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Text:AAA
Friday, Apr 17, 2009
It's not a perfect book, but those interested in the story of how the current generation of consoles came to be will find plenty to capture their interest.

Note: This is part 2 of a book review I started over a month ago.  Personal life got in the way of good intentions, and I never got around to posting this until now.


“Eight is beautiful”.


This is where The Search for a New Game Machine caught me.  Those three little words capture the ridiculousness, the arbitrarity nature of working for a customer driven by the vision of a single person.  Because, you see, to that single person, the very idea of something like “eight is beautiful” is not even close to arbitrary; it makes all the difference in the world. 


In The Search for a New Game Machine, the processor that would someday run the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox was designed to have six “synergistic cores”—basically, the part of the processor that does math operations—and those would have to be meticulously designed such that they would all fit on a single chip.  When narrator David Shippy presents his final design to Ken Kutaragi, however, Kutaragi is pleased but not satisfied.  He wants eight cores.  His reason?  “Eight is beautiful”.


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Text:AAA
Thursday, Apr 16, 2009
The recent controversy behind an upcoming game aiming to recreate the Fallujah Massacre.

Konami’s recently announced decision to publish Atomic Game’s Six Days In Fallujah has been making the controversy rounds and for good reason: it aims to recreate one of the worst battles in the Iraq War. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal the creators explain, “We’re not trying to make social commentary. We’re not pro-war. We’re not trying to make people feel uncomfortable. We just want to bring a compelling entertainment experience. At the end of the day, it’s just a game.” The creators are interviewing marines, civilians, and insurgents who were involved with the battle to recreate it as closely as possible.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Apr 14, 2009
The growing trend of short games, both serious and satirical.

One of the more interesting by-products of the internet is that games are continually exploring topics beyond the usual blockbuster action romps. Not needing to make a profit, easy distribution, and low technical requirements are proving to be the perfect recipe for games to start abandoning conventions and pushing the medium forward. Of all the things to get cut first, length is probably the most welcome. Rich Carlson explains in a column about creating Strange Adventures in Infinite Space that cutting the playtime of the game not only made it much more fun to play but also easier to make. They rely on the basic structure of a game like NetHack, numerous random variables with clearly defined goals, and base your score on meeting a certain time limit. The result is a kind of abbreviated Star Control 2 where you explore the galaxy, occasionally uncover a plot (it’s random if it even occurs), and generally finish all of this in ten to twenty minutes. In some games you will save the galaxy, in others you won’t get enough gear and will get blasted apart before winning. You don’t build ships, diplomacy is mostly random, and huge chunks of the story can be missed with no real loss to the game. The sense of loss that we’d normally feel is gone because of the low time commitment and the fact that you can just start playing again. What’s telling about this shortened game is that although they rely on the basic structure of the larger game, in order to cut back on length they also cut back on the game design options.


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Text:AAA
Monday, Apr 13, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-04-13...

It seems every major game release of late comes in at least two forms: the plain, vanilla version of the game that looks like every other game on the shelf, and the big, fancy, pack-in laced, appropriately expensive “Collector’s Edition”.  Resident Evil 5 had one, Gears of War 2 had one, Halo 3 had one, Metal Gear Solid 4 had one, and so on.  If there’s a major game release to be exploited, you’d better believe it will be, sometimes in three or four unique editions for the sake of capitalizing on the various levels of anticipation that the given game’s fanbase will be experiencing in the days leading up to release.


As such, it’s possible that I shouldn’t be surprised at the presence of a “Collector’s Edition” game being released this week, but I kind of am.  Here’s why: I’ve never heard of this game.  It’s called Demigod.  It’s a PC exclusive.  And right up until about five minutes ago, that’s all I knew of it.  Since then, I’ve called up a bunch of web pages on the thing, one of which called it a “strategy fighting game”, which seems pretty accurate as far as I can tell.  It’s a strategy game that pits a demigod against a titan in a number of battles, and in some cases there will be minions to call to do the demigod/titan’s bidding.  It sounds fun, especially for those looking to get into strategy who aren’t convinced that they actually have the time for it.


