Monday, March 30, 2009

A Goo-Butt Baby




liquefying bytes...

homogenizing goo...

testing ozone...


spinning violently around the y-axis...


stretching images...

reconstituting sounds...

faithfully re-imagining...

scraping funds...

applying innovation...

constructing emotional depth...

debating games as art...

placating publishers..,

meticulously diagramming fun...

filtering moral...

testing for perfection...

revolving independence...

tokenizing innovation...

self affirming...

dissolving relationships...

deterministically simulating the future...

exceeding cpu quota...

swapping time and space...

embiggening prototypes...

sandbagging expectations...

challenging everything...

distilling beauty...

blitting powers of two...

manufacturing social responsibility...

bending the spoon...

constructing non-linear narrative...

That's just the loading screen...and any game that can make me smile in the first five seconds is a keeper in my eyes. I finally sat down over the weekend and resolved myself towards digging into World of Goo. Luckily, it didn't take much coaxing to do so, as immediately after the first few levels, I was hooked on it. It's a physics based puzzle game that primarily focuses on the player constructing paths for their gooballs. Obviously, I'm pretty late to this the game has been out for a while now, but I've honestly not had much interest in it until just recently. My taste for it was triggered when I unwittingly stumbled upon Kyle Gabler's soundtrack for the game. I'm not saying it blew me away, but I did find it extremely soothing...enough so for me to immediately grab the poor abused P.C. game off the web (it's one of the few titles I will acknowledge receiving an undeserved pirate party).

If you have a free second, go download Kyle Gabler's released soundtrack, it's free...what more can you ask for?

I found it interesting that like many of the other up-and-coming indie titles, very few people put a blinding amount of passion into it. It's the result of Ron Carmel & Kyle Gabler's personal savings ($10,000). Their "studio" consisted of any of the various Wi-Fi enabled coffee shops throughout the San-Fran area. The result was a title that stands out because it alludes towards game design in the past, whereas most big-wig titles (god bless them) have simply abandoned these disciplines for the big budget industry as it exists today.

What really surprised me about World of Goo was how it's little narrative carries the experience. It's not some awe-inspiring story that will make you question the meaning of life, but I found myself obeying the non-nonsensical will of it's universe on many occasions. I actually stood on a table in a fit of kinesthesia from a very intense balancing moment in the final area of the game. This was all because I "wanted to see past the fucking smog". The sign painter, MOM, and even the Goo-ball dialouge is reminiscent of the character and humor that seemed to get a jumper-cable boost in games with Portal not too long ago. It's really inspiring when one solely evaluates the quality of game design as well. Strictly as a "game", it's constantly throwing new things at the player without it coming as gimmicky (even though it actually is). I guess it's just nice to see that studios such as Nintendo and Valve aren't the only people capable of high-level craftsmanship in terms of game design...just saying (and this is just a duo). If two talented guys can "throw monkey wrenches" in a coffee shop, maybe there is hope for this little industry of ours..

The sad part about the title's piracy DOES have a silver lining though, and I'm sure it's one these guys have considered for themselves. I can't find any solid numbers on the game's revenue & I don't trust the sources I have in front of me at the moment, but I do know that despite it's piracy, it was able to generate a humble amount of income. The estimate is that one out of every five people that "own" the game actually purchased it legally. This is sad indeed, but I have to wonder what goes through Gabler and Carmel's head concerning this. Do they take solace in the fact that their game was demanding of such piracy or are they disappointed with the results? It certainly doesn't absolve the issue, but it is flattering in that sense...right?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Metal Gear Primer 2009 - Tribute to Yoji Shinkawa

Today is a massive blog...except that it's mainly composed of scans I whimsically decided to take from my book, The Art of Metal Gear Solid. Please make sure to click on the pictures for better views, or even download them if you have to.

Anyway, among my many interests, I do still consider myself primarily an artist. Nine times out of ten, I either have a book, a controller/keyboard, or a pencil in my hand. I spent two years in art school, but got bored and drifted off, so now I'm content with doing things on my own terms at my own pace. I've always been told I have talent, but as with most art, people still only generally flock to realistic portrayals of the world (albeit, it still doesn't pay to be a traditional artist despite quality). Don't get me wrong, there is an insurmountable discipline and amazing craftsmanship that comes with drawing with a certain high fidelity. However it doesn't soothe all of us as artists and I'm one of those people. Despite having the gift to do so, I've been actively working against that type of artistic perception since I was in middle school.

