Thursday, 15 May 2008

Hiatus - Curtains will be temporarily closed

Not that I've exactly been on fire for the last...two months. Well, in case anyone was expecting a new post in the comings weeks, you can now expect differently. It's nothing personal. GTA IV has been dominating my game playing, and I think there's enough people talking about that already, plus I've been doing lots of work and focusing on films, my perhaps slightly bigger (or at least more presently active) passion. I mostly won't be posting in the next few weeks though due to the start of the 2008 Festival de Cannes, (like GDC, but for films, and two weeks long) and so my game blog reading is kind of getting shunned by my film blog reading instead.

So seeya in a few weeks. Don't touch my stuff, please.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Two for the price of two!

Got an email today from Amazon explaining how by Special Edition GTA IV will not be delivered till sometime late May. I couldn't cancel the order of course, as I'd be sure to miss my chance on bagging the limited extras. 'A pity', I thought to myself as I handed over my cash for a second copy of the game in the local supermarket. So it totals up to over £100 when you combine the two, but that's still gonna work out as around 50p per hour in the long term, which is damned good value for the entertainment I'm getting!

First hour's impressions? I won't be buying another game for quite some time...

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Reading into the Future

As a child, videogames were always a significant part of my life, and sat next to reading novels as my favorite pastimes. I was never too much a fan of action and shooting games as a kid, even though they practically dominate my diet now. Instead I was more attracted to adventure games and platformers. Classics like ‘Broken Sword’ and ‘Rayman 2: The Great Escape’ captivated me, devouring many hours of my childhood and satisfying my lust for adventure. They complimented the books I read, works like ‘The Faraway Tree’ and ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. My head was always buzzing with imagination, with strange worlds, impossible characters and a compulsion with exploring the unknown, something I like to think has stayed with me ever since.

Coincidentally, both the adventure and platformer genres are significantly weaker now than they were in the 90’s, deemed no longer financially viable in a medium more addicted to explosive thrills and blood spills. At the same time, videogames have grown increasingly popular since my introduction to them, while the act of reading has dropped substantially in return. And so it concerns me when I read figures of how over a third of children in the UK spend over three hours playing videogames, and that casual reading has reduced to a matter of minutes. This is a pattern immerging in most territories where videogames have a strong market. I shouldn’t need to be concerned, as my parents surely weren’t either when looking at the content of what I used to play, but these days where games like ‘Halo’ or ‘Burnout’ are always sure to provide a more attractive choice than a book, I begin to feel unsure with whether they can provide a suitable replacement.

Classic children’s literature can provide creative experience to children, and can teach them about the world in ways that modern videogames just refuse to match. If games are to become such an integral part of a child’s upbringing, then they have a responsibility to fill the shoes of literature. Children’s games should therefore be an important market, not to be engulfed by the latest Pixar or Disney movie tie-ins, but to provide opportunities for children to truly explore and create, and learn about the world, to make up for the lost tales of the greatest children’s novels. Games like ‘Okami’ and ‘Ico’ are existing proof that such works can be made possible. They just need to reach the audience. Stories like ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Treasure Island’ could make brilliant game conversions without loosing their underlying messages, as long as they are approached with good talent and appropriate production values. As the young playbase continues to expand, helped by the ever increasing successes of Nintendo, I hope the industry chooses not to exploit the young minds that now sit in their hands, but feed them with images, stories and ideas that will help develop them, and hopefully stay with them for many years to come.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

And just when you thought it was over...

As any readership I have may have noticed, there hasn’t been much to actually read in the past few weeks. There’s not really any major reason why, just lots of little reasons that have added up. First, as a film student and aspiring film director (though I’ll settle for whatever I can get, to be honest), I’ve been spending more time watching films, reading films and making short films than I have been playing and thinking about games. I’ve also been very busy with work, as it’s getting to that point of the year where every week sees another deadline I don’t stand a chance of making. I’ve also been contemplating leaving my job, but can’t decide whether I should just hand in my resignation or keep pushing acceptable limits of laziness until I get fired.

I’ve still been playing a bit though. As the 360 is officially off limits until the release of GTA IV, the PS3’s been getting a showing, particularly Hot Shots (best online playbase I’ve ever encountered), MotorStorm (or the step-by-step guide to creating the perfect racing experience), and recently a little Unreal Tournament III (or the step-by-step guide to making a gamer cry. It’s tricky online…)

But most of my playing time has been devoted to free online browser game
Ikariam. I read about it here, and then here, and then decided to check it out myself. It’s meant to be a game you just ‘check on’ every few hours for five minutes or so, adjust a few bars and click on a few pretty buildings, but I’ve found it so compulsive it’s gotten to the points where I kill time in between actions by mapping out everything I need to do in the next two days worth of playtime. It’s really, really hooked me. I think I even dreamt about it last night.

But another reason I haven’t been posting so much recently is because I keep getting ideas for a new kind of videogame blog, a unique and potentially hilarious bunch of concepts. I can’t really explain it. Think
MST3K, wrestling, reality TV and The Trap Door combined, with crazy characters and different rooms and in-jokes. All expressed through text. Yeah, it sounds shit, but it could cover up my writing weaknesses at the very least. Anyway, I’ll build on it and see how it goes.

As for the near future, I’m sure GTA IV will give me plenty to talk about.

Friday, 4 April 2008

IndieLog One: Knytt

I’m often found rambling about indie games, about how they’re entering a golden age and how everyone should send their creators lots and lots of money. Though for some reason I never properly talk about individual releases, which is silly because there’s a lot to talk about. I have the ‘Pixel Diaries’, which proberbly makes up 80% of my posts and doesn’t really do anything other than repeat what IGN said months earlier (I just like writing them, okay?), but indie games are less discussed, less known about, and far more chatter worthy. They’re also typically free and quick to play through, which means if something sounds interesting you can just download it and get stuck in. So here it is, the ‘IndieLog’ (see how the capital ‘L’ and lack of a space makes it look all alternative and bitching? That’s street language, that is), essentially another online diary where I ‘critique’ what I’ve come across. Enough mindless gum flapping. Today’s feature: ‘Knytt’.

‘Knytt’ was created by Nicklas Nygren, better known as Nifflas, and released as freeware in 2006. Like a lot of his games, it’s a simple to play two dimensional platform adventure with an emphasis on atmosphere. You play a little creature that gets abducted by aliens who go on to crash land in the middle of nowhere after getting hit by an asteroid. Your task is to explore the surrounding area to find the scattered parts for the alien craft so you can get back home. It’s a short game, not much longer than half an hour or so, and does away with any form of combat leaving you merely with the abilities to jump and climb. Movement is fast, and save points are everywhere in case you touch one of the enemies or fall into water.

The first thing that hits you is the visuals. They’re strikingly simple, yet hugely effective. Texture detail is ignored in favour of unique colour palettes and unusually shaped landscapes and plants. Similarly stripped down is its music, not in quality, but in occurrence. A short dreamy tune will fade in and out whenever you enter a new form of environment, and it really sets the tone and stands out more than if the music were to be continuously active. Landscapes vary widely, from the darkest and mistiest of caves, complete with huge spiders and little ghosts, to lush forests and snow peaked mountains. You’ll be hoping over lava as much as you’ll be hoping from cloud to cloud, which makes the short adventure unpredictable and completely dreamlike. You’re not alone either. Throughout your travels you’ll encounter many harmless creatures and even people, all with a story to tell but no way to tell it. A woman sits at the edge of a cliff looking out to sea, but you’ll never know who she’s waiting for. You’ll stumble upon little round houses hanging from the mountains, but never do you learn who lives within them. The world is lonely, you’re character is speechless and isolated, and nobody is concerned with your arrival. You feel like you don’t belong here, which only makes the search for a way out more engrossing.

