Sunday, January 31, 2010

Space Invaders: A Prelude

I took a stroll this evening. There was no motive behind it, or no destination to arrive at; I simply took a stroll on a nice, cool evening, walking wherever my eyes and feet led me. On my travels I saw people speaking on their mobile phones, reading the newspaper, chatting on the side of the road, having a quick smoke break, and eating their dinner. I heard conversations about a TV station, computer components and even the amount of hours leave from work someone had built up. I saw a poor guy get hit by a car, checked to see if he was okay and then watched in astonishment as he got back on his feet, opened the door of the offending vehicle and initiated a fight with its driver -- clearly, road rage can happen anywhere. I saw the police chase two suspects who were fleeing. I gave an unfortunate homeless man some money when he asked nicely for it. I grabbed a bite to eat at the local fast-food outlet. And then, on my way home, it started raining. I couldn't help but be amused as I watched everyone start fleeing for cover or reach for their umbrellas. Weather like this always seems to cause panic amongst the population. Finally getting back home, I turned on the TV and channel-surfed for a few hours. Realising there was nothing on, I decided to have an early night and turned in, curious to see what awaited me in the morning.

If there's one thing I find extremely fascinating about videogames, particularly recently, it's their use of spaces -- otherwise known as the areas, levels, arenas and locations players interact with -- to convey their experience. These are the places where we get to experiment, learn, discover and explore; the places that provide our thrills, excitement, emotion and atmosphere; and the places where game designer and game player combine to create an experience that is unique to them. The leisurely stroll I described above could be one I took in real life, but the amazing thing is that this stroll was taken in Grand Theft Auto IV, a game whose city is renowned for the atmosphere it creates and the excitement its thrills provide; and, of course, Liberty City is ripe for experimentation, exploration and discovery. It's such a technical achievement, filled with so much activity and content, that it's easy to stumble across something you've never seen before -- the above example of a homeless man asking for money is just one of the things I hadn't seen before -- the end result meaning there is always something new to see around the corner and always something else to add to the sense that, yes, Liberty City is a real place.

Grand Theft Auto isn't the only game, or indeed, series, that provides incredible spaces to interact with. Other open-world games such as Fallout 3 or Assassin's Creed are obvious examples of games that use their space to convey much more than a means for the player to interact with their mechanics. Less obvious are linear examples such as the Uncharted or Metroid series. Beyond that, what about how racing games use their spaces? What about Burnout's playground that mixes sheer speed with destruction? What about the undulating roller-coasters that make up the tracks in Wipeout or F-Zero? How about the placement of pegs that make up each level in Peggle? Or maybe the spherical planets that make up each level in Super Stardust HD?

As you can see above, videogame spaces are much more than the thematic, atmospheric examples that open-world videogames usually strive to provide, and in this Space Invaders series I plan on exploring the spaces of any videogame that I feel warrants analysis and consideration. It will be an on-going series, covering the obvious games and the not-so-obvious, and due to my intrigue and amazement with how spaces can be used to provide a game's overall experience, I'm really looking forward to writing this series. I can only hope you enjoy reading it as much as I will enjoy talking about it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Living By The Creed #3: A Discourse On Assassin's Creed II

And so we come to part three of our discussion of the Assassin's Creed series. Once again my partner in crime is Joseph Rositano from Australian videogame website PALGN, and in this particular exchange we discuss mostly mechanical inclusions: the collectibles, weapon and enemy variety and the videos of the intriguing Subject 16 character. Before we get to that I'd like to quickly apologise for the delay with this post. Life commitments on both sides meant we had to hold off for a while but the good news is everything is back on track and our discussion about Assassin's Creed II can continue. Away we go.

Need a refresher?
Living By The Creed #1
Living By The Creed #2


Joseph: Hi Steven. Well, I have decided to take a break from the main story (though I believe I’m not too far off from completing it) and have started hunting down the various collectibles in ACII.

I hadn’t actually realised this until now but the paintings you purchase from art merchants are automatically hung in Uncle Mario’s villa. I never even noticed those blank frames in the building. It was by chance that I bought a random painting and walked past it in the foyer when I was visiting the place. I think it’s actually a pretty neat, though somewhat limited, idea. It reminds me of Luigi’s Mansion for the GameCube, how you’d turn ghosts into portraits and then be able to view them in the Gallery. I actually did a Year 12 Case Study on Roman art, so it has been interesting to see how many of the pieces reflect on mythological, historical and legendary figures – Ubisoft certainly did their research!

