Monday, January 31, 2011

Question of the Week: Warm Fuzzies

So you’ve got this lair, or this orbiting space fortress, or this princess locked in a cage in your gray-bricked, lava-filled dungeon. You’re on top of the world for the most part, aside from the occasional marauding hero or superspy or fashion-victim plumber.

But you’re only human(ish). Sometimes, you have a nice big dinner and a couple of cocktails and you just want to take a night off and watch Love, Actually. Sometimes you yearn for the companionship of some good friends who aren’t, who have never been your henchmen. Sometimes you just want to ride a pony.

It’s the question of the week, people. And that question is:


Friday, January 21, 2011

If I Haed a Time Mashine

Remember that SNL sketch from the mid-’90s, where someone (Kevin Nealon? Rob Schneider?) is having dinner with some acquaintances, and he keeps thinking of great responses to things the others are saying, just a few seconds too late? And then he excuses himself from the table, gets into a time machine, and returns to the table at the beginning of the meal to deliver his punchlines on time?

I just watched this “DOT DOT DOT” video for like the fifth time. By now you’ve seen it, so I’ll forgo the exposition. (If you haven’t seen it just GO WATCH IT.)

But get in the time machine with me for a second so I can go re-make the graphic for last Tuesday’s Question of the Week:

Say whatever you want, my comic timing is impeccable.

Videogame Music: Scarlett’s Spark of Life

So, music and games, music and games, music and games. It’s a relationship that we hold in high regard around here. Last week, we saw a couple of posts on the subject—one by Stephen Totilo of Kotaku and a well-crafted next-day response by Dan Bruno on his blog, Cruise Elroy.

Totilo’s post was food for thought, and in case that sounds like it has a bit of a begrudging spin to it, let me clarify: I enjoyed reading the post but I either disagreed with its conclusion (“Until 2010 I felt [games musicians] were required. In 2010, however, my behavior proved they were not”) or accepted it as unremarkable (“Games are the entertainment of meddlers and tinkerers. We, the players, will change them to suit ourselves”). At this point, I’m essentially echoing what Mr. Bruno said in his post—in his much more eloquent and metered fashion.

Like the aforementioned authors (both of whom, I should note, are excellent games journalists), I’m absolutely not shy about pulling the plug on a game’s music when it has been playing for a while on an infinite loop. This often happens somewhere around the 15-hour mark, once my subconscious has absorbed all four of the tunes that a game has to offer to the point where I’m humming them in my sleep. Without any data whatsoever to show for it, I actually think we’re at a bit of a turning point in this regard; that it was in the last 10 years or so that games became so long that they required a score more complex than, say, Super Mario World. I can’t possibly count the number of games in which I’ve turned the sound off and never looked back—in college I even made a special “Zerg” mix for the original Starcraft. (Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral factored heavily.)

Anyway, this is all just backstory—I really just want to share an experience that I’m currently having with a game whose soundtrack felt absolutely essential to the experience: Scarlett and the Spark of Life, which I recently wrapped up on the iPhone. I purchased the game to keep me company while on a recent business trip to southern California, during a trade show for my day job. The show itself gets extremely busy, but there’s also plenty of downtime—last year, ever the late adopter, I picked up Flight Control and absolutely played the shit out of it. (Incidentally, Flight Control is a funny game to play when you’re waiting for a plane. I’m sure I’m not the first to say so.)

Besides having fantastic music, Scarlett is also a game with very little music: instead of providing a backdrop for gameplay, music in Scarlett mostly underscores player progress. Each time the player solves a puzzle, the music—an acoustic guitar-driven Renn-Fest jangle—serves as part of the reward. It almost never loops, even when you want it to... And if you’re at all like me, you will almost certainly want it to.

While on this particular business trip, one of my co-workers and I were paired by our company to be roommates. Although I could argue for the necessity of “games musicians” to the point of asphyxiation, I absolutely cannot stand hearing music from someone else’s portable gaming device—and I certainly was not about to let the sound of Scarlett’s puzzle-solving interfere with my colleague's post-show relaxation. It also didn’t feel quite right to throw on headphones while in someone else’s company. With these self-imposed conditions, I realized I had only two real choices: I could either push ahead and play without sound, or simply wait until later to play the game.

