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Wednesday, Jan 28, 2009

The Art of the Video Game by Josh Jenisch (Quirk Books, 2008) is a handsome coffee-table book that describes itself as “the first book to celebrate an exciting new visual medium…” While this isn’t strictly true—The Art of Game Worlds (Morris and Hartas, Collins Design Books, 2006) covers similar territory with more extensive artist interviews—Jenisch’s new book is the first to contain such a rich assortment of digital artwork from a wide array of publishers, including EA, Activision, Sega, Sony, and Konami.


Every page of The Art of the Video Game is filled with imagery from games, and Jenisch wisely includes a broad sampling of concept art, development art, and in-game art. As a result, the entire arc of the design process for selected games like Hellgate: London can be traced from early sketches through painted renderings, all the way to final in-game depictions of characters, weapons, and environments.


The writing is generally illuminating, though it sometimes lapses into hyperbolic proclamations: “Not only are the (NBA Live ‘08) players’ likenesses captured to the last sweaty detail, character movement is flawlessly lifelike”; Such claims aren’t always supported by their accompanying images, but overall, the book offers a useful collection of observations by Jenisch and a variety of game artists and producers.


I was disappointed by the general unevenness of the coverage devoted to the games included. Some titles like Hellboy and Hellgate: London receive full developmental treatment and extensive commentary, while others like Tomb Raider Anniversary and The Sims are barely more than a collection of screenshots. Beautiful Katamari fares even worse in this regard, with meager quotes from a Gamasutra interview and some decidedly un-beautiful images from the game.

My biggest complaint is with the book’s introductory chapter. Entitled “A Brief History of Video Game Art,” it functions as a condensed boiler-plate chronology of video games as industry and video games as technology, but says almost nothing about video game art. Reading it, one might logically assume this chapter was written for another purpose and included here as a kind of contextual primer. Small blue breakout text boxes discussing “the role of the artist” appear to have been added later, seeming to confirm the impression that the book’s subject and its opening chapter have little to do with each other.


While I might wish for a more balanced and thorough treatment of the games included in The Art of the Video Game, the book remains a valuable resource for readers interested in the artistic elements of game development. The fact that the book even exists in such a beautiful hardcover form suggests that Jenisch’s main thesis (“I’m here to make the argument that video games should be considered art”) has been proven with copious visual evidence.


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Monday, Jan 26, 2009
A glance at the multi-player components of Halo 3.

The single-player of Halo 3 is fairly easy to grasp. It’s an effective game design for providing a relatively light combat experience. You play the ultimate cyborg badass and you run around curb stomping aliens in a static sci-fi narrative. The game design supports this by giving you regenerating shields, having cutscenes of people fawning over how awesome you are, and generally providing a solid FPS except for the blue A.I. interrupting you randomly. There isn’t much that anyone can’t grasp on their own, which is an accomplishment in of itself. The multiplayer, on the other hand, is still played today in the thousands and merits a closer look. Now that some time has gone by and the game has been dethroned by the extremely different Call of Duty 4 in terms of popularity, there’s now a chance to contrast the two and learn more about how they work. While the latter game that allows players to compete purely on skill, Halo 3 offers a larger amount of variety by having the weapons break the game into separate modes of play. Each mode has a distinct advantage over the other, so that the game allows both skilled players and unskilled ones to compete in the same space.


The chief virtue of the game in terms of appeal is the variety of play styles it supports. I have a decent middle-range game but prefer getting into close quarters with the spiker. Others prefer sniper rifles while there are always the power sword types who like close quarters. Iroquois Pliskin did a write-up of the multiplayer where he discusses this virtue in-depth. He explains, “The driving idea behind Halo’s combat is to create engagements at three distinct registers: long, medium, and short-range. Succeeding at each of these three distances requires the mastery of a different set of weapons and tactics; lobbing your grenades well is one of the essential skills in the game, and using them effectively is a different proposition at each of these three distances.” Indeed, the huge range of skills involved with the game and the wide range of players involved are what constitutes the typical Halo 3 multiplayer experience. A player using a sniper rifle typically jumps around and will immediately lose if you get into close quarters while its equipped. A player using a sword is easy prey for a sniper if they catch them in the open. The consequence of this constantly dueling range of skills is that in Halo 3 you can genuinely “dominate” someone. You can negate the combat range they are using by using the counter and get an advantage that is usually an instant kill. Although some levels do specialize or limit the ranges possible, Halo 3 maps usually feature a wide variety of terrain so that you can successfully engage with any of three approaches.


