Tag: Video Games

Get off the Hype Train

(knowing me I’ll immediately bail into the Hype Canoe or something)

I’m very excited for Bloodbowl II. Like, far too excited; more excited than a person should be, and more excited than I ever get. I’ve even pre-ordered the bloody game. Part of me is excited for the potential writing opportunities to arise from this game (hints at perpetually-delayed, still-unannounced project) but a lot of me just wants to play a game I’ve know about for a while, and haven’t had the opportunity yet to do so.

But I’m afraid of hyping the game up too much in my estimation, not just in case it turns out to be crap, but because of the cost of time and money (if it’s anything like the sports management-strategy game it looks like I’ll soon be waving goodbye to a good hundred hours or so) I don’t want to give up tangible things for something that’s not worth it. Yet I’m still getting excited, and feeling apprehensive at this excitement, with each passing day until it arrives in a week. And I don’t know what to do.

I guess I’ll translate Old English, play Mario Kart and add to my black t-shirt collection as normal, but now with slightly more fearful anticipation.

I’m Not Very Good At Games, And I Don’t Care

(this isn’t just the repeated deaths from Bloodborne talking)

I’m a big fan of games, both as an amusing way to pass one’s time and as a form of art to be appreciated and engaged with in an intelligent manner. But while I love them, and know a fair bit about them, I can’t run away from the fact that when it comes to most games, I’m simply not very good.

Platformers, for instance, are often the death of me, as my apparently godawful hand-eye coordination means I’m constantly plummeting into bottomless chasms like a one-man recreation of a hoard of lemmings diving over cliffs for no reason. I’m hopeless at first-person shooters because I dislike the narrow camera angle, which is why shooters designed in the third-person, like Mass Effect, are so much fun for me.

I’m too much of a perfectionist when I play racing games, often not being content with collecting second-place finishes to unlock a new car or area, instead pushing for first-place on every track which boils the game down to a precision driving sim, as opposed to a fun arcade game. I’m also too stupid for most puzzle or adventure games, relying on walkthroughs for even some of the more obvious puzzles in early Zelda games (OOT’s Water Temple allowing), and totally losing my shit when I come up against something like Myst, which is a mystery wrapped in an enigma bottled in a set of clunky controls.

I usually better at RPGs, as success in the game is based on a grasp and application of mechanics, rather than the execution of button presses, but these are often so expansive that I don’t have time to finish them with all the other things I have to do, and games I have to play; I’ve not beaten a Pokémon game since the first Black, and my Golden Sun playthrough is currently on its fourth hiatus as I power through my writing work.

But I honestly don’t care. A big draw of games is that they’re an art form more dependent on audience interaction and skill than any other, but the growth of the Internet and Let’s Play culture means this skill is only required to beat the game for yourself, not experience the full extent of the worlds and stories these games have to offer. I’ve never picked three of the Mass Effect endings, but have an intimate knowledge of all of them because I want to know the details of the game. This is why I may even like talking about games more than actually playing them; to discuss a world and its characters with someone who cares as much as I do is often more fun than clunking through that world with my slow, pudgy fingers.

If I wanted to be a real wanker I’d say that I’m not a gamer, but an appreciator of games, one who doesn’t really play them, but analyses and contextualises them like Classical poems set against particular historical backdrops. But I don’t feel like being a wanker today, so I’ll say I’m a gamer who really likes lore.

I WILL HIT YOU WITH MY HAMMER THAT IS ALSO A SWORD

(also, I’ve not cleared the Cathedral Ward yet, so no spoilers please)

Bloodborne is a fantastic game. This is undeniable. It’s graphically beautiful, artistically dark and creepy, the combat is fluid, the difficulty insanely high but not unfairly so, and it manages to create a powerful, lore-driven world without any characters or narrative advancements to speak of (at least in the early game). But by far its greatest feature is the kirkhammer: a weapon that is a hammer and a sword at the same time.