Another collectible I found interesting were the eagle feathers. Obviously these replace the flags from the original Assassin’s Creed, but are a little more meaningful due to the way the story is integrated. I won’t say too much as we’re planning on doing an in-depth post relating to the plot, but I actually want to collect all of them just for Ezio’s mother. I got about half of them and was even rewarded with a new weapon, which is certainly more appealing than a couple of achievement points. Also, is it just me or are the feathers easier to find than the flags were? It might be because most of them hang on ledges and are out in the open, or it could be because they’re a blinding-white colour. Either way, I think Ubisoft has balanced it out more.

The new weapon and enemy varieties have also taken my interest. While I still prefer using the tired and proved sword, I like how the hammer, axe and spear feel different and add some strategic elements to the gameplay. For example, using a sword against Brutes is next to useless. Being bigger and well-armed, Brutes are able to easily defend and knock you back. After a few encounters however, I discovered they weren’t so good at dealing with the hidden blade, so now whenever I see them I automatically switch to that weapon. It makes fights in later scenarios a little more interesting actually, particularly when you have to combat different enemy variants at the same time. Aside from the Brutes there are regular guards and enemies which are a little more agile than most; in other words if you run away they can chase you and land a blow or two. One thing I didn’t like however is how you have to go to the villa every time you want to change weapons, surely a simple visit to the nearest blacksmith would have sufficed?

Another captivating feature is the Subject 16 videos. What I like mostly is how you can be walking past a seemingly innocent building and then an info screen pops up saying one of Subject 16’s videos are there. I tend to completely drop what I’m doing and investigate it. Normally within a few minutes I can find the puzzle that unlocks the video, though there have been a few that I couldn’t locate immediately. Out of interest, what is your take on the puzzles? There’s a Da Vinci-like vibe coming from them, and they certainly have varying difficulty levels. Some puzzles, for instance, just have you highlighting where a Piece of Eden is in a photo, while others have you breaking codes and spinning circles around to complete a full painting. It almost feels completely disconnected from the main game itself, yet at the same time has that Assassin’s Creed feel to it. Of course, it does help the puzzles make revelations on how the Pieces of Eden have been passed down through various dictators and world leaders throughout history. It’s certainly a nice little side-story and makes the Pieces of Eden a little more impacting than they were in the first game.

Well, I think that will do for now. Time to go back to assassinating corrupt Italians while I let you take the floor…


Steven: I think that, like everything else, the collectibles in Assassin's Creed II are well considered and implemented in a way that makes sense within the boundaries of the narrative, unlike the flags of Assassin's Creed, but it's also too easy to look past the simple explanations Ubisoft provided and see them exactly as they are: mechanics that mostly mean nothing to the overall experience and are provided to extend a player's time, potentially, in the game. That said, I'm a completionist so I actively seek these things out by default and, unlike other like-minded gamers, I actually enjoy chasing after hidden collectibles as I use it as an excuse to spend time in a game's world and take it all in. Assassin's Creed as a series in particular provides awesome, awe-inspiring locations that are very enjoyable to just spend time in, so the flags, feathers, treasure chests and whatever else Ubisoft decide to throw our way are definitely objects that I will pursue throughout the course of the game. While I do see these collectibles as the distractions they are, I still appreciate that the developers took the time to associate them with the characters we meet throughout our travels and the elements of play we interact with -- it just makes it more cohesive, something I've come to really admire most in the games that I play. I'm quite surprised actually that people aren't complaining about the treasure chests. To me, it feels like there are too many and as we all know a lot of people complained about the amount of flags there were to find. I suppose these treasure chests are located in easier to reach areas and are more obvious to spot than the flags, but out of the chests and the feathers it is the latter that I prefer to try and find. Lastly, I am pleased that Ubisoft tracked these collectibles via maps or information in the pause menu. It meant I was able to head to the cities in the game where I was still missing a few instead of wasting time searching an area where I had already acquired the hidden collectibles.

