Monthly Archives: November 2010

A Gaming Education: flOw

I’m tired all the time. I like to think this is because of the effort it takes to keep this mega-brain zipping along at such speed. Or perhaps it’s a subconscious desire to get back to the insane, technicolour, sometimes-lucid dreams I have when I sleep. Sadly, I suspect in reality I’m just lazy.

Whatever the reason, I’ve been finding the long hours I’m working in my pub difficult. Six-day weeks selling Fried Shit with Cheese to identikit media students are taking it out of me.

Gaming under such conditions is tricky. I get back at midnight and have no energy left for memorising stats or searching for keycards or learning esoteric combat systems.

So it is that over the last few days flOw has become my perfect post-work game.

I arrive home, bleary-eyed, my mind all turned to mush, and drop into flOw’s hypnotic underwater realm. Bizarre, simplistic and entrancing, it’s like a warm bath for my brain.

FlOw’s world is an odd one. You play as a creature — not quite micro-organic, but not entirely abstract either — gliding about a dream-like ocean, chomping on plankton and avoiding getting chomped yourself. As you progress your creature grows, eventually evolving into new lifeforms, each with their own unique abilities.

I was surprised by how much flOw is a real game. Its developer, thatgamecompany, often talks of designing unique playable experiences not provided elsewhere in the medium, but at its heart flOw is as traditional a video game as they come. You collect dainties, fight enemies and upgrade your craft. The pace might be sedentary, but the mechanics are old as time.

There are even boss battles, of a sort. You reach a screen filled with delicious morsels there for the taking, and rather than rejoice, you think, “Uh-oh. What’s coming next?” Just like Zelda. The silhouetted shape of a gargantuan beast patrolling the depths below doesn’t allay your trepidation.

Yet for the most part the sense of threat in flOw is minimal. There’s just enough to hold your attention, but it’s never oppressive. FlOw is a game made to wind down to, rather than test yourself against. It helps that death carries only the most cursory of punishments, shunting you up to the previous screen, barely seconds from where you failed.

There are problems. The motion controls aren’t accurate enough, sometimes giving your hands that frustrated, lethargic feel as you circle a collectible, not quite able to reach it.

Also annoying are the red and blue lifeforms that signify the entrances and exits of each screen. Swim into a red one to go down a screen further into the ocean, a blue one to go back up to the previous screen. The minimalist design is to be applauded, but too often you collide with one by accident, usually in the midst of a struggle with an enemy. Their existence is symbolically confusing as well; for what reason would eating glowing organisms lead you to a different depth of the sea?

And I would have liked to see more fluidity in the evolution process. Rather than essentially “unlocking” new creatures at the end of each batch of levels, a more organic transition between the lifeforms would have been nice, adding a sense of allegory I wanted but didn’t quite find.

FlOw is a lovely game though. It looks like a dream of some other-existence not quite our own. The sound is sumptuous, relaxing. This type of experience is massively divisive — you’ve probably already made up your mind from the screenshot at the top of the page — with many finding thatgamecompany’s products to be empty, pretentious drivel. Personally, I find gamers who call anything attempting an interesting aesthetic “pretentious” to be the worst kind of dicks. But that’s just me.

I wouldn’t want every game to be like flOw, but now and again it makes a nice change from unlocking the yellow door with the blue keycard, pulling the lever, shooting the dude in the face. For those lacking time or energy it is ideal — a therapeutic dive into soothing, nebulous waters.

Now, if you’ll — *yawn* — excuse me, I have to take a nap. All this sitting with my laptop by the fire has exhausted me.

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A Gaming Education: Mirror’s Edge

I work in a bar. The first thing you learn working in a bar — even before you figure out how to do the Guinness — is that everyone has an opinion. The second thing you learn is that they’re usually wrong.