A key mechanic of the game is transforming your main weapon; in your right hand is this main weapon, and it can be wielded as a one-handed tool, leaving the left hand free for all manner of guns, torches and shields, or as a two-handed behemoth. I was using the hunter’s axe previously, a weapon that unimaginatively transforms from a small axe to a large axe, and while I appreciated the different fighting styles these forms offered, I wasn’t blown away by the creativity. But then I found the kirkhammer; in its two-handed form, this is a mighty hammer, the sort that makes Thor’s look like a kid’s plastic my-first-toolkit hammer, that is swung slowly, but with such oomph that it can level small mountains with a single blow. But when it transforms, the head is holstered on your back, and a thin sword is drawn from its handle, leaving you with a sword. This weapon is, therefore, a sword and a hammer. At once.

I don’t think you understand what I’m getting at here, which is indicative of both my failings as a writer, as the extravagant magnificence of this weapon. You can stab things. Or smush them. You can hit with lots of attacks, or one dirty great one. You could hold and release B to spin in a circle and cut down all the grass around you for rupees, or you could do some DIY. With the same tool.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve stumbled across the most clunkily-worded, needlessly capitalised, specifically-referenced threat in the world; and it’s a bloody great feeling.

Screw You, Bloodborne

(after waiting a month, my PS4 arrived just to piss me off. Huzzah!)

Bloodborne is hard. Like, really, really, hard. Hard enough that you end up with no XP points if you’re not careful, meaning thousands of slain enemies do nothing to advance your character. Hard enough to have a single checkpoint per level, resulting in hours of the same hack-and-slashing to get anywhere. Hard enough that I’m writing a post about how hard it is, and don’t have the time to write a longer post precisely because I’ve ploughed endless hours into it already in an attempt to beat it.

So screw you, Bloodborne; you’re beautiful, satisfying, and the hardest bitch I know.

The Curious Tragedy of Satoru Iwata

(written at five in the morning because some people are more important than sleep)

A few hours ago, Japanese gaming company Nintendo released the news that legendary game developer, and company CEO, Satoru Iwata, had passed away from bile duct cancer. He was 55 years old.

Obviously, this is a tragedy, but as with the deaths of all living creatures, there are multiple levels to this sadness. There is a clear personal tragedy, that a human being with friends and family members has died, and a cynic would point out the economic tragedy of all this that Nintendo shares have fallen 0.7% this morning as a result of this news according to this particularly macabre BBC footnote. But the most wide-ranging form of tragedy here is a cultural one: gaming culture has not only lost the visionary who lived, worked and died as a gamer before anything else, but the man who gave up half of his salary in atonement for his company’s poor recent sales record. In a very similar way to the death of Nelson Mandela apparently robbing the world of likeable, genuinely altruistic political figures, this tragedy has left the gaming community staring over the precipice of half-finished games padded with DLC to squeeze money from consumers, technology that is more invasive and obstructive than entertaining, and endless identical Assassin’s Creed sequels.

But to draw away from an emotive response to this death for a second, this event has placed the gaming community at a relatively new crossroads: namely that gaming culture has not existed in its current form for long enough for such passings to be expected, and there isn’t really an obvious response as a result. The art of writing, for instance, has existed for thousands of years, and modern literary criticism deals almost exclusively with the dead, seeing them as contributors towards historical-cultural periods, and is rather comfortable analysing writers as artists, as opposed to people; literary criticism is an exercise in looking backwards, and looking at the products of people’s lives. Yet gaming culture is not so historically advanced; this is a culture saturated with relentless innovation, from double-screened consoles to ones activated by voice. Gaming isn’t a thing to be reviewed from an armchair with a book in one hand an an In Our Time podcast gently playing in the background, it’s a thing to be lived, to experience now, and to contribute towards ourselves, rather than limit ourselves to looking back on the work of our ancestors.

Yet Iwata’s death will undoubtedly lead to a lot of back-looking from the gaming community; media outlets will release an obituary in their gaming sections as opposed to rumours of a new Nintendo handheld, gamers will chat nostalgically about the exploits of this great man, instead of speculating on the new Smash Bros. DLC characters. Already the hashtags #RIPIwata and #ThankYouIwata are filling up Twitter feeds.