There are many things in ‘Knytt’ that mainstream titles could do well to acknowledge. Not forcing the player to redo lengthy sections of a level if they make a mistake would eliminate situations of frustration. Environments stay interesting if they’re changed regularly, a downfall of a game like ‘F.E.A.R’. A sparingly used soundtrack can be dramatically more memorable, with the silence in between acting just as effectively as a full blown score, as demonstrated perfectly by ‘Ico’. And leaving things unexplained for the player’s imagination to interpret can be a lot more interesting than tagging a few lines of dialogue to every occurrence you’ll encounter. ‘Knytt’ is one of the more well known of the independent scene, and its accessibility is proberbly the reason why. So give it a download, and then play Nifflas’ other games, (they’re all high quality), and don’t forget to keep an ear out for his upcoming ‘Night Game’ which will proberbly hit later this year. ‘Knytt’ is a good starting place for those new to indie games, and for how little it asks you to put in, it gives you a whole damn lot in return.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Bad News Day

As a videogame fan, I proudly despise my country.

Reason 1

Reason 2

The Pixel Diaries - Gran Turismo 5 Prologue Edition

I’ve already stated my thoughts on the issues surrounding the direction of the Gran Turismo series in a previous post, so I’ll focus mainly on my actual play experience here. I’m not quite finished with it yet, but have a good 80% of the races complete. I’ve found my hours with the game enjoyable, if a little lacking in something.

For my first hour of playtime it was pretty easy to figure out what wasn’t there. Any form of actual gameplay. I had to work through a twenty odd minute install, followed by an equally lengthy system update which was required to access any of the online modes. Even then I had to download an update in-game to get everything working, which failed on the first three attempts but eventually followed through to completion. I miss the old days where I could just insert a disk and play. It’s this kind of thing that puts me of PC gaming.

Anyway, the graphics, perhaps the biggest advancement in this franchise update, are of course pretty damn impressive. The in-car view is essential for a truly immersive experience, and I’m going to struggle without the option in other racing games. There are plenty of jaggies mind, much more than any screenshots would have you believe, but they’re widely ignorable, especially if viewing in higher resolutions (I’m personally playing in 1080i).

The racing is very smooth, and even with full simulation settings it’s easily controllable and accessible (I told you it wasn’t a simulator…) However, I felt things get a little dull after a while, which is strange when it’s frankly very addictive. I can’t put my finger on why I feel this way. Maybe things are a little slow. Maybe the presentation is just too clinical after playing something like Burnout Paradise. Perhaps it ties in with my previous statement of it not being arcade enough to be as fun as PGR, or realistic enough to trump Forza. Or maybe it’s just down to the fact that it’s a teaser, and simply lacks the options I’m used to.

Other things to note are the great car selection, with all the latest wave of Japanese imports available, from the award winning Nissan GTR to the refined Mitsubishi Evo X, and of course the series first ever Ferraris. I also have to mention how useless the AI is at times. There’s typically a few cars at the front of the 16 strong pack that pose a serious challenge, but I’ve encountered situations where at least half a dozen opponents have misjudged the same corner and resulted in dust flying in so many directions it feels like a sandstorm. It’s like playing online.

Despite the craziness, I’m glad I purchased it and it’s nice to see what modern technology can do with a classic franchise. I’ve yet to take it online proper, so expect a final update to appear below this text soonish.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

The Pixel Diaries - Resistance: Fall of Man Edition

Another PlayStation 3 game finished; another unspectacular 12 hour campaign to be forgotten about. I’m seriously a little tired of putting in so much time for so little reward in the long term. Well, what can I say? ‘Resistance’ is a good game. It doesn’t crash, it doesn’t play badly, it looks quite impressive in places, it mixes things up with vehicle sections and has a fair good amount of enemy types to keep you on your toes. Would I recommend fighting through it to experience all of these features? Not really. It’s just another passable shooter, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but if the aftershocks of any of last years FPS titans are still buzzing round in you’re head you’re only going to notice what isn’t there.

I felt no atmosphere. This could be blamed on the repetitive environments, or maybe the generic appearance of the aliens, or the terribly dull soundtrack, or the dry story, or the lack of any particular stand out missions. It lacks the humour, the spine chilling score and the random moments of hilarious havoc of 'Halo'. It lacks the creativity, suspense, mood and exceptional level design of 'BioShock'. It shows no signs of the vastness, believability and sheer immersion of 'Half-Life 2'. It’s a shooter as generic as they come. Is there any reason to play it at all? I guess some of the weapons are interesting, like a rifle that shoots through walls forcing you to constantly dodge bullets, even when in another room from the action. There’s also a moment when a giant mechanical mole machine blasts through one wall and into the next right in front of your nose. That was pretty cool I guess, but it’s almost halfway through the game and proberbly isn't worth the effort.

So a generally disappointing title, but my lack of enjoyment stems from interesting reasons. I think I may replay all of those mentioned modern-classic shooters, pick a particular ten minute highlight from each, and map out why they work so well. It would be interesting to see if there are any reoccurring factors that provide a key to shooter success. In the meantime 'GTA IV' is going to supply a much needed booster injection to my gamer veins and hopefully get me all happy and excited about picking up the controller again.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Game Consoles, the Third Parent

Here’s a thought. Children grow up playing games from a very young age these days, and proberbly spend more time playing than they do listening to their parents. Due to the existence of different consoles, and the common limitation amongst children of only having the choice of owning one for a five year-odd period, is it possible that the console may effect their upbringing like a third parent?

I have a friend who primarily grew up with Nintendo consoles. Nowadays he wants to become a graphics designer, wears brightly coloured clothes, has an overwhelmingly positive personality, still watches cartoons and seems essentially allergic to cursing. Meanwhile I grew up with the PlayStation brand, and as such often display a more bleak perception on life, wearing black shirts and grey jeans, possessing an obsession with Scorsese pictures, swearing quite fucking often to be honest, and seeing the idea of getting shot at a young age as a pretty damn cool way to go. Essentially, when he thinks Italian, he thinks Mario. When I think Italian, I think Tommy DeVitto.

My mother proberbly wouldn’t approve.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Trouble in the Pits?

‘Gran Turismo’ is a classic racing franchise, the best selling racing series in the world, and a name that triggers fond memories in the hearts of virtually anyone who simultaneously has a slight interest in cars and videogames, a demographic I firmly count myself a member of. Come this Friday, I’ll be able to buy ‘Gran Turismo 5: Prologue’ for the PS3, an oversized demo / undersized game that will provide a taster for what to expect from developers Polyphony Digital next year, and I’m looking forwards to picking it up. But this time I think they’ve struck upon a problem, and although it's unlikely to effect their sales figures, (‘Prologue’ has already turned platinum from pre-orders alone), it may leave some of the more thoughtful of racing fans a little confused.

What is ‘Gran Turismo’ in the year 2008? Back with the first installments release in 1997 the question would be easy to answer. “It’s ‘the real driving simulator’ you nitwit”, people would have proclaimed, and it would have been hard to argue against. There was nothing that could touch the ‘Gran Turismo’ games in terms of depth and realism on home consoles for many years. But today with the option of ‘Forza Motorsport 2’, with its more detailed physics system and car damage, and PC alternatives like the GTR series which offer even greater hardcore simulations of motorsport, GT has fallen somewhat behind. Truth be told it doesn’t feel much different from earlier games on past consoles. Visually it’s on top of the world, but when it comes down to the race its simply outclassed. Okay, so then it’s an arcade game right? Not really. I can hardly see the ‘Burnout’ crowd finding much relation between the two. I personally think the franchises new opposition is the ‘Project Gotham Racing’ series, a point directly in between the barriers of arcade and simulator. It’s just Polyphony don’t know it yet, or just won’t admit it.

The thing is they’ll have to make a decision between the two if they want the golden crown. ‘PGR’ knows it’s a semi-arcade/simulator, and let’s itself exaggerate elements of the driving experience that a straight up sim could never get away with, like for example encouraging you to drive sideways. Do that in ‘Forza’ and you’re in the tires and at the back of the pack. ‘Gran Turismo’ has the sterility of the simulation but with the wall-bouncing, dodgem-bumping and premature down-shifting of its arcade counterparts. Is it Keira knightly with glasses, or Hillary Clinton in fish nets? It’s jarring whatever way you look at it.

Polyphony Digital CEO Kazunori Yamauchi once said he doesn’t play other racing games. I believe this could be his biggest mistake. Does he want GT to be known as "the 'Real' Driving Simulator" or a "My First Driving Simulator"? I guess it'll sell millions either way, though I personally find myself pre-ordering for the visuals rather than the gameplay. Maybe I'm on my own here, but that's the impression I have this console generation. Nonetheless I’ll be admiring the steering wheel stitching by the end of the week, and posting up my impressions within the days that follow. And for arguments sake, here’s a side by side comparison of ‘Prologue’ and ‘PGR4’. I won’t say anything, but leave you to decide how much difference there is between the two.