Being a sequel, it makes sense that Ubisoft wanted to include more weapons this time around. I remarked in our discussion of the original game that a lot of people found Assassin's Creed's combat to be too easy due to the use of the X button (360 controller) for attacking and defending. Despite this being largely true, the issue didn't bother me as I enjoyed mixing my combat up and trying to choreograph my own epic fights, making the combat more enjoyable for me personally. Assassin's Creed II's combat is undoubtedly improved but it is still too easy to rely on that X button, the enemies you face and the weapons you use varying the dynamics of combat rather than player input. While I understand that this occurs in order to benefit accessibility, I still find it an issue when it's up to the player's initiative to make combat varied and unpredictable as opposed to the game's dynamics. As you say, there are different kinds of enemies in ACII that do change things up, but I just feel the changes aren't enough. There's the sword for normal enemies, the more agile ones and even the archers on the rooftops, whilst the hidden blade is effective against the spear-wielding Brutes. It's just too easy in my view to fall into a routine that dispatches foes quickly and allows you to escape or continue pursuing your objective. But, I want to be clear here and say that I absolutely love the combat system -- the way it feels, the different ways foes can be dispatched, the animations as Ezio counters and conquers and, of course, the way it all sounds -- and I believe that it suits the needs of the game and accommodates a player's desire for the most part, it's just the ease for repetition through routine that is my sticking point as opposed to the actual act of fighting. I don't know, I guess you could say that I feel as if sometimes the combat feels artificial as a result of its accessibility, which is disappointing given how visceral and satisfying it can also be. Experimenting with the weapons, or even techniques (such as throwing dust into enemy eyes) was good fun though and I'm definitely glad some more variety was included.

Subject 16's videos were certainly interesting but they felt too abrupt and broke the flow of immersion for me a little. It's explained through the narrative well enough -- Subject 16 being the Abstergo Animus experiment before Desmond, who left messages inside the Animus' code before his untimely demise -- but it was still jarring as far as I'm concerned. Reminding you that you're in the Animus reliving an ancestor's memory isn't the problem, nor is the implication of a nearby glyph and the discovery of it, but rather the actual puzzles you work with. They're static for a start, meaning you're staring at what is mostly a blank screen so the focus can be on what you're supposed to do -- find the hidden Piece of Eden in a picture; arrange layers of a wheel to form a picture -- and once you've started one, you can't stop and save it for another time. You must complete it to continue on, which is fine when they're easy and pose a quick distraction but is frustrating when you are struggling to solve it and would like to continue playing. It's a trivial thing, to be sure, but I feel as if they detract too much from the overall experience to justify their inclusion. Like the additional weapons and enemies above, I admire the inclusion but don't find the execution to be as fleshed out as it could have been.

At the very least, the Subject 16 videos do flesh out the narrative somewhat so in a very convenient segue-way, what are your thoughts about the plot, characters and events of the game now that you've finished it?


As implied above, our next exchange surrounds the narrative of the game and what we thought of it. Depending on the flow of conversation, we'll either wrap the series up there or have a shorter conclusion afterwards to summarise our overall thoughts about Assassin's Creed II. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts regarding what was discussed above or indeed in the series so far, feel free to jump in and have your say in the comments.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Learning Through Interaction, Part One: Mechanics

Watching parts of the Australian Open tennis tournament that's being held right now has been quite interesting. Not only have some awesome matches been played already, I actually understand what's going on during them. In previous years I've only had a passing interest in the sport, mostly because I had no idea what was happening but this year is different; this year I'm finding myself getting right into it, my new-found interest in the sport incredibly compelling. Who or what do I owe for this change of heart? Yep, videogames.

You see, lately I've been thinking about how games teach us to play: to understand and then use their mechanics to our benefit; to learn and then accept the rules that govern the systems we interact with and the information they demonstrate -- visually, aurally, physically (controls) and mentally (plot, characters) -- in order to immerse us into their worlds and compel us to continue playing. The more I've thought about it, the more fascinated I've become, reflecting on my own experiences as well as seeking out those of others. It's incredible, really, to observe which techniques developers use to communicate their games with us and then realise the potential impact that each design decision has had on a game's overall experience.

Even more incredible, I believe, is the pedagogical potential games have when it comes to learning stuff in the real world.

