Beeps & Boops Video Game Criticism and Commentary Wed, 12 Jun 2013 16:13:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Mon, 01 Apr 2013 16:00:37 +0000 Grayson Davis

If there is one difference between the “Japanese RPG” and the “Western RPG,” it is the difference between mutually exclusive choices and complete system mastery. Games like Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect pride themselves on their dynamic plots and meaningful decisions; on being a warrior instead of a thief, or saving one companion at the expense of another. JRPGs are rarely so dynamic, or so restrictive. The story of the Mother series progresses along the same path every single time you play. At the end of Final Fantasy VI, every single character can cast every single spell, if you want.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is the latest JRPG to hit English-speaking shores, and one of the best examples of a JRPG I’ve ever played. Originally released in Japan in 2011, Ni no Kuni dares to answer the question: Why, in the 21st century, should any gamer put up with a JRPG? The genre is well-established, dating to the mid-80s at least, and has always suffered criticisms of its linear, regressive gameplay; of grinding experience points and monotonous battles. Ni no Kuni is no exception, and even positive reviews make note of its “traditional JRPG formula.” Less positive reviews hammer on “the most obvious of RPG tropes” and “repetitive RPG fetch quests.”  Ni no Kuni, for its part, takes full advantage of that traditional formula, whether you like it or not.

Ni no Kuni opens in the idyllic Motorville, a fictional town of indeterminate location. Visually, it evokes Rockwellian images of post-war America, a pastel suburbia with few apparent troubles. The name Motorville (“Hotroit” in the Japanese version) is a clear allusion to Motor City, though any resemblance to the real Detroit is slight. Further confusing the issue, in the English voice track, characters speak with British accents. Though Oliver, the game’s protagonist, is transported to a world of fairies and magic, Motorville is the true fantasy, a town that does not really exist.

The 13-year old Oliver suffers the death of his mother early on. He takes comfort in the stuffed toy Mr. Drippy, who turns out to be Oliver’s fairy guardian. The story develops as you might expect in a fantasy tale: Mr. Drippy reveals that Oliver is the chosen savior of another world. Ni no Kuni invests an otherwise typical story with a strong emotional punch. Oliver and Mr. Drippy’s worlds turn out to be connected, and every person in one world has a soul mate in the other. If Oliver can save his mother’s soul mate, captured by the dark djinn Shadar, maybe he can save his mother in his world too.

As soon as Oliver steps into the second world, he starts on the unsurprising path of the adolescent coming-of-age story, and the game’s RPG elements begin to unfold. Ni no Kuni exemplifies the slow burn of the JRPG. The game offers a lot to chew on: a challenging battle system, a Pokémon-esque “familiar” system, exploration, crafting, light puzzle-solving, miscellaneous sidequests, and everything else you expect in an RPG designed to last 40 hours or more. And Ni no Kuni does take its time. It takes between 10 and 20 hours to unlock the game’s numerous subsystems, and many more to explore them fully.

Ni no Kuni’s thematic core is Oliver’s magic locket, an item which allows him to store and share positive emotions, like courage, confidence, and faith.  With this locket, Oliver can heal those who have become “brokenhearted,” which is pretty much every single person in the game. This locket is Ni no Kuni’s simplest mechanic, and also the most prominent. Oliver heals people of every status and condition, from lazy merchants to despondent emperors. Video games have no shortage of trivial side quests that make little sense during a time of world-shattering crisis. In Ni no Kuni, these quests provide the game’s moral foundation. Oliver is not fighting only Shadar, but Shadar’s evil influence. Oliver is defined by his sympathy for both big and small problems, as well as good and evil people.

What better genre than the JRPG, then, to tell the story of this burgeoning wunderkind wizard? Oliver’s potential seems limitless. He solves almost every problem thrown in his way. As Oliver grows more skilled, more comfortable with his new abilities, so do you. Ni no Kuni is not presented as a route to navigate, but a world to master. Studio Ghibli, which worked with Level-5 to design this game, makes that prospect very appealing. Ni no Kuni is gorgeous, with an impressive parade of characters and locations. Still images do not capture the skill with which Level-5, the developer, draws scenes – with rich environments that naturally attract your eye.

If Ni no Kuni can be criticized for anything, it is its adherence to formula, no matter how appropriate that formula might be. I doubt Ni no Kuni will win over naysayers with its never-ending battles and repetitive fetch quests, or the predictable morality of a story about good deeds and loyal friends. But formula is not a problem by itself. Ni no Kuni is no lazy grind through uninspired dungeons.

Though Oliver spends most of his time in the second world, he can travel back to Motorville at any time, and occasionally has to solve problems that span the two worlds. These problems are not challenging in the video game sense of the term – there are few puzzles to solve or battles to win. Oliver casts spells, tends to the lonely, fixes broken marriages. Motorville serves as a reminder that Oliver is still a real boy, in the real world, and he is not the only person with real problems.

Fantasy, as a genre, is often thought of as escapist.  Ni no Kuni shows us the opposite: that fantasy is just as often a confrontation. Throughout his journey, Oliver realizes the Motorville of his childhood is gone, or never existed, replaced by one more troubled than he ever understood. No matter how powerful his magic becomes, there may be problems he cannot solve. Some stories are not about choosing among branching paths, but moving forward, and growing up.

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Super Hexagon Wed, 27 Mar 2013 15:00:25 +0000 Grayson Davis

I first played Super Hexagon on an iPad, chalking up my many defeats to the inaccuracies of its touchscreen controls. If only I had the precision controls of a keyboard, I reasoned, I would do much better. According to Steam, I’ve now played about 10 hours of Super Hexagon on PC, and can confirm that I’m full of shit. Gamers today play on many unique devices. I own Super Hexagon on three different platforms. Outside of the superficial differences of a phone screen versus a monitor, the game is exactly the same, exactly as hard. I have no excuse.

Writing on his blog in October 2012, Terry Cavanagh announced that Super Hexagon would become available “to over 1290 devices.” Outside of the technical difficulties of cross-platform development, Cavanagh wanted to ensure that leaderboards would be available on every version. “If I released the game without leaderboards (on any platform) I would be releasing an inferior version of the game, and I just don’t want to do that.” Cavanagh should be credited for his commitment to quality, but also for creating a game that isn’t attached to any one device. In a period of divergent technology, Super Hexagon remains a game divorced from platform, just at home on the PC and the iPad – a video game, in other words, poised to prove its resilience in the years to come.

It’s not easy to describe what makes Super Hexagon so hard, but the basic concept couldn’t be simpler. Move a small arrow clockwise or counterclockwise to avoid different patterns of obstacles. Harder difficulties have faster and more complicated patterns. That’s really it. The game confuses your efforts with a pulsing playfield that changes colors and rotates arbitrarily.  Games end quickly – lasting one minute is a miracle on the hardest difficulties. Sometimes the screen rotation confuses your sense of left and right, or you didn’t react quickly enough to a new pattern. Sometimes, between everything happening on screen, you’re not entirely sure how you screwed up, only that you did. No doubt Terry Cavanagh spent a long time tweaking the game’s visual elements, adjusting the frequency of screen rotations and the intensity of the color shifts. (You can play the original prototype here.) But the final product is too fine a mixture, and resists close examination. Super Hexagon is an intuitive exercise, not a problem to be solved.

Games are known for their ability to drag out the most mundane activities, to pad out gameplay with interminable tasks.  Super Hexagon is a reminder that games have a unique ability to do the opposite, to make every second totally absorbing. Some people call this flow, “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.” Prolonged success in Super Hexagon requires smooth, consistent, confident motions, easier said than done when the playfield is spinning wildly and you’re dodging multiple obstacles every second. In short, playing Super Hexagon well requires flow. You can’t think too hard about what you’re doing.

