Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dream Day

I guess the tenth anniversary of the Dreamcast is fair enough of an excuse to revive this thing. I was asked by SB user "Burp" of Spanish-language site GamerCafe to select 5 of my favorite Dreamcast games for their frontpage celebration of the Dreamcast. Here's a google-translated link if you want to read the rest of the write-ups, some of which are quite excellent. With their permission, I'm reposting mine here:

In no particular order:


Bangai-Oh is undeniable. Really, it is one of my favorite games period, Dreamcast or otherwise. It showcases brilliantly everything that Treasure does well: inventive mechanics, tight design, and playful, profound, and maddeningly difficult stages. I don’t even think the DS sequel (which has its own advantages) is quite as good… Playing a game this challenging and deep from start to finish is ultimately a form of self-discovery.


This is a very “Dreamcast” game, despite not having much in the way of blue skies. It’s not exactly a “good” game but it’s effortlessly charming and genuinely demented. If nothing else, it innocently captures the spirit of the era, in which imagination and wonder seemed to predominantly drive the ambition of game designers. Illbleed set out to revolutionize the horror genre, and while it flopped, it is, in retrospect, a truly fascinating game filled with surprising design concepts and levels made with love, attention to detail, and sadistic joy. As clumsy as it is, Illbleed is one of the most memorable things I’ve ever spent time with.

(ha ha ha ha)
Ditto for this one, except the design is legitimately good, if a little broken. This game is, I think, far more true to the spirit of Twin Peaks than Silent Hill, and twice as clever. D2 is a survival horror game set entirely in white, with an RPG-inspired random battle system that combines QTE’s, first person shooting, and twitch gameplay in a way that’s surprisingly less awkward than you’d expect. I can’t even talk about the plot without either ruining or completely missing what’s so brilliant about it, but take that as a complement to the game.


Slow paced, dreary, and at times hilariously broken, I still believe this game is something of a misunderstood masterpiece. Though the game makes many large scale design mistakes, and was eventually overshadowed by more ambitious (but less detailed) “open-world” games like Grand Theft Auto 3, as a videogame which tells a deeply personal story using conventions and techniques essential to the medium, it stands alone to this day. I can’t think of any other sweeping melodramatic family-crime drama videogame set against a sentimentally-cast small hometown village painted with Proustian detail. If anything, Shenmue’s blatant disregard for “rules of good design” in the name of expressing something larger should point the way for the future of the medium.


Before Beatles: Rock Band, before Guitar Hero, before Frequency, even, there was Rez. Released at a time when no one really knew what “music game” meant aside from aping Parappa the Rapper, Rez is a triumph of experimentation and a bold celebration of vintage game aesthetics melded with modern psychedelics. It was unlike anything ever made at the time, and to this day, it’s still a stark and refreshingly original thing. Like so many other Dreamcast releases, it not only questions the nature of the medium but also points anyone who plays it towards a new and exciting dimension.

To be honest, I was deeply lapsed as a gamer when the Dreamcast came out, so I've only been able to appreciate the fruits of its brief reign in retrospect. It was a little difficult for me to think of 5 Dreamcast games that I knew intimately enough to really do justice. So -- assuming anyone is even reading this right now, I'll gladly take recommendations to expand my embarrassingly meager collection.

Coming soon: some kind of something something about Fatal Frame 2!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Trico" and Ruminations on Ueda

You've probably already watched this by now, but...

Footage from Fumito Ueda's new game! Kind of. Actually, apparently it's less of a trailer and more of a proof of concept demonstration from a few years ago that has conveniently leaked a few months before E3, where it's already rumored to be announced. Sort of the same thing as the "Nico" footage that ended up being Shadow of the Colossus, except with more music from Miller's Crossing:

I've already heard tons of folks complain that it's not divergent enough from Shadow of The Colossus as Shadow of the Colossus was from Ico, as well as the game still taking place in "Uedaland" (i.e. still featuring barren brown-gray wastelands, ancient abandoned ruins, steep cliffs dropping into bottomless pits, etc.) While I feel the same way, I'm trying to reserve judgment until I see a "real" trailer. After all, look at how much difference there is between Nico and the finished Shadow of the Colossus... It's possible that they're just reusing leftover art assets from Colossus as placeholders.

I dig the concept though. It initially struck me as a combination of Shadow of the Colossus and A Boy and His Blob (which, incidentally, is getting a pretty sweet-looking Wiimake by Wayforward), though it's been more correctly observed as a combination of Colossus and Ico. But unlike Ico, you are dependent on the more mobile and powerful entity. Instead of being the caretaker, you are being taken care of. And unlike Shadow of the Colossus, it seems the game will not be about figuring out how to clamber about this big living creature (with whom you will presumably be quite familiar with after an hour or so of play) and more how to use it to navigate large scale environmental puzzles. Which has a lot of interesting design possibilities...

