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

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Feb 11, 2009
A new art game that takes less than 5 minutes and poses an interesting question.

Andy Chalk over at The Escapist has a great column on Art Games and the interesting direction they’re moving in. What is continually being pushed is not so much games that have beautiful art or meaningful plots, but rather exploring the very definition of play and gaming. Games don’t really tell stories like a film or book does since the player discovers this element through interaction, so it’s logical that ground zero would be pushing that to the limits.


The column goes through the usual tail-chasing that games undergo when trying to convince people that abstract interaction has merit: there’s no challenge, there’s no goals, there’s no meaningful choices, etc. It all starts to echo of “But that’s just not how it’s done!”, which naturally just goads people into making more of it. Of particular interest was a game I’d never heard of before, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness. The game is simple: a black screen with a white progress bar appears when you start. It then goes around the internet checking to see if other people have the game turned on. If you can go 4 minutes and 33 seconds without anyone else playing the game, you win.


The funny thing about interaction is that you’re basically exploring two different things: the action and the effect. Whereas a game like The Graveyard is an experiment in action with no effect, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness is an exploration of effect with no action. Is it possible for a person to generate a meaningful result by not doing anything? Vice-versa? I don’t really know. There are only a handful of games out that are really pushing these concepts and it remains to be seen where it’s all going. A game design like this might feel flat on its own, but combined with other elements it could potentially be quite profound. As far as I know, no one has managed to beat these games just yet.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Feb 10, 2009
The crafting of a legacy in Eternal Darkness. Spoilers Abound.


One of the curious byproducts of video game narratives is that the person you are investing your time and energy into must inadvertently always remain relevant to the plot. The dilemma that comes up is that you are now having a character who can blast their way through dozens of foes and has saved the world several times over. Assuming it’s monsters all the way down for the game, you can either adjust their backstory to explain why they are the ultimate badass, have everyone remain bizarrely oblivious, or break up the narrative into playing as multiple characters. The problem with the first option is that it ceases to make sense for the player to ever lose if they are indeed this badass, the second is just painful, and the third means crafting a game design that doesn’t suffer when different characters are played. What makes Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem interesting is that it takes the third option and runs with it. You play a wide range of sometimes strong and sometimes weak characters. What links them together is a common goal spanning several centuries to try and prevent an ancient God from taking over our world. Incorporating the idea of building a legacy instead of one individual is what makes Eternal Darkness stand out even today.


 


The game opens with your Uncle extolling the impenetrable mystery of life and how we are often too little aware of the consequences of our own actions. Roivas explains that our perceptions do not change reality, but rather color them. To commiserate this sentiment the game uses a similar tactic to Silent Hill 2 by dropping us into a combat situation before it explains any controls. Alex is locked in her room, surrounded by undead, and trying to figure out how to use the shotgun in her hand. The outcome is pre-defined, but because the controls require you to hold R1 before you shoot you can’t just button mash your way out of it. This turns out to be a nightmare but the introduction’s horror of the unknown has been established using the game design. Alex Roivas, who could be considered the game’s overall protagonist, awakens from this nightmare to discover that her Uncle has been murdered. The police don’t understand what happened to him and the detective bumbles his way around talking to us. Making the conversation more poignant are his half-hearted attempts to hit on you, emphasizing the insecurity the player feels after the game’s nightmarish start and Alex’s own vulnerability. Control is finally handed over to the player and we are given free reign over the bottom floor of the mansion. Outside it is eternally sunset, a thematic nod to the game’s setting of an approaching darkness that will corrupt the world.


 


A few simple puzzles later and the game’s basic structure is underway. Your character discovers the Tome of Eternal Darkness. Each time they read it or find a page, a brief level is unlocked where you become a different character. Starting all the way at the beginning of the mystery, you slowly uncover the full story of how the Roivas family got caught up in a god’s attempt to return to the corporeal realm. The abilities won and even mental trauma accrued in each level will build back onto both Alex and subsequent users of the tome. In this way the book itself acts as the accumulated power and experience of the player rather than any individual character. You’re not upgrading a person, you’re building a legacy through the book. Each character in a mission is summoned to the book and must act out their part in its history. Complimenting the themes of horror and struggle is a combat system that never quite grants the player an enormous edge. In terms of fighting, each character is going to pick up a different weapon, have a different level of health & magic, and have a different kind of combat scenario to face. There is no stockpiling ammo or saving the best weapon, your circumstances are always changing from level to level. It is the accumulated knowledge of the book that the player is building, not any one particular hero.