We’re a confused people. Builders think they’d be better equipped to deal with delicate diplomatic matters and tangled budgetary concerns than political leaders. Unemployed alcoholics seethe with fury at MP expense scandals, while simultaneously blowing the last of their job seeker’s allowance on yet another pint of John Smith’s. Pituitary meat-heads shout that Britain is broken and life here is now worse than in a third world country, unaware that being charged three pounds for a beer is not the same thing as having your face hacked apart with a machete.

Perhaps most dishearteningly of all, if you ask the average FPS-loving, corpse-humping, leet-speaking video gamer what he thought of Mirror’s Edge, he will tell you it was a Bad Game.

Don’t trust Johnny-Gamer-on-the-Street. He’s a moron.

Mirror’s Edge is a patchy game — flawed and imperfect, like any new IP finding its feet — but it is far from bad. Frequently enjoyable, often exhilarating and once or twice breathtaking, it sure beats the usual trudge into jock-shooter territory that constitutes the average first-person title.

And no nodding along with those who tell you it has a Bad Story, either. It may not be skillfully told, or easy to follow, but I find its central theme — that a society too obsessed with order and control will choke the lifeblood from itself — a compelling one. The stark, clinical dystopia that Mirror’s Edge presents is reminiscent of a lightweight Brave New World, and a nice change from the post-apocalyptic fare common to every other game since the dawn of time.

My only serious concern with the story, in fact, is the lack of character — a failing I would blame for the game leaving so many players cold. The city is bland for a reason — the sharp, colourless right-angles of its architecture providing a foreboding contrast to the lines of excitement you’re asked to cut through it. But the people who inhabit this city shouldn’t be so dull. For the narrative to work, Faith and her fellow runners need to embody the beating, subversive element of chaos that gives life its spontaneity. Instead they come across as the most boring anarchists you’ll ever meet.

Compare the approach of Mirror’s Edge to that of Portal. Both twists on the first-person game, both concerning the value of the individual trapped by a controlling higher power. Yet where Portal contains flashes of humour and a surprising emotional resonance as cracks begin to show in GLaDOS‘s regime, Mirror’s Edge remains staid and detached throughout.

There’s the whole repetition thing, as well. The early promise of wide-open environments to bound across — lost in the flow like a free-running Tony Hawk — is quickly downgraded to tightly focused physical puzzles with little variance. As interludes, the better pieces would have been a good change of pace, but making up the meat of the game they leave the experience feeling frustratingly reigned-in.

Yet Mirror’s Edge isn’t a Bad Game. The moments when it clicks are something else. Racing down a corridor, sound of gunfire behind — to the left — shit, guards — to the right — smash through a door, dazzle of sunlight and empty rooftop — wall-run over the gap, vault the pipe, up, up — guards still behind — duck, jump, roll — a ledge, sacking waaay below, get some momentum, and — a leap of Faith …

The rush is intense, the vicarious thrill exactly what games are about.

And failing that you have the time trials — abstract obstacle courses providing a pursuit for the perfect racing line as rewarding as any driving game you’ll play.

So ignore the man in the pub. Beneath the impersonal exterior of Mirror’s Edge lies a virtual city of chaste beauty; behind its restrictive pathways lies the potential for frantic chases up there with the best the medium has to offer. Mirror’s Edge sells for less than a fiver nowadays. You owe it to yourself to give it a whirl.

As for me, I’m off to figure out how to pour that Guinness …

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Emptiness in The Graveyard, and an Encounter with Yugen in Liberty City

I’m playing The Graveyard, and I have nothing to say about it. Thing is, I suspect that’s the point.

A short game from Belgian developer Tale of Tales, The Graveyard places you in the comfortable, slip-on shoes of a frail, elderly lady walking through a graveyard. You hobble past gravestones, sit down at a bench — a strange song plays — then you hobble back to the exit and the game is over.

There’s almost no content to it — nothing to collect, no one to talk to — and this is precisely why I like it. It provides the player with something we are terribly afraid of in our culture, something that petrifies us so much we can’t even admit it exists. It provides us with emptiness.

