Friday, March 30, 2012

FEATURE - artistic merit.

There's a new art-house puzzle-platformer on the PS3 called Closure this week.  I don't think I'll be picking it up.

I've been thinking, lately, that art-house games - games like Braid and Limbo and Flower and Journey may not actually have as much artistic merit as, well, Batman: Arkham City or Odin Sphere or Mass Effect 3.  

Hear me out. 

for Braid and Journey

I hated Braid.  I appreciate that that's a somewhat blasphemous statement, among gamers.  Braid was universally celebrated as an emotionally shocking, brilliantly-constructed puzzle-platformer built around time-manipulation mechanics.

I felt Braid tripped over its ambitions of marrying emotional depth to gameplay, and provided one while sacrificing the other.  Part of the game - if you want to see the True Ending - is collecting stars throughout the levels.

I came to one star, and couldn't perceive of how one could obtain it - so I sought the collective wisdom of the internet, and found myself deeply disgusted.

Braid is the story of a fellow named Tim pursuing a princess, in the hopes of saving her from an evil knight. The ending reveals that the player-character is the monster the princess has been fleeing - shocker!  

Back to That One Star.  In order to obtain it, you have to enter the level, go to a certain point in it and wait for about... I don't even remember precisely how long, but after over a half-hour or so a cloud that moves so slowly as to be imperceptible will be in a position where you can jump up and on to it.

Once you're standing on the cloud, you have to then wait another hour or so for it to move to a point that allows you access to the star.

Oh hoh hoh.  How very deep.  The player, in completing this ridiculous, thankless, almost entirely purposeless task has revealed themselves to be just as obsessed and maniacal as Tim himself.  How droll.  How emotionally poignant.

How fucking stupid.

That's no longer a game.  That's not gameplay.  That's art-house designer Jonathan Blow whacking you in the face with the cock of his self-importance for ninety minutes while shouting "isn't this clever?  Isn't it?!"

Nope.  No it isn't.

Braid's sin of putting its high-concept ambitions ahead of everything else is merely the most egregious example.  ThatGameCompany - makers of Flow and most recently Journey, may have hit the sweet spot of artsy gaming with 2009's Flower.  "Tilt Controller to Soar. Press Any Button to Blow. Relax, Enjoy" is all the game says, and then sets you loose in its world.

With that succinct instruction, and no further explanation, any interpretation you may have of Flower's message is your own - assuming Flower actually has one.  It may not.  The point is that Johnny and Jill may look at the same game and walk away with two very different understandings of its purpose - that's art.

ThatGameCompany followed up Flower with this year's Journey - an equally gorgeous-looking, even more beautiful-sounding title that does not share the same austere strengths as the developer's last game.

Periodically throughout your titular journey with the title, you will come to shrines where your player-character will meditate, and have a vision of a figure clad in white which sings the songs of the world you're exploring.  It sings of the past and it sings of the future - and this is where Journey steps a bit over the line.

Instead of setting the player completely free to have their own interpretation of the world and its purpose, Journey uses wordless exposition - simple tableaux that speak of a long-dead industrialized society which destroys itself in an ancient war - to fill in gaps that the player would otherwise have been able to paint with imagination.

Journey, like Flower, is a singular and emotionally thrilling experience - but it oversteps itself slightly, and is less perfect for it.

Personified in 2010's Limbo, art-house games achieve the greatest heights of their ambition when they paint with broader, simpler strokes - and leave more to the player to suss out, instead of providing extraneous exposition.  Like Flower, Limbo and Journey are first and foremost capable, comfortable games which are then set against a gorgeous backdrop that evokes an emotional response.

These games, more often than not, succeed by doing less instead of more - and by ensuring the core experience, be that jumping or pushing blocks or soaring through the sky - are reason enough alone to play the game.

If that's true - if art games are more perfect art games when they do less instead of more - how could a bigger title like Mass Effect or Okami or Odin Sphere possibly be of greater artistic value, when they take such completely different tacks?

The answer, I feel, lies at the core of each experience.

There are, shall we say, classics.

There are stories we have been told, over and over, again and again, since the dawn of time - and these resonate to this day. Braid takes a classic - the imperiled princess - and turns it on its head.  Fair enough.

Flower and Journey tell much the same story - a pared-down, simplified version of the Road Trip tale we've been enjoying since Homer wrote The Odyssey - and likely long before.  Rayman: Origins is a streamlined version of the Christ/savior legend.

Archetypes are everywhere in gaming - from the mixed classics of JRPGs to the standards of action gaming.