Gran Turismo 5: Prologue

Project Gotham Racing 4

Sunday, 16 March 2008

‘Telling Them How It’s Done’, Inc.

Our videogame entertainment industry is going through an unsure period of change and expansion. The Nintendo Wii and DS have opened our once predominantly hardcore audience to reach the ‘casual’ and ‘non-gamer’ demographic. The birth of digital distribution on home consoles has opened up the possibilities of small scale projects for cheap download on such sub-platforms as PlayStation Network and the recently launched WiiWare service. On the other hand, the largest of publishers are joining hands in industry domination, such as with the Activision-Blizzard merge and the recent Take Two takeover attempts from Electronic Arts. PC gaming is both dead and on the cusp of total domination, according to who you listen to. Independent games have reached fame and attention previously unheard of, but is it just a temporal popularity faze, or a looming revolution waiting to pounce at any moment? The near future is uncertain for us gamers. That’s the only thing that seems to be a guarantee.

It got me thinking, how could everything work out? What interests me most is the small game / large game invisible war, and how / if the two can co-exist in harmony. I’m not a games developer, and nor am I a reliable industry annalist, but here’s a little structural idea for how things could perhaps run smoothly, in the form of a naïve description of a non existent game company.

Lets give this company a name, something nice sounding and pleasant on the tongue. [Sits swirling his hands around while making swishy lip movements.] Erm, how about…Genie Rivara. Like a river of genies, but the word river made to sound more…Greek. Okay, this company has, say, 150 employees, divided into four key teams. Two teams consist of 50 developers each. They work in separate but parallel offices, and work on large budget releases for multiple platforms. They also bring in the most cash, and use the most up. Although the two projects are separate, ideas and tech are shared between the two. You could see this as similar to how Insomniac and Naughty Dog used to help each other out despite being completely independent from one another. Both of these two teams are led by a creative luminary, you know, one of those admired chaps who have lots of cool ideas, like Miyamoto or Kojima or Molyneux. They’re excellent at keeping everyone together and making a consistent finished product.

The remaining 50 guys (and gals) are divided in two again, maybe even quartered depending on the product. These small scale teams make small budget releases for download, like the PixelJunk guys for PSN. The important thing here is that they are not used commercially, but purely for experimentation. The big releases bring in the cash, securing the smaller teams with as much money as they’ll ever need for completing their projects. They’re encouraged to be as wild and creative as they possibly can, in a completely risk free development model. Occasionally, they’ll strike on something really great, something similar to a ‘Portal’ or an ‘AudioSurf’, which may even make a little money. But the important thing is that these innovations in game design are fed up into the larger teams across the hall, which can now incorporate these creative ideas into a larger budget product without the chance of it being unpopular. Finally, big budget games can incorporate crazy and experimental ideas without so much of a risk of screwing up their sales. If Valve were to make ‘Portal’ into a full priced, big budget, 20 hour game, it would no doubt sell. We can assume this because of the popularity of the original ‘Portal’, a small-scale release by a bunch of students who didn’t need to make millions of clams to cover the costs of development.

The company runs this creative cycle year after year, self publishing its games, maybe through its own independent download service (like Steam). These offices are also really nice to work in, with a private cinema room for late night screenings of French New Wave and other arthouse works to inspire new ideas. They’ll also be a games lounge with a roof that slides open during the summer for ‘outside gaming’, so as to keep people breezy and stuff. Let’s not forget the gym, and perhaps some weekly open debates on game design. Jonathan Blow would be invited to teach them of how to do things in new and progressive ways. Maybe I’m getting carried away now.

Still, it kinda works, doesn’t it? I’d happily work at Genie Rivara any day. And that name was my idea, remember?

Friday, 14 March 2008

The Pixel Diaries - Ratchet & Clank Future Edition

This one took a little while longer that I would have liked, seeing as I got caught up with work for most of last week, but alas, the game is now done. My impressions of this are very similar to my previous impressions of Uncharted (is that really the last game I played before this? Oh my), which can generally be summed up as a great looking and perfectly constructed game, but lacking in anything new or special that makes it at all a memorable experience. Each planet, which there are 20 of, are unique in their design and take around 30 well paced minutes to work through, but none really stand out as particularly wowing or spectacular, nor did any provide a real challenge, though I can’t be bothered with getting stuck when I’m trying to play PS3 catch up here.

But, as I said of Uncharted, ‘Ratchet Future’ provides a great introduction to ‘the power of PS3’. In fact I even went as far as to load up the original ‘Ratchet & Clank’ on the PS2 and switch between the two games with my remote, and let me tell you, it crushes any debate over whether this generation has really advanced in visual terms. They’re a world apart, to the point where it becomes almost unimaginable as to how you could ever stand to play a PS2 ‘Ratchet’ game at all. On the other hand, they control exactly the same. I gave the first level of ‘Ratchet & Clank’ a quick blast through right after completing ‘Tools of Destruction’, and the most noticeable difference in gameplay is a lack of a strafe button. Everything else plays and stays exactly the same, which isn’t particularly reassuring when you consider that this is the fifth game in the series. Then again, Insomniac pretty much mastered platform gaming back in the ‘Spyro’ days.

I generally did enjoy playing through it, even though it provided nothing new, and I certainly don’t count it as a waste of time. But as with Naughty Dog, I just hope they do something more special in the future. Personally I think it’s time for a new direction. ‘Spyro’ ruled the PlayStation era, ‘Ratchet’ only got better through the next, but now is time for new characters and a new world to explore. In the meantime, the next on my list is Insomniac’s other game, ‘Resistance: Fall of Man’, which I’ll hopefully have rounded off within a week from now.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

The Year of Playing Dangerously

As I’m sure most people are quite aware, the fourth addition in the Grand Theft Auto series is due to hit stores worldwide by April 29 after its most out of character delay several months ago. The series has become undoubtedly the main event of the second half of my gamer years, and so this is a pretty damn important event for me. I’m imagining that a lot of people reading this, who I suspect (hope) are from the more intelligent side of the gaming crowd, have proberbly got a few bad words to say of my beloved franchise, and you know what? I proberbly agree with them all. But no matter how “shallow” or “scrappy” or “dumb” past games may have been, I have to admit that some of my most intimate and emotionally immersive experiences I’ve ever come across have occurred within the realms of GTA. In fact, I fail to be able to think of a real life place that brings back as much nostalgia and good memories as happy old Vice City. I was barely alive in the 80’s, yet through that game I now have a very personal connection with everything that decade stood for.

But enough of the past. The latest GTA aims to fix everything that past games did wrong. The “quantity over quality” attitude has been reversed, and the gameplay and details are predicted to be as refined as they come, and all wrapped up in a damn fine looking engine. As per normal in the build up to a GTA, I tend to “prepare” myself for the countless hours I’ll be in company with the game world by doing a little background research and leaching off every info leak I can get my hands on. Seeing as this title seems to focus on the Eastern European crime scene, I’ve already done some reading into the Russian Mafia and aim to get hold of a few of Sam Houser’s named influences, including last years Eastern Promises. I’ll be memorising the names of the characters and streets revealed so far, as well as the names of the cars and guns that’ll be helping me along in Niko’s pursuit of the American dream. Expect the Xbox 360 to be sealed off a week in advance to avoid any cursed Red Ring of Death moments (my last console died on me two weeks before Halo 3), and the PS2 to get a quick encore while I familiarise myself with the series history.

