Archive for November, 2008

27
Nov
08

Overlooked Game Pick : The Journeyman Project

     Since this blog set a new record for hits in a day after the Fl0w and art games post, I figured I’d drive my traffic stats way back into the dumps by mentioning another obscure video game that I absolutely adore.

Ohhh the Journeyman Project series. It’s a series of three games made by Presto Studios, a company that is sadly gone now. I suppose you’d call the games adventure games, except they’re first person. I hesitate to use the term “first person adventure” because apparently Metroid Prime stole that term and claimed they invented it.

I love these games because they demonstrate to me EXACTLY how the sequels to video games should work. They’re games about time travel, which I’m already a sucker for. Video game sequels tend to be criticized if they don’t change the gameplay enough. The second entry in the aforementioned Metroid Prime series is a good example of this. The Journeyman Project series evolves beautifully with every entry, both in terms of story and gameplay.

In all the games you play as Gage Blackwood, an agent working for the “temporal security agency”. This is basically a police force that protects the integrity of time itself. The first game involves a plot to disrupt mankind’s attempt to meet peacefully with aliens and be inducted into the alien equivalent of the United Nations. A scientist sends robots with different missions to three different places in time, and Gage needs to stop them. 

This sounds like pretty typical science fiction fare. The game was quite well made, allowing for a “safe” and “violent” way to solve most of the combat puzzles. It was an above average adventure game that never got the attention it deserved.

The second game “Buried in Time” took place six months after the first game. In these six months, the pegasus time machine from the first game has been adapted into time traveling suits that people can wear. This time, Gage has been framed for tampering with history, and the whole debacle is making the alien UN thingy threaten to shut down the TSA and revoke humanity’s time travel technology. This is completely different from the first game both in how it plays and the story being told. It also gives Gage a sidekick, an AI named Arthur. 

The third game is full of twists and turns that affect how you view the plot of the previous two games, but it has a greater emphasis on history and artifacts. It also brings a new game mechanic with the chameleon suit, a time travel suit that allows Gage to look like anyone that it saves in memory. It’s great… play it.

This is how a series should evolve. The established characters and story continues and the gameplay changes slightly as well. The key is that each game introduces new technology and mechanics that is believable in the game world. Also, the core gameplay remains mostly the same, but different enough to be interesting. As you look back on the games you see an arc in the story, with each game becoming less and less about the nitty gritty of the time traveling, and more about the humans and their effect upon history and the future.

If you like adventure games, totally check out the Journeyman Project. Each game after the first is less and less puzzley, if that’ll help you. As far as I’m concerned, almost every modern game franchise has something to learn about sequels and story progression from the Journeyman Project series.

24
Nov
08

Art games and going with the Fl0w.

I recently realized that many things that I love, such as comic books, card magic, and video games, are things that border on art, but more often than not don’t fall into the category of truly respectable art. They seem to be constantly trying to justify themselves to the “artistic community”, or perhaps to their own communities. It makes sense that science fiction writers and video game designers would want to justify themselves as artists because it’s what they do for a living. 

I’m of the persuasion that these things all are capable of being art, not just holding artistic qualities. This post isn’t about that though. This post is about video games as art and “indie games”.

It seems that recently there has been a movement in video game design and fanship that is trying to decipher where exactly the “art” in a video game lies, if there is any. In this movement we have seen many interesting games of various levels of complexity and ambition. If I had to recommend one, it would be Jason Rohrer’s “passage”. It kicks ass, and I think it proves in one five minute session that a video game could be art.

I don’t want to get too deep into the discussion of video games as art just yet though. I figure that will be for a future post, which will be much more well thought out. I do think at the very least that this new movement in video games is a good thing, because it generates discussion and calls attention the style over substance that we see in so many new games today. 

The exploration of the concept of digital games as art does bring one thing negative to the gaming world though. All of a sudden, video games can be PRETENTIOUS. 