This is a real achievement. We have no shortage of games offering bite-sized gaming experiences. The well-known Cananbalt kicked off a wave of knockoffs; mobile gaming provides more examples, such as Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride. But offering a 30 second experience doesn’t mean those 30 seconds will fly by. The worst games can manage to make half a minute feel twice as long, to make short bursts of time somehow grueling. There is a difference between the challenge and engagement of true flow, and the brainless tapping of buttons that lesser games engender. An especially challenging five-second sequence in Super Hexagon can feel like an unbelievable triumph when you’ve barely managed to stay alive for the past 45.

It is sometimes less remarkable how long you last than how quickly you lose. Even experienced players can fail Super Hexagon within seconds. Surprisingly, this is not discouraging. When a friend messages me on Steam to let me know that he’s (yet again) beaten one of my high scores, I don’t feel cheated – I feel like he’s better than me, but I can reach that point too. Maybe more than the mobile games above, Super Hexagon is better compared to pinball tables: a short-lived experience more nuanced than its two buttons would suggest, that rewards countless replays despite the fact that you usually fail to achieve anything close to a high score.

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Journey Mon, 12 Nov 2012 18:00:10 +0000 Grayson Davis

The single greatest failure of game critics of the past half-century has been their inability to develop any sort of functional vocabulary to talk about games. Game critics lean heavily on a lexicon of weatherworn genres, buzzwords, and clichés to describe the supposed subjects of their profession.  This lexicon serves us well within the narrow range of mainstream blockbusters: the first-person shooters, the action-adventures, the EA Sports. Even supposedly avant-garde indie titles can often be reduced to a mishmash of genres, a retro throwback, or some other remix of familiar terms. There are only so many ways to kill a virtual enemy or score points against an enemy team, and our gaming vocabulary becomes frustratingly insufficient when a game emerges based on something besides the total annihilation of Player 2 by Player 1. Most recently, that game is Journey.

Journey, designed by thatgamecompany, ought to be quite easy to describe; and to anybody besides a game critic, it probably is. Journey‘s basic actions are Move and Float. The joy of play comes from the effortless elegance of your movement and the exploration of Journey’s remarkably beautiful scenery. Your robed figure moves with a buoyant ease, sometimes hovering above the ground, sometimes flying over crumbled stone, sometimes sliding down the sides of sand dunes. The game’s movement is simple, but precisely tuned; thatgamecompany understands that movement by itself can be enjoyable, and other designers should take note of how graceful a game can be with a joystick and one button. Journey is not difficult – far from it – but demands your attention with subtly engaging obstacles. Optional collectibles hide in the nooks and crannies of the world, for players into that sort of thing.

If you’re signed into the PlayStation Network, an identical character travels with you, controlled by an online stranger. (You only learn your partner’s name when you complete the game.) You communicate with your partner by singing, tapping a button to emit staccato beats, or holding a button to issue a sustained note. You do not need to communicate or even interact with your partner to complete the game, and could (in theory) ignore your partner altogether. The appeal of this multiplayer feature might seem mysterious until you start playing. In practice, a second player becomes a welcome addition. Two players can help each other in small and sometimes surprising ways. You’ll quickly develop a simple language to communicate ideas, developing a brief but meaningful relationship. A single short note might mean, “Where are you?” A few rapid beats means, “Look at this.” Thatgamecompany wisely chose to eschew cooperative challenges and other mandatory teamwork – your partner can only help and can never get in your way, leaving the relationship blissfully positive.

Journey is in fact so simple, so stripped-down, and relies on ideas so familiar as moving from point A to point B, that we should consider incredible Edge’s claim that it “pushes the boundaries of what you consider to be a game.” The Joystiq review, for all its exuberance, is so vaguely superlative that the writer has to state, “I don’t want to be misconstrued as generic or uninspired when I say that Journey is an awesome game.” He goes on to say that Journey “raised the bar for video games as a form of artistic expression.” Writing for Kill Screen, Jamin Warren says, “you’re probably wondering what the game actually plays like, and honestly I wish I could tell you” – and I wonder why a writer is blaming someone else’s game for their inability to articulate a sentence.

Journey has received nearly universal praise among game critics, and for my comments above, I agree entirely with what most critics have to say. The game is wonderful, and I’d recommend it to everybody I know. But where I disagree, and where I think many critics err in judgment, is in calling Journey some kind of definitive, boundary-smashing event – because Journey is most assuredly not.

Journey contains no combat systems, no RPG elements, no trilogy-spanning sagas. You are not murdering hundreds of enemy goons or managing vast global civilizations. There is nothing ironic or postmodern about this game, nor are there any concepts we haven’t basically seen before. Journey uses a joystick and two buttons. You could play it on an NES controller. The essential pleasure of the game is navigating a virtual space, something we should, by now, be able to talk about. What is most thwarting about Journey is that it is incredibly easy to describe and to play, and we’ve forgotten – or never learned – how to talk about games like this.

Journey is exactly the kind of game I wish more people played, and it is exactly the kind of game more people used to play. It is accessible and enjoyable and minimally beautiful. There are no complicated 14-button control schemes, nor joyless stories about grizzled space marines defending humanity from ugly alien monsters. Journey hearkens back to the days of Adventure and Joust, when game titles were also their verbs, and when it took only a few seconds of playtime to learn everything you needed to know.

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Math Blasters Mon, 05 Nov 2012 15:00:13 +0000 Grayson Davis

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game about an alien invasion in the same way that Mario Teaches Typing is a game about Mario; or, in other words, it’s not. Just as Mario Teaches Typing tries to teach you typing (surprise!), XCOM is a lesson in probability. Like math should be, XCOM is hard. Your enemies look like aliens, and sound like aliens, but as far as I’m concerned these aliens have landed on Earth with the sole mission of making me very mad at video games. Because as a human, I don’t like math. I make bad decisions all the time. Sometimes I take a shot that only has a 30% chance to hit because, gosh, that seems big enough, and then it misses, because it had a 70% chance to miss, and I’m an idiot. Then I reload and try again.

XCOM is edutainment, and like all edutainment, it’s sometimes fun and sometimes educational and sometimes even both.

Fortunately, XCOM is mostly just fun. The math is not complicated, but there are lots of variables to shuffle around. You’ll enjoy that feeling of tactical cleverness as you move your soldiers across the battlefield, ensuring maximum defensive bonuses and prime flanking opportunities. Your soldiers advance into different classes, which are further defined by customizable skill trees, letting you assemble your little alien defense force in all sorts of interesting arrangements. You can’t help but feel good about yourself when you spring a trap on a pack of sectoids and watch their little grey bodies slump to the ground (or rocket off into the distance, as the case may be). Don’t worry that they might be here on a peaceful mission and there’s been some horrible misunderstanding: the game makes it clear that these aliens are total shitheads.

The game becomes less fun when you realize it really is about math, completely and absolutely. A risky shot is actually risky. You’ll probably miss because that’s what a 25% chance means, and then you’ll die because the aliens will shoot you for what I estimate is one billion points of damage. XCOM pulls few punches.

You’ll even miss some of those near-guaranteed 90% shots, because that’s how math works. Sometimes aliens will make some near-impossible critical hit and you’ll lose your most experienced soldier even though that’s totally bullshit. Much like taking an algebra test, you have to accept this, and you may come to appreciate this bullshit math on its own terms. You even enjoy it in a perverted way. “That’s XCOM for you!” you say, as if it’s charming that this video game is as capriciously unfair as real life.

