Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How "Spaced" Got Gaming Wright

Long before Shaun of the Dead or Scott Pilgrim vs.The World, actor/writer Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright made Spaced. The half-hour British comedy aired over two short seasons from 1999 to 2001, and in that time it managed to establish both Wright and Pegg as creative forces on the UK comedy scene.

I've been meaning to watch the show for ages. This week I finally started it, and I'm very glad that I did, because it is excellent. Anyone familiar with Wright's directorial style will feel right at home with Spaced—each episode is a joyous melee of quick-cuts, double-takes, fake-outs, geeky inside jokes and surreal, horror-tinged asides. It's also really, really funny. (You can watch the entire series for free on YouTube.)

What's interesting is that in addition to serving up some great slacker humor from a killer ensemble (including longtime Pegg/Wright collaborator Nick Frost doing his best Walter Sobchack impression), Spaced has some of the most spot-on gaming humor I've ever seen onscreen.

For example, check out the show's third episode. Pegg's character Tim spends about 80% of the episode shooting zombies in Resident Evil 2 while the other characters' scenes are cleverly shot around and intercut with his game. It's awesome not only in how it effortlessly weaves the game into the show, but also in how the show really seems to understand what a game is and how people interact with one. I remember when game designer/cool dude Krystian Majewski wrote a series of posts about how gamers are typically portrayed on TV and in movies; he found that most of the time, actors held controllers incorrectly, sat facing one another, didn't look at the screen and just generally seemed off. Whether or not they played games in real life, it seemed that neither the actors nor the director knew how to correctly portray the act onscreen.

I think we've all seen enough frantic silver-screen controller-waving to know that the bulk of Hollywood productions still don't quite "get" how to recreate the actual act of gaming. But Wright has apparently gotten it for quite some time now; not only do characters in Spaced hold their controllers correctly, the show itself often incorporates gaming's visuals and rules into its storytelling and humor.

In this brilliant scene from the series one finale, Tim and his roommate Daisy (played by co-writer/co-star Jessica Hynes) get into a big row. As they trade verbal jabs, Wright intercuts their argument with shots of Tekken, which Daisy had just been playing. Each time one of them scores a point in the argument, a character from the game is shown landing a blow, and after Daisy "wins," Tim storms out and the Tekken victory theme starts to play. The game's HUD comes onscreen and the game and the real world merge in a seamless, perfectly integrated punchline.

Keep in mind, this was in 1999—talk about being ahead of the curve! There's no question that Wright spectacularly recreated the videogame experience in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. What I didn't realize was that that particular trick was old hat for him; he first pulled it off over a decade ago.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Now Playing: Games Of The Fall

Aah, Thanksgiving break. The turkey's been eaten, the stuffing is in the fridge, and all of the holiday games have finally been released. I thought I'd take a break from my meat-hangover to share some random thoughts on the games I've been playing lately.

I kind of been futzing around with most of these, so I have no final opinions to offer. I seem to find myself picking at a game for a while, then switching to another one, then switching back, then taking a break for a day or two. Only rarely am I able to pursue a single title for a significant amount of time.

Maybe it's the fact that every game I'm playing feels just like a game I've already played... and as so many reviews are quick to point out, that's not a bad thing per se, but I can't help but wonder if it's contributing to my lack of focus. After I've finished these games and had a little time to digest them, I'll hopefully have a chance to explore these a bit more in subsequent, more-focused posts.

So heat up some leftovers and grab a comfy chair, cuz here we go.
My experience has been mainly with the Single player campaign, and it's been mixed. For the first few hours I found the game to be engaging, at least as these things go—put some historical fiction into my action gaming and I'll be a happy camper. But with respect to those who believe it to be a quantum storytelling leap over its predecessors... I just don't really see it. It's the same hodgepodge of unrelated setpieces as before, it's just that Treyarch figured out a clever way to frame it all and give it the appearance of narrative consistency. But come on; some guy wants to kill some other guys, and there's an attack planned on the US, and there are some numbers, and then there's an evil second-in-command dude, and a team of soldiers, some of whom die, some of whom betray you... okay, whatever. I don't really care about about it, but it's still not good storytelling.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Much Ado About “…”

It’s a little hard to pin down what didn’t work about Final Fantasy XIII. I have plenty of thoughts about the macro-management combat system, but in general I found it to be a fun and original take on RPG fighting. That the game was so firmly set on rails was initially a bit off-putting, but once I got into the flow, I found this to be a mostly forgivable flaw—particularly when I thought back to the exquisite (and very fixed) Midgar chapters that were easily my favorite part of FFVII. It certainly didn’t hurt that FFXIII was such a visual and sonic feast—the game’s beautifully rendered characters and environments went a long way toward making the story pop.

