Saturday, 25 June 2011

I am more drunk, but I am less angry

Evis T has posted his thoughts on Nintendo, the 3DS, and their new game schedule post-E3... or rather, their lack of it. It's an excellent piece which raises a lot of points, and I encourage you to go and check it out.

Then once you're done that, I encourage you to come back here and read this riposte.

Ninty's E3 lineup was not exactly awash with new and exciting things. To be fair, neither was anyone else's. This seems very much to be a year of resting on laurels, with sequels occupying those small parts of the landscape not dominated by old games reimagined for new technology. Nintendo bucked the trend slightly by announcing games which were actual honest-to-god reworkings of old games and not mere ports. New versions of most of their staple series abound: Super Mario, Mario Kart, Mario Party, Paper Mario, Mario of Duty, StarFox, Kirby, Animal Crossing and, of course, the new Zelda game Skyward Sword, in addition to a new edition of Ocarina of Time.

There's actually a fair bit of new content there - but how new is it really? As Evis notes, a new Kirby or Mario Party is rarely going to be functionally any different to any old Kirby or Mario Party. The new Zelda will have the wood dungeon, the fire dungeon, the water dungeon. It will have the ice cave and the big mountain. It will have the hook shot and the bombs and the boomerang. It will have stalfos and peahats and moblin.

But isn't that just gaming? The new Gears of War will have locust and chainsaws and glowing yellow stuff. The new Civilization will have workers and animal husbandry and press B to build a base here. The new FIFA will have footballs. It's not gaming, in fact; it's culture and media in general. TV sitcoms always have the same stock characters. Pop rock songs always have the same variation on ADE. Shakespeare tragedies always have the same ending. The human brain is hardwired to both seek and create patterns, elements we know we can rely upon. Comfort food is called comfort food for a reason.

Likewise, a classic game is a classic game. Can there be any realistic argument against Nintendo being the greatest development house in gaming history? No other studio has produced as many grade A titles over the course of their lifespan. I'd still rather play Ocarina of Time than anything put out nowadays by Bioware or Square-Enix. Good gameplay doesn't age, but current audiences put off by technical limitations of older games might be unwilling to give them a try. ROMs are illegal, so why shouldn't Nintendo update and resell their old games to a new generation?

In my opinion, the problem isn't that these remakes and rereleases exist. On balance, I like that they exist. The problem is, as Evis notes, being expected to pay for a new edition of Ocarina of Time EVERY time a new minor variation on their current console comes out. Hey guess what Nintendo, you can download classic games straight onto home consoles now! In fact you guys started the trend, remember? No? It was quite popular. So popular that Microsoft and Sony copied it - although I suppose you've grown numb to that by now, so much so that you forget what was originally your idea. Admittedly, there are no reliable virtual arcades for handheld consoles, but anyone with a Wii can get Ocarina of Time whenever they want.

The real problem for me is that, year on year, Nintendo's output is built ever more about remakes and rereleases of classic games. To put it bluntly: it's not that they do it, it's that it's all they do. Didn't the sixteen thousand different releases of Ocarina eat into development time which could have been spent on other titles? Wouldn't three or four versions have sufficed? The big games of the year from Ninty are always new editions of something old, suggesting that they don't have the confidence any more to push something fresh. Nintendo's past glories are immense. I can't see any developer matching the quality of Nintendo's back catalogue any time in the next decade at least. Yet sadly Ninty don't seem to care about adding to that catalogue anymore. Being proud of your past is fine - as long as you're still looking to the future. Can Nintendo honestly say that they still are?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Now we are 1.6

I meant to make this post longer, funnier, more pretentious and - ahem - about three weeks ago. Sadly, events conspired against that, so here's a late and cut down version of my thoughts on Minecraft 1.6.

The big thing to come out of the 1.6 update (or rather, collection of 1.6 updates) was the ability to travel between the normal overworld and the alternate hell-dimension, the Nether, in-game in multiplayer servers - meaning no more having to piss about with file names. I've found that adventuring in the Nether is very different to regular caving. In an - and forgive the awkward phraseology - overworld cave network, I always feel tempted to push on beyond my limits. There's always another passage, another vein of ore. It's different in the Nether.

