princess game. Your goal is to find and rescue a (female?) robot friend of the protagonist. The trope is well used however. You explore an environment that, like perhaps an extremely urban atmosphere, is mostly hostile towards your needs and seems to stand to oppose you at every step. Most of the other robots in the city are apathetic or out right aggressive towards Josef, and the structure of the city is built to challenge his goals.

The visuals look almost painted onto the game. This is one of the trademark joys of Amanita Design's titles. They all look gorgeous without requiring high res, big budget funds. And with Machinarium the choice art style provides an early-twentieth century futuristic aesthetic, like one would find in the silent film Metropolis.

The narrative in Machinarium always chooses to use music and thought bubbles filled with images, not words, in order to communicate to the player the needs of the robots. This is a fantastic choice as it gives the robots a language of their own, allowing them to emote more expressively than reading dialog typically allows, and it allows company to easily distribute its game to people outside their native language. Anyone from anywhere can understand the story and the characters in Machinarium. There is no language barrier at all.

These are just a few of the good things I could say about Machinarium. The game is an absolute joy, and a true success in a slightly old and slightly stale genre. If you haven't given it a try than I definitely would encourage you to, especially if you are a fan of adventure games or just like to play something different.

You can play the demo of Machinarium RIGHT HERE.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Surrounding Meat Boy: Mighty Jill Off

Jill from Autie Pixelante's game Mighty Jill Off is probably one of the most unique, if not endearing, video game characters of today. For anyone, and probably many people, who haven't played the game - it's freeware and its through THIS LINK. Jill is a pudgy, lesbian gimp longing to service a dominatrix-like princess, and already the game turns the standard Mario (Save-the-Princess) conventions on its head.

Jill is throne from the top of the Princess's tower to the ground floor and has to climb her way back up to her quasi-romantic interest. Once Jill finally gets to the top to meet her princess, after leaping and dodging her way through many obstacles and enemies she is bound and ganged and told to do it again by her beloved princess (the end, and Jill looks thrilled). Unlike the Mario trope, the Princess is always in the same tower. Like Mario, she is just as unobtainable as ever.

Mighty Jill Off is about relationships. In an interview the creator likened this to the relationship she had with her partner, and the relationship between tops and bottoms in general. There is a constant amount of effort a person must go through in order to be with the one they love, and then once they make some progress and achieve a goal they may be faced with even more trials in order to meet their partners needs and expectations.

The story is also one of masochism. It is not exactly an easy game, which is perfectly fitted for a gimp. Constant failure, constant pushing on, and a seemingly endless tower with no break all work to display the struggle one goes through for their partner, to please them, even at the cost of their own person. Jill is always on bottom, and a boot fetish in the cutscene at the beginning of the game aids in pushing this logic. It is the only part of the princess she is able to touch, and she does so intimately. Jill is stepped on, she is worn down, and she is on the ground, because she is a sexual and relationship masochist. And her desire to return to the princess is not to be rewarded as a successful hero, but to be treated like a gimp, and punished again.

It's a strange story, but one which can be easily understood by many who are or have been the bottom or the submissive partner in any relationship. The game is wonderful as the gameplay and narrative work seemlessly hand in hand. They are one in the same thing, with the exception of some short, still-frame cutscenes at the beginning and end of the game.

Definitely check this game out. If you've played Super Meat Boy you can definitely see some masochistic comparisons between the relationships of Jill and her princess and Meat Boy and Bandage Girl.

Oh hey! While looking up links I ran into this post by the developer herself kind of confirming some of the things I said and suggesting some other interesting perspectives (especially on Super Meat Boy). Read it. Reading is good.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Surrounding Meat Boy

Super Meat Boy
is a game I've been having a hard time figuring out how to write about. It's fun and I've really enjoyed my time with it, and while there is a certain amount of creative depth to be found in the game I'm not sure there is enough to warrant much dissection and exploration. So I'm going to write a brief discussion of the game then look at something I find much more fascinating than the game itself, the games surrounding the game.

The most enthralling part of Super Meat Boy is probably the gameplay. It is a perfect, difficult retro platformer. The controls are tight, though failure is constant. It makes up for the difficulty with a forgiving penalty for death, instant continue. Unlike a game like I Wanna Be the Guy there is no obnoxious death screen for the many times you die, except on rare occasion. A few warp zone levels send the player into old school worlds where one is only given three lives. Comparing these sections of the game to the rest makes one grateful for the standard gameplay of Super Meat Boy, and for its creators understanding of what classic tropes still work well today and which ones don't.