For the first time in its short existence, gaming culture has come to the definitive end of an era. Other prominent figures have died in the past, and prominent consoles and series have risen and fallen, but there has never been a single event in the gaming world to stun the entire culture to its core. And now, the most futureproof, forward-looking cultural movement on the planet has had to slam its brakes and check the rear-view mirror. And it’s seeing sadness. Lots of nostalgia. A bit of anger at the brutality of mortality and the fragility of humanity. But there’s a lot of shock, a stunned, near-denial of the fact that the man who presided over platformers built on the basis of infinite lives won’t live forever himself.

This is a turning point, not just for Nintendo but for all of gaming culture, as we move towards an existence as a storied, established form of art as opposed to the new kids on the block with our fast blue hedgehogs and turtle-crushing plumbers. And it’s appropriate that this turnaround comes from the man who, despite his own modesty, became more than a gamer; he was a legend and a figurehead for a hobby that became a movement that became a culture.

Thank you, Iwata.

Narratives Versus Interactivity In Games

(I tried to come up with a comedic, sarcastic title, but I failed – you’ll have to make do with my self-deprecating, meta-sarcastic subtitle, which is a phrase whose existence almost heralds the death of bluntness on this blog)

I’ve been ploughing through CD Projekt RED’s excellent The Witcher 2 recently, because prequels are often available on the cheap from Steam when their sequels are being released, and I was wondering why I’m in love with it after just nine hours of gameplay. It’s not just the characters, locations or depth of gameplay – InFamous, Skyrim and Darkest Dungeon all have those respective qualities, but I was less immediately enamoured with them – but something wider. Something only a pretentious English student would notice. I love the game because it strikes the rare balance between having a coherent, gripping narrative, and being largely interactive.

There’s been a big push in the games scene for interactive story-telling in recent years; giving players freedom to do what they like is as old as the first Elder Scrolls game, but games like 2007’s Mass Effect and 2010’s Heavy Rain extended this quirk into a gameplay mechanic in and of itself, with the latter title resembling more of a visualised gamebook than a video game. As a result, it’s common to mistake a non-linear narrative, or one with irreversible decisions, as being synonymous for a complex, engaging narrative. But in reality, the opposite is likely to be true.

Take the most recent Elder Scrolls game: Skyrim. It’s a fantastic game that deserves all the praise that’s been lobbed in its general direction like a character with a low Destruction level haphazardly flinging flames at their enemies in a desperate attempt to level up their magic skills; but I found that in its attempt to immerse the player fully in the game world, there was actually distance between the player and that world. The entire game is in first- or third-person, so grand speeches worthy of Metal Gear Solid 4-style cutscenes are reduced to mere conversations, and the game’s relentless lack of cutscenes or alternative perspectives turns the whole world into a sandbox in which only the player is of importance, and it is only their actions and viewpoints that matter. Obviously it’s a single-player game, so this is true on a practical level, but for me, Skyrim wasn’t an expansive, living world for me to interact with and live in, but a series of complex and diverse tasks ultimately centred around me. For instance, the player can become the leader of the Companions, the Thieves’ Guild, and the Collage of Winterhold, playing them in a position of power in all three of the game’s skill disciplines – combat, stealth and magic – all at the same time; I was the leader of the land’s greatest collection of mages, and I never got beyond level 20 for my Restoration skill.

The most extreme example of this ultra-sandbox world is perhaps Mount & Blade: Warband, a 2010 open-world medieval RPG in which the player can rise from a peasant to a noble through a series of wars and political alliances; it’s basically Game of Thrones. But again, there are no cutscenes, no mechanics for informing the player of the game’s political events beyond a small update log in the corner of the screen; as a result, the world is practically wholly interactive, yet is devoid of humanity and personality to the extent that it becomes a really big quest-completing exercise, rather than the world of far-reaching, human consequences that make Game of Thrones a fantastic TV show, instead of a dry piece of historical fiction.

The other extreme is the ultra-linear game, ones such as classic Zelda titles that are great fun to play through, but offer no character creation, no free choice, and make the player feel like a train driver: shoving coal into a furnace to drive the story onwards, but without any ability to change the direction of that narrative. Simultaneously, these games often have great cutscenes, and are the most human and moving ones available; I’m thinking Skull Kid’s loneliness and the general despair in Majora’s Mask as the prime example.