The Nether is open plan, more or less, so simple navigation is easier. Actually getting where you want to go, though; that's much, much harder, because the ground is so uneven. Almost every block of the way you're building staircases or bridging gaps, making it slow going. These factors, combined with both the relative scarcity of essential minerals and the overwhelming lethality of the Nether in general, mean that adventuring is a much more focused affair. Rather than epic four hour potholing expeditions, you descend, pinpoint what you want, grab it and leave as soon as possible. It's much more of a tense race against time to get what you want before you die, compared to the grand exploration jaunts of an overworld cavern system.

Tha's no bad thing. Contrasting gameplay elements add value. There were times when a big potholing trip didn't grab me, as I wanted something a bit more adrenal to do, and the Nether fills that hole. Too often when I died after two hours of gathering resources only to die to an unseen creeper or sudden lava floe, the feeling wasn't one of "I'll get even with you, game" nor even "oh well, must do better next time," but "eh, bored now, cbf replaying just to lose all my stuff again. Whatever. Bai." Since overreaching is rarer in the Nether, that sort of death bringing feelings of resent and waste are also less frequent.

And if you thought overworld adventuring was a communal excercise... more than ever, the Nether requires a party to work together. There's no time for getting lost or wandering off, no need for "Dig up, stupid" type conversations. You have to be a co-ordinated team to pull off a big heist. The biggest threats are the ghasts - giant floating cow/octopus things which shoot fireballs with unerring and unnerving accuracy. They can only reasonably be fought via bow and arrow, they have a longer range than player characters, and they have all the hit points in history. Oh, also: they usually come in herds of three or four. A frantic escape from an engraged ghast pack, covering each other's backs as you pelt for the portal, is something to experience.

Aside from some irritating bed bugs (ho ho!) 1.6 is the best thing to happen to Minecraft in some time. Anyone who stopped playing, I recommend you gather up a party and try out adventuring in the Nether. If nothing else, building a portal chamber can cut out on tedious travelling time between your bases topside, which was always one of Minecraft's bugbears.

Speaking of Minecraft, I've given Terraria a try. It seems fun, and it's actually surprisingly different to Minecraft. While early guesses had Terraria pegged as 'Minecraft with a bit of Castlevania,' in practice it's more the other way around. This is a platforming game at heart, which happens to feature terrain manipulation as one of your tools. A lot of the challenges revolve around working out how you can use the landscape around you to go here, fight this, collect that. My favourite Minecraft moments are the architectural challenges you come across while caving - navigating your way up a gigantic waterfall, or working out how to stem a lava river to save as much obsidian as possible, or constructing a precarious scaffold up to a vein of ore in the ceiling. I'm looking forward to trying more of Terraria and seeing how it measures up.

Another online game I've started recently is Spiral Knights, one of Steam's five free MMOs. It's cutesy and energetic and just the right side of tactical to be engaging without requiring too much concentration. It's nothing special, but it cuts down on the usual MMO gumph effectively and throws some varied challenges at you. I already like it more than any other MMO I've enountered. Review forthcoming, once I've spent some more time with it.

Back to Minecraft to close us out: Zelda Adventure looks like it could be entertaining. And the Minecraft Ghibli World is sickening in how spectacular it is, especially the Laputa chasm. Certainly makes my best-ever structures looks like complete rubbish.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Correlation: Good Graphics = Bad Graphics

Much has been written about the poor quality of the graphics in the new Alice game, Alice: Madness Returns. Indeed, it seems to be about the only thing concerning the game which has been discussed in any depth. Now, I haven't played it. But I still know what it looks like courtesy of screenshots and YouTube. And to say this game is ugly is utter bunk. Not only those uncharitable (or hopelessly rose-tinted) souls who've claimed it wouldn't look out of place on the original PlayStation, but anyone who's dismissed this game for not having cutting edge graphics: you're kidding, right?

