Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Monsters and pets

It would be a shame if I didn't post anything on here in a whole month (midterms, lack of willpower), so I'm going to try to post a little something every day for the next few days.

Right now I want you to look at the new game from the studio that made Ico (appropriately named Team Ico) and Shadow of the Colossus. Ico is a puzzle solving game about a boy with horns. Because having horns is frowned upon, the boy is locked away in a fortress. The boy finds a princess living in the fortress and the pair try to puzzle-solve their way out of the place. That's about all I know, other than that the game is supposed to be wonderful, and that I am a total poseur for not having played it yet.

I know a little more about Shadow of the Colossus. This is one of the main games that I talk about when I want to give someone an idea of what I consider to be a near-perfect game. The premise is simple enough: a young man (with a horse!) brings a dead or dying girl to a big talking temple. The temple says, with the speech patterns of a Japanese person learning English at a Rennaissance Faire, "Thou must vanquish some giant things to save thy chica." Without hesitation, you then take your chunky horse and a sword, climb around on big living statues, and stab them in the head. The visuals are dustry, the soundtrack is pretty and orchestral, and the game tosses your floppy, skinny character all over the place. All of these things make for an epic experience that has a standard plot but feels the opposite of most epic adventure stories. It is rare for a game (or any media for that matter) to successfully and purposefully make you feel tiny.
The soundtrack, in addition to being very epic, is also pretty haunting. The feel of the game in general is melancholy in a way that is a refreshing change from that of most games. There are also subtle ques that alter the way that you feel about defeating one of the colossi. You would think that it would be a triumph to take down one of these things, but sometimes you just feel bad because they look like cute animals. He just wants to play!

Also, when you kill one of these guys some black tentacles fly out of their corpse, skewer you, and cause you to collapse while a horrible crackling sound and a vibrating controller harass you. The pairing of success in the game's mission with negative emotional reinforcement is interesting, especially when you get to the end of the game only to find out that the Renn-Faire temple has tricked you and you have been doing its evil bidding the whole time (mua ha ha).

Oh, I initially planned on talking about the new game that stylin'-ass Team Ico is working on. So far there is just this leaked trailer that was supposed to be revealed at E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) next month. Since I ended up loving on Shadow of the Colossus for so long, I'll just show you the trailer and talk about it later:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Here's a game that I'm really excited for. It is called Fez:

The 2d-3d game mechanics are brain-bendy in a way that has an awful lot of potential for fun. It is being made by Polytron, another little indie team. I can't help but be more excited about projects by small studios made up of people who got fed up with working in the sweatshop/factory-style environments of most big developers, especially when they're this unique and full of potential for innovation.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Casual Encounters.

I haven't had the attention span to play anything extremely involved lately. A game that I've probably spent the most time with in the past two months is Blush, a web browser-based game by Flashbang Studios, a neat little company that I admire. They make fun, casual games like Jetpack Brontosaurus and Minotaur China Shop. While their past games have concepts and names that I like, the way that they control has always sort of bothered me. Too floaty and imprecise for my tastes.

A few months back, Flashbang brazenly announced to the world that they planned on bringing out a new game every two months for the next year. The game that I've been playing is the first in this series of releases. Blush is a game where you are a squid. You swim around, lashing out at other sea creatures with your tentacles. When you destroy a creature, it leaves a cloud of eggs. The goal of the game is to destroy creatures, stick their eggs to your tentacles, and occasionally deposit eggs at one of the glowing collection nodes. Doing so earns you points. You have four minutes to do your thing.

The game, despite the description, isn't nearly as goofy and purposefully awkward as many of the studio's previous games. It takes advantage of and improves upon the floatiness that once frustrated me. A fun thing that happens in game design is to come up with a verb and create a game or part of a game that is an embodiment of that verb. In the case of Blush, that verb is swish. The way that the soft-but-vibrant visuals, smooth mouse movements and swaying music work together is very well done.