I love these times in gaming. I’ve looked forwards to a lot of films and music over the years, but nothing can quite have the hands shaking in anticipation like a good old sequel to an aggressively marketed videogame franchise. To think that in a couple of month’s time I’ll have an entire map of a virtual city permanently indented into my memory banks, and all from the comfort of my own chair. Yet again, I seriously cannot wait.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Uncomfortable Viewing

The other day I visited the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) as part of a film studies trip in London. For those unaware they’re the guys who caused the 'Manhunt 2' kerfuffle last year, resulting in the game being band in the UK. They didn’t say much about it, seeing as we were there for the films, but some things did strike me. Firstly they mentioned how they only ban things that break the law. Secondly that they only banned two works last year, the other being a foreign film about toddlers killing people. Okay, the toddler massacre thing may have broken a few rules on the treatment and wellbeing of child actors, but what law was 'Manhunt 2' breaking? The lady giving the presentation (who was very friendly, like an old librarian, but not afraid of saying several “fucks” when covering the ‘language’ section), didn’t say much on the game other than it was very bleak, and was only about killing. Still not breaking any laws though. Bah, we ain’t missing much anyway.

Other than that she mostly showed clips that had been cut out of various releases due to their inappropriate content, which was kind of cool, and ironic. I also nearly exploded from needing a piss. We got the train down and didn’t stop walking till we arrived there, where the presentation hastily began, so no chance for a toilet break. It was one of those times where it’s so bad you actually nearly cripple yourself, stomach and back tense, hands shaking, struggling for breath. I sneaked out half way through after discovering there wasn’t going to be a designated break for another hour, and ended up standing over the urinal for close to five minutes. When I returned I found myself strolling to my chair with a swagger, overwrought with confidence and pride as if I’d just slaughtered a giant bear. Total prick…

It’s also worth mentioning that the presentation was filmed to be put on the official BBFC website, so there’ll be me, struggling and squirming away at the back, smiling politely. What was interesting, and equally non game-related, was that (awesome Korean film) 'Oldboy' was apparently edited by the BBFC to remove the scene where he eats a live (actual live) octopus, due to animal rights and what not. However, my DVD of the film at home, which was purchased in a leading British entertainment store, has the scene included. I considered pointing it out to her, but duly decided against it in case it got people into trouble. Oh, I also saw one of those life-sized Big Daddy models in an electronics store hidden round the back. And I got kissed simultaneously on either cheek by two young Indian looking girls while waiting outside a Subway. Yup, still got the magic … or aids.

Error: Epiphany

I was recently thinking about this little blog, and found myself wondering if a) ‘Is this the right approach?’ and b) ‘Is there any point to this?’ The first question was easy. No. The second was less simple. This is meant to be a game criticism blog, a strange subgenre of gaming blogs that I enjoy reading but ultimately have doubts as to whether any serve much greater purpose. We complain, we compare, we invent, we love on and we hate on. Will it change anything? Unlikely. Will it eventually stumble upon the key to the perfect game? I find it doubtful. So what do ‘I’ and others alike get out of reading and making them?

I guess it has on some levels given me a greater appreciation of videogames as a medium, although I often feel we’re reading into things that aren’t there. I’ve been introduced to more overlooked games that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise, and I’ve learnt a lot of little gameplay ideas which, not being a games developer, are kind of useless for me to know about anyway. So okay, it feels a little hopeless, this isn’t a professional blog, and nor do I want it to be. My true interest lies in the world of film and directing anyway, not games development or journalism. But maybe this’ll work if I look at answers to the first question, my approach.

I don’t think I’m being personal enough. This is a blog, not a commercial site, but I’ve gotten in the habit of writing in a way that is reminiscent to that style. This post is proberbly the first where I’m just rambling from my mind rather than structuring as if creating a school essay. I also find this place sterile, lacking in humour. Maybe that links in with the ‘personal voice’ thing, with me previously deeming jokes not appropriate for ‘serious game criticism’. I hate that term too! I feel like too many of these blogs focus only on ‘criticism’ and leave out the ‘appreciation’. Games are meant to be fun, and that’s why we play them. Maybe we only start complaining about ‘lack of emotional depth’ and ‘shallow stories’ when we forget about that. Let the films and books do that side of things, which they’ve mastered so well. Perhaps we should keep the games purposely shallow and devoid of intellectual merit, treat them as entertainment, not art.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but expect things to change a little from here on. I’ll try and be more personal, more casual, and funny. I'll try and talk more about the good things and less of the bad. And gone are the times where I force myself to sit down and think of something to say. If nothing comes to mind, then no updates. I also want this place to open up to what’s happening in the game world more, rather than essentially talking out of any context as to what’s going on out there. I don’t want to give up with this, not because there’s exactly anyone who’s gonna be let down, but because I think it could be enjoyable if I can get the hang of it. And it looks pretty.

I’ve already got a list of game blog writers who I generally respect, and I look forwards to what they’ve got to say. Starting this place has given me more of an appreciation for what they do. It’s a nice little online community that I wouldn’t want to leave behind so soon, so I’ll see how things turn out.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

A Life in Silhouette

It’s been a while since I last posted due to a build up of work suppressing my thinking and writing time. I haven’t had the time to write anything significant, but I decided I wanted to get something out there nonetheless. This year I’ve been paying more attention to the growing indie side of game design, and have come across some truly incredible works. I still consider myself very new to the scene, but the following is a small selection of unreleased independent games I’ve really grown excited about. I can guarantee there’s plenty more upcoming games that’ll blow my mind which I haven’t stumbled upon in the indie blogs yet, but for now, this is what’s seriously impressed me so far.


Eskil Steenberg

‘Love’ is a “first person not so massively multi player online procedural adventure game”. I have to admit, I’ve not played one of those before. It’s a game where it’s impossible to describe until something more significant is shown, but the website gives the impression of a small scale MMO where the player has control over the form of the environments around them. It seems personal, with an emphasis on ‘love’ instead of ‘combat’ (although who knows what the final game may include?) What makes it stand out is how stunning the world looks. That isn’t concept art above, that’s in game.


Jonathan Blow
Xbox Live Arcade

Blow had done enough on his time-bending side-scrolling platform puzzle game two years ago to secure himself the ‘Innovation in Game Design’ award at IGF, but has since been fine tuning his creation to perfection. He describes his game as “filler-free”, and after listening to hours of his various public lectures I don’t doubt his word at all. He really seems like a man who has an insurmountable knowledge of game design down to the smallest of details. What’s more, the art is done by David Hellman, famous for his work on the critically acclaimed and visually incredible webcomic, ‘A Lesson is Learned but the Damage is Irreversible’. That’s a partnership!

Lila Dreams

Creatrix Games

Creatrix Games is a three man team who aim to make a two dimensional MMO platformer set in the mind of an eleven year old girl named Lila. It’s these kinds of ideas that make the independent scene so compelling to me. Stepping past the genre clichés of level grinding, magic spells, dungeon rats and orcs, this Flash based game incorporates more original ideas than I can care to list. Check out their useful blog that has already detailed much of how the game will work. Nothing has been shown yet apart from concept art, so stick with their site for updates as they come.

Night Game


Nifflas became one of the most cherished independent developers with the creation of ‘Knytt’ and ‘Within a Deep Forest’. I’ve spent some good time with ‘Knytt’ follow up, ‘Knytt Stories’, and came away with a deep appreciation of the teams talent with art and music. ‘Night Game’ is there mysterious latest project. Not much has been shown yet, but we do know it’s set in a 2D world and is physics based with the player controlling a ball. Judging by the two screenshots released, Nifflas only seem to be improving on what they’ve accomplished so far.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

Michel Gagné

Michel Gagné is a cartoonist, and has been involved in several films for Pixar and Disney over the years. One of his latest projects is this fantastically titled side scrolling shooter. It’s by far the most ‘traditional’ game on this list, but also potentially one of the most impressive. I suggest you take a look at the short trailer found on the official blog to see how much a creative art direction can do for classic gameplay.


PlayStation Network

After ‘Cloud’ and ‘flOw’ comes ‘Flower’, the game where you apparently play as … a flower. Little has been demonstrated since its announcement at 2007’s Tokyo Game Show, but I’d imagine it’ll be more of the minimalist gameplay style found in the team’s previous and excellent work. It reminds me of the ill fated ‘Pollen Sonata’ that almost made it to Wii before everything collapsed in on itself and the project was cancelled. Don’t expect this to fall down the same route. There ‘will’ be a flower/adventure genre by the end of this year.