XCOM’s story, as I’ve come to understand it, is about me getting less mad at video games as I get better at math. In this regard, the game follows a satisfying curve. Your soldiers level up and aliens get stronger at about the same pace that you get comfortable making the necessary calculations in your head. XCOM offers several difficulty modes for those who are better at math at begin with, or want to have less fun. I opted for “less fun” and jumped right into Classic mode, a reference to the notoriously difficult 1994 original, X-COM: UFO Defense. Many hours later, I started to enjoy myself.

There is a second point where the game becomes less fun, and that’s when you realize it’s sometimes not about math at all, and you have been lied to. Like many strategy games, XCOM relies on random numbers to determine whether a shot hits or misses. It’s a simple percentile roll, somewhere between 1 and 100%, which you try to influence as best you can by taking cover, buying better equipment, flanking your enemies, etc. This means that sometimes, despite your best efforts, despite having a measurable numerical advantage, you will suffer severe losses. Dumb luck. This is why XCOM is a lesson in probability and not arithmetic, and why optimal strategies do not always win, but – on average – leave you with greater resources than the alien menace at the end of the game.

Random numbers bring with them a sort of drama, it’s true, and gamers enjoy landing unlikely shots and critical hits. We like a little Candy Land in our chess. But more than that, these random numbers make strategy games challenging to average people. However accomplished we feel after dispatching an alien attack force, XCOM doesn’t require that much brain power. XCOM is, after all, played by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. At most, it’s a sort-of-difficult puzzle, one that most of us could solve pretty quickly if it didn’t involve random variables.

But oh, those variables. A single missed shot can change the momentum of an mission. One unexpected critical shot can force you to restructure your entire attack. Unlike some strategy games, XCOM isn’t a puzzle you solve once before coasting to victory. Every mission is a little bit complicated from start to finish. As long as you’re paying attention, it’s hard to screw up too badly, but you need to be paying attention all the time.

XCOM has received a lot of attention for its difficulty, but what’s more remarkable to me is that you do not need to be a strategy masochist to enjoy this game. XCOM  is unforgiving and yet completely accessible. It is difficult, but you don’t need to keep GameFAQs open in a separate window (which wouldn’t help you anyway).  XCOM won’t let you get away with poor play. You can’t brute force your way past the enemy, and you can’t ignore key strategies of the game. You need to learn the lessons XCOM‘s trying to teach, but they’re not hard lessons to learn. They’re just lessons you can’t forget.

One sloppy turn and the aliens have wiped out half your team. A second sloppy turn and the mission is over. I’m mouthing “bullshit” as soon as the game loads, sometimes because of dumb luck but mostly because I let my mind wander. Then I hit reload as fast as I can because nothing is quite so satisfying as nailing a Thin Man from across the map and watching him burst into a cloud of useless vapor.

Because fuck Thin Men.

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Video Games Are Stupid Sat, 01 Sep 2012 00:44:41 +0000 Grayson Davis


Video Games Are Stupid

Even with its backdrop of realized Cold War futurism, a greaser-style youth gang in an underground vault society in the year 2277 is the working definition of a dumb idea.

-Tom Bissell, from Extra Lives, on Fallout 3

For someone who subtitled his book “Why Video Games Matter,” Tom Bissell spends much of his time in Extra Lives discussing why many games, in fact, matter very little. The book is ostensibly about why video games are sophisticated vessels of creativity. Bissell makes a compelling argument, but must overcome one major hurdle: namely, that video games often, if not always, fall short of real sophistication. We are not talking about mass-market shooters or the video game equivalent of Dan Brown novels; we are talking about widely praised and celebrated games. Bissell spends much of his time dismantling series like Resident Evil, Fallout, and Grand Theft Auto, pulling no punches and laying bare their many weaknesses.

Bissell’s self-deprecation is an important part of his argument, because if one wants to write a convincing apology for video games, one cannot take an over-generous view of their true quality. Any appreciation of Grand Theft Auto IV cannot hinge on the strength of its narrative or the depth of its characters, because GTA IV is indisputably overshadowed by many other fictional works – particularly those gangland dramas whose comparison GTA invites. Similarly, any argument that the Resident Evil series is “great” must acknowledge that its characters are straightforwardly moronic, and its plot impenetrably dense.

In short, Bissell has to address head-on the apparent paradox of being an intelligent, mature adult who cares deeply about many games which are, in most ways, indefensibly stupid.

Bissell is hardly alone in this situation. Most game critics assume a defensive position, fighting against the widespread notion that games are merely cheap entertainment. Kill Screen is an unambiguous response to the idea that “gamers don’t think;” the Brainy Gamer’s name suggests a lack of brainy gamers;  for a time, Kotaku (and countless others) couldn’t shut up about Roger Ebert, all because Roger Ebert, a film critic with rather limited influence over video games, does not think highly of the medium. Clearly, as critics, journalists, and fans, we have something to prove.

Here we must be honest with ourselves. We must dispense with our kneejerk reactions and practiced arguments. There is no doubt that many smart and talented people make video games, and there is no doubt that many smart and talented people play video games. But there is a great deal of doubt in video games as a creative medium, even among great lovers of that medium. We can be diplomatic and say that video games have yet to reach their potential, whatever that might be. Tom Bissell says as much in his introduction: “In my conversations with game designers, I was sternly informed, again and again, of the newness of their form, the things they were still learning how to do, and of the necessity of discarding any notion of what defines video games.” But we can also be more straightforward, and say that video games are often dumb, or at least juvenile, clutching awkwardly at some higher form.

If gamers have something to prove, then they are lacking in evidence.


Video Games Are Stupider Than We Realize

This guy just beat his head against a wall until it bled. And then finally it was done. And he played the game on its own stupid, brutal, dumb terms, and finally got through it. Whereas, John, you’re a smart fellow, but you figured out: this game is stupid.

- John Hodgman, on Mega Man X

I suspect most gamers, at one point or another, have experienced the great shame of trying to explain a video game to someone with no knowledge of or interest in the medium – a friend, a parent, a partner. I was living at home when Kingdom Hearts was released and found myself unable to explain to my mom why a boy in puffy shorts battled monsters alongside the Little Mermaid. It’s not that Kingdom Hearts is hard to describe. It’s easy enough to describe what the game is literally about, and I actually enjoy the series quite a bit. But I couldn’t describe the game in any way that made sense to an outsider, because what the game is literally about makes zero fucking sense.

Even today, I’m not sure I could explain my enjoyment of the Kingdom Hearts series. My appreciation would be appended by multiple asterisks, acknowledging the game’s nonsensical plot, its tedious level design, its grueling cutscenes, and its aggressively boring opening sequences. There is a scene in Kingdom Hearts II where Goofy – that is, Goofy the dog – is hit by a boulder and presumed dead. The main character and his companions vow to avenge Goofy’s death, and leap into battle. Of course, Goofy later wakes up, rubbing his head, laughing as only Goofy does.

Kingdom Hearts is quite possibly the dumbest game I’ve ever played, and yet I spent $300 on a PlayStation 3 in the hopes of eventually playing the yet-unreleased Kingdom Hearts III.

Kingdom Hearts is only one such example of an obviously flawed game which I nonetheless enjoy. Despite the work of writers like Tom Bissell, many games remain obstinately hard to defend, and wither in comparison to even middling works of film, of music, of literature. And I spend much more time playing games than I do reading even mediocre books.

Gamers often think that everybody else just hasn’t figured it out yet. Michael Abbott, the Brainy Gamer, said as much when he attempted to compile a “Smart Game Catalog.” He said that people are merely “looking at the wrong games.” The right games, naturally, would convince even the stodgiest of critics of gaming’s value, or at least potential. His crowd-sourced list includes the usual stable of sweethearts: Ico, Braid, Flower, Half-Life, Planescape: Torment, BioShock, etc. (And one vote for Kingdom Hearts.) But rarely do gaming enthusiasts consider the alternative: that they are slow to figure out what everybody else immediately recognizes, that the “wrong games” are barely distinguishable from the right ones.