It may seem very simple at first, but as you proceed, collecting precious glowing eggs, the game becomes more interesting. It becomes a challenge to manage your tentacles, which grow as you deposit your eggs at the collection glowies. Also, the better you do, the variety of creatures you encounter increases. These new creatures introduce risk, as they intermittently flash a defensive yellow, at which times your tentacles will break off if they come into contact. This introduces an element of strategy and necessitates quick movements.

My only real complaint about the game is that, as much as the "earn points in a given amount of time" thing increases the excitement, I wish that there was an unscored game mode that allowed me to float around as long as I liked. I found that the gameplay relaxed me, but the demands of the score meter and time limit were coaxing me into a competitive, excited state. I felt like I was being pulled in two directions.

Try out Blush. You might need to install a weird flash plugin-esque thing, but the game is well worth it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A perfect game...

for a beautiful day when you should be outside. Just the right length:

You have to burn the rope.


Despite having played the game eight months ago, I seem to be unable to stop thinking about Braid. It was my favorite game last year. It is a 2D platformer, much like an old mario game. You play as Tim, who is trying to find the princess. The main difference between the way that this game and a classic platformer play is that you can manipulate time in various ways. Here's a trailer for Braid that highlights some of the gameplay:

What the trailer doesn't get across is that the focus of the game is on getting through the levels and collecting little puzzle peices through solving puzzles. These puzzles, as it turns out, often force your brain to do handstand pushups. The game is very frustrating, but the puzzles are never really unfair, so the satisfaction that you get from figuring out a real trickster more than makes up for the trouble.

I like puzzles and all, but the real reason that those in Braid are so good is that they are an example of gameplay contributing directly to the communication of meaning to the player. Most of the time, when a game tries to communicate meaning to a player in the way that non-interactive art does it ends up being nothing more than an afterthought. According to the usual way of thinking, whether you're playing a first person shooter or a role playing game, if you have a message you want to get across you can simply tack on some cutscenes and change the setting and you've got some real good communication of meaning. The problem with this is that the ideas presented to the player end up being hollow at best.

This game has been at the forefront of the continuing discussion of how to deal with the issue of presenting ideas to a player in a way that doesn't fail. Some people dismiss this issue in favor of concentrating purely on play. This argument has some merit, but I think that dismissing the potential of games to take on a broader range of roles is to deny exploration and creativity. I'm not cool with that.

There are at least two points of view within the group of designers that want to use games to create a "deeper" experience. One is that designers should abandon the idea of purposefully engineering their creations to convey a specific idea in the way almost all other media do. Instead, they propose that it is a better idea to design gamespaces in such a way as to create a sort of meaning generator. The player has more say in what they take from the game, and should therefore be more attached to the experience. Far Cry 2, an open-world game where you play as a mercenary wandering around Africa, tries this method of design, but remains some amount of authorial intent. No matter how you choose to play the game, the emergent narrative will be something fairly nihilistic and depressing.

The point of view that you find in Braid gives the player far less control over what the game means. The game is linear and has some clear and some not-so-clear ideas. Instead of avoiding the problem of getting a point across by saying "here's a system in which you can play around until your brain makes whatever you want," Braid displays a clear vision. One might think that a game that does these things would fall into the same trap of behaving like non-interactive media and falling flat.

Where the game stands out is in the fact that everything about the game pulls you in the same direction. Frustration, loss, ambition and obsession are what the game are all about. In most games, ideas like these would have to be presented through cinematics, dialogue, music, and visuals. In Braid, text, music and visuals all play a role, but they are secondary. Your interaction with the way that the game plays, in addition to how the gameplay interacts with the secondary modes of communication, is what will really warm your brain.

This was the first game to provoke a weird abstract emotional response from me in the way I assume a painting is supposed to. Not only that, but I experienced a range of emotions, from the soothing, forgiving first world to the frenetic lead-up to the final sequence. The ending of the game particularly affected me. Below is a video of the ending of the game. You won't get the full effect without actually playing it (and everthing that comes before it), but for the same reasons, you won't lose much if you end up playing it for yourself:

There was a time when I first played through this sequence where I had a "Oh shit the princess isn't going to pull through! Oh but she just barely did! How could I have doubted her?" moment. I got all introspective for a moment. Then you "beat" the level and play it backward to find out that you're this obsessed creeper that the princess is trying to escape from.

