I am sitting on a plane and my kneecap is sticky with Sierra Mist because the affable Iranian-American webdev to my right spilled his soda. The Staten Island lawyer to my left is using her hands — wiry tan hands, with an enormous diamond on the left — to prop up a head that houses the warring factions of Hangover, Airsickness and Xanax. They’re both on their way out of the spiritual and physical wasteland of Las Vegas, and they spend the first half of the flight describing money lost, drugs taken, and how, for a vacation, it wasn’t a particularly relaxing one.
Sadists, I think. What sort of people would put themselves through that sort of self-destructive gauntlet of mental and animal rawness? They seem like Good People. I shrug my headphones on tighter and stuff my nose back into a pocket-sized gauntlet of mental and animal rawness, Super Hexagon.
Super Hexagon is a punishing experience. It’s hard. Your first game of Super Hexagon will be like opening Ulysses to a page around the middle and being asked to explain what it’s all about – should you appear unable to grasp Joyce’s intent within the first few seconds, the book slams shut.
You’re just not going to “get it,” not until you strain your perception to the prescribed limits, and the ability to do that – to speak the game’s language – is a function of experience. Not repetition, although that will bring you far, but experience: years of experience decoding videogames and writing your own perceptual shorthand, years stringing direct cables between your problem-solving cortex and the Developer’s clandestine stratagem. You can’t just react; you have to think like Terry Cavanagh. (Not that you’re going to beat his high score, though.)
Playing NFL Blitz on the neighborhood N64, I was one of those awful kids who picked “Da Bomb” almost every play. I was capable of complex running maneuvers and comfortable with the intricacies of fakes, screens, and rushes (ok I don’t actually know football) but it was that long-shot Hail Mary and its exaggerated payoff – and extravagant risk – that really rattled my adolescent adrenal glands.
Needless to say I failed to convert a bunch of fourth downs.
Long coddled and damp in the blubber of “adulthood,” those fight-or-flight organs shriek with electricity again as I take my place in the early-access beta for SpyParty, Chris Hecker’s irresponsibly brilliant social experiment turned cat-and-mouse battle of wits — a game a little bit like a slow-motion fourth-and-long, except people die.
Actually the game is very unlike a football match — except in its distinct phases of offense and defense — and it is very unlike me to lean on a sports analogy, so here’s The Point: SpyParty’s tense espionage conveys that same all-or-nothing anxiety while rewarding the punt fake over the long pass. In other words, the game tells you have one shot (truly, as the Sniper) and while that makes you want to scramble and sprint, to be that kid who plays “Da Bomb” and gets it over with, you will be mercilessly punished for anything more brazen than a brisk promenade. That drives the kid in me crazy, and I love it.
If you’re unfamiliar, SpyParty is a two-player game of deceit and surveillance set at one upper-crust gala or another. One player controls the spy, whose mission may include contacting a double agent, tapping the ambassador, planting microfilm in a book, swapping one statue for another, etc. The trick is making it look natural — the computer-controlled guests will read books, admire statues and chat up the ambassador, so barring a few subtle animation “tells,” the spy can make their missions look like natural mingling.
Announced today were the 2012 IndeCade nominess, a list of 36 that included DYAD, Botanicula, The Stanley Parable, Guacamelee, Splice, and Analogue: A Hate Story. I mention the games I’ve heard most about — actually, they’re just the the games I would most enjoy playing because — Ok, wait. Yeah. I have not played a single game on this list. What is wrong with me.
I don’t and unfortunately have never owned a Playstation, so that rules out DYAD and I’m sure a lot of other games too… no, it looks like pretty much all these games are on PC. Some are playable in-browser. Worst of all, I already purchased Botanicula, and I’ve never even booted it up. I’m really, really sorry, indie world.
It’s weird that I’m so behind because I’ve been feeling more and more “in tune” (wait for it) with my own Neighborhood Gaming Community. I’m helping out with Portland’s newest (first?) chiptune zine, an actual physical object devoted to chip music and the brainchild of an industrious pretty-much-cofounder of the Portland Indie Game Squad. We’re both newcomers to the genre, so we”ll be actively digging up what bonds us to this music and asking ourselves why the cords are so thick. That is to say that we cannot and will not be elitist about this music because we’re still figuring out why we love it, if we love it, what’s to love.
For that zine I’ll be writing up a “review,” a personal essay sort of piece on Micropalooza, the annual chiptune extravaganza that happened to Portland last Sunday. Between Micropalooza’s two concert sets (which I’ll describe more fully in the zine piece, which should have some sort of online portion) PIGSquad had the crowd to themselves for about two hours. They set up a projector, two microphones and an Xbox, and then Josh Schonstal and Ian Brock – aka Incredible Ape – let loose their ingenius co-op sidescrolling jetpack shooter, PewPewPewPewPewPewPewPewPew, on an unsuspecting and pleasantly intoxicated public.
