Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Silent Hill 2: Why I Don't Love You...

(This article contains a major Silent Hill 2 spoiler. Read at your own risk if you haven't already completed the game.)

I'm sorry, internet. I know Silent Hill 2 is something of a sacred cow in "games as art" circles with its rich, complex themes of guilt, anger, and sexual repression, but I'm sorry, Silent Hill 2. I don't love you. You're just not very much fun to play.

I should probably preface this article by saying that I have beaten this game a few years ago (achieved the "water" ending), didn't really care for it, then read a lot of fascinating articles on why I was probably looking at it the wrong way, and decided to give it another shot.

I've written before that games needn't always be "fun" to be entertaining, something very much true of SH2. But, for me, SH2 is more than just "not fun," it's downright tedious. While the game may tell a deep, complex narrative with lots of brilliant symbolism that you can read about here, I feel like those elements are very separate from the actual experience of playing the game.

The game design, at its core, boils down to lots of arbitrary puzzles and combat that are both very poorly designed, in my opinion. The first "level" tasks you with exploring a series of apartment complexes. In order to progress, you need to solve some incredibly obscure puzzles whose placement makes absolutely no sense. You'll eventually reach a cabinet with a riddle inscribed in it tasking you to place a series of coins in the correct slots. The problem is that the game doesn't tell you how many coins you'll need, so it's more than likely that you'll be missing a hard to see piece, which can take ages of backtracking to scour for. Or worse, you'll have all the pieces already, but think that you're missing a piece, so you'll run around backtracking looking for something that isn't even there.

This problem is compounded by one of the games absolutely biggest flaws: items are way too hard to see. Damn near invisible, if you ask me. Your character will move his head towards points of interest, but it's still unclear just where he's looking exactly. This problem is made much worse by the fact that you can examine a ton of stuff, but only interact with a small portion of it, and you need to be lined up exactly right to examine what you want. Here's a good example: early in the game you find a shopping cart with a handgun in it. My character was looking at the cart, so I went up to examine it. He commented on the cart, but said nothing of the gun sitting right there inside of it. I must have walked around the cart and hit the "examine" button no less than eight times before he finally picked up the goddamned gun. In a game already as dark as Silent Hill 2, this is a very, very bad thing. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of clicking on everything and hoping you'll uncover a camouflaged point of interest. While it may have broken the immersion a bit to make the items glow like they do in Resident Evil or Bioshock, it also would have made the game about ten times more playable. Since the levels are so vast and sprawling and mandatory items so hard to see, it can often feel like a game about searching for your car keys. Not my idea of a good time.

I also think not letting you examine everything would make things more immersive, because it would allow us to form our own interpretation. Do we really need to hear James think that "this bed is filthy. It probably hasn't been washed in weeks." Some intuition you got there, James. That's just poor writing if you ask me. These games really need to learn to show, not tell.

Aside from the fact that the puzzles are just plain poorly designed with too few queues if you're on the right track, the fact that they exist at all seems at odds with the narrative. Not only do they not make logical sense (which is understandable, being that the whole game takes place in a surreal world made to manifest its protagonist's fractured psyche), I'm not entirely convinced that they tie into the narrative in any meaningful way. I fail to see what hunting down a bunch of keys has to do with a story of a man feeling guilty about murdering his wife.

There are other reasons the game isn't fun, as well. The combat, for example, is rubbish. That's kind of the point, I suppose, as it's something to be avoided. However, when they place you in a tiny room, compounded with a finicky camera and little room to maneuver, you'll be hard-pressed not to kill everything in sight as you continue your pixel-hunt. This problem is made worse with the games boss fights, which feel like they belong in an action game where you should be able to adequately dodge and fight back, but you can't. The controls are so stodgy that you'll wind up merely trading blows for the most part. Which begs the question; if combat is something to be avoided, why do they even have mandatory boss fights in the first place? Le sigh.

Oh, and while I'm in full-on rant mode, I might as well mention how dreadful the voice-acting is. Given how the game's narrative is its saving grace, its shoddy voice-work threatens to undermine the whole experience. I can let it go to a point, as none of this is really happening, so it can be chalked up to its surreal dream-like world, but had the dialogue flowed a little more naturally it would have gone a long way towards making the drama more engaging, rather than just interesting to ponder about from afar.