You could say that these themes are boring, standard stuff. I partially agree. If you like, you can believe one of the other interpretations. For example, there's the idea that Tim is one of those working on the Manhatten Project and the princess is The Bomb. However, I think that the point of the game is something more general and diffuse than what one might initially think. In any case, this game is a step in the right direction (for the games that choose to go in this particular direction) and gets me pumped.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


I'm too sick right now to post a real blog entry, but I figured that I can start posting little videos and mini-posts about the tinier things that I like, because otherwise I will take over the facebook wall of the only person that I talk to who likes games.

So apparently there is this sub-genre of real time strategy games called tower defense games. I've been hearing a lot about these games recently. They're more friendly to casual players than full-blown strategy games, and it would seem that people are really excited about making about a hundred of them for the iPhone.

In a tower defense game, instead of micromanaging an army that you send against another army, you micromanage the defensive operations of a base and keep the other army from overwhelming you.

I'm not sure how much I like the idea of tower defense games, though when I played real time strategy games (badly) I did enjoy base building more than the messiness of war. Nowadays, I tend to like games that concentrate more on simple fun and less on complex strategy or complicated micromanagement. If I were to play a real time strategy game now I don't think I would like the highly competitive, skilled play involved in things like Starcraft. If I were to play an RTS, which I haven't really done in years, it would be something with more of a focus on hilarious live action cut scenes...

...or a "meta-time" strategy game.

Now that I'm finally getting to the point of this post, I'd like to mention that I really dislike the way internet/hipster/young person culture treats the idea of zombies. It truely bums me out when people think that they can pull off zombie-based humor. So, there's this company called PopCap Games who do an awfully good job of making addictive casual flash games and things like that. They've created a game that, despite feeding off of this zombie fad, I can't help but find charming. Plants vs Zombies is a tower defense game in which you use flowers and other things that grow to defend against a zombie horde. It isn't out yet, and I haven't watched actual gameplay footage, but I can't help but think this thing looks as fun and charming as the dickins:

The key concepts that make me like this, I think, are "sunflower" and "screen door shield." Yep, Cold War alternate realities and throwing watermelons at zombies. Whimsical stuff is fun.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Getting real.

I'm starting to remember what it is like to be busy. I just started the new quarter at the 'ol Dee-Paul, and I think I will have to try this time around. I'm going to continue to learn C++ as the next logical step in my path toward being able to program worlds that take into account string theory and all that. The part that I think might melt my brain is this class I'm taking on neural networks. It's basically using logical algorithms to make programs that learn and improve. For example, a program that gets better at playing chess over time. Or one that goes from thinking that straight bangs on girls is a good idea to one that has a clue. This class assumes that I'm proficient in programming, but I can't really do much more than write a program that asks for your vital statistics and prints a suggested number of pushups and a motivational ascii drawing. So...we'll see how that goes.

I'm also starting a job tomorrow. Not a real job, though. I'm grading standardized tests from my computer. I'm going to milk this No Child Left Behind thing for all it's worth, thank you very much Prez Barry. I did this once before. It is mind numbing. Hopefully during the month and a half that I have to do this I will find an actual job. Speaking of employment, I just filled out an application to be a moderator in the school's game lab, for which I wrote a really bad essay proclaiming that my favorite game is GoldenEye for the N64:

I'm probably going to write about that game soon, because it really was a next-level piece of fun.

Also, I'm going to start putting some effort into this thing. I want to remember how to write. There's also the beginnings of iPhone app development with Little Johnny Fofo on the horizon, and I've got about two weeks to design and create a board game. Two projects with potential for weird fun.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Stop stifling me!