I don’t use that word lightly. I’m thinking about Fl0w. Yeah, it actually has a number in the name of the game. It’s a playstation 3 downloadable that is based on a flash game released in 2006. So you’re paying 10-15 bucks for a flash game… okay, fair enough. It’s a game where you play as various little aquatic creatures that are all shimmery and squiggly, and you swim around eating other creatures, getting bigger and bigger until eventually you start again as a different tiny creature. 

This sounds like an innocent enough time waster to me. In fact… it sounds like newgrounds classic “fishy”, except with a top down view and a scrolling camera. The problem I have with this game isn’t the pathetically short length, or even the constant insistence that challenge is a bad thing (I bet you thought that would be my complaint huh?). My problem is the fact that everyone seems to think this game is deep and as mentally challenging as a Kubrick film.

Passage is extremely touching. It’s a well thought out and expertly designed metaphor. It isn’t exactly mentally challenging to figure out. Braid is a ton of fun, with a story that is just cryptic enough to give you some food for thought. Fl0w is FISHY with some trippy music behind it. I get that you’re supposed to lean back and let all your worries disappear and kind of space out playing it. That’s fine, but I don’t think it qualifies as art, nor is anywhere near as original or fun as the other two games just mentioned. 

I suppose Fl0w is less of a game and more of a hypnotist’s routine. It’s more about putting you in a place that it wants you to be than about interesting you, or challenging you. It didn’t work at all for me, and that concept really does go right out the window when they start doing traditional video game things to it, such as adding expansion packs. There’s even a multiplayer function in the PS3 version, which COMPLETELY defeats the purpose of the game as a “space out and enjoy” type experience. 

The idea of “indie games” and “art games” is definitely a fun one to explore. I’m excited to see where creative designers can take this concept. You can expect me to write a couple (hopefully) well informed posts on this in the future, but until then…

Fuck Fl0w.

20
Nov
08

The Tortured Brush.

The last post was about how an artificially dark James Bond doesn’t fit with the fun, action filled film tradition of the James Bond franchise. It’s not really news that Hollywood is completely out of ideas and is willing to revive anything in order to make a quick buck. It seems in an attempt to make these old franchises “believable” today, they all need to be painted with what will now be called… THE TORTURED BRUSH.

The Tortured Brush is what can be used on any character in order to make them dark, modern, and complex. It also means that you don’t need to write many stupid talking scenes; you can just have a character whose conscience is too heavy for words. Yeah, it’s exactly what happened to Bond… but he’s not the only one.

Please note that just like with my post on twist endings, I’m coming out against the insincere use of this concept more than the concept itself. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule that pull it off really well, but it’s time to point a couple fingers.

I’m not a huge fan of The Spirit, but OH MY GOD. If you glance at a spirit comic and then look at the trailer, you’d be absolutely amazed. I’ve been accused of sticking a little too hard to canon in my (occasional) geeky obsessions… but look at it! After Sin City, which was an amazing comic to movie translation, Frank Miller seems to think it’s fine to apply exactly the same look to a completely different comic that doesn’t even belong to him.

Even Beowulf, arguably the oldest hero in the history of the english language, got hit with paint from the tortured brush. Read that again. Yeah, they decided to add a “trendy modern spin” on a character that laid the groundwork for all stories about heroism to follow. Was it in an attempt to make a story about a guy who gets naked to slay a demon more believable? I don’t think you can accuse me of sticking too much to canon with this one, because the story IS canon. 

Swinging and wall running over to video games… I’m going to take a cheap shot at the Prince of Persia. As far as I’m concerned, the first Prince of Persia game helped define the platformer. Like many games of the time, the story was secondary to the gameplay. The series had a couple failed attempts at going 3D, until the Sands of Time came out and blew everyone away. It ruled, and it had a fun and light story that was just a little more clever than it initially seemed. With the sequel, Warrior Within, they inexplicably wanted to make the prince into a blood soaked anti hero. He dressed like a rockstar, fought chicks in bondage outfits, and severed head after head in slow motion. Damn, I have a bad habit of making bad things occasionally sound awesome. Once again, this false angst and dark tone didn’t sit well with those who appreciated the previous story. The ending of the game before it was surprising and funny… it didn’t make sense to lead into such a moody sequel. 