Even Smart Video Games Are Stupid

I think this game could give people a lot to think about, like how it’s dangerous to give everyone in a city inherently destructive superpowers.

- John Jackson, on BioShock, from “Ken Levine’s Secret Notepad of BioShock Ideas

Planescape: Torment is easily one of the most well-regarded video games of all time. The game sold unspectacularly but is often hailed as one of the richest demonstrations of the medium – certainly, at least, of the roleplaying genre – and for good reason. Torment’s story centers on a character known as The Nameless One, a  scarred warrior cursed with immortality, who has died countless deaths and loses his memory every time. The story explores themes of identity and mortality, circling the game’s central question: What can change the nature of a man? All of this is woven through the Planescape setting, a byzantine, multidimensional realm where philosophies are made sentient by obscure cosmic forces. By almost any standard, Torment is an impressive work.

The game’s actual game elements are, simply put, pretty bad. Based on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, Torment’s cumbersome combat system ranges from terrible to extremely terrible.  The user interface is unkind, and the game’s quest tracking is spotty, leaving inattentive gamers scratching their heads as to the location of some critical NPC. But the game coasts along on the strength of its massive 800,000 word script and lengthy sections which are better compared to the puzzling fetch-quests of adventure games than to hack-and-slash dungeon crawls. You can play for hours without lifting a battleaxe. Many obstacles can be overcome with an insightful dialog choice if you’d rather avoid physical combat, and in fact you gain vastly more experience by navigating dialog trees than slaying monsters.

I have been playing Torment for the second or perhaps fourth time, depending on how you count it. My first few attempts sputtered out within hours. Torment demands an attentive and engaged player. The game does not herd you through plot checkpoints, and if you breeze through dialog trees you will quickly find yourself lost. Much of the game’s pleasure is found in self-directed exploration. It is not even quite accurate to divide the story into a main quest and sidequests, as we do with most RPGs. Storylines weave together in an intricate web, and the main plot is only properly understood by a thorough knowledge of the many peripheral stories.

All of this is to say that it is no mystery why Torment is highly regarded by so many gamers. It is one of the few games that can be called smart, sophisticated, even literary, without prompting incredulous eye-rolls.

But, of course, this does not prevent the game from having female characters with tits the size of their head.

I’m not kidding. You spend much of your time in Torment reading winding philosophical conversations written in utter seriousness, delivered by or in the presence of women with enormous breasts, with costumes that might as well have been taken from the wet dreams of a 14 year old fantasy nerd.

I submit as evidence the character models for Upper Class Townie, Male and Upper Class Townie, Female. One wonders why this picture doesn’t single-handedly undermine the credibility of the whole game. Maybe it does.


But Stupid Video Games Can Be Smart

Surprisingly, there have been relatively few Spacewar-like games invented. The most elaborate is a “Snoopy and the Red Baron” game which involves flying your console like a biplane. But computer graphics as an area of research has mushroomed. The field is too wide and deep and engrossing for me to report here. It’s an art form waiting for artists, a consciousness form waiting for mystics.

-Stewart Brand, “Spacewar,” written in Rolling Stone in 1972

Without exaggeration, I think QWOP is one of the best games ever made. You have probably played it, if you are using the Internet and like video games. QWOP refers to the four keys you use to control the motion of a runner’s legs – keys which are, by design, fairly arbitrary, with no intuitive relationship to the task at hand. Your first goal is to discover a rhythm that allows your runner some sort of functional ambulation. This is harder than it sounds. Your next goal is to see how far you can run before collapsing. This is even harder. The game is genuinely difficult but also really funny. Failure is preceded by the hopeless flailing of your runner or a pathetic crumple to the ground. “Chariots of Fire” can be heard in the background if you manage to pick up some speed, the song playing in fits and starts as your character struggles to move a few meters forward.

QWOP is really stupid, but in that “stupid like a fox” sort of way. The game’s difficulty comes from a senselessly complicated simulation of an activity we normally find easy, but which, in reality, is very complicated.  I risk giving a silly flash game too much credit by saying that it provokes a bit of self-reflection on how we take our bodies for granted, but the person who made it is also a philosopher and bioethicist at Oxford, so the game probably deserves a little credit. Regardless, QWOP is a tremendous work of game design. It is funny, challenging, rewards practice, and can be played over and over again – and all of this is packed in a game so simple its name is also its instruction manual. Charles Wheeler of The Rules on the Field, a blog about sports and game design, sums it up well:

It’s hard to say what QWOP is. Is it a reminder of the staggering complexity required to co-ordinate all the weight and body movements that we all take for granted? Is it an (albeit limited) hard-core physical simulation of a generally ignored sports genre? Or is it simply a lark? I’m not entirely sure. And even though I’m not entirely comfortable calling it a good game, I think it might just be a masterpiece.

Much of my enjoyment of games, I admit, comes from the thrill of this new and untested medium. I have personally been alive for half of gaming’s existence, for many milestones and achievements, some of which we may not recognize yet. Kingdom Hearts may be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad game, but for a moment let’s appreciate just how uniquely bizarre it is. A decade down the line, I might realize what everybody else figured out long ago: that the game just sucks. For now, it’s new and interesting and if it’s stupid (it is), it’s stupid in a new and interesting way.

But some games do not need these sheepish qualifications. Even though QWOP is expressly stupid, I do not hesitate to recommend it. I do not need to say, “It’s great, if you ignore all of these awful parts.” There are no asterisks to my appreciation, no giant breasts to blushingly explain away.  QWOP is not a would-be great game polluted by bad choices or juvenile writing. It is a simple game with a disarming intelligence. It’s stupid, but that’s the point. It’s smart, but you might never notice.

Some of the greatest games in fact look like larks, absurd ideas given surprising heft by smart designers. Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia can perhaps best be described as a WarioWare-style series of minigames about hormone replacement therapy – a description that might make you wonder why someone chose to combine a serious, personal topic with a style of game mostly known for its frenetic gameplay and silly humor. But then you play the game and wonder how you ever could have doubted the decision.

There can be no doubt that video games were born and flourished as amusing distractions – as virtual tennis, or games of extraterrestrial combat. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does pose a rather serious problem to people trying to elevate amusing distractions to, as David Cage puts it, “emotional journeys.” We should not be surprised to find designers stumbling, even decades later, with a medium still struggling with its newness. But let’s take some comfort in those games that don’t elevate amusing distractions, but work squarely within that form – a form that, apparently, can accommodate a breadth of sophisticated ideas. It is exciting to consider the prophesying of gaming futurists like Will Wright or Peter Molyneux (blowhards that they sometimes are). I think it’s even more exciting to watch the work of people who looked at something as simple as Spacewar! and said to themselves, this right here will attract an entire field of artists, this is a “a consciousness form waiting for mystics.” These designers are not looking into some indeterminate future where we have finally overcome the limitations of the medium; they’re making games right now that they could have made decades ago. Not clutching awkwardly but proving a concept.

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King Kong and the Problem with Movie Adaptations Fri, 15 Jun 2012 15:50:58 +0000 Grayson Davis Video game adaptations of movies are, by design, an incomplete experience. Whatever lines we draw – or not – between entertainment, advertising, and art, we must acknowledge that game adaptations are usually meant to complement a movie, rather than stand on their own. Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie is no exception, and this is most evident in the game’s threadbare story. The game assumes you either have already seen the film, or are at least aware enough of the story that you need very little context for the events of the game. This should make sense: Universal Pictures and Ubisoft want you to pay to complete the King Kong experience. Either you watch the movie and want to explore that world in a game, or you play the game and want to see the story you didn’t get.

