Late Feb ’10: The PC Gaming Well’s Run Dry

Thanks largely to Bioshock 2 and Mass Effect 2, the beginning of the month was highly enjoyable.   Unfortunately, the tail end of the month as not fared as well.

If I owned a PS3, then there would be Heavy Rain.  No big loss: I’m not sure it does anything that Shenmue didn’t already do better (except graphics… and that’s hardly surprising considering Shenmue was originally developed for the Dreamcast).

The two big PC games to be excited about over the later half of the month were M.U.D. TV and Supreme Commander 2.  I’ve played the demos of both games, and I’m not impressed.

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“The Path” Travelled

As I approached the end of Fall 2009 semester, I was tasked to put together a 12 minute presentation (I opted to do a video) for my Art and Technology class.  It went poorly – I was lucky to escape from class with a grade of C on the basis of having done good work prior to my final. In retrospect, I think I may have sabotaged myself.

Nevermind my senioritus had pushed my procrastination into chronic levels, the problem in this case is that my chosen topic had a subconscious ulterior motive.  I thought I was trying to indicate that, within the purely digital realm of computer game creation, there was an unbridled basis for the imagination to create.   What I was actually subconsciously doing was telling Modern Art that, even if I understood well enough to write some good reflections on it, I disagreed with much of it, I thought many examples were being overly vague and pretentious, and was demonstrating that far superior work could be found even in popular video games.

Unless the class is being taught by Andy Rooney, you can expect that to go over very poorly in a Fine Arts class.

You might say that it’s not entirely fair, and it’s a matter of taste, and perhaps you’re right. But then, what if you’re not? To accept bad taste as a new taste would imply that there’s no such thing as good taste – something a modern artist is quick to deny, but can they prove it?

What I do know for certain is, as far as personal taste is concerned, I prefer a bit more reason to my rhymes. I prefer masterpieces, like an opera, not some stoned guy recording himself talk on camera. To be deliberately illogical and vague in order for people to make up their own interpretations and buy it strikes me as dishonest.

Much like my final presentation, when you never knew what you were attempting to communicate, you’re only mumbling, and have no right to earn acclaim for what people think they heard. Perhaps the dividing line is there, as how else can they rate your ability to present a message than to compare what was received with what you were trying to send?

Today, I discovered a game that blurred the lines even for someone who would so clearly (if callously) define them such as myself.   This is The Path, developed by Belgian Tale of Tales

It is generally served up as “a short horror game.”  Indeed, it is capable of generating some pretty nerve-wracking moments, as it does everything in its power to unchain the player’s’ imaginations before hinting them towards macabre thoughts.  However, it does not seek to simply frighten, it is really more along the lines of modern interactive fiction.

The Path spins the tale of Red Riding Hood from the perspective of six sisters, chosen to embark through the forest to their grandmother’s house one sister at a time.  To heed your instructions and follow that path directly to Grandma’s house produces a boring-but-safe-result, and is branded a failure.  For a Red to succeed in The Path, she must leave the path and find the Wolf.

As far as being a game is concerned, The Path would seem relatively weak. Though it is beautiful both in terms of environment and the interface and has dynamic music accompaniment, it seems boggled down with pacing issues and you can get stuck on invisible walls. Controls often feel sluggish and, given the surreal backdrop of the forest, it is sometimes difficult to see.

However, much of this is planned, because The Path deliberately confuses, obstructs, disorients, and mystifies. Though it may resemble an adventure game, items collected are never used, but rather shed light on each Red’s personality, which is both the backbone of the game and completely optional. Even the scoring screen generated at the end of each chapter is done tongue-in-cheek.

Like Modern Art, The Path defies interpretation. I would interpret the 6 Reds as being the past selves of the grandmother (who is apparently on her death bed) remembering her life, dreaming of one last adventure, while making peace with the past. Another person would interpret the 6 Reds as being real individuals with everything else being a metaphorical symbol of their coming of age and/or enduring personal tragedies. These are only two of many possible interpretations.

Would that I had only found The Path prior to giving my presentation!  Here is a game that bears much of the earmarks of Fine Art while simultaneously being so well done that I could not accuse it of being pretentious trash. I probably could have focused completely on it for my 12 minute presentation and have met the mutual satisfaction of myself and the Fine Arts class.   Oh well, that’s retrospect for you.

Merry Recession-mas!

Being a full-time college/university student for a little over 4 years now, I really learned to pinch my pennies. That shiny $60 game released today may well be worth $20 a few months from now if you’re willing to wait it out. Instant gratification is all well and good… but there’s something to be said for frugality.

My current favorite of the lot: Mechanarium.   Sure, completable in one evening, but a real feast for the senses and with puzzles that are just right in terms of difficulty.

Indeed, between Direct2Drive’s “21 days of Christmas” sale and Steam’s Holiday sale, it has been a very good month to be a frugal gamer.  I suspect I can blame the recession for a lot of this – with everyone’s wallets being a bit tighter, purveyors of fine digital entertainment have been forced to make compromises.  Some of the more interesting deals I picked up:

  • Genre-rocking immersive behemoth Grand Theft Auto IV for $7.50 (75% off).
  • Quality medieval games Drakensang and Mount and Blade for $5.00 apiece.  (Over 80% off,)
  • Excellent indy games Audiosurf and Braid for $5 each.  (75-80% off).
  • Innovative if forgettable genre breaker Mirror’s Edge for $5.00 (75% off).
  • Indy city builder/RPG hybrid Hinterland: Orc Lords $6.50 (75% off).
  • A city builder RTS with RPG undertones, Majesty 2: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim for $7.50. (75% off)
  • Turn-based strategy RPG hybrid King’s Bounty: Armored Princess for $9.99 (75% off).

