Tag Archive for console gaming

Ico and the Beauty of Ambiguity

Ico is an adventure game for the PS2 (and available for the PS3 in the amazing Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection) from Japan. You play as Ico, a young boy left to die in an elaborate temple because he has horns coming out of his head. He breaks free of his cell and finds a beautiful girl, Yorda, trapped in a cage high in the rafters. Ico frees Yorda and tries to return both of them to civilization. Out of nowhere, shadow monsters appear to steal back Yorda for whoever captured her. She cannot fight back, only follow the trail you blaze for her.

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Take Ico in (click for full)

In case you were wondering, that does mean that a large chunk of Ico is an escort mission. Yes, it gets annoying at times. The puzzle solving forces you to move objects to create paths for Yorda to follow. Some of the early ones are intentionally fussy to force you to learn that close enough isn’t good enough in Ico.

The minor inconvenience is nothing compared to the grandeur of Ico. This is a game that, if enemies weren’t randomly popping up all over the place, I would just wander around and take everything in. Everything is abandoned castle, skylines, and a distant beach yet it never feels repetitive or dull.

The characters are the real draw of the game. Ico has a really fascinating conceit. Ico and Yorda are unable to communicate. Their bond is forged over their shared journey. Trust is established immediately with Yorda taking Ico’s hand without knowing anything about him. She follows his lead even though neither one knows where they are or where they’re going.

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For whatever reason, Ico and Yorda bond instantly

You get to decide what you think the relationship is between the two characters. Has Ico fallen in love? Is he looking for support as he tries to return to the people who abandoned him? Does he simply feel obligated to help Yorda?

And what about Yorda? Why does she follow this boy? Has she fallen for him? Is she afraid of him because of the horns? Does she know why they’re trapped the whole time?

Team Ico created a story of trust and human relationships without a single word of comprehensible dialogue between the two leads. They crafted an adventure game with no clear end goal as the main characters were abandoned by their own people. There are so many layers of mystery that you begin to question everything you think you’ve figured out long before the stakes in the game change drastically.

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of the game is the replay option. Once you beat Ico, you can choose to play again with a different soundtrack. This unlocked version gives you every line of Ico’s dialogue. The text that was so rewarding because it was so open now has the option of specificity if you choose to take it.

Ico is a game that will not play the same way twice because of the divide between ambiguity and storytelling. It’s entirely up to the player whether or not they choose to turn on Ico’s dialogue on a later attempt at the game. I prefer not knowing all the details because it encourages exploration and debate, but having a definitive answer allows for the quality of in-game storytelling to be judged against a literal blueprint. There is no right answer here. How you choose to read the relationship between Ico and Yorda is up to you.

Thoughts on Ico? Share them below.

No Quarter 2013

Last Friday night, I took the train into New York City to experience the Fourth Annual No Quarter event. This is an indie game showcase run by NYU’s Game Center. They commissioned four new indie games and five new art posters, set it all up at one of the Tisch school buildings, and opened the doors for anyone to come in and play some games.

noquarters11crowd 300x169 No Quarter 2013I feel fortunate that I got to the event right when it opened at 7PM. By 7:30, you couldn’t walk around anymore. No Quarter drew a huge crowd of enthusiastic gamers and writers with the promise of free games and free refreshments. What more do you need at a one night only arcade?

The four featured games were radically different from each other. The first one I played was There Shall Be Lancing developed by Sophie Houldon (Swift*Stitch). This was a two player game controlled with the two sticks on an Xbox controller. The left stick attacked and the right stick blocked. You and your opponent were floating in a battle sphere. When you attacked, you followed the circumference of the sphere to your opponent. The first to three take-downs won the game.

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There Shall Be Lancing

For a game with so few controls, There Shall Be Lancing was quite addictive. I lost my first time playing to someone who already played a few rounds. Then, I started to pick up on the strategy of the game. It varied from opponent to opponent. It wasn’t just a two button game; it was a battle of wits with the player standing next to me.

The second game I played was insane. Bennett Foddy’s Speed Chess, developed by Bennett Foddy (QWOP), was a 16 player competitive chess game. Using an NES controller, you waited for the clock to count down and then raced to be the pawn to capture the opponent’s king. Each round took less than 10 seconds to complete. Some buttons spun the pieces while others actually allowed you to move. The controllers might have even had random programming sequences or different sequences depending on which player you were.

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Bennett Foddy’s Speed Chess

I failed miserably at the game. I could never get my piece to move fast enough to capture another pawn and advance to the second half of the board. If you ran straight into another pawn, you were both stuck, hoping against hope that some other piece would claim your opponent; they never did. The competition was fast and furious and some of my fellow players took to playing multiple controllers at once for strategic purposes. I can’t see how the game could ever translate beyond a gallery setting but it was sure was a whole lot of fun to experience.

The third game I played was Killer Queen by Joshua DeBonis and Nikita Mikros (they collaborate on live action games). The game is actually based on a live action game they developed for 20 players in 2011. The arcade version cuts the field in half, with two teams of five on opposing cabinets competing in real time platforming war. You jump, you run, you collect berries, you ride snails, and you battle flying queens to try to claim victory.

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Killer Queen Arcade Cabinet

Killer Queen was the most popular game of the night by far. It was also the game I did the best at. What can I say? I was practically teethed on platformers. I had so much fun running around the screen, collecting berries, and jumping into iron maiden-like teleportation/transformation units that I didn’t even pick up on all the victory conditions. I did notice that if you rode the snail from the center of the screen to your team’s side, you won. I was in it for the jumping and collecting.

The fourth game I played probably appealed to my sensibilities the most. Tile Tree by Matthew LoPresti (Glow Artisan) was a collaborative world building game. It played like a free-form Tetris. You had to rotate different shapes made out of squares to connect to pieces on the screen.

