For the last couple of weeks I’ve been on something of a game-binge, aware that my first term at university starts in a couple of weeks and there won’t be room for my computer when the five to six hour drive (ugh) to Brighton comes around. The next time I’ll really be able to play anything is December. For a week or so, maybe. Then, back to game-drought. Hmph.

My main obsession has been the latest Stalker game, Call of Pripyat. It’s something special.

I’ve only really explored the starting area Zatun, but I’m impressed with how GSC have refined the geography of the Zone. It really feels like a coherent and plausible location, while I thought the first game was a bit of a hodge-podge. It’s no longer a bunch of points on a map (Fallout 3 also suffered from this), but a real, living world that makes sense with the few extra rules the developers have allowed themselves. The anomalies, especially, have really come into their own. In the book the series is based on, Roadside Picnic, the Zone is a rundown town with a bit of wasteland that the anomalies, weird areas where the laws of physics were twisted unimaginably, inhabited and conformed to. The first game largely followed this model, but in Call of Pripyat we really get to see these bizarre fields have an effect on the landscape.

Above you can see the Boiler, where the ground bulges and cracks because of the steam erupting endlessly from some point underground. At the Claw, gravitational anomalies have torn at the earth, lifting and contorting the mud into the air before fading slightly, leaving a barely supported but still plausible dirt structure.

My favourite is probably the Scar, which you can see below:

It’s a 100-metre long gash in the ground that cuts North-to-South across a small valley, cutting very deeply into the rock at one side and just the slightest graze at the other. I like it (and the Boiler, for similar reasons) because it feels very much like it could be a natural phenomenon. It’s only the wrecked roads on the southern end that show it to be something other than an ancient geological occurrence, and only the slight shimmer above the Scar belies its exotic origins. To me, it feels like an authentic effect of the weird forces that litter the zone; believably natural, rather than something obviously conjured up by designers. It follows some form of rule-set, even if it isn’t the one we’re used to. And it reinforces the fiction, as a glimpse at the unimaginable stress the land was placed under in the immediate aftermath of the second Chernobyl disaster, and a look at what anomalies could really do, before they became little patches of wobbly air that sometimes take a quarter off your health bar.

There are a lot of column inches given over to architecture in games (check out this Stalker-themed article from BLDGBLOG for a great example) but I don’t think enough thought is given to game landscapes, especially “natural” ones. Perhaps that’s because of a lack of games with landscapes worth writing about?

Picked up the new Dragon Quest game yesterday, along with a new DS. My third, if you’re wondering. Thanks, Nintendo. Great build quality. Keep up the good work, you bastards.

Some thoughts:

Gosh, it’s pretty. The world’s in 3D, as are your characters, and NPCs for the most part are sprites. It works. Environments are wonderful, etc etc. I don’t like Dragon Ball, but I really like the character designs here. Look at those peeps up there! Adorable, great eyebrows and they’re far better than in say, Chrono Trigger. I’ve yet to find a character named after food or underwear, but I’m sure there’s at least one. This just wouldn’t be a Toriyama joint if there wasn’t. Basically, Level 5 can make a very good-looking DS game, even when they’re not especially good. They work better with other people’s IPs and oversight, I think, and Square Enix seem to have done a very good job, not that I think that was ever really in question. Dragon Quest is, let’s say, an important franchise for them. They can make a good game when they bother, and it all feels very expensive.

The battle system is a fairly simple turn-based affair, which is how I like it. None of this Active Time nonsense, and it hurtles along at a fair pace. Battles are well-animated, with characters running around all over, hitting things with a decent sense of impact and judicious use of slow motion. It’s a nice change from the whack-the-air routine of old, which really didn’t work in 3D games like, say, the DS Final Fantasy remakes.

Speaking of Final Fantasy, this is so much more pleasant than that. I’ve yet to get bored of fighting Cruelcumbers and Meow-gicians, the world is colourful and varied, and the translation is wonderful. The story is, so far, more straightforward than any Final Fantasy game I’ve played, but that doesn’t mean it’s not affecting. You’re an angel, cast down from heaven. There’s nothing much wrong (again, so far) with the world you’re in, it isn’t ending. Kingdoms aren’t really in peril, but something might be wrong in the world you’ve been thrown out of. So the melancholia comes from a sense of abandonment and loss, rather than danger or tragedy. It’s refreshing for a game like this. At the moment, the quest is to attract the attention of your long-gone God, which is nicely poignant. You save by going to confession. I gather that’s a Dragon Quest convention?