This idea of randomized dominance can be seen in the weapons as well. Guns that stay strong over multiple ranges tend to have a handicap like the Spartan Laser’s recharge time while guns that only work at one range tend to fire quickly and reload fast. Other guns can work at two different ranges, such as the Spiker’s extra damage in close quarters while still being a decent medium range weapon. Specialization is then the quickest way to rise in skill with Halo 3 so the player typically finds the weapon that supports their preferred combat and then they try to engage players in it. You grab a battle rifle and then try to engage people at medium to long range, for example. In terms of dealing with a gun being fired at you, realizing what’s being shot at you is only half the battle. Picking up on what kind of weapons the player you’re facing is always going for and then disarming that advantage by using the opposite kind is the quickest way to get ahead. This also illustrates why working as a team is so important, one person works at one range while another is going at a different distance. Contrast that to Call of Duty 4 where the players are all typically spread even and using the same set of weapons. Everyone has a basic assault rifle, everyone is shooting from the shoulder, and everyone is blindly lobbing grenades and ducking behind cover. A great deal of this can be attributed to the levels and class system in Call of Duty 4. As soon as you’re on the level where long range is best, everyone switches to those weapons. The game levels the variety of Halo 3 by allowing all players to pick their starting weapons and thus everyone is purely competing in terms of skill. There’s no random chance that the person is just using the superior gun for that range since they’ll have picked it. Halo 3, due to its ‘Find the gun’ setup for most types of play, cuts the skill barrier down and allows less competent players to still play. Contrast it to other games where you race to the guns: whoever gets the best weapon quickly dominates. Because Halo 3 balances out each weapon to always have a weakness, it doesn’t succumb to someone just finding the best gun on the map either.


For many players, it’s easy to think of this game design as flawed instead of brilliant. The idea that you cannot win purely on your skill is offensive to many players simply because what else is a game for except a contest of skill? With Halo 3 the emphasis on inclusion means that you can always pop into a match and make a kill. Even if you’re having a weak day or playing by yourself, you can engage with the game. Unlike Call of Duty 4, which is a bit tricky if you’ve had a few beers or are trying to relax, you can turn on Halo 3 and just unwind. The design also allows for very intense competitive play should you choose to engage on a different level. Mastering all the tricks with grenades, knowing when to retreat, and knowing each map perfectly allows players to gain a decisive edge. Team play is also a world in and of itself, since this essay is based mostly on rounds of playing Social Slayer solo. These options are still just ways around what is essentially engaging in an elaborate round of rock, paper, scissors. If you both choose the same range, it boils down to skill. If you choose rock and they choose scissor, then that dominance factor comes into play again. What makes this so impressive is that Halo 3 is an FPS you can engage with in a variety of ways. You can play it over a couple of beers, you can play it in a tournament, or you can play it to cool off from work. A little bit of chaos in the game is what makes that variety possible.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Jan 25, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-01-26...

Who needs new franchises when the old ones keep kicking?


A couple of old NES-initiated franchises are releasing the latest iterations of their respective series this week, and both deserve to be recognized as quality for their respective genres, despite the niche audience that both cater to.


Rygar, on the NES, was a flawed but still brilliant little stroke of adventure-platforming, a game that favored exploration over the constant jump-hack-jump games of its day.  It flawlessly followed the Metroid formula of guarded exploration, making areas viewable but unexplorable until certain items and power-ups were found, and its graphic style was distinct on a system where “distinct” was a difficult adjective to master.  If not for an archaic RPG-style grind ‘n level-up system that artificially and unnecessarily lengthened gameplay in a game that could not be saved in any way (there wasn’t even a password system), it might have been remembered as one of the great, long-remembered NES games.  Plus, it introduced the Diskarmor, something like a combination of a circular saw blade and a yo-yo, a weapon whose (eventual) versatility makes it an awfully desirable bit of gear.  Here’s Rygar in 1987…


And here he is today, getting his God of War on against the


Colossi

“Hekatonkeil”:


Look, Rygar may have been why my first NES died.  I left that thing on for a week just trying to make it through the game (which I never actually accomplished).  I still have a soft spot for the guy, and I know that one day…one day soon…I shall beat a Rygar game.  Maybe this week’s Wii release of Rygar: The Battle of Argus will be the one.


