Monthly Archives: January 2010

Aesthetics and Imagination

I am playing Amanita Design’s Machinarium, and I am smiling. I am smiling because, finally, I have found a beautiful game.

It has been aeons since this last happened. There have been many visually impressive games of late–Assassin’s Creed II, Uncharted 2 and Darksiders, f’rexample–but precious few have been beautiful.

Do I really mean this? Surely major releases can be relied upon to get the graphics right, even if they fail at everything else? Well it depends what we mean by graphics. The term is a little fuzzy, and I would prefer to speak of aesthetics–of the nature of beauty.

Picture the scenario: I am exploring a lush rainforest canyon in the latest blockbuster FPS, lauded by the gaming press for its cutting edge visuals. A waterfall splutters over bump mapped terrain in the distance. Fully animated foliage sways in the breeze, bending and giving way as I brush past. Looking at the grizzled faces of my squad mates I can see individual pores and freckles in their battle worn skin. This virtual world is dutifully (perhaps even sycophantically) realistic, as we are wont to say.

Big games are good at this brand of realism. They recreate, they simulate, with an obsessive focus on detail, and they should be justly praised for it. But there is more to aesthetics than fervent model making. For a game to be beautiful it must also be imaginative.

This is where our mega-bucks FPS falls flat. From the burly, gravel voiced marines under my command to the sub-Gigger aliens I have been tasked to blast back to hell with my suspiciously over sized assault rifle, every element here is depressingly familiar.

And so it is with so many games. They can reconstruct vegetation, architecture, military equipment with astounding fidelity, but as soon as it comes to being creative they fall back upon lazy adolescent cliché. It is as if the industry is breeding not artists but autistic set designers who, lacking any true imagination, fashion ever more intricate reproductions of those phallic totems of juvenile masculinity the world over: automatic weapons, giant swords, tanks and rocket ships. This says much about their insecurities (look at Cliff Bleszinski holding that Lancer and mouth the word “compensatory”), but very little about beauty.

Not that I wish to imply there are no beautiful games, for there are many. The hand drawn, idiosyncratic Machinarium I have already mentioned. Others stretch across most genres, platforms and eras of gaming: Ico & Shadows of the Colossus, Super Mario Bros., Space Invaders, the remake of A Boy and His Blob, Wind Waker. All are, in their own special ways, wonders to behold.

Yet in the aesthetics of these games there is a power at work deeper than mere shading algorithms and anisotropic filtering; a power utilising technology but not in its thrall. It is a power that drills into my skull, pierces through my cynical, misanthropic frontal lobes and burrows to the gurgling, ever-thrilled inner child at my core: it is the power of imagination.

So where does imagination come from? Well, that might be slightly out of the scope of this article, but suffice it to say its roots are dark and mysterious. It is a gift from God, the creative force of the universe itself. And to find it the artist need only look inside herself, to a void that is at once unknowable and yet also curiously the very ground of her being. This description is unavoidably vague, but the essence is actually simple: imagination comes from within, and can be set free providing the artist is willing to tell the truth.

Books and films understand this. The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs is an hallucinatory slog through depravity and bodily fluids, the warped and debased dream of a lonely and guilt ridden dope addict. It is also staggeringly beautiful, because Burroughs tells the truth. Similarly, the films of David Lynch–however terrifying and unnerving in their other worldliness–possess a captivating power because of their inner truth.

I do not see anyone as honest as these two artists in our industry. In the girls that game designers scheme up–with the breasts and the armoured thongs and the flaming swords–and in the macho muscle men they invent to save them, I see only derivative hack work, pointing not to reality but to a desire for reality. And while this may engorge egos and fill bank accounts, it sure isn’t beautiful.

But of course hack work sells, and it is unfair to challenge the big name developers for not being imaginative when they are clearly in the business of making money. It is for this reason that–as is the case with other media–we are increasingly seeing the most aesthetically pleasing games coming from smaller scale, independent companies (See: Machinarium, Lost Winds, Canabalt, PixelJunk Eden, etc). Unburdened of pressure from publishers to be commercial, and lacking the million dollar-plus budgets of the major studios, indies search for more intriguing ways to attract us to them. Without hope of modeling worlds in photorealistic detail, they instead focus on beguiling characters, expressive animations and original art styles; in short they work to be more creative–and so more beautiful.