In addition to the “wow” deals above, I also pulled some pretty decent 50% off deals such as:

  • Quite good indy-made Mechanarium and Torchlight for $10 apiece.
  • Behemoths of yesteryear, Prototype and Command And Conquer Red Alert 3 (including Uprising expansion) for $20 apiece.
  • Quality indy adventure games of Samorost 2 and a package of Zombie Cow adventure games (“Ben There, Dan That!” and “Time, Gentlemen, Please!”) for $2.50 apiece.

This is to say nothing for the gifts I received this year, including the complete Lucasarts adventure pack, Red Faction: Guerrilla, Borderlands Zombie Island DLC, and Left4Dead 2.

Overall, my gaming cup runneth over once again. Through, like many aspiring game designers, most of these games won’t get more than a few hours of play from me, it seems I’ve now a goodly amount of research materials.

Scribbling

I have formally welcomed myself to the bygone era of 4 weeks ago and picked up a copy of Scribblenauts for the Nintendo DS.

Despite Yahtzee panning the game, I actually ended up grabbing it on his inadvertent recommendation, because simply the concept of a game where you can summon tens of thousands of items out of thin air to solve simple (sometimes physics-based) puzzles is an incredible exercise for the imagination I couldn’t pass up.

The game is not without its flaws.  The physics are very simple and sometimes can be spoofed or messed up.  The movement method of the main character is flawed in that you trigger movement by touching your stylus against an unoccupied portion of the screen, and when you’re trying to manipulate something it’s easy to miss.  If what you tapped happens to be empty air over a lava pit, that’s generally a fatal mistake.

Also, the developers really weren’t doing us any favors to have the camera automatically re-center itself on the main character after a period of time because it could be that the player  is trying to do something, the camera moves, they tap their stylus where it didn’t belong, and now the avatar is hurtling at breakneck speed to a meeting with death.

I think the very achievement of the balance in the game is perhaps  a bit overly forgiving as well.  Earning currency in the game (“ollars”) is only useful for unlocking three things: the next set of levels, musical tracks, and avatars (which allow you to change your basic appearance to something other than a lad wearing a strange hat).

Outside of the advanced mode (which repeat the same stage 3 times but require different words), there’s no real restriction on summoning the same thing over and over again to solve your problems.  It might have been a bit more interesting if they had you instead spend your ollars on what you summon, with higher costs being assigned to more useful, obvious, powerful, or frequently summoned things.

Consequently, the main achievement mechanic in the game is not so much earning ollers as it is discovering combinations of words which produce more useful tools for you to use.  The use of the examine mode will uncover many such discoveries when completing the prefab stages.  If you type in “boulder” or “large boulder”, you’re probably not going to get what you want, but later on when you stumble across a “huge boulder” you’ll have gained something useful in discovering the term.

That said, Scribblenauts is nonetheless thoroughly entertaining, owing primarily to absolutely gut-busting amusement to be found from watching the products of your imagination ravage the stages.  I might need something burnt and end up putting a pyro in the same room with some napalm.  I might need something moved and end up utilizing the attraction of dingos to babies to accomplish this.  Even my failures are often a source of considerable schadenfreude (though it’s often a “you would have had to have been there” situation to appreciate the humor).

Given a self-imposed limit to try not to summon the same things too often, Scribblenauts can be quite a brain bender.  Whether or not you care for how challenging it is, it’s a perpetual delight to see that more often than not the developers did think to add whatever simple noun you are thinking of to the game, and often including some realistic, surprising, or amusing behavior.

There’s also level building functionality which can be shared over the DS’s wifi capabilities.  I could even run this game in a foreign language mode (Spanish, Portuguese, or French) and memorize quite a few nouns through practice.  Overall, I’m feeling I’ve made a good investment in entertainment buck.

Fallout Break: Star Command

By the end of the second day of Fallout 3, I was at level 18.  I had not been to The Pitt yet, and the main quest was just about to the one-quarter/one-third point of finding Dad.  I had been doing a lot of wandering, dusting off the old quests for advantages I wanted while taking in a bit of a sample of the new, and after a solid 13-hour binge yesterday, I had to face facts: I was burnt-out again.

I’m busy all day on Wednesday, so I’ll get back to justifying my $30 Fallout 3 expansion purchase on Thursday.  In the meanwhile, I needed something to do, and I decided that something to do would be research into better games of tomorrow by checking out some more games from an era where clones were not so dominant.

The game I ended up checking out was SSI’s Star Command (not to be confused with the 1996 game from GT Interactive).

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There’s A Zombie On My Lawn

Not too long ago, I was busy lambasting PopCap Games’ Peggle on the grounds that the skill component was too far removed – you could only reliably predict 2 or 3 bounces and after that it’s up to luck.

Thus, all the Peggle love out there was sort an indicator that the admirer was, deep down, not somebody who particularly cared about getting better at a game.  Who cares if they’re having fun, right?  But, in terms of judging Peggle as a game, a cap on how well the player can play it is a major disqualification of sorts.

But, despite the fact it was developed by the same company, I’ve been enjoying  Plants vs Zombies over the past couple days.  Of the mere $10 Steam was charging for it, I’d say the music video alone was worth $2.50.

The game has a lot in common with the song. It’s not perfect under great scrutiny, the casual friendliness of it may even insult your intelligence a bit, but the whole package nonetheless harnesses great fun.

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Bartle’s Feedback and Dead Space

An eventful weekend.  Not only did I get a little bit of one-to-one feedback from Richard Bartle, but I played through Dead Space.  Both events helped to rekindle an interest in gaming shaken by too much time at the drawing board last week.

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