Religion up the bum, by the way. Such is the Square way. Up the bum.

Party members are customisable and interchangeable, which I really like. There’s something I really like about going through a game with characters I’ve made. Knowing that no-one else has quite the same Warrior as me – his name’s Caleb, by the way – really gets me. For me it absolutely makes up for an absence of character, and that’s just how I roll. I’m still getting used to all the classes. Priests seem a lot more physical than I’m used to, sort of a combination of Final Fantasy priests and monks. So healing spells and buffs, but also punching. Hitting things with a wand steals MP, which is good. It means there’s a point to hitting things as a mage, and I can also envisage using a strong melee character to neutralise magic users by getting rid of their mana. My main character’s a minstrel, although I think that’s randomly chosen. I thought perhaps that meant she was basically a bard, but I haven’t learned any, y’know, songs or stuff. I’m not really sure what the minstrel is good at, but she can breathe fire. That sir, is the absolute coolest. She’s called Dani, by the way. What? Don’t you judge me.

A few niggles. Having to go see a priest to check how much experience I need (Divination! Get it? Eh?) to level up is a pain. Just show me that stuff, people, come on. Maybe my priest will at some point be able to show that? I hope so. Also, Don’t show the experience I gain at the end of a battle on the bottom screen, and the money on the top. I tap through that stuff fast, and it doesn’t sound like it would be annoying, but trust me. It is.

My only major worry is that perhaps it’s a little easy. I’m not really sure what level of player I am, on your Amateur to Professional scale. Dilettante? Anyway, it’s all very pleasant, but I’m not being challenged. However, I am informed that, after five hours and 193 battles, I’ve only seen 8% of the enemies. Jury’s out on that one, then.

Anyway, it’s good! You have a fairy, and she drives a flying train! Yes!

Remember this? LIVE  THE CONTROVERSY.

I wrote this a while ago and it went up on HUNTDARRRB, but that site got wiped. So I thought I’d put it up here. It’s alright-ish (the post, not the game), I suppose. Ta.

So, here I am. I’ve beaten what I thought was the hardest challenge in the game, could only be the hardest challenge in the game, and man. I died literally thousands of times over the course of about an hour. It was terrible, it was the worst. Picture my face then, when I realise after about five or ten minutes trying over and over again, what it is I’m being asked to do this time. I feel like I should laugh at the absurdity of the situation, at the magnitude of the punishment I’ve taken, and will take, but I don’t. I don’t, it’s too awful. I run into a wall of spikes a few times deliberately, watching my tiny avatar’s look of despair. It’s not particularly comforting, but I do it anyway. Mostly out of spite.

It’s not even necessary, that’s the worst thing. I could just walk straight past these sections, with no ill effect. The hard sections are optional, with “Shiny Trinkets” as your reward. Fucking collectibles. They don’t even give you anything good, just unlock songs you’ll hear throughout the game for the jukebox in your ship. Why do it then? I do it because there is no real reward. That would only cheapen the feeling of success, of finally breaking through.

There’s not much you can do in VVVVVV. You can run from left to right,  from right to left, and you can flip gravity. Therein lies VVVVVV’s genius. It takes utter simplicity, walking and an idea that has been done before, and squeezes every last drop from it. Nothing is wasted. What doesn’t kill you, and a fair amount of what does is there to be used for a puzzle, or just some feat of absurd finger-athletics. No more abilities are earned, no weapons are collected. Walking and flipping really is all you can do, and the game is still filled with more ideas and imagination than all but a very few other works.

Many people, after playing VVVVVV, have decided Terry Cavanagh is a bastard, that he must hate them to put such a challenge before them. He’s not, though. He’s clearly not. You can tell in myriad different ways, like the fact that the lowest score you can get in a time-trial is a B. There’s a freely available invincibility mode, so the disabled can explore the world he’s made. If you find the game too hard you can unlock all the game modes from the main menu. So no, Terry Cavanagh is not a bastard. He’s just not afraid to take a very limited set of parts, and make something that’s simply about being hard . And the game is hard, but it’s fair, it’s well thought out, it is truly designed. All is forgiven for those thousands of deaths.

Around once every six months, I am confronted with: “You know all these videogames you play are American propaganda? Paid for by the army, it’s true.” To which I reply, teeth clenched: “No, Dad. That’s only sort of true.” Not the best retort.