But yeah, there’s a collector’s edition for this.  Really?  A new, PC-only IP?  Apparently so - the collector’s edition comes with a soundtrack, a poster, and a pewter figurine that you’ll be able to eBay for beaucoup bucks if this thing takes off.  Besides, can you really have too many pewter figurines in your house?


Dokapon Journey

Dokapon Journey


The Wii is seeing the release of Samurai Shodown Anthology, which looks good for the nostalgia of revisiting one of the best fighting games in the post-Street Fighter II landscape.  Atlus’ DS dominance continues with Dokapon Journey, which they’re hilariously advertising as the best way to make enemies since spitting on somebody’s food—it’s a competitive RPG, which means you go on an adventure but you can also take on your buds in the process.  And…oh yes, PS2 owners finally get their chance at Guitar Hero: Metallica, which is confirmed awesome for pretty much every other system at this point.  No, the game didn’t change, but the challenge is there, and the tracklist is absolutely worth playing.  PS2 owners, get to it.


Enjoy the holiday week, whether you’re off or not.  Play some games, sure, but then go out and enjoy the sun.  It’s out there.  It’d be a shame to waste it.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Apr 7, 2009
The mechanics of variety instead of skill in Beyond Good & Evil. Spoilers abound.

Since video games must often devote a lot of time to teaching the player how to play, it is rare to see a game that relies on variety to engage the player. Beyond Good & Evil does not just teach the player one specific skill set and then have them apply it in new ways. Each level is a stream of new activities and skills, combined with a world map that we are continually finding new ways to explore. Combined with this game design is a narrative composed of layers. Our impressions of these characters and factions is continually refuted as we uncover more of the conspiracy, until even the protagonist herself is ambiguous. As the game’s title implies, it is borrowing form Nietzsche’s notion that the true scholars are ever-questioning of morality and society. Inspiration to work on this game came from Michael Abbott’s Vintage Game Club or VGC, whose discussion I did not participate in often but I drew on heavily for this essay. Their forums are a great resource for any careful analysis of a video game they’ve discussed.


The game begins with a news broadcast explaining a classic video game story: alien invaders are besieging the planet of Hillys and only the army can stop them. Our view is of the planet itself during this exposition, before the camera zooms down to the surface and we see the protagonist, Jade, practicing Yoga over a glowing sunrise. Right on cue the aliens attack and yet the army is nowhere to be found. The player takes control as the aliens abduct several of the orphans and our friend Pey’j. The tutorial defines what will be the teaching motif for the rest of the game: you learn a skill as soon as you need it. Jade is surrounded by aliens, you learn to fight by pressing A and swinging at them. You need to use your super move to beat one of the monsters, so you then learn to charge the attack. Narratively we are taking on the role of savior to these characters which will be played with later by our failure to fulfill this task. The army arrives once the crisis is over and the reporter we saw in the opening credits has no interest once Pey’j is frank about how useless the soldiers are. The tutorial continues by providing another need for the player: we’re broke and we need to restore power to our home. To do this we must take pictures of various wildlife, being paid per photo. The photo design is the game’s strongest feature, they introduce it early and provide incentives to keep taking pictures to the player. Doing this means that every animal, friend or foe, has a name to the player. Every tiny detail in the world that would’ve gone unnoticed or unappreciated will instead be photographed. Contrast this to Bioshock’s camera, which lacked both non-hostile creatures to appreciate and offered a weak reward for taking the picture. The design was introduced so late in the game and gave such a minor edge in combat that it mostly goes forgotten by players.


Eurogamer did a decent retrospective on the game where they aptly summarize the game’s variety of activities, “The secret to the success of the game’s differing approaches is the simplicity. This does occasionally lead to a muddling of the controls, with multiple options assigned to buttons, switching in and out as the circumstances require. But it also means Jade’s capable of an array of different styles without your needing a third thumb.” In the vehicle sections you can explore the map, go racing, blast through obstacle courses, and eventually fly. Most of the driving sections all rely on the basic skill of driving but the third-person portions of the game vary things up much more extensively. In terms of playing as Jade you’ll do platforming puzzles, stealth, close combat, sniping, dialogue options, and even a few mini-games. What binds all of these activities is that they are typically easy to handle and require only a single button. The game’s missions can be boiled down to 4 levels mixed with exploration in the larger world map. Each mission is to take certain incriminating pictures of the Domz to reveal the greater conspiracy to the public. After Jade proves herself capable at taking photographs and dealing with the Domz she is recruited by the IRIS network to investigate the corrupt military.