Another important factor in the success of indie aesthetics is what might be termed the Power of Emptiness. When game graphics do not recreate, but rather represent, they become symbolic and so open a passage to the rich inner world of the player’s mind that symbols lead to. A 10,000 poly model of a battlecruiser may be an arresting image, but in striving for perfection it entreats the analytical left brain functions, and so draws attention to its inescapable limitations. It is the old Uncanny Valley syndrome–the more advanced the simulation, the more critically the brain judges it. If, on the other hand, a few artistically placed lines simply hint at the existence of a spaceship, then the player recognises it as a symbol and fills in the gaps with their imaginative right brain functions. With just a touch of finesse, therefore, designers can lump the bulk of rendering work onto the players themselves, with satisfying results for all involved.

(This trick worked for old games as well. Look at the elegant symbolism of Elite, or Pac-Man, or, well, pretty much anything from those distant halcyon days. Graphics back then had class.)

I am not implying, of course, that all games should be minimalist 2D black and white affairs, but visual elements should at least have to prove their worth to the deeper emotional core of the production, or risk being expunged.

I love Half Life 2, and its commitment to visual veracity was second to none upon its release; but it was the vision of its designers, not their hubris, which demanded such an authentically modeled world. The gravity gun, the physics based puzzles, those tragically emotive facial expressions–all were essential to the success of the game, and all required heavy processing power (at the time) to achieve.

Similarly, the attraction of Grand Theft Auto has always been the sense of freedom being let loose upon its virtual cityscape engenders, and this freedom only increases as the city becomes more believable.

Yet are we to say the heart stopping panic felt as Baby Mario floats away in Yoshi’s Island, or the exhilaration of realising you can shut down that warehouse however you want in Deus Ex, are lesser moments in gaming because the graphics which depict them are more basic?

Half Life 2 is more complex than Yoshi’s Island in the same way an epic novel is more complex than a short story. But is For Whom the Bell Tolls better than The Old Man and the Sea because it is more complex? No; the two simply offer different experiences. The rich tapestry of Hemingway’s masterful Spanish Civil War novel provides an aching, poignant depth in its interlacing stories. Conversely, his taut account of a weathered, humble old man’s solitary fishing expedition would have been swallowed up and its power dissipated had he sought to stretch its length past the novella. The work demands the form, not the other way round.

But too often we forget this, and it is we players who bear the responsibility as heavily as the designers. After all, they are simply catering for a profitable audience. They may serve up a glut of gaudy visual junk food but it is we who feast upon it, we who pass over innovative gameplay experiences in favour of crass techno-porn.

Nowhere is this fetish for technology more apparent than in the PS3 vs. 360 vs. PC comparison videos that flood the internet with every high profile new release. “Which anti-aliasing algorithm is most effective? Which lighting models yield the best results? And on which screens? With which brightness settings?” Developers are unlikely to cease acting like autistic set designers (and let’s be clear: I have no problem with autistic set designers, but I don’t feel they should necessarily lead artistic productions) until we stop pouring over the visual minutiae of their output with such neurotic compulsion.

There is a place for technical prowess. If you’ve deemed it important for your character to have, say, freckles–maybe she is self conscious of them, or they make her attractive to her love interest, or perhaps she cannot spend too long in the sun because of her complexion, even–then by all means put extra development time into ultra realistic facial texturing.

But if you’re asking me to step into the boots of cybertronically enhanced space marine Max Gruffstock as he battles lumbering insectoid xenomorphs through the canyons of Beige-Derra IV, don’t expect me to fall at your feet in frothing admiration just because you modeled the scorch marks on Max’s SX-450 combat rifle in exhaustive detail.

Because technology on its own is not enough. Game designers need to learn to play with (and play on) their audience’s minds the way a poet or an artist does–to find a way into players’ imaginations, and the dark spaces that lie there. For in this darkness untold worlds lie, ready to be brought to light, ready to be explored. They are more magical than anything a Quad Core processor could ever dream up, and they are true.