I love dark as hell stories. I really do. I find it extremely rewarding to study every new anti-hero that I stumble upon. I fear that with the success of several dark superhero films, including The Dark Knight, which was great and totally appropriate (finally!) in its level of moodiness, Hollywood and popular culture in general will feel the urge to synthetically darken their already existing characters and stories. Be on the lookout for the Tortured Brush!

17
Nov
08

Bond, Angst Bond.

Okay I was going to go see Quantum of Solace last night, but I was stopped by my roommate, who had just returned from the film and was pretty much saying that if I went he would lose all respect for me. I’m not a die hard Bond fan, but he is, and the disappointment was nothing short of glorious.

I obviously won’t be talking about Quantum of Solace, but I’ll be taking stabs at Casino Royale, the last Bond film that I saw. Bond films are steeped in tradition. They’ve kind of defined their own genre, where any criticism of a Bond film needs to be compared to other Bond films, and not other spy movies in general. After Die Another Day, I think the whole world was agreeing that James Bond was in need of a re-imagining. I’m not so sure anymore.

Let me make it clear that none of my criticism are with Daniel Craig. He’s not a bad Bond… and there’s nobody I can think of that I would prefer in the role.

Casino Royale promised a newer, darker Bond. I was excited. My problem with Casino Royale was that it wasn’t new enough for me. For every scene where Bond strangled somebody brutally, there was another where he chased a parkour-ing “bomb maker” who looks suspiciously like one of the dudes who promotes parkour. Just when you think they’re going to give you character depth in a Bond movie, they go and sink a building in Venice. I didn’t completely hate Casino Royale, but I wish it had the balls to do a new bond, or stick with the old formula, not blend the two. 

The angsty and troubled Bond does not belong with the completely extravagant action sequences that the Bond films are known for. It’s silly. It’s like having a Scorsese film turn into the Transporter, and then back again. 

I’m convinced that without the Bond traditions of the various lines, gadgets, girls, and villains… you’re not left with much to work with. Casino Royale had some fun with subverting the Bond traditions, but it missed out on having a Bond villain, which is absolutely key. Le Chiffre looked like a Bond villain, had a weird gimmick like a Bond villain, played cards like a Bond villain, but completely didn’t act like a Bond villain. In fact, he got offed by other bad guys. This is fine in a serious film about the nature of evil in modern times, but the dude cried fucking blood! Once again, they can’t decide between the Bond traditions of the last 20 or so films and the newer, serious Bond film elements. I don’t prefer one over the other, I just wish they’d make a choice.

The early reviews on Quantum of Solace are mixed, with the obvious exception of my enraged and disillusioned roommate. I think as these new Bond films continue, critics are going to start to see that once you strip away the Bond dialogue and recurring elements, there isn’t much going on that other films don’t do. I said earlier that criticism of a Bond film needs to be in the realm of Bond films, but if this Bond film is dropping or rethinking all the classic Bond elements, I think that removes the excuse of “oh well it’s a fun other the top Bond movie”.

If these movies are meant to be taken seriously, which is what they’re going for, they can’t have the completely outrageous action sequences… and they’re going to be criticized like any other movie, without letting them off the hook for things like the sinking of the ice hotel with a sunbeam from a satellite.

13
Nov
08

A twisted post.

There’s an old saying in close up magic that says “People like being fooled”. This always seemed kind of false to me, as if it was a lame attempt by magicians to justify their craft to the world as foolin’ for foolin’s sake. However, if you take this in mind and quickly scan through the imdb top 250 (or any even remotely credible source for some of the most critically acclaimed and popular films), you might be led to believe that people really do like being fooled. 

I’m talking of course about SHOCKING PLOT TWISTS. I love ’em as much as you do. You saw my post here, I sat through goddamn Saw V. If I didn’t need food and education, all I would do is watch Twilight Zone episodes. Many of my favorite films also have some kind of twist ending element to them as well. I also think that a twist alone is not enough to make a film good, and that many beloved films are liked artificially because of how they were able to pull one over on us. 

