The Backlog — 2013

I played a lot of games this year– a fair number of new ones, and a fair number of games from the backlog. Briefly, here are some thoughts on the most important games I played this year that weren’t actually released this year:

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Yes, I held out against my friends’ constant barrage of recommendations for nearly a year, but I did finally get around to starting XCOM, and yes, it is amazing and compelling and heartbreaking. I hope to be through the game within the month, and then again on Classic Ironman, and then I will probably buy Enemy Within when it goes on sale on Steam and oh dear do we see now why I held out for so long?

Spec Ops: The Line

After reading Brendan Keogh’s Killing is Harmless, I knew I had to play Spec Ops. And boy, was that a good decision. What a dark, unsettling, and yet deeply enjoyable game. It doesn’t quite succeed at being the “Apocalypse Now of videogames,” but it certainly asks some great questions about a player’s participation in violence. I don’t even know if it purports to have answers–but oof, those endings. Yikes.

Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracles

It’s a shame that the Professor Layton games will never get traction with those who don’t dig their primary mechanic, because it’s a continual delight to me how much they invest in their characters (and their melodrama). Each new entry manages to offer some real, personal stakes to the Professor and his apprentices, and to help them grapple with each new puzzle is a charm unlike most everything else gaming has to offer.

The Walking Dead, Season One

Oh man. Oh man. *sigh* Wow. How about that finale, huh?

The World Ends With You

Why in Heaven’s name isn’t Square Enix giving us more new IP? Bravely Default excepted. (On that note, I’m very excited for Bravely Default.)

 

There have been others, I think, but those five are the ones that really left their mark on me this year. I missed enough of the best games of 2013 that I imagine my backlog will be quite full for the year to come!

 

 

Interview with Jordan Fehr and Rich Vreeland

Personal FX: The Benefits of Being an Indie Sound Designer

Hey, I interviewed Jordan Fehr (sound designer for Super Meat Boy, among others) and Rich Vreeland (composer for Fez, among others) to see what life is like as an indie sound designer. It just went up at The Escapist.

 

Super Mario 3D World and the joys of jumping in video games

Super Mario 3D World and the joys of jumping in video games

Hey! Apologies for the hiatus. I have been writing for other places.

My newest article went up at Kill Screen yesterday. It’s about Mario, his legacy as “Jumpman,” and how he’s been at the center of defining what it means to jump in a videogame. Go check it out!

 

Grand Theft Auto V as grotesquerie

 

Enough has been written about Grand Theft Auto V in the week since its release that I’m hesitant to attempt any kind of incisive criticism; the best writers in gaming have been at work on that since long before I even got my hands on the game.

I have been trying to sort out for myself, as I’ve made my way through the first part of the game, why I am enjoying it so much. Why I have always enjoyed this series. Why I feel affection for its protagonists, even though they are unquestionably Bad People by any reasonable metric. Of course it’s possible to feel sympathy for the Devil, but I’m somehow uniquely susceptible to it in this medium in a way that I haven’t encountered in others. I don’t watch Breaking Bad. I’ve never really been a fan of Scarface. Niko Bellic, on the other hand, is a character for whom I have considerable love.

I have been trying to understand why I am willing to invest myself in characters like Michael and Franklin (not so much Trevor, yet, I’ve just gotten to him and thus far I don’t like him very much) when I am so resistant to do it in other media. I think I’ve finally boiled it down: GTAV is a grotesquerie, both in its world and in its characters.

The first thing that it is important to note is that the world of Grand Theft Auto is unambiguously horrible. It is horrible in some of the same ways that the real world is horrible, only more so. There has been a lot of talk amongst games writers about Rockstar’s “failed satire,” but I don’t even know if satire is really what they’re going for here. I think that the aesthetic of the Grand Theft Auto series has drifted completely away from satire, if it every truly fit the term. From where it stands now, I think that it would be more accurate to call GTA a grotesque.

Both the world and the characters of GTA are meant to elicit both disgust and pity in the player. The counterpoint of those two emotions is what makes a grotesquerie so compelling: the player (or reader, or viewer, or what have you) wants to continue the narrative because they want to see whether or not the characters come to a place that’s less disgusting, less pitiful.

