Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Monday, Jan 19, 2009
A look at 8-bit aesthetics and their advantages over modern graphics.


About a year ago, I was playing Trilby: Art of Theft and I noticed that it led to me doodling characters from it. That experience didn’t repeat itself again until I played the indie game Iji and started doodling the various aliens from it. The games are fairly different from each other except for one shared trait: the art for both is simplified and resembles 8-bit aesthetics more than modern games. Why is the simpler and more abstract representation enticing my subconscious to reproduce and modify what I saw more than any modern game with complex art and graphics? At a glance, the basic idea behind abstract art can be seen by flipping through this flickr group. You have the basic idea or concept communicated in the lines and coloring but you leave out enough detail or coherence so that the viewer still has to interpret. The audience gets to have a limited amount of input in what they’re viewing because the artwork remains silent on certain details. Looking at the urge to doodle that was suddenly springing back up after playing these two abstract games, is this an area of player input that is being under utilized in today’s graphical advancements?


 


Part of how these graphics create a connection comes from looking at the various techniques games use to draw you in. Your health bar, weapons, and abilities are tools for creating a connection with the avatar on the screen. In an essay on the subject of ideological worlds in games the author (can’t find the name on it, sorry) comments, “games forge what James Paul Gee (2003) has called a projective identity, whereby the player adopts the perspectivity of the avatar, developing a sort of empathy for the character on screen. Clinton shows how icons and representational bars attune players’ perceptions in the world to those of the avatar by making precise the character’s perceptual state.” In other words, the HUD, health bar, etc. constitute the player’s method for projecting onto the character by giving us a way to see what they are feeling. The essay and the quote are both about the ways players connect and project themselves into video games and it raises an important point: what player input is really about is giving you ways to project yourself into the character through game design. One of the reactions to that formula is to presume that interacting with the narrative then becomes the primary or even only way a person can project themselves into the game’s characters. The ambiguity that abstract art relies on could then also be considered a fair way to allow a player to interact. The player is able to interpret what their protagonist looks like, how their attacks look, and can manipulate those images to whatever their preference is with their imagination. This is something different than a character editor because unlike the finite options of Fallout 3 or Oblivion, with abstract art the player is unlimited in defining the meaning of the simple images.


About two years ago there was a fairly nonsensical false critical movement that games which didn’t feature realistic graphics were inferior to their cartoony counterparts. Mostly a byproduct of ad men selling games and HD TVs, the counter argument was to point out that there are countless games which rely on cartoony and non-literal depictions with great success. A good example of someone arguing this point is a Kombo article defending Wind Waker and pointing out that there are many unrealistic elements that make videogames fun such as physics or unrealistic reload times. The author also brings up a variety of games with more realistic graphics like Resident Evil 4 and points out that they are a lot less visually exciting. Grey, brown, mud, dirt, and equally drab monsters populate these environments. Yet video games already featured boring and grey environments in their 8-bit form without these complaints being noticeable. Numerous older games have the same kind of factory level or repetitive swarm of enemies that are equally dull. The fundamental difference is that modern brown worlds graphically leave nothing to the imagination. There is no abstraction for us to play with in our minds. An entire area of player input has been cut off by our very own desire to have things look sharper and Hi-Res. I don’t doodle Leon from Resident Evil 4 because I don’t have anything to add or interpret, that’s what he looks like and my horrid drawing abilities are never going to do him any justice.