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Tile Tree

The big catch, the real draw of the game, was the collaborative element. You shared one Xbox controller with another player. You controlled pieces coming in from opposite sides of the screen with half a controller each. In every round I saw and played, the pairs started playing independently, then had to begin collaborating to actually connect all the disparate pieces. The teamwork always produced a better result than the individual efforts. It was just a fascinating game to experience, a great concept executed brilliantly.

After a quick look at the game art display, I had to leave No Quarter. It was just way too crowded for me. I hope that the people running the show are able to find a larger space for next year. The event has outgrown two rooms and a hallway. It was a cool experience with a great atmosphere; there just wasn’t any room to move or breathe.

Check out my gallery of the 4th Annual No Quarter event on the next page.

Coming Soon: Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix

I grew up on Disney. My parents took me to Disney World before I could even form complete sentences and walk the whole day. My grandmother painted Mickey Mouse figures on my bedroom walls and the whole family saw every new Disney animated feature in theaters. I love teaching the big songs from the different films to my music and theater students and always have at least one in my audition book just in case. No, not “Go the Distance” from Hercules. That’s a tenor cliche at this point.

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Halloween Town in a JRPG? What more could a depressed punk teen need in a game?

In 2002, when Kingdom Hearts was released in the US for the PS2, I instantly fell in love. It was a JRPG with Disney characters. I’m a sucker for a JRPG and this one let me explore Halloween Town, ride on Dumbo, and battle Maleficent, the finest of all the humanoid Disney villains.

I’m not the only one who fell hard for it. Any large convention with cosplay rules lists keyblades (the weapon in the game) in their weapons’ guidelines. Etsy is full of unlicensed fan crafts and new licensed merchandise is released every year.

I spent every spare moment I had in my busy high school schedule playing that game. I refused to rush through it. I wanted to take everything in that I could. The tutorial level on the island was gorgeous and made the transition to the wonderful world of Disney honest and believable.

kingdomheartsremix Coming Soon: Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 RemixThis September (10 September to be exact), Square Enix will be releasing Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix in North America (European and Australian releases follow a few days later). The title is a mouthful. What it means is that they have upgraded the original Kingdom Hearts game to HD and even added in elements of the handheld games for the GBA and DS. It will also feature live orchestral scoring rather than the digitally rendered soundtrack of the original.

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix features two complete Kingdom Hearts games. The first (and the main draw) is Kingdom Hearts Final Mix. This was a Japanese-exclusive version of the original Kingdom Hearts with new battles, new cut-scenes, and new story elements and music cues to better connect the original game to Kingdom Hearts 2. The original Final Mix actually featured English voice acting, so who knows what happened to the clearly planned international release in 2006.

The second game in the set is Kingdom Hearts RE: Chain of Memories. Chain of Memories was a handheld game for the Nintendo GBA with a whole new story and gameplay style. You collected battle cards that gave you special Disney-flavored boosts in combat. The game was then remade for the PS2 in 2007 (US release 2008).

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Chain of Memories will look a lot better than the GBA release

The other big feature is strange and exciting at the same time. Another DS game, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, will be in the game. It just won’t be playable. The DS game has been reanimated for the PS3 as two hours and 50 minutes of cinematics that tell the entire story of the game.

These three titles, more than Kingdom Hearts and 2, are connected in a really logical way. I applaud Square Enix for taking the HD re-release concept in a new direction. They are selling what could be the best version of an amazing game, filled with new features and tons of bonus content. I don’t mind buying a game again years later if the developers actually make it worth the purchase.

Here’s the official trailer for the US release. If you preorder the game, you get an exclusive art book.

So beautiful. I’m going to have to preorder this.

What about you? Share your thoughts below.

On Gaming, Inclusion, and Fan-Fabricated Console Wars

Geek & Sundry has a new series from some of the Robot Chicken creators called FetchQuest. Each week, they release a short animated video looking at various aspects of the video game industry. It’s sharp and committed to the theme of the episode no matter how many people it may alienate in a given week. It’s not my fault that some people don’t understand Journey, so I can’t be too mad when their indie game episode boiled down to “indie games have no point other than to make you feel stupid.”

The newest episode, “It’s Not Wii U, It’s Me” actually hits on a rather raw subject in the gaming community. Watch the catchy and provocative music video then continue on down the page.

I knew what would happen when the video was released on Wednesday and I was right. The fanboys in the YouTube comments (I know, never read the comments, but I find them so inspiring) are flaming each other non-stop. There are a lot people who believe “It’s Not Wii U, It’s Me” is some official declaration of Nintendo being a bad company because casuals, lol. It’s supposed to be a joke, but it’s a joke about an issue that’s actually fought over at this point.

gaminginclusionconsoles On Gaming, Inclusion, and Fan Fabricated Console Wars

I don’t think FetchQuest realized how accurate they were

For me, the entire point of video games is to have fun with interactive media. There’s no room for excluding any gamer from the community. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft all target every demographic from young children to the self-declared hardcore gamer. There’s room for everyone on every console. Excluding people from the discussion because they don’t play x, y, or z is not doing anything to elevate gaming beyond children’s toys in the greater cultural discussion.

The idea that Nintendo is the only console that targets children is a laughable one. Every console targets children with colorful games, recognizable mascots, and huge advertisements in TV shows and ad circulars. Why? They’re the largest market. So long as gaming, as a whole, is viewed as something for children to do, the entire gaming market is going to target children on whatever consoles are available.

Each console gets the same shovelware–fast and poorly produced video games designed to turn a profit on a small amount of sales because they were developed for so little money–yet Nintendo is the company stigmatized for it. The motion control for the Wii made it so that a bunch of generic shooting, sports, and point and click games could be developed for home consoles instead of arcades. They wound up on the PS3 and Xbox 360 anyway with d-stick or even Kinect control schemes.

gaminginclusioneternaldarkness On Gaming, Inclusion, and Fan Fabricated Console Wars

No, but seriously, we need a sequel to Eternal Darkness.