If you want to see a beautiful example of how a twist can destroy an otherwise good movie, check out High Tension, or Haute Tension for those of us who prefer crepes to freedom. It starts off as somewhat derivative, but viscerally and emotionally one of the best horror films of the last five years. In the last 20 minutes or so it tries to take a stab at being clever, as if they didn’t have enough faith in their own writing to continue on normally. It’s absolutely horrendous, and worth seeing just for how bad it becomes after a promising start. 

I’ll resist pointing a twisted finger at my not so good pal M. Night Shymalan, since he probably deserves his own post about how amazingly awful his movies have become. I think it will have to be accompanied by a graph of some sort, in order to visually demonstrate the decline without needing to invoke metaphors about cliffs and the Marianas Trench. 

To me, the best plot twists are the ones that outwit both the audience and one or more characters in the story. Although I did take a cheap shot at M. Night, the Sixth Sense is a good example of this. It’s when the twists are completely manipulation on the director’s part that I start to get a little weary. I’m thinking now of Lost… that show you either love to death or don’t watch. Skip the next paragraph if you haven’t seen one of the first episodes in season 1. Ah screw it, i’ll just talk around it.

One of my favorite episodes from what i’ve seen of lost (not a whole lot, by the way) was the first Locke flashback episode, where we discover something shocking about him. The thing is, this is absolutely no surprise to Locke himself, and the only reason it’s hidden from us, the viewer, is to make sure that we have that “ohhhh” moment as the music swells up and we see the big dramatic reveal. There’s no authentic reason to do it this way, it’s just the show jerking you around. Of course, the whole premise of Lost is a show that jerks you around, so people don’t seem to mind. It’s not a dramatic plot twist if placing the camera a few feet in a different direction will tip the gaff.

The worst thing is I totally loved that episode the first time I saw it. A movie with a twisted plot that breaks the traditional structure or rules of cinema can be really enjoyable as well as really innovative. It can also be really gimmicky, though effective… hence the dilemma. 

Now I must go. Oh and guess what… this whole post was written on Wednesday night, not Thursday afternoon. It was written out of sequence, on a candy high from M&Ms, and painfully reconstructed for you just now. It was also written without pants on. Betcha didn’t expect that. Fooled you, did I? Good. Now digg this page or something because it was awesome.

10
Nov
08

Challenge Gaming and “8-bit masochism”.

Since this blog is getting next to no attention for the obscure video game related stuff, I figure now is my opportunity to go several levels deeper and talk about an obscure “indie” game that is driving us all mad. I referred to “challenge gaming” a while back, suggesting that it is a bug that a few gamers have, but many are glad they lack. If you want to truly test yourself (and your patience), check out I Wanna Be The Guy.

I started playing it for the same reason that one climbs a mountain: because it is possible to do so. Obviously playing a hard as hell video game is considerably less manly than climbing a mountain, at least I’m realizing one of my callings in life and not freezing to death.

I Wanna Be the Guy is an extremely well made freeware game made by a dude named Kayin that makes nods to many 8-bit classics. Unfortunately, it’s only available for windows, but if you have an intel chip in your mac, it runs just fine under “wine” emulation, which is a beautiful thing. I’ve had access to a spanking new mac with an intel chip (or a “that chip” to some), so i’ve gotten halfway through the game and died 596 times already. 

My roommate referred to it as “a theoretical exercise in gaming”, and that’s kind of exactly what it is at times. As you space out and try 50 times to make the perfect double jump between two moving spikes, you will probably end up reflecting on what exactly makes a game a game, and what the relationship is between you, the player, and the game designer. It’s downright unfair in many places as well. Just when you think you’re safe, you get blindsided by an unexpected spike that comes out of nowhere, a falling block, or maybe a killer bird. Still, if you have the right mindset, you will press on… because the game compels you to. Sometimes it’s really glitchy too and your game will crash and you’ll lose your progress. This only seems to fit with the nature of the game itself.

