September 1, 2016

Game log 8/16

The project of working chronologically through my amassed game purchases was interrupted this month by the sudden acquisition of a Raspberry Pi for playing “retro” games. But what games to put on it? I started working from this list of “best games.” I didn’t get very far with it (surprise!) but I did end up playing some of the games along the way.

The games I played for more than a few minutes:

WarioWare, Inc. (2003, for Game Boy Advance): Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) [played 1.5 hrs]

I feel reasonably well-informed about what the Nintendo corporation has wrought over the years, but I haven’t actually played very many of their games. Here for example are a few famous ones that I had never touched before.

WarioWare, Inc. is a daring experiment in tone and tempo; it translates the signature style of Japanese TV — the barrage of hyperactive wackiness, wocka wocka wocka! — into gameplay. Hundreds of rudimentary challenges (steer around the obstacle; jump at the right moment; etc.) are thrown on the screen in succession, for about 3 seconds apiece. There’s not enough time to make a conscious assessment of what’s required or how it’s to be controlled, so your reflexes just kick in and take a stab at it. Thrillingly, they are often correct, thanks to all kinds of subtle design choices that were secretly communicating directly with your intuition.

This game comes up a lot as a point of reference in design discussions, and now I understand why; it’s like game design broken down to the molecular level. It also caters to the mindset of game designers, by being framed as a clown show wherein Wario decides to strike it rich by producing video games. Meta. Furthermore, many of the minigames are smirking allusions to classic games of 20 years earlier: grist being pulverized right before your eyes by the postmodern mill. I found the game inspiring — as an example of unabashed weirdness, a remarkably bold production for a major corporation like Nintendo — yet also dispiriting in its plunge toward the era of slurried “retro” chaos. Prescient! But dispiriting.

The ad embedded above (actually several ads in a row) is from Japan because this game doesn’t seem to have gotten a US TV commercial.

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995, for Super Nintendo Entertainment System): Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) [played 5 or 6 hrs?]

In the case of Yoshi’s Island, the ad embedded above is from Japan because it is attractive and sensibly put together and represents the game, whereas the revolting American TV spot is a piece of senseless filth that has nothing to do with the game and everything to do with the depraved and cynical mind of some cretinous cigar-chomping ad executive who obviously lacks a human soul.

The generosity of the designers is apparent in every level of Yoshi’s Island; they want the player to be delighted anew as often as possible. No design idea outlives its welcome; something unpredictable is always around the corner. Nintendo’s Mario games were such monster hits because they were every kid’s fantasy of how a toy should be: a horn of plenty. And in this one there’s a splendid breadth and balance to the offering: you can just focus on driving forward to the end, or you can slow way down and look for all the hidden truffles, and either way you’ll feel like you’re playing exactly the way it was meant to be played. The sequence of beats works at either tempo.

Despite my affection for platforming games like this, I am very bad at them. I fall and fall and fall while trying to execute basic jumps. The need to bring the character to a stop by “braking” gives me the subconscious sensation of constantly having overshot my mark (even when I haven’t), which erodes my confidence. Even after many hours of play I was still losing life after life in dumb ways.

But improvement is always a possibility if you let it be. Maybe after many more hours of play — in an unjudgmental frame of mind — my instincts would start to sharpen after all.

In any case, my self-frustration mostly stayed at a manageable level, in part because Yoshi’s Island has an innovative system for giving the player an incentive to avoid errors while reducing the amount of disruption caused by actually “dying.” Every time Yoshi takes a hit, he drops infant Mario, and then has to scramble to pick him up again before a timer runs out. In other words, making an error means you have to do busywork; once you do it, you’re basically back to where you were. Like the hint system in Machinarium, which cordoned off the spoilers behind a blockade of deliberate tedium, this seems to me a fine solution to the perpetual problem of creating in-game disincentives that don’t interrupt the flow of play. And as with Machinarium, I’m not aware of any other game having taken up the idea. It’s still there, for anyone who wants it.

