Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Snow Level's Song for a Snowy Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 6, 2013

On Hundreds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 4, 2013

On New Super Mario Bros.: Grounded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Kirby's Epic Yarn: The Invulnerability Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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