The bits of story that are there are compelling, but I feel like I'm just slogging through a rudimentary series of poorly designed fetch quests in order to ascertain more juicy tidbits of narrative. In short, it's a game I enjoy reading and thinking about more than I do actually playing. It was worth going through once, for the experience. Though, I find it has not aged well in the least and is a prime example of mechanics and poor design getting in the way of narrative. I look forward to hearing why I, as per usual, am wrong.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

No More Heroes Revisited

Gamernode- As I've been playing through Suda 51's sometimes brilliant, sometimes baffling epic, No More Heroes, I keep coming back to something Eskil Steenberg, one-man creator of the upcoming MMO, Love, said on a recent episode of ListenUp regarding why we play games, (and I'm paraphrasing here). "We play games because our lives are so complicated and games give us small problems we can actual solve. They give us some sense of control." It was something of an epiphany for me as I often wondered why I would spend so much of my life focusing on the medium, and while it's possible that that quote would be relevant of whatever game I played next, today I'm talking about No More Heroes, which I feel is especially applicable as its main protagonist is in fact a gamer.

The world Travis Touchdown inhabits is an interesting one as it reflects both our own world and the world of videogame conventions (as opposed to something like GTAIV, which tries to mirror our world, but in my opinion, ungracefully shoe-horns it into videogame conventions). The nods to other games and pop-culture in general are anything but subtle with it's jaggy, pixelated aesthetic, 8-bit leaderboards, and goofy nonsensical villains. The game is unapologetically "gamey" giving you the illusion of an open-world with nothing to do between missions only serves to reinforce the notion that games like GTAIV's open-worlds are just an illusion; a window dressing laid upon otherwise conventional game design. By embracing its gaming roots, it allows Suda 51 to go hog-wild with his goofy ideas as it's not likely to break the immersion.

More telling is the way that it reflects our own world. Travis Touchdown, if you don't take his lethal actions at face value, is bizarrely relatable. He has two goals: be number one, and get laid. It's unclear if he wants the former to get to the latter, but it seems likely he want them both and uses latter as a carrot to give him an excuse for the former. The way I see it, the ranked tournaments in the game are not meant to be taken at face value, but as a metaphor for playing videogames (just as we are playing one). Despite being shot multiple times in cutscenes, Travis always comes out unscathed and ready for battle. He's not a real assassin, in this sense; he's a videogame assassin. It's merely something fun to do for him. And the retro aesthetic, where enemies explode in cartoonish bursts of blood and coins, does all it can to reinforce the notion that this is all good, silly fun. So that's where being number one comes in. He's a competitive high-score seeker that way. He suggests to Sylvia that he she "do it with him" if he reaches number one (something that she never explicitly agrees to), which functions as a.) an excuse for Travis to go around doing what he does best (i.e. kill people), and b.) it is his dream to find a woman who will sleep with him due to his videogaming prowess. I'm reminded of a Futurama episode where Fry wishes real life were more like videogames and ends up warding off an alien invasion due to his expertise in Space Invaders. Here's where Steenberg's quote comes in- Travis wishes to solve his real problems by succeeding at his fake ones.

Travis's life, when you get right down to it, is pretty fucked up. He cannot get laid, is always racking up late fees on his porn rentals, lives in a motel, the sandbox world of Santa Destroy is a dull bore and filled with shoddy jobs like collecting scorpions and defusing land mines at the beach, etc, etc... so you can hardly blame the guy when he just wants to chill out and slash some throats. The fact that No More Heroes' ending makes absolutely no sense angered me at first as it gave me the impression that it was all goofy just for the sake of being goofy, but it might actually be a big cosmic joke on how complicated life is. A game that portrays fun with hilarious, over-the-top hack-and-slash violence must portray difficulties with a hilarious over-the-top pile-driver of increasingly ludicrous cliches. Travis has whiled away exploding foes in his own delusional fantasy world, but he hasn't really solved anything by the end when his life is just as fucked up as ever (even more so in fact), and he still hasn't gotten laid. Poor Travis.