The character of Meat Boy is a boy without skin on a mission to save his girlfriend, Bandage Girl, from the evil Dr. Fetus. I'm not going to even think about Dr. Fetus because I'm almost certain that one could find some very unintentional and tasteless "children ruin relationships" sort of logic in that character. I honestly think it was just to be funny. However, Bandage Girl and Meat Boy's relationship is a complex one.

Meat Boy's goal is to save Bandage Girl, but he is so weak and prone to one hit death that he could not possibly make a truly great hero. He is a flawed person, a walking wound. He goes through trial after trial, losing repeated, and he is doing it just for someone he loves, a Bandage Girl. Bandage Girl is everything Meat Boy is not. She is durable and protecting, but bandages are useless without something to use them on. The two characters were made for each other. So while Meat Boy is saving Bandage Girl he is actually saving himself. She is the only one who can protect him. They belong together perfectly, and Meat Boy will risk life and limb for that love.

Another aspect I loved about the game is it plays as an indie game counterpoint to something like Super Smash Bros. It celebrates a wonderful collection of independent game heroes who have appeared in recent years, showing this downloadable indie game trend isn't going to be an unnoticed or short lived one. So for the next few weeks I'll be looking at the games these characters came from and what they do so differently from their peers - from Castle Crashers to Mighty Jill-Off. Each indie superstar in this game is worth examination for themselves.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fable I & II: What Choice is All About

In my younger years I was frankly addicted to the Xbox exclusive game Fable. I may have played it a total of eight times through from beginning to end. So naturally I was thrilled for the arrival of it's long awaited sequel in 2008. Unfortunately, completely Fable II felt more like finishing the original game again. It was less of a new adventure and more of a rehash of the one before it. But there was something which struck me about the series that had amazed me.

Choice. The first two Fable games were about choice, however ridiculous those choices were. Often one would pick between the most horrible thing imaginable and it's high-holy counterpart. So by the end of each game the world could be drastically different than it was when your hero set out on his quest. But that was a lie, and between the games something unintentionally deep was revealed. No matter how good or evil I had been in the first game the world of the second was unaffected.

It was inevitable that all of my "heroes" actions were for not. I could become the greatest evil to ever exist, I could make every in Albion happy and safe, but when my descendant in the second game began his journey I was but a faint memory. Isn't that just like reality in all the saddest ways. Oakvale, my main character from the first game's hometown had been burnt to the ground. Later I would see it rebuilt. But regardless of my hero, nothing would stop it from being buried underwater in Fable II.

We as human beings have an inherent freedom of choice. Every day we can spend of time making tough or simple decisions, avoiding conflict or marching through the streets. But the way of the world, nature and time, keeps going despite us and all our pretentious influence. In our lives we are the only ones who can perceive ourselves as heroes, but on a grander scale (a grander scale than our pointless human existence) our actions are meaningless.

What a depressing game... and I thought it was about fart jokes. That is another great example of choice in Fable. I can marry man or woman (progressive), I can go around punching every citizen in the face, I can buy up almost every building, I can just wander aimlessly laughing at strangers, I can chop wood for hours, but none of it even matters to my own story at the time. The linear plot of my life is set in stone, and there is truly only one ending. I make a choice (good or evil, or neutral in Fable II) and the world goes on, uncaring.

That was the best part of the games for me, perhaps only because I found some unintentional depth. The games are fun on their own, if not a little bland and very similar. So I'm not sure if I'm looking forward to playing the third, or if I will play the third, but I did get something out of the series I haven't seen in many video games. That's something admirable... I guess...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Suggested Gaming: Gretel and Hansel Parts 1 & 2

Newgrounds has brought us a lot of interesting games over the years, and this is definitely one of them. Gretel and Hansel is an adventure game in the strictest sense of the term: search around for items that fit one puzzle each with no multiple solutions to any situation in order to follow the story. What can sometimes feel like a design flaw is that you can die quite frequently during the game, which can feel frustrating, if not obnoxious. But that acts only as one of the many parts of the games atmosphere. It works hand-in-hand with the art style, music, and mood to create a game well worth playing.

It took the developer (Makopudding) to create the first two installments of this series, the second of which is much longer and intricate than the first (so clearly that year was not wasted). Perhaps following the footsteps of titles like Machinarium rather than Monkey Island this game use sight and sound instead of dialog to create the perfect mood. The lead character, Gretel, discovers her parents are going to abandon in their children in the woods so as the child with the clearly superior intellect it is up to her to save them.