In Liberty City or Los Santos (or the rest of San Andreas, or even in Vice City), the subtext of commercialism, materialism, and capitalism that runs beneath our everyday lives is made explicit. The radio spews vile filth almost unceasingly. The billboards are suggestive and woefully adolescent. The people you pass on the street are vapid and superfluous, by design as much as by the convenience of programming. If this were satire, there would be some narrative commentary, some pointed suggestion as to the meaning of such excesses, but in GTAV there is none. It is the worst of the world made uglier, turned up to eleven, and presented to the player with barely a raised eyebrow. Again: grotesque. This is America-as-gargoyle.

In the world of GTA, sexism is rampant and horrible because the whole world has been crafted from a male perspective. Whether this implies a narrow, insensitive worldview on the part of the developers (likely) or a conscious decision to recognize the omnipresence of the patriarchy and depict it as even more omnipresent (odds are slim), the effect is the same: the disenfranchised are now nonexistent. The complex and interesting women who populate real life and so often go unrecognized by those with privilege are here less than invisible: in Los Santos, they simply do not exist. All of those angry dudebros who lashed out when critics gave GTAV less than a 10? This is their perspective given form and verisimilitude. And, like everything else in the universe of GTA, it’s horrible. A grotesque. An exaggeration that turns what is wrong into what is unconscionable.

It might be possible to set a GTA in a world that was not horrible in these ways (it would, in all probability, be more interesting), but this hideous fun-house mirror of real life makes it considerably easier to empathize with our protagonists. Oftentimes, they’re the least horrible guys in the room. But these three miscreants are grotesques, too, in the traditional sense: they are characters who simultaneously evoke disgust and empathetic pity.

Franklin’s kind of sad. Michael is sad, like, profoundly sad. Trevor, well, Trevor’s a whole ‘nother animal. But he’s pretty pathetic himself. (And, hey, while we’re on it– Niko Bellic is pretty sad, too.)

These are the kinds of characters which I would probably have a hard time watching on television (or–and I shudder to think of it–on stage). I think that my disgust would probably overpower my pity pretty quickly. Something about the medium of games, though, makes me give these guys a second look (it might have to do with how much, on a mechanical level, I like Shooting Bad Guys and Driving Fast Cars).

But I think there’s more to it than just that. In a world which is orders of magnitude worse than our own, we’re allowed to partner up with them and try and guide them toward being better–helping them to have more control over their lives, helping to dig them out of the pits of misery in which they’re entrenched–even if the journey there is over the bodies of wave after wave of thugs.

As I play the game, I don’t murder civilians for no reason. I try not to get anybody killed if I can avoid it. When I’m playing as Michael, I have him call his wife after every mission, hoping against hope that now that he’s back in the game and feeling more of a purpose to his life, he might start to treat her a little more humanely, and a genuine relationship might emerge. (Pretty sure this one’s a futile hope on my part. Gonna keep trying.)

GTA is complicated. At the same time that it glorifies hideous violence and makes the player complicit in it, it asks them to pity its miserable characters and try and guide them toward a place where they’ll be happier. But those two dueling emotions–disgust and pity–are the basis of any classical grotesque, from Frankenstein’s monster to Caliban to Smeagol, and it’s why even those of us who cringe at the hideousness of Rockstar’s ugly universe can buy in.

Looking at the game as an example of the grotesque doesn’t make the problematic elements go away, but for me it’s been a lens through which to understand my engagement with it.

Towerjam Submission!

Hey, folks. I heard about Maddy Myers‘s game jam, “Towerjam,” an effort to get some games made about characters that are usually not the focus–NPCs, captive princesses, parents and children left behind, and the like. 

I’m no designer, but I HAVE been meaning to mess around with Twine for a good long while, and this was the catalyst for me finally getting off my butt and making it happen. 

So, I wrote a (brief, abstract, somewhat circular) Twine adventure. It’s about Chrono Cross. 

Why not give it a go? While you’re at it, check out the rest of the Towerjam submissions. And maybe go replay Chrono Cross!

