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Text:AAA
Sunday, Feb 8, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-02-09

There aren’t a ton of releases showing up this week, but the ratio of quality games to total games looks to be surprisingly high given that we’re smack dab in the middle of February and that the onset of Valentine’s Day tends to lead to other pursuits, like movies and books.


Of particular note this week is Flower, the PlayStation 3’s downloadable release that’s filled with more questions and answers. Thanks to Wikipedia, GameTrailers, and previews from pretty much every major gaming site out there, I’ve seen plenty of footage of the game and have read just about every developer quote and preview description that has been released on it. And still, I have no concrete idea of exactly what I’ll be doing.


Of course, that’s probably part of the appeal. Developer thatgamecompany, who previously brought the highly acclaimed non-game fl0w to the PS3, is making a name for itself in creating pieces of software that stretch the very definition of what a “game” can be. On one hand, we could assume that Flower will be another such non-game, which simply allows the player to float along the breeze on a whim. On the other hand, there are PS3 trophies involved, so there will certainly be at least one set of concrete goals that must be fulfilled to “complete” it. It’s bound to be interesting, seeing the way that thatgamecompany navigates their vision among the necessity of trophy inclusion.


If you’re not really the zen gaming type, there’s another console-downloadable goodie on the way this week as well, this one on the Xbox side of things. 3 on 3 NHL Arcade is the game, and you know, EA’s purporting that this will bring NHL action to the masses, advertising wide-open, arcade-oriented gameplay and goofy-looking skaters. I’ve actually had my reservations about this one, given that I thought NHL 09 was pretty masses-friendly (it was the one sports game I gave the time of day to last year) and screenshots make the super deformed players look awful—sort of like NBA Jam with a more realistic big-head cheat on, which doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. Of course, a tweet from Destructoid‘s Samit Sarkar showed up last week in which he offered “Initial impressions: 11,236/10”. Suddenly, I’m optimistic.


Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad for the Xbox 360

Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad for the Xbox 360


If you’re just dying to buy something that comes in a box, chances are that there’s something out there this week for you, too. FPSers will look toward F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, which will probably be fine if you were into the first F.E.A.R., but disappointing if you’re hoping for much more than a rote shooter. Those who cut their teeth on the Genesis will find the memories flooding back in a big way with Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, which I will personally be buying for the chance to own the first four Phantasy Star games on one disc. Portable gamers have LocoRoco 2 to look forward to on the PSP, and, um, there are games showing up on the Wii(!) and the Xbox 360 this week called Onechanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayers and Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad respectively, which are sure to appeal to a bunch of people I don’t know.


I mean, I can’t imagine that’s the best way for Nintendo to go about convincing people that the Wii is not a “kiddie” console.


With plenty to choose from this week, there must be something up your alley. Tell us about it, and let us know what you think when you play it!  The full release list is after the jump, with a little bit of Flower gameplay to whet your appetite.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Feb 3, 2009
Emergent music games and their potential insights in other areas of gaming.

Despite the progress being made with emergent changing narratives, player input, and creating vast open worlds to explore, there is still a lot of trial and error going on. Many people struggle with a story that is not inherently linear because it requires their active participation. Decades of film and centuries of books have created a pre-conditioned response to information exchanges: people listen, then respond. The problem is that games, on the other hand, rely on a concurrence of these two activities. Action and response are occurring simultaneously while the player interacts with a series of rules and sees how these rules respond to their conduct. Even creating a story that can function in concurrence of response and input requires epic amounts of writing and art to account for all the things the player might try to do. There’s another game design that handles this issue and some interesting insights can be learned from it. The player doesn’t change the narrative though, they change the music. Ben Abraham notes in an essay on interactive music that the visual elements of games have been coordinated with the music for years now. Starting as just a simple “change songs when the boss arrives” feature, the concept has been continuing to expand until the music is constantly responding to the player. Though we may still be figuring out how to generate a changing plot, games have long had the ability to generate personalized music in a believable manner.


It’s helpful when approaching music games to break them into two distinct groups. Games where the player is generating a song (emergent music) and games where the player is reproducing the song (linear music). With the booming success of Rock Band and Guitar Hero it’s easy to see the appeal of the latter. Player input is coordinated with the game via visual cues, failure results in the song being interrupted by invasive sounds. The indie gem Audiosurf puts an interesting spin by letting the player pick the song. This is then computed into a level that lets you play a variety of different game designs. It’s a greater degree of control than the pre-defined setlists of the other games so you don’t risk alienating your audience by music tastes. Both games typically jerk the player and interrupt the song when they screw up though, much like how a game’s narrative is broken by player death. Other games have combined the music with the game design and visuals so that they occur simultaneously.  The free to download Reset is synchronized with Trash80’s ‘Rest to Reset’ electronic music. The game is mostly a series of triangles and missiles chasing you, but each one flashes a different color in coordination with the beat. Since either game features minimal plot, the music itself becomes the player’s frame of reference for their input. Another linear music game that abandons the concept of player failure almost entirely is Reflexive Entertainment’s Music Catch, where the game challenges you to collect shapes and only requires you dodge the red kind. Grabbing a red shape results in a point deduction, but no intrusive sounds that break the music as in Audiosurf or Rock Band.