The games balance between child-like humor and horrifying adult themes which can be seen through the visual style they use. Cute characters in a storybook setting, one which looks hand drawn with faded sides (almost as if from a near ancient children's book, fittingly enough), are juxtaposed with graphic violence, hideous monsters, and brown washed colors. It sets a fearful mood as you immediately attach to your character and hope none of the over-the-top harm befalls her (and the first time it does can be shocking).

The soundtrack, especially of the second chapter, is absolutely beautiful. Most notably is an old man's banjo song able to keep you in the area for a longer than average wait, just to listen. But the entire soundtrack to the second part is golden, from haunting melodies to intense instrumentals accompanying moments of terror. It all works splendidly to build up the incredible atmosphere.

The actions of your character reflect your increasing desperation. During the first chapter you are more likely to distract the monster with tools (this is before you even leave your home). The second chapter is when truly disturbing action is taken by the characters. Alone in the woods, you more readily resort to violence. *SPOILER* In the first part of the game there is a moment where you find a rabbit and approaching it result in a hug, smiling as you rub it against your face. In the second chapter you capture what could be assumed the same rabbit, slash it open and use its innards as bate to kill a bear. *END SPOILER* There is a definite contrast between the innocent life of a safe child and a person fighting for survival established through this series.

So check out the first two chapters of the series. I really hope you enjoy it as much as I have, and I also hope to see the next installment(s) be as clever and disturbingly beautiful as these last two.

You can play the first part for free through this LINK

You can play the second part for free through this LINK

Friday, October 22, 2010

Suggested Gaming: Costume Quest

I made the terrible mistake of looking at the metacritic reviews of Double Fine's latest title Costume Quest today before writing this. Right now it's at a 71, and while that is by no means a bad score, it definitely isn't the kind of rating to earn a game fantastic sales. These days the color yellow can inspire fear into a developer. I wonder what they do around bananas... Costume Quest is an imperfect game, but it's one I would heartily recommend to anyone.

Tim Schafer's Double Fine is known for quirky aesthetic and funny dialog (as in Psychonauts and Brutal Legend), and that can be seen in Costume Quest in spades. The humor is strong, with clever writing and comical juxtapositions. But more lovable than that even is the world created by the company. The entire game takes place on Halloween night where the player takes control of one twin of their choosing (Wren or Reynold) who has to rescue the other who was kidnapped by the minions of a sinister witch for wearing a profoundly lame candy corn costume. Yes, this is a game about candy!

Currency is measured in candy, the experience bar is a meter at the top of your screen with a growing pack of Smarties, you can see how much candy you have by looking at an on screen silhouette of trick-or-treating bag. The Halloween setting follows the player through three areas with a surprisingly lot in them, from malls to corn mazes, suburbs to carnivals. For a six hour game, you certainly get around.

There are two different styles of gameplay in Costume Quest. There's the adventure mode where you will spend most of your time exploring an area, completing quests, and trading spooky trading cards. This part of the game is extremely cute, with big headed heroes and a quirky charm. When the game switches into combat mode your character goes through a transformation into an over-the-top cool version of their Halloween costume. Costumes can be changed up outside of combat, and whichever ones you and your party are wearing will determine what basic attack and special you can do.

The combat is done in a very basic Super Mario RPG style. You essentially have two moves, a basic attack and a charged up special move. You can also give your character certain advantages or an extra move by putting found or purchased stamps onto their costume (one per character). When attacking you have the opportunity to do a little timing trick (a la Super Mario RPG) to deal extra damage, or can deflect part of an opponents attack if you press the right button at the right time. This system is very simple, but if you can't get it down the game can be extremely punishing.

The choice for this part of the gameplay is likely meant to reduce grinding, you'll only need to get to level 10 to beat the game. The decision for the JRPG combat seems like a practical one as well. For children all play fighting is turn-based where the imagined version of the child declares actions before an assault, then another child contests or attacks on their own turn. If this was part of their goal (and I hope it was) it could have been integrated a little better into the game.

Honestly, this could be easily done with voice acting, my only major problem with the game. The game is very quiet during the beeping dialogs, and while a low-budget game like this certainly does not require voice acting, it is one of the most charming qualities of Double Fine's earlier works. It would add personality to the combat and the story. Sometimes the speech bubbles would go by so fast that I would miss the end of a statement. Once again, this is fixed by voice acting but it never kills the experience.

