Process Shot: Despill

Sequence 01 (0-00-31-22)

When we were brainstorming concepts for this music video, someone mentioned “bad green-screening” as an aesthetic. So I’m trying a really spotty despill with a huge pre-blur, which leads to this interesting semi-opaque fuzz over the figure. Sort of grimy.

Process Shot: Pagination Check

CRN Pagination

I always forget about pagination. Which is especially hazardous because most CMSs (Drupal, in particular) have butt-ugly pagination styling out of the box.

Mythos, Ethos, Invisible Airplane

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Maybe this is obvious since this blog is already nerd central, but: I like comic books. Not just the super hip Pantheon allegory of the week either. I like comics that have people in costumes mindlessly punching other people in costumes. I like Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, no matter how ridiculous they may be.

I like superheroes because they are familiar, reliable and occasionally surprising. There has been a new story about  Batman published every month for the entire time I have been alive. And, barring some kind of cataclysm that destroys the entire planet, people will continue to write stories about Batman long after I am dead. He is iconic, and his core character is widespread enough to make him immortal, if only in the abstract.

This massive cultural penetration also makes it easy to serialize the adventures of such a character, independent of the medium. People know that Superman is from Krypton, that he’s invulnerable, and that he’s a boring Boy Scout. People know that Batman’s parents were murdered, that’s he has no super powers, and that he’s as goth as my eighth grade girlfriend. A writer doesn’t need to reiterate this constantly; he can assume the reader is familiar with the character. There are reasonably permanent motivational traits for these heroes and villains that were established long ago. This allows an uncanny freedom from a storytelling standpoint; it allows the writer to shape the character uniquely and tell the story that they want to tell.

Which is more or less the opposite of how writing for a video game works. As an uneducated casual gamer twelve steps removed from the actual creative process of developing a video game, I feel qualified to make such a statement. I have gained a magnitude of insider knowledge about the average development process after that one time I drove through Boston and kinda sorta saw the Harmonix headquarters from Interstate 93. Let’s look at this list of MURDERFACTS™ I’ve compiled on the subject.

  1. Mass market video games are developed by teams of trillions and cost infinity dollars to make.
  2. Games have to be engaging on a ludic level above all, otherwise the narrative element will not be experienced by the player.
  3. The lead designer of Far Cry 2 once got into a bar fight and totally ate the other dude whole.
  4. Franchises become franchises due to strong sales, and tampering with the formula doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint. Especially when a company has infinity trillion dollars on the line1.

So we are left with this cycle: a game is made, the game sells well, and then the game is remade again and again with partial tweaks to the formula.

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In 1986 I got the Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas, packaged with Super Mario Bros. I had to rescue the princess. 23 years later I’m still doing the same goddamn thing in every Mario platformer to hit the market. Legend of Zelda titles try to innovate a bit (Majora’s Mask was an excellent experiment in the defamiliarization of routine2), but they always boil down to collecting equipment in order to overthrow some incredible evil.

I’m all for tradition, but I like these characters. I grew up with them and I want to see them in interesting situations. I want to react to what they’re doing (or rather what my input as a player is allowing them to do) and be completely engrossed, on the edge of my seat. Like I am with comic books. When I heard that Batman died, I freaked the hell out, got sweaty palms and started thinking about what that means for Batman3. Because I like Batman and writers aren’t afraid to tell interesting stories with him as the vehicle.

But there is an issue with adapting such an approach for gaming (aside from the square root of negative monies). That issue is you and I, reader pal. When a creative type tries to abstract the narrative from tradition in an established gaming franchise, the internet explodes. It can be gruesome.

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“WHY IS SONIC A KNIGHT WITH A SWORD AND STUFF? WHY IS HE A WEREWOLF IN THAT OTHER GAME? THIS IS LITERALLY WORSE THAN THE HOLOCAUST.”

Well… why shouldn’t he have a sword or be a werewolf? Do people care enough about this character to be insulted by a variance in style and tone that was conceived to make the game a worthwhile experience? Sonic is a blue hedgehog that runs fast. That’s about it. I think he might have a pair of red shoes and an interspecies life partner. I’d like to encourage the developers to explore areas such as lycanthropy and Arthurian lore if it means the game might end up interesting. It’s not as if Sonic games are flawless examples of gameplay and such narrative freedom would lessen the entire work. There are only so many ways you can say “move to the right side of the screen to win.”