My tennis example above has been enlightening, thanks, in part, to the rules that form the sport's foundations and govern its play. These same rules can be taken from the sport in real life and be replicated in the virtual world, in videogames. The reason I now have an idea of what's going on in the Australian Open is because of my experience with playing Wii Sports on the Wii. While the aesthetics of the game and dynamics of each sport are distilled to the most basic form -- and, of course, the entire product was created as a tech demo for the Wii Remote -- Wii Sports still contains sports that exist in real life and therefore the rules that each sport is based on. By simply playing Wii Sports and enjoying the simplistic fun the game provides, I have indirectly learned, without realising it, how to play the sports in real life. Sure, I might not know every intricate rule or detail, but it's a start. By teaching me how to play and showing me the fun each sport can provide, my interest is piqued just enough that I may be compelled to investigate further, to research a particular sport and decide whether or not it is something I will enjoy in the future. It is here where sporting sims -- think FIFA or Madden -- come into the equation.

At the complete opposite of the spectrum when compared to Wii Sports, sport sims allow people fully invested in a particular sport the opportunity to play and enjoy it in the comfort of their own home. This allows them to experiment with the possibilities the rules of the sport and game(s) provides, live out fantasies they may have formed out of their passion for the sport or, in the case of physically disabled or severely ill people, enjoy something they love that they unfortunately cannot do in their real lives. But those are the obvious attributes of sport sims; a less obvious aspect of the genre is the fact that they can be the next step for someone whose interest in a sport is slowly developing and whom may want to pursue it further. Sport sims can allow people and players who know the basics of a sport to not only hone their skills, but learn about the more intricate and advanced details that can be found within, furthering their interest and enjoyment of the sport.

It's not just sport games, however, which can use their mechanics productively to teach about something in the real world. There are many games and many genres which can help ease a player into something they may enjoy in the future, to let them test the waters, so to speak and experiment with something they're unfamiliar with. Off the top of my head, I think about Cooking Mama and the various other cooking games out there which can, potentially, help people to develop a passion for cooking or show them how to cook meals they mightn't have been aware of previously. The Professor Layton series is another example that comes to mind, its shameless appreciation of puzzles and brainteasers wrapped in a neat art style and mysterious narrative that is at once accessible and incredibly compelling. Before playing Professor Layton And The Curious Village, I was always intrigued by puzzles and brainteasers, similar to those found in-game, but never did I actively attempt to pursue or solve them. What the game allowed me to do was engage with puzzles in a relaxed, no pressure environment, meaning I could approach them when and how I wanted to. It was this relaxed "at my own pace" feeling that made trying and eventually solving these puzzles enjoyable for me, the charming wit of Layton and his cohorts and the discovery of key plot points just the icing on the already wonderful cake.

The sports videogame genre might not receive the critical analysis and discussion it deserves, nor might it interest "hardcore" gamers when they've got so many first-person shooters to play, but it's certainly incredibly popular, proving to me that the genre has its place in this industry and is therefore worth thinking about. The notion that videogames -- basic or advanced -- can help players experiment, learn and enjoy a sport or particular culture is something I find fascinating, and I look forward to checking out more games in the future that can help me learn about something I previously knew nothing about. In the meantime, I'd like to take this discussion of teaching power in videogames in another direction so keep an eye out for part two in this short series soon.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Creativity Vs Profits: What's More Important?

In a recent post, gaming news blog Kotaku posted an interesting hypothetical article regarding Gran Turismo developers Polyphony Digital. In short, the article was asking readers to imagine, for a moment, that they were Kaz Hirai -- head of Sony Computer Entertainment -- and what they (he) should do with Polyphony: look at their previous success and continue to allocate the time they need for their upcoming game, or, approach the game's status from a business point of view and realise that the often delayed (as recently as last week) game is taking too much money and resources, a lot of which could be put to better use elsewhere?

While the article was completely hypothetical, it got me thinking -- Should developers, based on their previous success or reputation, be given the money and time they need to ensure their product is as good as it can be, creatively and technically? Or should the business side of things and therefore profits come first, meaning faster development times and meeting deadlines at the possible expense of quality?

As a consumer and fan of the industry, and someone who is a keen observer of the medium's progress, my initial response to that is that developers should be given as much time as they need to ensure their game is as good as it can be. Regardless of whether it takes two years or five, if the end result is a quality product then in the meantime I can wait patiently for it. After all, it's not as if I (we) don't have anything else to play while we're waiting; backlogs are a common issue for regular gamers and this is only exacerbated each holiday season as everyone tries to release their games before Christmas.