Remember the advent of true 3D? Remember when dynamic lighting was the brand new in thing? Or curved textures, bump mapping, per-pixel shading, HDR lighting, particle effects processing? All of those things were new once. And all of them improved gaming, but - here's the thing - only as much as the developer's care in applying them. Advanced visual technology used intelligently to enhance gameplay, that's great. Enhanced visual technology for the sake of waving your engine's dick in other developers' faces is a waste of development resources which could have been spent on something else. More draw distance in a game with a sniper rifle, smoke effects which obscure the battlefield, lighting which alerts you to an enemy's presence via shadows: YAY! These are all Good Things. Yet those things don't preclude a bit of style. Too many games - even some great games, with Gears of War instantly springing to mind - expend vast resources on (apparently) making games look as grey, bland and repetitive as possible to no discernible gameplay effect.

This has always been a problem - think back to the "too brown" Quake - but the trend seems to be on the rise with every generation. Even games which by today's standards have a striking visual flair are often murky to the point of eye strain, with that plasticy clingfilm look to them. Consider: Arkham Asylum, Bayonetta, any recent Lego game. Technology moves on and one era's photorealism is the next's retro kitsch; truly great graphics come from imagination and art.

Although that might be a bad thing, if reception to Alice is anything to go by. Apparently for a big chunk of gamers, if it doesn't feature all the latest graphical wizardry then it's an archaic throwback not worth another joule of thought beyond the first screenshot. It seems that this is the same crowd who dismiss anything with the slightest bit of artistry or originality, or which contains more colours than Grey, Brown, and A Different Brown, as 'casual' - that catch-all word of contempt for anything which isn't the latest edition of Like Halo But In WWII, or of course its spinoff, Like Modern Warfare But In Space. Oh the crippling irony. I can't blame them for the bitterness of it being lost on them, though; after all, they're used to swallowing Bobby Kotick's semen.

Sadly, these people who think that 'hardcore' means dutifully sucking down whatever garbage IGN tells them to like represent not only a major proportion of the buying power in the market, they also represent a major proportion of the population of message boards and review sites out there. Graphical fidelity shifts units and encourages hype. Innovative gameplay and artistic flair do too, but not half as much. It's a common complaint that nobody's innovating in games anymore; well, lots of people are, just not on the cardboard standees in HMV.

By all accounts, Alice is a pretty mediocre, bland game once you look past the visuals. But those visuals are stunning. As with the original, this is a game with a huge sense of style, a huge commitment to showing you sights you've never seen before. So what if they're not taking full advantage of modern processors? Does that really matter that much? Some people have actually called Alice's graphics 'criminal.' That's insane. It looks better than any FPS released yet this year, latest technology be damned. So can these people physically not play games more than a couple of years old without feeling sick? Show 'em Wasteland or the original Civilization and what, will they have an anuerysm?

I'd better stop now before I ask even more rhetorical questions. But suffice it to say, I'll take graphics which are technically outdated but inventive and stylish over graphics which are cutting edge but creatively moribund, any day of the week.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

You'd be better off sleeping

All these years I'd been under the impression that a game demo should show off, tease you, make you want to try out the full thing. That it should include just enough of the game features to tantalise you into wanting to see the rest, or enough of the story to make you eager to find out what happens next. Playing the demo for Vigil: Blood Bitterness, however, makes me wonder I've been dead wrong this whole time.

Yes, Vigil: Blood Bitterness. Yes, that is possibly the worst name any videogame has ever had. "Blood Bitterness?" Does that even mean anything? Well, apparently so, because in the opening cinematic protagonist Dehon tells us that 'Bitterness has entered my mouth.'

Oooooohhh... kay. If you didn't at least snigger slightly at that, you're a better person than I.

Also he tells us that there's a deadly venom in his veins, but I think that's supposed to be metaphorical. He tells us that he killed his family, and he throws around a lot of words like sanctuary and offering and unworthy. Apparently there's some sort of Evil afoot. Not just evil, but Evil, which gets capitalised like four times or something. Also, it's threatening to destroy the universe, because that's what Evil does.