Artistically, the division between a literal depiction of something and an abstract division can be read like the difference between a symbol and a sign. Carl Jung, in his book


Symbols of Transformation

explains, “A symbol is an indefinite expression with many meanings, pointing to something not easily defined and therefore not fully known. But the sign always has a fixed meaning, because it is a conventional abbreviation for, or a commonly accepted indication of, something known. The symbol therefore has a large number of analogous variants, and the more of these variants it has at its disposal , the more complete and clear-cut will be the image it projects of its object.” The giant parasitic man-monster in Resident Evil 4 is a sign. It’s a depiciton leaves no question about what it is thinking, feeling, or what its actions look like. The 8-bit Mega Man or pixellated King Graham are symbols of themselves. We are able to dictate how they look and act in our minds, we are able to apply our own input to even that fundamental level of the game’s narrative thanks to their symbolic nature. Instead of a character, they are a symbol that can be adapted to whatever the player wants it to be. Obviously the artistic quality and impressive efforts that developers put into their modern games is here to stay and should be applauded. But for those games that take a more abstract approach with their work, the possibilities of such art should not be underestimated.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Jan 18, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-01-19...

I missed a week!  Ack!  OK, here’s last week in a nutshell: Moon.  If anyone can do a first-person shooter on the DS, it’s Renegade Kid, who put together the actually-pretty-excellent Dementium: The Ward last year.  It’s been pretty well-reviewed so far, and DS gamers don’t have a ton of options for when they want to shoot things.  You can shoot things in Moon.  Have at it!


EA\'s Skate 2

EA\‘s Skate 2


As for this week, there are plenty of sneaky picks that look awfully interesting.  Skate 2 follows the very well-received inaugural edition of EA’s big new Tony Hawk-killer, which so far has lived up to such a title by actually making video game skating feel like something worth doing again.  SimAnimals is a new Wii “Sim” experience that ditches the humans, which might actually be the smartest thing that EA’s done on the franchise for the Wii…human simulation is a little too much for the little console that could, so why not coerce the veterinarian in all of us out for a while?  I have no idea what The Maw is, really, but the stills I’ve seen from the Xbox Live Arcade title look pretty interesting, and the PS2 continues its JRPG renaissance with Ar Tonelico: Melody of Metafalica, a title that’s probably pretty profound in context, but looks kind of meaningless right now.


Even so, it’s a different Japanese import that’s got my eye this week, one that may not sell many copies, and may not turn many heads at all.  It’s a little something being put out by budget publisher UFO Interactive, with a truly nondescript title: the Wii-exclusive Ultimate Shooting Collection.


Karous

Karous


Ultimate Shooting Collection is actually, as you may have guessed, a collection of three games, two of which have never been released in the United States.  The one that has been released in the states is Chaos Field, which sounds like the space-shooter equivalent of Shadow of the Colossus, basically a collection of space shooter boss fights one after the other.  Radio Allergy was almost released in the states—it was supposed to be one of the last GameCube games, if not the last, but it was cancelled before it could see the light of day.  Finally, there’s Karous, a game whose art style has fascinated me since I first caught wind of it back when it was a brand new Dreamcast game being released in the very un-Dreamcasty year of 2008.  Yes, I’m going to go ahead an pretend that un-Dreamcasty can be used as an adjective.  It’s actually the reason I bought a Dreamcast in the first place.  Of course, once I did, I could no longer track down a copy of the game.


Now’s my chance…and yours as well.


Is anyone else out there as excited for the Ultimate Shooting Collection as I am?  Going Skate-ing this week?  Perhaps the PSP Star Ocean remake is more your speed?  Check the full release list after the jump, followed by a trailer for, yes, Ultimate Shooting Collection.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jan 12, 2009
A rundown of the part of Braid that gets people the most worked up, as opposed to the whole thing.