So there’s a paradox in most games: an overly linear narrative deindividualises the player, while an overly interactive one deindividualises the player’s character and kills the wonder and realism of the worlds these games create. And to answer this problem, enter Mass Effect.

This is why I harp on about the series so much: it is one of few titles that manages to have an interactive narrative, yet doesn’t render the game world as existing purely for the benefit of the player; it has a linear enough story to allow for progression from game to game, yet the player never feels like they’re retracing the pre-rendered steps of the developers who play-tested the game before it was released. Mechanics such as the ability to name and mould your character’s physical body, yet still have them be fully integrated into the game’s world through their own voice, and being named by NPCs, means each player creates their own protagonist, yet no protagonists are separated from the world around them, as they are in Skyrim where NPCs never name the player, or GTA Online where players’ characters never speak.

Similarly, the narrative (of Mass Effect 2 particularly) is a masterclass in combining direction with interactivity. The basic premise is that you must recruit a team of heroes from across the galaxy to stop a threat to all life in the universe, a structure that has enough linear progression to never bog the player down in endless inconsequential side-quests, but is open-ended enough to let the player pick what order they recruit people in, and how those heroes interact with each other. The relationship between Jack and Miranda is a great example of this, as the player can recruit and interact with these characters however they like (interactive narrative – tick) but their relationship changes as the player interacts with them, or completes other quests, or ignores both of them altogether (player not distanced from the game world – tick).

The Witcher strikes a similar balance; having a premade protagonists, Geralt of Rivia, other character can call me by name, title, or creative insult, involving the player in the reputation-driven, scummy world of a medieval backwater. Yet the player can still choose how to complete quests, so they’re not going through the motions as one does in Skyrim, but creating a unique character through their actions.

And it’s this balance that I love in games: The Last Of Us, InFamous and Assassins’ Creed: Brotherhood are all brutally beautiful narratives, but have been created largely by someone else; Skyrim and Mount & Blade are expansive and complex, but lack the artistry and engagement of titles with more linear narratives. I stumbled onto a beautiful addiction when I impulse-bought Mass Effect 2 over Metal Gear Solid 4 back in January 2011, and it’s an addiction I now realise I’ve not properly fed until I downloaded The Witcher 2 this week.

Kick-Ass Music In Gaming

(there are many secrets in this land, up in the clouds or beneath the sand…)

One of the best parts about video games as an art form – beyond obvious stuff like the interactivity and their relentless pursuit of new technologies to tell their stories – is the variety of other kinds of art that make up a single game: take something like the recent Tomb Raider reboot, a game with cinematic visuals, an impressive narrative, and the mechanical aspects such as gameplay and the rendering of models, that are themselves forms of art, deployed excellently. But a big one is music, with some game’s songs transcending the limited number of pixels they’re associated with, and become memes and parts of gaming culture in their own right; there are a lot of crap songs in games, but today I’m gonna pick out some of the best ones.

1) Super Mario RPG – Beware The Forest Mushrooms (1996)

As part of Nintendo’s attempts to make Mario games in every genre known to man, Super Mario RPG was produced, a fun, simple RPG known for its awesome character Geno, a doll brought to life to fight alongside Mario, and the Forest Maze where he is introduced; said maze brings with it the aforementioned Beware The Forest Mushrooms theme, an upbeat, playful tune that captures the insanity-inducing repetition of getting lost in the maze. There’s also this fantastic Martin Hagwell-XBrav-Kirbopher-Shadyvox fan version, Waltz Of The Forest, whose combination of a classic theme, original lyrics, collaboration across generations of fans, and even a rap segment, is pretty strong evidence that gaming has a phenomenally creative and collaborative community.

2) Kirby Super Star – Gourmet Race theme (1996)

I’ve mentioned this one before on this blog; the theme itself is a frantic, light-hearted piece of music that aptly mirrors its subject matter, namely a race involving a sentient squishy pink ball with adorable stubby arms, and serves as an effective alarm clock. Speaking of collaboration again, You’re The Man Now, Dog has brought us this wonderful mashup of the theme with Snoop Dogg’s Drop It Like It’s Hot; this is one of those times where I’ll claim the fan mashup is better than the original, not to be a knuckleheaded online fanboy, but because Snoop’s original music is a bit naff in comparison.