 


On the opposite end of the spectrum are non-linear music games that feature emergent music. The player can generate a song through their actions. There are surprisingly very few games that do this despite the fact that it’s fairly manageable. Sega’s Rez is the principle example. The game creates a basic background track and then lets the player interact by having enemies cause a sound that coordinates in some way. A drum beat, an electronic beep, etc. It’s a little off to constantly shoehorn the music concept into narrative games but it does help; the background track is the backstory, the player’s actions generate sounds that fit into the backstory, and these all form in the player’s mind to generate a personal song. Procedurally, it is irrelevant what the player hits or misses, they are generating the experience they want from the song as well as playing a game. That’s the thing people are struggling with the most in emergent narratives today: not forcing the player to do or see something. Music games circumvent this entirely because the individual sounds are just a part of a whole. Another example that doesn’t rely on techno music is Jonathon Mak’s Everyday Shooter, which takes inspiration from Steve Reich. The game works in a very similar manner, skirting the interruption problem of death by having the death sound coordinate with the background as well. Every element of the player’s input produces a response sound that coincides with the music, from shifting around in the menu to collecting points. The lesson about emergent narrative here comes from the success these games have in creating a new kind of emergent experience. The design empowers the player because they never have to be restricted into behaving outside a certain set of parameters. What if you were to cut down on the shooter elements of these games and focus more on generating the song itself? Another example is the recent web game Auditorium or Electroplankton. By getting a grasp of the mechanics of producing a song through enormous player options, you can start to get a better understanding of how a story could be generated from the same situation.


 


There are also games that simply rely on music as a reward for player activity. The WiiWare Art Style series of games features interesting takes on using music in response to player input. In Orbient, collecting an extra moon adds a layer of music to the background, making the song more rich and pleasant while you beat the level. In Rotohex, every 6 combinations adds another layer of music so that you are not just building a score, you are building a song. And if you want to cut the game part out, the DS music software KORG DS-10 Synthesizer is a pretty damn impressive nuts and bolts demonstration of generating a song using a game’s interface. It’s interesting that amongst the complaints lodged at any of these games, none of them involve failing to create a believable song. None of them fail to deliver an emergent song or recreate a linear song through game design. Music is not an experience that the audience or author expects to control in a structured exchange. Sometimes you listen, sometimes you respond to a song by skipping around. Sometimes you want to hear the sad track on an album, sometimes you want to hear the fast, fun one. The key is that the artist’s vision doesn’t break down because the audience is fooling around with the order of events. A musical album stands both on its singles, the work as a whole, the songs played live, and even when the songs are played by other people. Marketwise, there should be more emergent music games purely because they are a blast to play. In terms of learning how to create an emergent narrative, we’ve only begun to learn from their versatility.


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Text:AAA
Sunday, Feb 1, 2009
New releases for the week of 2009-02-02...

We’ve seen the summer doldrums, we’ve seen the dregs of December, but never, in almost a year of taking a look at the coming week in games, have we seen a release list so dire as the one I’m staring at right now.  There are a grand total of five releases, one of them an Xbox Live Arcade downloadable title, and there is not a single retail release for any of the major consoles.


Who can we look to, to save us from the indignity of $30 burning a hole in our pocket?  Why, Atlus of course.


My World My Way

My World My Way


My World My Way is right in Atlus’s wheelhouse, a turn-based role-playing game that might actually appeal to those who feel as though they’ve grown out of turn-based role-playing games.  Think for a second about the prototypical protagonist of an RPG.  This character is usually a teenage (or maybe early-20s) boy who sulks most of the way through the game even as women find him irresistable and important people whisper things about prophecies to him, taking him for some sort of hero.  He’s utterly unlikable, yet we come to identify with him given that spending 40 hours with anyone will cause an attachment of some sort to take hold.


Well, the protagonist in My World My Way is unlikable too, but intentionally so.  In fact, this particular protagonist is a princess, who can actually pout—in battle—to get her way.  My World My Way takes the tropes of turn-based RPGing and mocks them mercilessly.  Is it actually funny?  Does it hold up for an entire game?  Can you put up with an intentionally unlikable protagonist for 30 hours worth of gameplay?  FIND OUT ON TUESDAY!


Burnout Paradise

Burnout Paradise


Otherwise, PC owners finally get to see what the fuss is about last year’s sleeper racing hit Burnout Paradise, and EA tries to go casual on the 360 with 3 on 3 NHL Arcade, which might be just what you need if you’re still trying to use the NHLPA ‘93 controls on NHL 09.


...or, you could keep catching up on your backlog—it’s Tomb Raider and Lord of the Rings for me this week.  How about you?  Let’s hear it in the comments, and take comfort in the knowledge that it won’t be long ‘til next week.


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Text:AAA
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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Text:AAA
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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