Am I the only one who didn’t hear Rayman Legends was coming out this year? And that it was a Wii U launch title? And that they just introduced the world to Barbara the Barbarian? And that bloggers everywhere started making “axe to grind” jokes? I guess that last one’s not surprising.
If you’re just hearing this as well, this not-so-news of Legends’ (token) female character comes on the heels of yet another sexism-in-gaming debacle, in which a developer let fly a lazy and insensitive jab at girlfriends everywhere. “Girlfriend Mode” is what he called a certain skill tree geared towards less experienced players.
Many are saying that it’s a mild symptom of a bigger sickness and maybe not worth fighting over. That’s almost true — certainly Hitman and Tomb Raider are much more deserving of vitriol. But it should go without saying that dismissing “small time” sexism is a cop out. In my mind, it’s exactly John Hemingway’s sort of presumptuous cheap shot that begs a response because it’s made so casually, with the unspoken assumption that “Hey, you know what I’m talkin’ about, huh buddy? Broads!” It’s offhand sexism — offhand racism, offhand homophobia — that is the most insulting because it is perpetrated in broad daylight, with full confidence of one’s safety from criticism. They’re just plain asking for it.
I’m going to quit smoking tomorrow. Well, no — tomorrow I’m going to start the painful process of quitting. Past experience predicts a cowardly campaign riddled with retreats and pleading treaties with Future Me. But he’s a traitor, and just as weak. Within one month or two I’m at the 7-11 waving dollar bills like so many white flags.
But now my ultimatum is Online, and I’m hoping that might keep me honest. It’s in that same spirit that I’ll vow, with comparable solemnity, to post here once a week. In the next few days I’ll do a sort of Lightning Round with paragraph reviews of the various little indie gems I’ve been mining. Soon enough I’ll bring you up to speed on my collaborations with the PIGSquad folk — it looks like I might write a feature for Portland’s first (presently nameless) chiptune zine, so look forward to that. I’ll also pump out that KOTOR “After Pressing Start” and post it here if Nightmare doesn’t want it.
I won’t die a slow death if I lose this war, but I’m starting to think creative consistency will be just as important to good health. So here goes.
This post is maybe too short and too personal, so here’s some game stuff — an old review for Rock of Ages, a game I thoroughly enjoyed playing through a second time. The article was originally published by The Trail, our student newspaper at the University of Puget Sound — hence some formatting issues, a semi-academic style and such references as “semester” and “major.” Cheers.
Thinking about doing a KOTOR retrospective in the style of Nightmare Mode’s “After Pressing Start.” (If it’s any good, I’ll try submitting to the site before publishing it here.) The game was massively important to me and to the nascent notion of morality-driven reward. I always thought it was strange; the game’s best force powers (and, come to think of it, all of BioWare’s “evil” rewards) are earned with flat dismissal of potentially enriching quests, insensitive insults, brazen demands for More Credits, all the way up to thoughtless murder, betrayal, and taking a dive to ruin someone’s stripper audition. I mean, the Dark Side stuff is silly, and I don’t take it any more seriously than I did when I was thirteen, but it gets really surreal, the sort of stuff the game encourages — hoping to earn a couple red-tinted bonus points and a sweet new portrait, you purposefully demolish a stranger’s chance at becoming a dancer. And you know what? I don’t even think you get any Dark Side points for that one. You just actually feel like a dick.
My tribute to Armando Montano, the AP reporter killed in Mexico City, was published at Medium Difficuly. The MD folks have been unbelievably encouraging and accommodating when I needed it most — can’t thank them enough for that.
Good, good, great. All great. Mostly, though, I just can’t believe this happened:
Sorry for any formatting issues that might crop up below — this piece was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound’s student newspaper, from which I copy-pasted some articles for archiving purposes. Hence the newpaper-y tone and simplified view of the industry. My work for the paper might still be gathered here.
With Mass Effect fever running high and Skyrim still managing to wedge itself into conversation almost five months after its release, spring alights on a landscape all but dominated by gaming’s mainstream titans.
But skittering around the ankles of giants are a handful of plucky challengers to AAA control, games that might lack the broad scope of mainstream narrative but still manage to cut deep with stylistic daring and technological grace—games like the relentlessly satisfying Sine Mora.