Where art-house games (can) misstep is that they (can) allow these classical narratives - stories which are deeply understood, and resonate on a very fundamental level - to be all you can say about the game.

Games like Dead Space, Odin Sphere, Okami and Shadow of the Colossus overstep the simplified elegance of the smaller titles to deliver something which is - I feel - more meaningful, because instead of simply echoing such classics it paints the same story in sharper focus, and richer, sidetracking detail providing explorations of ancient themes instead of just the theme itself.

This again allows the player to draw their own conclusions about the fundamental purpose of the narrative, while still leveraging the impact of a classic, deeply-understood parable - and seriously, classics are everywhere.

Boy meets girl.

Fear the dark.

Might makes right.

Ragnarok / the endtimes / classic Norse mythology.

Fear of technology / the savior myth.  I mean c'mon - her name is Shepard.

Artistic merit is - not always, but regularly - bleeding from the high-profile triple-A games, at their core.

In this way, a smaller game exploring a similar theme is wise to say as little as possible - thus allowing the player to find the message on their own.  Likewise, the obscuring haze of high production values, plot, voice work and gameplay of a triple-A title glosses over the fundamental themes such titles explore - and demand the player experience them on a subconscious level, as opposed to the blunt-force symbolism of Journey or Braid.

At the same time, the obfuscation of additional themes - romances, friendships, sub-plots, enemies - adds a richness, complexity and depth that the smaller titles can't achieve.

Lately I can't shake the feeling that Mass Effect 3 is of greater artistic merit than Journey.  While Journey is merely a classic parable, Mass Effect 3 is that and much, much more - and unlike artsy titles that trip over themselves in the pursuit of their rather pure and unencumbered vision, Odin Sphere or Rayman Origins provide the same resonance and a huge, sprawling experience to discover.

Sometimes, more actually is more.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Dragon's Crown not cancelled, says Vanillaware.

Anyone who pre-ordered Vanillaware's upcoming gorgeous PS3/PSV RPG-brawler Dragon's Crown through received a disturbing missive recently - Amazon has cancelled all preorders, and de-listed the game.

Responding to the rumors, an illustrator at Vanillaware said via Twitter today
"I personally can't say much, but I'll just say, 'Regarding Dragons Crown, although there are lots of rumors and conjecture, it's still in development. Please wait patiently for an official update."
Oh, I'll wait alright.  I'll wait my ass off.

Sleeping Dogs - driving trailer.


The other day I was asking myself why I wasn't interested in Closure - PSN's latest little indy art-house darling - and I told myself it was because I wasn't up for playing another puzzle game a'la Escape Plan.  Turns out it may merely be due to a pretentious title and less-than-thrilling art direction, 'cause I would love to get my hands on Dokuro.

It's a Vita game that looks like a chalk drawing!  Slideshow!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Monday, March 26, 2012

Game Diary - the Vita.

I'm currently playing four or five games on my Vita - Shinobido 2, Plants Vs. Zombies, Sumioni: Demon Arts and now, as of last night, Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus.

I've been trying my damnedest to get through Shinobido 2 in order to produce a review, but it just seems to go on forever, which wouldn't be so bad if I were enjoying my time with it more.  The sidebar indicates that "it's not Tenchu, but it's Tenchu enough," which I'm not so sure about any more.  I'm not sure it is Tenchu enough - and I'll not go any further into that 'till review time.  Or... final impressions time, if I decide to give up on it.

Sumioni: Demon Arts is similarly disappointing, but the sting is lessened as I never worried it would be particularly good.  Strangely, of those three, Plants Vs. Zombies - a game very separate from the genres and styles I usually enjoy - is the one that's most uniformly pleasing.  Nice presentation, good mechanics, nice music - it's nice!

Last night, however, after frustrating myself on another of Shinobido 2's difficultly spikes, I decided to check out that other ninja game on the Vita.

This was a dangerous step, for me, as I've never played any Ninja Gaiden game beyond the demo (in which I couldn't defeat the first boss), and never owned any title in the franchise since it came to the 360.

I will say that it fills a void on my Vita.  In the same way Golden Abyss was the capable and even excellent adventure-shooter, so reflective of console gaming, Ninja Gaiden is - until Kratos shows up on the thing - a fun, challenging and (seemingly, at this point) balanced brawler.  It ain't the prettiest game in the world, but its framerate is solid, its action is liquid-smooth and it is thus far keeping a very sound footing on the sweet spot of gaming, where ability and difficulty warble along a wavy path that funnels you through the experience.

I thought I was crazy when I dropped another $40 on a Vita game, but I'm very pleased with this one.