EarthBound (1994, for Super Nintendo Entertainment System): Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) [played 1 hr]

The EarthBound ad embedded above is the American version because, despite being terrible, it at least shows the game. In Japan (where the game is known as “Mother 2”), the ad campaign didn’t give any hint of what the game was like. Nonetheless, and I say this in all seriousness, this may be the best commercial I’ve ever seen.

The game is an RPG in the post-E.T. “suburban kids save the day when the adults are clueless” genre that was central to the movie business in the 80s and 90s but was surprisingly underrepresented in video games. I’m not really a player of RPGs but I gather that when this game was released stateside it was absolutely unprecedented in this respect. I also gather that further down the line — I only played through the introductory scenes and some of the first area — it becomes more and more quirky and sentimental in unexpected ways. I was mostly playing to get a taste of a much ballyhooed cult favorite, for my literacy. And sure, I could immediately see the charm. Which, I suppose, is not unrelated to the charm of that commercial; I bet the designer wrote the ad campaign too.

Perhaps someday I’ll return for the rest. Then again, as I said, I’ve never really gotten into RPGs, and the reason is mostly that stat-on-stat subtraction-offs are, to me, an intolerably drab and tedious mechanic on which to base a game, especially a 50-hour epic. And unfortunately this game seems like it’s pretty committed to constant stat battles as a way of life. So perhaps not.

Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (1993, for PC Engine): Konami (Tokyo, Japan) [played 1 hr?]

This is viciously hard. In a Mario game, the abilities you’re given and the demands placed upon you tend to line up; you’re good at jumping, so jump up here. In Castlevania games (at least the older ones) it’s the opposite; the enemies move and attack in ways that are designed around your character’s shortcomings. You’re bad at attacking anything that’s not directly in front of you, so this enemy’s going to swoop above and below you. You’re not very fast, so this enemy’s going to be fast. In gaming I want to always be frustrated with myself, not with the damn character and his stupid slow jumping, so this kind of thing breaks the magic of immersion. On the other hand, the game is what it is and is known to be winnable as such; the true objective is to become so versatile with the abilities you do have that you can apply them to any situation. If a vampire hunter had wheels he’d be a bicycle. Well, this guy has no wheels.

The real “hard” in a “hard” game is “hard to find a reason to keep at it, since it is after all just a game, and there are after all thousands and thousands of games out there.” This is unfortunate, because the experience of sticking with “hard” until it cracks open, weeks or months later, is ultimately a wonderful and valuable one — because it builds up one’s core confidence that there is no “hard,” just “slow,” and that everything is achievable in time. But that experience has to arise organically from one’s real motivations in the real world, and right now my sense of entitlement to gratification from entertainment has a shorter fuse than “weeks or months.”

But who knows. Maybe I’ll return to Castlevania for another whipping sooner than I think. In a “Rondo,” the same refrain comes back again and again.

The video trailer above is just a clumsy fan-assembled thing. The game was released only in Japan and no commercial has been uploaded to Youtube that I can find.

Heart of Darkness (1998, for PlayStation): Amazing Studio (Paris, France) [7 hrs?]

This one I played to completion. Eric Chahi’s previous game, the classic Another World (1991), had been one of my favorites as a teenager, but by the time his next game came out I was in college and less tuned in, so I managed not to have known about it at all until now.

As is frequently the case with games incorporating elaborate traditional animation, much of the gameplay is location-specific and heavily dependent on trial and error. But beyond that, even the more fully-realized systems — for shooting and jumping — are here applied to extraordinarily punishing scenarios. The most infuriating of them (the one at the end of the game) I had to attempt maybe 40 times before executing it successfully. Or more. Nonetheless the crazy, impossible ambition of this game to be a full-fledged Spielberg/Henson/Disney rollercoaster, and the truly excellent in-game animation, cast some kind of spell over me. Somehow it managed to be a gratifying experience despite its cruelties (and infelicities).