The evolution of a superhero story is almost like a fugue: interpretations drift around the central theme, borrowing various elements, but each iteration is distinct. The Superman that debuted in Action Comics #1 is very different than the Superman you or I have known through our lifetimes. Every writer and artist has their own interpretation of a character; they can choose which aspects of the mythology to include or ignore and just focus on telling the story they want to tell. And then we, as readers, can experience stories about animal rights and free will. Or cigar smoking imps from the fifth dimension. Whatever, you can pick and choose.

So how’s this:  the Electronic Entertainment Expo last May hosted a few surprises.  Hideo Kojima, creator of Metal Gear Solid 2 (and I guess the other games in the series), is overseeing a new Castlevania title. Team Ninja, responsible for games involving ninjas, are developing a new Metroid game.

Without knowing any details about either game, I will say that this is good news.

I’m a huge Metroid guy (the header on this blog might give that away), so my natural fanboy reaction was to flip out and troll message boards naked.  This Team Ninja interpretation could be terrible!  But it could also be great.  While I’d obviously be very upset if they turned the main character into a telepathic pole dancer, I appreciate that the owners of the property are reaching out to fresh talent and letting them try something new.  I think we’re at the point where developers can start exploring Samus Aran’s other adventures. You know, things that don’t involve hunting metroids… a species that has gone extinct roughly eight times. She’s a bounty hunter, after all. Her character has been defined well throughout the series: she is focused, efficient and deadly. So let’s run with that and throw down some awesome stories.  Before the characters I grew up with bore me to tears.

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COUNTERPOINT! Games based on established intellectual properties have the notoriety of being terrible.  Why is this?  Is it because the motivations of a character are seen as limitations when trying to develop mechanics?  Does working backwards, from aesthetics to core gameplay, hinder the creative process? Do designers just break down when trying to make a video game that features a protagonist who does not kill?

Tune in for the answers to these questions and more after I’ve had a chance to play through Batman: Arkham Asylum.  Same Murder time, same Murder channel!

Or, you know, just work that one out in your head, since I’ll probably forget about this blog post tomorrow morning.

  1. Wonderful Thought: You know that board game Risk? Every time I’ve played it, who would win was obvious within the first thirty minutes of the game, but we kept playing for three more hours doing the same crap over and over again until no one had any assets left. That game is just like real life! []
  2. Does that even make any sense?  There’s a lot to say about Majora’s Mask, but I think the way it makes you aware of the repetitive nature of games by presenting a literal routine that you can slow down, speed up, or rewind is jaw-droppingly awesome. []
  3. Oh, um, SPOILER ALERT: Batman died. Or, more accurately, he was displaced in reality by an Omega Sanction. That’s geek speak for “dead until sweeps week.” See Final Crisis for more information. []

Zoo Review: Duels of the Planeswalkers

Zoo Review is a monthly feature at Murderblog 3D in which our esteemed review panel pores over the hottest new game and breaks it down into a score that you can understand.

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Fair warning: I’m about to drop a major nerd bomb up in here.  Even my cat thinks this stuff is lame.

I’m of the opinion that Magic: the Gathering is a pretty great game. Not because I’m into crazy elf ogres or wizards doing wizardly stuff, but because the mechanics are so very rich. If you’ve never played Magic before, just imagine your favorite RTS1 played with cards. Strong focus on micromanagement, requires quick mental reflexes and it favors adaptation over long term strategy. You can control your own resources and how they work for you, but you can’t control how your opponent will respond to your actions. Which, obviously, is a staple of most competitive games. Magic makes it a bit different by adding a slight randomization aspect. Those cards, your resources? They’re shuffled.  You have no idea what your opening hand will look like, and that will affect how the game plays out.  It also gives you a go-to excuse when you lose (“I could have killed you on the first turn, but I shuffled badly and didn’t draw the card that kills you on the first turn”).

I played the game when it was first released and had a lot of fun with it.  Dragon summoning and counterspelling and all that.  Then I discovered girls and the whole thing went to hell.

Now that I’m an old man and the gentle touch of a woman is but a distant memory, I’ve gotten back into Magic.  It fills the void.  The game is a bit more balanced than it was fifteen years ago, for various reasons2.  But it’s still just as fun if you have the patience for it.

When I was in college I discovered a PC game called Duels of the Planeswalkers that had been developed by Microprose. It was actually one of the last titles Sid Meier worked on at Microprose, according to internet lore.  This game was full fledged Magic, containing a deck builder and every card that had been printed at the time of the release (with thirty plus pre-configured decks built in).  It was so goddamn wonderful.  You know how some people play Minesweeper while talking on the phone?  I did that with Duels of the Planeswalkers.  Just hit the random duel button and my mouse hand would do the rest.  The game was fast, fun and simple (well, as simple as Magic can be).  I still have a copy installed on my laptop, and I play it regularly.

