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Sunday, Nov 30, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-12-01...

Another painfully (some would say mercifully) slow release week is upon us as the year winds down and publishers allow the games that they’d never put up against anything to trickle out. 

The lone truly big-ticket item to be seen in the bunch below is Prince of Persia, for which the lack of numbers or subtitles would seem to indicate a restart for the franchise.  Interestingly, it’s a franchise whose momentum seems to be building, given some recent high-profile shoutouts from the likes of Yahtzee and the news of an upcoming movie version of the game starring none other than Jake Gyllenhaal.

Prince of Persia would seem to be the one game this week that is being released because its publisher wanted it to get the release day highlighting—and the holiday promotional push—it deserves.  It’s not too late for the Christmas rush, and yet it’s found a window in which there is very little to distract us from its release.  The Prince himself is new (and quite frankly, he sounds like kind of an ass), but the plot is basically the same—evil dark spirits are released upon the world, and the Prince must save the world with the aid of a mysterious woman named Elika (who becomes the means of saving the Prince from death when we players are inadequately suited to such a task).  If you liked the Sands of Time trilogy, it sounds like you’ll like this, and with the inadvertent spotlight put on the series thanks to the similarity of Mirror’s Edge‘s acrobatics to those of Prince of Persia, now might be just the time to get into it.

There are a couple of Mushroom Men games coming out this week as well, which may be worth a look.  The Wii version of the game (subtitled The Spore Wars) has been the recipient of some pretty decent preliminary reviews, and who doesn’t love a good platformer?  Platformers not based on already-established franchises are pretty rare these days (LittleBigPlanet notwithstanding), so it feels like something I’d want to support, anyway.

Elsewhere, SingStar Abba might just be the game that finally gets my father into video games, WiiWare might have some buried retro treasure on its hands with Space Invaders Get Even!, and The Tale of Desperaux is on its way for the kids.  Finally, there’s A Vampyre Story, which at first glance looks like your run-of-the-mill PC adventure game, but a closer look reveals that it’s been in production since at least 2004, and the folks behind it are former LucasArts adventure game developers.  If this doesn’t make you squeal with joy, you must not have played PC games in the ‘90s; for the rest of us, this could be a classic in the making.

What are you playing this week?  Have you recovered from your turkey hangover?  Let us know in the comments, and enjoy the snow.

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Tuesday, Nov 25, 2008
For all intents and purposes, Art Style: Rotohex is Tetris with triangles.

The third and potentially final game in Nintendo’s Art Style series, Rotohex, follows form with its counterparts by focusing on very simple game design and reward structure. With a price tag of six dollars and no concerns about fighting for shelf space, the games are freed up to deliver a much more basic experience than other puzzle games. They disperse with the graphics and focus on core game mechanics while the audience consumes the less visually sophisticated product because of the bargain price. Rotohex is a prime example of what the downloadable game scene and the internet can deliver.

The game is a traditional falling block puzzle game with a very unique twist. Rather than just use blocks and a color matching design, it relies on triangles to apply that concept. The player must arrange six triangles of the same color in a hexagon while more triangles fall down into the game map, which is itself a hexagon. The player points a Wiimote cursor that is also this same shape and presses A to rotate the triangles inside of it.

It takes a couple of plays to orient yourself to this, but eventually you learn how to carry triangles inside a six-sided grid and piggyback them into completed shapes. You wouldn’t really expect someone proposing that Tetris with triangles would involve this radical of a shift in play style, but it really is a game concept in and of itself. The entire way you observe the environment, discover potential combinations, and make combos changes drastically from block-based puzzle games. In order to spot combinations, you’re better off observing the shapes that are away from where you want to make the combination and you also have to start thinking in terms of clusters and pie slices. Versus Mode works about like you’d expect with the added twist of having a controlled delay before the triangles you’ve combined fall on your opponent. There is also a neutral space with which you must make a combo before the the blocks will fall.

Equally interesting is the basic reward structure the game applies to this setup. There are still leaderboards and score counting in the game’s unlockable ‘Endless’ mode, but the basic ‘Solo’ section relies on an entirely different experience. Like with Orbient, layers of music are your reward for making a complete hexagon. The game starts off with a simple series of beeps in the background, and with each combo another layer of a song is added. Drums, electronic music, and numerous other bizarre effects are built onto that basis. Once you complete a certain number of Hexagons, a new color gets added and these must then be combined to add the next layer of song. The effect is a very good use of synesthesia to deliver a gaming experience. You’re not just playing to arbitrarily score well, as one does in Tetris or Dr. Mario, you’re engaging in discovering the next piece of music.

It’s a very good carrot to put on the stick of reward structure, as I discovered in Orbient, because the game is sucking you in through a variety of techniques rather than just your basic High Score reward. As you progress, the layers of music that are crowding the soundscape are abandoned for new ones, creating an ongoing and ever-changing musical experience for the player. The fact that most of my play sessions devolved into me wanting to hear the next evolution of the music instead of caring about beating the game speaks to how much broader of an audience this design can appeal to.