No More Heroes is basically Fry's dream come to fruition; what life would be like if it were a videogame. Our problems would be easy to solve, at face value, but we'd still be unable to make heads or tails out of any of it, because nothing is ever that simple.

One a side note, while I love most things about No More Heroes, one aspect where I've always felt a bit out of sync with the rest of the world is in regard to its dialogue. It sounds very odd and stilted to me, and not in a good way. I felt like I genuinely had a hard time following what it was the characters were talking about. Contrary to much I've read about the other assassins expressing a deep sense of pathos, to me they just seemed goofy and cartoony with next to no character development. Dr. Peace was a bit of an exception, with his monologue about missing his daughter, but the rest didn't feel like they had especially fleshed out stories. Most of which felt like an odd mishmash of cliches without enough of a role to really develop any concise character. Take Holly Summers for instance. Her name and setting bring to mind that she's a beach bunny, her chic French haircut and high heels equate her with being classy, and then she's got the prosthetic leg/green camo with grenade thing going on giving her a more masculine, butch theme. None of these three disparate elements cobbled together well in my mind, and I didn't feel as if I had any understanding as to who she was by the end. Can someone please explain to me why this is genius? Or isn't? It tends to leave me scratching my feeble-minded head, even after four playthroughs.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Look at the Wii's Strengths and Weaknesses

A little analyzation I whipped up on the Wii: Where It's Succeeding and Where It Could Do Better, is up as part of TGR's weekend 3-parter. Check it out here.

Note: I did not title this article.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Flow Like a River or Stagnate Like a Tree?

As I’ve been playing Chronicles of Riddick lately, something has been bothering me about the whole experience. It took me a second to figure out just what it was, but eventually I came to the conclusion that I just hate talking to people in that game. Much of this is due to the fact that the script is rather bland (even if the voice-acting is of surprisingly high-caliber), but there was something else. And that’s when it hit me; the talky bits bore me titless and I feel it’s because the camera work and animations are clunky, causing me to tune out. This, I’ve noticed is not just a problem with Riddick, mind you, but practically every game that’s ever had a dialogue tree.

My issue with most conversations with NPCs that have dialogue trees is that they’re not cinematic enough. Lip-syncing and body language is almost always off, allowing for an experience that while engaging player choice, fails to be as entertaining to watch as the same conversation would be in a movie or TV show. Furthermore, dialogue trees hardly ever have a natural rhythm to them as you’ll find yourself going back to an earlier branch, selecting a different option, or listening to the same bits of dialogue over and over ’til you realize the NPC has nothing more to say. This was okay in the age of the text adventure or even the early PC graphic adventures as we didn’t expect anything more from our games. They weren’t trying to look real, be cinematic, or engross us in the same way they generally aim for today, but rather were content to simply be simple, often humorous sets of responses. One could argue that this is a more powerful means of expression. I’d say that they’re just different. In-game conversations back then were more akin to reading a book whereas today they’re more akin to watching a movie. As such, I find their simple presentation not holding up so well to their older sister.

These days, as games look more and more real each day, it’s as if they want to create this so-called "cinematic" experience, but fall short of it when it comes to interactive dialogue. Even in Mass Effect, arguably the best iteration of prerendered cutscene and interactive choice made yet, we’re still constantly taken out of the scene unraveling as we’re too focused on making our dialogue choices. Pause too long, and the scene comes to a halt. We want engagement and we want choice, yet this stop-and-go rhythm is still a bit jarring. It’s like watching a movie on your computer and forgetting to turn the screen saver off, so you have to constantly remind yourself to move the mouse every so often.

Check out the rest of the article at, here.

New Blog Name, Same Blog Taste!

As you've no doubt all noticed, I've changed the blog name from Mr. Durand Pierre to Jumping Moustache as an obvious reference to both myself and Mario as well as whatever other brilliant symbolic meaning it has to you. I only used Mr. Durand Pierre before as it was my handle and I didn't feel like spending several weeks coming up with a clever title when I could be focusing on writing, so I put it off for far too long. But now I have a clever name, so there ya go. Hope you all like it!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Big Red Potion Episode # 9: Afterword

My recent guest spot on Big Red Potion in which Sinan Kubba, Joe Delia, myself, and Xantiriad, of Ninja Fat Pigeons fame, discuss each and every aspects of handheld gaming. It was by far the longest BRP yet (clocking in at just shy of two hours), but we had a wealth of content to explore, and I think we covered a lot of interesting ground. Give it a listen.