In the end, I chose to wait. By all accounts, Scarlett and the Spark of Life is a short game, but it took me a full week to finish. My hotel-room experience proved to be just the beginning—it turns out there aren’t many times when I’m alone enough to comfortably play a mobile game with the sound turned on. (I dunno, I guess that’s a good thing?)

Totilo closes his piece with the following: “We take a risk ignoring video game music, because we can and because it suits the behavior of a gamer. I’m now one of those people. I hope I don’t miss something great.” The truth is I’m not sure why I was compelled to leave Scarlett’s sound on when I booted it up for the first time—my iPhone is almost always set to vibrate, so I rarely ever hear the sound of the games that I’m playing. In one noteable instance, I played the entirety of Peggle without ever hearing the hilarious “Ode to Joy” explosion at the end of each level. I had no idea it was even there, and although I loved the game, I still missed out on something great.

As much as I’m enjoying Scarlett, it’s also the kind of game that will almost certainly never get a second playthrough, so I can only say this: I’m glad I didn’t miss out.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Question of the Week: One-Trick Pony

Okay, “One-Trick Pony” is not even a fair title for this post. To call something a one-trick pony is to imply that it only DOES ONE THING, and then does it over and over and over again, like Dead Rising. THAT’S RIGHT I SAID IT.

This week, we’re joined by friend of the show Mitch Krpata (/colbert) of the amazing Insult Swordfighting. So maybe a better title for this post would be:

Question of the Week: Coffee with Mitch Edition


There, that’s better. Without further ado:


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Risk for iPhone: It's Lonely on Top of the World

World domination does not come quickly or easily. Destroying one’s enemies takes time and purpose, especially in a system whose rules have no real regard for the word “ally.” Having grown up in the company of friends who shared my love of Hasbro’s classic board game Risk, I know that any campaign to globalize one’s power must of necessity be one of violence and broken promises, and can generally be expected to last at least two to three hours.

And so it was with some degree of skepticism that I allowed myself to purchase EA’s iPhone adaptation of the legendary tabletop game. I have come to regard mobile games as ways to pass the time while in transit or suffering from bouts of insomnia, and even a two-hour game—short by Risk standards—made me wonder if I’d ever see a single round through to the end. What’s more, I was sure that my favorite thing about a good game of Risk, the diplomacy dance between friends, must be a notable omission. But EA’s $0.99 holiday sale overcame my objections like a trio of rampaging sixes, and before long I was selecting territories via touchscreen.

As my dreaded red army began to spread its influence north from South America, fortifying its borders in Alaska and knocking on Europe’s door with a few skirmishes in Iceland, it began to dawn on me that my favorite features of a good tabletop game include the “house rules”—the ways that families and friends compensate for gray areas in the manual, create alternate systems of play, or simply misinterpret a game’s intended guidelines. Although some adaptations offer a handful of options for altering gameplay, such games can usually be counted on to deliver a very by-the-book experience.

Because of this, I often learn a fair amount about a game’s intended rules when I pick up its videogame version. I’ll never forget the experience of playing the Game Boy port of Monopoly for the first time and learning that the only two options one has when landing on a new property were to buy it or auction it to the other players. Has anyone in the history of board games actually auctioned an unwanted Monopoly property in the company of friends? I'd wager that even the Parker Brothers themselves were caught off guard by that one.

Apparently, when one defeats a Risk opponent and claims his or her cards, one may (and often, must) immediately cash them in for extra troops, given that one has ended up with an appropriate troop-earning combination. If you’re a Risk fan, you probably knew this already, but I certainly did not—we were so eager to put cannons on the map and make cease-fire pacts (the inevitable breaking of which rarely failed to be the best moments of the game) that we had little regard for the minute details of the game’s rules. We played by our rules.

It turns out that a round of iPhone Risk is pretty short. The iPhone is an incredibly efficient device when it comes to the rolling of dice—when you strip out the human drama of the roll, the shake and the hope and the searching of an opponent’s eyes, the toss and the tally and the cries of victory and defeat, it turns out there really isn’t much to it. My red army conquered Europe and pushed into Asia via Kamchatka. Taking out five opponents in a single-turn offensive that would make Sun Tzu blush, I cashed in cards until I had enough troops to coat the globe in glorious monochromatic hegemony. The game gave me a digital medal for winning my first round. Almost no time had passed. There was no board, no pieces to put away. I turned off my phone with an audible click, and I was alone.