Arnt Jensen

There really isn’t anything I can say about this, other than the teaser on the site looks incredible. It’s been compared to 'Ico', and it has the same highly stylized silhouette look of several other games on this list, which seems to be a trend I’m not going to complain about. As far as I know the game has been in development for a couple of years and nothing else has been said or shown since its birth. In fact, I have no reason to believe the game is still in development. Nice if it is though.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Pixel Diaries - Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Edition

I don’t want to go into the same amount of detail with this one as I usually do, seeing as it’s not particularly new or old enough to be considered a classic. I’m just a little late to the PS3 party. Nonetheless I’ll share a few quick opinions, seeing as this is a play ‘diary’ after all. Rather than doing the usual staggered posts as I progress, I decided to just finish the game and do an overall conclusion of the entire experience.

I enjoyed the game on the whole, mostly down to its lush tropical visuals and generally sturdy gameplay. It had some memorable moments, particularly scaling a giant concrete wall hundreds of feat above the ocean and some fun vehicle levels. But what stops it from being special is just how generic everything is. Its puzzles and environments are fine, but lack the beauty and attention to detail found in Ico. Its gunplay and hand to hand combat is in working order, but without the satisfaction and intensity of Gears of War. That doesn’t make it a bad or boring game, but I certainly didn’t feel like I got anything out of it by the end.

I think it needed a better art direction to set it apart. Looking at the early concept art found in the ‘Bonus’ section of the game, early character models of Nathan Drake and his enemies are cartoony, with exaggerated features more in kin with Naughty Dog’s previous outings in the Jak and Daxter series. I think this visual approach would have given it some much needed character, rather than the bland ‘uncanny valley’ it sits in now, though I guess Sony was in need of a showcase for their console’s graphical potential. I also would have liked more emphasis on exploration rather than combat, and perhaps some more creative uses of the environment other than simply climbing, leaping and swinging. Maybe some water rapids and even bungee jumping and hang gliding sections to add variety.

A solid game and a great introduction to the PlayStation 3’s capabilities, but an essentially familiar and forgettable experience in the long term. This is Naughty Dog’s franchise for this console generation, the same as Jak and Crash were to previous generations of the PlayStation, and they’re no strangers to change. Just look at the difference between Jak and Daxter and Jak II: Revenge. This gives me hope that they’ll achieve something new in the sequel. They’re certainly a very talented and creative team of people, so I have every confidence they won’t disappoint.

Expect a few more of last years PS3 titles to get a brief word in the coming weeks.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Learning to See through GDC

This years Games Developers Conference has brought up a number of points and announcements that have grabbed people’s attention, but what makes it different from previous shows is that most came from the independent scene rather than the big hitters. This year’s IGF was a showcase for one of the best year’s indie gaming has had, and it seems like many people came away a little shocked by how much it engrossed them. It’s also given birth to a war between indies and triple-A developers and publishers, with many big titles seeing criticism for a lack of innovation and imagination. Jeff Green summed up what many people thought when he stated on the 1upShow, “I was thinking about [indie games like AudioSurf] and comparing it to Epic’s fucking cube of meat, you know, that’s what’s important to them.” It’s a great point that I agree with fully, and in many ways makes the likes of Epic Games look a bit ridiculous. I guess when you think about it, why on earth should anybody get excited over a shiny cube of flesh and some updated water effects when the likes of Fez and World of Goo were on display? It makes me grow sceptical over whether triple-A teams really know what they’re doing and what people want to see. After going through a lot of videos and articles written from the conference, I personally came away thinking Cliffy B is a bit of a clown. He takes to the stage wielding a chainsaw and announces he’s going to make more of the same as last time, expecting me to feel excited about that. Instead it reinforced how titles like Gears of War are the game world’s equivalent of McDonalds. It’s just not the right approach, and that becomes blatantly apparent when a side by side comparison is made between the two opposites of game development.

“I think the big boys should be ashamed right now”, claimed Phil Fish, creator of Fez. He explains how a team of dozens are recruited in the making of a big budget DS game, but the finished product is rarely anywhere near as good as indie games made by one person with no money at all. The traditional system of development just doesn’t seem to be working. One reason may be the dilution of enthusiasm as a team grows in size. A team of fifty working on a title that a publisher has recruited them to work on aren’t going to feel the same passion as an individual programmer building his own personal idea in his free time, and the difference shows in quality. During the ‘Developer’s Rant’ section of the conference, Clint Hocking, Creative Director of Far Cry 2, spoke out about the lack of new ideas in mainstream game development. He used popular independent titles as examples of how emotions can be achieved through game design, “Here’s a game that made me cry [showing Passage]. Here’s a game that means something [showing The Marriage].” He summed up his frustrations by claiming, “Dude, it’s code. We can do anything.”

Another important announcement at the conference was that from Microsoft, who will soon be allowing user created games from XNA available to normal Xbox Live account holders to purchase. Nintendo’s WiiWare service is aimed at a similar user base of individual game designers looking for a place to gain attention. Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network have brought huge amounts of attention to independent designers already, most noticeably Jonathan Mak (Everyday Shooter) and Jonathan Blow (for the upcoming Braid). With the changes to XNA and the dawn of WiiWare, that attention will only grow. It also appears to be an attractive alternative for previous big-budget developers. God of War creator David Jaffe took some time out to release Calling All Cars! on PSN last year, and GDC revealed Frontier Development's founder David Braben to be making LostWinds for WiiWare alongside his big-budget release of The Outsider. This brings forth the possibility of a shift in priorities for game development, with small scale releases not only being cost effective and quick to build, but also a more attractive proposition for the creatively minded to try out new ideas. Whether independent games become the new focus or not, you can count that it won’t just be the triple-A releases dominating the headlines this year. Now could be seen as the birth of a ‘golden era’ for indie game development, and it would be foolish not to get in on the action.

For all the latest news on the world of independent games, be sure to add TIGSource and the IndieGames Weblog to your favourites, and why not check out the winners and runner ups of this years IGF. Some titles are available now and free to download.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Refinement is Futile

With the recent release of No More Heroes, a reoccurring thought entered my mind yet again. In general, the game faired well critically, if not so well financially, but there are still a number of journalists and gamers who found too much fault with the game to properly appreciate and enjoy it. The same can be said of the reception of Killer7. As stylistically powerful as the games was, it suffered somewhat when it came to the gameplay which put a lot of people off. It got me thinking, when a developer makes something new and unique, creating gameplay mechanics that are dissimilar to anything released before it, does it really stand a chance of holding up quality wise to games that follow in the tradition of the well trodden path?

Take the first-person shooter genre for example. It’s gone through minimal design changes in over fifteen years, yet is perhaps the most popular genre of videogame today, and has provided us with some of last years greatest games, including Halo 3, BioShock, The Orange Box and Call of Duty 4. It’s down to refinement. There may not be too much structural difference between Doom and Half-Life 2, but to gamers they’re opposite ends of the spectrum. If Doom was the blueprint, then HL2 is the finished construction. Fifteen years of tweaking and small scale innovation to get to what most people cite as some of the best games on the market.

So how is a No More Heroes, a Psychonauts, an Indigo Prophesy or a Shadow of the Colossus meant to compete in terms of quality? The focus of those games is unique and fresh from the developer’s mind, but they’re essentially just laying the foundations for others to take the idea and refine it over years and years of development, game after game. But the initial idea never sells, and the foundations are abandoned due to the lack of an audience. How will anything new truly take off if it’s never built upon from the original blueprint?

One recent success story would be that of the music rhythm genre, more precisely the success of Harmonix. Since their debut in 2001 with the well received FreQuency, Harmonix had repeatedly tackled the music rhythm genre to no avail, from titles such as Amplitude in 2003 through to Karaoke Revolution Party in 2005. Yet eventually they hit upon the idea of Guitar Hero, and have since gone on to become one of the most popular studios around as can be seen in the continuous success of the Guitar Hero franchise and the more recent Rock Band. It took four years worth of development time to finally get to something high in quality, and it was rewarded substantially in sales.

Rez arguably provides a good exception to this argument. Mizuguchi hadn’t really tackled anything along the lines of Rez before in his career, yet finished up with a product that cannot be faulted in its design, despite the poor sales it received, though these ‘nailed it first time’ instances are rare. Killer7 was met with control issues, Shadow of the Colossus with camera problems, Indigo Prophesy with a story that trailed off into confusion at the end, Psychonauts with erratic changes in difficulty. All had a great idea as its central vision, but all left much room for improvement, room that publishers now see as too risky to fill.