User baf from the VGC points out that Jade handles a great deal like the princess from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, pointing out that both games were made at the same time by the same studio. Jade can slide through cracks and access portions of the map the brawler partner can’t. Adding to her range of skills is an engaging NPC who adds more abilities. What this NPC does is enable an additional layer of puzzles and interaction that don’t actually involve the player. Just as the game is filled with numerous activities that can be directly solved, it adds variety by having the NPC be a necessary component as well. You need Pey’j to open certain doors or Double H’s slam ability to knock enemies off the ground. Part of how the game avoids needing the player to learn a dozen commands is by having other characters be the source of them. This relationship with the NPC is built up in a variety of other ways. The narrative creates a constant banter between the two parties. The game design requires us to give our heart containers and health to them, connecting the player in a literal way by actively caring for them. When Jade leaves Pey’j behind temporarily, he reminds us to not forget him. The level design mirrors this by having a puzzle where we need Pey’j appear almost immediately. After Pey’j’s abduction, Jade rescues her new partner Double H from the Domz just as she did Pey’j at the game’s start. The game design has us rely on them in combat and puzzles, connect by giving them health & items, and the narrative matches this by having them take on roles where they depend on you.


This is a game that brings its premise alive with details. The Alpha sections scream propaganda whenever we enter the city about how Hillys needs the army. With each mission, these propaganda statements become more intense all while protests form thanks to your photographs. By the time you’ve fully documented the corruption, you will even begin to recognize the people in the crowds. Like any hub game, there are countless items to collect or animals to photograph. Equally refreshing is the fact that the game brings out these moments without the use of quick time events. Smaller levels such as catching raiders or breaking into the Alpha sections warehouse in the city are both easy and fun break-aways from the main plot. When Jade is fleeing the Alpha sections the outcome is pre-defined but the player is put in a miniature race course. As lasers and soldiers race after her, the player feels a real sense of chase before she crosses the invisible line and the cutscene kicks in. The game’s flaws are usually when these invisible hands don’t quite work. Stealth sections often have linear solutions which are enforced through insta-kill turrets, leading to constant trial and error while you figure out what the game wants. The level design occasionally spoils the story itself, as Kimari points out at the VGC. If you’re going to have a character supposedly die yet I’ve seen a puzzle that requires them to solve it, the player is going to know that they will be back eventually. A tricky fight that should occur just before you discover the orphans have been kidnapped can potentially be missed if you run into the house directly. Having the combat before Jade’s dramatic speech about failure is essential, otherwise the feeling of hopelessness falls flat from facing against the tricky flying enemies.


The last level does away with most of the stealth and combat sections in favor of a different experience. Complimenting the sense of smallness and inferiority that Jade has struggled with, the final level has huge spaces and sections of running across long distances. We are made to feel what Jade is feeling as she tries to rescue Pey’j. Our own photos are used in the final cutscene as the populace finally sees all of the Domz corruption, leading to an uprising. The ending’s final plot revelation is that Jade herself is the source of the Domz. She is the reason they have been attacking Hillys and her humanity is only a sham to cover up her true nature. This ambiguity and role-reversal is shown in the game design by having the controls suddenly invert. Just as Jade is now suddenly the source of the conflict, up is down and left is right. Freezair noted that she potentially even infects Pey’j later on with the Domz, using her powers to heal him and subsequently corrupt him. When she defeats the final boss and uses her powers to heal the abducted orphans, Jade demonstrates the core idea of the game’s title. Just as Nietzsche argued in Beyond Good & Evil that the true hero can see beyond morality or social conventions, Jade can see past the revelation about her own origins. She does not blindly accept the Domz’s desire for power or that she is a part of it. What has been true throughout the game has been her friends, so that is what she sticks with despite her origin.


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