In a recent profile, Jonathan Blow said, “The de facto reference for a video game is a shitty action movie.” This statement, while accurate, is not a revelation, controversial only for its straightforward truculence. Many games fare poorly in this light, however fun they might be; so many developers blatantly and proudly draw on Hollywood’s offal. There is an obvious irony that video games are applauded for simulating the style of action films, while direct video game adaptations are typically regarded as mediocre, joyless cash-ins. So what should we make of King Kong, a game with a shitty action movie as its literal reference?

Ubisoft and Universal must have anticipated that reaction. Michel Ancel, the creator of Rayman and Beyond Good & Evil, worked side-by-side with Peter Jackson and his team developing the game. The film’s actors contributed their voices as well. Far from a mediocre cash-in, King Kong is a beautiful and immersive first-person adventure, eschewing a HUD, relying on voice cues and visual effects to communicate the player’s health and ammo counts. Even the game’s title, as unwieldy as it is, must have been chosen to let players know that this game has a real connection to the filmmakers, and isn’t some outsourced shovelware.

Playing as Jack Driscoll, you trek across Skull Island alongside filmmaker Carl Denham and shipmate Hayes. Your objective, of course, is to find Ann Darrow, who has been kidnapped by the great ape Kong. The game makes this basically clear, but, if pressed, you would have to guess why you’re on the island to begin with. (Something to do with shooting a film? What’s your relationship to Ann, anyway?) The game shuttles you through all sorts of thrilling set pieces – presented quite directly as scenes from a movie, as the menu looks like a strip of film. The game benefits from its undoubtedly large production budget, as Skull Island is an impressive sight, even as I play the game seven years after release. The folks over at Dead End Thrills would probably have a field day with this game.

The game is generally tense and exciting. Though seen through the first-person, and though you shoot plenty of monstrous bugs, King Kong is not quite a first-person shooter. Your primary action button is more of an all-purpose “Use,” letting you pick up spears, fire guns, turn levers, and so on. Set pieces involve navigating perilous jungle terrain or solving puzzles just as much as they involve shooting dinosaurs. Monsters, in fact, sometimes can’t be defeated with firearms, but must be avoided or distracted. The set pieces grow repetitive quickly, and most boil down to the same one or two challenges framed in different ways. But King Kong is mercifully short and, for the most part, enjoyable, a taut adventure game sprinkled with memorable (if heavily scripted) action sequences.

King Kong may even be strangely underrated. Released in 2005, the game’s opening smacks of BioShock (released two years later), with a dramatic first-person sequence where you swim to shore after a disaster at sea. King Kong’s HUD-less design is elegant and refreshing even today, when so many games still struggle to disguise their arcane interfaces. And the game demonstrates a commanding control of mood and pace, smoothly guiding the player from slow-paced jungle exploration, to tense scenes of survival, to brontosaurus stampedes, and more. You even play as Kong himself a few times, controlling the ape in the third person, and the game handles this transition just as easily. Critics at the time responded positively to King Kong, but many were quick to temper their statements. “By movie-to-game standards, King Kong is an instant classic,” wrote The A.V. Club. “Just don’t hold it to any greater standard.”

The great shame of King Kong is, much as we might want to, we really can’t hold it to any greater standard. For all of its genuine strengths and achievements, it is still just a movie tie-in, an essentially incomplete experience. It doesn’t stand on its own because it’s not supposed to stand on its own, and it cannot reconcile the tension between being its own game and being a commercial for a movie. This problem only becomes worse over time. The shallow story makes little sense in the year 2012 when it might have been easier to swallow alongside the movie, and the game menus are stuffed with obsolete promotional material and long-irrelevant codes for some online promotion.

Early game adaptations did not have this problem, or perhaps did not have the technology to have this problem. So many movie adaptations of the 80s and 90s offer only narrative allusions rather than experiences, using movie licenses as (typically poor) premises for arcade games or home console platformers. King Kong, however, is too new and too sophisticated for there to be any excuse.

King Kong is not unique in this regard, but it is an especially regrettable example. At times, the game comes very close to answering the question: What would it look like if someone made King Kong into a game instead of a movie? The game addresses the themes of the Kong story with some sophistication, despite the incomplete narrative. I feel it must be on purpose that Jack’s primary action is not “Fire,” but rather “Use,” contrasting human tool use with the single-minded brutality of the Kong sections. Alternating between Jack and Kong establishes the relationship both characters have to Ann, both trying to save her from the dangers of Skull Island, yet one trying to save Ann from the other. And a video game is a great medium to explore the differences in size and perspective between Jack and Kong. Monsters which tower over Jack can be swatted aside by Kong; Kong splashes through rivers that Jack must wade cautiously across.

I can’t say King Kong would have been an amazing game in an alternate reality. I thought the 2005 movie was unreasonably plodding for an adventure story, and the King Kong story is itself problematic – a tale of one woman held hostage by two men, offered both literally and metaphorically as a prize to be taken, her most defining features a paralyzing beauty and a terrorized scream. It takes more than a HUD-less combat system to address those issues. But in this reality, King Kong is a game second and an advertisement first, subordinate to and reliant upon the film. If we examine King Kong outside of its context as a movie tie-in, it is an absurdly incomplete experience. If we examine King Kong as what it truly is, an advertisement, then it is a deliberately incomplete experience. I’m not sure which is worse.

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Skyward Sword and The Legend of Zelda Tue, 21 Feb 2012 15:00:11 +0000 Grayson Davis

A friend of mine once asked me at a party why so many people consider Ocarina of Time so great. While this was not a party of nerds per se, my circle of friends is sufficiently nerdy that such a question can be asked without preamble, or without any apparent context. Ocarina of Time’s greatness is usually taken for granted, being the ur-Zelda against which all others must compare. As I agree that Ocarina of Time is “great,” and as I derive a lot of pleasure from bloviating about video games (obviously), I took on this challenge. I was also in the middle of a party with a red cup in my hand and probably a little drunk, and so couldn’t articulate an answer to either of our satisfaction.

If only I had known the the answer would arrive 14 years later in the form of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

Skyward Sword arrived in 2011, just in time for the series’ 25th anniversary. It is the 15th game in the series (excluding spin-offs), which may tell you how much gamers love Zelda, but more importantly, it tells you how much Nintendo loves Zelda. My own love for Zelda doesn’t even compare. I count multiple Zelda games among my all-time favorites. The Wind Waker might have made me cry a little. None of this compares to the love Nintendo feels for this series. Depending on how you count them, there are more core Zelda games than there are core Mario games, despite Mario predating Zelda, and despite all Zelda games being pretty much the same.

I am not only referring to the superficial aspects. Yes, we could rattle off the common items – the Master Sword, the Triforce, the rupees, the bows and arrows and all of the Zelda knick-knacks. We could compare the general structure of the games – the dungeons, the keys, the bosses, the Ganondorfs. (Ganondorves?) Those are all important too, but I mean that Zelda games deliver the same experience in a more fundamental way – the same sense of action and adventure, the same narratives, the same emotional arcs.

How do I know Nintendo loves Zelda so much? I guess I don’t, but how else could you explain the company making the same game 15 times in a row? I have never finished a Zelda game and thought, “Now that was a fresh take on Zelda.” Rarely am I surprised or thrilled or excited because I don’t really think Nintendo wants me to be. I never think Nintendo has taken a risk because Nintendo isn’t in the business of taking risks.

We come to Skyward Sword, a game we might consider more a retrospective on the franchise than as a singular installment, and what might be the least risky entry in a series that defines “safe bet.” If you are one of the few people in existence reading a video game blog who hasn’t played a Zelda game, start with this one. Skyward Sword contains everything you could want in a Zelda game. You follow the path of a neophyte swordsman swiftly thrust into a world-shaking magical conspiracy, exploring new lands, slaying new monsters, and finding new items.