Government propaganda certainly exists in video games. The American military does use videogames as recruiting tools, and this week the Russian government announced tax cuts and grants for developers of “Patriotic games”, focusing on the second world war. It would be nice to see more games focusing on Russia’s role in the war, but if it’s coming from the masterminds that brought us Action Putin, I really doubt we’re going to get anything especially thoughtful from this programme. In any case, they haven’t made anything yet, so we must return to our friends at the US army.

The two most prominent US videogame recruitment vehicles are America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior (2004). Full Spectrum Warrior is billed as an actual training tool, a claim that seems specious. Unfortunately I haven’t played FSW –  it refuses to run on my computer – but I trust Consolevania when they call it ridiculously easy and say:

In this game, all you have to do is play the training mission, and then you’re a fully trained US soldier. If this game is to be believed then the US army only have one tactic.

Quite similar, then, to propaganda of yore showing military life as nice, clean, fun. The game is easy and, look, realistic! The aim seems to be to tone down the sense of danger as a part of war; the US is benign and unstoppable, its foes weak. This echoes the wider media narrative in the early years of the War on Terror. All in all, quite simplistic.

America’s Army seems more honest. Death comes thick and fast, and the game places a lot of focus on teamwork in order to win. It’s focus is less on the enemy as incapable – it’s a multiplayer game, the enemy wins around half of the time – and more on the modern soldier as aspirational figure. It falls down on realism, which is to be expected. It is a propaganda piece, designed to appeal to game-loving teens, and actual military sims are not known for being fun so much as extremely stressful. America’s Army plays not dissimilarly to CounterStrike.

The third installment of America's Army was released in 2009.

Of course, most first person shooters are not US military-funded propaganda; so why do they appear as such to the outsider? In 1999, with the release of Medal of Honor, games depicting the American role in World War 2 became dominant, a trend that with the notable exceptions of the Halo and Half-Life series – and little else – continued up to the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This newer style of shooter, with more cinematic set-pieces and some lip-service to realism, swiftly joined Mario and Tomb Raider in the image of videogames as seen from outside the hardcore clique.

The main influence of WW2 shooters is, almost without exception, the opening of 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. Detailing the D-Day invasion, the opening 27 minutes of the film are horrifically grim, gruesome, and relentlessly exhilarating. In videogames, the tendency is to accentuate these two latter qualities, while quietly ignoring the first. After all, where is the fun in depressing the player? Where is the business sense in creating a game which nobody wants to play? The focus becomes on the thrill of action, guns shift from tools to objects of fetishism and victims are reduced to parodic automatons, indistinguishable and unimportant.  The Omaha beach scene, repackaged for sale in an industry that requires fun above all else, is whitewashed.

There are also practical considerations, of course. Rendering a game on a consumer PC requires a downscaling of detail and scale. The experience cannot be so tightly crafted – and constant danger of death becomes frustrating – in a game setting, so Tom Hank’s very lucky Captain Miller becomes a superman, shrugging off bullets with no ill effect. It isn’t realistically possible to live up to even a film version of D-Day, let alone the real thing. However, neither is much of an effort made, and this sanitisation cannot fail to be compared to the efforts of government propaganda, even when it comes about for entirely different reasons.

Call of Duty 2 (Activision, 2005), often cited as the best WW2 shooter.

Entirely different? By 2007, games had simulated World War 2 for longer than the duration of the actual war, and the genre was tired. Enter Call of Duty 4, and the ascent of the, modern-combat themed pseudo-sim in the eyes of the public. Saving Private Ryan‘s time was all but done, and the CoD4 developer Infinity Ward needed a new film from which to take most of its inspiration. This film was Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 2001.

Depicting the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, Black Hawk Down is a tour de force of stylish violence, with a focus on military manoeuvres and little concern for the human impact of war. In other words, perfect material for the cinematic shooter, heavy on what is easy to simulate and light on what is not. It is also ludicrously biased, wasting no time giving any context for the confliction, instead showing the Somali as stereotypical savages, lashing out irrationally at the utterly benign Americans. The film’s borderline racism is only underlined as, after showing heroic deaths of US soldiers, we are presented with the message: “1000 Somalis died and 19 Americans lost their lives in the conflict”. These 1000 people – a conservative estimate of Somali deaths – are treated as nothing but cannon fodder. No justice is really done to the Americans, either. Instead of real characters, we are presented with Stoic Soldier, Nervous Soldier, Goofy Soldier… It is depressing in almost every way. It’s also hard not to see the film, praised by prominent American neoconservatives, as having a strong political purpose and a stark message. From this 2002 article by Ann Talbot:

The few seconds of film CNN screened showing the mutilated body of an American soldier being dragged through the streets shocked the US public, who could not understand why these young Americans had been sent to Mogadishu…So powerful was this image, however, which was of a very different kind to the slick Hollywood depiction of death and injury shown by Scott, that it made the use of ground troops on this scale politically impossible for almost a decade…

The filmmakers, the right wing politicians and the US military who backed it hope that for those who see Black Hawk Down the sanitised, choreographed violence of Scott’s film will become the image of the October 1993 incident they remember.