Though I must say that even at 2 hours, there were still things I wanted to say, but never got around to. Like whether playing a handheld game at home entirely defeats the purpose. I know lots of people who prefer Zelda: Phantom Hourglass to Twilight Princess or the Wind Waker, even if they're just playing it at home anyway. I hinted at this briefly, but there's something about that the intimate, tactile feel of the touch screen that makes these sorts of games so much more accessible. Particularly in Phantom Hourglass with its note taking function. Thus, handheld games can offer an experience (beyond mere convenience) that you cannot get on a home console.

Yet, at the same time, a console experience can give you something you cannot get on a handheld (besides graphics). I touched upon that briefly citing survival horror and Silent Hill as an example, but I wanted to expand upon my belief that a portable PS2 might not work as well as we'd think as so many of my favorite PS2 games require them to be played in long doses. I don't think I could play something like Metal Gear Solid 3 or Okami in 15 minute increments on a commute. I mean technically I could, but I'd feel as if I were stopping just as soon as I'd get into the swing of things. Those two games in particular give you plenty of save points (not to mention the sleep function that is standard on handhelds these days), but I feel like they just take a lot out of me mentally to get in and out of that space.

Another thing I thought about after recording was my response to why big sites never pick a handheld game as Game of the Year- I believe there's a stigma attached to handheld games that they're just something to do as backup when you're not around a console. It seems to be a common belief that no one in their right mind would want to play these games when they could be playing a console game. That people only play portable games because they're portable. If they were so good, why aren't they on a console? I don't agree with this line of thinking, but that seems to be the mainstream media's take on the issue, and let's face it; we think about what we hear about. I loved Bangai-O Spirits, played it a ton for a week, then beat all the levels and never thought back on it. Why? Because no one else was talking about it. And that's something we need to change.

Furthermore, I hypothesized that the handheld market will be the future of the indie game market. I sure hope so. More people own DSs than any console out there, so you'd think releasing something like Braid or World of Goo on a DS or iphone would make more money, but perhaps not, as people wouldn't have written about it so much. Then again, no one expected so much to be written about Portal or Braid prior to their release, so maybe one of these days a handheld will have their sleeper-hit bringing them into the "hardcore" public eye. The World Ends With You and Patapon were a nice step in that direction certainly.

One a side note: Anyone else feel like Pixeljunk Eden would be perfect for a handheld? I may have seemed down on Sony on the podcast, but they have some brilliant software like that that would make for a great port for the PSP. There's my piece of constructive criticism for them, anyhow.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Videogames' Greatest Obstacle (Hint: It's Not a 50ft Robot)...

As much as I love videogames, I think it's important that we, as gamers, analyze the weaknesses of the medium as well as its strengths. On that note, I believe that great as videogames are, they present the most impenetrable medium to get into.

If you want to watch a movie, all you need to do is not be blind nor deaf, and own a DVD player, VCR, or go to the theatre. If you want to read a book, you need only be literate. A videogame, however, requires a much greater level of entry. Aside from the logistic of the situation (i.e. not everyone owns a console. Let alone the fact that there are so many different systems out there, whereas only a couple forms of movie distribution), there's the fact that every game you play requires you to learn how to play it. What the buttons do, where to save, what the power-ups do, etc, etc... It can at times feel like the first hour of any game is like taking a class on how to play that particular game.

Furthermore, games may have mechanics that just don't appeal to everyone. For example, as much as I love Braid and think it is as close to a perfect game as I've ever played, I also think that it's a very challenging game with its puzzles. Now personally, I love difficult, well-designed puzzles. As such, I felt like Braid was a game made just for me. Yet, at the same time, I realize not everyone likes puzzles, and many who would otherwise enjoy its art, narrative, symbolism, music, etc... may well never finish the game due to it being too hard. A book would never require you to solve a puzzle before turning to the next chapter. I realize books can have "puzzles" in their rich, layered writing, but I would argue Braid also has that, as well as environmental puzzles. Though, you cannot fully experience the former unless you have a rather passionate love for the latter (or consult a walkthrough, which may arguably ruin the experience).