The new lands adhere to the fantasy traditions of enchanted forests and smoldering volcanoes. Sometimes the game indulges in stereotype, populating magical glades with gnarled trees and pixie-dusted flora. Other times – but not too often – Skyward Sword offers an enjoyable twist, such as time-altering stones that temporarily return an ancient mine to full operation.

The items you find are not strictly new. Some are quite familiar, such as your trusty slingshot and bow. Others are new enough to delight but never surprise. A remote-controlled mechanical beetle may sound strange, but fits naturally in the world of Zelda the second time you use it. A divine harp is your requisite magical instrument for this game. Skyward Sword mixes the new and the old enough to keep you engaged, but has no intention of throwing you for a loop or introducing something truly radical. Which is great, because Zelda games aren’t supposed to be radical.

Link still relies on his sword, after all, now controlled with real-life swings of the Wii remote. After shoehorning motion controls into the Wii port of Twilight Princess, Nintendo implemented more sophisticated controls in Skyward Sword, requiring precise motions from the player. Swing left, and Link swings left. Swing up, Link swings up. The motion controls are fun and intuitive and inspire some challenging battles, but are less revolutionary than they sound. Once you get used to them, you’re just playing Zelda again, fighting off bats and oozes, moving boxes, opening chests. The feel of sword fighting is the same, even if the inputs are different. Which is great, because Zelda games aren’t supposed to feel different.

And finally, there is a great amount of content, measured according to the series’ well-established metrics. How many dungeons are there? Plenty. How many items are there? Plenty. How many sidequests are there? Plenty. Is there a horse, or something like a horse? You betcha. Is there an overworld to explore? Yep. Can you catch fairies in bottles? Check check check check check.

So thoroughly does Skyward Sword run through the great checklist of Zelda content that I believe Nintendo made a deliberate attempt to create the Zelda for everyone, something which could only be criticized by the Scroogiest, fun-hating-est curmudgeons. Visually, Skyward Sword mixes the cartoonish style of Wind Waker and early 2D games with the darker style of Ocarina, Majora’s Mask, and Twilight Princess. Skyloft, Link’s homeland in this game, sits on a floating island in the clouds, recalling the adventurous spirit of the sea from Wind Waker without the tedious sailing that game was known for. Your animal companion, a giant red-winged bird, is a sort of horse-boat. At times the bird feels like an animal you must command and other times more like a vessel you steer through the sky, recalling both Ocarina’s horse Epona and Wind Waker‘s King of Red Lions. Below the clouds we find more traditional expanses of landscapes, satisfying those players who prefer the overland travel the series began with.

The game plays with, but does not focus on, time travel, a nod to the themes developed in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. Later in the game, you pilot an actual boat in a sequence which could not beat you over the head more with throwbacks to Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass. One characer, a wise old woman, is plucked from the caves of the original NES game. The bestiary of Skyward Sword includes monsters from, as far as I can tell, every previous Zelda. Perhaps Skyward Sword’s most truly unusual element is its focus on technology: on robots and gadgets and other mechanical wizardry. But even this was presaged in Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks – the latter demonstrating Link’s skills as a train conductor. To play Skyward Sword is to experience the whole breadth of the Zelda experience, to be familiar with 25 years’ worth of history.

None of this means Skyward Sword is the best Zelda, but this dogged adherence to the franchises’ roots means it is at least a good Zelda. Nintendo discovered such a bedrock of game design that they could release formulaic Zelda games for the rest of time and, I promise you, they will always be pretty fun. I might as well write reviews of my weekly session of Dungeons & Dragons.

Each installment is not so important as the underlying structure of the game, and this is why I couldn’t explain why Ocarina of Time was so great. We weren’t talking about a single game’s achievement. We were talking about the zenith of a form. To understand why Ocarina of Time is so great, you have to understand why the Zelda formula is so great, and there’s no better demonstration of that formula that Skyward Sword. When you finish Skyward Sword you will understand everything that happens in a Zelda game. The game isn’t always as fun or challenging or as inspiring as it could be, but you get glimpses of that potential. When you finish Ocarina of Time, you will have experienced less of the series, but you will have experienced the very best of the series – when the music is its most touching, when characters are their most memorable, when Ganondorf is at his scariest, and when everything comes into place just so.

Nintendo is notoriously tight-lipped about their design process. They work very hard to cultivate an image of a magical factory, a place where video games emerge as fully-formed, holistic entities. Shigeru Miyamoto has, however, likened game design to cooking. Anybody can salvage a mediocre meal with the right seasoning, but the best meals come from something more truly enjoyable. “There are certain elements of cooking,” he said, “where if you’re able to find a very delicious ingredient, all you have to do is put a little bit of salt on it. Then you cook it and it tastes amazing.”

The Zelda formula is one such ingredient, and to play the Zelda games is to enjoy the same meal over and over, prepared by someone who improvises a little bit each time. It’s never bad, and is usually very good. Sometimes that recipe will come together in perfect and surprising ways, in ways you’ll never be able to precisely measure or even describe. And sometimes the recipe is only an old recipe: familiar, satisfying, and impossible to screw up. No wonder Nintendo loves it so much.

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This Land Is Your Land Wed, 21 Dec 2011 15:00:59 +0000 Grayson Davis

If you beat Super Mario World, and I mean really beat it, you are rewarded with a palette-swapped version of the game world. Colors are inverted, and certain sprites are changed in strange ways. Koopa Troopas, for instance, transform into walking Mario heads. The effect is entirely superficial but nonetheless striking. Had you not spent dozens of hours beating every single level, you might not recognize this world as the Mushroom Kingdom. You’re still playing a Mario game, but not really. When I unlocked this strangely colored Mario World as a kid, I felt vaguely weirded out – a feeling, I’m sure, that was intentional.

Fast forward 20 years after Mario World, and I find myself feeling the same way about Mario’s first Game Boy adventures: Super Mario Land and Super Mario Land 2. But now, that unsettling feeling is surely a mistake. I find all of the familiar trappings – the overalls, the jumping, the goombas, so many little things I recognize. But at the same time, these don’t feel like Mario games, even though they obviously are. Everything is wrong: sometimes superficially, sometimes subtly, and sometimes fundamentally. This isn’t Mario. This isn’t even Luigi.

Right away, the movement feels wrong. Mario’s slippery, satisfying inertia has been integral to his appeal since the original arcade classic Mario Bros. Tim Rogers describes it well: “Mario was supposed to feel like a person wearing roller skates with tighter-than-usual wheels.” In Super Mario Land, Mario turns on a dime. He feels jerky and insubstantial. Super Mario Land 2 is little better. But perhaps this is unfair, as Mario has starred in many games where he moves differently than we expect. He has in fact starred in games which weren’t even Mario games to begin with. And who’s to say that Mario wouldn’t be improved by revamped controls? (Michel Ancel certainly thinks so.)

I could maybe talk about the level design, which has two modes, boring and frustrating – and often cramped, no doubt a result of the Game Boy’s smaller resolution. Having completed both games, I’m not sure I can name a memorably enjoyable level, though I can think of several Mario-slaughteringly difficult ones. But this too seems insufficient explanation for why the Mario Lands feel off to me – this doesn’t even seem relevant. New Super Mario Bros. for the DS was also somewhat dull, by Miyamoto’s own admission, but it still felt consistent with the Mario series. A bad Mario game is still a Mario game.