Furthermore, each Nintendo console generation since the SNES has been accused of being just for kids when it was released. It took years for people to acknowledge that the N64 had great games beyond Goldeneye, Super Mario 64, and Super Smash Bros.. The same cycle happened with GameCube (Metroid Prime and Super Smash Bros. Melee) and is, unsurprisingly, starting up with the Wii already. If everyone who now claims to have played Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, an M-rated horror exclusive, when it was released on the GameCube actually played it, we would be swimming in sequels by now. Hindsight is 20/20 and people get lost in hype, positive or negative, when dealing with any kind of technology.

The bigger accusation against Nintendo is that the company only targets children. It’s simply not true. The common argument is that since Nintendo has cute games, they’re for children. I remember being pretty shocked the first time all my Pikmin were swallowed whole by enemies in Pikmin for the GameCube where my older brother just thought it was funny. A game like Animal Crossing, all about free exploration and interaction with NPCs and fellow players alike, could probably hold a child’s interests for a few hours but will keep an adult coming back to build, customize, and collect all the items for months.

There’s a distinct difference between producing a game for children–an educational title featuring Dora the Explorer or a point and click adventure game featuring Mickey Mouse–and producing games that can be enjoyed by anyone–the entire Mario series, Super Smash Bros., The Legend of Zelda series, Pokemon, etc.. The latter are probably only going to be mastered by more mature gamers.

Nintendo’s goal is not to appeal only to children but to create games that can be enjoyed on different levels by different gamers. Let’s take Pokemon as an example. My OCD self will spend hours grinding up a small roster of Pokemon to equal standing before developing different team combinations to use against real world and NPC challengers. My younger OCD self would level up the starter Pokemon so high that it could beat any gym leader by itself; I would also only choose the water starter because it was blue and I liked blue. And other people memorize rankings, stats, and develop game-breaking training techniques to max out the perfect team from the start.

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EV training is a real thing. (click for full) from http://www.deviantart.com/morelikethis/156325700

As the series grows, new features are added to appeal to even more gamers. You can go all The Sims on Pokemon Black/White by building a shopping mall from the ground up or training Pokemon to star in movies and beauty pageants. You can buy stationary to send notes to your friends or spend hours mastering the Pokemon battle subways in multiple battle formats. The ability of a child to play the same game as an adult does not mean that the game is being explored or appreciated in the same way.

Most major triple A titles get ports or specifically designed releases on Nintendo’s consoles, including the Resident Evil series, Call of Duty and even Mass Effect. The Wii U already has a ridiculously hard M-rated exclusive, Zombie U‘s one life and you’re done mechanic is certainly not aimed at children, and will have another this summer with Bayonetta 2. Nintendo doesn’t typically design M-rated exclusives themselves, but neither do Sony or Microsoft.

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Cosplay Candidate at Quinni-Con 2013

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A Count Named Slick-Brass served as moderator and commentator

At Quinni-Con 2013, 11 costumed contestants took to the stage to compete in a send-up of the US electoral system called Cosplay Candidate. The host, A Count Named Slick-Brass, was serious from the start, eliminating one candidate before she even had a chance to share her platform. This was a raw and unpredictable exploration of the US electoral process through the lens of anime and video game characters running for fantasy office in a slipstream world.

The participants in the contest had great knowledge of their characters but didn’t necessarily understand all of the political issues at play. There is an inherent absurdity when Link from The Legend of Zelda series, Liechtenstein from Hetalia: Axis Powers, and Internet cryptozoological creation Slender Man, represented by one of his future victims, answer questions about abortion as it pertains to artificial intelligence and staving off nuclear war with Lex Luthor.

The cosplayers were encouraged to answer as their characters would. Liechtenstein insisted on neutrality at every juncture like her savior Switzerland would want her to. Kanaya from Homestuck advocated for over the top slapstick policy. Salamander Man stuck to primitive growls and grunts to the delight of the crowd.

The entire conceit of the game was that the personality traits of the characters would become the campaign platform for each candidate. Obviously, this meant that not ever cosplayer could adequately answer each question. The overall effect was strong. The large audience began to root for or against various candidates as their platforms were defined and then refined on the fly. The cosplayers even began to pander to certain demographics if answering a particular way garnered audience approval. The talking points began to overtake the substance of the arguments as the debate reached its final round.

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The final round of Cosplay Candidate

The top 3 candidates from each primary became the six potential nominees. A shorter round of debate began before the moderator declared, quite correctly, that alliances had formed. These pairs became running mates who coordinated together on the final two questions. Once again, the people decided who would be the ultimate victor.

When asked to choose between Kanaya/Kaito (Vocaloid), Slender Man/Salamander Man, and Link/Liechtenstein, the audience voted for the Kanaya/Kaito ticket. The convention had a huge turn out of Homestuck fans and they were not afraid to cheer on their own. The sizable Hetalia: Axis Powers fans brought Link/Liechtenstein to the cusp of victory but ultimate fell short.

The concept of Cosplay Candidate is a strong one that will hopefully be continued at other conventions in the future. With a more contained space so every answer can be clearly heard, the contest could easily become a convention mainstay.

Check out the full gallery below.

Thoughts on Cosplay Candidate? Share them below.

Tomb Raider and the Shock of Tutorials

I’m working my way through the new Tomb Raider right now and really enjoying it. The game is just a more evolved version of the original games on the PlayStation. It has all the same elements–the platforming, the puzzles, the adventure story, and the high stakes combat. They’re just so much easier to see and process. The game is challenging for the right reasons, not because you literally cannot tell the difference between a platform and a giant chasm.

