Games, Art, Rosebud – Change of Plans

•August 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

It seems clear that I should have taken more care to define one of my parameters before diving into the specific artistic techniques I wanted to discuss. The parameter in question is the importance of the quality of execution, the value of a master work, as discussed briefly in the comments here. In order to clarify this point, I’m holding back part 3 until next week. Instead, you’ll have a supplemental piece up tomorrow that should hopefully clarify my views regarding the of quality of execution and what its value is.

Games, Art, Rosebud pt. 2 – Immersive

•August 13, 2009 • 6 Comments

We like to get sucked into a story. Find any review of a film or novel that was seriously gripping, and I guarantee you’ll find a statement about being drawn in within the first two paragraphs, with the word “immersive” used at least twice. It’s a big deal, though; if a story has the ability to transport me to a different world, even as a third-person observer, then really it’s accomplished one of the primary goals of fiction. By dint of the fact that they are interactive, games are in many ways more capable than any other media of taking us out of ourselves and bringing us to fantastic places that excite or terrify.

It’s not surprising, then, that in a given game review you’re likely to find the word “immersive” about fifty times, and when a game is held up as art, often it’s because of this exact trait. But does being immersive alone qualify a game as art? I think not.

In this segment we’ll be looking at two games you’re likely to find on any top ten artistic games list: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Developed by Team Ico, both games were critically acclaimed. Ico in particular is cited by several developers as being a major artistic influence for them. Team Ico is a name to conjure with, if anticipation of their upcoming game The Last Guardian is any indication. They have an eye for intuitive design, and an understanding of the need for mechanics to make sense in the context of the story, and they understand how setting and tone do more to draw the player into a visual story than any trick of narrative. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are absolutely two of the most important games of the last decade.

They’re also not art.

Ico

Ico achieves a sense of immersion through clever use of lighting and music. The player is drawn in because the world looks and feels real. When you step out of the deep shadows of the castle, you’re blinded by dazzling sunlight. Shadows play in the torchlight of the cold castle halls. Courtyards and arboretums feel vibrant and alive.

It’s not just the visual presentation, though, that makes draws the player in. Ico presents one of the finest examples of subtle sign-posting ever to grace video games. The game tells you what to do every step of the way, if you only look around, but it never pastes in a big flashing arrow or a giant glowing boss weak-point. Things you can pick up don’t glow green, and yet you know what you can and cannot interact with.

A lot of this is accomplished by a well-developed sense of minimalism. It’s not that every object lying around can be picked up and used, it’s that only things you can work with are available. They don’t have to model everything, just exactly what you need. It’s a subtle thing, but every encounter with an item with which the player cannot interact is a reminder that they are playing a game. Every lever I can’t pull, every tchotchke I can’t pick up takes me out of the game. The system is exposed, the rules of the software are laid bare, and the narrative power is diminished. Ico never misses a beat, and nothing you come across is going to take you out of the experience.

Well, almost.

Despite all the considerable skill that went into crafting Ico, the combat system is appalling. In short, it is clunky, repetitive, and deeply frustrating, and for the first third of the game grinds the experience to a halt. When every foe (and there are many) takes 15 hits to kill, you start noticing again the controller in your hands, the Square button you’re grinding into a fine powder. Realistic? Maybe. But self-defeating. It’s a challenge that feels out of step w/ the rest of the game, and poorly implemented to boot.

The other serious flaw in Ico‘s veneer is in the story itself. It is clever, beautiful, and is fully supported by the mechanics of the game (baring combat). It is also utterly unmoving. Despite the wily trick of requiring that the player hold down a button to clasp Yorda’s hand as you lead her through the castle — fostering a sense of attachment — the attachment never moves beyond a very shallow “must protect damsel in distress” sentiment. The characters barely speak, and Yorda doesn’t speak your language, and while that certainly adds a sense of ethereal beauty to events, it’s also extremely dehumanizing. What we’re left with are archetypes sans personality.