Perhaps something could be said of the Game Boy-era black and white graphics. After all, the Mario Lands are almost sole exceptions to a series defined by a colorful palette of Overalls Blue and Warp Pipe Green and Goomba Brown. Visually, it’s impossible to tell that you’ve picked up a Fire Flower in Super Mario Land (technically, a “Superball Flower”); and in Super Mario Land 2, Mario’s super-cool white overalls are replaced with a far less cool feather. But not even this seems important. I found Super Mario Land’s chunky pixel art quite charming, if anything.

No, the problem with the Mario Lands is not a summary of specific issues. The problem lies at a more basic level, as if the games were created by someone who just didn’t “get” Mario, someone who had to have it explained like a joke gone over their head. To me, nothing reveals this so much as the creeping, disconcerting presence of the real world.

Mario has always existed in a fantasy land of Nintendo’s creation. There are rarely direct references to the world we know, and the Mushroom Kingdom bears only a faint resemblance to Earth. (Though Super Mario Land takes place in “Sarasa Land,” and Mario Land 2 in, uh, Mario Land.) Super Mario Land edges uncomfortably close to reality with clear allusions: the opening desert world includes pyramids, sphinxes, and hieroglyphics. Another world clearly references the Moai of Easter Island. Many of the game’s monsters are drawn directly from real world or mythological sources, such as the Suu (spider) or the Pionpi (hopping vampire). Mario even takes advantage of modern machinery, operating an airplane and submarine in Gradius-esque shoot-em-up levels which feel unfaithful to the Mario experience (even if they’re kind of fun).

Super Mario Land 2 contains fewer direct references to the real world, but in other ways is more grounded in reality. The levels run the gamut from the banally themed Tree Zone, complete with (yawn) bird and ant enemies, to Pumpkin Zone, an area that evokes Halloween so strongly there are even Jason Voorhees-esque hockey mask monsters shambling around. In Macro Zone, Mario is shrunk to a tiny size and explores what appears to be a typical suburban house. My favorite area, Mario Zone, has Mario exploring a gigantic Mario statue. Unlike future Mario games which contain retro throwbacks, the Mario Zone is bizarrely literal – the levels are mazes of metallic gears, as if you are actually exploring an oversized, clockwork Mario. (One wonders why the usually humble Mario owns his own castle next to a gigantic statue of himself.)

The first Mario Land, while unusually referential for a Mario game, is short, with only 12 stages; and the graphics, while cute, are too lo-fi and undeveloped to establish any strong visual design. It would be hard to argue this game alone represents some utter betrayal of the Mario series. We might even forgive the first Mario Land for being tonally inconsistent. Released in 1989, Mario Land had only a few previous games to draw from – some of which have since grown obscure (the original Mario Bros.) and others which would only later be recognized as seminal (Super Mario Bros. 3, released merely five months prior). And, it must be said, Shigeru Miyamoto had no documented role in the development of either Mario Land or its sequel.

Super Mario Land 2, however, is more thoroughly and (I can only assume) deliberately mundane. Given that the game was released in 1992, at a point well past Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, the game’s designers must have made a conscious choice to explore the familiar “Mario Land” instead of the more exotic Mushroom Kingdom. The effect on the player is just that. The playful fantasy of the Mario series is lost.

This criticism may seem strange because the Mario series is famously autobiographical. It is no secret that Miyamoto drew inspiration from his childhood adventures in rural Japan, and virtually every profile includes some version of these tales. It is now common knowledge among Nintendo buffs that Chain Chomps were based on Miyamoto’s experience with a neighborhood dog. It almost makes more sense that Mario would explore someone’s backyard instead of the unreal Mushroom Kingdom. As written in The New Yorker,

Miyamoto has told variations on the cave story a few times over the years, in order to emphasize the extent to which he was surrounded by nature, as a child, and also to claim his youthful explorations as a source of his aptitude and enthusiasm for inventing and designing video games. The cave has become a misty but indispensable part of his legend, to Miyamoto what the cherry tree was to George Washington, or what LSD is to Steve Jobs.

But early on, Miyamoto must have made the decision to divorce the Mushroom Kingdom from planet Earth. The Mario games are not merely fantastic, but pure fantasy; not Hogwarts, but Middle-earth. Chain Chomps may evoke the same sense of childhood dread as a snapping dog, but it would miss the point to call Chain Chomps a mere metaphor – a point, it seems, lost on the designers of the Mario Lands. Despite high sales, Mario disappeared from handheld consoles for 14 years (from 2D platformers entirely, in fact, excluding Yoshi’s Island). The Mario Land franchise would not be revived for 19 years until Super Mario 3D Land.

The single most enduring element of the Mario Land series is Wario, the villain of Mario Land 2. The bizarro reflection of Mario spun off into his own extensive series of games which have almost nothing to do with traditional Mario titles. Wario is defined by his bulk, his brute strength, and his greed. In Super Mario Land 2, he puts the people of Mario Land under a spell because he is jealous of Mario’s popularity. This premise, paper-thin as it is, is a fitting introduction to the character. Wario seems a natural evolution of the Mario Lands – a false image from a different creator, a character in cap and overalls who resembles Mario in every way except the ways that matter.

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Skyrim and the Problem of Audience Tue, 15 Nov 2011 15:00:44 +0000 Grayson Davis

I haven’t played Skyrim, but I’ve seen it. For a few hours, I watched as someone else played through the first sections of the fifth entry in The Elder Scrolls series. Sure enough, the game struck me as an impressive open world RPG.  Skyrim is rich and atmospheric, a self-evident improvement over the monotonous green countryside and mushy-faced NPCs of Bethesda’s previous Oblivion. While I speak only as a second-hand observer, I can say with confidence that I look forward to playing Skyrim myself. As such an observer, though, I can also say that the game is impossible to take seriously.

Fantasy, of course, must struggle against its own obvious absurdity. Games only make that harder, layering heads up displays and other wrought video game-isms on top of a foundation of invented fiction.  I say this as a fan of both fantasy and video games, so let me be clear: when I say I cannot take Skyrim seriously, I am not simply referring to “elves talking bullshit” (to borrow a quote from Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives). I am quite prepared to take seriously the most ridiculous bullshit an elf has to say. What I cannot take seriously is Skyrim’s open world, or more specifically, the nonsense borne out of that world’s complex ecosystem.

Imagine the scene: my friend battling bandits on the steep, snow-covered steps of some old ruins. Snow dust swept across the ground, moody music swelled in the background, magical fire poured out of the protagonist’s hands, etc. It was altogether pretty cool.  Then we noticed something strange: an arrow stuck clean through the brain of one of the (still living) bandits – a hilarious victim, we supposed, of friendly fire. Then another bandit, slain by sword, toppled down the stairs, but kept going, awkwardly rolling over and over. We had to laugh.

Or consider when my friend slew a cave bear, only to harvest the bear’s pelt and hit carrying capacity in his inventory. He sorted through all of the items he had accumulated: buckets and boots and tankards and other medieval miscellany. (We won’t get into how silly it looks for a fantasy hero to run around collecting buckets.) He threw away a pile of junk. When he exited his inventory menu, all of the items flew out from his body, hitting the bear with spluttering thuds.  He left the cave, leaving behind a garbage-covered bear corpse.

As players, we constantly revise the story of our gameplay. We self-censor and edit and create a narrative independent from our literal actions. If my friend had played Skyrim alone, he might instead tell a story of a dramatic mountaintop fight, or his encounter with a fearsome cave bear. If I had been playing alone, I surely would have found these scenes far less silly. If I had been playing, those buckets wouldn’t really exist – they are gaming ephemera, and I choose to be conscious of them or not.