Chrono Trigger and the freshness of combo techs

CTX-strikeGo back and play Chrono Trigger, guys. You really should. Now’s as good a time as any.

I was listening to a couple friends yesterday talking about the replay value in Chrono Trigger stemming from taking different party members through story sequences in order to see what dialogue they added to the proceedings, and I couldn’t help but furrow my brow. One of the reasons that Chrono Trigger has such high replay value, I suggested, has nothing to do with the multiple endings or the various dialogue possibilities–or anything to do with the story at all.

Because Chrono Trigger has such a limited playable cast (seven characters is relatively small when stacked up against, say, Final Fantasy VI, with its fourteen playable characters), it can get away with a detailed and intricate combo system. In fact, probably 80% of the actions you’re going to take in any given battle are techs, unless you (like me) have a perverse insistence on just hammering away at bad guys with physical attacks.

Because every different party combination has its own unique set of combo attacks, and because each of these sets of attacks is functionally different (that is, some of them are area-of-effect, some of them attack on a line, some do massive damage to a single enemy, etc.), every party you take through a given dungeon will have a slightly different way of dealing with the baddies.

It’s like playing Mass Effect as a different class–replay value stemming from evaluating gameplay options with a different skillset in each playthrough.

Abandoning this template for a more Suikoden-like approach to playable characters was one of the big mistakes that Chrono Cross made, in my opinion, and is one reason that the game is weaker than its predecessor. Without combination techs, the characters become much more interchangeable.

 

Kingdom Hearts and plot connections as reward

So, after a several-weeks-long vacation in which I had nearly zero time to devote to gaming, I finally managed to sit down and polish off Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. Once the credits had rolled (for the fourth time, actually, due to the multiple-campaign story structure), I came to a realization about why I continue to be invested in the series despite the fact that I find myself frequently rolling my eyes at its absurd, nonsensical mythos.

Japanese RPGs that are plot-centric have (almost) always operated with a certain structure in the way that they reward their players: the payoff, plot, comes after the player has conquered a certain amount of gameplay (often in the form of one or more dungeons, a couple boss battles, etc.). With the advent (no pun intended) of Final Fantasy VII, these plot rewards were often paired with the promise of a visually-impressive cinematic sequence: Finish this dungeon, beat this boss, watch something awesome happen that totally wouldn’t be possible to communicate within the confines of the game’s engine.

As someone who grew up with JRPGs, Final Fantasies in particular, I don’t agree with those who believe there’s something inherently flawed with this system of rewarding the player. Though I’ll certainly grant that there is a purity, a compactness, an immersive ideal that is possible when the gameplay itself is the reward and plot development never wrests control from the player, I certainly don’t believe that all games need to strive for that ideal.

I don’t mean for this to be a discussion about the merits, or lack thereof, of cutscenes. What I want to point out is the particular quirk that Kingdom Hearts puts into this formula, a unique and engaging (though sometimes frustrating) spin on the idea of rewarding your player with plot.

When I monitor my engagement with games in the Kingdom Hearts series, I don’t find myself more engaged in the story than I do in the gameplay. Whacking on Heartless/Nobodies/Unversed/whatever with a keyblade is an absolute delight, and each new entry into the series has further refined and deepened the game’s core mechanics.

Birth By Sleep, which not only sports smooth and fabulous swordplay but also adds some cool character-progression mechanics swiped from Crisis Core and Final Fantasy IX, is probably the best-playing game in the series. It’s also high-energy enough that when cutscenes come along, they feel like an appropriate breather from the frenetic action of battle.

KHBBSCinderella

On the left, someone you care about. On the right, not so much.

As in all of the Kingdom Hearts games, though, story sequences are dramatically divided into two different categories: interactions of the protagonists with the characters in various Disney worlds, and developments exclusively concerning the original characters created by Square Enix.

Almost exclusively, the former are boring as all-get-out, while the latter have the potential to be intriguing and dramatically potent. In almost every case, Squeenix uses each protagonist’s encounter with Disney characters as an attempt to hold some mirror up to them in an effort to show them realizing something about themselves or their friends. Such revelations are usually something along the lines of “never stop believing in your dreams” or “remember the importance of your friends.” Occasionally they are even more abstract, like “never give in to the darkness” or “protect your heart,” which… Ugh.