It’s structured like a morality tale, but where’s the moral? Don’t become an evil shadow witch? Kidnap lithe little girls who don’t have enough sense to climb a box to escape danger without some boy in horns yodeling at them?

Ico is a wonderfully realized game, but it is not art. It’s an object lesson for developers hoping to craft an immersive tale, not the standard.

Shadow of the Colossus

Sadly, Shadow of the Colossus takes one step forward and two steps back. Visual aesthetic is improved, the sense of realism and immersion is ten times greater, a direct result of the improved graphics and even more evocative presentation, but bugs and cheap sign-posting blow SotC out of the running in short order.

Shadow of the Colossus, despite the cleverness of its primary mechanic, does not function as advertised. Finicky controls, weird clipping issues, and a rotten mechanic for aiming your bow demolish any sense of immersion as soon as it’s created. When the game works right, it’s brilliant, and you get sucked right in to a degree I’ve not experienced anywhere else. But then the game will freak out or the controls will spaz and you get yanked out of the experience with a speed that’s almost physically painful. I have distinct memories of quite literally snapping a controller in half with my bare hands when, after getting so involved that I nearly believed I was Wander clawing my way up a colossi, the game went ape-shit and I fell to my death. My hands clenched so hard the controller snapped.

I love this game, but it’s not art. It’s just too broken.

The bugs are egregious, but they aren’t the game’s only failing. Clever, subtle sign-posting was one of Ico’s greatest strengths, and it worked so well that Team Ico must have felt intimidated by its perfection, because the sign-posting in SotC is painfully cheap. Your great glowing sword points you in the direction of your objective, and when you arrive, your peaceful, enormous prey has a giant glowing weakpoint. In terms of design, this is about as subtle as porno. It accomplishes the goal, but it’s not elegant. In many ways, I was more disappointed in this than I was with the buggy implementation.

Immersion is an important, though not necessarily mandatory, technique which can increase the artistic merit of a game, and these two games are some of the finest examples ever made, but they still fall short. However, they show that the technology is at the point where, with a reasonable suspension of disbelieve, the cooperative player can be transported to real and valid worlds. It’s just a matter of smart implementation.

Honorable Mention: Silent Hill 2. Brilliant (and terrifying) introduction, and a highly effective use of stillness seat the player firmly in the shoes of protagonist James, however the abundance of ammo and the far-too effective melee attacks diminish the fear of exploration quickly, as the player realizes that nothing poses a particularly serious threat to them.

Games, Art, Rosebud

•August 7, 2009 • 3 Comments

Sick of this topic yet?

So are developers, but it’s vitally important, and they’re generally the first to admit it. More than just some sort of pretentious merit-badge, the assessment that a game is truly a work of art signifies a sort of coming-of-age milestone for the industry as a whole. Of course, if we could agree on a common definition of art, that would help. Wikipedia isn’t much help here, defining the concept only in terms of the visual arts. With visual art, emotional content is the least common denominator. If a painting has a narrative, it’s minimal, created through the willing participation of the viewer, and serves only as scaffolding for the emotional content. It has to make you feel something because it’s the only clear avenue of communication open to it.

The most common mistake one can make when trying to extrapolate this definition from visual art to other media is to assume that emotional content is the only goal. Lacking words, lacking motion, emotion is the only way in which a painting or sculpture can communicate. Emotion isn’t the sign of art, it’s only one of the colors we paint with. What matters is the communication with the viewer. It needs to communicate something numinous, provide an experience that is distinct, and that’s where it needs to stop. A masterpiece is a refined thing, which contains only the exact necessary components needed to accomplish the communicative goal. The Mona Lisa is not holding a pretty pink bunny, because the bunny is not part of the artistic goal. This is something which the game industry continues to struggle with, as often the view is that if something can be done, it should be.

In 2005, Roger Ebert made the bold claim that video games could never be considered art (which he later amended to “high art”), one of the primary reasons for which was the concept of authorial control. He reemphasized this point in a later online chat.