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Last week Stainless Games and Wizards of the Coast released an Xbox Live Arcade title called Duels of the Planeswalkers.   It’s not a port of the PC game, sadly.  It’s… well, it’s Magic as a video game.  The umpteenth version, actually.

How am I supposed to Zoo Review a title like this?  Do I consider it a standalone game or take into account that it’s an adaptation of something bigger?  I mean, I don’t want to give it a lowly aardvark when it could be a cephalopod class game for those who are already fans.  Let me use the power of example:  when dissecting a digital poker game, does one consider the rules of Texas Hold ‘Em, or do they just try and figure out if the game communicates those rules properly?

Big Media would probably just have a paragraph that started with “If you’re not familiar with Magic: The Gathering…”  Screw that.  If you’re not familiar with Magic: The Gathering, you’re probably not reading any of this. Well, you’re either a fan of Magic or a fan of this blog (if it’s the latter, I want you to know that I love you very much, Mom). No one stalks out impressions on games they have never heard of before.   Case in point: the results from the E3 Game Critics Award.  It’s franchise city.  It takes a mindbogglingly original game like Scribblenauts3 to break up the sequel party, and even then it’s not nominated for Best of Show.  A developer could make a game that cures cancer and no one would touch it because it doesn’t feature Solid Snake.

I just read that last sentence back and realized that we are probably doomed.

Uh, much like my opponent in Magic: The Gathering: Duels Of The Planeswalkers was doomed when I cast my 4/4 air elemental!  Back to the review.

This XBLA game is Magic, more or less.  It’s what you’d expect Magic to be if it was a ten dollar downloadable game.  It actually provides a number of smart solutions to the issues that make the paper game frustrating.

The main concern for players is that Magic can be expensive. Four new sets are released a year, each with hundreds of new cards, and a pack of fifteen random cards will run you $3.99. By using only pre-configured decks and not allowing you to customize them (beyond adding in a few cards from your sideboard), Duels of the Planeswalkers avoids that problem. You buy the game for ten dollars and that’s it. New cards are unlocked as you play through the campaign. I’m sure there will be downloadable decks, but I like to imagine those will be bundled with challenges and other additions to the campaign, not just thrown out there as a couple of cards to add to your collection. The presentation here completely kills the collector mentality that makes paper Magic not so fun. If you’re ever in a situation where the rich kid doesn’t win, you’re probably stuck in a teen slasher flick and you should run away as quickly as possible.  More money almost always means a better deck.

One of the smartest design decisions made was the focus on planeswalkers rather than just decks. You are not playing against a mono-red aggro whozywhatsit deck, you’re playing against a wizard who casts spells, summons creatures and is actually represented by an avatar. I thought this was going to be a terrible idea when I saw the list of cringe worthy names. Liliana Vess? Ajani Goldmane? Garruk Wildspeaker?! It’s like a Canadian strip club was sprinkled with pixie dust.  But the concept of putting a face to each of these decks works well.  The single player campaign is almost like a string of boss battles.  It adds not only tension, but also a sense of accomplishment when you defeat these opponents.

You, the player, are a planeswalker as well, which I guess is someone who can’t stay seated during a commercial flight.  I honestly have no idea; the lore behind all this stuff is either not that memorable or eclipsed by the strength of the game mechanics.  The cards have all this stuff going on, and half of it is meaningless stuff meant to inject flavor into the game.  Here’s a breakdown of your average Magic card.

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The only things I really care about there are how much damage it can give and receive in combat, what its abilities are and how many resources  it takes to get into play.  The rest is fluff.  I could really give a damn about how some dude wrote a book on skeletons in this fictional world.

The choice of only pre-configured decks also helps avoid the metagame problem. In Magic (as well as any customizable game with competitive focus), trends emerge based on the recently released sets and whatever card combos can be exploited. Video gamers might call such things cheap or broken. But if you want to play in any sort of sanctioned setting (e.g, not with just your friends at the kitchen table), you need to keep up with these things.  It’s disgusting.

People who care about the metagame are not the sort of people I like to play with. They are jerks who want to always win, as quickly as possible, and make millions of dollars from the comfort of their own homes using pay-per-click advertising. I want to have a good time. Get married to someone sweet. Maybe have a few kids, retire to a goat farm in Maine.  What I’m trying to say is:  the best part of Duels of the Planeswalkers is that you can play Magic without interacting with other Magic Players.  The single player game is the draw here, at least for me.