The Graveyard doesn’t aim to fill up the empty space in our brains, but rather draw attention to it. It has the guts not only to admit that the vast majority of our world is nothingness — but also to let a little of it in. What Tale of Tales are asking of us, essentially, is that we enjoy the silence.

What content the game does possess is tailored expertly to this. Birds sing, leaves fall from trees; the sound of distant traffic drifts in from somewhere far away. The experience is melancholic, yet peaceful, like hiking alone through a landscape of freshly fallen snow.

The eponymous graveyard is a tiny environment hanging in the void. It is rich and vibrant, yet this only makes us more aware of the emptiness all around. Those ambient noises — especially the muffled sirens and car horns — point to so much more outside our direct perception than we can ever experience. And who is the old woman we control? What of her past? And how about that song? We can guess, but we’ll never know.

This says so much to me of life. We’re trapped in these tiny bubbles of existence, the high walls of our minds surrounded on all sides by pure space, and however far our spaceships fly, whatever quantum laws our Large Hadron Colliders imply, there is always more out there in the universe than we can perceive.

The Graveyard provides us with a means of seeing this, and accepting it.

Playing it, I found an odd thing. I found my head starting to clear. It wasn’t so much that I was sensing the emptiness around me — rather I was the emptiness. My thoughts were coming and going on their own — frothing up then melting away again — and slowly the oceans of my mind began to fall calm.

There was nothing mystical or arcane about it, merely an experience of being right here, right now. It was very ordinary.

Video games are a better medium for engendering these kinds of experiences than we give them credit for. Many is the time I have stood gazing out over the seas of Wind Waker, or roamed the lonely cliffs of Shadows of the Colossus, playing not with any external goal in mind, but simply to be there.

There is a concept in Japanese aesthetics, and an idea central to much Eastern thinking, called yugen. We have no word for it in the West. It refers to that feeling of deep, profound happenings that can never quite be expressed. Alan Watts, counter-culture philosopher and interpreter of Eastern religion, called yugen “the sudden perception of something mysterious and strange, hinting at an unknown never to be discovered.”

This is what video games sometimes give me. The feeling of yugen hovers in the background of many games — filling me with the desire to explore those green hills behind Super Mario World’s flat levels, say — but it usually only breaks through fully when the mechanics of narrative and threat have been removed. My mind can’t empty in Another World — despite the barren, evocative landscapes — because it is so focused on avoiding death and finding a way home. It is when the designers take a step back from filling our time with obstacles and rewards, and allow us just to experience the realms they have created, that the subtler emotions like yugen are given room to manifest.

I am not implying that all games should be as devoid of content as The Graveyard, of course — just that it would be nice to see more designers utilising similar techniques to add flavour and nuance to their work.

Bizarrely enough, I think Rockstar are close to exemplary in this regard. Red Dead Redemption‘s finest moments benefitted hugely from the sense of solitary wandering that often evokes yugen. But it was Red Dead’s father-game, the triple-quadruple-mega-platinum smash hit Grand Theft Auto IV, that provided me with my most moving gaming experience of recent times.

I’m home from work, dead-eyed and zonked out. Fifty-hour weeks as a bar supervisor are taking their toll. I just get up, work, go home and pass out, then do it all again six hours later. No way to live.

So I’m home and I don’t have the energy to play anything. But I need to wind down before sleep, so I boot up GTA IV and drive aimlessly around Liberty City’s streets. Just powersliding through corners, letting the sights flow past my eyes as the day’s events tumble from my brain.

I’m not paying attention to where I’m going — just going, for the hell of it — but suddenly the car skids to a halt, and I realise that it’s me who’s stopped it. Something has caught my attention.

There’s a ramp set back from the road, a walkway leading I-know-not-where, and something about it is calling to me. I feel a prickle down my spine.