Among my many favorite artists, one does stand out above all the others and like the myriad of games I love playing, he's directly related to my favorite game of all time: The 1998 Metal Gear Solid. Yoji Shinkawa's influence on Metal Gear Solid has been so ingrained into the series, he's just as important to the game as Kojima himself (for me anyway). His style is composed of highly realistic sketches and focus on linework and movement that I've seen in no other artist I've come across so far. The attention to detail through his pen brush use grants his work a sense of resolute and distinct style, despite it's high technical accuracy. Because of his work, I've found myself a path I can go down that I actually enjoy and find discipline within at the same time. No doubt I'm nowhere where I want to be right now as I still have to find a way to bring myself into the work I'm doing without slipping into a straight emulation of his work. Luckily, the time off from school has given me the facility to do this and I've actually been progressing over the past year.

Anyway, as a tribute to this guy, I've decided to post the previously mentioned scans, quotes, and excerpts from The Art of Metal Gear Solid. This is a 180+ page book with an immense compilation of the work he did for the 1998 Playstation title. Illustrations, paintings, sketchbook shots, and other minutia-like work such storyboard layouts make up the mass of this book. I've been using it off and on as my own sort of textbook for the past few months. This is because when I finally start my annual playthrough of the Metal Gear games, I'm going to post up my own work with the first two Metal Gear playthroughs (Outer Heaven and Zanzibar Land). I've started to sketch out areas, characters, and weapons...and I've had a ton of fun doing so. Anyway, here's the collection of pictures I decided to scan from the book. Be sure to check out Shinkawa's interview with his major influence Yoshitaka Amano at the bottom. Amano is another artist I'm amiable towards and his work is mainly known in the Final Fantasy universe. Enjoy.

"Pink and purple are some of my favorite colors, which often I use without being aware of the reason. Colors are said to bewitch and fascinate people." [sic]
-Yoji Shinkawa

"When I tried USP in LA, I noticed how well the Japanese air guns are made. It's moderate kick back resulting from 9mm and how it fits in my hand reminds me of the toy gun I bought in Japan. So it didn't feel like I am shooting for the first time in my life! Weight balance was quite similar too. When I had a shot, the bullet headed right where I targeted. It just startled me when I tried on the Government with my right hand. That 45 caliber shocked me! It was like me desperately holding the door which is banged by someone from the other side. How would it be like if I tried 50 AE Desert Eagle with my one hand?" [sic]
- Yoji Shinkawa





"This is drawn with the same technique I used in the postcard that's handed away as a bonus give away to people who reserved the product in beforehand. It turned out to be really crispy and dried out, because I painted again and again with diluted Chinese ink and correcting inks on plain copying sheet. At the end matier showed up from underneath. It felt like I was painting with oil. It was fun, because drawing this picture was like what I had been doing in the past." [sic]
- Yoji Shinkawa

This is one of my personal favorites. It's actually pretty small in the artbook, but I blew it up with Photoshop.

This is by far my favorite art piece of any of the Metal Gear models. Shinkawa's quote pretty much sums up why:

"When it is in the hanger, it has 12m in height. If it bends the heel and stands up to walk, it should be 15m in height. I imagined dinosaur in the manner of the way it works." [sic]
-Yoji Shinkawa


"Mr Kojima, the director asked me to draw ads with only feminine characters, which I remember I had a hard time. He even titled it Lovers Rock." [sic]
-Yoji Shinkawa

"I painted that for magazine publicity, but unfortunately no good, which was used on new year of KCEJ. It was in the early stage, and pretty rough." [sic]
-Yoji Shinkawa

Sniper Wolf, a beautiful and deadly sharpshooter..."

"Liquid Snake?"
"The man with the same code name as you..."

Yoji Shinkawa & Yoshitaka Amano


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Resident Evil is in itself a Zombie.

When I step back and pick apart my subjective experience for the Resident Evil franchise, I realize something, Resident Evil is dead now. Wait though! Before you write me off as another crazed fanboy, I ask that you hear me out. Also, there are no spoilers in case anyone is worried.