I’m a bit late to the Braid party when it comes to blogs. When the prestigious Soulja Boy has weighed in with his opinion, there is clearly not much new to analyze about the game. Still, I’ve had this thing on the back burner for a while and now seems like as good a time as any to post it. People always have a funny reaction when you try to explain the problems with a piece of writing. When you say something is causing hiccups in the process, yet is still grammatically correct or communicated its point, one wonders what more can be expected. One way of explaining writing is that it can be seen as a system that needs constant tweaking based on the message you’re trying to communicate. Order of information, complexity, and presumptions about the reader all have to be factored. The words and phrasing must be adjusted to fit the message. For example, you don’t quote a Shakespeare line about doom to tell someone that a bus is coming at them because “Hey, car, watch out” will suffice, right? You do that because it’s a simple communication. It’s a simple message and doesn’t require more explanation that communicates greater depth. Contrast that to when someone asks you why you’re upset. “I’m upset because my girlfriend dumped me,” communicates a comprehension of their emotional state because we can presume the reader knows what this means. “But I thought you hated her,” your friend asks back. What we now have is a hiccup in the system. Past statements are conflicting with the explanation, listener’s past experiences don’t resonate, or they aren’t following the train of thought sequentially. What do you do?


 


I’m starting this critique of Braid with that explanation of writing because I think the game’s short vignettes warrant explaining. Jonathon Blow created a metaphorical video game design about time and he incorporated the writing into that design. He’s also taken a lot of flame from people for having the guts to make this game not be highly accessible and I can see why it would put him on the defensive. Popmatters did an excellent review of it and as Subramanian points out, the writing is the only thing one can possibly bitch about in the game. Blow himself explains in an interview with Joystiq, “The narrative in Braid is not being obscure just for obscurity’s sake. It’s that way because it was the only way I knew how to get at the central idea, which is something big and subtle and resists being looked at directly.” Of all the things that people seemed the most conflicted about with the game, I thought this one merited addressing. So what’s the problem? The writing is neither bad nor incorrect. It is out of order.


 


Back to the barrier of communicating why the girlfriend you hated still made you upset when she dumped you. What do you say? There are two basic choices: indicate that this is a complex form of sadness OR use an example. Essentially, “It’s complicated, man” or “Well, she could be a real pain but she really made me feel good about myself too.” Which has communicated more to you? The example, right? I’m filling in what your brain does when you try to understand something, I’m providing the frame of reference for the conduct that you don’t have. That’s why writers always say “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell me that you’re upset, show me why. Don’t tell me the character is lonely, show them acting lonely. It’s the traditional method for communicating complex feelings because it’s still functioning like a simple “Hey, car, watch out” by supplying the person who doesn’t understand the image of the car as well. Braid, with its themes of time manipulation, chucks a big monkey wrench into this whole process. The text, which we are expecting to be some kind of introduction or explanation, is actually a combination of responses to the level and metaphors for various things going on in-game. What’s off-putting is that we’re getting this before we have any frame of reference. Just as the game is about the implications of time travel and achieving goals, the text is about experiencing a variety of emotions and experiences out of order as one would expect once sequential time is out of the picture. We’ll take a few examples and watch this in action.


 


A green book from World 2:


Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly
with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt.


But if we’ve learned from a mistake and become better for it,
shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for
the mistake?


The paragraph makes perfect sense after you’ve played the level. This is talking about the larger implications of forgiveness and time travel. It explores the time-reversal mechanic by explaining it as a form of forgiveness, of being able to undo punishment. Other books follow similar suit, World 3 talks about being non-manipulable and not always controlled by the princess, the levels involve the glowy green stuff that is immune to time rewind. World 4 talks about visiting childhood memories and reliving them, time travel moves forwards and backwards in conjunction with you. When we are thinking about our memories, we are in absolute control of their movement. In combination with quantum mechanics, it also proposes the idea of time not being linear and how all these alternate realities are spooling out. What throws the player is that you’re reading this text before you play the level. You’re being warned about the incoming car without having any frame of reference for the car itself. It’s saying “This is complicated, man” without me having any understanding of why. Thus the complaints of being intentionally obtuse: the text is designed to be experienced out of order from the actual comprehension. This confusion is corrected as soon as one plays the level, but it’s the reason for the reaction many people had.



Let’s look at a book from World 6:


But the ring makes its presence known. It shines out to others like a
beacon of warning. It makes people slow to approach. Suspicion,
distrust. Interactions are torpedoed before Tim can open his mouth.