I get out of the car, the volume of the radio dropping to a tinny buzz through the open window — a wonderful detail — and head off to explore. The ramp leads me onto the platform of one of the elevated train stations. It is late, and the light is failing.

A blanket of sadness falls over me. People sit at benches, waiting. Discarded leaflets flutter past on the breeze. Little flames of luminescence spark on in the rooms of apartment buildings in the distance, and the sun goes down.

I get lonely. I can sense the frailty of all events, how the world is a dissolving of ephemera, each moment passing away as swiftly as it is witnessed.

A train is coming. I can hear it. The sound is so sad, like a forlorn cry cutting through the night air.

The train arrives. A man extricates himself from the bench he is sitting at and drifts into a carriage. Others remain. The train leaves, arcing away behind the tangle of dark buildings, over the horizon and out of sight.

I feel very involved in this world, very alive in it, in a way that hasn’t quite happened before. All these virtual people, living their virtual lives I know nothing about.

I get a sense of the enormity of existence, the muscular, writhing mass of it — and though there is a sadness at its passing there is beauty, too. For that which ends is that which is precious.

I stay for a long time, watching until the sun comes up. Out beyond the train tracks, beyond the crumbling apartments and cheap food stores and winding highways, there is more happening than I will ever know.

“Tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara”

This dewdrop world –
It may be a dewdrop,
And yet — and yet –

(Haiku by Zen poet Issa)

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Sonic the Hedgehog 4: An Almost Review

Downloadable titles are the McDonald’s of the gaming world. Your virtual self is strolling past the PlayStation Network Store, feeling that base sense of loneliness and hunger that passes as the Human Condition, when up pops a cheerful neon sign promising light and colour and fulfillment. A few clicks and the tastiest of treats can be yours, something warm and inviting that will surely assuage the ache in the bottomless chasm that is otherwise known as your heart.

Such is my reasoning when buying Sonic the Hedgehog 4.

It’s one of those cold, sombre nights. Sepia streets awash with casualties of the nine-to-five grind. I’m in my flat, alone, watching out of the window as work victims struggle home to tend to their wounds. Bleak figures hunched over, as if weathering a storm.

I’ve been smoking too much again. Coming down hard, now, wrestling this notion that the whole universe is one enormous failed experiment. Wipe it all away and start afresh.

There is coffee, yes, and Brian Eno’s An Ending (Ascent), but everything feels so pointless, so confused, so utterly and irrevocably–

–Which is when I find Sonic 4. Or perhaps Sonic 4 finds me. Brightness, music, action! £9.99 doesn’t seem a bad price for a foray into childhood memories. Green Hill Zones and spin charges and that blue ocean in the background. I can play it right now. This is exactly what I need.

I click. I buy. I play.

Then I remember: I’ve got beef with Sega.

Sonic … I don’t know. Sonic always felt like a phony to me. Too self-consciously cool, like a committee had sat down in Sega’s boardroom and one executive had gone: “Kids love sneakers and spikey hair and the colour blue — what can we do with this?” Mario was — and let’s be honest here — a bit of a blobby buffoon, but crucially he was our blobby buffoon. Sonic felt calculated. He always put me in mind of the phrase “target demographic”. He tried too hard.

As for Sonic 4, it does what all franchises do when they’ve lost their way: it goes back to basics. Out with this glitzy “three-dee” gimmickry that’s gripped the industry of late, and back to the side-scrolling platforming we remember so fondly.

People have been saying this is a game made pretending the last fifteen years never happened, but that isn’t true. That kind of game would be a continuation of the 2D template, an evolution, a growth. Sonic 4 is a retreat.

“Remember when we were great?” Sonic Team are asking. “Buy this and remember when we were great!”