Another example that I can cite from more personal experience, is my disinterest in turn-based RPGs due to their mechanics, even though I may love just about everything else about the genre. I thought the Persona games in particular had an incredibly deep narrative with fascinating themes such as love, death, sex, selfishness, how well one person can really know another, etc, etc. I loved the art design, the story, the characters, the music, the atmosphere... just about everything about Persona 3 and 4 was bursting at the seems with brilliant ideas... except for one thing; I did not enjoy the act of playing them. I hated the slow grind, the menus, the abundance of items... it quite simply was not fun for me between the cutscenes and dialogue. I've always hoped to change my tune on the genre. I've bought every Shin Megami game on the PS2 in hopes that one day the genre would click with me and I'd "get it," and it would be a magical experience as I could then go forth appreciating the true art of the genre minus the ennui that would inevitably set in. Unfortunately, I'm starting to wonder if this will ever happen. I always play these games for about a dozen hours, get bored, think one day I'll get back into them, then never do.

Instead, find myself wishing that Persona 4 was not an RPG. What if it was an adventure/platformer game? I see little reason that it couldn't be. I realize Persona's combat is important insofar that your decisions in the sim aspect effect your attributes in battle. Though I still say they could have done this in a more open-world, real-time setting, ala Psychonauts. The comparison is apt as they both deal with incredibly similar ideas of having levels taking place inside a character's head. At the same time, why couldn't Psychonauts be a turn-based RPG? Personally, I love one genre and nearly hate the other, but that's rather subjective. From what I understand, most JRPG fans feel like Persona 4 has among the most refined combat systems of any RPG every made. Conversely, Psychonaut's platforming is competent, but hardly the best in its genre. As such I will not say one approach is inherently "better" than another, but it raises some interesting questions. Like, "how do you engross a player who doesn't like that particular genre in your narrative ?"

I'm not sure that there's an easy answer to this, but I would like to see more games that don't prescribe themselves to one or two particular genres. A game like Gravity Bone is interesting by virtue of hardly falling into any genre. It's only a 15 minute game, but it's mostly comprised of fetch-quests and one very brief platforming sequence. On paper, this should be incredibly boring, but the rich setting, art style, and music make it a compelling experience with seldom little barrier of entry. I'd also cite Bioshock as a game that gets around this particular problem by being a shooter with no penalty for a game-over, allowing those who don't ordinarily like shooters to still experience the entirety of the game with little frustration.

Don't get me wrong, complex play mechanics can work well for a niche audience. There's nothing wrong with designing an in-depth JRPG like Final Fantasy XII or an hardcore action game like Devil May Cry 3 as there's certainly value in that for those who crave that experience. But let's not fool ourselves; these games are niche and were never designed to be for everyone.

That being said, a game needn't be "for everyone" (if such thing exists), though I feel like if one's goal is to create more narrative-focused work of art, you must be conscious of how the mechanics tie in to the other elements and whether they enhance the central themes of the title, or stand apart from them.

Of course, I may be full of shit as well. There's always that possibility. I'd be happy for any and all feedback on the matter, and if anyone can convince me that Persona 4's menu-based combat and grinding is integral to the rest of the game, I'd like to hear it.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Crawl, Walk, Run...

I've been thinking, as I so often do, about Ico.

More particularly, I've been thinking about the choice of whether to walk or run with Yorda, and what that means both for me, as well as game design in general.

For those who haven't played the game, you play the role of a young boy, Ico, as he guides a frail, young woman through a castle. She may or may not be blind, and you'll spend much of the game guiding her by the hand. Here's where it gets interesting; you can walk gently with her, which is slow, caring, and beautiful, or you can run, which makes it looks like you're hurting her.

Given how I once called Ico the most romantic game ever conceived, you'd think that I'd opt for the former option. You'd be wrong. I ran. I knew it was hurting her, but I ran anyway. Did I feel bad about it? Only momentarily. My reasoning, something I absolutely abhor having to admit, was that it was "just a game."