As a spectator, though, I am not personally engaged. I can’t self-edit because I’m not watching myself. Skyrim is such a complex intersection of open world elements that, to an audience, it becomes a farce. I can’t take seriously a game where every few minutes I witness a bandit with an arrow through her head; or a game where the protagonist strips nude all of his fallen enemies; or a game where a warrior taunts “You can’t defeat me!” after (after) she is run through the belly with a longsword. And when the audience can’t take a game seriously, the player grows unusually conscious of those silly video game-isms too. (My friend later said as much about our time playing Skyrim.) I know I find myself especially critical of games when I play them in front of others, probably unfairly.

Not all games are so unintentionally silly as Skyrim. Some games embrace the comedy inherent in the unpredictable nature of open world design. Other games rein in player freedom, directing players down tightly scripted corridors. And some games begin to treat the player more as audience than gamer. Several critics have written of the Uncharted series less as a shooter and more of an interactive action movie: Naughty Dog as director, the player as actor. Writing for Kill Screen, Richard Clark said:

But who are we to complain? Naughty Dog has given us the privilege of taking part in Nathan Drake’s life. It’s a life that’s entirely more exciting and fulfilling than we will ever experience, filled with risk, adventure, romance, friendship, and treasure. Our lives, with all their mundanity and reasonableness, are exactly what we deserve. I mean, we could never handle real control over something as precious as Nathan Drake’s life, even in a videogame.

We’d just screw it up.

Skyrim gives us many opportunities to do exactly that: to screw it up, to be stupid, to collect buckets. For all of its self-serious fantasy gloom, Skyrim is nothing so much as an engine of absurdity. To an audience, even a sympathetic one, Skyrim is a brazen clown show. Whether the player ignores that clown show or becomes an active participant, I don’t know; but the player is able to take seriously what the audience cannot.

Sometime in 2006, I was sitting at my computer, all by my lonesome, playing Oblivion. I was trekking across Cyrodil’s countryside and encountered a truly striking scene: a family of deer grazing peacefully on a hillside – the sort of discovery that makes a lovingly detailed world so much fun to explore. And then I pressed the Attack button, and my character raised his fists on screen. And then I decided to attack the deer with my bare hands. They fled at my first punch, running uselessly into a nearby pond. I waded after them and pummeled each deer to death with my bare hands.

This experience stays with me not for its unimaginable stupidity (though it is unimaginably stupid), but for how little it interrupted my play experience. I screwed up, and screwed up bad, and I continued without pause to my next quest. My deer fight was barely a speed bump. I folded it into my ongoing narrative and did not worry for even a moment about reconciling it with a story I otherwise took seriously. My deer fight didn’t really happen because I chose to ignore it. But I could not ignore when my friend dumped a pile of buckets onto a bear corpse. To the player, not everything happens even though it does. To the audience, everything just happens.

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RollerCoaster Tycoon Tue, 04 Oct 2011 15:00:50 +0000 Grayson Davis

It takes 51 hours, 18 minutes, and 50 seconds to complete all 21 scenarios in the original RollerCoaster Tycoon. This number, if my math is correct, is absolutely precise. The in-game clock for the theme park simulator moves at an unalterable pace, days passing at a rate of about one per dozen seconds. Scenarios last between two and four in-game years, each year lasting about an hour in real-time. The game doesn’t care how well you’re doing, even if you’re doing so well that your park could progress to the finish line without a single further click. You’re waiting that clock out and can only hope the game gives you enough to do.

There’s a certain Zen appeal attendant to the game’s lackadaisical passage of time. RCT is far from difficult, and a scenario is often “won” well in advance. The same basic strategies always work: build cheap, dull rides to lure guests into the park; build highly-profitable roller coasters to make money; and make sure park facilities are in working order by hiring staff, building bathrooms, etc. None of this is challenging or even urgent. Once you’ve got your park’s economy running smoothly, all of the trivial details that define a management game become fascinating distractions – after all, you’ve got to spend the next two hours doing something. You find yourself fretting over the placement of balloon stalls, or the types of animal outfits your park’s entertainers should wear. (Panda? Elephant?!) RCT quickly transforms from a barely-challenging strategy game to a Sims-esque trifle. You can even turn on “real” guest names, giving every guest in the park a unique identity and giving you someone to watch as you adjust the ticket prices of bumper cars and go-karts.

There’s also a certain presumption found in RCT’s 51-plus hours: that the game contains at least that much compelling gameplay. We could perhaps take that for granted. RCT is, after all, a very successful franchise. The original game sold millions of copies and spawned several sequels (including an upcoming 3DS title). I have personally sunk untold hours into the franchise’s various games. With the original RCT alone – perennially installed since I bought it in 1999 – I’ve surely put in more than the required 51 hours. But there’s the catch: though I’ve clocked god-knows-how-many hours into RCT, I’ve never beaten the game. I’ve played maybe half of the scenarios, and have never unlocked the game’s later levels. Though RCT drags me back time and time again, it never holds me for long.

The RollerCoaster Tycoon cycle goes something like this. After six to twelve months, something reminds me of RCT – a conversation, maybe, or I stumble across the game’s folder on my hard drive. I get that ineffable “I gotta play this but I’m not sure why” itch, and a few hours later, I’ve completed the first couple of scenarios. (My old saved games are inevitably lost.) Everything’s going great. I’m free to construct the world’s greatest theme parks, and the game’s feather-light strategic elements provide a satisfying touch of purpose. I beat another scenario, then maybe another, but then things start to slow down. The game’s simplistic strategy starts to feel boring, the sandbox elements start to feel pointless, the game clock starts to feel tedious, and then I start murdering guests.

If you didn’t know, park guests can die in RollerCoaster Tycoon. This is probably the game’s most notorious gameplay element, and certainly its most dysfunctional. If you’re taking the game seriously, guests only die as the result of particularly dramatic ride malfunctions. The game’s audio cuts out and the camera quickly pans to the scene of the accident. The game confronts you with a jarring explosion and a grim message telling you how many guests perished. Your park rating drops and, of course, the surviving guests aren’t too happy. With proper maintenance, guest deaths are very rare and are almost comically juxtaposed against the game’s otherwise cheerful mood.

If, however, you’ve played RCT, you are probably very aware that guests can die – and you’ve probably killed them on purpose. You’ve constructed roller coasters that shoot off into the sky. You’ve created water slides that send guests plummeting to their death. You can, if you’re feeling particularly sadistic, pick guests up and simply drop them in water, drowning them. Why guests can drown at all, I’m not sure, as it requires the player’s willful malevolence. YouTube searches reveal thousands of videos for RollerCoaster Tycoon disasters, with titles like “Roller coaster tycoon 3 SuicidePark” and “drowning 1,592 people on roller coaster tycoon 2.”

Every RCT player I’ve ever known has succumbed to this murderous lure. In a game defined by its intractable 51-hour playtime, players will pass the hours however they can. The temptation to build a carnival of death is too great. Murdering people may be bad strategy, but it’s something to do – and, let’s be honest, it’s kind of funny. Once you’ve murdered enough guests, you can either reload an earlier save (unlikely) or just stop playing, waiting another six to twelve months before you’ve got the RCT itch again.

It is to RCT’s great credit that I find myself returning to the game over and over twelve years after release. The game’s blend of theme park fantasy with light strategy is instantly appealing, and the game clock inspires a relaxing, almost peaceful mood.  Ultimately, though, RCT cannot reconcile its strategy and sandbox elements. 51 hours is a long time, and all but the most dedicated theme park tycoons will eventually wonder what happens if you launch a fully loaded roller coaster train into the merry-go-round. It seems strange to call this a failure of game design, both because of the game’s popularity and because people obviously enjoy creating Technicolor death machines. I also hesitate to credit game design that inspires ironic mayhem borne primarily out of boredom. I suspect Chris Sawyer, the game’s lead designer, never expected his game to be so provocatively destructive.  But sometimes you just want to burn the whole sandbox down on your way out, and it is a happy accident that RCT provides such flammable material.

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