Or did they? The sights and sounds of Final Fantasy XIII were certainly capable of stimulating the senses, but why did I have such difficulty relating to the cast, or even understanding their most basic motivations and likely outcomes of any given interaction? Why was I so lost to know what was happening that I was forced to return again and again to the Datalog in order to understand what had happened in the game’s many (many) cut scenes?

Searching for clues, I looked back to a few of the series’s prior installments—most notably FFIV and FFVI (which I played on the SNES as parts II and III), whose characters were rendered as plainly as anything else from the 16-bit generation. Pixel for pixel, there wasn’t much separating FFIV’s Dark Knight protagonist Cecil from late-game addition Edge, but Cecil’s struggle to satisfy his guilty conscience after unwittingly razing a defenseless village and Edge’s anguish upon discovering that his parents had been turned into monsters—narratives that unfold across text blocks and without voice acting—are easily more gripping than anything that takes place in FFXIII.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Astro's Headphone Solution

Like many an urban apartment-dweller, I do a fair amount of gaming while wearing headphones. Not only do they spare my neighbors and roommates from the usual Sturm und Drang of videogame combat (seriously, it only takes one emplaced-gun segment to prompt a call from your landlord), headphones also add a great amount of immersion to most games and they allow me to parse and understand a game's audio in a clearer, more comprehensive way.

Over my life, I have owned a lot of headphones, from cheap-o sets bought on the go to incredibly expensive noise-canceling rigs. For the last few years, I've been down to a couple mainstays: my primary set is a pair of now-discontinued AKG K240 Studios and I've got some Sony MDRs as a second pair for recording sessions.

The Sonys sound fine, but they're closed-backed and they have a kind of brittle upper-mid frequency, so they feel a bit claustrophobic. The AKGs, on the other hand, are semi-open and really breathe; even crushed digital audio has depth and warmpth. They're a handsome set of phones as well, and are incredibly well-designed and comfortable. I can wear them for hours at a time and my ears never get tired.

The big challenge with the AKGs has always been that if I want to play online while wearing them, the 360 offers no built-in voice solution. The only way to make it work is to wear a 360 headset over my headphones, change the voice setting so that voice audio goes through the speakers, then turn it up until I can hear it. Unfortunately, that approach doesn't really work; game audio always thunders over my teammates' voices and I can never really hear what anyone's saying.

As I began to play more and more games online, it was becoming clear that I needed to invest in a good mic-and-headphones-in-one setup. But here's the quandary—all gaming-centric headphones sound terrible. Seriously. I'm sure someone out there can tell me about some amazing wireless bluetooth 7.1-surround headset that defies that rule, but I've yet to experience it. For all the bells, whistles, surround-sounds and integrated boom-mics, none of these headphones appear to be able to simply sound good.

Friday, November 19, 2010

QOTW: Victory is Ours

When it comes to videogames, many of us don't always finish what we start. Some games become too cheap or challenging, some games are too easy. Sometimes we are lured away by the promise of something new, sometimes we're only in it for the multiplayer, and sometimes we simply don't have the time.

But all of us have that one game, the nigh-impossible challenge that we finally dragged across the finish line. Hence this week's question: What game are you proudest to have beaten?

Annie:  I'm going to have to go with Quake. This was way back in high school, and my family has just gotten a shiny new PC. I initially was spending most of my quality computing time either writing overly dramatic literary analysis for Mr. Hayes' AP English class, or doing naughty things involving the modem. Quake has been out for a while already when my dad picked it up. We'd both been big fans of Wolfenstein and Doom, so when he said he'd found a new one that appeared to be partially based on Lovecraftian stuff, I was completely prepared to chuck my extra credit critique on Robert Browning's "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" and slack right the fuck off, instead. My dad was unique among the parents that I knew in that he was my primary gaming rival, as opposed to the person telling me that I should stop spending so much time in front of the computer and go date a boy or something. He set the bar for me in terms of being awesome at first person shooters, so when I finally beat Shub-Niggurath, it was at least as satisfying as knowing I was getting college credit for writing long-winded papers and using Courier New to increase the page count.

