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.