The Disney characters are almost exclusively reduced to flimsy, weak pantomimes of the events of their original stories, which have neither narrative potency nor any real interest to the player. Seldom are they given any kind of depth.

And so in a Kingdom Hearts game, rather than play through partly-engaging gameplay in order to get to the more-engaging story, the player plows through uncompelling Disney narratives they’ve encountered before in order to get to the original material that they might actually care about.

(As a sidenote, there is some pleasure in setting foot in new Disney worlds for the first time, but Kingdom Hearts II does this much better than anything that’s yet followed it. Going into the worlds of Tron, Steamboat Willie, and Pirates of the Caribbean was delightful.)

KHTimelessRiverThere’s another level of plot-centric reward that the series offers the player, however, and it’s on a much different level than the gameplay-plot cycle on which the rest of the game operates.

However absurd the mythos of Kingdom Hearts may be, it’s a series which does have a mythos–and which loves to tantalize with elements of that mythos that are as-yet-unrevealed to its players. Playing the Kingdom Hearts games to completion, sometimes on harder difficulty settings, offers players glimpses of connections between entries in the series, hints at the nature of the cards in the hand that the developers have not yet shown. If you are the least been invested in the world, as I am, then these narrative bridges become the greatest reward of all for playing the games.

This has been going on since the first game, in which, if players had fulfilled certain criteria, they were greeted with this upon the game’s completion:

This, in a game which ended on something of a cliffhanger, from the people who made Final Fantasy (not exactly a series known for direct follow-ups. …Well, not at the time, anyway).

The secret video at the end of the first Kingdom Hearts drove me absolutely bonkers. Was there going to be a sequel? Why was it so aesthetically different from the entirety of the game? Who the heck was that blonde kid?

When Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories came out, I snatched it right up. Tangling with the plot of this one was even more divided than the first game: not only had I already dealt with the Disney plots in the original movies, but I had already seen them through in the first Kingdom Hearts game! Talk about a snooze-fest! The card-based battle system was pretty engaging, though, and enough to keep me interested between scenes that involved the new original characters, Organization XIII, who were not only intriguing but offered some truly spectacular boss fights.

When the game concluded, I was pretty satisfied at having enjoyed some new plot material, though I wasn’t surprised that they employed the trope of having Sora’s memory wiped at the end. It was a handheld game, after all, and I was pretty sure that they weren’t going to expect people to have played it when they dove into the sequel (which, at that point, was definitely on its way).

Imagine my surprise when, upon booting up Kingdom Hearts II, I found all of that narrative information not only pertinent, but perhaps essential. I still didn’t know what was going on, of course, but the first hours of KH2 were replete with tantalizing clues.

kh2roxas

Hey, don’t I know that kid from somewhere…?

I have no idea how many people out there in the world of gaming are as captivated as I am by this meta-game of piecing together the mythos. I’m sure that many, if not most, adult gamers don’t have the time to invest in a series with a younger audience in mind, especially one that’s spread across at least five different systems.

What I do know is that the final epilogue of Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep contains scenes which make no sense if you haven’t played Chain of Memories, the original Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II, and 358/2 Days, and it delights me to no end. I’m not sure I can think of another series of games that invests that much time in establishing connections between its different entries, with the possible exception of Metal Gear Solid (you wanna talk about a self-referential mythos, yikes).

Though it’s obviously not everyone’s cup of tea, I think that the Kingdom Hearts series should be applauded for the way it rewards the series-faithful. There is great joy to be found, as a player, in gradually uncovering the pieces to a larger puzzle. I wish more games offered us this pleasure.

Handheld Summer, continued

twewycastI’ve been chipping away at my to-play list over the last week, though (surprisingly) spending time with family doesn’t leave a lot of time to sit down and game, even when you’re out in the country and the entertainment options are considerably limited.