Double Fine is masterful at creating worlds and letting people explore them to the fullest (one reason why they belong here in video games instead of in other animation industries) and they an island of strong writing and smart humor among a sea of dim-witted power fantasies. While this was by no means the studios magnum opus, Costume Quest has gotten me excited to see their next three smaller releases.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


I find the JRPG formula enjoyable, which is strange because only in rare circumstance does it make any sense for gameplay. It can often hinder the flow of a game. For example, in Final Fantasy VII there will be exciting cut scenes with big monsters and big explosions, there will be vibrant casinos, and high speed motorcycle fights, but when combat pops up things will take a drastic change of pace. Suddenly the epic heroes are taking turns whacking randomly appearing mutant squirrels. Only on rare occasion can this style of gameplay act fittingly with the world around it.

I bring this issue up because to very similar games have been released State-side in the last year: Dragon Quest IX and Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light, and they both succeed on certain levels and fail horribly in others. In Dragon Quest IX you control (provided it is a single player experience) four, mute champions of good and while the aesthetic seems to compliment the simple combat there is a major disconnect between player investment in the game and the game itself. A requirement to finish is an almost unholy amount of grinding or side quests, and since the world is interesting players should want to explore beyond the story. But the side quests are not truly connected to the characters, as they have no personality, so there is still less reason to participate in anything beyond the only visible plot. Especially in RPGs player investment in characters and story should drive grinding and missions. In Dragon Quest IX it does not.

While characters do have personality in Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light, the gameplay is set up to be as non-interactive as possible. So once you are able to play as even the most basic archetypes in a four character handheld game, you are left unable to play as them as directly as you would in a game without personalities (Dragon Quest IX). It seems most RPGs, even our most beloved ones, will leave a player longing for something better, whether it be stronger story, stronger character, or stronger mechanics. It is a rare moment when the JRPG formula, and all of the elements combined into it, actually feels most suitable for the situation.

Space Funeral Spoilers Below (Go Play It!)

Two examples of great JRPG style play can probably be found in Space Funeral and Final Fantasy VI. Space Funeral is a freeware game I’ve suggested before and it’s definitely worth your time. The turn-based combat is necessary for it to work because it takes place in a warped version of a JRPG. The goal is to change the world back to the way it should be, a proper JRPG. While the world is unsettling, the gameplay is familiar; it adds to the strange and unsettling feeling one should have as they play. The game makes the player question why things don’t feel right.

Final Fantasy VI is THE proper JRPG. It has more class than any other game in the Final Fantasy series. Things move patiently. There are operas and elegant flying machines. The combat compliments the sophistication of the game by being turn-based, therefore chess like. I’ve posted about this game a few times, and do really see it as among the best games in the genre.

One turn-based RPG I am holding out hope for is Tim Schafer’s Costume Quest. Being released October 20th it follows children on Halloween, and as they enter into combat they take on the form of their costumes. This is a perfect place for a JRPG. In childhood games kids often do more standing around talking about what amazing things they are doing with the imagined images of themselves than doing amazing feats. Children make believe in the JRPG formula unintentionally. The potential is great for the game and I’ll be sure to pick it up on release.

I think there is a way for JRPG mechanics to meet with story and character in perfect harmony. I think there are games that have gotten very close, perhaps as near to perfectly as one can get. But I would like to see more effort put into the games instead of it just tossing uniform mechanics into a game so it can be called a game. And this is does not mean I don’t enjoy games like Dragon Quest IX or 4 Heroes of Light. They each have their charm, but are seriously flawed.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Feign and Perspective

“Feign” by Ian Snyder is another game I’ve found via and while I wouldn’t heartily recommend this to everyone it does something that is rarely seen in video games today, it plays with perspective. “Feign” is a 3D maze game (like the kind you may have played on Mac or PC back in your youth, really they were more like screensavers than games) where you search for bodies as you go further into the confusing, neon passages. Only that’s a lie, the truth is the entire game takes place on a single black plane and as you move around the walls (and your perspective) change.

This can be confusing, and it is. Some aesthetic choices made by Snyder make it very difficult to navigate. But the core game design is brilliant. You could say that the player is moving through a maze, or you could say that the maze is shifting around the player, or you could say both. Video games do not have to be chiseled into stone like early forms of art do. They can be told as a liquid medium, formless and flowing.

The boundaries of “Feign” are vague, the first thing you figure out to do is “enter” the maze, but when you go into the small room seen above, you are greeted by a much larger labyrinth. Some rooms (you could call them) are open air regions. But you have not walked down a flight of stairs or out of a building to get there. All you did was walk through a door way and really you are in the same black space you’ve been wandering the entire game. The game plays with perspective. While that can make it more challenging or confusing at times, it is something no other medium can do.