Assassin's Creed III Connor trailer.

Short & sweet.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Best of 2012 - January to March.

Okay - I missed a few.

I don't feel as if I've committed some great sin by not playing NeverDead or Binary Domain, but I do wish I'd had the time and money to throw down with Asura's Wrath, Kingdoms of Amalur and the new Silent Hill - even if Asura's Wrath's gameplay was shallow, Amalur's mythos was half-baked and Downpour turned out to be yet another not-quite-there Silent Hill.

One of the problems with being an independent, self-financed blogger is that - while I am, to a degree, attempting to provide a service - this blog is more than anything a chronicling of my gaming experience, and thus reflects only games I want to play.  Specifically, the games I'm prepared to prioritize over others.

If there turns out to be time (and money) in the spring and summer months to attend to some of these omissions, I certainly will.  That said, six excellent titles dropped in the past three months that I can say, without hesitation, are worthy of our gaming dollars and more importantly, time.

So far, these are the games of the year - in no particular order.

Gorgeous, tactical and liquid-smooth, Shank 2 is everything a sequel should be.  It improves on its predecessor in every way, and elevates the franchise from a respectable try to a defining entry in its genre.  If you've been hungry for a brawler this year, you need to play Shank 2.

SSX perfected its formula years ago, and fans were afraid it wouldn't survive the transition to HD consoles unscathed.  I'm thrilled to report that SSX retains the razor-sharp controls of its heritage, and adds an absolutely genius passive online component to the mix so the player is always connected, and never waiting for a race to start.  Not every addition, here, is a winner - but SSX in HD is an infinite improvement over that SSX game you weren't playing.

A definitive art-house game, Journey is an artistically impressive, emotionally bracing stroll through some of the most gorgeous art direction and music this side of Vanillaware.  It can be breezily digested in an afternoon or mercilessly explored, with a litany of secrets to discover for the committed gamer - but it's always a beautiful experience.

This totally counts.  I don't care that the Vita version is a port of last year's PS3/360 title - it's new to me, and so it's in the running for GotY 2012, in the same way BioShock would be on PS3 in 2008.

How to put this... how to put it... let's see... something succinct, and lacking hyperbole... Ah - of course.

Rayman: Origins is the most purely pleasurable experience I've had with a 2D platformer in over twenty years.

Dig that.

Yes, I liked the ending.  No, I don't think they should change it, and yes, I agree with Chamberlain - but let's try to sidestep that minefield.  Let's ignore what we do or don't think of the ending.

Mass Effect 3 is a gigantic, explosive, high-powered, high-production value, high-concept monster of an action-RPG that actually gets the action part right.  It is the slickest, most streamlined RPG I've ever played, and packs a phenomenally impressive arsenal of emotional highs and lows.

To be honest, right now, I'm leaning towards ME3 as my current GotY.

I was very skeptical of Golden Abyss prior to release.  I didn't imagine for a moment that Sony Bend (of Syphon Filter fame) had the narrative or artistic chops required to create a game that lived up to the Uncharted name, but they nailed it.

Golden Abyss, in one fell swoop, legitimizes the existence of the PlayStation Vita, establishes that console-style gaming can work beautifully on a handheld, and actually one-ups the latest PS3 Uncharted title in terms of narrative.  It's a jaw-dropper.

* * *

And that's Janu-febru-arch 2012!  Coming up next month, I Am Alive and Prototype 2.  ...and maybe Closure - we'll see.  

Check out GameTrailers' Darksiders II interviews.

If you have any love for Darksiders - which you do, if you played 2010's lovely M-for-mature Zeldalike brawling adventure - you should check out a pair of video interviews over at GameTrailers.

I'm rather fond of how GameTrailers presents their interviews.  Specifically, the interviewer is always off-camera, and you never actually hear their questions.  All you get is game footage and a member of the development team discussing this facet or that aspect of the game.

In discussing Darksiders II, Vigil Games' representative... how to put it... he presents the development of Darksiders II as a very healthy, organic enterprise.  The (numerous and significant) additions that II brings to the Darksiders formula do not seem, here, to be bullet points tacked on to the experience at the behest of publisher THQ.  Instead, Darksiders II sounds like the game they wished they had been able to make with the original Darksiders - and he offers a perspective that suggests the structure, design and scope of II was not merely the result of a dev attempting to one-up themselves; it's the product of trying to produce a game that includes facets they'd like to see in video games.

So looking forward to this - you should definitely check out the interviews.

Friday, March 23, 2012

REVIEW - Alan Wake's American Nightmare.