All of this is related in some breathy, hoarse, whispering voice speaking in a high fantasy sounding language. The voice is probably meant to sound dark, tortured and mysterious - I just found it mildly irritating, personally, like needing to scratch the sole of your foot in public. Religious iconography abounds in the graphics, which are a cute stylised black and white affair with the occasional red wash. The visuals are certainly the first element to jump out here, even if they're almost as painfully attempted-badass as the narration. By the end of the introductory cutscene, it's fairly clear that this is the ancestral prototype for gothic power metal ballads re-imagined in game form. The music, by the way, is an atmospheric little synth-soundscape which - while far from Mark Morgan - is pleasantly haunting enough.

So then, we play, glossing over the fact that the atmosphere the game is trying to build gets kinda shafted by the sudden appearance of a blue bar bearing the legend "Loading datablocks." We find ourselves in a black and white corridor, with yellow stuff splattered up the walls. The controls have a few reponse issues but are basically fine; left click moves you to a location, right click interacts with things. Let's walk over the yellow thing. Oh, it's a body. Dehon (who looks like a cross between Voldo and Bane) stands there with his arms spread and proclaims, "Ancient slave, I devoured your face. You dared to stand in my path. I, who had purified your lineage!"

I wish I was making this up. This is terrible dialogue. It's just vaguely religibadass words strung together. It's po-faced, incoherent and rapt with its own profundity. Oh, I'm sure it'll prove to be plot relevant or something later on, but as the first thing your character says in-game? And in that same hoarse voice, with that crazy fetish getup and borderline Jesus Christ pose? I repeat: power metal album in game form, or what? And I hate power metal.

Exploring a bit shows us some nice stylised architecture, a bureau we can't interact with and then there's... an altar, but it's... oh my god, it's randomly floating up into the air and then coming down again. That shit is whack. Let's have a look.

There's a body on the altar. We talk to him and he seems disappointed with us. But he's not bouncing into the air anymore and that's a plus, right? More wandering. There's a door in the other room - of the two rooms available to us - which we can't open. At this point frustration might set in, but the stylised monochrome graphics, camera angles and general paucity of decoration all make it pretty clear that there's only a handful of things which can be interacted with. That cuts down the frustration one can feel in some games when the next step isn't clear.

In this particular case, the solution is to pray on the four large symbols in the main hall. This makes the altar descend into the dais (no, really) allowing access to the bigger symbol hanging over the room. A word on the praying - it's the same chant soundbite in that same voice repeated twice, and you pray four times which means yes, you hear the same thing eight times in rapid succession. For some reason that means that you can now go and open the door in the other room by praying in front of the same symbol again. One door closes behind you like an airlock, and after a moment, the other opens. Pleasingly, you can run around during this... spiritual decompression, or whatever, rather than the game removing control from you. The doors still take a bloody age to open, though. You walk through the door, and then another door.

And then, "You have successfully completed the Vigil: Blood Bitterness demo."

Y'what? I looked at a corpse, talked to another corpse, prayed a bit, and opened some doors. And that's the game demo. That's the entirety of the game demo. But what am I supposed to actually do in this game? Is there combat? Do I solve puzzles? Pick stuff up? What's this 'clues' business in the menu about? Answers are not forthcoming.

There's almost no gameplay to the demo, so the style surely must be the selling point. It's certainly atmospheric but personally I found it overbearing, pretentious and obtuse - and I have a higher tolerance than most for overbearing, pretentious and obtuse. I feel like maybe if I was a younger man, more into things like high fantasy and heavy metal, and thought that mixing religious and fetishistic imagery was inherently super epic, then perhaps I'd be fairer to Vigil. I'm not any of those things, though. Like Winter Voices, Vigil is a game I wish I could like for trying something different and injecting a little more art into the medium. I also wish I could have a pet leopard and a pile of gold bullion the size of a Ford Transit. Vigil isn't appallingly bad in a Deer Avenger or E.T. sense, but I still can't recommend it.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Totes radness, for the bro-est of bros [Review: Christine Love's interactive fiction]

I've been hellaciously ill for a few weeks now. I think I must have coughed up my own body weight in phlegm, most of which was - pleasantly - the lurid yellow of a safety jacket. I'm making it through, just about. Still got a cough and a blocked nose, and a bit of dizziness, but at least I can talk again, which is an improvement over the start of the month. For speeding along my journey to recovery, I am eternally indebted to my girlfriend, Lemsip, chicken soup and Christine Love.