3) Sonic Adventure 2 – City Escape theme (2001)

Apologies for the impending stream of Sonic Adventure 2 songs, but the game is important to me; it was my first ‘favourite’ game, one that seven-year-old James (I didn’t get the game until early 2004 when it was rereleased on GameCube) could point to as being noticeably superior to his other awesome games (such as Pokemon Colosseum). A big part of that distinction was the music in SA2, which consists of actual songs, instead of repeated jingles; these songs have lyrics, and clearly-defined versus and choruses, and were the first pieces of video game music that I heard that held meaning in of themselves, instead of being things that – while sounding cool – only added to what was being presented in the gameplay and story of the games. And while that meaning usually consisted of just how frakking cool it is for a hedgehog to be skating down a highway on a piece of metal ripped off a helicopter, there was meaning nonetheless.

4) Sonic Adventure 2 – Pumpkin Hill theme (2001)

A song that’s about as close to rap music as the theme from the Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, all of Knuckle’s faux-hop backing tracks in this game are brilliantly awful, but I always liked the ‘so bad it’s good’ quality of the Pumpkin Hill theme, which is incidentally a description I only use to refer to songs from the Knuckles levels of this game. The lyrics aren’t inspired, the rapper’s ‘flow’ is decidedly not ‘sick’, but I love the bassline, and the turntable scratches which would, unbeknownst to me at the time, rear their edgy heads once again when I got into hip-hop I actually liked, with Classified and DL Incognito.

5) Sonic Adventure 2 – Live And Learn (2001)

I’m cheating a little bit here, because this song wasn’t as striking to me when I first played the game, because it was the background music for the title screen, which every seven-year-old in the world clicks through ASAP to get to what they perceive to be the actual game; but having looked up the previous two songs, and listened to this one in its entirety, I think this is my favourite of them all. While the others sound like honest, yet unsuccessful, attempts at replicating the rock and hip-hop genres, Live And Learn sounds like a hard rock song, not one made to sell hedgehog mascots to kids, but one whose lyrics could inspire a bunch of ironic throwback t-shirts worn by pretentious bastards such as myself thirty years after they stopped being actually relevant. And speaking of the actual music industry, I think one astute YouTube commenter sums up this song more eloquently than I ever could –  ‘This is better than everything the Beatles have made.’

6) Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Steel Samurai theme (2001)

I’m going to get away from gushing over fan-made things now, to bring you this amazing minute from the GBA soundscape; the whole tune fits the game, and the episode it’s used in perfectly – the industrial, synthed guitar just after the intro fits the urban, mechanical world of the Steel Samurai and Neo Old Tokyo, and the jingles heard at the very start of the piece that pop up throughout reinforce the vaguely Japanese origin of this fictional kids’ show. The jingle, immediately followed by the crash of the intro, is also reminiscent of songs like Rise Against’s Ready To Fall, with an almost pre-introductory bar, long enough to make listeners squeal ‘Oh my God it’s that song!’, but not quite long enough to take away from the awesome introduction itself. I’d set this as my ringtone, if I wasn’t surprisingly technophobic.

7) Pokemon Colosseum – The Under theme (2003)

Another song with an awesome bassline, the theme song for Orre’s shady Under, literally an underground slum built beneath another slum, Pyrite City, is both dark and foreboding, but also energetic and strangely vibrant, especially the piano parts that come in around the 38 second mark, which help to build up the Under – and by extension Pyrite above it – as a place of crime and deceit, but also a place with its own identity. Indeed, when – spoilers – you defeat Team Snagem and restore order to the region, the dark, criminal world of the Under and Pyrite become ‘a noble town of roughs and scoundrels’, showing misery to come not from the people in this world, but from an outside force, those who try to control them. Admittedly, both the Under theme and the Pyrite City theme do this excellently.