Watching the extravaganza for Resident Evil 5 over the past few days has left me with a bittersweet taste in my mouth. The sweetness is that Resident Evil 5 is a proficient third person shooter with a lot to be proud of. It’s sub-context of racial perception is also a plus as well (no matter how misconstrued it actually is), as it forces people to expose a still-relevant issue in society. Pretending like racism isn't still running rampant like a undisciplined child in the corridors of society's subconscious is idiotic. It's just nice that a game can drag the little bastard out for a scolding.

Whether it’s judging the person’s action towards slaughtering Africans with spears, or the developer’s obviously unintentional offense, there’s some good thoughts flying around about the nature of this game. At the same time however, I’m left with a bitter emptiness because I don’t have the franchise that I grew up alongside anymore. That’s nobody’s fault really, but I do have the right to lament over this fact so I shall. Most people immediately try to lump Resident Evil into a category with things like Metal Gear Solid, because some of us actually enjoy what most call "poor stories". I don’t begrudge anyone to have certain standards or tastes, but I do become hyper-snooty myself at those who immediately look down on such titles that people find a deep resonance with (and they’ll usually cite this resonance to the “story”). Anyone familiar to me or my writing knows that I have a large cognitive problem when someone describes something (usually a game) with “poor story” or being “poorly written”; I just literally can’t comprehend that. I suppose I could argue here that it’s the fact that they are alluding to that joke of a notion which most claim to grasp (objective perspective). It's particularly hilarious when one juxtaposes their viewpoints on what these types of people DO consider a well-told story because all I see is hypocrisy.

There’s no such thing as a “good story” and I’d even argue the quality of writing is up for debate. As long as I can comprehend what’s going on, what difference does it make? The opinion is always what’s going to carry the bulk of the load. Is one’s opinion so weak that it has to cripplingly lean on some standard to formulate itself? Anyway, I’m veering off topic, that’s another topic for another day. Moving on…I’ve been very outspoken the past few years on my stance regarding Resident Evil 4, it’s a fantastic game, but was significantly ruined for me by what happened to the RE-universe. In some cases I was fine with this, because the Las Plagas incident could be interpreted as merely an excellent sidequest. Last week however, I was laying things out on whether or not to throw my meager funds at RE5. After a day of mental debate, I methodically arrived at the conclusion to just simply read a story summary. So, I’m sitting here…reading about these things regarding the Majini, all these characters and plot specifics orbiting the remnants of the Raccoon City incident and I realized that it was over--it truly was. The franchise has officially jumped the shark for me. The game is selling and it’s selling well (Four million right?). Plenty of people loved RE4 for good reasons, and I bet they’ll enjoy RE5 just as much...with good reason nonetheless.

Most people who at least understand my perspective, understand why I'm so downtrodden over the series demise, because they too tasted what Resident Evil was. Pre-RE4 had the player slowly making their way through cramped industrial or residential complexes. The tank controls did help the illusion but it wasn't key in the experience, so I understand why Resident Evil 4 had the impact it did. I hear a ton of people say that if it isn't broken don't fix it: "I loved RE4 so what's wrong with enjoying RE5?"WELL YOU SELFISH SON OF A BITCH, WHAT HAPPENS IF I LOVED RESIDENT EVIL 0-CODE VERONICA?! This is about the 800th time I've said this, but I much preferred the original Resident Evil 4 before it got it's makeover. It actively shifted the entire franchise forward while maintaining the old things I still lust for now.

Resident Evil was a game that had an oppressive atmosphere that usually assaulted the player in solitude constantly. Scarce ammo is one thing, but having the player constantly set in stone as something far from a badass was always a consistent presence. The monsters actually felt like monsters, creatures that ignited a sense of unknown ability and stripped the player of their hubris (despite what gun they happened to be carrying at the time). These games actually made safe rooms an emotional reality. Tracks like "Secure Place" from RE2 (on my music player on the right-hand side of this page) will forever remain etched into people's memories because they probably found the same "dance" I did with those games. Amongst that safety with those tracks playing, reading those notes and maps in cramped office spaces became something else; filling in things with one's imagination in order to mentally work your way through a tale. These are the type of people that let the game play them rather than egotistically doing it the other way around. It also brings into question of the nature of "fun" in a videogame which I'm currently working on for a future blog. Very rarely would I ever describe myself as having fun in those games. Instead, I found myself as an emotionally distraught ten year old contemplating whether or not to leave the room I was in, a room I knew was safe.

