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

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Nov 19, 2008
A look at the latest iteration of Tetris via Nintendo's WiiWare.

Tetris is a difficult game to screw up. A certified classic, it’s gripping in its ease of play and demands thumb-numbing madness because of its no-two-snowflakes-are-alike conception and ever-increasing difficulty. There’s little that hasn’t already been written about or executed in the puzzler, which was originally released in 1985 and has seen countless new incarnations and spinoffs, and just when you think you’ve seen everything, the WiiWare-released Tetris Party finds a way to add more to the discussion.


Tetris Party‘s main selling point—besides the fact that it’s, ya know, Tetris—is its mass of new features, which includes a co-op mode, online battle, field climber, stage racer, and a fill-in-the-blanks-style puzzle. Many of these spinoffs are Wii-exclusive and haven’t been seen in the Tetris lexicon in the past. But for all of the ingenuity in these new formats, Tetris Party is worth little more than its already-proven foundation.


The most useful function of Tetris Party is the online play. An obvious addition to any game at this point, it was just the sort of thing that would’ve been forgotten, making this game almost completely useless. What’s most innovative about this mod, however—and this is true of the regular battle mode as well—is the addition of a Mario Kart-esque weapons system. By eliminating specific blocks, players are afforded a number of different weapons ranging from time attacks (stop the other players or make their pieces come extraordinarily fast), who-is-that-little-dude attacks (taken from the field climber mode), and attacks that allow you to utilize the Wii’s point-and-shoot controls.


Outside of the battle and traditional marathon modes, Tetris Party offers little in the way of enticing incentives. In stage racer, you’re given a single block that you have to navigate through a scrolling level, making sure you don’t fall too far behind. It’s a good idea but its execution becomes increasingly simplistic when you realize you can basically just mash the turn buttons until your piece craftily moves its way through the seemingly dead end puzzle.


Field climber features a tiny man that climbs up the blocks you’ve already placed, in order to make his way to the top of the screen. It’s an interesting idea, placing the focus on the negative space of Tetris rather than the space you fill, but it offers little in the way of replay value—once you meet your goal the first time, it’s not a very captivating play. The other negative-space-related mode is one in which you use custom pieces to fill such shapes as letters and apples.


The worst part about Tetris Party? 1,200 Wii points. For what you’re getting, it’s pretty hard to justify spending more than most Virtual Console/WiiWare games because ultimately, you’re just getting online Tetris in return. So if you’re a huge puzzle gaming fan or have just been jonesing for some new Tetris mods, this is right up your alley. If you’re like everyone else, however, Tetris Party is very hit or miss.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Nov 17, 2008
A break down of the passive sequences in Call of Duty 4 as amusement park rides. Spoilers Abound.


One of the most prolific themes of modern video games is the idea of creating a roller coaster or theme park ride experience for the player. Just as you would go through an amusement park and jump on the various rides, in video games you go through and try out the various experiences offered. The designer creates a roller coaster path through a series of action-packed events. A prime example of this design is Call of Duty 4’s single-player campaign. Whether it’s operating the turret in a gun ship, dying in a nuclear fallout, or battling in the streets of a Middle-Eastern city, this is the gaming equivalent of an amusement park ride for modern warfare. Three specific moments are particularly impressive in this design because they push the norm for shooter experiences and offer something besides generic victory scenarios. What Call of Duty 4 tackles in three distinct sequences is dying in a war zone.


 


The first roller coaster sequence takes place in the midst of a Civil War. The developers pull the rug out from the player in this sequence because up until this point the game has been acting like a fairly typical shooter. Suddenly, we are thrust into the body of the President as he is being dragged to his execution. You have no control over movement but can move the camera, a logical game design choice given the linear narrative. What makes it interesting is that players almost never play the victim in an FPS and suddenly, here they are experiencing it. Once it dawns on the player that this is a passive sequence though, there is a risk for things to become boring. In Half-life 2 there are many passive exchanges that are dull. But here, the developers keep it interesting by surrounding the player with activity. Civilians run in terror, firefights are going on, and every atrocity of war one can imagine is going on at all sides. The player still controls the camera and they immediately start trying to see everything going on as the car drives through the city. It is, literally, like going on the Pirates of the Carribean ride except everything has been replaced with modern warfare events. By coercing the player to frantically look all around they are mimicking what a person in that situation would be doing. In this way, the game involves the player into being a willing camera man. A willing participant in making the event be presented the way that it would be for someone actually in that situation. The slow dread the player feels as they see the inevitable gun barrel coming upon them and finally being aimed is also present. The game gives you the experience of being executed and it coerces our involvement through both game design and player input.