8) Super Mario Galaxy – Gusty Garden Galaxy (2007)

Often pointed to as an example of video games being not only artistic, but beautiful and elegant (because I’m noticing that all the examples I’ve given previously have been dark, childish or parodical songs), the Gusty Garden Galaxy is a world of floating around on dandelions, riding the winds, and generally feeling carefree, yet refined as you blow over grassy fields and planets made of rolling hills. It’s a bit like drifting through the winds above the setting of a George Eliot novel with a fat Italian plumber, and while the soundtrack lacks the variety of the Under theme, or the tight structure of the Sonic Adventure 2 pieces, it’s still a powerful piece, that never falls back on mindless aggression to force a simple ‘this is sad!’ response out of the players.

9) Mass Effect 3 – Leaving Earth (2012)

Speaking of being sad, I couldn’t get through a post on music, video games, or sadness without mentioning what I honestly consider to be the most beautiful piece of music I’ve sat down and listened to; the song plays towards the start of the final chapter in Bioware’s sci-fi epic, when the player flees Earth from the relentless Reaper invasion, who literally rain fire and brimstone onto the planet, obliterating civilian ships as you watch from the safety and helplessness of your ship, the Normandy. I honestly think the theme is underused in the game, only being a background factor as the much more vulgar scenes of the Reapers ravaging Earth play across the screen, and the reuse of the piano loop in the Extended Cut’s An End, Once And For All seems like a cheap attempt to shoehorn in an awesome loop that should have got more exposure. But the music itself is a wonderful mixture of fear and loss, with the initially slow piano parts and the crashing drums, but ultimately hope, as chords come in later in the piece, a dichotomy that is basically the heart of Mass Effect 3 – everything’s falling apart, but until it’s broken, we won’t stop trying to fix it. Also, the repeated synth notes throughout the piece binds it together musically, but also thematically, uniting that initial despair, and the ultimate sad, regretful hope that characterises the start of Mass Effect 3, after the end of the prequel in which the player undertakes a suicide mission, where any of their friends and squadmates can be killed at any point. I don’t want to harp on about this last point too much, because this song is the only one to fit into a wider narrative trilogy of the games I’ve mentioned so it’d be unfair, but Leaving Earth isn’t just a perfect song for where it fits into the Mass Effect universe, but an inspiring song I use with embarrassing regularity to motivate myself after screwing something up.

10) The Last Of Us – All Gone (Aftermath) (2013)

This isn’t the exact version I intended to use here – for those of you who know the game I’m thinking of the music that plays in the brief cutscene after Ellie brutally kills the leader of the cannibals, and is comforted by Joel with the famous ‘baby girl’ line – but it’s the same piece of music, so it’ll have to do. Instead of the grand, orchestral pieces like Gusty Garden Galaxy, or the processed tunes of the earlier songs on this list, All Gone (Aftermath) is a stripped-down feels-generator, with the single guitar part reflecting both the simplicity of the nomadic, paranoid life survivors in the Last Of Us universe are forced to live in, but also their desire to get back to something older, something more traditional; until the end of the game, where Joel realises he must move on with his life and live new experiences, it’s not a stretch to say that he tries to relive his old, pre-apocalypse life in his new surroundings, loving Ellie as he did his own daughter, Sarah, before she died, and structuring his life around meeting old friends, like Bill, and distant relatives, such as his brother Tommy, from his past – he even tries to get back to city life immediately after the disease breaks out, living in martial law Boston as a replica of his old life in Austen. I also think the stringed parts of the piece reflect the tragic beauty of the game’s world: the heads of Clickers resemble abstract art, the blood from Ellie’s killed rabbit has the contrast and slightly warped borders of a Mark Rothko piece, and the settlements encountered throughout the game are like parodies of older, pre-apocalypse dwellings, functional, hand-made and unique, yet built to survive Hell on Earth. And it’s hard to pick a single minute of a three-hour fully-extended soundtrack to sum up those contrasts, but I think All Gone (Aftermath) does it pretty well.

Sorry that got a bit pretentious-English-student-seeing-art-in-bleeding-everything at the end there, but that’s how games have changed over the years and how I, now a pretentious English student, have changed how I respond to and appreciate them. This isn’t to say that all games these days have to be these dark, cinematic pieces of art, but I think the best games create worlds, and whether they’re silly and cartoonish, or resonate and meaningful, music is a key contributor, or even central figure, in creating those worlds.