… I (do) indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for (this): Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

Ebert is a giant, with more talent and experience as a critic than all the world’s gaming journalists combined, but with respect I disagree on this point. No matter how draconian, an author only retains control until the first time a person reads their book or watches their film. A cursory study of semiotics reveals that communication is not a static act. Sender and receiver have to speak the same language, understand the same linguistic shortcuts (cultural slang, intuitive codings, etc.). Basically, the reader has to cooperate w/ the author, by picturing exactly what the author describes, coming to the conclusions the author is drawing up. This is harder than it sounds.

All acts of communication are cooperative: Video games differ only in the degree of control which can be handed to the player. Whether or not a large degree of control should be given depends on the goals of the work.

One of the most distinctive aspects of video games, complicating the definition of art, is its higher degree of interactivity. Because they’re interactive, it’s not enough to ask for a cooperative player. The game has to cooperate with the narrative that the player is weaving with their actions. The codes and overcodes, which is to say, the semantics and subtext of the narrative, have to be flexible in response to player action. This is something new. In literature, it’s certainly possible to create a compelling open text, which, like many classes of visual art, requires the reader to internalize and transform the text into a narrative that is distinctly their own. But in all cases the medium remains static. The way in which my experience of any book differs from you is wholly an internal experience. Interaction occurs in the mind of the reader. Creating an open game has strikingly different implications, juxtaposing the act of consumption and creation. Now, the actual physical experience of the senses, the act of consumption, becomes in part an act of creation. Even in a very simple game, like Super Mario Bros., the input I receive from the game differs from the input you receive, because we make different choices.

>With games, we’re also deeply focused on individual narrative. Because the player has some nominal control over their character, a well-crafted experience can draw the player in to an extent unheard of in other media. In terms of emotional content, this is deeply significant. Any story which happens to the self is inherently more moving than a story which happens to someone else. There’s an innate emotional investment that comes from being the subject (directly or indirectly) of the narrative.

Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is often held up as the first film with true artistic merit. For good reason: In Kane, one finds no extraneous parts. Everything contained in the film is in support of the larger narrative and the themes being explored. More than just a good story, Citizen Kane leverages the strengths of its medium to tell a story that would not have been remarkable as a book, could not have been told as a painting, but is fascinating and deeply moving as a film. Kane could never be told in a compelling way in a video game, not because games are inferior, but because the story of Citizen Kane doesn’t fit well with video games’ strengths. A fun, technically masterful game could be crafted from the classic film, but its artistic worth would be lost in a medium best suited for a completely different kind of story.

Over the next several pieces, I’ll be examining 8 games which are often held up as examples of video games as art, and blowing them out of the water. We’ll look at what’s been done right, and why each game falls short of the mark. I’ve organized the games into four classifications which highlight some of the key strengths of the medium. These strengths have to be leveraged with a precision that has been thus far absent if games are to ever have their Citizen Kain. First, games can be immersive, involving the player in a deeply personal tale. They can also be magnanimous in the way by which they cooperate with the player, drawing them in slowly with refined systems of play. They can present a truly subterranean level of depth which is both a complex audiovisual experience, as in film, but which can also be developed more fully, as in a novel. Finally, they can allow for a much more conative experience, allowing the player’s choices to shape the experience into something personal, memorable, and utterly distinct to each player.

At the end of the piece, we’ll take a look at the game which I feel has come closest to being a true example of art. You’ll be surprised when you find out what it is!

Games as Art

•August 3, 2009 • Leave a Comment

We’re talking about games as art this month, so expect 30% more pretentiousness. The intro piece runs Friday (no Thursday commentary this week).

Stay tuned!

Review | Eduardo the Samurai Toaster

•August 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

There's no story here. He's a samurai toaster. What more do you want?

There's no story here. He's a samurai toaster. What more do you want?