It’s an issue that will rarely be resolved. When a team makes something new, they have no previous examples to build off from, unlike the FPS world where innovative features (such as Halo’s recharging health system) can be widely adopted as the new standard, meaning improvements in all future similar titles. Goichi Suda didn’t have that comfort when writing up Killer7, and nor did Shinji Mikami when building P.N.03, or Fumito Ueda when conceptualizing Ico. Some designers get lucky enough to repeatedly tackle their vision – I’m sure Suda 51 will one day get his gameplay mechanics to the same level as his visual execution, but until then, he and everybody similar will just have to hope that publishers keep their faith, and give them the opportunity to evolve their vision into something that stands up to the same high standards found elsewhere in accomplished ground.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Joining the Dark Side

Today marks a significant day in my gamer diary. Along with my birthday comes a PlayStation 3, a console I mocked just a year ago, before it turned into the most desirable piece of kit on the market. Uncharted and Warhawk came with the console, and I’ve got Ratchet, MotorStorm and Resistance on unlimited rental. Uncharted unsurprisingly makes for the highest priority on the list, as does downloading Everyday Shooter from PSN once I’ve got it hooked up online. It’s everything I expected it to be. It’s sleek, it’s silent, it’s got ‘the future’ written all over it, its hideously ugly and indescribably beautiful at the same time…it’s Sony’s old black box of love and hate.

It only occurred to me just the other night what I’ve now got to look forwards too, essentially all the games I previously gazed at enviously while feeling I was in some way handicapped due to not being able to play, but how things have changed. The collective hype of MGS4, GT5, LittleBigPlanet and ‘The Next Project from Team Ico’ has hit me all on the same day and swept me off my feet. I am a happier man because of it. Here’s to consumerism!

Monday, 18 February 2008

Digital Auteurs - Goichi Suda

“It’s always important to remember the truth that games are not always about technology.”

Goichi Suda is currently enjoying one of the high points of his career, having just released No More Heroes for the Wii to critical acclaim from fans and newcomers alike. Suda 51, as he likes to be called, has always stood out as a developer with a difference, a man who approaches game design more in the vain of a film director than a programmer. As such his company, Grasshopper Manufacture (GHM), is home to a collection of titles that, although ranging in quality, are consistent in their visual design and experimental gameplay features.

First starting work on the Super Fire Pro Wrestling series during the SNES era, he first got to show his writing talent in the Twilight Syndrome series on PSOne, before founding GHM and releasing their debut title in 1999, The Silver Case. This game marked the birth of the cel-shaded style that’s still used today by the studio. The semi-sequel, Flower, Sun and Rain, delved into one of Suda’s favored theme of insanity as its lead character finds himself trapped in a ‘Groundhog Day’ style time loop. Suda’s big break arguably came with the later release of Killer7 on the GameCube and PlayStation 2 in 2005. Overseen by the acclaimed Shinji Mikami, Goichi created a visually striking tale of death and DID which marked the Western world’s introduction to GHM, becoming an underground hit.

Grasshopper has always had a tendency to work on outsourced material. “In order to create original titles, we must first earn enough money by creating titles for other companies”, explains Suda, and even so those games rarely get away without being touched by the Grasshopper ideology, as can be seen in games such as Samurai Champloo and BLOOD+: One Night Kiss. Perhaps the leading factor as to why GHM so often needs to work on other licenses is down to its poor track record of sales. Often ignored in Japan, Suda has found a small cult following in the West which he hopes to capitalize on by focusing on hardcore games for the wide Xbox 360 audience, though without loosing his trademark style, “Grasshopper is indeed about a very special visual touch. This originality will always remain, but I also want us to challenge ourselves by working at making realistic visuals as well.”

The future looks busy for Goichi and his 50 strong “band” of developers. Next on the horizon is the fourth title in the Fatal Frame (aka Project Zero) series, with a Kafka inspired PS3 game and two collaborations with both Hideo Kojima and Shinji Mikami rumored to be active in the coming years. He’s also re-releasing several of his early works on the Nintendo DS for new fans to experience. It’s likely we’ll be seeing a No More Heroes sequel too, though not necessarily on the Wii, a target Suda has often been unable to achieve, “I’m always thinking about making sequels actually, but that’s always been difficult in the past because I keep killing off the lead.”

Suda 51 is a rare breed of designer. He may receive criticism on the final quality of his games playability, but that’s not in the least surprising when you consider how differentially his games play to those around him. It’s always refreshing to have a man working in the industry that understands game culture and takes advantage of the history and humour that’s found in its history. Modern trends and console battles are invisible to him. The only thing that matters is whether the game is actually fun to play.

“What's most important is after you finish playing the game, you walk away feeling lucky to have played it.”

Saturday, 16 February 2008

The Pixel Diaries - Silent Hill 2 Edition

I’ve always tried to make room for old releases in my tight gaming schedule, a rule I often ignore. I’ve never known why it always was the way that the new always seemed far more worth my time than the old, and why it only seemed to apply to videogames. The thing is, when I sit down to play a game, I want it to be a good game that provides me with a memorable and satisfying experience, so why is it that I struggle so hard to shun ‘latest generic space-marine FPS ‘ to the side and pick up a classic that I missed first time round? Well, I want that to change, and Silent Hill 2 has always been a game I’ve read enough about to write a book on it, but never actually experienced it first hand. I picked up the limited edition (unfortunately not the ‘director’s cut’) for peanuts last weekend in the second hand section of the local game store, so now it’s time to start a trend of catching up with what I’ve missed. It’s also worth saying that this is my first Silent Hill, and one of my first survival horror experiences outside of Condemned and various demos.

Currently I’m only about two hours in, having just left the apartment block to enter…an apartment block. What’s grabbed me so far? The sound, both diegetic and non, is fantastic. BioShock may have somewhat surpassed it, but it’s still the main source of scaring me so far. That may be saying more if the enemies I’ve encountered as of present weren’t so…lazy. The mannequins are disturbing when they turn up through the darkness at the end of a corridor, but they hardly pose a threat. As for the gargling corpses that stagger towards you so hopelessly before diving to the floor and crawling away, well I just kinda feel sorry for them. But don’t get me wrong, I’m expecting this game to terrify the crap out of me before its closure, and whole point of these ‘diaries’ is to document by feelings at different stages of completion to see how my views evolve throughout the hours of play.

Other noticeable things include my first encounter with Pyramid Head. From what I understand, he’s apparently a very interesting character, and judging by how many party costumes I’ve seen based on him I can only assume I won’t forget him in a hurry. I’ve also grown fond of the strange static effect that is forever smothering the screen. It makes things just that little bit creepier, and also somewhat covers up the fact that it’s an old PS2 game and hence isn’t much of a looker compared to what I’m used to. Nonetheless I’m on the verge of becoming hooked. I’ve also grown fond of the idea of playing through a stack of classic horror games and comparing the lot for chills, but it’s a busy year already so I’ll have to see. More impressions in the coming days.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

The Gates of Lucidium

One thing that videogames will always be able to do better than any other medium is exploration, giving the player full control in a world built for their interactivity. It’s one of the things I enjoy most in games, the feeling of walking into the unknown, anticipating what’s waiting for you around the next corner. However I think it’s a rare occurrence, and I often get the impression that designers don’t think the act of exploration in itself is enough to base a game around. Hence it becomes a single, smaller element to a game, with the likes of combat and puzzle solving interrupting to mix things up and give the player some more purpose. I often believe the game could be improved if it did away with these extra elements. Take Ico for example. Exploring and guiding Yorda through the game’s beautiful castle is considered one of the mediums most memorable and touching experiences. However I felt a growing annoyance every time the shadow monsters emerged from the ground to take Yorda away from me, not least because it occasionally became frustratingly hard to fend the shadows off, but for me it ruined the peaceful and isolated atmosphere of the castle and led to repetition. I think the castle itself would have provided enough on its own to make the game great. Take away the comfort of combat and designers will have to carve a more compelling game world to keep the player engrossed. I struggle to find examples of games that have taken this approach, but I really want there to be one.