Beyond a few choice downloadable exclusives like Bastion and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Alan Wake has the distinction of being the only Xbox 360 exclusive I actually really, really enjoyed.  It was far from perfect, but its strengths coalesced to a point that it remains the only disc-based game on the system I have any great affection for.

Alan Wake's American Nightmare, a fifteen-dollar, six-hour jaunt back to Wake's trippy, somewhat silly reality, is... actually a pretty great sequel, if you want to go so far as to call it that. American Nightmare retains what made Wake great, does a clever job of addressing (what I felt was) the original's greatest misstep, and stretches itself to a reasonable length for the money without over-extending on production costs by way of a canny structure and story that legitimizes that most vilified of gaming conventions - backtracking.

It feels just as lovely to play, trims the fat and offers the most enjoyable writing we've had from Remedy Entertainment since Max Payne 2 - because, like Payne, American Nightmare is at least consciously ridiculous.

In a nod to the cheesy soap operas that played throughout Max Payne and its sequel, Alan Wake would regularly see the character strolling by televisions playing Night Springs - Remedy's spoof of classic cheese-horror/sci-fi show The Twilight Zone - which is the setting for American Nightmare.  To repeat -  American Nightmare takes place within an episode of a Twilight Zone spoof show.

That is delicious - and it immensely strengthens the proceedings, when compared to the original's rather boring and very overwritten narration.  Don't get me wrong - there's still plenty of extraneous exposition, here - but now it's read by an actor aping the narration on The Twilight Zone, which makes the whole thing more than a bit tongue-in-cheek, and cranks the entertainment factor.

American Nightmare sees you exploring only three (nicely large) environments, which would be a weakness if the story (which I won't spoil) didn't play its particular riff on classic horror/sci-fi. With this amendment to its narrative technique and the wise adoption of a classic story structure, American Nightmare both addresses the original's greatest sin and excuses itself from a design trope which would have otherwise been profoundly disappointing.

Very clever.

Combat retains the easygoing, responsive and satisfying feel Remedy have been honing since the turn of the century.  After becoming comfortable with the properties of your weapons and how reliable the cinematic dodge maneuver is, the game does an excellent job of empowering the player and making them feel, for lack of a better word, badass.

There is an addictive rhythm - and a grim thrill - to burning the protective darkness from a foe with your flashlight before slapping them in the chest with a round of buckshot, scattering them to the breeze in a silhouette of burning embers.  New additions to your arsenal are hit-or-miss, but I rather enjoy the game's system of unlocking more powerful weapons based on how many pages of Wake's lost manuscript you've recovered.

The combat is slick, rewarding and still gorgeous to watch, and I never tire of the ping of a grenade pin as I toss a flashbang into a crowd of nightmarish hillbillies.  I fight with light!

Similar to last year's inFamous: Festival of Blood, American Nightmare is a pleasingly triple-A affair, with striking art direction, well-chosen music and an engine that's still very good-looking two years on.

There's just very little to be displeased about, here - beyond the hit-or-miss voice work and the seriously sub-par facial and cutscene animation.  It has a goodly sum of content for its price, production values which are well beyond par for a downloadable game, hugely enjoyable combat and writing that's often very entertaining.

Not the meatiest of entrees, American Nightmare remains a very well-chosen antipasto, which - while heavy on the cheese - is an improvement over the original in some very significant ways.  It's certainly primed my appetite to spend more time with Wake.

  • very good graphics, excellent art direction and sound design
  • regularly entertaining writing - I liked the story
  • it takes place inside a Twilight Zone spoof
  • Remedy are really, really good at making third person shooters where you don't hide behind walls
  • I never get tired of shooting a dude and seeing him explode into sparks as if he were a vampire in Blade II
  • they got rid of Wake's tedious narration and replaced it with something that makes Wake a celebration of form, rather than a dimly realized recreation of one
  • a decent value for the money
  • the part with the oil field never gets old
  • makes me want to play more Alan Wake

  • crappy character and facial animation during cutscenes
  • you retread the same three environments a few times, but I didn't really mind
  • hit-or-miss voice work

Length aside, American Nightmare is actually a better Alan Wake than Alan Wake was. 

11 awesome things you can do in Prototype 2.

I liked the original Prototype, but I loved Radical's previous take on the open-world with ultrapowers concept, Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction.  While it's great that you can use awesome moves like this in Prototype 2, I'll be more interested to see if they manage to match (or exceed) the liquid, impactful feel of Ultimate Destruction's combat.

Seven Darksiders II screens.

Click to embiggen!

Ahh.  We need more games like this.  Fantastical!  That's the ticket!