But that wasn't the point of the article, the point was to answer the questions from a hypothetical viewpoint and it's here where things get complicated. On a pure profit level, the sooner a game can be released to the public the better. While a relatively decent game needs to be ensured for success, hitting deadlines and getting it out on time is also crucial. Suffer from delays and it is quite possible that consumers will lose interest, or the hype train will lose momentum due to a longer journey; competition could close in or even surpass the game in production, making commercial success even more challenging; and a once strong reputation could be ruined, all because the development time took too long and the game didn't deliver on its promises throughout. As far as the Gran Turismo series is concerned, Sony's PlayStation consoles wouldn't be anywhere without the franchise: the original game is the PS1's biggest selling game, and Gran Turismo 3 and Gran Turismo 4 are the second and third biggest selling games respectively for the PlayStation 2. Based on history, it's easy to assume that when it does finally come out, Gran Turismo 5 will also see success -- the brand name alone will no doubt sell PS3 units for Sony -- but we're in a different time period now, one where Sony's consoles aren't the clear leaders of the industry anymore and one where Gran Turismo's closest rival, Microsoft's Forza Motorsport franchise, has not only closed the gap but caused hesitation towards Sony's flagship racing franchise. Within the time frame it has taken Polyphony Digital to make Gran Turismo 5, Forza developers Turn 10 have released three installments of their game, and the resulting factor from that is not just a successful franchise for Microsoft's consoles; perception amongst gamers has changed, and is continuing to change. Avid Gran Turismo and Sony supporters can't deny that the Forza series of games are decent, quality products, and some of these supporters are even playing the competition whilst they wait for Polyphony to develop their game. This competition and perception didn't exist when the original Gran Turismo was released, nor around the time of Gran Turismo 3's release. Sony may discard this as irrelevant due to their previous successes with the franchise, but when you consider the changes and how it may impact upon their profits, the question has got to be asked: When does the freedom to polish and perfect Gran Turismo 5 cease so that the game can be finally released and Sony can start making a return on their huge investment?

What about another development house within Sony's stable who have also been developing their next game for multiple years? Team ICO have a remarkably strong reputation within this industry for creating videogame experiences that have been unlike anything else out there, and, clearly, this reputation is enough for Sony to trust Team ICO to take their time with their latest project The Last Guardian. But unlike the Gran Turismo series, Team ICO's games have never seen the commercial success that both Sony or Team ICO would have liked, so where is the line drawn for them? When does the development time stop being about fulfilling the creativity Team ICO clearly want to achieve with The Last Guardian, and instead becomes about getting the game out to market? Due to the more quiet retail success (or not) of Team ICO's games, it's easy to assume that out of the two development teams, it's Fumito Ueda's team who would see upper management's call first, potentially leading to a lesser product. With the reputation that particular team holds in this industry, is that something we really want to see happen?

There are countless other games out there (Alan Wake is just one other example) that these questions and issues could concern, and whilst each game and development team would have their own individual reasons for the long production time or constant delays, when considered as a whole there's definitely a trend out there that is worth pondering and analysing. As consumers it's easy to side with the development teams and suggest that they receive the time they deserve to create a decent product, but without managing the needs of the publishers and the business side, our industry wouldn't be anywhere near as huge as it is now. As a multi-billion dollar industry, it's a conundrum I certainly wouldn't ever want to be in charge of solving, but it's also one I will be keeping my eye on. I just hope that whatever decisions are made, they are the right ones for all involved.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Images And Words

[This post was due to be published on the 9th, the two-year anniversary, but unfortunately some computer problems meant that it had to be delayed. On an aside, if you have commented on my posts recently and I haven't responded yet, you now know why -- regardless, I apologise for the delay on both accounts.]

For two years now I have been writing about games here at Raptured Reality, an achievement I'm proud of when you consider how many blogs out there disappear within months of their inception. Sure, the posts over this time-frame have been inconsistent, and yes, it took me a while to find my voice and post anything decent, but even so I'm glad I took the plunge and created my own blog, a place to air my thoughts and voice my opinion on a medium I care deeply and passionately about. It has been an enjoyable journey and I've learned a lot over the two short years, and I look forward to continuing that throughout 2010 and beyond. Of course, I wouldn't be where I am today if certain people didn't help, inspire or engage my thoughts along the way, so I want to take some time to mention them and express my gratitude.

