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.