Both Call of Duty 4 and its sequel Modern Warfare 2 stick closely to the Black Hawk Down playbook: no real characterisation and a slick, stylised approach to violence. There are some attempts to show the horror of war in all three (the two boy soldiers in BHD, the nuke and No Russian in the Modern Warfare games), but in all three cases America’s only crime is to underestimate the savagery of its enemy. All three give a peculiarly one-sided view of the morality of war.

The Modern Warfare games are guiltier even than Black Hawk Down in playing down the unpleasantry of combat. They are clean – gore is kept to a minimum – and put even less effort into its Taliban-lite and cliche Russians than Scott put into his sock-puppet Somalis. Even in Modern Warfare 2‘s most contentious (and out of place) scene, No Russian (in which Russian Ultranationalists gun down civilians in an airport), the horror is played down. The victims are reduced to little more than screaming parodies of people, there are no children or old people. The player is not a heartless mercenary but a CIA agent, a patriot protecting the world from more terrible attacks. Even in the slaughter of innocents, the player has the moral high ground. Modern Warfare 2 pulls its punches. Is all this propaganda, for political gain? Perhaps not. Here is post-hype’s Chris Breault, on his experience as a writer on The Punisher videogame adaptation:

“I was told to rewrite the lines where anyone expressed a strong desire not to die. It was “sadistic” to kill people who directly asked you not to kill them. This sort of sadism is exactly the stuff that gets us a red flag from the ESRB…”

In an industry in which humanisation of enemies is prohibited, because it might cause your audience to think about their actions and be unsettled, is it any wonder that so many modern videogames resemble a conservative wet dream?

I have a new response to my father’s question, “You know all these videogames you play are American propaganda?” Well, they’re not. They just look like they are.

Not a great improvement, I’m afraid.

Hi. Got a little bit sidetracked, back now, how are you how are you, nice to see you again. Oh, that view counter looks pretty much how it did back in September, so no harm done?

Right, that’s that sorted, so now to business. Haven’t played much, haven’t made much, so didn’t see any point in posting for all those months.

Bye.

Oh, actually. Made one thing, for a new game called Akmerika (We wanted a stupid name, I think I delivered. Apologies if it means something somewhere). It’s music, and talking (mostly talking) recorded while we began to make the game, which involves rotating bouncing rabbits and lasers. Here it is. Sorry about the levels, I realise it’s a bit quiet. But it’s ambient, innit?

So yeah, Akmerika. Look out for it, I’m sure it won’t at all get lost in a sea of studying and apathy, no sir.

D.

braid

I realise I’m a bit late to the party with this one, but I just finished Braid. The game came to PC in April, and I didn’t play it for a couple of reasons. Mostly because Jonathan Blow has always struck me as being a little self-important, and given to writing awful poetry. So, I wasn’t really interested, despite the colossal amount of praise Braid had received.

This was probably a bit silly. The other reason, of course, was  lack of money, for which I feel I can be forgiven. Anyway, it recently appeared in a Steam sale, so I bought it, and finished it in an evening.

Even without playing it, I knew Braid was an incredibly important videogame. It introduced a lot of Xbox players (not exactly famed for their sophistication) to the validity of independant games, games as art, and in many cases the importance of 2d games. That’s quite an achievement. So I knew Braid was important, but I didn’t realise how good it was.

It’s good! There are, as I see it, two competing schools of thought when it comes to this kind of puzzle game. On one hand there’s things like that other great game from 2008, World of Goo, in which you figure out the general solution extremely quickly, but things act unpredictably, so you have to correct as you go. On the other hand, there are games that run like clockwork. Braid runs like clockwork, and is incredibly frustrating for it. Almost every five minutes I would come across a puzzle that I was sure was impossible. You have to solve every puzzle to beat the game, so it would turn into an excercise of throwing myself against the rocks over and over until I stopped for a moment and thought, and I saw the solution, and for that moment I was the cleverest person in the world. So Braid is frustrating, but gratifying. So gratifying.