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Canabalt: Ponderings

Ahem.

Well, glad you could make it. I see you found the place alright. And what weather we’re having eh?

Shall we get started then? Wonderful.

For my first post, with your kind permission, I would like to talk about Canabalt, a free online flash based game that cropped up a lot around Christmas in a number of game of the year rundowns (such as on Eurogamer and the all conquering Rock, Paper, Shotgun).

Why discuss a game that’s been out for months and already has bucket loads of words written about it (big buckets, at that)? Good question, cheers for asking.

I guess partly there’s the whole gearing myself up thing, like when you run about in the cellar bonking rats with a level one Rusty Mace before you’re confident enough to venture out into the world and slay dragons (that being a gaming reference–I try to keep rat bonking to a bare minimum in real life), and of course there’s the honest truth that I can’t actually afford any new releases–impoverished and jobless as I am, having to sustain myself through the harsh winter months with mouthfuls of gruel and economy instant noodles.

But there’s a deeper reason for my choice, and that is quite simply that Canabalt is fantastic–smart and assured and intuitive: the kind of game that reminds me why I started playing these geeky interactive light shows in the first place. Any extra attention I can give it is thoroughly deserved.

Canabalt is the latest brainchild of Adam Atomic, a superbly talented young designer with a number of novel little flash games under his sparkly belt, all available for your delectation right here. The idea for Canabalt emerged from a project set by the Experimental Gameplay site, and Atomic knocked it up from demo to finished product in a grand total of five days.

Let’s dwell on that. Five days. In an average block of five days I might just about get round to watching an episode of Road Wars, and that’s only if someone has recorded it for me. And if they carry me to the sofa.

But how about we move off bad cable shows, and move back onto Adam Atomic. Okay, so his name makes him sound like a cheesy fifties superhero, and I for one have never seen him dueling evil dinosaur-headed space villains, let alone shooting photonic death rays from his eyeballs, and if he wanders the streets in a figure hugging sapphire blue spandex leotard I’d be very surprised … but what this man does possess is the power to create massively enjoyable gameplay mechanics in the blink of an eye, and that is a worthwhile power indeed. Though admittedly not as cool as the death rays.

Canabalt is Captain Atomic’s finest creation to date: a sort of dystopian end of the world urban rooftop one button side scrolling leap-em-up (yeah, that’s a genre) available on the old unfounded opinion and tacitly implied racism generator, the Internet, or through Apple’s getting-stuff-device for their iTelephone MacGuffin (look, I don’t have one. Just shut up and go away would you?).

The brilliance of Canabalt–and it’s time for me to attempt to make sense now–is essentially due to the elegance of its concept. You play a man on the rooftops of a city in turmoil. This man has one desire: to run. Towards what and away from what, we are never told–though the stompy robotic behemoths and swooping attack ships in the background provide some clues. But those details, while evoking a surprisingly strong sense of place, are ultimately extraneous. The man runs; that’s what he does. Left follows right follows left follows right [HIP REFERENCE TO GUINESS AD ENDS HERE]. The simplicity of his purpose is so pure and naked and beautiful it borders on the profound. To prevent this man from running would deny him his very raison d’etre.

So when the edge of a rooftop appears and a chasm looms, when the man’s purpose is threatened, you don’t have to be an experienced gamer to know what to do. There’s only one button you can press, as the intro screen has already made clear. You press that button.

The man leaps. He leaps for freedom, for survival; he leaps because that’s what he does.

He lands on the adjacent rooftop and continues on his way. Purpose remains unbroken. But his, and our, elation is short lived. For the man is trapped in his cycle; he runs automatically and can never stop. And every rooftop ends. There is always another gap. To make one jump in Canabalt is to survive long enough to be forced to jump again.