No, my girlfriend is not named Lemsip. You read that wrong.

Unlike the game-stories of Christine Love which, according to the author herself, one can't 'read wrong'. Or as Love herself puts it, " intent isn’t worth shit. All that matters is how you interpret it. If something doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work, and intent doesn’t ever excuse that. Period. Don’t ever accept any argument that claims otherwise." A unique and interesting stance for a game developer - but then, she makes extremely unique and interesting games, and what's more, she's genuinely interested in improving her work, as evidenced by opening dialogues with her game's fans and starting feedback topics for them on her blog. She's taken herself to task, critically (and openly) analysing what she feels were the successes and failures of her titles. It's an admirable mark of honesty and passion, and it's refreshing to see an indie game creator who's happy to publicly deconstruct their own work. I may not agree with all of her stances, but I don't need to - I still applaud the fact that she's willing to share them.

Her best known work to date is Digital: A Love Story, which has the smart and slightly audacious hook of playing out entirely via a replicated Amiga workstation desktop. It's set in the late 80s and the tech level is commensurately primitive, with most of your interactions with other people relying solely on bulletin boards and email. It's superficially similar to Introversion's classic hacking sim Uplink, and Digital features a few very nice puzzles based around deciphering passwords and downloading software-cracking applications. It also sadly relies on long distance calling codes far, far too much, something which is fun at first but becomes a serious chore by the third act. Gaining access to an autodialler app halfway through would have improved matters considerably. It's a testament to how powerfully involving the narrative is that I wanted to keep playing.

Superficially, the game is about cracking sites to uncover a mystery; from a more narratological standpoint, it's about a trapped, lonely girl named Emilia who expresses herself through poetry posted onto internet bulletin boards. But really, the game is about agency; in a brilliant stroke, you never see your own character's messages. How 'you' replied is inferable only from the context of the replies you're sent back. The suppositions we impose on our videogame avatars are front and centre of this one. Are you in love with Emilia? Do you care about her platonically, and is she reading too much into your friendship? Are you just humouring her because she's clearly depressed? Are you the one who's misreading the signals? The correct interpretation of the game's events is the one you assume as you play.

Her latest game - don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story (best title ever, like, f'reals) - is... well, first off, game is an awkward word for it. It's interactive fiction. It's a visual novel. I'll admit I've never had much truck with visual novels; as don't take it personally itself notes at one point, the average visual novel rarely does anything beyond Super High School Pantie Adventure Six and the few which do always seem to cast you as a stupidly-named swordsman saving a stupidly-named kingdom from a stupidly-named dark wizard, using a stupidly-named magic sword.

don't take it personally is set in a near-future high school, and yes, there are panties. But like Digital, it's really a metafictional piece about the concept of a protagonist. You play John Rook, teacher, who finds himself drawn into the love lives of his students via access to their private messages on the school's intranet. The dichotomy is clever - you, the player, are advancing the story and seeing what happens next, but you are also John Rook and you are spying on your students. Although you (mostly) get no choice in the matter of whether or not to pry, which rather lessens the impact of the voyeuristic unease, some of the branching choices depend on how close you want to risk coming to admitting that you've been reading your students' private conversations. At this point the railroading makes sense. You're not playing a cipher for yourself; you're playing John Rook, and the question is what he would do. And what he would do is spy.