Perhaps one solid reason why designers don’t seem to think this approach would be a good idea is down to how unoriginal game worlds are these days. Imagination always seems to be constrained, and in the end every game environment tends to be not too dissimilar from the real world. This just isn’t making the most of videogames potential and its freedom of design. Take some of the most loved environments in recent years, Half-Life 2’s City 17, BioShock’s Rapture, Ico’s castle, and notice how all of them choose to follow similar rules that apply to reality. I’ve never understood why designers can’t break away and do something truly unique. Take a look at Stage 5 in Rez. It’s a visually stunning experience, with gameplay incomparable with anything else, and almost nothing in its world sharing any resemberlance to our own. There’s no gravity, environments shift from one opposite to the next, pulsing around you before morphing and collapsing in on themselves, enemies who are incomparable to any of Earth’s creatures, and a continually shifting pace. Designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi put no limits on his imagination, and came up with something that nobody else would have thought of before. In contrast, there’s almost nothing in The Elder Scrolls IV that I couldn’t have predicted from the box art.

A source of inspiration I’ve always thought overlooked is that of lucid dreams. For those who don’t know, I suggest you take a quick peak at the wiki page, which proberbly explains it a lot better than I could, but essentially they’re dreams where you’re aware of them being so, and have total control over what happens within them. It’s virtually impossible to build a game that gives the player total control over what the game is about, but I think the kind of individual environments and unique situations found in dreams provides great source material for building an original world intended to be explored. Psychonauts was marginally inspired by this concept, and it shows in how each level shared no environmental similarities to the previous and adopted a completely different set of gameplay rules each time. If this unpredictability can be expanded and shaped into a large, possibly open world game, things can start to get interesting. The unreleased indie MMO Lila Dreams is set inside the head of an eleven year old girl. From that one fact I’m already ten times interested in its world than I would be in the locations of a World of Warcraft sequel. It’s new, it’s completely unpredictable as to what it might contain, and it makes for a damn intriguing setting that I’m already dying to explore.

Of course it isn’t necessary that every game be conceived in a world unlike anything we’ve dreamed of before, as exciting as that would be. Sometimes a world just needs a little twist to make it worthy of a player’s time. I recently commented on the world of Paradise City in the latest Burnout game, concluding that the setting just doesn’t make for an interesting automotive playground because it’s too hooked on realism. The Burnout ideology is anything but realistic, and it would have helped if the world had been inspired by this attitude, of which I provided some ideas at the end of the original comment. But instead of making something unique and outrageous, the designers played it safe and built a lifeless clone of a typical American city. I cannot understand why they’d choose this when it’s such a juxtaposition to everything their franchise stands for. In the end, this is a post asking for a little more imagination. Unlike building a film set, a game set has virtually no limits in what shape it can take, so why settle for something so standard and familiar when near infinite possibilities and ideas remain virtually untapped inside our own minds.

Friday, 8 February 2008

The Art of Downsizing

‘Bigger is better’ could be an unwritten law of videogame design. When a sequel is announced it’s expected to improve on its predecessor, and along with gameplay refinements and a higher texture count, a larger world is always expected. Modern videogames are set in substantially bigger worlds than they ever used to be, at least in terms of the three dimensional era. An open-world game will often brag on the back of the box of how many square-kilometres it gives you. The term ‘open-world game’ has almost become a genre in its own right. The possibilities the player can have inside these sprawling cities or kingdoms is often daunting, promising to provide the illusion of a living world, enabling the player to interact as freely as they want. But I often get the feeling that the greater the game space is in scale, the more at risk it is of being diluted of entertainment.

I like the appeal of a small game. I think they can lead to a greater sense of involvement, and require more innovative gameplay design from the developers to keep them interesting. One of the best examples of what I’m hinting at is LucasArt’s ‘The Day of the Tentacle’, released in 1993 from the untamed minds of Tim Schafer and David Grossman. For those unfamiliar, the game is a classic point-and-click adventure title set in a single hotel-mansion, albeit a mansion crossing three different time periods you flick back and forth from at will. Still, the game space was small, but the possibilities were huge. I spent countless hours wondering through and around the building, and it remains amongst my favourite ‘game places’ to this day. What made it work? The characters within it were exceptional, from George Washington to Green the talking teenage tentacle. It’s collection of freaks, manic-depressants, slackers and inventors made the place completely believable.

It was also in the details. For a world to feel ‘living’ it needs to feel ‘lived in’, and posters on walls, pancakes stuck on ceilings, quarters left in broken telephone boxes and stains left on carpets accomplish this far more than a legion of nameless NPC’s walking around aimlessly ever will. The more packed with smaller details an environment is, the greater we should be able to identify with it, and the more satisfaction we’ll proberbly receive from exploring it. There is more back-story in the things scattered around my computer desk than there is to be found in the entirety of ‘Saint’s Row’s’ city of Stilwater. Another name given to these games is ‘sandbox’, a term made to describe a game where the player has access to a number of ‘toys’ in a confined space, but actually these game worlds could often be better compared to playing paintball in a desert.

Another good example would be ‘The Sims’. The hours upon hours I would spend tending to a single sim living in a tiny three-room bungalow is testament to what a real ‘sandbox’ game should be. Why was ‘The Sims’ so captivating and addictive to so many? Maybe it was down to the fact that everything in the environment was built, bought, chosen and placed there by you. Objects had a history, like the big TV you bought when Dave finally got that promotion bonus, that cheap cooker in the corner of the kitchen that set fire and burnt to death the woman you had him commit to marrying for so long, or the gravestone amongst the trees outside where her body now lay. Will Wright proved to designers that size really doesn’t matter when creating a world of depth and belonging.

So I ask for a change of environmental approach. ‘The Elder Scrolls IV’ was a brilliant game, but I found ‘Psychonaut’s’ Psychic Summer Camp far more memorable than Cyrodiil, a trashy house in ‘The Sims’ far more captivating than the triple cities within ‘Assassin’s Creed’, as beautiful as they were. Technology is always advancing, making possible the likes of ‘Mass Effect’ and ‘Crackdown’, but why jump to the large when there’s so much left to explore in the small?

The Pixel Diaries - Devil May Cry 4 Edition

The Devil May Cry series is generally alien to me. I picked up the first game for a fiver second hand a couple of years ago, and had proceeded no more than around two hours into it before I hit a brick wall and had to bail out. I just don’t do hard games, and Capcom make a lot of them (I never finished Dead Rising or Lost Planet either – guess why?) But for some strange reason I bought a copy of this, partly because I heard they brought down the difficulty for newcomers like myself, and partly because I always felt like I was missing out on something really great.

I’ve only played for around an hour or two, with three missions under my belt. So far it’s been very straight forwards and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen. I’m waiting for the time when I can really start upgrading my abilities and weapons, the key that unlocks the fighting system that really makes the series what it is. The visuals have so far been very stunning. I’ve always appreciated its gothic art style, and it looks better here than ever before. The music isn’t all that bad either, with some thoughtfully placed and quite beautiful classical vocal pieces creating a nice juxtaposition against the action.

The only bad things so far are the occasionally flawed camera placements and those damn cutscenes. There’s an awful lot of them, and don’t get me wrong, they’re amongst the most ‘film-like’ cutscenes I’ve ever seen, but I often feel that they’re playing out sections which could (and should) be under player control. Watching Nero throw around scarecrows a dozen a time is quite a thrill to watch, but I’m often left thinking if the game will save some for me.

Nonetheless, this is the best I’ve felt playing a Devil May Cry before, and I’m actually quite interested in where the story will go (though I heard the final hours are a let down). I’ll come back to this when around half way through the game, or when I get dead stuck, to post some more detailed impressions on the deepening combat system. I’m getting a clear feeling that this is sure to be the game of the month already. Oh and one final thing, whether the game proves to be great or not, one thing for sure is that the limited edition version wins the award for best box art and packaging. It deserves to be framed.

Update, 14th February 2008

I've been chipping away at this quite slowly over the last few days, to the disappointment of a gamer friend who is nearing his third play through, but it's not to do with me disliking the game, or even the game being much of a challenge (on Human difficulty at least). I just tend to fill satisfied after completing a single level, which tends to take half an hour, and following it up with another level just seems exhausting. Nonetheless I'm on the final stretch, playing as Dante, around level thirteen of twenty.