I find–and please, if you are averse to pretentious wankery, feel free to skip ahead a few paragraphs. In fact best if you skip the article, close the blog, and try to never run into me again–but I find there’s something of a Zen flavour about this. It engenders a dawning sense of the frailty of our existence. For do we not recognise the predicament of Running Man (for so he shall henceforth be named) in our own lives? Are we not trapped as he is? After all, to even breathe in is to avoid suffocation long enough to begin to suffocate again in the next moment. We are, as those Zen cats apparently delight in pointing out, like fleas on a hot plate–jumping to avoid the heat, yet cursed to fall back to the plate and need to jump again.

It is for this reason that I find the player’s purpose in Canabalt is so immediately instinctive. We feel a parallel between keeping the protagonist running and keeping ourselves breathing. A process, once begun, must be continued.

(Okay pretension haters, it’s probably safe to come back now. What were you doing? Eating pork pies and watching Road Wars? Sounds amazing.)

But no one runs, or breathes, forever. Eventually a gap is misjudged, a jump taken too soon, a button pressed too late–and you fall. “GAME OVER,” the rather upbeat end screen informs you. “You ran [x] metres before hitting a wall and tumbling to your death.”

Every Canabalt session ends in this way. The game can’t be beaten. One way or another, Running Man is doomed. Yet despite failure being guaranteed, his attempt–like our own–is a noble one. Because in the end, it isn’t about the end at all, but about how you get there.

And here we come to the second important point about the game. For if you were to ask how you “get there” in Canabalt, the answer would be: like a flipping bad ass.

You see, playing Canabalt makes you feel fucking cool. There’s a real visceral thrill to charging across rooftops as buildings crumble around you, windows smash, killer drills fall from the sky (they’re really missiles, everyone else calls them missiles, but my brain sees them as drills and so drills they remain)–and you in the middle, dodging and leaping, desperately trying to just stay alive, just carry on running, for a few moments longer.

Much of the credit for this dizzying spectacle must go to the game’s visuals. The world is realised in luxurious monochrome, with Running Man’s stark black and white outfit thrown into relief against the sombre grey hues of the background. Small visual effects are captivating and effective: the screen shakes, silhouettes of gigantic robots thud by in the distance, flocks of John Woo-esque doves take flight as you blitz past. The end result is a world that feels alive and complete; a world you enjoy spending time in. That Captain Atomic (I’m not going to let that go) could create such a rich universe in so short a time, with so few resources, is deserving of praise indeed.

The character design of Running Man is similarly excellent. Like Miyamoto’s original Mario, he is a triumphant marriage of necessity and aesthetics. The jacket billowing behind him that adds verisimilitude to the aerial acrobatics, his little white socks that not only delineate his shoes from his trousers but also give him the appearance of a hip fifties greaser–through some witchcraft the handful of pixels that make him up come together to form a man who is undeniably slick.

The joyous animation certainly plays a role in this. The frenetic pace of the running, the flailing limbs, that forward roll (action hero rather than toddler at the park style) when you land from height, all help conjure a manic sense of urgency and barely controlled chaos that infuses the entire game.

Add top class audio effects and a brooding techno soundtrack by Danny B (oh come on, I’m trying to sound cool saying “brooding techno soundtrack” like I know what I’m talking about, and you’re spoiling it by laughing at me. It’s like secondary school all over again) … And now you’ve ruined my flow! Anyway, as I was saying … Add tippety top class audioscaping and that dirty electro krunk shit by Danny B into the mix, and you have an experience that tells me one thing: when evil robotic overlords assault our cities and force us to flee for our lives, it’s going to be the cat’s pajamas.

The other major factor in Canabalt’s success lies with the delicacy and intelligence of the game design. From the speed/length of gap ratio to the frequency that killer drills and other obstacles appear, each coding decision is balanced to perfection. Every player death, no matter how infuriating, can only be blamed on one person: the player. There are no bumbling AI routines, no cheating thirteen year olds on the other side of an internet connection. Just you, and your useless, useless reflexes. The game often produces scenarios that are unfair, but what’s key is they are never impossible–or at least they wouldn’t have been if you’d just jumped earlier, or not jumped, or hit the chair a rooftop back to slow you down and give you more time to think, or dodged all the chairs and gained momentum …

The game world is procedurally generated on the fly to a degree based on your input–gaps are calculated according to your speed, which gradually builds but can be knocked back by hitting obstacles–and because of this you sense in every situation an element that was your own doing. In each fiendish moment the game throws at you, you are aware it was partly your own actions that took you there. This feeling of, if not control, at least culpability, is liberating. “My bad,” you think. “I’d better be more careful next time.”