It helps that the characters are engaging and believable, each with their own tics and subtleties and contradictions. Perhaps don't take it personally would fail if you didn't care about what was going to happen to these kids, but they're so well-realised it's hard not to. There are multiple endings depending on your choices, and those choices are not simplistic Bioware-esque Good/Bad Guy deals; these are real choices, made by real people, and you know that whatever you decide, someone's probably going to get hurt.

Bridging the two chronologically, Cell Phone Love Letter is an actual, straight-up visual novel with absolutely no gameplay-mechanical elements. However, it still uses the interactive medium pretty darn smartly considering the only thing you ever do is click to advance the text. As with don't take it personally, the author shows a fantastic grip on the teenage mindset, with the characters laying bare their neuroses, their insecurities and their self-obsession both overtly and subconsciously. The three titles form something of a loose trilogy. They're all tangentially connected via references and reappearing characters, but more importantly, they all revolve around the theme of how burgeoning telecommunication technology affects how we relate to the people around us, and they all experiment with the possibilities of storytelling in an interactive medium to a degree rare in this industry. Love probably already qualifies for auteur status; her short body of work is already as identifiably idiomatic as any major league developer you care to name.

Both Digital and don't take it personally sadly suffer from a similar big flaw - third-act twists which, while agreeably provocative, are signposted way in advance and handled clunkily with big dollops of exposition. For my money Digital's is the more successful, but the game doesn't really address the implications of the twist in much detail. By contrast, don't take it personally's twist is just plain nonsensical and left many players with a bitter taste. The game contradicts its own mythos, and while it suggests that the characters are desensitised to implications of the twist, it's hard to believe that in just fifteen short years - give or take - society could have changed so much that [SPOILER]ing a [SPOILER] [SPOILER] just to [SPOILER] a [SPOILER] could be seen as anything but completely batshit friggin' mental. Perhaps it's meant to be a cautionary warning about the accelerating pace of societal change? Or maybe it was rushed to meet the NaNoRenO deadline. Either way.

But you know what? No games are perfect, and judging these by the standards of indie shorts with a one-woman development team, they are remarkable. Relatable emotional depth, boundary-exploring narrative, characters you can truly invest in... Christine's games may have many faults, but they have many more successes. She's rapidly become one of my favourite developers for her sheer disregard for convention. Even her parodic 'action' game, beat-em-up Lake City Rumble, is a character-driven and text-based piece.

Some professional studio really, really needs to get Christine on board. She needs a budget, a proper development cycle, an editor, an idea filter; almost every major development house needs someone who can write characters and plots worth giving a damn about. Seems like an obvious match to me.

Monday, 9 May 2011

That's a lot of the letter V

Steam is really annoying sometimes. This morning it asked me for my date of birth to view a product with violent content; I accidentally brushed the enter key too soon and now the damn thing is convinced that I'm only two months old. And I have no idea how to undo that. The online help pages certainly don't have any intention of telling me.

I was one of the first wave of users, and the lag, bugs and lack of support were so bad that I ws driven from it and therefore, sadly, Valve products in general. After completing Half-Life 2 the first time around, I barely touched Steam. I mustn't have so much as clicked the icon in stretches of, lordy, two years at a time.

When convinced by friends to take up Steam's chat service a couple of months ago, for the purposes of voice comms during Minecraft sessions, I found myself pleasantly, if mildly, surprised. Everything is well laid out, it's fairly smooth and fairly fast, and there's a brilliant selection of games. There are still faults - the damn thing seems to spend its entire existence updating, for a start - but it's a world away from the poorly-implemented service I knew and just about tolerated (for a brief time, anyway) back in 2004.

And whatever faults Steam has I can overlook for one simple, joyous thing: it's made demos cool again. As recently as four or five years ago, most devs had seemingly given up on playable demos. Some blame the nature of sandbox games or the further rise of cross-console releases, but those things didn't stop people in previous generations; I'm pretty sure it's just a case of greedy publishers not wanting to give away even the slightest bit of content for free. And that's one of the many reasons why I fell out of love with gaming. Being unable to try before I might buy meant that... well... I didn't buy, more often than not.