Of course youth helps with that sort of thing, but I noticed even as I got older the feeling stayed, it just became buried underneath layers of societal psychosis. Once the game crosses that threshold of intimacy, it doesn't matter if the characters are speaking absolute gibberish, they will be "amazing" as characters from that point forward. The tale or conflict becomes resolute, it begins to trickle and bleed with hints of reality and for all intensive purposes, that tale has become a part of your memory. A part in which you had a physical interaction with, and something your brain begins to blur categorizing-lines with when distinguishing between dreams, actual experiences, and "false" ones. That's a video-game, that's what Resident Evil was...for some of us anyway.

Now, I'm not saying those experiences can't be grasped for these new titles as well, I'm just saying that they won't be for me. They do owe their existence to their predecessors though, so that's something that should always be considered when playing these games. When a game is challenging me to question my own definitions for quality within a narrative, it's doing it's job. When my mind is on autopilot and all I can really say is "I'm having fun" with a stupid grin on my face, then I know that's not where I want to be. I want the world where the atmosphere, setting, and coding all combine to make Claire Redfield an actual entity, not simply my avatar.

So I'm back to where I began with my introspective rant. Resident Evil 5 is a product of what began in Resident Evil 4. Sticking Leon in in a Europe and giving him a plethora of weapons/monsters to deal with did not make it a Resident Evil game, it made it "Leon is super-awesome - Press Start". Resident Evil 5 is no different, in fact it's worse in a lot of ways. Staging a superficial reunion in Africa doesn't make it a Resident Evil game either. Going to your high school reunion rarely feels like a day back in high school does it? Taking the undead out and replacing them with live carriers has ironically killed the franchise itself. That "intensity" most would argue for in the latter games (RE4 & RE5) is killed for me as the villagers still run up to the player and halt, as if to brag about the programmer's technical prowess. Fuck you...

Now, I’m sure I’ll pick up Resident Evil 5 sometime this year and find some enjoyment out of it for myself, but it won’t be consistent with Resident Evil 0 – Code Veronica. I just know I'm going to be on autopilot...with a stupid smile on my face. Maybe it will get back up one day as a game with that same flair I found all those years ago. Maybe Resident Evil will become it's own Crimson head, but I'm not stupid enough to put faith in hope anymore, especially with our little industry chugging along the way it is.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Video Games as Art 5-3: “Quantum Gaming”

I’m currently brewing some new flavor to bestow upon my “Games as Art” blogs, which are currently on hiatus. This is not the special post I alluded to in my previous DFB entry (Donkey Kong DFB continues next week). Instead, this is something that came to me in the dead of the night yesterday. I decided to manipulate some accumulated knowledge and slam it into this blog to test it out as a preview of what’s to come. It’s a sample of where I’m taking the upcoming GaA blogs, so any feedback will be appreciated (as well as any flaws or overlooking on my part).

Something that all gamers (let alone the entire human race) take for granted daily is the simple passage of time. It’s ironic because unlike a movie or a book, a game is often structured around and successfully conveying the passage of time (i.e Mario’s star power or time limit). Immediately veering off for just a second, I’d like to take your mind to the obviously inevitable question for just a second: What is it, what is time…exactly? Seriously, take your mind away from the screen and ask the question to yourself, do you have an answer? Good. I’m not asking for a definition, you can get that crap out of any well sourced material, but does the mind really wrap itself around it? There’s actually still no definitive answer over a force that’s the most constant presence in our lives (and I don’t honestly know if there ever will be but that could be my existential anarchism talking). Anyway, according to the dictionary I have on hand at the moment:

Time - [tīm]
n - (plural times)
"A system of distinguishing events: a dimension that enables two identical events occurring at the same point in space to be distinguished, measured by the interval between the events."
[Old English tīma "period of time" < Germanic, "extend"]

Digging for a while will run one into familiar names such as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. As it stands, there still remain two divisive standpoints on the nature of time. One is known as Newtonian and the other is Relativistic. Newtonian time hinges on the concept that time itself is an absolute presence. The “now” will come to pass in this case no matter what. However, in Relativistic theories only the “observation” is absolute, which leaves time itself to bend, twist, and shift depending on the observer.