(Eduardo the Samurai Toaster, Semnat Studios, WiiWare)

When you were a kid, out to eat w/ your parents, did you ever take your cup to the fountain and fill it w/ every soda on tap? Sure you did. Remembering that, you’ve already got a good idea of what the visual aesthetic of Eduardo the Samurai Toaster is like. By far the game’s best feature, the art in Eduardo is wholly unique. Most levels have a distinct artistic style, and their variation and overall presentation is pure candy. That the action on-screen tends to cover up the essential beauty of the artwork can be frustrating at times. Your opponents, who appear to be primarily composed of evil napkins or something, are novel, but less impressive than their setting. Still, they look pretty okay in motion, and for a toaster with only 4 points of articulation, our young samurai is nicely animated. His motion on the screen is super-smooth, and there’s no hitching even when the screen is swarming with scores of enemies and twice as many projectiles.

The music is equally appealing, even if it occasionally steals a page from Samurai Champloo. It’s fast-paced and catchy, and compliments the gameplay nicely. Can’t say a word against it.

Eduardo the Samurai Toaster is a 2D side-scroller that’s part beat-em-up and part shooter. Eduardo’s primary attack is to fire supersonic toast at his opponents, but it’s not his only combat option: he’s got a devastating short-range slap and the ability to snag any projectile (even giant balls of energy) and fling them back at his attackers. The throw (which also works on normal enemies) is interesting from a control perspective, as the function is mapped to the B button on the underside of the Wii Remote, which you hold sideways like an NES controller. It’s surprisingly easy to tap the button despite it’s awkward placement, which is good, because the throw is Eduardo’s best move, both offensively and defensively. When the choice is either to get clocked by a flying spear or fling it back at its thrower, the choice is clear. Both the throw and the melee slap are slow, though, and you’ll find yourself relying on your Ronin toast to keep pace with the marauding hordes sent against you.

Eduardo received a variety of upgrades for his toast cannon, from the Contra-esque rapid- and spread-shots to the more prosaic seeker missile and shotgun toast. These latter two are the best, as they clear big groups and do a ton of damage, but you don’t get them often, so there’s incentive to use them sparingly to conserve ammo.

Pretty, neh?

Pretty, neh?

The game lets you jump to any level once you’ve cleared the preceding stages, and at that point you can choose from one of four difficulties, as well as how many lives you have, anywhere from 1 to infinite. The game provides a very wide arc of difficulties with these two settings, ensuring that you’ll face the exact challenge you’re looking for. It’s a bit more robust than just choosing difficulty, and it’s something I’d like to see more games adopt.

And then the honeymoon is over. Because underneath all its visual and auditory appeal, there’s no real game here. Eduardo the Samurai Toaster is, at it’s heart, an extremely simple side-scrolling shooter, relying on twitch button-mashing and massed enemy attacks. Things start out interesting, but the game runs out of tricks fast, and has no sense of pacing. Every enemy type is revealed within the first 3 or 4 levels, every power-up has been found a dozen times, and there’s still 10 or more levels to go. The art direction carries the game a bit further, keeping the player interested by presenting beautiful new locations in which to commit mass murder, but even that excitement pales as the levels start repeating themselves late in the game (not another black & white ink-sketch level!). Eduardo doesn’t know how to keep a secret, and he’ll spill all of them before you can even ask. The delight of discovery gives way to the relentless grind of shooting, jumping, and throwing, trying to keep your head above water.

One of the tamer moments in the last level.

One of the tamer moments in the last level.

Throwing staggeringly silly quantities of monsters at you is the last trick the game has, and it will use it over and over for the remaining 20 minutes of gameplay. Since the game only takes 30 minutes, you’re looking at boredom and frustration setting in after the first third.

Disappointing, really. I want to say nice things about the game, because I really like the presentation, but under the pretty visuals it’s generic and repetitive. Even co-op can’t alleviate the simple fact that Eduardo the Samurai Toaster is an incredibly dull game, with no life beyond its stylish face. Spend your money on something else.

This game rates: Apple. (What were you expecting, toast?!)