But Steam, as well as championing indie games, has made the distribution of demos not only feasible but commercially viable once again. No more having to scour shady download repositories or wait for magazine coverdisks, which was how things worked a decade ago; now, if a game intrigues me, I can give it a try on my own terms, and if I like what I see I can buy the full version then and there. This is a truly marvellous thing.

To younger gamers this must all sound like the confused rantings of a hopelessly out of touch old man. Well, I am what I am, but over the last few days I've been young again, playing demo after demo in a state of rapt enthrallment. Especially indie games; I here and now stake my claim for the right to, whenever anybody starts complaining that nobody is doing anything new in the gaming medium, punch that person in the face. And then make them play Eufloria or VVVVVV.

The latter is especially brilliant. It's a platformer with no jump key - your commands are left, right, and switch direction of gravity. Yes, switch direction of gravity. Instead of jumping over a pit of spikes, you pull yourself onto the ceiling, walk past it, and then drop down again. Genius. Like Portal, the game is very clever about how it uses this, making it essential to the gameplay and not just a gimmick. And like Portal, while Prey technically did it first, VVVVVV does it much better. It's also extremely cute and - helped out by the retro-styled graphics - even a little emotive.

Designer Terry Cavanagh (of Distractionware) is also responsible for the haunting Don't Look Back, an 80s-ish platform retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Of all the games out there which require you to shoot Cerberus up the arse with a handgun, it's quite possibly the best (did any of the Devil May Cry games ask that of you? I can't rightly remember off the top of my head).

A couple of other intriguing little art-piece puzzle-platformers found on Don't Look Back host Kongregate, referenced a few times in the comments field for that game, are Loved and The Company of Myself. The former succeeds more as artistic statement than game; it's short but quite beautiful, visually, and contains some interesting musings on a range of subjects connected to dominance, servitude and - in terms of both ownership and overbearing creepiness - possession. Sadly the game side of things is twitchy and unresponsive at times; perhaps that's why creator Alexander Ocias identifies it primarily as a short story. The Company of Myself is built around an absolutely remarkable concept - using the main character's past lives as tools to get through the game. Think Super Meat Boy's end of level replays, redone as the core mechanic. Maybe I'm envious because I had a similar idea myself recently, and Company does it better justice than I ever could.

But Company also stands out for the weaving of the story into the mechanics. That many-lives gimmick is richly explored by the narrative and not in the way you might think. Rare is the game which truly moves us; rarer still is the game which moves us when we're not even doing anything tactile yet, while we're advance-mapping out a level and suddenly we realise the impact of what we must do to progress. But exactly that happened to me this morning. It's a sensitive, intelligent story which also happens to include one of the, and I am not kidding here, most overwhelmingly excellent mechanical gameplay devices I have encountered in literally years.

I was heartened to see that all three of these games have received reams of positive feedback and favourable community ratings. But the negative feedback is just as telling.

Naturally, some of the negative comments come from those complaining that they Don't Get It, or that these games don't contain enough gore and explosions, or that the graphics are stupid and the music is gay (they're not, and it isn't). Not to stereotype or anything, but these definitely tend towards the less literate of posts. But there's also another layer to the poor responses. There is, it seems, a small but fervent minority who actively oppose the use of games as an artistic platform, who find the very concept of narrative-led gaming pretentious and argue that Having Something To Say is best left to other, less visceral media. This reaction, I must confess, was a bit of a shock.

I know there are plenty of gamers who simply don't care about games as art, or games as story. I don't mind that at all. But the idea that games as art is actively detrimental to gaming is one I hadn't really considered before. Maybe it's spinning out of the old narratology vs ludology debate from way back when, when games were only just breaking into the academic consciousness? The idea that individual games have been hampered by their story, or by artistic pretensions... yes, certainly. But to argue that it's bad for the medium as a whole to want to tell mature or provocative stories? I'm not sure I can wrap my head around that.