Relativistic theories is what most will probably “side with” these days (myself included), as it presents a certain “understandable complexity” for a fundamentally crippling perception of being. Newtonian absolute time and space is very cemented, and although it presents “the possibility” for something like time travel, some portions of it just seem antiquated now (from what I’ve read anyway). I’m sorry for anyone who still adheres to that theory, but I don’t take comfort in making assumptions on the universe.

Also, when delving into relativity, be prepared to be immediately hit things such as how subatomic particles move at extraordinarily high speeds (pretty much…quantum mechanics). This is where such sciences are at now, and it’s why defining time is such an enchantingly complicated issue. Even my bastardized definition above only explains the base division between Newtonian and Relativistic theories. Too many things factor into how time is simply perceived by us and it happens over the course of a few seconds so we don’t even notice (therefore stupidly taking it for granted). A muon for example, is a negatively charged subatomic particle with a half-life (time it takes a substance to lose half of it’s initial quantity) of two-millionths of a second.

Mister: “Man: Well, it's like this,…supposing I were to sit next to a pretty girl for half an hour it would seem like half a minute,—“
Einstein: “ Braffo! You haf zee ideah!”
Mister: “ But if I were to sit on a hot stove for two seconds then it would seem like two hours.”

Look familiar? Well it should, because we’ve all experienced this at some point in our lives and we’re all caught up in experiencing it now (and watching it BE experienced through others). The above quote is actually a cartoon used to illustrate Einstein’s theory of relativity in the 1930’s. This is known as the “Kappa effect” and occurs when perception is altered in some part by “spatial interference” (i.e. time appears to “drag” when we’re children and “fly” as we’re adults). Also, remember that we have to consider things such as altered states of consciousness as well (i.e. drugs, disabilities, dreams, etc.). When you consider the magnificent weight of such things, why even sit down to play a game? I’m an extremely strict “anti-escapist”, so I demand deep meaning and thought be blossomed from even the shittiest game from the‘80’s. Video-games are a medium that can uniquely capitalize on the educational, psychological, and even spiritual aspects of what time encompasses. First, let’s visit three moral/ethical dilemmas I place out for myself when involving anything of this magnitude:

Can we mess with “this”?

Yes, the time is nearly perfect to do so right now. We’re in a dark place financially, creativity is constantly being cannibalized, and the need for a new layer of ability should be seen for our medium A.S.A.P.

Should we mess with “this”?

My vote is of course, yes. I probably would have said no ten or even five years ago (hypothetically asserting my present acumen was available to me at the age of thirteen). However, a small window of opportunity has presented itself through the times and I think it’s a necessity that someone…anyone capitalizes upon it.

How do we mess with ”this”?

There are multitudes of ways that already exist and an even more startling amount that haven’t even been considered yet. I’ll try and provide some examples/samples of this in a second.

So with those subjective prerequisites out of the way, let’s talk about another two…

What is “this”?

What I’m referring to is the implementation of “what we perceive as time” to be conveyed through a game. I’m not talking Prince of Persia type stuff, that’s actually the most superficial example of what I’m proposing. For the most blatant notion of my mind-track, think along the lines of a theoretical physics model. Tools involving the “world line” and the stylizing of actual scientific constructs are more than welcome at this point. Video-games are based off code, systems which allow and permit us to operate in simulated space. Have we truly played with this notion on it’s own yet?

I think the biggest challenge is wantonly applying game mechanics to the “time concept” or vice-versa. If it’s too sticker-esque, the whole thing will come off as just another gimmick. Simple games such as Flower show potential arenas for a simple concept to flourish (no pun intended). Having a game that uses simulated subatomic particles that move in tandem with time itself automatically places an image of something in my head that most would instantly try and lump in along the lines with Braid mixed with Geometry Wars. We could also dip into the 2D platforming era if need be. From a 3D standpoint, I see this as an actual remedy to fix Sonic’s seemingly fundamental flaw in 3D space that has plagued him since Sonic Adventure. It’s not as convoluted as I’m making it out to be, but it would definitely have to be methodically and painstakingly developed.