 


The opening chapter begins with how the entire problem got started: a lone Roman Centurion whose blind loyalty to one Emperor ends with his enslavement to a new, bigger one. Pious is willing to exchange freedom for power, humanity for knowledge, and feels no doubts about this conduct. He is the only character you play who does not experience sanity loss at the monsters, reflecting his own indefatigable faith in himself and his actions. After his body is changed and he becomes the servant of one of three Gods, he is shown still loyally wearing his centurion armor. He will wear it all the way to the end of the game. Elia, the second character, is shown reading a book full of fanciful myths that echoes Alex’s own position as reading a book about fantastic events. She is equally burdened by a God and loses her life as a consequence. A messenger trying to foil a plot to kill Emperor Charlemagne, a Persian treasure hunter, and your own ancestors make up just a few of the characters you’ll play as. What binds these characters is not their inevitable discovery of a conspiracy we are watching manifest from afar, but the realization that their individual contribution is not enough to defeat the darkness. Elia is murdered and forced to spend centuries as a lost spirit, only to be found years later by another adventurer. Bianchi the architect is dumped into the Hellish tower of tormented souls he helped to build. It is not until the Iraq War that a firefighter stumbles upon the tower and recovers the essence of a God that Bianchi found. Paul Luther, a Franciscan monk, discovers Pious’s machinations only to be killed by the hideous beast he is concealing. 431 years later a reporter during World War I discovers the same conspiracy but is able to stop the monster. Your ancestor Maximillian discovers a huge underground city underneath his mansion, but he is locked in the mad house when he tries to warn others. Your grandfather came close to sealing the city underground forever, but not close enough. The fragility of the player, the people involved in this vast mystery, and the constant struggle to make any positive progress creates a genuine sense of uncertainty. You never know what’s going to happen to each of the characters you play as. In this way the mystery is slowly unraveled in reverse for Alex, a nod to the Roivas name itself which is savior spelled backwards.


 


Helping to generate a sense of continuity between all these characters is a consistent theme of place. Although you might play as twelve different people, you will be consistently exploring four different environments. A Sumerian temple in Iraq, another temple in Cambodia, a large Cathedral in France, and the Roivas Mansion in Rhode Island. Each one is depicted during different periods of history that allow for just enough changes to make them interesting to visit repeatedly yet are familiar enough that the player is able to feel competent revisting them. Since there is no sense of progression by developing an individual character, Eternal Darkness creates one by allowing the player to develop the same familiarity the tome is providing to people within the narrative. They are relying on the knowledge they developed playing as other characters just as within the narrative characters are relying on what they have read in the book. The repetition of levels also allows the developers to make these spaces believable. The Roivas mansion is not some Resident Evil style palace with more rooms than Xanadu, it is a fairly large country manor with rooms and locations that seem plausible (until you head underground). The cathedral and temples follow similar suit; they’re large and have their trap rooms but they are just small enough that they don’t become ridiculous. The video game crutch of larger than life levels with incredibly ridiculous traps is no longer necessary thanks to the game’s setup, it instead relies on switching locations and time periods to facilitate a sense of progress. Paintings of each location are placed around the mansion, along with various artifacts and puzzles that were solved back while playing as another character. Having identifiable details to each area is fleshed out by placing those details in other locations and having them serve as reminders to the player.


 


What really makes this game stand out though are just the little touches. The torches will randomly pop, continually making the player jump out of their seat. The connection with real world events makes the game’s plot become more grounded than the average fantasy. The ominous whispering in the background, the incessant banging on doors, and the book itself make up the true scares of this game. Every character who uses the book must walk through a long hallway. Along each side is a person who has sacrificed their lives in its service. Along the walls and floor are their screaming faces, the pain and suffering the book causes for all who wield it. The common link between all of these people is not their abilities or their accomplishments, it is their mutual suffering for a greater task. This theme of building a legacy, of a dozen people contributing to a battle with a growing darkness, culminates in the Mansion. Depending on the player’s actions, the best sword in the game along with the artifacts she needs will be delivered by the last character in the book, who received it because of the actions of the others as well. In the final boss fight Alex uses the book to summon each person and have them attack Pious while he defends the summoning ritual. That the game design communicates this final battle as a legacy’s culmination, instead of an individual accomplishment, is what makes Eternal Darkness such an interesting take on survival horror.


Bookmark and Share
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.


Bookmark and Share
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.


Bookmark and Share
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.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
PopMatters' LUCY Giveaway! in PopMatters's Hangs on LockerDome

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

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.