A tiny room can be massive. This is true in film and literature, but you cannot personally explore it in them. A tiny room which secret hides tunnels and skyscrapers for you to spend hours exploring is something completely unique to this medium. Most games don’t bother with changing perspectives, they tend to have very real-world paths and real-world logic, neglecting the extraordinary nature of their world.

Maybe “Feign” wasn’t my favorite game in the universe, but it is an interesting experiment none-the-less, and if you want to enjoy some kind of frustrating, kind of fascinating exploration then check it out in the link below.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Suggested Gaming: Space Funeral

Space Funeral is a wonderful freeware game by thecatamites and is more than worth the two hours of your life you’d be putting into playing the game. It actually shines as an example of creative design and keeping the turn-based RPG formula, most associated with Japanese video games, interesting and fresh. Where most turn-based RPGs tend to divide up story and gameplay, Space Funeral makes them intertwined as the narrative is inseparable from the world it creates.

The game begins at the protagonist Phillip’s house where his father and mother more than coax him into leaving. The adventure from there is searching for the City of Forms to return the world from what it has become. What has it become? Ugly. Characters lack attractive asymmetrical features, world often covered in blood and horrible creatures, and buildings (for the most part) are hideous heads in gaping-mouth horror. This is the world your character Phillip lives in. And if it isn’t clear from the surroundings it should be obvious by his movements and constantly flowing tears it is one he wants to get out of.

Through his travels Phillip meets up with a horse-like creature made up of disembodied legs, appropriately named “Leg Horse.” These are the only two characters you will get in your party for the remainder of the game, but the difficulty curve is not extreme at all. The game paces itself for a short adventure, keeping dull grinding and pointless running around to a minimum. Because of the length it is all too likely you will be able to finish the game before you’re level twenty. But exploration does provide plenty of awards, especially for returning players.

The game is intentionally humorous. As the world itself is bizarre and ugly unlike the intent of the average JRPG where everything often aims for beauty or kawaii, the game is gleeful absurd at points, slightly mocking the melodrama often found in similar games. For example, at one point I was forced to make a tough decision and was permanently transformed into a fish for the remaining game. Every-so-often you will find grim letters and comment upon how depressing they are. Missing the comedy misses the point. The game is constantly poking fun at itself and the RPG genre as a whole.

The music is wonderfully fitting for the world. Although the musicians were credited, these are songs being used without permission from professional artists. But a free game won’t likely hurt their sales. If anything the creator promotes the music, dedicating the majority of credits to the song titles and performers, like the game was created around a great mixtape.

It may actually be a horrible shame for a person (especially a JRPG fan) to not enjoy this game. The core gameplay is solid and thecatamites turns the standard rules and regulations of the RPG into a strange and funny adventure with a completely unique aesthetic. You can download the game RIGHT HERE and I hope you really enjoy it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Obnoxious Kids Fighting: Video Games vs. Film

There’s a brief debate at The Guardian that you could read if you really wanted to called “Are Video Games or Films Better at Depicting War?” I found the topic it brought up was much more interesting than the actual discussion, but it’s not really bad by any means.

A constant in this conversation between a veteran and a video game expert was the emphasis on portraying “real” war, and a general consensus between the two was that real war is boring, noisy, and filled with smoke… These are not actually things one should want from a film or video game (especially the first). So the unspoken goal of the discussion really becomes to find out which of these two mediums romanticizes war the most affectively. Which one will be more heart rending, pulse beating, and horrifying? Answer: This is a stupid argument.

Video games and film are extremely different in a very key area: interactivity. Film is likely the least interactive art form in existence and video games are the most. That should mean that the differences between video games and films would be so wide one could not proper compare the two. Driving an even larger wedge in between the two mediums is perspective. Film is almost entirely third-person (observing others) while video games are almost entirely first (from the protagonists perspective). Often mixing the two arts leads to ruin.

But film fans want to be the best as they are the 20th century new, and video games also want to be the best as they are the 21st century new. So we have two extremely recent and vastly different forms of entertainment at the same time, both trying to prove they’re the greatest. That is the only reason we are having this debate.

Imagine a world where people argued about which is superior at characterizing war, sculpture or painting (somewhere they probably do…). We have frequently colorful 2D images versus frequently monochrome 3D forms both creating representations of glorious battles and even more glorious heroes. Does it matter which one specific, random individuals find more affective than others? Or aren’t we just richer for having them both?