You see, had I been in that actual predicament, and Yorda an actual person, I would have been slower and gentler with her. I'd want to gain her trust and be tendering and nurturing towards her. But it wasn't real life. There was no benefit to taking things slow with her, other than seeing the animation of seeing them walk together. As a result, I found myself tuning out whilst walking with her, as my mind lay on simply getting from point A to point B. As such, I realized that if I were not to going to be engaged to these parts if I walk, I might as well run, in order to and make with the puzzle solving and more dramatic moments that make the game so worthwhile.

I realize that much of this is my own, personal issue. That perhaps my attention span is too short to stay focused on such a simple, menial activity. Though I wondered why this was. I loved Yorda, and Ico, and the castle, and the scenery. Why was I able to disconnect from these moments so involuntarily? Why did I find the walking such a terrible bore? In an earlier article, I wrote about how a game needn't be "fun" at all times, and cited the sailing in Wind Waker and the horseback riding in Shadow of the Colossus as examples. Why was I able to enjoy those slow, passive activities, yet found myself impatient with Ico? I've thought of a couple reasons:

a.) In both the Wind Waker and SotC, you had little control over my speed. Sure, you could change the directions of the winds in Wind Waker, but that would involve playing a song and watching an unskippable cutscene, which would often be more trouble than it was worth for a minor speed boost. And In SotC, you could bring Aggro up to a full gallop, but I'd imagine most players keep him at full speed as much as possible, which is still a very slow, passive activity. As such, I felt like I was going as fast as I could in these games, which was satisfying. Though, had you given me a faster option, I likely would have taken it. Ico gives you that faster option, and it's hard to resist. Other games do this too. A game like Fallout 3 gives you fast-travel, something that almost certainly breaks the immersion, though how many players have the patience to resist using it? I'd reckon seldom few, though my hats off to any such players out there.

b.) Both Wind Waker and SotC gave me a gorgeous, ever-changing landscape to admire. The charms of Wind Waker's day/night cycle and full range of weather and wave effects are mind numbingly gorgeous. The thrill off seeing an island a couple miles off as it gradually comes into full view is an absolutely stunning achievement (especially for a game over half a decade old on a Gamecube. Less pop-in than Fallout 3). You can also control the camera, adding a further level of input to the proceedings. SotC, had a similar feeling, with a unique, over-saturated aesthetic, giving you a landscape that would unrealistically evolve from a lush grassy plain to a barren desert in just a few seconds. That game was sheer eye candy, and I thoroughly enjoyed taking the time to admire the scenery (something I may not have done had it not been enforced). Ico, however, employs a mostly steady cam. It jumps from different viewpoints, ala an old Resident Evil game, and while you can change the angle of the camera a wee bit, you can hardly pivot it around. The art direction in Ico is stunning, but you'll be subjected to it for long periods of time even if you run through it.

This is something we discussed on Big Red Potion, regarding mechanics getting in the way of narrative. Jonathon Blow even cited Ico as an example, where the player was just as liable to tire of Yorda than care for her, as they'd start to think of her less as a person and more of a necessity to make their way through the game. At times, I would agree with this, hence my running with her. Yet, at the same time, I feel like there are times when the game mechanics enhance our relationship with Yorda. Notably when you've left her alone for awhile (often out of necessity) and she starts getting attacked by shadow creatures. That feeling of anger you get trying to protect her, crossed with guilt for leaving her alone, is among the finest examples I've yet witnessed of a game using its mechanics to establish an emotional bond.

This is furthered by the fact that unless you fall off a high ledge, you cannot get a game over simply by being attacked. You get a game over by letting her be taken away. I, for one, feel there should be more games where self-preservation is not the ultimate goal.

The question of how much game designers should leave pacing up to the player is a tough nut to crack. I'm not quite sure that there is any one "right" way of doing it, but I find the tug-of-war between keeping a player engaged, yet fully immersed (even during the slower moments) an inherently fascinating topic. Any and all comments on the matter would be appreciated. Thank you.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Peggle: Dual Shot Review

In case you wanted to know what I thought of Peggle DS, here ya go.