I said it’s really well made, and it is. It’s full of hilarious references for those who are willing to look for them. Often you will be caught off guard by some really lame way of dying, only to laugh about it later. For the player, it presents a weird mindset where you know you are constantly being fucked with, and you’re trying to consistently expect the unexpected. It’s purposely bad in many places, but it’s an extremely nostalgic and well designed bad game… if that makes sense.

You probably don’t need me to tell you if you will like this or not. Enjoy it, it’s difficult, but rewarding. The struggle will be one of the greatest you will ever face. This also means that when you do achieve something in this game, it will feel better than most other gaming experiences. Maybe you’ll forget for a minute that you are sitting in the dark, listening to the same ghouls ‘n’ ghosts music loop over and over again, and think for a second that you did something incredible. Of course, right after that you’ll get smacked by a falling tombstone and scream at the top of your lungs.

06
Nov
08

I can’t stand Fire Emblem.

Okay. I really enjoy a good old fashioned tactical RPG. I’ve played the classics, namely Warsong and Shining Force. I’ve enjoyed the Front Mission games with their endless customization. I’ve sunk waaaay more time than the average human into the amazingly mediocre Gladius. Out of all the ongoing tactical RPG franchises out there I just can’t bring myself to suffer through Fire Emblem. This review is focusing on the gamecube version and the small amount of play i’ve done with one of the gba versions.

It’s a tactical RPG like any other. You have little dudes that you move around a grid and attack other little dudes. If you’re smart, your little dudes will crush the other little dudes. Of course, it gets more complicated from there, but that’s the basic idea. 

A common complaint is that there is no way of reviving your little dudes should they die, and they do carry from stage to stage if they survive. So if the fighter you’ve been decking out and leveling up for the last 10 battles gets hit with a lucky shot and goes down, he’s down for good. Surprisingly enough, I don’t mind this. Perhaps it’s the aforementioned masochistic challenge gamer aspect of me that I mentioned in my bullet hell post, but I don’t mind a game that punishes you for bad tactical decisions. 

The thing is, it doesn’t reward you for good tactical decision either. Oh yes. I’m referring to the leveling system. When a character levels up, they have their various stats of strength, magic, agility,  and so on. Instead of these stats simply increasing in proportion to the character’s class, or perhaps allowing the player to distribute stats where they feel necessary, these stats RANDOMLY increase. It’s scaled, so a fighter has a much higher chance of his strength going up than his magic, but in the end it comes down to a die roll. 

Normally, I like die rolling. I play Arkham Horror for God Hastur’s sake. In an RPG, for level up purposes, this is a huuuuge nono. RPG players are obsessive compulsive weirdos. They, and by they I’m including myself, neeeed to have some kind of guarantee that doing well will be rewarded. There have been many times in different Fire Emblem games where I’ve finished a major battle, and my character levels up, but none of his stats increase. He goes from level 10 to 11, but is no different in performance other than how long it will take to get to level 12. This is enraging, because if I were to reset the game and do exactly the same thing again, I could get lucky and every stat could increase. My gamer brain is so used to the endorphin release from leveling up that I felt more like I was spinning a roulette wheel than truly achieving something every time I won a battle.

Quickly, there’s another thing I don’t like. You get a slew of characters to pick from for each stage, but they rotate in and out of your roster based on the events of the story. Suppose you were leveling up the big dude with the spear and next thing you know he leaves the group to go warn some other kingdom about some impending anime cutscene. You’re left without anything, since exp doesn’t split between all the characters, unless you take the time to make sure everyone gets a fair cut yourself. Assuming i’m a first time player of the game, I have no idea who might leave, or die, or turn out to be evil in the story. Ugh it’s just bad design.

I don’t know how people can play an extremely nuanced tactical game and put up with this nonsense. Now’s the part where I will offer an alternative: Advance Wars. Sure it looks a little cartoony and cute, but it kicks so much ass in the gameplay department.