There is something else I should mention:  Magic is a very, very slow game.  Imagine playing solitaire and having to wait five seconds every time you flipped or moved a card.  The 1998 Duels of the Planeswalkers game solved this problem by letting the player choose what phases of the turn they wanted to stop at.  This new title does not.  Instead, you’ve got a limited window after every action to respond.  Play a card and a little dial counts down to when the active player can perform another action. Maybe this is good solution for the online multiplayer section of the game. I wouldn’t know; I prefer playing my nerd games without the thrilling homophobia and racism found on Xbox Live. I do know that this is not a good solution in the single player campaign.

Imagine With Me: you are playing a Japanese role playing game.  There is endless dialog that you probably don’t care about.  Would you rather have the game advance to the next line of dialog when you hit a button on the controller (regardless of if the dialog is finished), or would you prefer to have it automatically move the the next line after ten seconds (with no way to skip through it)?  I realize that your answer is probably turn the game off and play Picross instead, but I’m trying to make a point here.  Those little response windows in Duels of the Planeswalkers may only be a few seconds long, but they drastically slow down the flow of the game.  And when you’re playing what is otherwise a solid strategy game by yourself, that’s a major bonerkiller.  Nothing is worse than being dealt a terrible hand and having to sit through the longest game ever just to end up losing.  That kills the game for me.  I still love it just because it’s Magic, but I find myself getting incredibly bored halfway through longer matches.

So,  back to the original conundrum.  What if you’ve never played paper Magic before?  Will this game appeal to you?  I have no idea, because this stuff is in my blood.  But the tutorial seems very concise and well implemented (“Press B to not show this tip again”), the difficulty curve is fair, and the game itself is mostly quite fun.  Though if you’re a veteran Magic player (or someone with a lot of real time strategy experience), you’re better off tracking down the 1998 Duels of the Planeswalkers PC game.  It’s faster, more robust and you can probably find it for under ten dollars on eBay.

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  1. That’s “Real Time Strategy,” which is a type of game that’s similar to Magic: The Gathering, expect played without cards. []
  2. Every tournament legal card seems to stand on it’s own as a playable card, there a plethora of pre-configured theme decks so you don’t need to spend much money to get involved, and the upcoming core set Magic 2010 (you know, like Madden) is a “reboot” which eliminates the more confusing rules and takes the game back to a more Tolkein-esque presentation. []
  3. Oh man, I wonder if, in Scribblenauts, you can write “Magic The Gathering” and the onscreen characters will totally throw down.  Scribblenauts seems so awesome that such a situation is entirely possible. []

Where is the Leonard Part 6 of gaming?

I’m of the opinion that an emerging medium can prove it’s validity only when held up to the standards of similar works in more established mediums. A youth spent playing video games has convinced me that everything should be balanced, that things can be broken down clearly, that everything has a counterpart. Just as Bulbasaur is the grass-type Mudkip1, there is a clear, systematic link between works across any medium.  After all, why else would the SATs place such a huge emphasis on analogies? You are to me as we are to everything.

Because of this, I keep a massive spreadsheet tracking such connections, with colums for things like “movies,” “games” and “moku hanga“. I’m sure most of you do the same. There’s been a lot of noise lately over what should go in the “Lester Bangs” and “Citizen Kane” slots under the video game column. I figured I’d give you readers a little peek at my spreadsheet so we can finally lay the argument to rest.

mb3d_mediachart

Got it? Good. Since Lester Bangs is the Citizen Kane of people, it makes sense that Doom II, being the Citizen Kane of gaming, would also qualify as the gaming of Lester Bangs. I’m glad I could clear that up for everyone.

Funny thing: while pulling up the spreadsheet to take this screenshot, I realized that there was one glaring omission.  A gaping white hole, laughing at me, saying “Gamers will never experience a work comparable to me!  You may have your alpha, but there will be no omega!”  It’s true.  I stared at that spreadsheet for hours, racking my brain.  I even Google searched the Wikipedia articles on the Twitter feeds…. double dot commed.  I’m at a loss.  So my question for you, dear readers: where is the Leonard Part 6 of gaming?

If you’ve never seen Leonard Part 6, allow me to summarize: Bill Cosby plays former super spy Leonard Parker. He comes out of retirement to battle a demented vegetarian that has somehow trained harmless animals to kill in an effort to wipe humanity off the face of the earth. He eventually invades the secret world vegetarian headquarters and fends everyone off with a piece of steak. Then he flies away on an ostrich as everything explodes. Even though I haven’t experienced the movie since my parents brought a VHS copy home from the video store twenty years ago, I can recall all these scenes vividly. Sort of like the nightmares I have about Tienanmen Square2.