First of all, this blog wouldn't exist without inspiration from other game bloggers and writers who continually write thought-provoking and informative posts and articles. I've always enjoyed conversation about video games -- eight years of forums will attest to that -- but it was these people and their exceptional work who made me realise I wanted more: more analysis, more depth and more consideration about the industry, past, present and future. Their commentary about games gave me insight into a way of thinking, a perspective on games that I just knew I had to be a part of, and for that alone they have my sincere thanks. So thanks go out to;
And all the other well-known names of the blogging community, as well as the writers behind the Hyper and Edge magazines, for showing me the enjoyment I can have talking about and, more importantly, thinking about games. It's appreciated!

I'd also like to thank my good friends Chris Blake, Joseph Rositano and Michelle Baldwin for their help along the way. Long-term readers may recall that Chris was my blogging partner for a while there, offering his own thoughts and opinions on the industry. While circumstances meant that he had to unfortunately stop writing, I thank him for his contributions and for helping me become a better writer. As for Joseph, his help behind the scenes has been incredible and I cannot thank him enough for the support he has shown both me and Raptured Reality over the two years. Lastly, Michelle has always been there to encourage me when I've been lacking confidence and continually shows her support for me and my work. To the three of you, thanks heaps, it's appreciated immensely.

Last but not least, and as cliche as it might sound, I want to thank each and every one of you who has taken the time to read, comment on and engage with the conversation here on the blog, as well as the friends I've formed through discussion on Twitter. While I suspect I'd write anyway without an audience, the fact I have got one means a lot to me and I cannot emphasise enough how much I appreciate it, so thanks guys and girls, for making writing about games worthwhile and for taking the discourse that surrounds them beyond mere opinion and argument. I can only hope you will continue to visit the blog in the future. Bring on 2010 and beyond!

If you have any thoughts or opinions about the blog, or anything you'd like to see, now is the time to mention it, but bear in mind that only constructive feedback will be considered. Thank you.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Games Of The Year 2009: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Not too long into the first act of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Nathan and Chloe bump into a familiar face in the form of Elena Fisher from the first game. In the introductory moments between Chloe and Elena, Elena makes the remark that she is "last year's model" -- while intended to be humourous, the remark sums up precisely how Elena feels about seeing a new woman alongside Nathan Drake, as well as her thoughts on the abnormal situation they all find themselves in. Furthermore, it also sums up the entire game by demonstrating the subtle nuances that make up the game's brilliantly written dialogue, and the characterisation that occurs for each of the characters in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

Put simply, the characters matter in this game. Despite the sometimes insane situations they find themselves in, each event, moment and conversation these characters have contributes to the overall experience. You're not just here to observe their story and be an audience to it, you're here to join them as the insane situations are dealt with on the fly, improvisations are made and unbelievable outcomes occur. They aren't your typical videogame characters, they are your friends. The end result is an adventure you care about, and a gaming experience that you do not want to end and certainly will not forget. Add on top of that the iterative and remarkable improvements upon an already strong introduction to the series, and you have a game that is truly one of the best of 2009, if not the decade or all time. Last year's model indeed.

That wraps up my little Games Of The Year series. In hindsight, I didn't play enough of the year's games to gain a proper idea of the year's best, but even so, by doing this series I was able to think about the games that impacted upon me the most, as well as show you which games I'd like developers to aspire to in the future. There were of course some other games I enjoyed in 2009, such as Race Pro and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, but mostly the year was about playing the onslaught of titles I purchased in 2008, and catching up with other games I may have missed. With games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Dragon Age: Origins, inFamous and Demon's Souls out there, it looks like this year will be similar. Considering the incredible amount of potentially awesome games coming this year, I'm actually content with the idea of looking backwards instead of forwards. It might prevent me from participating in the conversations these games will no doubt inspire, but I'll certainly appreciate not being so overwhelmed by it all as well. Onwards and upwards.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Games Of The Year 2009: Flower

Communication is an interesting component of the human condition. Not only does it allow us to converse in our day-to-day environment, it also defines our interactions and our understanding of them.