This is the world where the wedding ring acts as a way to make a time bubble. Anything in the bubble slows down significantly, allowing you to slow down cannons or platforms so you can get through at just the right time. Stephen Hawking is about as far as I get with quantum physics but my understanding is that the game design is calling the wedding ring a blackhole, the idea that time slows to absolute zero at certain points but are also inherently empty. Ergo the part about “people being slow to approach and terminating social interactions. Or not, given the part about being a shining beacon, but it’s the way the symbol resonates with me the most. Like the other texts, you can’t quite get a grip on what he’s talking about until you play the level. It works once you play and think about the point Blow is making…but that’s not what the audience is expecting when they read these books. They want an explanation or introduction. This quirk in writing is particularly effective provided you play the game without using gamefaqs and don’t try to do it in one sitting. On my initial encounter with many of these books I didn’t follow their point and went through the door confused. After playing in that world I’d get tired of a puzzle and leave to try a different world. When I came back ready to try again, another glance at the books and suddenly they made sense. In this way the actual text is understood in the same fluctuating way that the game’s design deals with time.



The ending stays strong, including the atomic bomb reference, as a collection of examples of goals one pursues but how our relationship with these goals collapses under quantum physics (we already got the goal) and personally (there is always another goal to pursue). Short vignettes before a level starts that establish the setting and story have been done before and under conventional game structures they act like an introduction. Braid’s upsetting of that norm is ultimately welcome for many people looking for a new kind of game experience. The point of this critique, as I pointed out above, was to figure out why people complained about the writing. The argument that language is about being understood is a good one but one should never get too confining about what their art can and cannot do. There is a proud tradition of writers and artists who have taken this ideal of communication and told people to shove it. William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce all wrote some of literature’s greatest books in non-sequential and incredibly confusing manners to experiment with time and rationality. If it’s any consolation to those irritated by the game, keep in mind Faulkner got a lot of shit for


The Sound & The Fury

too. But it’s also a great book once you realize what he was going on about in the Benjy section.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Jan 12, 2009
Winners of the 2009 I.G.F. have been announced!

The tricky thing about the independent game scene is that much like the music world, there is an absolute ton of material to dig through. With so many games offering variations and minor adjustments to genres, it helps to have someone whose willing to dig through it all and point out the games that really do something interesting.


This year’s IGF Finalists are a fantastic place to find just such a narrowing down. The huge variety of games nominated also means that there is something for any genre fan to find from the list. Whether it’s the artistically amazing browser adventure game Machinarium or the psychedelic tunnel chaser Brain Pipe, games that innovated in a huge variety of ways were able to win praise. Particularly interesting are the breakthroughs in interface this year, such as Musaic Box using changes in sound and tempo to create puzzles or Mightier incorporating printed out puzzles and a webcam into the game. It’s good to see that even though games that were pinnacles of refinement are present, there are also one’s recognized for sheer innovation.


I’m particularly glad to see The Graveyard made it on the list under innovation. As was brought up in the coverage of that game’s post-mortem, it’s extremely hard to classify it as a game since there is no choice to it. All you can do is a linear series of actions combined with a random event. The blurb explaining the nomination says, “It’s more like an explorable painting than an actual game. An experiment with realtime poetry, with storytelling without words.” That’s an appealing sentiment to me because even though the game could improve on the exploration aspect it still acknowledges its strength: the game is just a beautiful space. It’s just a black and white graveyard, a single poetic act, and a sad song about death. If a game like You Have To Burn The Rope is going to be praised for its snark and simple mechanics, then the The Graveyard deserves a nod for its minimalist approach as well.


In addition to I.G.F.’s choices is Indie Games’s choices for best games of 2008. These are broken up by genre instead of awards and include shooters, adventure games, and browser games along with several prolific artists being listed. All of these games are guaranteed to work on just about any PC and several are present on console services.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Jan 9, 2009
A defense of the narrative elements in Gears of War 2.