It is a very good thing to have both cinema and video games, that way more people can absorb interesting perspectives on things like war. There are games for people who like games (like me) and films for people who like films (like my roommate) and both for people who like both (like many people). They make great companions for each other, as equals and opposites. Discussing which portrays what better diminishes the value of both.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

APB: When the Servers Shut Down

Today it could be read at Gamasutra that Realtime Worlds, the developer of Crackdown and APB, will be closing down servers for its online street crime game. APB was a very recent online title whose release was met with a critical paddling and failed to reach commercial expectations. After a number of lay-offs the entire project is being closed down allowing just enough time for players to say good bye to the game and its community.

I recall reviewers at the time of release were often critical of its failings but hopeful for its future, because an untapped potential was there. Unfortunately now it is too late, and that’s only after two months of post-game existence. This shines a light on a major problem that’s kept me away from most online gaming – what happens when the servers shut down.

It’s almost unheard of that a work of art would become no longer accessible because of a company’s financial situation and lack of popularity. Plenty of works will go on tour to boost museum attendance across country, films will get DVD releases (where sales are better than in theaters) once they’re no longer able to fill the seats, and you can still find rare books and video games (just for a higher price than common ones). It does happen; there are some lost works and populous failures, but there has never been a medium before which has ever had to deal with constant user and monetary requirements like MMOs (and to a lesser degree online shooters).

An MMO requires a large community to provide a lot of money for the developer to logically continue supporting it, and when the developer is no longer able to the disk one buys and the hours one spent are wasted and can no longer be returned to. This is sad for the player, but the developers also sunk years of their lives into the creation of these games, and in ABP’s case to have it shut down mere weeks after release.

A popular MMO will garner years of success – WoW being the prime example. But a failed one will almost surely destroy the company creating it. The end result leaves nobody (player, dev, or critic) happy. No one benefits from this kind of failure.

But even the long lasting MMOs will one day disappear and all we will be able to do remember what was once and is no more. I can travel to the world of Halo or Max Payne as many times as I want in my life if I can find a disk and a functioning Xbox, or if I download them onto my PC, but the MMO lives a much more tragic life. It constantly suffers to gain and maintain an audience and once it loses the interest of the mob it will die and never return.

APB’s death is a grim reminder that all online gaming will eventually go in this same direction. And the most disturbing problem is these games are “money-makers.” There is no niche-audience, no hidden gem. They can only be gold or garbage with nothing in between. That is a major flaw for the genre.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Emotive Character Final Fantasy VI & VII

I kind of want to address the emotive characters more from my earlier essay on Final Fantasy. Lots of characters in Final Fantasy games are emotive and expressive but none of them feel as alive as the ones from Final Fantasy VI. This can likely be attributed to two major factors: limited technology and will to create wonderful characters. Meanwhile Final Fantasy VII may suffer from two specific factors making it harder for them to be as expressive: new technology and pre-rendered cutscenes.

The characters in Final Fantasy VI are able to jump quickly around the screen, dance, and pull off a wide variety of facial expressions. The Super Nintendo was not a powerhouse console, though at the time it was the near best one could do. But pixels had been around for a while. The pixel art used to create the game was something just being mastered and games with extremely active and interesting characters were made during the console’s tenure (Donkey Kong Country, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, and Square’s own Secret of Mana are just a few examples). By learning how to make a master pixel presentation on the Super Nintendo the characters, as well as the beautiful game world, were able to do much more than ever before.

But they had to do a lot for people to feel connected to them. These are fictional characters made out of blocks and no stirring dialogue would ever make them interesting. But having them run around holding up their arms with a completely confused look on their face…that is how you win an audience. Their downcast eyes make you sad and their adorable laughter was contagious. There was a lot of loving effort put into the characters of Final Fantasy VI thanks to the artists trying very hard to make believable characters with the limits they were forced to work within.

Final Fantasy VII is a different story. Square was always interested in making great spectacle with their flagship franchise (VI not being an exception). With the new technology though they would have to spend years and many games working to make the characters feel more realistic. The in-game art suffered for this. VII’s characters were bulky with emotionless faces, which is a big jump from the lovably emotive 2D heroes and villains of VII.

VII made up for this with prerendered cutscenes which were big and interesting. Finally players could see the heroes look as heroic as they imagined they were. No more of this little, blocky kawaii imitation, ho no, now it’s serious. Prerendered cutscenes were a new way to show the player that the characters were “real” and emotive. And it is important to note that this is not a bad thing. Final Fantasy VII is a beloved game and its cutscenes only added to the praise it deserved at the time. But even these cutscenes have become dated.