Leonard Part 6 set a new standard for for film. It was a disgusting, convoluted mess of an idea squeezed into a two hour Coca-Cola Commercial that people paid money to see. Produced by, story by and starring Bill Cosby, who was (up until the day Leonard Part 6 was released) considered a comedic legend3.

Leonard Part 6 taught me cynicism.

Right now, I approach games with a cheery disposition. “Wonderful until proven otherwise,” if you will. I see screenshots for a new title and salivate. But when I see a film, the minute I step foot into that theater I start looking at my watch. I roll my eyes at the coming attractions, sigh at every line of clunky dialog, flip off the end credits and trash talk the film during the entire ride home. Because I have seen Leonard Part 6. I have stared into the darkness and seen the eyes of the devil, and he has taught me to hate.  I’ve played Superman 64, widely regarded as the worst game ever made. I thought “Wow, I wish the developers had more time to polish this, because the core concept isn’t that bad.” There are good points to Superman 64.  There is nothing good about Leonard Part 6.

Cynicism amplifies the joy of discovery. We need to lower the bar.  Games will never be considered art until they’ve had a spectacular failure like this that completely degrades the industry as a whole, allowing beautiful works to truly stand out4.

The fact remains: without gaming’s Leonard Part 6, we will never have our Ghost Dad.

Also, Super Mario Galaxy is racist, there aren’t enough save points in You Have To Burn The Rope, Atari has abandoned the hardcore crowd and narrative gameplay biddily boop.

  1. Someone who has actually played Pokemon is going to rip me apart for that one.  Let if be known:  I have no idea what I’m talking about.  I just used that as an example because it’s a bit easier to relate to than ridiculous Final Fantasy spell names.  And its a much more pleasant mental image. []
  2. They involve Bomberman holding up his little pink paw to the tank, then getting crushed to death.  I’m not even joking. []
  3. Not to mention a damn fine dramatic actor. Check out I Spy on DVD and tell me it’s not awesome. []
  4. I’ve considered ET for the Atari 2600, but ruled it out due to it being an adaptation of an existing work.  We need something along the lines of Kojima teaming up with Clint Hocking to make Poop Till You Scoot: The Game. []

The Dream Fight

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Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out was one of those staple games of my youth, along with Tetris and Metroid and Worms and Bomberman and other things I can barely remember.  The sort of game that was ever-present… my friends and I would gather around the little TV after school and trade turns trying to get to the final showdown with Tyson.  When it would actually happen (which was not often), it was a collective victory.  We all cheered and congratulated each other even though only one person scored the actual winning blow.

I rarely played it myself. I was never good at games that relied on strong reflexes. I mostly watched.  But I could appreciate the intense strategy that went into this title.  It was not a boxing game… it was more like extremely fast paced chess.  You could be aggressive or defensive, but either way you couldn’t win the match without understanding your opponent.  There is a counter for every move, and a way to circumvent the approach of every character.  It’s rhythmic, poetic, beautiful.

The characters themselves were indeed questionable. No one denies this.  Especially once we discovered emulation and experienced the original arcade titles. The towering Russian, Soda Popinski, was originally named Vodka Drunkenski. Great Tiger, the mystical Indian, wore a jeweled turban and appeared to have a gutted tiger in his corner of the ring. There was even an Italian character named Pizza Pasta. That’s not even clever! Just… awkward.

Those characters, however, did not matter. In retrospect, its refreshing to think that such ethnicities were represented at all. How often do you see a Polynesian anything in a game?1 The characters were just there so you had a frame of reference when talking shop with your friends.”Bald Bull tried two rolling jabs right off the bat, but I countered the second one and got a star.”  When you hear Bald Bull, you think “the boxer that does the Bull Charge,” not “that ridiculous Turkish caricature.”  Or maybe not.  Those were simpler times, before privilege was even in my vocabulary.  Sometimes it’s okay to go back to that for a little while.

My friends and I spent a lot of time with this game.   I’m talking years.  We had expectations of one another, and a common pool of knowledge to pull strategy from. If you made it to round two and Glass Joe was still standing, you were doing something wrong.  We had stories of legendary matches that became comically exaggerated as time went on.  “I was almost out, and I see Mr. Sandman gearing up for the Dreamland Express, and as he’s coming at me with the first uppercut… wham!  I right hook him and he’s instantly KO’d and I get a million points and my name was in Nintendo Power!  Remember that, guys?  It was awesome.”  We became the veteran boxer stereotypes that the game drew inspiration from.