Narrative-wise, there’s room here as well. Since The End is Nigh’s release, my disdain has been held not for the price point, but the content. I certainly don’t begrudge a competent brawler’s existence; however I do question the persistence of developers to make a game adapted from an acclaimed graphic novel that has nothing to boast about other than it’s visuals. After all the hype surrounding the recently released movie, my mind immediately wanders to Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan) when I hear the words “Watchmen Game”. This is not because he’s a makeshift god that can do almost anything he wants. We have enough Hulk/Superman simulators for cheaply being almighty. However, to experience time as his character did in a game would be interesting, and could possibly give the video-game industry it’s own Memento for the times. This is something I find incredibly amusing; as Dr. Manhattan is my most reviled character in the graphic novel (I simply LOATHE him).

Implementation as a sub-textual thematic is far more likely in terms of what I’m expecting though (i.e. if the real-time clock in Ocarina of Time was taken to another level). Time or it’s surrounding scientific theories have to have a flexible yet noticeable fixing over the game proper. It has to meld and twist the basic premise (which is usually strictly built presenting yet another problem). A “true” bildungsroman game doesn’t even exist yet and time would no doubt play a major role, which could be subtly toyed with by developers.

*Post-Edit* Something that L.B. Jeffries pointed out to me that I totally forgot about was The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and I think that is an excellent example for the substextual category.

I also stated a while back that very few “space games” exist. Sure, we have a plethora that simply take place in or around space, but not much beyond mere settings. Space is in itself is a theoretical construct in which plenty of odd & beautiful things occur daily (black holes, dark matter, astrophysical phenomena, etc.) Playing with how space-time presence works is ridiculously easy…to an extent that it’s infuriating to me nobody has even earnestly tried yet. We still have fundamental problems in the game industry (camera perspective, “formulaicism”, control hiccups, etc.). This seems like a trivial worry when we consider this: The multiverse is a definite possibility, even simply though game-form (let alone it’s actual existence); when one considers what 4-D actually is, clarity begins to come, doesn’t it? We’re spoiled by a natural privilege, and artistic mediums are perfect for showing us when and how we take those privileges for granted. I cordially bow for a video-game to do this.

When will we see “this”?

Huh? In some senses…we just “saw it”. Seriously though, I think if that if something…anything doesn’t remotely scrape an area such as this within the next fifteen years, it will be “lost” from a creative standpoint. It won’t be destroyed per se, but its ability to shift the movement of the industry on a fundamental and radically intrinsic level will be lost. The good news is that I actually think the ground is fertile for this, so the likely chances for it to pop up will at least reach a sort of critical mass for itself over the coming years. As always, I’ll insert my now-staple closing here: If no one else does, I’ll design it myself.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

DFB - Donkey Kong ’94 – Primate Totem #2

After the first nostalgic batch of levels establishes it's relation to the previous game, this title truly begins to come into it's own. The first world Mario goes through is "Big City" and is concentrated on maneuvering the height and railings. Like I mentioned before (and will mention again), the animations in this game are really a lost treasure and it's apparent from even the earliest levels such as this. Once Mario falls past a certain extent, his sprite changes into a tumble--which in turn lets the player know they will be momentarily hindered once he hits the ground (Mario lays comically sprawled out with his leg twitching in the air for a few seconds).

This culminates in the first boss battle in Big City, as jumping around leaves Mario dodging falling debris. The second fight actually has Mario using barrels to strike D.K. himself (while dodging them being thrown down). Between the dodging and jumping, working one's way around Mario's animations is a godsend in itself. I constantly found myself making snap-judgments with relative ease, no matter how painted-into-a-corner I actually was. Nintendo has been the most obvious influence in the simple novelty of jumping in a game and it's why I still to this day immediately notice any game that I simply can't jump in (to an OCD-like extent). Another thing I found interesting is that the more function one can successfully pour into a simple interface, the more we as gamers appreciate it. Once we got into the Post-SNES world, it seemed almost a mandatory presence to have at least four-six face buttons for games (it was creeping up long before then too). That's to be understood as the times evolve, but it's a creative limitation few use anymore. In this game, Mario has a multitude of maneuvers he can use in his repertoire and for just two buttons and a D-pad...well you get it right?