But then, I'm sure some people can't understand why I think Halo has been bad for the industry overall. Mere dislike is easy enough to deal with - I don't like real time strategy games, so I don't play them. Simple. I actually quite enjoy Halo, as far as braindead repetitive corridor shooters go; my problem with it is that it pushed the focus of game design in a direction I consider to be ultimately harmful to the cause of gaming being considered a valid medium. Perhaps the people who enjoy said direction are the same people who are actively opposed to games led by artistic concerns.

Are they wrong? I dunno. Not necessarily. But I can't accept that artistic games, seeking to tell intelligent or emotionally resonant stories, are bad for the business. Where would that mindset have gotten theatre or cinema?

Friday, 6 May 2011

(And I Feel Fine) [Review: The Wonderful End of the World]

When I bought The Potato Sack, I didn't know a thing about the Portal 2 ARG. I got it because it contained some games I was interested in, and some which friends had recommended, and I only owned one of them already at that point (Audiosurf, naturally). One of the titles I knew least about at that point was The Wonderful End of the World, and I'll be honest, I didn't give it much thought; the description and screenshots in the Steam store weren't exactly informative about just what this game actually was. Yet it's turned out to be the one I've spent the most time with since I got the Sack (except Audiosurf, naturally).

Katamari is one of the great game concepts: roll a ball around, stuff sticks to it, ball gets bigger, pick up bigger stuff. In some regards the concept is better than the game itself, but that's okay; it's one of those beautiful cases where the concept is strong enough to lift the game above its flaws. Apropos of what, exactly, do I bring up Katamari? Well, no beating around the bush: The Wonderful End is a shameless clone of Namco's Blu-Tack simulator.

I mean, not exactly. Instead of being the Prince of the Cosmos tasked by your father to make more stars to fix the night sky after he vomited on it, you're a goddess controlling an energy-force puppet to save stuff from the impending Apocalypse, or... something... whatever. The setup is as barmy as Katamari's, anyway, and even less relevant. See, as well as the core gameplay mechanic, The Wonderful End borrows Katamari's gleefully demented dayglo tone - which is fair enough, really, as making a deep and serious game based around rolling piles of junk up into a ball is surely more hassle than it's worth.

Like the title, the game is a bit self-consciously quirky, the controls are jumpy, the collision detection is bad enough to cost you the level on occasion and in general the game just reeks of lacking time, money, resources and playtesting. It is also - and this is the crucial point, the area in which The Wonderful End truly distinguishes itself from Katamari - on PC. This cannot be overstated. Finding a copy of an early Katamari title in your local Gamestation now ranks, on the scale of Things Which Are Really Really Unlikely To Happen, somewhere between "Discovering that someone's balled up the Shroud of Turin and shoved it through your letterbox" and "Finding a copy of Ico in your local Gamestation." To have this game to hand on your personal computer is glorious, because it's exactly the kind of thing which is perfect for little five minute blasts to break up something else. The game's technical limitations can be deeply frustrating, but I still keep coming back to it.

So, differences? Whereas Katamari is centred around accreting mass, The Wonderful End is more concerned with quantity than quality. A bottle of beer, a garden chair or a fire engine, it doesn't matter; they all add the same amount of heft to your balls. This shifts the gameplay dynamic subtly, meaning it's often better to focus on large collections of small bits rather than chasing larger, free-standing objects. It's not a change which is going to make a whole lot of difference, most of the time, but it's pretty cool that the devs at least tried to do something different with the play they were riffing on.

The other thing The Wonderful End does to assert its independence is to possess an especially snappy sense of style. It's probably best known for the level set inside a kind of metatextual arcade area, which sees you swalling up Pong, Pacman and Tetris (and keep an eye out for Frogger); better still, how about a black and white level made almost exclusively out of words? Or the mall level which starts you off as a veritable giant - within a miniature display case? Neat flourishes abound on even the mundane levels.

Ultimately, The Wonderful End is the second best game in its extremely narrow genre, but for what it is, that's enough. I've never been so into such a shameless copy of a superior game. Don't judge The Wonderful End harshly for not being as good as Katamari; really, what IS as good as Katamari these days? Instead, love it for being as close to a beige-box Katamari as we're ever likely to see.