Wednesday, October 28, 2009

New Big Red Potion Appearance

My new appearance on Big Red Potion is up in which we discuss Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I'm sure this is a game I'll write more on later as it was one of my most pleasant surprises of the year, but for now enjoy the show.

One quick afterword though: I may have to eat crow on what I said about the puzzles being too handholdey. Justin Keverne's wrote a wonderful piece on the game, explaining how Drake is a man of action and shouldn't be held up for too long. In other words, the puzzles are easy to the player because they're supposed to be easy for Drake. In a sense, they're hardly even puzzles, but rather the illusion of puzzles to help drive the narrative along. While I appreciate my masochistic LucasArts and Braid-like mind-benders, they wouldn't have fit the flow of Uncharted's more guided experience. The game is always throwing something new at you, whether it be a shootout, an extended platforming sequence, or petting a yak's butt. Just because I like hard puzzles doesn't make them necessary for every game. It's good to be wrong sometimes.

One more thing- Drake kills a lot of people in this game. Granted they're all bad and trying to kill him, it still seems a bit sociopathic (which is brought up at one point). The game introduces stealth, but only insofar as stealth kills go. You cannot bypass a combat zone entirely by sneaking past enemies. I think that would be an interesting addition to Uncharted 3, so long as it's only optional and the game doesn't rate you on it ala MGS. Maybe then he can only kill 400 dudes, rather than 900. Just a thought.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Brutal Legend Review

The story is as old as time itself; a roadie gets blood on his cursed belt buckle, which is actually a demon, sending him back in time to an age when the gods of rock ruled the world. Okay, maybe it’s not The Iliad, but under its half parody of/half love letter to heavy metal coating, it’s a timeless retelling of a hero’s journey - a man finding his place in the world. There have been plenty of fantasies about lowly bumpkins with surnames like Skywalker and Potter who discover their destiny to save the world, but these blokes were always unremarkable and just got lucky in discovering their destinies. They didn’t have much in the way of character traits beyond whining and being unlucky as children. Eddie Riggs, Brutal Legend’s plump protagonist, is far richer a character, with genuine enthusiasm for what he does. i.e. being a roadie and living the rock ’n roll lifestyle from the sidelines. When he’s summoned into this world, all the skills that have made him an invaluable albeit invisible part of the industry manifest themselves in ways vital to saving the world. It sounds formulaic, but there are twists along the way, and the story is told with such enthusiasm that one can’t help but get wrapped up in Eddie’s struggles, "which some would call hellish. But I have to admit, is kind of badass."

Brutal Legend’s presentation is astounding - one of the best portrayals of a virtual world in a videogame. As Tim Schafer said, "if it looks like it would belong on a metal album cover, we can put it in the game." This is well presented in the environment, littered with runes of the ancient titans of rock. A giant wall of speakers, a skull for a moon, and a hive full of metal spiders that spin metal webs (of course) are just sample of the landscape available. Brutal Legend has the best art direction of any game since Okami. I wanted to take a screencap every 10 seconds and frame it on my wall. All this is aided by phenomenal voice-work by a star-studded cast, and one of the best uses of licensed music in a game with an epic soundtrack consisting of over 100 songs. All metal. All the time.

The game is also hilarious. The opening cutscene alone had me laughing more than any game since GLaDOS met her fate at the end of Portal. A good example ofBrutal Legend’s unique brand of humor is its mockery of the videogame convention where players must choose to accept a mission or deny it, knowing full well that the game will only progress with "accept". After being briefed on a mission, the game pauses at the most inopportune moment only to ask whether to attempt the mission now or later. I recommend choosing "later" just to hear the great dialogue as Eddie has a last minute change of heart and tries to weasel out of his world saving duties.

Read the rest of the review here, at TGR.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Greatest Story Not Told

Imagine, if you will you’ll, that you’re looking at someone standing in an empty cave the size of a stadium, fighting a creature a hundred times their size. You don’t need words to explain this. It’s your classic David vs Goliath struggle, a story told entirely in images. An image, after all, is worth a thousand words. Now add music to that image. Now movement. Now control. What I’ve just described is a scene out of dungeon-crawler Demon’s Souls. It just so happens that you get to participate in those images.

Less is more

There’s little in in the way of plot, characters, or dialogue to bog things down. As such, the game functions more as an interactive picture book than an interactive movie. It’s been argued that games cannot have the depth of other, more linear forms of storytelling such as books or movies, but I believe that games tell stories that are much more abstract. These stories are based on each player’s experience of playing the game, and a game’s artistry can subtly guide this narrative experience, without overbearing the player with exposition.