Part of the joy of the game is the beautifully executed tutorial stages. Almost every modern action/adventure/platformer game puts how-to instructions for the controls and game mechanisms in the game itself at this point. It usually feels super-clunky and forced. It’s the evil you have to go through to get to the good of the game.

tombraidercover Tomb Raider and the Shock of Tutorials

Buy Tomb Raider

Not in Tomb Raider. The new Tomb Raider has one of the most suspenseful, action-packed tutorials I’ve ever experienced. The opening cinematic introduces rookie archaeologist Lara Croft. Her fighting for the chance to explore the dangerous Dragon’s Triangle is engaging. The most senior member of the expedition refuses Lara’s proposal until everyone else on the ship votes for Lara’s theory on the location of the lost Yamatai civilization. Then the actual gameplay starts and you’re immediately put in great danger.

To learn how to use all the features of the game, you’re dragged into an underground cave system filled with the grisly remains of human sacrifices. Bleached skulls and rotting corpses line the walls and ceiling. You learn how to light a torch, crouch, escape capture, and respond to quick-time events as you’re pursued by a wild man in the cave.

The story grows more suspenseful from there. You traverse cliffs, fallen trees, and abandoned towns, learning new skills at each new challenge. The story does not stop developing just to send you on a random collection mission. Lara is clearly exhausted after surviving a shipwreck, an abduction, and a near-death escape from a collapsing cave. Of course she needs to get fire and food to survive. By incorporating actual exposition into the tutorial stages, developer Square Enix justifies standard learning missions as essential to the story.

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A bad day gets worse in Tomb Raider again and again (click for full)

When Tomb Raider goes past the basic tutorial, it only gets better. Tension is already high from the life or death stakes of the first chunk of gameplay. Now that the story and world is open to explore, you run the experience. The game is filled with alternate missions–unmarked tombs to explore–and a great upgrade system you earn by trying different techniques and discovering different artifacts. You do not have to seek out anything you don’t want to, but the game does reward you for taking your time and exploring all it has to offer.

The Tomb Raider reboot shows how to do the tutorial mode most modern games cannot escape. If you actually make the game focus on the real story from the start, you can slowly integrate the new skills needed as a welcome part of the gaming experience. You don’t need literal signposts and labeled training missions; you just need to trust your audience to interact with a gentle push here and there during the story.

Thoughts on the new Tomb Raider? Share them below. You can also help out the site by buying the new Tomb Raider at the Sketchy Details GameFanShop site. The PC edition is $35.99 through Sunday, 21 April.

I Am Alive and the Big Start

When it comes to Spring Into Suspense, we’ve covered everything from orchestral scoring to spiraling structures in video games, books, theater, comics, and film. Yet there is an entirely different school of suspense that has become synonymous with horror films.

screamheroine I Am Alive and the Big Start

Drew, we hardly knew ye

Have you ever seen a horror film where there is a huge shocking set piece at the very beginning followed by a good 30 minutes of low key exposition? This is one of the most common horror film tactics. The opening scene–be it the shocking death of the would-be protagonist in Scream or the quick cut hit and run of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?–shows you the worst case scenario.

The sequence is over the top to draw you into the terror and telegraph what this film will ultimately be about. It forces you to pay attention and then leaves you questioning when, exactly, the next big scare will come in. It’s related to the jump scare because those tiny moments are an act of misdirection to remind you of what could happen at any moment.

Unsurprisingly, this is a technique that has made the jump to survival horror games. You get a big scare scene at the start that forces you to quickly learn the controls and rules of the universe. Then the game relaxes a bit and shoots out a lot of exposition. It’s effective in the moment but difficult to maintain that level of suspense.

Unlike a film that has the luxury of brevity, a game has to hold your interest for hours upon hours. A film can get away with not having the next big scare until the second act because it’s only a 30 or 40 minute wait. A video game has to constantly up the odds and change the environments to maintain a similar sense of novelty and intrigue.

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Nothing survives the apocalypse

One recent horror game manages to pull off the hard parts with a lot of style. I Am Alive is a post-apocalyptic game where you control a man trying to reunite with his family. The city is in ruins and people are tense. Do you bet on their better nature and negotiate for safe passage or do you pull out a weapon and bully your way through the world? And what of the helpless survivors you meet along the way? How do you maintain your humanity when faced with such dire stakes?

The opening sequence of I Am Alive is one of the most frightening levels I’ve ever encountered in a game. You are dropped in the middle of a torn up street. Cars are abandoned, trucks are flipped upside down, and the bridge that takes you to the city has collapsed into the raging river below. You have to climb up the structure of the suspension bridge, shimmy around edges, and slowly work your way to the next section of stable road. Your body can only endure so much before it shuts down and falls from the bridge. You have to manage your resources and find. safe places to rest during your expedition. Sometimes, you have no choice but to push your body to the limit to even have a hot at survival.

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Shocking heights and devastation (click for full size)

This is the perfect sink or swim moment for this game. You’re given a new control mechanism to manipulate every few steps, from running to pushing your limits. Then, you’re left to your own devices. There is only one safe way across the bridge and the game’s only hint is the inability to actually walk off the road into the water below. The camera swings to dizzying heights, never letting you forget what happens if you make a wrong move.

From there, I Am Alive takes a few moments to breathe. You’re introduced to the other survivors and how you can interact with them. You see the man’s video messages to his wife and daughter. You control the man as he reacts to the total destruction of his world by an unnamed disaster and, ultimately, learn to trust no one but yourself.

I Am Alive PS3

These fast lessons result in a very palpable level of suspense. You never know who or what will pose the greatest risk as you explore the city. The unknown even becomes more comfortable than what you’re experiencing in the moment. If you go just a bit further away from the last challenge, you might finally be safe; you never are.