Dan:  When I was a wee lad, I spent countless hours playing the various volumes of the Infocom text adventure catalogue. I funneled time into nearly every title they released, but easily dedicated the most time into the world of Zork. I made it surprisingly far, especially considering that I was 8 or 9 years old at the time. A friend from down the block also played, and we’d share secrets on the puzzles we’d solved. Eventually, my pal picked up a hint book, which went a long way toward figuring out some of the game’s trickier elements. Shortly thereafter, my C64 breathed its last, forcing upon me an extended IF hiatus.

Fast forward to college, when, through the power of the Internet, I scored a CD-ROM copy of the Infocom library. My first order of business was to return to the Great Underground Empire. Through a combination of critical thinking, pure recall, and enough death to rival Limbo, I finally managed to fill the trophy case and proceed—proudly, if a bit uncermoniously—to the game’s terminating point. More than a decade after I’d been eaten by my first grue, it was the very essence of closure.

By the way, if anyone out there actually manages a meaningful playthrough of Zork via Black Ops, I totally want to hear about it.

Sam:  I think I'd say System Shock 2. It was a long, painstaking and terrifying process, and then to have it ruined by the crappy (totally unnecessary) ending dialog from the until-then silent player character made me simultaneously proud of my success and filled with rage at the breaking of the narrative.

I tried to beat Battletoads as a kid but that was a Sysiphian task that I eventually, after much bitterness, surrendered. Stupid rocket sleds.

Kirk: Damn, I almost have to go back to my Game Boy/Game Gear days for this, since I beat quite number of really challenging games back then. The Terminator 2 game comes to mind, but I already talked about that one in a QOTW, so I'll pick something different. Actually, I'll pick... God of War. I already talked a little bit about why I think God of War is awesome (slightly disappointing third entry notwithstanding), so I'll just say that the Hades levels of the first God of War were the first time since I can remember that a game felt quite so deliberately cheap and borderline-impossible. I must've died over a hundred times on those fucking spinning blades, with the goddam screen that asks if you'd like to lower the difficulty even though it only affects combat and won't make this level any easier and yet... I never caved. I persevered. All the way up and out, through to the ridiculously long-ass fight with Ares, all the way through to the end. I said it then, and I'll say it again—God of War is not a game that you "complete," it is a game that you beat. Into submission. Yow.

David: Sometimes with these questions I have to ponder. But I knew my answer immediately for this one, but we have to use the Way-Back machine and go the days of the Sega Genesis. I was obsessed with Rolling Thunder 2, which I played co-operatively with a friend of mine. I don't think the first Rolling Thunder ever made it to the US, maybe because they thought we couldn't handle the pain. But oh, we handled it. Progressing through this beast was very difficult. If I recall correctly, two shots would kill you and there are a lot of bullets coming your way as well as bombs and other murderous goodies. What set the game apart for me was how important it was to coordinate with your partner. We had to be perfectly in sync to progress—if one person went down, the other person had to get past a certain point on their own before their buddy would reappear. And when failure was upon us, the game had this happy jingle that would play over the Game Over screen that made me really want to through things at the television. To complete the game, we had to play through the whole thing twice, and the second time around it got even harder. I have never been so happy to make it to the end credits and here I am decades later, still proud. No one can take that victory away from us.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Who's That Hiding Under There

A new review of mine is up at Joystiq. It's of Artech's curious new downloadable game The UnderGarden, with which I was less than impressed. It's my first review for Joystiq, and I'm excited to get to do some writing for them—thanks to Justin McElroy for the gig, as well as for his gentle, effective editation.

The UnderGarden is one of a certain kind of game, let's call them "Wanderers." Wanderers don't exude a clear purpose or designer intent; they simply are. They're usually put out by a larger publisher (in this case Atari), they're often downloadable, they work well enough and are compatible with your hardware and generally don't cost too much. And yet still the question remains—why does this game exist? Is someone out there making a profound statement with The UnderGarden and I just missed it?

It's possible. At least, it's possible that many folks won't find anything particularly offensive about The UnderGarden. In fact, it feels like inoffensiveness may be the whole point.