Ueda's games are notable because they elegantly bring out subtle emotions with a realistic sense of gravity. What I really like about Shadow of Colossus was the way it used the format of an epic quest to chronicle the internal decay of the hero... and the weird sort of guilt you sometimes felt after taking down a colossus for selfish ends. Ico was powerful because the relationship between Ico and Yorda is one of implicit trust despite the ambiguity of who they are (and their inability to communicate.) I've been replaying Ico and it feels like R1 should really be called the "Trust" button. I think I might make another post about that, since Ico is interesting to dissect in terms of its level design and how its at odds with the games aesthetic goals. In Ico that was the hook and what ultimately made the game meaningful. In Shadow of the Colossus, the hook (that being epic battles with enormous living statues) was really a maguffin that concealed a game ultimately about hubris and regret.

It's too early to tell if this game's hook is all there is to it or if there will be more layers of meaning that can only really be grasped by playing the full game... I'm excited to see the real trailer, though.

Boy I sure wish I could go to E3 :3

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

More Gloom: All Our Friends Are Dead

As if to drive home the point of last week's post, All Our Friends Are Dead has been making the rounds lately, on dessgeega's blog and the select button game club, amongst other more high profile blogs...

I had read that the game was like La La Land mixed with Contra, though it feels more like Silent Hill mixed with (obscure 2D PC shooter) Abuse to me. You control a machine-gun weilding cat-like thing who battles abstract wraiths that disintegrate under your gunfire into decaying static and hissing screeches of dying modems in dithered shades of black, red, and white, progressing through a nightmarish dungeon of bone, blood, and jittery noise, accompanied by ambient drones and manipulated sine waves. But after being bombarded with blood-red runic inscriptions, bleeding skeletons, and occasional snippets of poetry for a half hour, I felt the game was trying a little too hard. The influence of La La Land is evident, but La La Land's mysterious musings always felt like they meant something, even when that something was almost entirely opaque and unattainable. But All Of Our Friends Are Dead sometimes comes off as being cryptic for its own sake.

It's interesting to me because it seems to try and marry the plaintive abstract atmosphere of such "zen platformers" (I love that term) as Seiklus and Knytt stories, along with the surreal, dream-like progression of La La Land with traditional run and gun game mechanics. In other words, All Our Friends Are Dead is the first conscious effort I've seen to make an "art" game into a "real" videogame. So there are boss battles, destructible environments, locks and keys, platforming challenges, etc... I always appreciated games like La La Land and Seiklus for eschewing these sorts of things, but I think AOFAD does a great job making everything work together.

For instance, one scene forces you to perform some simple if perilous platforming across a pit of acid to grab a key, and then return across the gap to open a locked door. Of course, because of conveniently inconvenient architecture, the return trip is more difficult. This kind of challenge is common to platformers, but it takes on a new, more sinister character in this context... the return voyage becomes an object of dread, and being stranded in the room with the key with no easy way back creates a feeling of lonely isolation. For the most part the level design is very careful to synergize with the game's aesthetic ends instead of working against it... It's far from perfect, but they mostly heighten each other. Of course, the force of the game's presentation is generally strong enough to overwhelm any frustration from repetition or arbitrary difficulty, which helps.

In light of last week's post, though, I still want to ask: is this "fun"? Despite taking such a heavy-handed approach, the game's presentation effectively creates a looming sense of dread and terror hiding just beyond the edge of the screen. What drove me to finish the game was more morbid curiosity as to what would happen next more than the raw pleasure associated with the act of playing. But if it isn't "fun", then what is it? Certainly it's still entertaining and compelling...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"creepy" mario 64 and the importance of aesthetics on game narrative

On the heels of an otherwise inactive Mario ROMhack month at selectbutton, someone posted this:

A hack of Mario 64 in which the graphics are filtered to grayscale and the sound effects/bgm are slowed down to an imperceptible drawl. It ultimately has the effect of re contextualizing the game's cheery, chirrupy feeling into a bleak, surreal nightmare. Mario 64's charming low-poly look becomes frighteningly abstract, accompanied by haunting slow drones and mysterious low frequency noises. What once was an airy, amusing adventure becomes an existential struggle couched in abstract, cryptically symbolic terms. The sights and sounds of Mario 64 are comfortably familiar enough to be subverted by an otherwise crass substitution.

If you could play this version of Mario 64, would you describe the experience as "fun"? I'm not sure that I would, even though the game mechanics are exactly the same. The feedback is different. What was a colorful and inviting world full of light hearted distractions is now a grim wasteland full of ebony obelisks and grave architecture. Once familiar challenges now seem like sullen ordeals with heavy consequences. It's fitting that Mario hops into a cannon and fires himself off a cliff.

Of course, though I wouldn't call it "fun", it's still something I'd love to play.

"Challenge" in context of videogames is something unique to the medium, but game designers rarely acknowledge let alone exploit its similarities to the concept of "challenge" in real life. Everyone faces challenges in their day to day lives; the circumstances in which we overcome or are defeated by those challenges give our lives meaning. The same principle applies to videogames. Of course good game design is necessary as a prerequisite, but I think presentation is just as important, if not moreso, because it creates meaning. How much of our sense of "fun" comes from the meaning created by presentation as opposed to actual game mechanics/level design/puzzles/etc.? Can familiar, well-trod game mechanics be recontextualized by clever presentation? Psychonauts comes to mind...

Saturday, April 11, 2009