On the less action-oriented side is Nobunaga’s Ambition, a strategy game that’s been churning out release after release for 22 years while managing the unenviable feat of being utterly ignored by the mainstream gaming press for most of that time.  I remember that the first one got something of a push in Nintendo Power, and despite my own interest in deeper gameplay experiences (triggered by Dragon Warrior), the lack of anyting resembling monsters or flashy graphics steered me away from it.  While I’m not the only one it put off, as it’s certainly sold enough copies to be a viable franchise for over 20 years, I haven’t met anyone who’s played a single game in the series.  Have you?  Let me know it the comments!  I want to know you people exist.


Nobunaga’s Ambition has gone through a bit of an overhaul as well, but incredibly, it’s still recognizable as Nobunaga’s Ambition here in 2009, in its most recent incarnation.  Here’s the 1987 version of Nobunaga’s Ambition:


And this is Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle, on the PS2:


I can’t imagine, if you’re into the whole historically-based strategy game thing, that you’ll be disappointed by this one.  Can we hand it a Lifetime Achievement Award yet?


What are you playing this week?  My copy of the Ultimate Shooting Collection shows up on Tuesday, so I know what I’m doing.  Check out the list of releases, and trailers for Rygar: The Battle of Argus and Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle after the jump.


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Tuesday, Jan 20, 2009
Does Need for Speed Undercover have a place in the racing game fan's library?

The narrative attempts of the Need For Speed titles have always felt a little unnecessary.  In general, the racing genre doesn’t require any plot to make racing fans want to drive.  But for the past several years, Need for Speed titles have been clearly influenced by The Fast and the Furious films, and as such, it is not surprising that similar story elements have made their way in.  This is not inherently bad.  However, the execution of these elements in Need For Speed Undercover is particularly lackluster.  Leaping over the uncanny valley direct to live action territory gives the the cutscenes a distinctly campy quality, making it difficult to feel invested in either the plot or your character.


It’s not as though that should necessarily matter, of course.  For games like this, it’s all about the driving.  Much can be forgiven in the face of solid and fun core driving mechanics.  Arcade-inspired racing physics can be intensely fun, and in fact they seem to be the bread and butter of the Need For Speed franchise.  But in Undercover, the AI implementation and relative speed of your car versus the opposition in some of the events serve to make parts of the game far too mindlessly easy.
There are certainly a number of things that Undercover does well.  The Cops ‘n Robbers online mode is certainly fun, if not entirely original.  The overall sense of speed delivered by the game can make it quite a visceral experience as well.  Further, the actual driving mechanics are well-realized.  Unfortunately, Underground makes a number of missteps.  While some, like the previously mentioned easy difficulty and poorly realized cutscenes, are a function of developer choice, others seem to have been due solely to a lack of testing and polish.  The reviewed PS3 version had frequent framerate and clipping issues that make it feel as though it was rushed to market.  The fact that the game is being released for an amazing ten distinct systems indicates how hard EA is pushing the title, and as such, it’s not entirely surprising development efforts were spread thin.


Still, none of Undercover‘s problems are enough to sink the title outright.  Really, the problem that Need For Speed Undercover faces is that Burnout: Paradise has significantly raised the bar for this kind of game, and accomplished the open-world mechanics and online experience with more polish and flair than is on display here.  It offers a superior experience in almost every way meaningful to the genre.


What makes this interesting is the fact that, though the two franchises were developed by different studios, they are both published by EA.  In a sense, then, EA is openly competing with itself, given that racing fans only have so many dollars, and while one of their racing franchises is critically acclaimed, the other is content to be competent but mediocre.  For die-hard fans of the Need for Speed franchise, or those that focus most of their gaming on racing titles, Undercover can be enjoyable.  But for gamers who spread their tastes across a variety of genres, there are simply better racing games to be played.


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Text:AAA
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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