The game is beautiful as well, of course, and has an amazing soundtrack. It’s something that reaffirms my belief (just like World of Goo, actually) that mainstream videogames abandoned 2D games far too quickly, and that perhaps 2D games are just a little bit too obsessed with 8-bit graphics and sound. A little more variation, please.

And the story! Oh, the story! I didn’t like the story. Does this make me a bad person? I should say, I didn’t dislike it for its pretensions. I see absolutely nothing wrong with aspiring to art. My problem was that I didn’t think it was very good, not that it was rising above its station, or something. A central theme is the idea of “learning from one’s mistakes without having to live with them”. This isn’t deep, and what little prose there is in the game is just badly written, in my opinion. I have no problem with the rest of the storytelling. Gameplay and story are melded beautifully. The problem is, the story is something I might have written three or four years ago, and I should point out that I am a 6th form student. It’s immature, and uninsightful, and boring. It’s like a Coldplay song.

So Braid isn’t quite fine art, but it’s an amazing puzzle game. That’s fine too.

You can find Braid for PC on Steam, Greenhouse, and Impulse, and the Xbox version on the Xbox 360 shop thing. If you disagree with any parts of the mostly non-italicised bit at the top, that’s cool, it’s entirely subjective, are you stupid.

Summer is nearly over so it is time to get back in the podcasting groove (one of the many grooves which we inhabit). As well as hopefully Rivas’s writing groove, what with posting only one article since the last podcast, about pigs. Think of it as a podcast ham sandwich.

We have played many games over the summer, and even remembered some of them to talk about, this is what we planned to do:

  • Street Fighter IV
  • Shadow Complex
  • Baldur’s Gate 1/2
  • Icewind Dale
  • Planescape Torment
  • Fallout
  • Space Siege
  • Half Life 2: Episode 2 (again)
  • Guild Wars
  • EvE Online
  • Freespace 1/2
  • Homeworld 2
  • Sins of a Solar Empire (best name evar)
  • Darwinia

However we wandered often and can’t be bothered listening to find out what we actually talked about.

Anyway, here it is.

This time guest starring Michael Charge of http://www.hntaab.co.uk, who didn’t plug three times. Although he did bring Street Fighter IV so we don’t care.

Wow, haven’t posted round here in a while. Man.


Picture 3

But I’m here now! Actually, being on holiday, not much game-playing happening round these parts. Saw this on tigsource, though, and thought I’d write about it in lieu of something actually interesting.

Zing! Actually, When Pigs Fly is pretty interesting, but not a huge amount of fun, I’m sad to say. You play as a small flying pig, trying to escape some cave system or other, and you die if you touch a wall. So it’s kind of a mix between that helicopter game (you know the one) and a side scrolling platformer. You die a lot.

What I’m going to actually compare When Pigs Fly to, though, is Mirror’s Edge. Bear with me, it’ll make sense in the end. You see, like Mirror’s Edge, WPF is kind of fiddly to control, and frustratingly difficult in spots. However, it also has some pretty amazing moments, where you get through 5 or so screens, somehow without dying, and it is then the best game in the world. On the whole, though, I don’t feel those moments make up for the rest of the game. Ah well.

D.

You can find When Pigs Fly here. You might like it.

Too Cool for School

"Oh Jeez"

Goodness Gracious we seem to have recorded another podcast.  In which we discuss Adventure games! Half Life 2 Mods! Harry Potter!? With 200% more alcohol.

We may spoil some things, so don’t listen if you like surprises, but who does really? They are surprising! (except when they’re not). Things such as:

  • Monkey Island
  • Loom
  • The Dig (badly)
  • Ben There, Dan That! (badly)
  • The film that wasn’t Armageddon
  • Research & Development (mod)
  • Radiator (mod)
  • Harry Potter (SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE)

So quickly go and play/watch/read all that and then you can download the podcast here.

There is an additional outtakes track here, if you’re one of those crazy completionists like me who can’t stand to miss out on content.

We also promised to link to my terrible adventure game, which according to the download count is apparently the most popular thing I will ever create.

In fairness to Rivas, after posting a ridiculous picture of him, I shall post myself shortly after posing in our podcasting environment.

IMG_3289

"Your room is green"

I’m just adding a line here because the page layout felt off, there is no content in this sentence whatsoever, seriously stop reading it doesn’t go anywhere, in fact pretend this is just some elaborate line art under the post if you want.

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