I Am Alive Xbox 360

I Am Alive succeeds because, no matter how familiar the mechanics become, there is nothing familiar about this world. Have you ever had to climb a wall to go up a floor at the local mall? Or pull an unloaded gun on an old woman so she’d stop shooting at you? No matter how strange the story gets–and it gets wild near the end–the world feels real enough after that opening sequence to handle the weight of any worst case scenario apocalypse action.

Thoughts on I Am Alive? Share them below.


Must Read: Misogyny, Sexism, And Why RPS Isn’t Shutting Up. John Walker of Rock, Paper, Shotgun breaks down the typical troll derailment tactics used when anyone tries to discuss the role of women in video games and fan culture.

Spinning in Circles: Limbo and Structural Ambiguity

I’m well aware of the love it or hate it reaction to ambiguous, exploration-driven indie games. For every rave about a Journey, there’s an equally passionate pan. The pros and cons are sometimes even the same on both sides of the review spectrum.

limbogame Spinning in Circles: Limbo and Structural Ambiguity

Get your copy of Limbo

Never has this been more clear than the critical divide over Limbo. The gorgeous side-scrolling puzzle platformer set in an inky black and white world of deadly traps allows you, the gamer, to create your own narrative. The mechanics and puzzles are locked into place with very exacting solutions. The actual story being told is intentionally left not only unresolved but underexplored.

The crux of Limbo is the maddening build of suspense. Your character, a young boy shown in silhouette alone, races through forests, rooftops, caves, and factories to achieve something. For a while, the motivation is staying alive. Other children lay traps and even attack him directly. Then a young girl enters the picture and the game changes tone entirely.

Throughout the exploration of the world, you come to distrust every element put in your way. Is that footswitch a bane or a boon? Will pulling that lever flood the forest or just the chamber you need to pass? And why are so many of the settings so familiar again and again and again?

limbolocation Spinning in Circles: Limbo and Structural AmbiguityAbout 2/3s of the way through the game, the truth of the design is revealed. The world seems to repeat itself because the environments of the game are recycled and revisited in unexpected ways. The neon signs you passed over long before are now your escape ladder from the murderous factory before. Signs you saw in the distance are shoved to the foreground, introducing new gameplay mechanics that make you realize anything is possible in Limbo.

The game creates a terrible sense of foreboding from the start. You learn quickly that not even light is your friend. Everything is an act of misdirection that can lead you right to a pit of spikes or murderous spider. The game begins to take on a rhythm of introducing a trap, then adding more and more encounters with the trap until the next big threat is revealed. For example, a puddle of water you drown in becomes a chasm becomes a lake becomes a spring at the bottom of a hill you have to go down to advance. The stakes are spun higher and higher until the new style of enemy–be it brain parasite, flooding structure, or spinning gears–steps up for its own set of rotations.

limbomisdirection Spinning in Circles: Limbo and Structural AmbiguityThe traps and enemies do overlap in pretty challenging ways as the game progresses, but the prevalence of the trap stays true to the circular nature of the trap design and pacing. The technique forces you to question every move and really hone in on the environmental factors. Everything you will encounter in the game is foreshadowed in the first few minutes of play with the blurred shadows in the distance. Likewise, everything you play in the first few minutes swings around to the distant background as you explore the world. It’s an inventive way to establish a cohesive world when the structures and environments look very similar but play in totally unexpected ways.

Whether or not Limbo physically begins and ends in the exact same place is one of the ambiguous elements of the story. My gut instinct says yes, but a bizarre almost-cutscene in the middle of the game might suggest otherwise. The important thing to realize is that the game repeats structural and design elements again and again as a way to increase the challenge level and suspense. Not knowing what exactly will come next but presenting it in a familiar way is a very cool way to build suspense and interest in the outcome of the game.

Thoughts on the structure and story of Limbo? Share them below.

Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

I’ve played through the Xbox 360 game Alan Wake twice now and really enjoy it. It’s super-moody with a lot of noir notes and an emphasis on storytelling. It builds great suspense in the first hour of play and only escalates from there with an unpredictable story. Yet, in an attempt to provide a psychological action thriller rather than a psychological thriller, developer Remedy tipped their hat toward third person shooter tactics that don’t evolve nearly to support the story.

Alan Wake is a well-known writer with a bad case of writer’s block. He goes on vacation with his wife to try to restart his creative juices but winds up plagued by dangerous nightmares instead. Possible stories he could be writing come to life at night. His only source of protection is light, a scarce resource in the middle of the woods.

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See the lights? Good luck getting there

The light conceit is excellent. It’s evocative of the writing process itself. I couldn’t help but recite Emily Dickinson’s “Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant” the first time the game went into the nightmare world.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

Light is the source of inspiration for writers. It is the lens that focuses your perspective of the world. It’s everything you see and care about in the subject you’re covering. You put your own spin on what you want the audience to see but the spin must reflect reality. If it doesn’t, the audience feels betrayed and no long buys your conceit.

alanwakecover Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

Alan Wake: A Psychological Action Thriller

Alan Wake uses light as a savior and a weapon. A lone street light on a winding path can be the difference between life and death in the middle of the night. A found flashlight, however, becomes a weapon of mass destruction. Point it at your enemy and he loses his ability to hurt you. Wake’s greatest weapon is overexposing his opponent so that no mystery or fear remains.

The trickiest aspect of the exposition is Wake’s use of light. Part of the mystery in the dark is eliminated each time he fights, chipping away at the threat the night poses. The exploration during the day is, by comparison, beautiful but nonthreatening. If you’re walking down a dark hallway, something will confront you; if you’re walking in a lit room, nothing will happen.