I managed to finally make myself finish The World Ends With You, a game which I’ve been playing, on-and-off, for about five years. It’s thoroughly engrossing, and I’m embarrassed that I’ve kept putting it off for so long. The best explanation for why it’s taken me so long to finally finish the dang thing is that playing it is so unbelievably frantic, scrabbling at the screen with the stylus and slamming on the directional pad, that the thought of picking it up and making progress in it is intimidating.

The game also lets you dial your level down manually, with a slider in the menu, and playing at lower levels increases the prizes and experience you receive from battles, which means that I felt compelled to play the whole thing on hard, about twenty levels below where I actually was, which made it considerably more difficult than it probably needed to be.

Oh well. I breezed through the endgame, at least, when I finally resigned myself to tuning the difficulty down and my level up.

The World Ends With You is also a collector’s dream/nightmare, with about seventy hojillion pins, items, food, and clothing to obtain, not to mention a bestiary to fill up and secret reports to obtain by meeting specific objectives. My to-play list is considerable in length and I’m anxious to get to it, so I don’t think I’ll be diving back in again immediately, but it’s calling me nevertheless.

The hints of a possible sequel are likewise tantalizing.

Next on my list, I think, is the Kingdom Hearts prequel that I never made it through, Birth By Sleep, and having loaded it back up again I’m finding myself wildly vacillating between my deep enthusiasm for the franchise and my considerable frustrations with its storytelling quirks.

I keep being distracted, however, by something else:

I’m not what you’d call an Adventure Time “devotee.” I’ve only seen about a season and a half’s worth of episodes, and while I can definitely admit to being wholly enraptured with the show’s goofy charm, I wouldn’t put it near the top of my (admittedly lengthy) list of nerd obsessions. I downloaded and played the game’s demo from the Nintendo eShop and liked their take on the Zelda II formula enough to jot this one down on my “play if I have time” list, but I didn’t throw down the thirty bucks to buy the whole thing.

But this one song! I must have listened to this thing on YouTube about eighty times over the last four or five days. I’ve long been a fan of Jake “virt” Kaufman‘s work on OCRemix, and his skill at producing rockin’ chiptunes is up there with the best people working in the form. This song from the Adventure Time game might be my favorite piece of chip-rock since Anamanaguchi‘s soundtrack to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game.

Is it weird that I’m seriously considering moving this game up on my to-play list just because of the soundtrack? Why don’t you head over to SoundCloud and have a listen to this and some of the other tracks on offer.

Oh! It’s worth mentioning that the game’s developer, WayForward, is also the house that’s working on the upcoming DuckTales Remastered, and that virt is going to be doing the arranged score for that, too. It almost seems worth it to check out the Adventure Time game just to get a sense for how WayForward is going to handle Uncle Scrooge’s classic outing. What do you guys think?

adventuretimecombat

 

Handheld Summer

ohioamishI’m on vacation from my day job.

Usually, being on vacation means a considerable uptick in the time that I spend playing video games. Rather than having just a few hours each week into which I can try to cram the biggest and most impressive AAA titles, I have whole days (indeed, even weeks) at my disposal, which means I can really sink my teeth into all of the big releases that I’ve missed over the last calendar year (and, of course, the years previous).

Or at least, that’s what it would usually mean. This summer, I’m spending most of June at my parents’ farm out in Amish Country, Ohio, and almost all of July on The Road, meaning that by the time I make my way back to all of my consoles at home, I’ll have probably a single weekend before it’s back to the daily grind.

On the one hand, this might be an opportunity for me to dial down the time that I spend gaming–ramp up my pleasure reading, perhaps, or get back to some pieces of fiction I’ve put on the back burner during the craziest months of the teaching year–and to a certain extent, that’s my intent for the summer months I’ll be away.

On the other hand, however, it’s also an excuse to turn my attention to my handheld systems, which usually take a backseat to my console gaming. There have been a number of superb handheld titles released over the last several months, most of which I haven’t gotten around to, because, well–I’m a fan of Fire Emblem and all, but it’s a little difficult for me to give my 3DS any attention when I have an Assassin’s Creed, a Tomb Raider, or a Bioshock at my disposal.