You know what? This blog is just going to be about whatever the hell I want. It seems that The People would like it to just be able my adventures in game development. Those guys also happen to be people who pretty much only like one thing (music, High Art, cassette tapes, etc.). I know that it is a lot easier to be successful if you have a rampant obsession, but I just don't roll like that. So here's the plan: I'm going to write about my life, what I think about, and anything that I have an opinion about. If you're like me, and want an explanation for this sort of self-indulgence, let's just go with the "the broad scope gives me perspective and access to a lot of points of view and ways of doing things which will make me a more well-rounded creator of things" angle.

I'm trying to stick with this "eat like you're a primitive gatherer" thing. I just wish that all of these nuts and seeds didn't taste like wax. It's the taste of extremely healthy oils, I know, but it still reminds me of sucking on rubber bands. I just need to learn how to cook with this stuff, or something. I have half a mind to roast these god damn sunflower seeds right now.

I'm finally reading The Thrive Diet, so maybe it will scare me straight or give me some ideas. Right now all it is doing is giving me more stress by talking about how much stress I'm under. I don't need this shit, Brazier. I'm just hungry. I wish I were reading Alton Brown's book about kitchen gear.

I made a game, kinda

I made a game for the Global Game Jam as part of a team of six dudes, seven if you count the little mutant that didn't do anything but play Gameboy, ask if anyone wanted coffee every ten minutes, and have terrible "let's blatantly steal this element from this mediocre game" ideas. So the game was a top-down top-scroller. You know, like those old arcade games where you were an airplane or a spaceship. The fact that I don't know the names of any of those games or what the proper name of that genre is is a bit frustrating. I should work on having a more rigorous understanding of the history of games.

Anyway, I was happy that I was able to come up with like 10 ideas in about half an hour when under pressure. Also that I was able to communicate those ideas to people who have been doing this stuff for much longer than I have. I got complements both on my ideas and my ability to talk intelligently about game design, so that was a nice little ego boost. Also, sort of taking charge and steering the group's decision on what game we would make (seven people = like 100 ideas, everyone wanting to use the ones they came up with) so that we could get to work on something decent was good practice.

So the game ended up being sort of a "get through this maze as a team before the wall of destruction catches you" thing. Have a looming wall of destruction seems like a pretty fail-proof but lazy way to force the player to progress. Unfortunately, the context that we plastered onto this game idea was "we're bits in a computer" and the wall of destruction was "the data in this computer is being deleted."


Even that had some potential, since the art guy on the team had these big plans to reward fast progression with enlivening the visuals, morphing this computerized world into some sort of trippy organic wonderland. Unfortunately, he didn't have the foresight to see that the visuals were not cohesive and were extremely noisy and hideous. I suppose that's what concept art is for. I sort of wish that I had given him some sort of feedback over the course of the 30-some hours we had to throw this thing together, but I wasn't quite confident enough to get in his face when he seemed to determined to go it alone. Artists, man, let me tell you.

I think I want folk music or something like that in games. Not like folk punk "let's pretend we're seven years old because we can't deal" stuff, but stuff that makes you want to live in a forest and perhaps participate in some sort of ancient festival. Music seems like the most fully developed means of getting the feel of a game all nice.

I want to make games that put you in a zen-like state, like those first couple Tony Hawk games, or what this Dyson game could become with some tweaking. Good call on that one, Zach. I'd like it if at least some of the games that I end up making serve as a break from the overstimulation of life, instead of embodying it as most BANG BANG LOL games do.

Dyson, a game I've been playing, is about seeds and asteroids. Very soothing:
As I start to see myself as a game-designer-in-training and in turn present myself to people as such, I'm getting some interesting responses. I don't know how to feel about the "oh hey we should collaborate even though I hate games and see what you do as very silly" folks. I want input and expertise from those who aren't currently into games. That would be invaluable in any attempt to expand the audience, etc., but it's also possible that some of these people are just boring, closed minded people that I shouldn't waste my time with. I guess I'll just have to use trial and error. Or become the best judge of character on the planet. Also, I got my first look that said, "You're kidding, right?" recently. That sort of bummed me out. Oh well.