I love both games, but the emotive nature of characters in VI allows them to be strikingly easier to empathize with. Because the technology during VI was being mastered and not learned it allowed greater skill with much more ease. And as much as I love VII I believe its emphasis on cutscenes does add something to a negative turn towards flare over personality that is clear in the later installments.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Under-Appreciated: Super Mario Bros 2

It’s probably strange that one of my favorite Super Mario titles is Super Mario Bros 2 and not actually a real Mario title. This game, originally Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic probably never would have found a home in the US, or at least among a wide audience without the reskinning of characters and at the same time in Japan “the real” Super Mario Bros 2 might not have sold so well in the states as it added very little to the series and was excessively difficult. Like it or hate it Super Mario Bros 2 was a sturdy set-up for the continuously evolving Super Mario formula.

While still maintaining its 2D platforming Super Mario Bros 2 was likely the most drastically different game in the series. Every game has (for the most part) tried to evolve the series in one direction or another, but SMB2 completely changes the game. Mario is classically portrayed being able to jump on enemy heads, crushing them under boot, kicking them around. In this game jump on what not enough; it was picking up that mattered. Uprooting turnips or enemies to toss was the primary strategy used to fight ones way through a level. Bosses were also fought off in this manor, the now staple of Mario sports and racing games Birdo was only defeatable with the aid of eggs it launched from its mouth.

In the first game one could play as Mario, and if bringing along a friend it was possible to team up, taking turns across the levels. In SMB2 a player was given the choice to select one of four characters – Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad. Mario was well rounded. Luigi had his now classic high jump. Peach could float. Toad…I never really used. This choice was never really replicated in future titles. And that’s a shame because it brought a lot of uniqueness to the franchise, as well as finally allowing player one a turn with Luigi (or a girl! *gasp*)

For a game without much acclaim among the larger Mario fanbase it certainly gets little praise in this day. This is probably because it can easily be depicted as the bastard offspring of the Super Mario series, not a true Mario game, but it was still a great game starring Mario. It doesn’t play like any of the other 2D Marios out there, and I’m going to make a bold statement: Good! I love it because it is not like the other Mario titles. If I have played Super Mario Bros I have the skills to play SMB3, Super Mario World, and the two New Super Mario Bros. But if I want to shake things up and play something different while still experiencing the joy of Mario’s bizarre universe I play this game. And unlike The Lost Levels it started a trend in Mario games to give something new to the player every game – it didn’t raise the difficulty; it raised the bar.

Notice I said “Mario’s bizarre universe” and not the “bizarre universe of Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic.” This is not a bastard child in the Mario franchise; it is an adopted one. Since it became a Mario game it has added to the Mario cannon. Take Super Smash Bros for example, in this series Luigi has a higher jump than Mario and Peach floats and throws turnips. Toad has become a much more prominent character throughout the entirety of the franchise and Birdo has been accepted into the Mario sports game rosters.

For as much as I enjoy the Super Mario series of games, there is rarely I time when I feel like playing old ones again just for “the hell of it.” But there are some days when I am sitting back and decide “Hey! Super Mario Bros 2 sounds really fun right now” so I give it a little love. There’s a lot of joy to be had playing one of the most underappreciated Mario games out there and I’m glad for the experience.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The 25th Anniversary of Super Mario Bros and Our Changing Medium

So it’s the 25th Anniversary of Super Mario Bros, I suppose, and congratulations are in order. Nintendo’s flagship series has done so much for popularizing our favorite medium that it is scary. It has been one of the few early franchises to successfully transfer to 3D, each installment up until recently has featured some new form of innovation that has influenced future gaming as a whole (flight suits and world maps to mounts and subjective gravity), and it has introduced swarms of children to “hardcore” gaming.

Ironically some people have gone to referring to the Super Mario franchise as “casual” which is about as sensible as calling Mega Man or Sonic casual. Certainly it isn’t a run-and-gun FPS with blurry grey backdrops and overwhelming testosterone, but it does require more skill to play than many games within much of the “hardcore” elite’s spectrum. But it is child-friend and fills our hearts with warmth and wonder and that can sometimes be unacceptable. Pah! That “give-you-the-fuzzies” asthetic has contributed to some of our most wonderful gaming experiences (Katamari Damacy and Ratchet & Clank, I’m looking at you).

To give this day of celebration a political purpose I propose from this day on we cease referring to two large genres as “casual” and “hardcore” because frankly the line is being blurred and it sound horribly condescending. I remember not too long ago Destructoid editors were trying to play through Frontierville and found it surprisingly difficult…and that is a considered a casual game. We often consider games like Bookworm or Bejeweled to be casual games but when someone makes them into RPGs like Puzzle Quest or Bookworm Adventures they become fair play for a “hardcore” audience.