I certainly don't think that every game must make a deep, artistic statement in order to succeed, but as I played The UnderGarden I couldn't shake the feeling that the designers were attempting to nudge me into having a profound experience when they hadn't actually created one. And more than that, the soundtrack grates and the game just doesn't feel very good to play. It's floaty and free, sure, but it lacks a distinct touch, a joy-of-motion that is paramount for a zen-game (or "vibe-game" or whatever you want to call it) to succeed.

At any rate, read my review, if ya like. And if you've had a chance to play the game or the demo, I'd be interested to hear what you thought of it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Interview: Costume Quest's Tasha Harris, Part 3

Early last week, I had a chance to head down to Double Fine's offices in San Francisco and chat with Costume Quest project lead Tasha Harris. We covered a wide range of topics, and I've run our interview in three parts—in part one, we discussed the basic concept and development of the game, and in part two we talked about her time as an animator at Pixar, as well as the process of making the leap from movies to games.

In this, the third and final part of our interview, we'll cover a grab-bag of topics, from Costume Quest's many (occasionally imagined) pop-culture references to Tasha's artistic influences, the pros and cons of motion capture, and her thoughts on games and inclusiveness.

Before we get started, I want to give huge thanks to Tasha for taking the time to talk with me, and for being so cool and helpful. Transcribing and editing an hour-long interview isn't exactly a piece of cake, but it was plenty fun and informative, and a kick to get the chance to share something like this with you guys. I hope y'all have enjoyed it!

And now, onward to part 3. Which is totally the best part.

Did you see Gus Mastrapa's column at Joystiq Division about the 3 RPGs of October? He talked about how in his opinion, Costume Quest bested both Fable III and Fallout: New Vegas.

Yeah! Oh my god, that was the biggest compliment.

Have you played the other two games?

No, I haven't. I only played Fable 1, and then my boyfriend got really into Fallout 3. I tried playing it, but I couldn't… there's something about the world, I think, that just doesn't interest me. It's kind of ugly? I don't wanna insult them, because obviously, my boyfriend loves it... I think it's just maybe not my type of thing. In general, I tend to like games that are more stylized and kind of cartoon and cute, not so much realistic.

I think that's actually something that Double Fine has in common with Pixar. Like how the human characters in both Brutal Legend and The Incredibles are stylized, but still very expressive. Sometimes I get the sense that games overlook how much animators can do—like with Uncharted 2, have you played that game?

I've seen it - I haven't played it, but we brought it into work just to kind of look at it as a reference.

It's got these unbelievable motion capture cutscenes, and they're seriously impressive. It seems like much of the industry is heading in that direction, towards mo-cap and realism.

I know. I don't really like that. (Laughs) I mean, for certain games, I think it works, if that's the style that you're going for. Especially for sports games, for instance, their goal is to look as close as possible to a real sports game. So, it makes sense.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Interview: Costume Quest's Tasha Harris, Part 2

Last week, I got a chance to sit down for an hour with Double Fine animator and Costume Quest project lead Tasha Harris. The interview was long enough to break into three parts—in part one, she and I talked about how her cute-as-hell Halloween RPG came to into being, from studio head Tim Schafer's Amnesia Fortnight idea all the way through to Xbox Live Certification. If you've yet to read it, well, you totally should.

Tasha and I also talked a bit about her time as an animator at Pixar, and what it was like making the transition from movies to videogames. Part two commences in 3... 2... 1...

Tell us a little about your time at Pixar, and how you came to Double Fine.

I had been working at Pixar for about nine years. It's a great company, and I feel really lucky to have been there. I really enjoyed that time of my life, but after nine years I just felt like I needed to do something new. I felt like artistically, I was kind of in a rut.

What was your job at Pixar?

I was an animator.

So that was the first job you had out of college?

Yeah. Besides working for my dad at his steel company, yeah.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Interview: Costume Quest's Tasha Harris, Part 1

I loved Costume Quest. From the first time I heard about it, I had a feeling it'd be one of my favorite games of the fall, and after playing it to 100% completion (the first time I've done that!), I can say that it met my expectations. It's cute, breezy, funny, easy on the eyes and pretty much entirely enjoyable in just about every way.

So, you can imagine how excited I was when David told me that he had met the game's project lead, Tasha Harris, at the Alternative Press Expo a few weeks ago. After David mentioned Gamer Melodico to her, she'd said she read the site and would be down to do an interview. Because we are just that frickin' cool.