And…that’s the gist of it. The Art Style games are about core mechanics, musical reward structures, and making very small tweaks that have enormous effects on gameplay. It’s still basically just Tetris with triangles but as with Orbient, the changes result in an entirely new gaming experience. Rotohex is still fundamentally a redux on the puzzle game genre, but by making it into triangles and having a musical reward structure it becomes something that stands apart. Proving that it takes so little to teach an old game design new tricks is what makes Rotohex worth a download.

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Monday, Nov 24, 2008
The potential benefits of every game genre using the same button layout.

During a blog debate between Michael Abbott and Iroquois Pliskin on the indie game Braid, Abbott made the observation that the game was extremely hard to follow if you weren’t a gamer. The game relies on numerous inherent assumptions that come from playing Super Mario Brothers, solving game puzzles, and knowing how to learn how to play a game. Jonathon Blow, the game’s creator, pointed out in the comments that we expect someone to know how to read if they want to understand a book. Mitch Krpata added in the comments that Braid is inherently founded on this aspect of gaming to the point that it’s off-beat to even criticize it…but it does raise the issue. How tricky should learning how to play video games actually be? Setting a barrier for experiencing a game also limits the number of people who will play it. If the best way to get at the heart of a game is a pre-existing skill at games, just as being able to read lets you understand a book, how do we make that process easier for people? How do we make it so every time you play a game, any game, you’ll be able to pick it up and start playing? Why not have a standardized method of control?


Think for a minute about what happens when you play a game for a few hours, do something else for a week, maybe play another game, and then go back to it. You have to re-learn the controls. Which button is crouch, which one is jump, how do I talk to people, how do I run? Contrast that to the idea of having to relearn how to watch a film or what to do when you pick up a book. It seems ludicrous that the fundamental mechanics of either media would have to be re-taught every time. It’s true that both film and books require several years of engaging with them before one becomes used to them. It’s easy for people to forget this stage of our development, but watching a six year old ask what’s going on during a movie over and over reveals this process. You have to learn how to watch or read, but you also only have to learn it once because those mediums use those skills over and over. There will always be the necessary changes from game genre to genre, an RTS obviously can’t work the same way as an FPS. Other mediums also have shifts that require some personal tweaking: stream of consciousness literature takes a while to master and numerous post-modern films require a different mental approach. But that’s still incredibly minor compared to engaging with an entirely new control scheme for a game that’s in the same genre as another. Why does Halo 3 need a different control scheme from Call of Duty 4?


Then again, there are lots of reasons these games have different controls. One game has vehicles in it, the other lets you call airstrikes. But these are game design issues, rules for the player to learn, not controls they need to master. Why would an artistic medium whose foundation is player input insist on screwing around with that aspect so much? It’s not as if games don’t already mimic one another’s interfaces or consoles by featuring similar control schemes anyways. They even made a universal controller during the last generation of consoles, to give you an idea of how similar they all are. Nor are the needs of various video games all that different. A brief review of the development of game controllers reveals one fundamental driving force: what is the best way to control an avatar moving in a virtual space? The Atari joystick led to the D-pad to maximize 2-D control. 3-D meant adding the analog-stick and then another one to control the camera. Balancing these issues is where to place the buttons in relation to this scheme. Not to harp on the Wii-mote, but it’s essentially another step in more precise avatar interactions in a 3-D environment. I want my avatar to do what I just did with my hand. Surely we’ll finally hit one method, one player input, that’s the most efficient of the bunch for a decent period of time?


There have been examples of standardized input systems before, chiefly in the adventure games of the late eighties and nineties. Numerous games were built using the text parser system under Sierra-On-Line and their variation in subject matter is indicative of how empowering a standardized input can be. From King’s Quest to Leisure Suit Larry, you could have a huge variety of games and activities using one single method. The icon system is just an extension of that. Refined and simplified, countless other games were created with the icon interface. Westwood Studios and their Lands of Lore and the Kyrandia series were all one click systems. Lucasarts was always screwing with their interface for some reason, but their best games all used the verb system to great effect. You had games about huge fantasy worlds, parodies of fairy tales, or gory voodoo mysteries. The exact same interface for blowing up a space ship was used for a game about saving the princess. And best of all, you could pick up any of those games after playing one and immediately know what you were doing. You knew to look around, hunt for items, and the other basic skills they all relied on. With the exception of the extensive sequels that have been coming out lately, what games coming out do you not have to sit down learn how to play every time? All of those companies making adventure games picked a way you interacted with their games and just stuck with it. As a result, huge variety in content and game design sprung forth because they were working within the confines of a set system of expression.