And what literate calls himself a “hardcore” reader just because he prefers Joyce to Harris? Or what film enthusiast is “hardcore” when he chooses Antonioni over Emmerich. Each person has their own passions, and what we often consider as high art at the time is viewed by future generations as garbage. Modernists reacted against Victorians. Post-Modernists reacted against Modernists. I feel like it may be wise to react against “hardcore” because the title is detrimental to our medium.

Super Mario Bros is an amazing series of games that have bridged a gap between audiences. It is beloved by nostalgic older groups who have left most video games in their childhood, young kids just learning to wave their wii-motes, families having shared experiences playing together, teens and the elderly, artists in love with creativity and the surreal, men, women, and every race of people. One could consider it casual solely based on the incredible ability it has had to reach a wide audience and because Mario has become one of the most recognizable characters in contemporary culture. These are massive achievements for video games.

So happy birthday Super Mario Bros; you’ve helped create and establish perhaps the greatest art-form and entertainment the world has ever known. Here’s to twenty-five more fantastic years of video game history.

Keep saving that princess, bro…

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Canabalt: One Year and Still On the Run

It’s been a year this week since Adam Saltsman (Adam Atomic) released his critical darling Canabalt into the world and Simon Parkin of Gamasutra wrote this nice article on the creator. It discusses the success and failures of Canabalt and where they’ve led him. He also interviewed Saltsman for the article who vaguely mentioned an upcoming title and his infatuation with escape and hostile environments. Please give it a read.

I’ve been playing Canabalt since it first came out, at least since I can remember it being out and there are two things that make this game so incredible: the addiction to play and the aesthetic which allows that addiction. I have spent hours of my life running away from something I don’t even know, tapping my iPod and praying I make the next leap. It is the perfect game to be played on the go or while waiting. But that is solely because of the completely unique style the game blasts its player with.

From load-up you get a grey background, a title, and the early trills of a heart-thumping techno beat that will haunt and inspire you to keep on. Then you enter the game and there is only one goal: RUN! Run across rooftops, jumping to avoid obstacles (the only action you can do in the game) because everything is out to get you in this grey, decaying future, aside from the doves thankfully, and maneuvering this dim, linear path is the only thing you can do.

You have no idea why you are running, where you are running to, or from whom you are running but there is one thing you do know and that is any moment you can trip up and fall, run into a bomb, hit the hedge of a wall or billboard. There is no safety and the scariest part is YOU CAN’T WIN! You never win the race. A bleak message to an incredibly exhilarating game. Yet you’ll keep coming back to try again. No video game has ever come so perfectly close to the aesthetic which make the works of Franz Kafka so powerful.

Anyone without this game on their iPhone or iPod Touch needs to get it. Anyone without can play it HERE for free! It was one of the best games released last year and still is.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Suggested Gaming: VVVVVV (Now on Steam!)

During the first half of this year Terry Cavanagh released his game “VVVVVV” a PC exploration-based, fast action platformer and this week it has finally come to Steam for a ridiculously low, low price of five dollars. Personal opinion: It was well worth the original asking price. Stating the obvious: You would be an idiot not to buy it now.

VVVVVV is one of the most charming games I have ever played. You act as the adorable captain of a spaceship trapped in a time-space vortex and searching for the lost crew so you can make a daring escape with no man left behind. This simple plot is aided by the game’s aesthetic. The characters all look the same but with different colored bodies, all perpetually smiling (unless sad, then they have a very cute gawking frown). Helping them would seem natural even without the fairly thin story guiding you.

The world you navigator through is bright neon and covered in lethal traps and vague, abstract enemies. It helps to show just how broken the universe is at the point you have somehow reached, especially when comparing this torn-apart corner of space with your harmlessly kawaii characters. Since you are not a threatening figure the only skill you have at your disposal is shifting gravity – No jumping, no weapons, just shifting gravity. You never fight and never hurt. In fact, the only thing your kindly captain seems to care about is helping others.

This provides a good few hours of clever puzzles to get through with very little penalty and lots of smart level design. Check-points are generously planted throughout each region and there is no pause between death and resurrection making it easy to try and try a particularly problematic puzzle repeatedly. Frustration is possible, but every aspect from the bizarre to the quirky to the forgiving make the difficulty acceptable (more-so than insanely challenging classics like Battletoads or Mega Man).

You will have fun playing VVVVVV. You should buy VVVVVV and support its creator because this is a great game. Now that it is on Steam FOR FIVE DOLLARS (and 10% off the first week, so less than five dollars) there is no excuse to be ridiculously prudent with your small change. Get it and enjoy it because you should and you will!