This new Punch-Out… it is something special. All the same characters, but with a few tweaks.  I’m not capable of objectively evaluating an iteration of this franchise, so let me sidestep with an anecdote: I vividly recall a conversation with my friend Ryan as he was going into the second round against Super Macho Man, sometime in the summer of 1997. “Dude, what if… instead of pressing buttons to throw punches, you could, like… just punch at the screen?” Crazy talk!

We all dreamed of things like this. Don’t deny it.  And I don’t think we give the Wii enough credit for enabling such fantasies. It’s not gimmicky… it what gamers like myself have wanted for a long time.

The main point to take away from this is that games can foster relationships in an extremely unique way, and revisiting old IP isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  So much so that, as soon as I finish writing this entry, I am hopping on a train to go see those same friends, the ones I played Punch-Out with as a kid. I’ve got my Wii and a copy of the new game in my bag. We have all grown old, gotten fat. My hair is predominately gray now and I seem to look tired all the time. But tonight we will tell ourselves that we’re teenagers again.

So here’s your box quote, Nintendo:  “Punch-Out is familiar enough to make you miss your youth, but new enough to help you find it again.”

  1. Master Higgins does not count []

Bit Tripping And The Art Of SD Card Maintenance

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For the past three weeks I have been fully consumed by a WiiWare title known as bit.trip Beat.  It’s very, very wonderful.  I’ve been trapped in the loop of thinking I should write something about bit.trip Beat, then deciding I should play bit.trip Beat a bit more before I write anything about it, and then waking up the next morning cursing myself for staying up until 3AM playing bit.trip Beat.

Basically, the game is single player Pong.  You have  a little paddle, and you move it around to repel tiny squares.  Except the little squares are smart, and repelling them produces harmonious tones. And each “level” is a section of a larger musical composition, of the chiptune variety.  And instead of using the directional pad, you twist the Wii remote.   And I feel at peace with the world when I’m playing.

The behavioral patterns of these little squares, the “beats” (as the manual refers to them), are incredibly varied.  Some fly at you in triplicate, some skip along the bottom of the screen, and others move in such an erratic manner that you cannot predict them… you just need to react.  Unlike the falling gem rhythm games where you just need to monitor an area of the screen and respond accordingly, bit.trip Beat feels like playing actual music.  You are in the zone and you just know what will happen next, even when you don’t.

Contemporary psychology has a word for this:  the flow state. Popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi1, the flow state is a sort of involuntary mindfulness (think Zen Buddhism without the botanical knowledge). Key components include the loss of self-consciousness, focus of awareness, and an altered perception of time.  This is where your mind goes when you’re playing a sweet bass solo or, in my case, trying to hit little squares with a paddle.

Of course, I can’t bring this up without mentioning the game titled flOw (which will run you five dollars and is well worth your time). Jenova Chen’s thesis was a direct attempt to translate Csikszentmihalyi’s theory into an interactive experience.  Aside from the ridiculous capitalization schemes, flOw and bit.trip have little in common.  flOw used the prime ideas behind the flow state to dictate the game’s difficulty dynamically in response to player ability, while bit.trip hopes to invoke the flow state through extremely brutal difficulty.

When I say it’s difficult, I mean it’s difficult with a capital “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?”  It’s got the challenge level of a shoot-em-up2, where you go from thinking life is great to crying in the corner over the course of thirty seconds.  It’s like a video game version of my first sexual experience that I get to play over and over again.

The difficulty is the beautiful part of the whole thing:  you will always fail at bit.trip Beat.

There’s no way to win.  Or, at the very least, I can’t win.  But not winning is where things get interesting.  Miss too many beats and you get sent into a “nether.”  The overly saturated colors disappear, you see only your avatar and the beats, and the sound cuts out minus a single rhythmic bleep from the Wii remote. Repel enough beats and you go back up to the main play area.  Miss them and you’re back at the title screen.

If I were to rank my favorite gaming moments, my first time entering the nether in bit.trip Beat would easily be number one.  Going from being fully immersed in a driving beat coming from my speakers to this extreme absence was like a slap in the face.  It is so jarring and so very beautiful.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more aware of the act of playing a game.   All I could see was a wireframe of an idea on my screen, and the game controller alerting me to the fact that I was still playing. This says something. I was so disoriented that I didn’t even understand what was going on at first.  It was like waking from a dream and hearing the buzz of an alarm clock, realizing that what you just experienced, no matter how real it may have seemed, was nothing more than a product of your mind.  I am now convinced that adding a speaker to the Wii remote was a stroke of genius.

It may have helped that I was playing on a projector in complete darkness with the volume at max.