Last Monday, I met up with Tasha at Double Fine's offices in San Francisco's SoMa district. After showing me around their very groovy workspace (they have a wall of Psychonauts concept art that'd blow your hair back), she and I headed across the street and grabbed lunch. We talked for about an hour about all sorts of stuff—from her time as an animator at Pixar to the process of developing Costume Quest to the art of designing a game's "Peggle Moment." The final transcription wound up being long enough to break into several parts, which I'll be running throughout the week.

But enough gabbing from me. Shall we begin? We shall.

KH: So, Costume Quest! Maybe tell us a bit about the game's origins, and the Amnesia Fortnight Project.

TH: Tim [Schafer] had the idea for Amnesia Forthight to foster creativity in the studio and maybe get people's minds off of what we were working on (Brutal Legend) for a couple weeks. So we divided the company into four teams and each team has two weeks to make a demo of a game. And one of those games was the demo for Costume Quest.

And the other games are currently getting made as well, right?

Right. The other three games we're working on are all from Amnesia Fortnight.

Was the idea a bit born from the exhaustion of working on one huge project?

Yeah, a little bit. It really turned out well because later, when we found out we're not doing Brutal Legend 2, we had all these demos ready to be pitched. Some of them were good ideas! So I think it turned out really good for the company that we had done that, that we weren't just stuck saying "Uh oh, now we need to come up with some ideas!" Instead, we had a demo, and we just did a little more work on it during the time we were pitching to make it playable and more user-friendly.

Friday, November 5, 2010

We Are Sex Bob-omb

Last night, I finally beat Gideon Graves.

My mini-Kim Pine had been struggling to do so for a few evenings running, each time hanging on a bit longer, only to be yanked through subspace to the next bizarre torment—an assembly line full of robots and flying steampunk people, a dark, glassy maze populated by flying hydra heads where it rains giant drops of acidic blood, an embiggenated monster Gideon with abs made of what appear to be zombie faces… You know how it is. You grind your way through it a few times, and if you don't succeed, you just have to put the controller down for a day or two.

Anyhow, this last grind-through, I made it. To look at my HP, it might have seemed that Kim and I were hanging on by the skin of our teeth, each avoided attack a near miss, each hit landed with sheer luck. However, this was not the case. I had spent mine and Game-Kim's time apart over the last few days catching up with the original Book-Kim, where I had come to fully grok what many of the people who know me best in the real world had been telling me for weeks: "Not that we all live in 'Scott Pilgrim' or anything, but obviously Kim Pine is YOU". I resented it at first. "Yay", I would say. "I'm a sarcastic tertiary ginger sidekick, please marginalize me out of the narrative of our lives". However, I cannot deny that this was the reason I chose to play as Kim when given the opportunity, and indeed, the more I read the books themselves, the more I felt a kinship with her. Through the lens of the story's many relationship follies she and I fused, bonded, and emerged from on the other side determined and hungry, ready to face Gideon Graves again.

Kim's and my newfound sense of unity made "us" lucid, lethal and unstoppable. Gideon never really stood a chance. After a respectable struggle, he went down hard, erupting into a shower of Canadian coins, and his secret laboratory started to rumble ominously. I sat staring from my living room, but luckily Kim had the presence of mind to high-tail it out of there and watch the collapse from a high, safe building across the street. However, I couldn't shake the feeling that whatever ginger voodoo had been holding us together dissolved—and not a moment too soon, because what happened next sort of annoyed me.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Who Will Be My Shepard?

Have you heard the tale of John Shepard: Infiltrator? He was kind. He was brave. He preferred sniper rifles and had a stepped-on sort of face that made him look less like a Notre Dame quarterback (a form favored by many of his Shep-brethren) and more like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’m not terribly proud of that last fact, which I blame on the constraints of a limited character generation system.

In the first Mass Effect, John Shepard: Infiltrator strong-armed the Alliance into releasing a woman’s remains to her grieving husband and helped a chagrined Elcor out of a tough situation. He would admit that he once screwed over a Hanar businessman for a handful of credits but that afterward he felt really, really bad about it. He could shoot the wings off a fly but wouldn’t dare hurt one who didn’t deserve it. He even wanted to hook up with Ashley, but when Liara showed up in his quarters, he knocked boots with her without letting on that he was actually a little disappointed. What a guy!

This was John Shepard: Infiltrator, and he was a badass. I was glad to have known him. He was my Shepard.