Continuing with Demon’s Souls, one area of the game is based within a labyrinthine mine. You start out on the surface, along a lush canyon against the red of a sunset. As you enter the mines, you come upon dimly lit tunnels and wooden walkways. Plunging the mine deeper, you find yourself in ever darker, narrower tunnels, only to suddenly stumble upon large pools of lava with giant slug-like creatures. There’s a staggering feeling of isolation and helplessness as you realize just how deep the rabbit hole is, and this is all done with only the slightest hint of plot. Thus far, the plot has been very simple one about a cursed kingdom and an anonymous hero fighting legions of demons to save it. The story isn’t complex, yet it provides enough context to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. The real story, however, is yours as you fight the impossible fight against a gorgeously rendered backdrop.

Crackdown’s story is found in its world, not in its cut scenes.

Another game that understands this minimalistic approach to storytelling is Crackdown, even though it was frequently criticized for lacking a story. It did actually have one, but it was told entirely through its setting and gameplay mechanics. True, there is no real character development, and your only mission is to take out twenty-one targets, in whatever way you choose to. Crackdown’s story lies in its portrayal of a fascist society, something discovered by exploring its world and blowing shit up. The agents, of which your protagonist is one, are mindless drones that can be respawned from a number of supply points, a solid indication of how powerful and inhuman the Agency’s totalitarian rule is. The Agency Tower is the game’s tallest building, reinforcing the notion of a totalitarian, fascist society. The final twist reveals that the agency is (gasp) evil, and it’s hardly a surprise, given how the player has spent countless hours as a merciless killing machine. Subsequently, this heavy-handed explanation is the one point where the storytelling missteps, as it doesn’t trust players to figure out things for themselves.

Read the rest of the article here, at

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Making Exploration and Storytelling Compatible

Playing through Batman: Arkham Asylum, I realized that while I loved hunting down all the hidden collectibles and solving the wealth of Riddler challenges, it didn’t make sense for Batman to be taking time out of his busy schedule to do any of that. True, this has been the case with the majority of games, but I never really noticed it until Arkham Asylum. Maybe that’s because it’s so well-presented, or that it all conceivably occurs in real-time, given how it takes place over the course of one night and a playthrough lasts an appropriate nine to twelve hours.

Either way, it became apparent that most games suffer from this flaw. When there’s an urgent quest or mission at hand, the player is often urged to use their limitless supply of time to hunt down doodads. Even games that don’t have collectibles or side-quests still give way to exploration simply by virtue of housing a game world that can be explored. After playing through Arkham Asylum, I felt compelled to reflect on games that have sidestepped this convention, and to consider how to integrate storytelling with the player’s urge to explore, which is encouraged by any virtual world.

The Legend of Zelda’s world is expansive, exciting, and often very confusing.

The original The Legend of Zelda gets right to the heart of the matter. You didn’t explore it simply to find stuff, but rather because you were on a quest to save the princess, but had been given no instruction or direction on how to do this. Thus, there was no choice but to explore. There was almost no way of knowing if you’re going down the main path or not, outside of getting hold of the Nintendo Power map, so it never felt like you were taking time out from saving the world to collect goodies. Instead, every cave you explored was a possible further lead towards the main quest – and if it wasn’t, you probably found a nifty reward instead. Zelda was incredibly confusing at times, but at its core that lack of distinction between its main path and its side-quests was to its credit.

Appropriate exploration resurfaced in the second N64 Zelda title, Majora’s Mask, the platform provided in that game’s case by how it handled time. Unlike in most games, you couldn’t take your time in Majora’s Mask’s world, safe in the knowledge that you’d always arrive at the last minute to save the day. Instead, you had three in-game days to save the world, which constituted somewhere between fifty minutes and five hours in real-time depending on how much you slowed down time in-game. Fail, and you’d lose all progress made in that time. Rather than being a horribly frustrating, repetitious experience, you were able to revert back to the first day’s dawn at any time, keeping all the important objects you’d acquired in that time with you. This made it easy to make your way back to where you left off, and more significantly, provided the sense for Link to want to take his time to search for treasures to aid him on his quest. Simply put, Link literally had all the time in the world of Majora’s Mask.

Check out the rest of the article here at