So basically, all I’m saying is that all games should have all their buttons be one particular set of buttons. This will shift from genre to genre, but even within that context each genre should have a standardized control scheme. It makes it so I can pick up any action game and start playing immediately. You wouldn’t need a tutorial because game design elements like what a gun does or how to use your special powers would be a self-explanatory menu system. Enforcing this would be a rather unpleasant affair (as is the reaction people would have), publishers would have to bluntly force any developer using their console to adhere to such a system. But the potential for games to start focusing on content and creating interesting experiences makes this a reasonable price to pay. Mitch Krpata once made an observation while trying to review a game whose genre he wasn’t use to: “When I play an action-adventure game, I’m drawing on decades of experience with that style of play. I can zoom right up the learning curve, without getting hung up on the basics.” Think of the enhanced artistic potential of games if players could do that with a game from ten years ago just as easily as a game today. In order for the medium to advance in complexity, it has to start with a simple foundation that is used repeatedly.

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Monday, Nov 24, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-11-24...

In a week that appears to signal the end of the tremendous 2008 holiday gaming glut, it’s nice to see that there are still a few essential buys that are impossible to ignore, even if they are of a decidedly smaller nature than most of the big ticket items we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks.

The first thing I’m going to be doing this week is rediscovering my Shoryuken thumb for the sake of Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix.  Actually, “rediscovering” might not be the right word, as I never was able to pull off the damn dragon punch with anything approximating consistency.  Why can my thumb not master the mechanic of forward-down-down/forward?  I dunno, but I’ll be getting more practice at it this week with my boy Ken.  Seriously, this is another stop on the nostalgia train that’s shamelessly torn through the downloadable console services this year, but it looks like another fantastic one.  No fighter has ever come close to the pick-up-and-play appeal of Street Fighter II, and to see it all prettied up for an HD audience ought to be just enough to convince a whole bunch of people to lose their lives to it again for another month or so.

Of course, while I’m talking about the nostalgia train (which I’m sure looks a lot like a steam engine), I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the DS update of Chrono Trigger, which finally hits this week.  You know, since it almost broke the internet when it was announced back in the summer, I’ve heard almost nothing about this re-release…I guess with so many new properties making their way to portables and consoles this time of year, we don’t really have time to be spending on the graphical tweaks of a classic RPG.  Still, classic it is, and you’re going to be glad you have it next summer when you’ve got 30 hours to kill and no more Xbox games to play.

Other than those two?  Not much to see!  The DS’s Neopets Puzzle Adventure is actually a surprisingly challenging puzzler in a crowded DS market, so that’s certainly worth a look.  Band Manager, on the PC, could be fun or it could be a snooze (but if it has to do with music I may give it a run-through), and the Wii gets a couple of cooking games where you cook food that you can’t actually eat (I may never understand the appeal of this).  Am I overlooking something?  Banjo-Kazooie, maybe?

It’s a slow week, so maybe this is the time to catch up on some of the stuff you missed over the last month and a half or so (surely there’s something, yes?).  Happy Thanksgiving, all.

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Thursday, Nov 20, 2008
A brief overview of the top winner of this year's Machinima Festival in New York.

Gamasutra has an excellent write-up and collection of links for the 2008 Machinima Festival. Winner of several prizes was ‘The Monad’ whose creator was interviewed at Popmatters in this feature. Since his work received extensive coverage in that piece, this post is instead going to focus on the other breakout video of the awards: Egils Mednis’s The Ship.

The video contains no dialogue and is 11:18 minutes long. A man and a small boy, fully clothed, trudge through a long icy valley. When they eventually stop after several long minutes of them walking, the pair collapses and sleeps on the ground. Before long, a dull roaring sound awakens the man and boy. The Ship finally reveals itself, an enormous black monolithic structure that encompasses the entire valley and slowly approaches at an equally mind numbing pace. The movie continues on with the agonizingly slow chase of the Ship while the pair, dragged down by their own physical exhaustion, eventually succumb to its inhuman, constant pace. I’ll leave the ending’s surprisingly poignant comment on what this elaborate metaphor represents for those willing to watch the entire video. It’s open to interpretation and yet…not as much as one would expect.

As with other Machinima, the film is remarkable on its own and yet still serves as a prime example of what a director can accomplish without financial inhibition. This is a small project that is visually depicting what would usually cost thousands in animation or live footage. Counting in that you would have to use CGI to create the ship and that the icy valley would be impossible to depict without computers, the video’s sad metaphor and plodding pace would probably not justify the expense of making this video under normal means. Where would you find someone willing to pay for it? Yet with Machinima, such art not only has a place, it is warmly welcomed. Having an artistic medium where a director can achieve whatever he imagines is only half the struggle, having a welcoming audience and means of distribution for that creativity is the other half. I like to think ‘The Ship’ would be praised at any film festival, but at Machinima 2008 the artist walked away with top honors and praise. You can watch it anytime online through the link.

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