As a newcomer, I've gradually pieced each element of the fighting system together bit by bit, taking time out in a quiet and spacious corner of a forest to run through the combos till I'm comfortable with pulling each one of with ease. I'm not raking in any spectacular combos, typically finishing each level with a B-grade, but I've only died once, and that was during a secret mission. Progress has been swift and I've really caught onto the gameplay a lot more than I ever thought I would have. For every new upgrade or ability learnt, combat just gets a little bit more exciting, until eventually you're longing for the bigger enemies just to let the sparks and bullets fly.

The forest sections are spectacularly beautiful, and the interiors rival Gears of War for gothic detail. Oh, and I no longer have complaints about the cutscenes. I now look forwards to seeing them because they're so well put together, and the voice acting (particularly with Nero) is really as good as it comes. Nero's screams and whimpers for his beloved Kyrie remind me of DiCaprio's performance in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (speaking of which, doesn't Kyrie look just like Claire Danes? Sorry.)

Most importantly I'm getting a feeling. A feeling I don't often get in videogames, and one I often ignore when it does come about. I'm forever getting an urge to really master this game, to replay it and replay it till I'm the best a player can ever be, till I can take it on the hardest setting and slash through it with a triple-S ranking at the end, and do so with ease. I just feel like I'm not getting the full experience playing it at a low setting, as essential as it is to get me comfortable with the game. I don't know, maybe I'll finish it and move on to whatever's next, but I must admit a part of me really does want to become a pro with this game, just so I can prove to myself I can be if I put the hours in. We'll see.

I'll try to post my final impressions after I've finished my first play through within the next few days. But I'll say it now, whether you've enjoyed DMC in the past or just found it too damn inaccessible like myself, this is really worth looking at. It's forgiving on lower settings, and has some real memorable moments and superb performances that all game fans should witness. Buy it, rent it, borrow it, just make sure you play it in some way or another.

Final Update, 15th February 2008

Phew, I went from a level a day to charging through the second half of the game in about three sessions. Well, that concludes my first play through, and I’m left feeling very satisfied by its conclusion. It’s nice when some effort is put into the final moments, not just in terms of gameplay but also in the cutscenes and humour. I’m left wanting to do nothing more than restart on the next difficulty setting and go through it all over again, which I guess is the major point to these games.

Another thing that stood out was the relationship between Nero and Kyrie. I’ve already mentioned the Romeo and Juliet similarities, but seriously, it’s often quite touching, and you can really feel Nero’s desperation and determination to keep her safe. Something I never expected from a game that features a woman who refuses to wear underwear and better breast physics than Dead or Alive Xtreme. Jesus… But really, I’ve grown attached to Kyrie almost as much as I grew attached to The Boss in MGS3, and that’s saying something. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, whatever your history with the series is, give this one a play. If it can hook me it can hook anyone. It’s a remarkably solid, beautiful game, and shouldn’t just be experienced by series veterans.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

The Pixel Diaries - Rez HD Edition

When this game was originally released on Dreamcast and PlayStation 2, to be honest I proberbly never gave it a second look. My taste in videogames was just too traditionally mainstream to see the appeal of it. In recent years it’s become almost a holy grail, fetching inflated prices on ebay and never turning up in the used section of game stores. Its rebirth on Live Arcade is one of the greatest things I could have asked for, a second chance for gamers to get hold of it, and a second chance for the developers (see Digital Auteurs below) to build it how it was always intended to be. High definition, 5.1 surround sound and online scoreboards.

I finished the game yesterday, or at least stages 1-5, and it left me pretty speechless. When you complete a first-person shooter you have similar games to compare your experience to, so it’s easy to recognise when something is special. But with Rez there are practically no comparisons to make. You know it was fantastic, but you’ve no idea what it was that made it so fantastic. It’s just an enthralling and beautifully made visual and audio experience. It’s short, it’s simple, and it’s generally very easy to complete, but while those would seem to be complaints when dealing with other games, here that’s just missing the point. Rez HD constantly shifts you from the deepest and most relaxed depths of your seat, to the very frantic edge in a shift of environment and rhythm.

It’s first 4 stages essentially act as a fast moving tutorial, or perhaps a taster, easing you into its unique design philosophies. Achieve 100% analyzation on each of these levels (generally achievable first time without problems) and you’ll unlock stage 5, by far the main event, and the thing fans come back to every time to re-experience. Suddenly the black and neon lined tunnels and valleys disappear and give way to an expansive digital vector-world of trees, landscapes and mountains. The pace is slower, yet the action is far more erratic. The multiple levels per stage concept vanishes and is replaced instead with a sequence of short narrative bursts, describing the birth, evolution and death of new life, and the future of our existence. The half hour level lays a knockout blow to any ‘games as art’ debate, and provides the audience with a window looking into what our medium could really provide if we weren’t so often bogged down with sticking to proven genres and play styles, constantly thieving techniques from films that barely hold together when put under the strain of interactivity.

I’m not finished with the game yet. I’ve got ‘lost’ levels and other various unlockables to play through, and the second half of the achievement points to work for, both of which I’m looking forwards to. To be honest I never thought I’d like this game. Appreciate its originality, yes, and its visual design, of course, but I never gave much hope to becoming a true believer, grasping Mizuguchi’s intentions and hailing Rez as a landmark achievement. But Rez HD has shattered by expectations. When the credits began to roll, the only memory of having a similar feeling within me was when finishing Portal, that knowing of having played something truly new and unexpected. It took Rez seven years to find its way to me, but it was worth the wait. I beg you to try it if you haven’t already, and not give up with it until you’ve experienced its final stage. If it’s not your thing, fair enough, I proberbly would have felt the same several years ago, but when priced at only 800 points it’s worth that risk. This has provided me with the first great gaming moment of 2008. Please don’t let this pass you by again.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Digital Auteurs - Tetsuya Mizuguchi

In the first of yet another feature series, I'll be choosing from the best personalities in the videogame world. It's a great shame that people remember the names of authors and directors, but rarely know the leading figures behind their favorite games. These people are our equivalents, from the Spielberg's (Miyamoto), to the Tarantino's (Goichi Suda), and the Romero's (Shinji Mikami), it's only fair that we learn and appreciate the people who drive our industry forwards. For the first edition, Tetsuya Mizuguchi.

“I’m more concerned about people feeling emotions thanks to my creations, about what message I can include and how it can be welcomed.”

Tetsuya Mizuguchi has always demonstrated true originality and innovation throughout his videogame career over the last 15 years. He has carved himself up a very distinct and high quality videogame style through his output, and possesses a clear design philosophy that has forever remained consistently visible and stood out as vastly different from mainstream titles, summarized when he stated how “We don’t care about genres.”

He first made his entrance into game development through Sega, where he made his name being the lead designer behind the classic and still widely played Sega Rally Championship in 1995. Once being tagged onto Sega’s United Game Artists Division, he produced both Space Channel 5 for the Dreamcast in 1999, and perhaps his most celebrated work Rez in 2001.

After an internal restructuring within Sega, Mizuguchi left after becoming dissatisfied with the company’s new corporate thinking and formed the still thriving Q Entertainment. Most recently bringing us PSP hits Lumines and Every Extend Extra, as well as Meteos on the Nintendo DS. The former of these games have since been released on Xbox’s Live Arcade, which Rez has also joined in an updated and improved package in the form of the critically acclaimed Rez HD.

It’s always uncertain where Mizuguchi will head in the future. He may continue in the same vain as previous years, further pushing the boundaries and artistic quality of the music and puzzle game genres he’s done so much to popularize. He’s expressed much interest in digital distribution services such as Live Arcade, and has even mentioned a desire to work on a full sequel to his beloved Rez. Whatever comes of Q Entertainment in the future, you can count that it’ll be met with similar adoration and respect from both the mainstream and indie game circuits, a rare and very difficult achievement which Tetsuya seems to hold the key to.

“We don't care whether it's hardcore or casual. We just want to make something new, using new technology and new people and talent.”

Rez HD has recently been released on Xbox Live Arcade to critical acclaim, and can be purchased for 800 Microsoft points. If you haven't checked out Rez before, this is an essential opportunity to experience it in its greatest form.