Released March 21 for Xbox Live Arcade, Sine Mora is a side-scrolling shoot-em-up in the tradition of classics like Space Invaders and Galaga and modern titles like Ikaruga and Jamestown. The pilot of one agile, airborne hell-raiser or another (new planes become available throughout), the player blasts through swarms of baddies, torrential barrages of screeching missiles and neon hailstorms of deadly plasma.
The shoot-em-up goes by another name—“bullet hell”—and Sine Mora has no qualms earning that ominous title. At the same time, while the steep learning curve of the “bullet hell” has earned it a strictly niche position,Sine Mora stands out in its willingness to widen its appeal with charming visual innovations, surprisingly engaging narratives, and (thank the Maker) adjustable difficulty levels.
The unique look and story are the fruits of inter-developmental collaboration. Sine Mora is the lovechild of Tokyo’s Grasshopper Manufacture (of Killer7 fame) and Budapest’s Digital Reality: Grasshopper handled art direction and sound design, while Digital Reality worked on the game’s programming and story.
Between the two of them, the developers lend Sine Mora some serious star power. Grasshopper is home to composer Akira Yamaoka, revered for his work on the Silent Hill series, and his score for Sine Mora is another feather in his already crowded cap.
Grasshopper also brought on anime artist Mahiro Maeda (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kill Bill, The Animatrix) to design the game’s boss battles—these encounters are as imaginative as they are soul-crushingly difficult, and give the game a palpable character.
Pair this powerful aesthetic with unrelentingly challenging mechanics and you’ve got a seriously potent title on your hands. Sine Mora is delightful proof that straying from the beaten path can be more than an entertaining diversion—now more than ever, there’s ripe, fully-formed experiences to be found and savored outside the high walls of blockbuster dominion.
Panning for indie gold, but more of a PS3 person? Download thatgamecompany’s pensive and critically acclaimed Journey, or the charming puzzle-platformer from Denmark’s Die Gute Fabrik, Where Is My Heart—both Playstation exclusives, for now. These games will not only deepen your understanding of the human condition; they’ll also give you the upper hand in drunken debates on the true nature of art!
If all you’ve got is an iPhone and a burning desire for cartoony carnage, check out Action Button’s Ziggurat. It’s got all the arcade intensity, visual charm and alien life that make Sine Mora so great, but you can carry it everywhere you go! Play it while waiting for your John Carter tickets—or during John Carter, even. You know what, why don’t you just stay in tonight?
I downloaded Three Sprockets’ Cubemen the other day, and I’d be lying if I said it was anything but its aesthetic that drew me in. That’s surprising, because I’ve played my fair share of tower defense games and at this point I’m a bit bored with them, looks and all—there’s a limit to the surface-level makeovers developers might use to prop up its sagging appeal (Dungeon Defenders notwithstanding). But hey, Cubemen is different, they said: your “towers” have arms and legs, little cubey heads, agency, (family, friends?) and they’ll soldier around the map for you, shifting all sorts of dynamics and things.
But all that fell flat, and honestly it was “the look” that opened my wallet. In that Cubemen revealed my embarrassing, enduring affection for the clean lighting and crisp geometry that can of course be traced to a single source: Portal.
… Which can be traced back to the simplicity and symbolism of the games of yore, classics like Marble Madness.
Now, some rambling: back in the proverbial “day,” games made the best of their technical constraints by conveying complex ideas with idealized shapes. Marble Madness married a very basic visual geometry with a clever imitation of 3D movement, and voila — a “physics-based” game emerges years ahead of its time, and it just feels so right. Because I looks so right for how it feels. Am I making sense?
The visuals are powerfully and directly symbolic; they’re just stand-ins for the more expressive systems that make up the real meat of the game, namely friction, gravity, inertia. To convey phenomena like that convincingly (without the benefit of modern physics engines) the game needed to streamline its visual presentation to underscore, to somehow make more real-feeling the central system. Form empowers function.
Like I said, that streamlining was partly out of necessity. As technology progressed that approach became less necessary — complex systems could be presented and understood without enthralling the entirety of the game’s aesthetic.
I desperately hope that the final product will be as pure as their intentions. Considering the mixed reviews and ambiguous classification (Cage admitted himself that it was more of an interactive movie than a game) of their last project, Heavy Rain, I can’t say I harbor too much hope of Quantic’s next project bridging the formidable gap between simulation (interactive media) and representational narrative, pristine as that representation appears here.
At the very least, I’ll take Cage at his word: if Quantic Dream can make a game that drives my dad — the man who introduced me to Doom, Warcraft 2 and Myst in lazier days — back to video games of his own volition, I’ll be happy and hopeful enough.