The motivation to play again is not just to top your high score, but also to progress further and hear more of the song. I believe that the song never actually ends; maybe some  programming trickery allows it to mutate at a cellular level as you progress.  That may not be the case, as there are two inactive options in the main menu.  I assume there are prerequisites that must be met for those options to become active… maybe requirements such as winning, or at least not losing.

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I haven’t even begun to touch on the narrative elements of the game (yes, there is a narrative!).  “Everything comes from something,” the operations manual informs me.  “We will return to something once we become nothing.”  Heavy.  The little paddle you control?  That’s your avatar, and he has a name. All of the bit.trip games (there will be more, I assume) revolve around a character known as Commander Video.   His mantra speaks of moral fallibilism and self-acceptance3:  “I am only a man.”  And, indeed, you’ll find no extra lives in bit.trip Beat.  You may be able to skate around that near-death nether, but once you’re done, that’s it.  You’re evaluated whether you win or lose.

Someday, when you’re older, remind me to tell you the story of the four player co-op.  Did I mention this game is only six dollars?4

Update: I just read the IGN review for bit.trip Beat, and apparently the song does end, and the greyed out options in the menu are additional songs.  I must be terrible at this game.  Forgive me.  I am only a gamer.

  1. Hottest psychologist ever, am I right?! []
  2. I refuse to use the word schmup, unless it itself is incorporated into an equally ridiculous portmanteau.  Like “aweshmup” or “schmupsicle.” []
  3. For additional information, please see the Wikipedia entry for Human. []
  4. I totally stole this footnotes idea from The Quixotic Engineer.  I think it works well.  Though the hypertextual nature of the internet may render traditional MLA style citations pointless, there’s a lot of stuff that just doesn’t fit into a document.  Like whatever the hell I’m saying in this footnote. []

My evening with Retro Game Challenge

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Me: tall and thin, dark hair, dark eyes, wearing multi-colored Chuck Taylors and a goofy Cosby sweater.
You: gutted box on Gamestop shelf, upside down, partly hiding behind Rune Factory.

I almost didn’t see you. I was just killing some time at the mall before a movie with my buddies. You seemed timid, unsure if you actually belonged there. I know the feeling. Your fashion sense was what caught my eye. You had a classic look… your simple black outfit made me think of Audrey Hepburn, or maybe Clu Clu Land. The bold yellow accents told me that you didn’t take yourself too seriously. And that typeface… cute, unique and charming. The kind of typeface I could stare at every day and not get tired of.

My friends had told me about you. They said you’d be perfect for me. Smart, liberal and with a great sense of humor. That you present an initial air of simplicity, but there’s a level of depth that most guys can’t appreciate. I was unsure. I had just finally gotten over Space Invaders Extreme a few weeks earlier… was I ready for another game so soon?

I had to get going to catch the movie. Almost out the door, I decided to man up and let you know how I felt. I ran back in, grabbed you, and settled up at the register. The cashier smirked at us. “Nice choice,” he told me. He was jealous, and rightfully so.

(You spent the next three hours in the trunk of a car. I hope you’ll forgive me. I normally don’t do that to games, but I was afraid of losing you.)

Later that night, back at my apartment, I took the opportunity to learn more about you. Study your difficulty curves, devote myself to memorizing your form and patterns. Whenever I would think I had you all figured out, you’d change things up on me. You’re a challenge. Not the sort of thing a guy like me seeks to conquer, but something I strive to comprehend and piece together. Something I want to understand and appreciate. I want to learn about you, learn about everything that you are, and figure out what makes you tick.

Normally when I find a new game, my first play through is quick and messy. I pop the cartridge in, then start mashing the A button as much as possible until I find the fun stuff. Not with you. I had patience with you. I read all the dialog, learned the characters, and took my time getting to the action. And when I got a high score, what did I do? I didn’t roll over and go to sleep… I was ready for another go. There’s something special here, I can feel it.

Before I knew it, it was almost dawn. We were up all night fooling around. I can’t even remember the last time I’ve done that with a game. I felt like a teenager again! That was a golden time, those teenage years… when everything was unexplored, when there were discoveries waiting around every corner. Before I learned how incredibly boring most games are. Before I settled for playing a different Pop Cap title every night. Before the crushing disappointment of adulthood stole those transparent pleasures. When I’m with you, things are fun again.

Yes, you remind me of games from my past. Is that wrong? I have good memories of those games… autumn afternoons spent curled up on the couch together, wasting time just because we could. Even if it may have sometimes ended badly, I don’t want to give up those memories. I want a game that reminds me of simpler times. What I loved about those games, I see in you. You’re the complete package I’ve been searching for.