The nuke sequence is still probably one of the most incredible experiences a video game has yet provided for its audience. What would the final moments of being at ground zero for a nuclear blast be like? The level opens with the player acting as the character they’ve been playing for several missions and whom we assume is going to be escaping from the blast in yet another frantic battle. Crawling out of the crashed chopper is done at a crippling pace and the player cannot see outside until they get to the exit. It’s an excellent piece of level design that controls the visual flow of the surroundings to the player. Like the passive sequence of being executed, there is a great deal of careful design architecture occurring. Each sight and sound is carefully paced in the level all while the player is still in control. The first thing you see once you get outside the chopper is a dead marine. Any thoughts about escaping begin to fade at that ominous sign. Movement is heavily inhibited and the player falls over several times while they try to move. Your crippld state is heavily emphasized by the sound here as well; each footstep makes a dragging sound and there is heavy breathing in the soundscape. You’re able to make some progress but slowly you start to realize maybe this level is different. Maybe you’re not getting out of here. A glance to the right reveals an incinerated playground and then the moment we were wondering about finally happens. The game design makes you collapse. You look up and finally see the mushroom cloud glowing bright yellow in the background. A crashing sound to your left draws your attention to a sky scraper crumbling to dust. No more walking and the lights dim, with only the strange sound of children playing in the burned out playground going on around you.


The final passive sequence is at the end of the game and it’s just as startling as the others. A lot of people criticized it for coming seemingly from nowhere, but given the almost cliché briefing where the soldiers all talk about buying each other drinks and the fact that you never really know when a mission is doomed in war anyways, it didn’t disrupt my personal experience. Your attempt to escape the Russian Ultra Nationalists goes awry and you end up stranded on a bridge. After two missiles from a helicopter slam your position, you struggle around in shock while everyone in your squad is brutally shot or injured. The camera is controlled somewhat by the player but the game does not hesitate to jerk your head for you, so you can only move it around a small amount. Your fellow soldier is shot while he drags you to safety, the approaching soldiers kill your team-mate, and your captain is struggling with the gun in his belt. In this instance, absolute freedom as in the other levels would cause you to miss the designers intended experience. The final moments of seeing the game’s main villain walking towards you culminate in the player performing the ‘Last Stand’ activity that they have witnessed throughout the game. A downed soldier pulls out their pistol and fires off a few shots before they’re finished off. Only now, it is the player performing the doomed action. Because of the other two cutscenes we are desensitized to our dying and when the gun is slid towards us concerns about staying alive are forgotten. All you want to do is take aim and finish off the person responsible for all of this. Yet the game’s final twist is perhaps its most clever, because just as we are preparing ourselves to die because the game has demonstrated that it has no qualms about killing us, we are miraculously saved. The game explores both elements of combat, dying for no reason as with the nuclear strike and being saved while others die around you.


 


There are a lot of fundamental elements in these moments of Call of Duty 4 that have little to do with game design or even narrative and instead boil down to aesthetics. When a game puts you into a passive situation where you can only observe one must instead approach it as an architect. How is this room conceived? Where do my eyes go? What is the flow? An excellent essay proposes just such an approach to games by pointing out the possibilities an architecture student would see in a video game. What is the perfect way to design the scenery and landscape of an atomic wasteland? Of the room you intend to be the last thing the player sees? It’s an aesthetic that Call of Duty 4 explores with these passive moments and that is greatly enhanced by the emotion the landscape design brings out. It’s not enough to just stick the player in a car that’s surrounded by people being shot. It’s not enough to have people speak to your character instead of shooting at them. Several other FPS games, such as Quake 4’s horrific Strogg conversion sequence or F.E.A.R.’s blending of cutscene and explosions have all explored the idea of passive sequences. What happens in Call of Duty 4 is a passive sequence that doesn’t take away the excitement of participating in those moments because the roller coaster ride always gives us something to look at.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Nov 17, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-11-17

(Schiller is taking a break this week as his body attempts to recover from a business trip gone loopy.  He’ll be back next week with his normal weekly wrap-up.