Sonic 4 is competent but never sublime. It does a decent enough job mimicking past successes, but that’s all. It is an emulation of a tested formula, losing somewhat in the translation. The visuals are clean and cheerful, yet conservative, unadventurous. The music is inane. New mechanics — new to Sonic, ancient to the industry — such as torches in dark areas and, you’d scarcely believe, frickin’ minecart rides!, are basic and occasionally poorly implemented. The levels themselves are an homage to — or maybe pastiche of — those from the original Mega Drive title, offering nostalgia aplenty but little in the way of imagination.

Painfully, as well, it breaks one of the golden tenets of game design, which is: never make the player’s failure feel the fault of the game. Too often difficulty spikes rear where you have no way of anticipating the obstacle, and can only learn by dying and taking note. Worse still, it sometimes isn’t clear what’s even required of you — were you right to leap from the rolling ball at that point, but misjudged the angle, or were you meant to stay on? One puzzle involving unlit torches and sliding barriers had me sobbing at the TV screen. But then I am rubbish at all games.

The obvious criticism, of course, is there is little point paying for this bite-size rerun when you could pick up a Virtual Console or other such edition of the original for much cheaper — or even download the ROM for free (World One-Two’s lawyers would like to point out downloading video game ROMs without prior ownership of the software is illegal and World One-Two would never condone such behaviour).

But perhaps this is unfair. Because, you see, there is a dark truth about Sonic — one few will admit. The truth is that Sonic — hushed voice — was never very good. Neither was the Mega Drive.

I feel justified saying this. I owned a Mega Drive for years. It was my first console. Among my friends it was the only console worth having. “Playing Sega” was shorthand for gaming, of any kind. And Sonic was king of it all.

We’d sit around in living rooms on summer’s days, passing controllers back and forth, bedazzled by the blue hedgehog’s speed and early-90s hipness. We were overcome with the thrill and glamour of it all.

… For fifteen minutes. Then we’d yank the cartridge out and play some Desert Strike. Then some Cool Spot, some Streets of Rage, a few matches of Mortal Kombat, a race or two on Road Rash. We devoured like locusts, constantly seeking the next high, moving from one fatty morsel to the next. Our appetites were insatiable. No game lasted long.

What the Mega Drive provided was junk-food gaming — alluring and flashy, but essentially empty. It was marketed as the darker, edgier cousin to the squeeky-clean Super Nintendo — but where a few years later the PlayStation would successfully synergise with a twenty-something pill and spliff and dance audience, Sega’s policy was too frequently shorthand for “games for ten-year-old boys who like guns.” This wasn’t maturity, but the polar opposite. The Mega Drive was for kids who masqueraded as adults because they’d seen Terminator II and knew how to swear.

My stack of twenty or so games sat next to the silent console and gathered dust. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the SNES kids were fastidiously working their way through the Vanilla Dome, or leading Link out into the Dark World, or perfecting strategies for Super Metroid. I had no idea what the PC kids were up to — save that it involved hooded robes and compass directions and strange-looking dice — but they seemed happy enough. I wasn’t happy. I was unfulfilled.

Which is what junk food does for you, in the end. It bypasses your logical, discerning capacities and preys on those subconscious desires we all possess. You never rationally decide to buy junk food like you would fruit or vegetables. It just happens. There’s a flash, you go light-headed — and next thing you know you’re walking away clutching your stomach, wondering where all your money went.

The Mega Drive, with its sexy mash-ups of bad action films, comics and hip hop videos, promised so much to the young male mind — and yet what few of us can admit is that — like all junk food — it was 90% packaging, 10% content.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is the same old Sonic. It kills twenty minutes here and there. It won’t make you feel any better about this misfire of a circle-jerk we call life though. It cost me £9.99. I could have bought Braid for less than that. And I’ve got a load of satsumas rotting in the bottom of my fridge. One day I’ll learn.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is a download-only platform game developed by Dimps and Sonic Team, available on PSN, XBox Live, iPhone and WiiWare. Six hundred billion people love Sonic and they’re all going to be mad about what I wrote here, but they’re wrong.

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