The DS and the PSP are past the end of their life cycle, which means I now have the opportunity to go back and mop up all the best games that I missed while they were in their prime (without having to worry about new titles being released!). The 3DS, on the other hand, just seems to be ramping up–Nintendo sure gave it a lot of love at E3. I have the feeling there are going to be plenty of games for me to mess around with over the next couple of months.

Here’s my Summer Play-List:

Games I Own and Need to Finish:

The World Ends With You

Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth

Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask

Essential Handheld Games I’ve Somehow Missed:

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

Radiant Historia

Games I Would Really Like to Pick Up if I Have Time:

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Super Mario 3D Land

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate

Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance

Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?!!

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

Valkyria Chronicles II

Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

Games I Have Downloaded on my PSP and Always Want To Replay, Always, Seriously All the Time:

Final Fantasy IX

————————————

Wow! There sure are a lot of them, aren’t there? Of course, I won’t be able to get to all of these over the course of the summer–in fact, I’d be surprised if I get through more than two or three over the next month and a half. But I’m going to think of this as sort of a checklist that I can work on through the rest of this year and next–maybe, if I can find time to get to most of these games, I can retire the DS and PSP to my retro game shelves, content that I’ve sucked the marrow out of their delicious libraries.

What all do you have on the docket for the summer? Are there essential handheld titles that ought to be on my list, but aren’t? Is there anything you can say that will prevent me from starting up FFIX again this weekend?

 

 

Lessons from gaming history: Sony at E3

Sorry for the long hiatus from the blog, friends. The end of the school year is always monstrous, schedule-wise, for us teachers. I have been getting in some gaming here and there, which I will perhaps write a little about later, but after those press conferences at E3, I felt I had to write up a couple of observations.

Immediately after the reveal of the Xbox One, I was reminded of an anecdote I’d read earlier this year in Steven Kent’s “The Ultimate History of Video Games,” a text I’ve referenced before and cannot recommend highly enough. If you’ve any interest in the history of the industry, it’s both enlightening and wonderfully entertaining.

The anecdote that occurred to me after Microsoft’s reveal is this:

When Sony presented the PS2 at E3 2000, they weren’t just advertising it as a gaming system. They boasted about its DVD-playing capabilities, its ethernet support, and its space for a hard drive. According to Kaz Hirai, the PS2 wasn’t “the future of video game entertainment, it [was] the future of entertainment period.”

Doesn’t that sound a little like Microsoft’s angle at the Xbox One reveal? And in contrast, Sony’s major competitor at the time was Sega–which had just launched the Dreamcast–had an adamant focus on games. As Kent records in his book, Peter Moore, then the president of Sega of America, responded directly to Hirai’s boast: “They also said they are not the future of video games, they are the future of entertainment; and God bless them. We’re the future of video games.”

ZING! Right?!

And yet! Who won that round of the so-called “console wars?” The Dreamcast was dead in the water within two years, and the PS2 ended up being the best selling console of all time.

Thinking about the parallels here between the respective outlooks of Sony/Sega and then Microsoft/Sony, I was very hesitant to dismiss the much-mocked “Xbone” because of its attempts at tackling the broader market, its restrictive DRM, or its “often-on” internet requirements. There is a chance, I thought, that Microsoft really is selling the future of entertainment. We should observe the lessons of E3s past.

…and then Sony had their press conference yesterday. Ben Kuchera, over at the PA Report, says that Sony effectively “won by standing still.” For my part, I realized that E3 2000 wasn’t the expo I should have been looking to for answers.

Instead, I should have been looking at the very first Electronic Entertainment Expo, in 1995, and the announcement of the PSX.

Sega, which was scheduled to launch the Saturn in September of that year, had a morning press conference in which they outlined the price of the system–$399.

Later that day, it was Sony’s turn, and… well, and then this happened:

Ha ha ha ha! That Steve Race! What a card!

Did the rest of the conference even matter? Sony shows a system of equal or greater power to its rival, then undercuts them by a hundred bucks, drops the mic, and gets off the stage.

This is very nearly what they did last night–and when you add in the bit about preserving the architecture of used games to which the gaming community is accustomed, well… Sony killed it. Which, it’s worth it to note, they’ve done before–more than once.