The first standout in this world for me is how some music is intrinsically tied to parts of the game. Whether it's Sonic running around in the water too long, or Mario taking full advantage of his star-state, games have always used music to intuitively blend certain sequences of the game into one. Donkey Kong first uses this in a similar fashion with the first "power-up" that Mario is granted (the arrows). In the above pictures you'll notice arrow blocks that Mario can jump and interact with. These involve placing a ladder or bridge in the desired area while a swiftly accelerating tune announces the allotted time to cross or climb it. Something I heard in Rebel FM last week was how certain tunes from games meant more to them in times like this and before. I kind-of agree and strongly disagree with that at the same time. Passing off what those guys identified as "film-music" gave the medium (film) undeserved hold over some styles and arenas of music. I do think that games dovetailed their music more respectively in this time period because of the aforementioned tricks (simply resigning it to the limitations of the period is being stupidly romantic), I just don't think the big-wig orchestrals of some games now are devoid of that same charm. They're just as strong now and people won't notice now until twenty years from now. Music is far too powerful of an art to designate to any one medium in any state.

That's it for today. I don't intend to separate all these posts in parallel to the respective worlds. I want this DFB to come in well-under ten entries. I just wanted this one out of the way this week, as I'm actually working on a special blog to posted within the month.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

DFB - Donkey Kong ’94 – Primate Totem #1

“I Was Offended At Four…” – the first thing formed in my head upon my reflection of Donkey Kong

It’s funny that I’m starting this out almost exactly the same way I did my previous DFB posts, but people are shocked when I announce that one of my favorite Nintendo games of all time is Donkey Kong. Of course, the distinction here is that most have the title I’m referring to confused with the 1981 counterpart on which it is based. The original game & Donkey Kong Jr. disappointed me just as I got out of diapers. I spent the better part of two hours beating the original Arcade version (I don't think I ever really grasped the notion of how the levels worked back then) only to find that there was no more and that the challenge was playing through the levels again for high scores as the difficulty climbed. I’ve never been one for high scores or competition (and when I do I’m just feigning for the sake of being an ass) in a very general sense, so I was left with a game I acknowledged as four levels long at four years of age…

So, the game I’m actually talking about is “Donkey Kong ‘94”, which was released for the original game boy in 1994. It uses the same base mechanics that the original title used, but elaborates on it extensively by focusing more on the puzzle design and general platforming. I don’t see many people acknowledging this game anymore, as it’s a prime example for Nintendo’s constantly-goaded-about expertise (am I missing something?). The first four levels consist of pretty much the same exact levels that the 1981 arcade version introduced. After Mario rescues Pauline from the fourth level however, the game seems to end just as it’s ‘80’s predecessor did. The Fat Lady on the other hand, hasn’t sung yet (hell…she hasn’t even been discovered). Donkey Kong then proceeds to rise back up, and smash the platform, sending Pauline right into his hands and Mario right on his head.

The game then introduces it’s “true face” for what it is, as the following “cutscene” shows Mario discovering how to use keys to unlock doors. This serves as the main crux of the entire game. Mario is placed in challenging level setups with increasing difficulty as his recurring task is to find a key, and carry it (Super Mario Bros. 2 style) to a door that will let him proceed to Donkey Kong. After beating Donkey Kong (every fourth level), a scene is then portrayed again, showing a new ability or maneuver that the player is to use in the subsequent stages in order to aid their progress. This is a very ironic game, as I was infuriated at Donkey Kong as a child for only having four levels. This Gameboy title however, basically pisses in my face while answering me graciously; it boasts a whopping 101 levels that become increasingly more difficult with progress (across nine worlds). Luckily, there’s little to no story with this game, so there shouldn’t be consistently mind-wrenching entries (i.e. Xenogears). This is me we’re talking about though, so expect some fairly hefty blogs either way, moving on...!

Nintendo Darwinism
Overlooking that the point of this game is to topple the pent-up sexual desires of a giant ape, this area is currently taking the place of notes and observations and will primarily focus on how Nintendo’s design techniques have suffered a similar form of “industrialized evolution”. I’m not suggesting that any of the upcoming mechanics originate from this game, but I will certainly point out their existence nonetheless. I’ll also be pointing out how some of these aspects have survived over the years and how “we” as a social machine have either accepted/furthered or spurned/ridiculed their development. This can be called gamer’s own little natural selection.

The Red Cap or Cape?
The dynamic provided by the original 1981 Donkey Kong is carried right over into this game. ’81-DK introduced Jumpman, who is Mario of course. This guy jumped all over the place, but he isn’t the fat bouncing Italian we all know and love now. This guy died if he jumped from too far a height. This creates a nice limit on the player’s use of him. This is actually a nice little mechanic that was spurned over the years, because look at our dear man now…Mario can now jump from Jupiter to Pluto now and not even bat an eye. So what does this say about our desire for limitations? I’m not necessarily bitching about Mario’s Superman-esque abilities now, but I am bringing up an observation that I’d enjoy input from. Though it’s nowhere near the same thing, it certainly runs analogous to how Resident Evil (pre-Re4) established it’s appeal, so it’s definitely up for debate.

