Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Sunday, November 14, 2010
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).
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Sunday, November 7, 2010
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.
Friday, November 5, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Monday, October 25, 2010
Friday, October 22, 2010
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.
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” by Ian Snyder is another game I’ve found via indiegames.com 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!