This creates an interesting situation in Alan Wake. The early scenes in the dark build a really palpable sense of suspense. The first nightmare has a sequence inside a cabin that almost made me pause the game and walk away. I was trapped, unable to do anything while the threat of a vengeful hitchhiker was held back by an old wooden door. I knew what would happen if the villain reached me, but I was powerless to save myself until the game provided a way out.

alanwakemoregunplay Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

More=harder in Alan Wake

Yet as the game progresses, the tricks become less effective. The technique of building suspense is a constant and repeating series of cinematic tricks that would work great in a two hour film. Yet, in an eight hour or longer video game, the tricks become predictable. The story has enough twists and turns to hold your interest. It is the in the moment gameplay that poses the greater problem. Even if you can’t figure out where the story is going, you can sense when the story is going to change or a new challenge is going to pop up.

Alan Wake doesn’t help itself with the difficulty curve. The third-person shooter aspect of flashlight plus other weapon is harder to control than necessary. Even if you assume an intentional device of a writer not being a crack shot right off the bat, there’s a lack of responsiveness in the firearms and a disorienting aiming system that adds more challenge than the actual narrative-driven changes of the story. The gameplay does not always reflect the style of storytelling. The suspense signals during in-game action sequences wouldn’t be as distracting or predictable if the game mechanics were challenging, not distracting, in their own right.

alanwakeaction Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

More exploration, less run and gun would be great

This is not to downplay the quality of Alan Wake. It is a very engaging suspense game for people who want horror to go beyond zombies or vampires. The control/pacing flaws are only a distraction because the rest of the experience is so strong. Wake’s story, in and out of the nightmare world, is great. The characters are interesting and the environmental conceit strong.

I just have to wonder if the game wouldn’t have benefited from a less action-oriented approach. Without the sameness of the fights drawing extra focus to the structure of the game, the darker areas could have focused more on surviving the story rather than fighting the game itself.

Thoughts on Alan Wake? Share them below.

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games #1: Damsels in Distress: Part 1

tropesvswomeninvideogamesblog Tropes vs. Women in Video Games #1: Damsels in Distress: Part 1Anita Sarkeesian’s new series of Feminist Frequency videos debuted on YouTube yesterday. Tropes vs. Women in Video Games is the Kickstarter project that the trolls didn’t want you to have because of misconceived notions of what feminist criticism actually is. The fact that Sarkeesian covered really nerdy topics from an academic perspective meant nothing once she tried to raise money for an educational series about the role of women in video games. Hate mail, cyber attacks, and death threats followed in short order, causing the opposite effect the trolls hoped for. Their malicious actions resulted in a wildly successful Kickstarter for Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, earning over 26 times the amount she asked for in short order.

The first video in the series is Damsels in Distress: Part 1. Sarkeesian obviously used every cent she earned on producing an excellent series of videos. The production quality is higher than some of the premium YouTube channels paid for by YouTube itself. The images are crisp, the audio clear, and the editing flawless.

tropesvswomeninvideogamesdamsels1crystal Tropes vs. Women in Video Games #1: Damsels in Distress: Part 1

Wait a minute. This isn’t the Krystal that appeared in Star Fox Adventures…

The research on the Damsels in Distress trope alone is quite extensive. Sure, she covers the extensive history of Princess Peach and Princess Zelda. Did you expect her to cover the ridiculous studio blunder of Star Fox Adventures? What about name dropping Splatterhouse, Super Adventure Island, and Adventures of Lolo? I actually remember renting Adventures of Lolo and being confused by the gameplay footage on the back of the box that showed the girl as a playable character when you could only start as the boy.

The key to understanding this video is understanding what, exactly, the damsel in distress is. Simply put, when a female character is abducted or put in danger she herself cannot get out of as a plot point, she becomes a damsel in distress. It doesn’t matter if the plot point is resolved in five minutes or five hours. When the female character is reduced to a stolen artifact in a game–like a legendary sword or staff–she becomes the damsel in distress.

In the smartest move of the entire project, Anita Sarkeesian has disabled comments on this video series on YouTube. If you doubt the choice, check out any comment thread about this video on a gaming site. Once again, her opinions are dismissed by listing arguments she herself did not make or with straight up lying about what she meant. Of all places, the PA Report thread has one of the more bone-headed discussions going on, with users arguing the video is poorly researched by putting words in Anita’s mouth. She does not say that the Damsel in Distress trope is inherently harmful. Her clear implication is that the Damsel in Distress trope is harmful when nothing is done to develop a character beyond her victimhood and the character makes no effort on her own to escape. She obviously did play and research these games, as the trope has no time requirement or even gender/species rescue requirement. If the female character cannot get out of the perilous situation herself, she is a damsel in distress.

Other sites have trolls already bringing up “what about male tropes?” as a way to dismiss her criticism. If you want to start a feminist research project on pervasive male tropes in video games, be my guest. That has never been announced as a goal of this series by Sarkeesian and is nothing more than a strawman argument and a moving of the goal posts when she failed to be the villain the trolls painted her as.

And don’t forget the people who claim the video is poorly researched because she didn’t cite every example of the Damsel in Distress trope in a 30 minute video on video games. Apparently, not saying that modern romance novels do this, too, invalidates her argument somehow. I don’t know how. It’s like saying your knowledge of the latest Super Bowl is invalid because you didn’t also list every winner of the World Cup when stating the Ravens beat the 49ers. I have to use a troll to English dictionary when I troll trolls for fun and research.

Top 12 Video Games of 2012

I have a bunch of “best of” posts planned for Sketchy Details that I’m going to break down into shorter, more digestible features in the coming weeks.

First up are video games. 2012 was a sort of renaissance for indie, low-budget, and online gaming. That is not to discredit the merits of the Triple A titles that came out. It’s just the reality of a market that has quickly embraced independent productions. Each major console now has a fully functional online marketplace, including handhelds, and Steam allows for easy download and trial of PC games.

Mobile gaming has continued to grow, as well. The tablet market exploded and smartphones are gaining a larger portion of the market every day. Social networks are somehow able to attract high quality games based on big Hollywood properties. And user-generated sites like Newgrounds are still holding on as a testing ground for larger releases.