2 Ideas for 7/30/09

•July 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Demigod

I remember a time, way back in 1995, when morality systems in games was hands-down the coolest idea ever. Secret of Mana 2 had just come out in Japan (and was soon to be denied to America fans), and my head was filled with thoughts of creating holy warriors and dark lords. The idea that all of my choices could produce drastic and dramatic changes in my character’s personality and set of skills affected me viscerally. The Ape-man buried deep within my brain-stem grunts favorably at the black/white view of absolute good and evil.

The enlightened modern man, of course, more readily rejects dichotomy, at least intellectually, and we know now that in many ways this-or-that morality systems in video games tend to be unrealistic and uninspiring. In certain contexts they work well: SM2 is a good example. SM2 presents to the player a classic fantasy environment, in which the existence of ultimate good and evil isn’t contradicted by the basic facts of life, so it’s a simple manner for the player to cooperate with the narrative. The setting doesn’t obstruct the player’s ability to suspend their belief in shades of gray.

This kind of fiction falls apart in more realistic settings, especially in the absence of good role models. If there’s no Ahriman or Ahura Mazda to hold up as the standard, the player quickly wonders why their character is the only one locked into such absurd extremes.

With that said, we’re much quicker to view the choices and actions of strangers, especially public figures, as distinctly binary. If I don’t know you, I can blithely decide that you’re a good person or, more commonly, that your heart is a bastion of evil.

Enter Demigod. The player is the son/daughter of the God <Proper Name> of the <Proper Name> pantheon, with <adjective> power over <noun>, and as a fledgling god you’ve been sent out into the world to learn and grow. Or possibly to be killed; maybe your parents are afraid of your potential and view you as a threat. Hell if I know, I’m not too concerned w/ the plot specifics here, just the mechanics. Pick your source mythos and build a story around it.

As you explore the world, fight, and complete quests, you’re faced with choices. For example, should you steal some diamonds or feed some homeless instead? The twist here, is that your morality (and thus skill-set and overall evolution) is based on public opinion. In this world, a god’s power is derived from his worshipers, and the worshipers themselves shape the god’s nature with their belief. This is tracked along two axes, public opinion and worshiper ethics. The favorable viewpoints of criminals mean different things than the love of puppies or the hatred of children. It’s possible to, for example, be a stalwart god who grants the prayers of villains and saints alike, or a murder of the upper class who also helps little old ladies across the street. Additionally, unseen acts (good or bad) affect your position in the grid less, but too much time acting in the shadows will result in events which have nothing to do with you being attributed to you, be they miraculous births or horrific floods.

You may not be good or evil, but in the eyes of the common man you very well might be.


I Am Legend

The book, not the movies. There’ve been 3, though none of them tell anything remotely like the 1954 novel. I recommend Matheson’s book to everyone, but if you’re in a hurry, just read the synopsis here.

One way in which video games excel above other story-telling mediums is in their ability to tell a personal story, to draw the player into a character. This trait is itself often best expressed when the player character exists in essential isolation. Silent Hill 2 is one of the finest examples of this; the player becomes James in a very real sense, and his break from reality becomes the player’s.

Given that, I am Legend seems uniquely suited for this type of linear narrative. The player becomes Robert Neville, and his desperate isolation gives way, as in the book, to a tentative friend in ally in Ruth, only to have that newborn trust betrayed by the realities of their situation. The game follows the book’s narrative through to Neville’s final despair, imprisoned and awaiting execution at the hands of a society which views him as the monster.

In this case, the mechanics are of less interest to me, so long as they are a good fit for the story. It’s the opportunity for storytelling which really matters here. Matherson’s novel is a good fit for a single-player game.

Review | Final Fantasy IV: The After Years

•July 10, 2009 • Leave a Comment
After the increasingly complex FF logos of the last few years, this one's refreshingly simple.

After the increasingly complex FF logos of the last few years, this one's refreshingly simple.

(Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, Square Enix, WiiWare)

If you had asked me prior to its release — and I’ll note that you didn’t ask — I’d have likely told you that Final Fantasy IV: The After Years was further prove of intellectual poverty which continues to plague the minds of management and marketing alike at Square Enix. From a management perspective I wondered how they thought they could continue to milk the dead horse (to mix a metaphor) which has comprised 40% of their releases for the last 6 years, namely old Final Fantasy titles. It’s lucrative, but it’s not sustainable. From a marketing perspective I simply wondered what glue-huffing exec came up with “The After Years”. I would have told you that there was simply no point in a sequel to a game in which you defeat evil incarnate. That’s like releasing a sequel to the Gospel. I’d have told you not to waste your money.

Of course I bought it! It’s the fanboys who are always the loudest and most cynical, you know. And after playing an hour of the game I was eagerly and unreservedly recommending the game to everyone I know who’d played the original. I told them it was a more than worthy successor, that there was a perfect mix of old and new, and that the story was awesome, opening as it does with the sacking of Baron, the enslavement of the Eidolons (summoned monsters), and the return of the second moon. Things goes to hell pretty quickly, and that’s how I like it. I told my friends that the game was absolutely worth their money.

Now? Meh.

Playing with characters from the original who have been gimped down from their level 70-80 highs just feels false.

Playing with characters from the original who have been gimped down from their level 70-80 highs just feels false.

If it feels like I’m jerking you around, that’s just because that’s how FFIV-2 made me feel. The first hour of the game is an object lesson to other RPGs on how to start a story with a bang. The story is interesting, well-paced, and fits the established history well. New gameplay elements help keep things fresh as well, such as team-up attacks called Bands (always welcome) and a new system of moon phases which increase and decrease stats during battle.

However, by the time you get to the first DLC, Rydia’s Story: The Eidolons Shackled, the game’s luster begins to pale. You start recognizing plot points. Chasing a mystery villain? Check. Race to acquire the Crystals? Check. Betrayal and Redemption? Got that too. The characters are different (sometimes), but too much of the story seems all too familiar. The new dungeons continue to provide some fun, and the team-up attacks really are a welcome addition, but the deal with the moon’s phases just feels like a gimmick after a while. It doesn’t really add a whole lot of strategy other than sleeping repeatedly until the phase you want shows up, then blasting through a dungeon as quick as possible to make sure it doesn’t change on you. God forbid you pause the game, though. The phase is based on the game clock, which doesn’t stop in the menus, so pausing provides no protection from phase change while you go cook yourself dinner.

Now this looks familiar.

Now this looks familiar.

Here’s the essential issue that FFIV-2 has: A sequel can’t just be a re-tred of the previous game. Imagine a book or a movie sequel that was telling a new story, but did so in a progression of scenes from the original movie. Perhaps even footage or entire passages could be recycled!

It would never work for novels, it would never work for film, and it doesn’t really work in a game. It’s not like the game isn’t available anymore. Hell, it’s been re-released twice in the last four years. Thrice in the last decade. If it’s the nostalgia of retreading old ground that I want, I’m certainly not at a loss for ways to get my fix.

So does this, but in context this is one of the better parts of the story.

So does this, but in context this is one of the better parts of the story.

It would be absolutely incorrect to suggest that this is just the same game repackaged. Many of the old areas are expanded (which I like) and the gameplay additions generally welcome. There’s just not enough of this; strip out the time spend retreading old areas and plot points and there’s a lot less game here than is being advertised, and it comes sporadically. I’ll bet you anything the last dungeon ends up being the same as it was in the original.

If you enjoyed the original, go ahead and buy it. It’s definitely worth taking for a spin. The nice thing about it being episodic is that you don’t have to buy the entire game if you’re not digging it. You can always stop. I’ll probably buy the rest of the game as it comes out, and I’ll have an okay time. It’ll just be a lot less fun than I’d hoped for.

The title’s still retarded, though.

This game rates: whale.