Something Nintendo is particularly known for is their design strategy that usually manifests itself in teaching the player though subtlety and nuance. Intuitive enjoyment is a staple that typically comes with “the seal”. This game is clearly the predecessor to all the titles we’re used to now, as it actually uses cutscenes to convey it’s additions to the gameplay. As I previously stated, every fourth level features a boss fight with Donkey Kong and following his defeat a scene is shown while the scores are tallying themselves out. During this scene, Mario will be shown taking part in a maneuver or item that he is to add to his repertoire (and use regularly from then on) in the upcoming levels. This is certainly something that has been embraced and actually evolved into subtlety today. Though I can speculate a plethora of logical reasons why things were sacrificed for this evolution’s sake, the fact remains developers simply don’t use cutscenes to convey lessons for the player anymore. Intrinsically tying “the lesson” into a plot while giving the player a heads up is something (atop the fourth wall) that we just don’t see much anymore.

The Key To Success is Suffering
The key Mario is constantly using to proceed through worlds begins to disappear back to it’s original place within a few seconds of being left alone. This produces a harsh & absolute boundary in what the player is meant to process for making their way through the level. The danger is that it runs the risk of showing how stylized a game’s nature can be, just a code-based playground for problem solving. The key-seeking in this game is the crux of the title but it also showcases how questionable practical hindrances can be seen as not so practical to begin with.

The Italian Stallion
Mario has always had an oddly useful set of maneuvers throughout his career…as a plumber. This game is no different; it has the little guy doing much more than just jumping around, whether it’s flinging himself from tightropes, doing handsprings, or nailing his jump-boost from the handsprings. This raises a specific question for me, which is the usefulness of always keeping the limits of one’s abilities as an accessible perception of the player. People know exactly what they are and aren’t capable of 98.9% of their lives. This means experiencing it through game begins an entirely new layer of interaction, which resonates with people because anything we create will inherently be using “real life” as a model on some level or another. Even Nintendo hasn’t mastered giving the player full control over their avatar’s action, then proceeding to test it as soon as possible (yet they’re one of the few that have tried regardless). What they’ve gained control of instead is rearranging that notion in itself, by creating a sort of assembly line for players to take part in. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not bad by any means; once again, I’m just making an observation.

Animation Nation
Like I’ve stated before, I think one of the industry’s "atrophied brilliances" is animation. DK-‘94 title shows me this through Mario’s simplistic yet perfectly communicative animations. He has different falling sprites depending upon the height from which he leaps, and the ways in which he can die are surprisingly varied for a game of this platform and era. All of the other miscellaneous animations are just welcome icing on the cake at this point. Considering that most games don’t even have cake to begin with…well… To close this entry though, I think I’ll shove a Portal/Watchmen allusion in here for anyone that looks at games and sees admirable development…

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In a Flash

I actually haven't picked up anything to play in over a week. Seeing as how taxing the Xenogears DFB turned out to be, I thought I earned myself a small break. Now I'm looking at the last two titles I'm considering next for delving into(I'll probably announce which tomorrow). Anyway, I did manage to check out something and it wasn't what I expected it to be. I thought the next time I picked up Mirror's Edge, it would be to download the DLC pack that recently came out. However, it seems I've found some love for Faith again through her browser game. Sponsored by EA, Mirror's Edge 2D (developed by Borne) is a 2D side-scrolling scrolling game that anyone can play in their internet browser. The beta was up last year, but I imagine most missed it (at least I know I did) in lieu of the always dreadful holiday jam-packing (not to mention Mirror's Edge's release itself). What this nifty little flash game does extremely well is translate the exhausting sense of pace that most people referenced "feeling" in it's console counterpart. As it is right now, it's a bit of a tease, but possibly more levels will be added as time passes. I'd even argue it's quality is enough to consider porting to a handheld later on down the road (given the game is given a significant amount of additions). If you have an hour or two to spare, you might be surprised with it, so check it out.