Here are the Top 12 games of 2012.

12: Marvel: Avengers Alliance (Facebook)

marvelavengersalliance Top 12 Video Games of 2012Marvel: Avengers Alliance is a Facebook turn-based RPG inspired by The Avengers, both the film and the comics. You play as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent tasked with leading the superheroes into battle. You start with a small arsenal of characters battling Marvel enemies from all eras and quickly earn points to recruit seemingly any character that ever joined The Avengers.

It’s a whole lot of fun to watch She-Hulk, Wolverine, and your gun-toting S.H.I.E.L.D. agent battle Loki, The Wrecker, and The Enchantress in an ever-expanding series of missions. The PVP tournaments and character customization are a nice touch. You level up your superheroes until you’re allowed to reassign abilities (there’s a rock/paper/scissors or Pokemon-styled trumping system that adds a nice twist) and enhance with a variety of technology.

The only downside is that the resources are quite limited if you do not convince all of your friends to play. Free to play on Facebook often means “until you run out of resources, then give us money” and, sadly, Marvel: Avengers Alliance is no exception.

Learning to Trust Again: Journey and Empathetic Game Design

I finally played Journey for the first time last night. Money is always tight around here and the idea of spending $15 on a two hour game seemed wasteful to me. With an after holiday sale and the discount afforded to me by Playstation Plus, I was able to pick up the game for a price I deemed reasonable.

I’m glad I finally got to play it. I’m mad I didn’t buckle sooner and just pay full price.

The beauty of Journey is how the game design forces you the empathize with everything happening around you. Early stages teach you to free bits of trapped scarves from ancient ruins while wandering through a desert filled with headstones. Soon you begin to encounter other players trying to accomplish the same unspecified goal as you. You begin to communicate without words and team up to create bridges, free scarves, and continue your journey to the mountaintop.

journeyfreedom Learning to Trust Again: Journey and Empathetic Game Design

How will you chose to play Journey?

The environmental design and score add on another layer of emotional reality to the game. The beauty of the scenery and music is undeniable. These are breathtaking landscapes that slowly shift from sand to caverns to snow constantly reformed through light and weather phenomenon.

Yet, as the environment begins to darken and dangers actually emerge from the shadows, the joy of discovery takes on a more somber tone. The shift really happened for me when I encountered the first group of scarves I couldn’t save. I could see them, trapped in a stone and glass tower, endlessly tormented by some glowing machine. I tried interacting through my bright white aura–enhanced by all the scarves who joined me on my journey–but nothing could free them. It saddened me. Then the light went away and the machines came after me.

journeytribute Learning to Trust Again: Journey and Empathetic Game Design

A deep cultural framework defines the morality of Journey

At first, I actually resented the help of other players in the game. This was my journey to complete and freeing that scarf or unlocking those relics meant I couldn’t solve the puzzle myself. I wanted to ride the scarf dragon, but my unwelcome partner stole the experience from me. I abandoned him as fast as I could and moved onto the next stage.

This distrust and resentment became my own downfall. Another player was up ahead when the enemies first approached and attempted to warn me again and again of their pattern. I refused to take their advice. I watched in horror as my beautiful scarf, twice the length of my body and constantly flowing behind me, was torn apart by the mechanical beasts that trapped the scarves in the impenetrable tower.

Had I cooperated with my unintended partner, neither one of us would have been hurt. Instead, a far more empathetic player risked their own safety to guide me through the level and there was no way to thank them. All I could do was extend my aura and hope they read my mistakes as incompetence rather than fall adversity.

journeycooperation Learning to Trust Again: Journey and Empathetic Game Design

Journey teaches you it’s okay to rely on others for help

Everything changed after that. I teamed up with whoever was nearby, stayed in constant communication, and crossed the finish line stride by stride with my new allies every time. Only when the path narrowed so much that we physically could not advance together did I reluctantly abandon our shared journey.

There have been a number of smaller games in recent memory that have tried to force you to think about your surroundings and your fellow characters. Limbo placed you in a child-kill-child world of death traps and massive spear-tipped spiders where your choice was fight or die. Dear Esther forced you to retrace your own steps and discover what happened in your life as you prepared for your inevitable death. The Walking Dead game literally made you choose who deserved to live or die as you couldn’t possibly save both people in time. Even flash games like Dys4ia forced you to assume an entirely different life to explore a very personal story.

If this is an actual trend, no matter how small the games, I welcome it. We can use a healthy injection of empathy in our lives. Learning to trust other people, cooperate, and explore how our actions impact others is a good thing. Games like Journey might not be the most exciting experience you’ll have, but they are strong and provocative ones that deserve attention.

Thoughts? Share them below.

When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle Games

I love a good puzzle game. It’s one of the main genres in my wheelhouse (right behind music/rhythm games and the OCD madness of leveling up and resource distribution in a turn-based RPGs) because of the way I think. I love taking things apart and figuring out how they work.

Puzzle games normally have a breaking point where the learning curve radically shoots up after the basic mechanics are demonstrated. That’s part of the fun. You have to start putting together everything you know to succeed.

quantumconundrumcover When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesQuantum Conundrum has multiple learning curves happening at the same time. The game hinges on the manipulation of physics in a mad scientist’s world. You have very little time to master the intricacies of each of four variables before solving a puzzle demands precision control of various random elements.

You play as a young boy sent to spend some time with your uncle, the brilliant inventor Professor Fitz Quadwrangle. He transported himself to an alternate pocket dimension while testing his latest invention and needs your help to bring him back. Your goal is to start up the generators in the various wings of his mansion to help him return.

To do this, you must use a glove that lets you manipulate gravity and time through dimensional rifts. The Fluffy dimension makes everything super light. The Heavy dimensions makes everything super heavy. The Slow dimension drops everything but your character to one-tenth speed. The Reverse Gravity dimension flips gravity for everything but your character.