That’s not to say that things will be easy. You’re hard to figure out. I’m sure there will be conflicts, but I promise that I won’t get frustrated or angry. Even when things get difficult. If I’m not up to the challenge? I’ll learn. I’ll change. Just make it clear what you expect from me, and we’ll take it from there.

You’re the rare sort of game that makes me want to be a better player.

I can’t wait to see you again. Tonight, my place? I’ll cook dinner, you think of something fun we can do together. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with that.

Zoo Review: Banjo-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts

Zoo Review is a monthly feature at Murderblog 3D in which our esteemed review panel pores over the hottest new game and breaks it down into a score that you can understand.

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Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is the fifth game in the Banjo-Kazooie series (sixth if you count Diddy Kong Racing). The initial release in 1998 was heralded as an evolution of Super Mario 64, which is total bullshit if you’ve experienced both games. Whereas Mario 64 was about spectacular environmental design, Banjo-Kazooie focused more on throwing a bunch of meaningless crap in a level and making the player find it all. They both had similar control elements and progression methods, but that’s about it. The newest Banjo-Kazooie title is  a subpar platformer as expected with a bit of genius tacked on.

Nuts & Bolts is still a collect-a-thon like the previous Banjo-Kazooie releases, although there are a few additional layers. There are now various methods of transportation that can be fully tweaked and customized. There’s some sort of magic wrench that exists only to remove the player from the action by another step.  There is also a narrative that I was not quite clear on, mostly because the dialogue is written out with exaggerated accents (phonetic spellings of mispronounced words and hyphens everywhere).  If this bothers you, you can do what I did and imagine that every character is a stroke victim. It gives the cut-scenes a somewhat tragic vibe.

The structure of the game centers around various missions that reward the player with “jiggies.”  The progression goes something like this:  Finish an activity and get a jiggy. Walk back to the level entrance. In the overworld, locate the jiggy dispenser. Interact with the jiggy dispenser until the jiggy you were just awarded pops out. Carry that jiggy to the jiggy assimilator, then put it down to have your jiggy total updated.  I’m still not terribly certain as to what a jiggy actually is. This seems a bit convoluted, no?  Please consider the following embedded video.

See that number in the upper left hand corner?  Notice how it increases when stuff happens?  Very novel for 1979.  I imagine a version of Space Invaders developed by Rare would involve the player shooting a ship, taking the points that are awarded and  spending eight minutes carrying those points over to the score board.

This is not the worst of it, though.  The platforming becomes an unbearable experience due to the inclusion of additional game play components. Each level is massive and barren, with points of interest as far apart as possible. It takes a very long time to walk your avatar from point A to point B. This is because the developer wants to enforce a reliance on vehicles. The player is supposed to think “hey, I need to hop in my golf cart thing if I want to get to that destination before the Xbox overheats.” It makes me wonder why there is any platforming element at all; if ninety percent of the game involves vehicular tasks, why not ditch the ten percent that doesn’t and refine the focus?  There is nothing wrong with trimming out what doesn’t work and making a simple and polished experience.

It may seem like I’m being a bit hard on this game.  I am, mostly because it’s not very good.  There is however, one redeeming factor, and the reason why I’m bothering to write about it at all:  vehicular creation.

I am normally not a fan of games that hinge on the creative abilities of the player, but Nuts & Bolts has a nice balance to it. The game world is already set in stone and the expressive element comes from designing ways to traverse that world.  I greatly enjoyed piecing together vehicles in the workshop and seeing how the physics engine would react. Making a long vehicle with two springs on the back and trying to do somersaults was wonderful. This element made me wonder: why does the game need all that other stuff? Why can’t it just be an open world Pimp My Ride?

You don’t need jiggies or notes or any of that other stuff; the sole collectible element should be more vehicle components. Scatter them around levels and have them only be accessible by using certain vehicle configurations. Lose the avatar and put the player directly in control of an automobile that can be adjusted on the fly.  This could be Burnout Paradise with the option of modifying your transport when you want to explore.  This could be beautiful!

Let’s look at some supplemental materials.  This is a Venn diagram illustrating the relationship between various game play elements that are really awesome.

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Notice how there’s no circle for “BABY TALK” or “UNNECESSARY COLLECTIBLES” or even “ANTHROPOMORPHIC BEARS THAT YOU WANT TO PUNCH IN THE FACE?”  That’s because they’re not required to have a really awesome game.  You can do this, developers.  Make this game and I promise you will get sixty dollars from me.

Summing it up:  playing Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts has now sparked the fantasy of a Lego Burnout title, so I guess it can’t be all bad.

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