Heart of Darkness was purportedly the first game to record a soundtrack with full orchestra (though, because of its many years in development, not the first game to be released with one) and from the first moments I was taken aback by its quality. It’s by Bruce Broughton, a legitimate major Hollywood composer, and his genuine sure-footed mastery of the 80s/90s fantasy-adventure idiom immediately marks this game as something special. I’m not aware of any other game that sounds remotely like this, which means I’m not sure there’s a game that feels remotely like this.

This game goes on the shelf of bold and intriguing one-offs, alongside The Last Express.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991, for Super Nintendo Entertainment System): Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) [played for 10 hrs?]

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is right up near the top of most “best games ever” lists.

I get it. It’s maximally delectable, a living kingdom of marzipan, and it’s cleverly constructed to draw the player spiralling ever inward. First you have to save the princess, which takes about five minutes. Hooray! — but uh-oh, now you have to save the kingdom, which takes a few hours. Hooray! — but uh-oh, now you have to save the dimension (more or less), which is going to take you a long, long time. The gameplay itself is clean and strong — most of it carried over from the original NES Legend of Zelda — but the real brilliance here is in the way the game subliminally ramps up the player’s ambition, starting as a reassuringly linear taskmaster (“go here and get this, now go there and do that, now go here…”) but giving ample opportunity to notice other stuff along the way, until very gradually that other stuff begins to be mandatory. It’s a bit like a foreign language course; the only thing that’s ever directly asked of you is to repeat what you hear, but beneath that surface a broader fluency is bit by bit called into play. Many games since have tried to replicate this progression — it’s pretty much de rigueur these days for games to start out as their own tutorials — but there’s something particularly disarming and confident about this one.

After about 10 hours, well into the fluent free-roam portion of the game, I found myself hitting the point of exhaustion. I get it; I got it.

The trailer above is, as you can see, from the recent Wii U re-release. I find two original 1992 US TV spots with no game footage: the fancy one and the less fancy one. Meanwhile the Japanese commercial gets at things in its own way. Chances seem good that this will be the 2020 Olympic Opening Ceremony.

Back to my present-day list, but not yet back to the chronological grind.

Tomb Raider (2013): Crystal Dynamics (Redwood City, CA) [24 hrs]

Tomb Raider was offered on March 29 of this year by GameChanger, a video-games-for-hospitalized-kids charity, for a $1 donation. I proposed it to a friend as a game we could both play and then discuss, but he had some other stuff he wanted to get through first. Then this month he gave the signal, so we played it.

Top flight triple-A polish is its own reward. Setting aside gameplay, I was quite happy to be prancing around in beautiful island scenery — jungles, caverns, cliffs, and of course abandoned buildings up the wazoo, all of it heavy with that special sense of preternatural dimensionality that makes 3D game worlds so mesmerizing.

I just wish it had been in service of a game that emphasized exploration and traversal more than combat, since that’s what these lush environments are crying out for. But this Tomb Raider hardly raided any tombs; mostly she just “headshot”ted and “stealth kill”ed and “collect”ed and “upgrade”d her way through a paramilitary world, to earn niblets of animated story. Maybe I’m an idiot but I was actually kind of curious where the plot might go; turned out “going” wasn’t really its intention. Lara Croft is shipwrecked on a cursed island full of bad guys so she kills the bad guys and lifts the curse. SPOILER ALERT!

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014): The Astronauts (Warsaw, Poland) [5 hrs]

I bought this on June 9 of this year when it was a special for $4.99 during the GOG Summer Sale, because I had had my eye on it for a while and because thanks one of the many gimmicks of the sale, buying any game would also unlock a free one that I also wanted. I played it now because, as you’ll see below, my next-on-the-list game was not entirely to my taste and I wanted to counterprogram with something short that I felt sure I’d enjoy.