And there always is a next time. The button to “retry your daring escape,” you see, is the same button you use to jump–the only button you ever press, in fact, and the one your finger is still hovering above. All you have to do is push down.

This might sound so obvious to be inane, but I’m not so sure. I feel games should do more to streamline our experiences, to remove the pointless frustrations of searching through esoteric menus for retry buttons or forcing us to slog back from arbitrary checkpoints (I’m looking at you GTA you dog!). I’m already angry that I messed up, why are you poking at me in my delicate state with your fiddlesome annoyances?

Here Canabalt soars. The interface is breezy, practically non existent; the downtime is close to zero. It knows how irritated you are when you fail, and it knows that is punishment enough. It simply places a gentle hand on your shoulder, shrugs sympathetically, and in a modest voice tells you it’s ready to go again if you are. Thank you Canabalt. You bet I am.

I’m aware this is easier for smaller, more basic games to accomplish, but I still believe blockbuster developers could learn much from the tightness of something like Canabalt. The design of the game as a whole in fact, coupled with the swift production time (FIVEDAYS!), in my mind points to Atomic having that intuitive knowledge that makes for a true artist. I think I read that he’s now working on a bunch of mobile games (though I’m obviously not prepared to do the research to verify that–I’ve got cheese on toast to make), and if he’s continuing to innovate then that’s great, but I just hope he doesn’t burn himself out in App hell, because he seems like a genuine asset to the indie world, and someone to watch out for. Plus he can crush trains with his bare hands. (That might not be true)

What else to say? Well I haven’t yet mentioned the windows that must be leapt through–malevolent, fiendish bloody bastards that they are. But they’ve been discussed with such eloquence elsewhere I feel little more needs to be said, save that the adrenalin fueled elation of “beating” one meshes with the tactile pleasure of watching particles of glass explode outwards and hearing that satisfying tinkle as shards hit the ground in such a way it has become my favouritest glass smashing experience since Goldeneye 64.

Now you want me to say something critical, don’t you? I can sense it, moronic slave to fair and balanced analysis that you are.

Well alright, but only because I like you. And because there’s still time before my cheese on toast needs turning.

I guess the game stumbles onto the wrong side of the unfair tracks occasionally, like when a killer drill falls onto a rooftop so short you can’t leap it without falling into the chasm beyond, or when you’re running full pelt and progressive drops in height prevent you seeing what you’re jumping towards, though in a sense these niggles are the price you pay for procedurally generated levels.

And I suppose if you hate running games, or little men, or rooftops, you might find cause for chagrin here.

But for the most part Canabalt is a gem of a game–fast and frantic and joyfully crafted. It feels current, yet harks back to the great platformers of yesteryear. It’s free! It’s got stompy robots! You can smash glass! What more do you want?

Ensconced in his solinium powered charging pod, orbiting the earth from his secret HQ stationed far above the atmosphere, Adam Atomic should be proud. He has achieved what all great superheroes strive for. He has used his powers for good.

(P.S. I’m not usually one for competition–inveterate loser that I am–but if you can’t run more than 5838 metres before dying then I’m better at life than you. That’s just a fact.)

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Beginnings…

So here we are. My first tentative steps into the world of blogging. It’s a bit like venturing out of the bunker in Fallout 3, except without the sense of wonder, astounding graphics, derivative storytelling (yeah, I said it), Liam Neeson, post apocalyptic architecture …

Okay, so it’s not very much like venturing out of the bunker in Fallout 3. But my point is they’re both pretty overwhelming.

My first article is written and ready for posting. Is it a review? A biopsy? A leisurely and post ironic sojourn into Not Quite New Games Journalism? A flan?

It’s probably not a flan. But if anyone is reading this why not hang around and see for yourself when I put it up? There might even be a pastry based surprise in there somewhere for you (there won’t be).

Toodles.

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