The Last Remnant

The Last Remnant


He does want to mention that he doesn’t see what the big deal is with Final Fantasy when Square Enix keeps putting out full-featured, innovative RPGs like The Last Remnant...


He also thinks Lips is going to be a bigger hit than anyone realizes…


He’ll probably end up buying a whole pile of sequels in the form of Raving Rabbids, Cooking Mama, Sonic, and Tomb Raider...


And he really hopes the new DS Tecmo Bowl game actually comes out this week (as opposed to its originally scheduled release last week)...


He left a trailer for The Last Remnant for you, along with that humongous list of releases (among which the PSP’s list looks…well, sort of pitiful), after the jump.)


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Nov 13, 2008
The post-mortem reactions and thoughts on a short indie game about death.

The Graveyard is an art game about being old. More specifically, it imposes a series of motion limitations in conjunction with an interruptible cutscene and potential random event. The motion limitation is the limping slow pace of the old woman you control. The interruptible cutscene is when she crosses through a graveyard, sits on a bench, and muses about life while a song about death plays. The random event is that she could drop dead at any moment during this exchange. The game is over when you stand up and make it back to the gates of the grave yard.


The game came out in March and received quite a bit of press when it did, so this post is late to the party. What prompted this was a run-down by the company concerning their experiences with making and releasing the game. The objective of the game, as stated by the developers, “In many games, death is simply a temporary game state, a way for the game to express your failure. We were motivated by this shocking disregard for the meaning of death to make something that explores this concept more deeply. Not just your own death but also how we live our lives among people who will die or have died. Death is a fascinating part of life. We find exploring the emotions and contradictions triggered by it, interesting and moving.” Accomplishing this meant animating the old woman in such a way that her pace was slow and tedious. On all sides are tombstones while all the branching paths lead nowhere in particular. You go to the bench and the woman reflects about her life and you observe this. Before and after the sequence there is no music and the soundscape is mostly birds and your slow foot steps.


The reaction to this was fairly interesting. Manifesto Games, who represent countless indie games and distribute them for bargain prices, did not respond when asked to host the game. Steam, run by Valve and home to many classic old titles, was not interested. Even Jonathon Blow, maker of Braid refused to host it at his Experimental Games Workshop. The developers explain, “To some extent The Graveyard is disqualified beforehand because “it is not a game“…The gameplay in The Graveyard cannot be considered experimental/interesting/etc because it cannot be considered gameplay. Or something along those lines. There was another strange response that we heard from several game experts. When they realized that The Graveyard was a work of art, their reaction was to try and uncover its meaning. And they were confused when they didn’t find a clear message. It’s as if they, even when looking at art, couldn’t shake the inclination to deal with everything in the world as a puzzle to be solved.” In other words, because the player lacks the ability to affect the experience through game design, it is not considered a video game.


It’s easy to get pissy about these titans of the ‘Games as Art’ movement shunning a title that goes for such a remarkable experience but they also have their own visions about what direction that movement should be heading. The game is, at best, a piece of interactive fiction and attempts at poesy do not necessarily justify its failure to use the power of choice which makes video games profound. Even the Adventure Company’s Deirdra Kiai complained about the lack of any real understanding about the old woman and being irritated at the game’s slow pace. The issue it raises, both to the developers and the audience, is whether or not revulsion and distaste is a valid emotional response to a video game experience. Kiai complains that she wanted something affirming or interesting about the old woman to make the experience have some kind of meaning that dignified old age, the indie critics preferred Passage because of how the game design created sympathy for the characters as they grew older. Is their failure to find these emotions and meanings in the game a critical failure, considering it sought to explore the contradictions and mixed feeling we have about old age?


Perhaps not. Experiencing that getting old means you don’t have the ability to waltz around the graveyard anymore (and thus isn’t in the game) is disconcerting for most. Having the old woman’s song be little more than musings about frailty and people that have passed away hardly generates empathy. The fact that throughout this experience you may succumb to the very thing all around you, death, hardly allows for much of an emotional response except cynical fear. If there is a flaw to this game, it’s that it does not provide much for the player to experience except the feelings of frustration that Kiai had.


And yet, I am not sure I would expect much else from a game about old age.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.