Platformers can offer a reliable breath of fresh air from the cornucopia of complex and dense games. The exhilaration of moving quickly through a level or mastering skilled jumps with ease is endlessly rewarding. More than this, I love the frequent transparency of platformers and the joy of a well taught lesson.Take Outland for example, an overlooked 2011 release from Housemarque. The game is aptly described as an Ikaruga platformer. The protagonist swaps between emitting a blue and red aura, dodging or absorbing colored bullets while platforming between stages. These distinct colors literally put the mechanics on artistic display, and after an hour of play, even the rate at which hearts drop from enemies becomes predictable. Like numerous adventure games before it, Outland also unlocks locations and abilities gradually to ease players into the world. Ubisoft Montpellier’s Rayman Origins also utilizes such a gradual teaching method with amazing finesse and offers an even better opportunity to explore the risks and rewards of gated learning.
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I do like games that celebrate little boys.
Some might argue that most games celebrate little boys, from the juvenile and madcap mayhem of Saints Row: the Third to the countless titles that allow for cooing over big breasts in bikinis or big breasts in chainmail or big breasts in chainmail bikinis. But I’m not talking about that man-boy crap. I’m talking about real little boys, the cool ones.
2011 wasn’t a bad year for games. There were some disappointments, some unsung gems, and some outstanding successes. One game that struck audiences as being all three is Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City. “Sure,” the universal criticism begins, “it’s tightly designed, it has fluid controls and the world—while having a somewhat silly premise—is open and free. Still, it can’t hold a candle to the more focused, superior narrative of Arkham Asylum.” While Asylum did have the advantage of having no precedent, the more schizophrenic tone of City adds a dimension that few have overlooked. Specifically, it illustrates what Batman might feel like on a nightly basis.
Even the most pedestrian Batman fan can leave Asylum with a diploma in Batman studies. Asylum told the story of the Joker using a handful of other villains to keep one step ahead of the caped crusader until he inevitably backed himself into a corner, where Batman disposed of him with little difficulty. Underlying that story was the excellent collectible system that also provided a background on a plethora of Batman’s other foes. Perusing the files of other villains gives the sense that a sizable portion of the villains were ordinary but unstable individuals until Batman punched his way into their lives. Arkham City is the Gotham that Asylum alludes to, the one that Batman created.
Narrative is a naughty word. Its appearance in video game discussions trigger froth to arise from corners of mouths and paints internet forums red. This is most likely because of a prevailing insistence on entertaining an old binary argument: video games are just another medium for telling as opposed to narrative being an inconsequential component in games. The latter opinion, along with the ideas of ludology and formalism, mostly won out, and narrative studies maintains its underdog status in the debate. A recent addition to the barrage of anti-narratology essays is Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a game mechanic,” which further insists on binary thinking in terms of narrative (“Narrative is not a game mechanic”, Raph Koster’s Website, 12 January 2010). Koster’s treatment of narrative as feedback and static information perpetuates a limiting attitude by misrepresenting what narrative actually is. However, it is not only one person or even the more active subscribers to this school of thought, but instead an ingrained perspective on narrative that polarizes the gaming community and stymies expression in the medium.
This discussion often hits a roadblock because most people use the terms “narrative” and “story” interchangeably. From a design perspective, they are separate ideas. Narrative refers to how something is communicated, most often it is used to refer to the way that someone tells a story. We refer to a narrator, not a “storyteller,” because the process of communicating an experience is at the heart of the word. Stories are descriptions using narrative elements, such as characters, plot events, point of view, and other mechanical techniques. Following this line of thought, Koster’s (among many others’) claim that “games can and do exist without narrative” is misleading.
Saints Row: The Third is a title that arrived at the close of the year to a surprising amount of fanfare. Most often seen as a Grand Theft Auto clone, though sometimes admired for some of the polish that it brought to the open-world, crime game, the Saints Row series has often been treated as a competent, but not especially exceptional alternative to GTA.
By ratcheting up the general insanity of its world (way, way up) and embracing extreme stupidity and the extremely puerile, though, Saints Row has seemed to have drawn much acclaim. Our podcast crew debates the merits of this over-the-top aesthetic and considers the relative value of “just plain fun.”