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.