You’ve read the reviews.  Gears of War 2 has a marked lack of depth.  It’s relentlessly immature.  Its characters are a little corny.


As our own Ryan Smith puts it, “The rating on the game says it’s Mature, but half the time it feels like it was the brainchild of a 15-year-old boy.”


All of this is entirely true.  I have no argument refuting any of it.  What I will argue against, however, is the idea that somehow the story (or lack thereof) in Gears of War 2 makes it less of a game.  On the contrary, I don’t know that I’ve found a game whose story complements the gameplay quite so well as that in Gears of War 2 in quite some time.


Perhaps it’s a matter of expectations.  When you pick up a game that says Gears of War on it, to expect any sort of meaningful story is to be asking something of a game that it was never intended to provide.  The entire point of the Gears of War series is to blow stuff up and, if possible, look good doing it.  If you blast an enemy in the head enough times, that head explodes into a crimson gush of alien blood.  If you’ve got the guts to run up to a baddie, you’re rewarded with the opportunity to take a chainsaw to said baddie.  Your reward for doing all of this is to fight bigger bad guys and see the sights that new terrain has to offer.


The strength of the “story” in Gears 2 is that it is almost entirely motivated by moving the player from one dangerous situation to another.  The game starts in a bombed-out gray ‘n brown environment that looks entirely familiar to just about anyone who played the first game, but then you’re given an excuse to shoot reavers (giant airborn squid things) in lush greenery.  Then you end up inside(!) a giant worm.  Then you end up dodging “razor rain” in an all-too open environment.  Then you’re in a giant temple.  Along the way you blast away some humongous beastly looking things, ride a reaver and a brumak, and confront the Locust Queen.


The longer cutscenes in the game do their part in heightening the player’s anticipation.  A long sequence at the beginning features the gears’ commander giving a Big Important Military Speech.  Yes, it’s a clichéd trope when it comes to this sort of movie or game, but while he’s doing all of that, you get these tremendous panoramic shots that convey the scale of the operation you’re embarking on.  The scripting and the cinematography of the scene is perfect, and it’s a great way to get motivated for the operation ahead.


The intimate conversation with the Locust Queen does the same thing, but in a completely different sort of way.  Her quiet confidence and the constant presence of the impossibly agile, impossibly strong Skorge by her side as she speaks heightens the dread you feel as you know you’re about to face off against the Predator-like beast that caused so much havok early in the game.  She’s rambling on and on about infected locusts and lambent whatnots and maybe western philosophy and how to balance a checkbook, but it doesn’t really matter because, again, the game is not really about the narrative, the game is about look and feel.


Ah, but then there is Maria.


Maria, the captured love of Dom’s life, is where my argument is in danger of falling apart.  Maria is the closest thing here to narrative for the sake of narrative, because nowhere is the search for Maria truly integral to the progression of the story.  Still, in a land where the toughest guy wins, the search for Maria served to make Dom tougher, even as it gave him a gooey center.  Maria is his motivation, before and after we learn her ultimate fate.  His anger at losing her rubs off on the player, which actually makes chainsawing enemies into bloody giblets even more satisfying.  Again, the story feeds the sense of scope, heightening the drama and determination of the player. 


Of course this won’t be true for everyone; for every player that thinks the story works wonderfully with the game, there’s one that thinks it’s a distracting mess.  I have a theory as to determining which side of the fence you’ll fall on: Did you like Independence Day?  Did Armageddon make you tear up a little at the end?  Did you think The Rock was a cinematic masterpiece?  Aside from proving I’d never make it as a film critic, the fact that I can say yes to the aforementioned three questions (or anything similar that relates to big, stupid, Michael Bay-style action movies) has a lot to do with why I find the story elements of Gears of War 2 not only tolerable, but pretty fantastic.  The story makes everything bigger, and it gives me even more reasons to enjoy blowing things up.  What’s not to like?


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