Flower communicated with me. It spoke with me on a level that I'm unlikely ever going to be able to articulate, but what I do know is that it goes beyond the mere mechanics that make up the game; beyond the intentionally evocative experience it provides; and beyond the sheer joy and awe as I experiment, explore and discover within its suitably small yet entirely effective spaces.

It was a game unlike anything else I have played before and one I suspect I won't see replicated in the future. It was truly unique, and while some were skeptical about the developers' intentions -- thatgamecompany constantly discussed pre and post-release about how they were trying to instill emotions in the players that they were unlikely to find in other games -- the end result, for me, was a game that demonstrated crystal clear just why I play videogames, why I will continue to play them, and why I am blessed to be able to see the medium meet its potential as it continues to expand, evolve and establish itself alongside the other entertainment mediums we all know and love. The fact it achieved all that, and much much more, through simplicity and a theme that almost everyone would understand immediately, is just the icing on the already amazing cake. Pure, epic, natural, fun.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Games Of The Year 2009: Assassin's Creed II

Above: How not to play Catch-And-Kiss.

I almost didn't include Assassin's Creed II in my list this year by virtue of the fact that I have only just finished it and that I was still in the process of writing about it, but there's no denying that it doesn't deserve a nod.

Assassin's Creed II is a game rife with quality, with every aspect of it created with the overall experience in mind: The story of Ezio is fleshed out more cohesively than that of Altair's, making his desires for revenge more interesting and compelling; the fluidity of movement is more refined, allowing subtle yet effective maneuvers throughout the streets and rooftops that make up the game's cities; secondary quests and collectibles are tied into the main narrative, making them more fun to do or find, and less like a chore as a direct result of blatant attempts to extend gameplay; and the sense of place -- be it where you are within it, or the awe that stems from the beauty of the Italian Renaissance setting -- is a lot more fun to just be in, the discoveries leading to unexpected and fulfilling rewards.

To put it simply it's hard to fault, making it a remarkable improvement on the original, but the praise stops there because, while it's impressive, it's also exactly what the first game should have been. I liked the original Assassin's Creed, loved it even, but it did have its flaws. Assassin's Creed II fixes them, shows how enjoyable and fun the franchise can be, and not much more. As it stands, that's a good thing, but it's not the ideal thing. If it took Ubisoft two games to get their formula right, then let's hope it only takes one more to completely blow us away; to meet the incredible potential the franchise has; and to elevate the repution of the Assassin's Creed name to the level that the likes of Grand Theft Auto, World Of Warcraft, BioShock and Metal Gear Solid all share -- the absolute cream of the crop. That's what I would like to see. That is what I believe would be ideal.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Games Of The Year 2009: Trials HD

2009 was quite the year for games on downloadable services. Whether your platform of choice was the consoles or the PC, there were definitely some games worth playing, worth thinking about and worth discussing. As far as console titles are concerned, the two big ones were probably Shadow Complex and Flower -- both of which did some interesting things in the digital distribution space and gave way to some fascinating discussion -- but for my money there was another title that was as good, if not better, than those two.

Trials HD may have originated from the indie development scene on the PC, causing some people to scoff at the positive reception the Xbox Live Arcade release was receiving, but regardless of that there is no denying that the game was exactly the kind of thing digital distribution is perfect for, and I am definitely glad that I got the chance to play it. The best thing about Trials HD is definitely its accessibility: here is a game that is extremely easy because it uses just three buttons -- one for acceleration, braking and controlling the rider's balance -- allowing the physics to take care of the rest. Anyone can play this game and enjoy it instantly, its experience similar to dirt-biking or performing stunts on two wheels but distilled to its most basic level. The beauty lies in the progression of the game's levels: the initial levels being easy affairs that demonstrate precisely why the game is fun while the harder levels contain puzzles that are absolutely mind-boggling, making failure a common occurrence and ensuring that you will be retrying over and over again. Despite the repetition the game is never frustrating, the player usually at fault for any mistakes, making way for that elusive "just one more go" mentality that a lot of games strive for but unfortunately don't successfully manage. All in all, it is a game that joins the likes of Geometry Wars and Peggle as one that I play randomly but consistently, and besides, like it isn't cool being able to double-flip off a massive jump and crash into an explosive barrel.