I did enjoy this, very much. As a luxurious environmental immersion this manages to put Tomb Raider and its ilk to shame. For sense-of-place photorealist atmosphere this game is second to none; it has a lot in common with Dear Esther (and, in places, with Amnesia) — but in addition to having even more impeccable graphics, Ethan Carter has far better and more restrained writing than those games. In this place, I cared almost as much about what was going on as I did about what it was like to be there. That’s meant as high praise. (Albeit handicapped for a medium that still struggles mightily to have any real literary value. The script of Ethan Carter is no masterpiece; it’s just competent, and god bless it for that.)

I’ve seen people online complaining that the geography of the game is too big for what it contains, but I feel like the emphasis on long, slow, quiet strolls through the woods is what affords the work its occasional feeling of having transcended mere gamehood. Transcended into where? Into a new, dimly lit formal territory, still being explored. The opening screen announces that this is a “narrative experience,” which seems about right, although I feel like even “narrative” is unnecessarily leading. Is Pirates of the Carribbean a narrative experience, or just an experience? I came away with that feeling that the best games can provide: that I’d just been somewhere else for a while, somewhere as real as my own dreams.

There’s actually a really good detective gameplay idea tucked in here — tag locations within a crime scene in chronological sequence to demonstrate that you’ve deduced the events that took place there — but it’s used so sparingly that it feels like its potential has hardly been tapped.

The ambient sound and music had a strong effect on me, evoking moody 70s horror movies, which by association instilled me with a spirit of trust in the experience and its intentions.

So: do I take issue with the single brutal, BRUTAL jump-scare in the middle of an otherwise melancholic and dreamy game? Hell yes. Would the game be better without it? Hm. I don’t know. Strictly speaking it may have been gratuitous, but I can’t deny that it contributed to my emotional experience, by retroactively radiating its threat to all the hovering eeriness in the rest of the game. But do I resent it nonetheless? Hell yes! How dare you! I got goosebumps all over my body and had to sit still for a minute while I came down. They got me good.

They’re gonna get you good too. I’m not offering any spoilers to help out. You’ll be okay. Fine, here’s the one thing I’ll say: it’s not in the first couple hours of play. I promise.

Okay, and with that I return to my list. Still working my way through the “Humble Origin Bundle,” purchased 8/27/13.

Crysis 2: Maximum Edition (2011–12): Crytek (Frankfurt, Germany) / Crytek UK (Nottingham, England) [played for 5 hrs]

Crysis 2 is the videogame equivalent of the Marvel movies that have taken over Hollywood. It’s glossy and impressive, it’s eager to please, it’s beyond soulless, it’s sort of fun. The storytelling stays firmly within the bounds of the testosteronal zeitgeist so that your brain doesn’t need to process it at all: aliens and a plague and paramilitary troops have all ravaged Manhattan, evoking 9/11 — and in other news, the pope is Catholic. Just in case you weren’t getting the message, they got the actual Hans Zimmer (“Han’s room”) to write the theme. We clear now?

The game — not just the action but the plot itself — is all about your cyber-suit of dominating power, specifically all the power it gives you with which to dominate. After you dominate enough guys with your power you can earn more power for your suit, thereby increasing your power to dominate. And you’d better dominate them with your power, if you don’t want them to steal your power suit from you, because naturally they want it, for its power to dominate. Which must never fall into the wrong hands.

After I had duly dominated my way through five levels with increasing power but decreasing patience, I realized that my ability to briefly turn invisible, combined with the ease with which I recovered from damage, meant I could probably run straight through a level without actually shooting anyone, and sure enough this proved to be true. This left me with a choice to make: should I zip through the game unsportsmanlike just to get to see the snazzy locations and special effects, and watch the story play out? Or should I take my temptation to do this as an indication that I shouldn’t be playing this game at all, and dump it?

I dumped it. It wasn’t for me.

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