Once you get past the first few puzzles, you’ll be manipulating multiple forces at once. You quickly learn things like throwing a big box in Fluffy mode before shifting it to Heavy mode at the last second to smash through a big window or blocking lasers with the appropriate dimensional shift to pass by safely.

What isn’t immediately apparent is how some of the forces link together. Even in some of the later Fluffy/Heavy-only puzzles, the solution to the puzzle isn’t always a logical one. You can block the right laser, but be off by just a slight amount and be stuck for a long time trying to figure out what else you missed. You didn’t miss anything other than the one spot on the wall that the box, held up by a large industrial fan, will line up everything; too bad the graphics already look like you lined it up perfectly even if you’re off by a quarter-width of a box.

portalinstruction When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesThe challenge of designing a good puzzle game is deciding where to draw the line between challenge and innovation. Portal, the previous release from Kim Swift (former lead designer at Valve, now with Airtight Games), does a remarkable job of balancing this out.

The only thing you’re told in Portal is that you’re a test subject with a gun that shoots portals. Place the orange on one side of an obstacle and the blue on the other and walk through to advance. There are frustrating spots, but only because of the wide variety of possible solutions and the omnipresent element of human error. The game is challenging in the best way possible.

Perhaps Quantum Conundrum‘s biggest challenge is not overly specific level design. It’s rare that you have to do something in just the right order or way to succeed. It could just be that the game guides your hand a bit too much with its training elements so that you expect certain elements to come into play that don’t.

When the techniques you were already taught aren’t relevant to the new puzzle, it’s frustrating. It’s like the moment in a Super Mario game where you first get the new power-up and have no clue what it does. Trading in for the Tanooki suit is great in a precision platforming area, but won’t help too much when the Fire suit would get you past a room full of piranha plants much faster. Some puzzle games introduce new gameplay elements with no explanation again and again as some way of ramping up difficulty.

Puzzle games only have so many ways of creating more challenge to keep a player interested. They can add new gameplay elements, like random enemies or new power-ups. They can expand on the scale of the puzzle, taking you from a single screen of material to a much more sprawling location. They can intentionally leave information out so you have to put the pieces together yourself. And they can also betray your expectations and cause you to break every rule you’ve already been taught to advance.

I love a challenging game. It’s not uncommon for me to spend weeks playing a single title that people can beat in a few hours of gameplay because I want the full experience. You better believe I’m going for all the side quests, meeting all the NPCs to get the full flavor text, or going for the full clear on my first playthrough.

puzzlequest When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesPuzzle games rarely allow for that level of variance. The entire point of the puzzle genre is to solve puzzles. You might couch it in a larger narrative like the Professor Layton series or put in a clear singular throughline like Braid. You can also just make it a series of individual challenges held together by style or character like Tetris or Lumines. You can blend in other gaming elements (music puzzle games like Amplitude or RPG-based puzzle games like Puzzle Quest), but the driving force is clearly the puzzle solving element.

So how do you actually maintain interest in a longer form puzzle game like Quantum Conundrum? It’s honestly a game of chance. People stop playing games all the times for any number of reasons. Puzzle games add on the challenge of taking a singular gameplay conceit–the time reversal of Braid, the black on gray mystery of Limbo, etc.– and expanding it to a full length game.

So many of the popular mobile games are puzzle games because they’re often best enjoyed in small bursts. Could you imagine sitting down for four or five hours at a time to full clear Angry Birds or Cut the Rope? I couldn’t. It might take me a few months to go through all the stages playing a handful of puzzles at a time.

The complications come in when selling a full length, full price console or PC puzzle game. Nowadays, people expect more than the singular action of Tetris or Breakout for the usual console price of $40-plus dollars. Developers add in extra modes or build an elaborate story around a game genre that, until pretty recently, was all about beating stages and levels for a high score.

limbopuzzle When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesIn many ways, these full-length, fully-featured console/PC puzzle games are still an emerging genre. The tricks that worked before–point and click mechanics, especially–don’t necessarily grab interest anymore. Experimental games with puzzle elements (like Journey or Limbo) tend to work best as adventure/platform games with some light puzzle elements rather than puzzle games with some light platforming to get to the next puzzle.

Injecting a traditional narrative into a puzzle game comes down to the story being told. Sometimes, that story isn’t worth dealing with the seemingly random introduction of new gameplay elements just to make the game harder. The line between challenge and obstacle is a fine one. In the puzzle genre (where some gamers are naturally going to be better at certain styles of puzzles than others), that line can be as fine as it is arbitrary.

I haven’t exactly rage quit Quantum Conundrum at this point. I really enjoy my time playing the game. There are just points where the level of frustration created by a particularly inflexible puzzle outweighs the joy of solving the puzzle. I just have to walk away and play something else for a few days.

quantumconundrumprecision When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesIf the gameplay was the same in each stage, I would get bored and walk away. If it changed radically in style, I would get frustrated and walk away.

There’s just no way to predict how a gamer will react to a title, puzzle games especially. You can have the best, most inventive conceit to come around in years and fall short because one hard puzzle doesn’t logically flow with the gameplay up to that point. How we respond to games is up to a wide variety of factors that cannot be predicted. I’m not going to be my best at a puzzle game when I have a migraine the same way an arcade fighter fan is going to struggle to adapt to a fighting game that only uses the Wiimote.

The only thing that can be controlled is the actual functionality of the game and story. Do the controls work throughout the game? Does the story make sense and have a logical conclusion? Are there enough hints in the game to at least clue the player into the tools needed for a level? Everything else is up to the gamer’s preferences.

What do you think? Where do you draw the line when it comes to challenging video games? What are some of the puzzle/hybrid games that balance this out well? What game could you just not finish because the whole package didn’t work for you? Sound off with your thoughts below.