Monday, January 10, 2011

This One Goes Out to the One I Love

Okay folks, that’s a wrap. I mean, not to be a buzz-kill but the holidays are over and it’s time to get back to the grind (or start grinding, as the case may be). Between returning to the dreaded day-job and battling any number of New Year’s resolutions, it can be increasingly difficult to dedicate what little free time remains to our one, true (non-human) love: videogames. Of course, it’s our business as self-respecting game geeks to make time, and as such, one of my favorite post-present-season rituals is sifting through the year’s bounty in search of a title or two that truly deserve that extra chunk of hard drive space. Admittedly, coming to a consensus can be a difficult task. I have to remind myself that enduring the long, steady hours required of most single-player campaigns also requires at least half those hours be subject to the many squabbles, sighs, and sideways glares I am bound to receive in abundance from my infinitely patient and incredibly lovely wife. Let’s face it, significant others and gaming consoles were just not designed for compatibility, so it is imperative that every moment count. Well then, how does one choose? I’m sure there’s a mathematical formula out there somewhere that could churn out a statistically viable response, but sometimes you just need to go with your gut and play what feels... comfortable.

As a very lucky son and husband, I received loads of new games to sift through after pulling in a modest completely ridiculous haul this year. From Civ V to Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood to Demon’s Souls, I’ve certainly got my bases—and platforms—covered. But despite the magnetism of an unopened disc still fresh in the cellophane, I can’t help but be drawn to some of the epic works I’ve already become so familiar with. This comes as no surprise, of course. When one craves some semblance of comfort, they often turn to what they already know. For instance, I could start a new Dragon Age campaign. I’ve been toying with the notion of going back and playing a dark elf who lets his blade do the talking when confronted by the prejudices of Ferelden. Or I might revisit the original Mass Effect and try to play through both titles as the same Renegade FemShep (as should be canon, imo). I’ve been meaning to revisit Alpha Protocol for a veteran run-through, and I still haven’t finished Deadly Premonition. Hell, it’s been years since I booted up The Longest Journey—I wonder if I still have a copy lying around?

Dang, see what I mean? These are perfect examples of what I would consider to be comfort games; those old stand-bys you just know are gonna rock your world because they’ve rocked it before. The game-journo community may not always agree with the degree to which these games have the potential to rock, but that’s OK. In fact, that’s what makes them truly yours. As far as I’m concerned, this love can’t be reduced to graphical screen-by-screen comparisons, Metacritic scores, or blog-roll hype (despite many of my examples having fared well in each of those arenas). If these games pass critical muster, that’s great but let’s be real: there are some games that you just want to play because YOU JUST WANT TO PLAY THEM. For whatever reason, these particular games just make me happy and, despite putting the wife through all the late dinners, deaf ears, and Neanderthal grunts of, “five more minutes, hon”, they’re worth it.

All of a sudden, in a fit of over-analysis, I begin to lose confidence in everything I know about myself as a gamer. Some of these games involve a fairly huge commitment, and I am not one for half-assing it. Do I really want to play any of these again, right now? I anxiously continue to deliberate over which of these massive worlds to dive back into, and my head grows a little heavy. I feel the sidequesting, free-roaming and endless looting weighing on the back of my mind and suddenly, it begins to seem like 10PM on a Sunday night. Don’t get me wrong, I love open-world adventure games and RPGs (obvs), but sometimes getting back into the grind, starting fresh knowing perfectly well how long a stint you’re in for—well, it can feel like work. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s not a very comforting thought. At this moment, I want to skip the power-leveling and get right to the fun bits. If I’m being honest with myself, I suppose I need to consider the fact that maybe I don’t feel like playing any of these games, whatsoever.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Exquisite Pain of Super Meat Boy

It was back in the heady days of NES gaming that I first experienced the toll videogames can take on one’s hands. I’ve never suffered from real gaming-induced ailments like carpal tunnel or repetitive stress, but that rectangular control paddle nevertheless managed to extract a pound of flesh from my poor right thumb. Nintendo games featured just two primary buttons in game play, and often required that they be used nearly constantly and often simultaneously: one button to sprint and another to jump; one to jump and another to shoot; one to jab one’s sword and another to hurl a magic boomerang—you get the idea. The shape and size of my thumb was such that, when pressing both buttons at the same time, the rightmost button (inexplicably labeled “A”) fell directly underneath the joint at the digit’s not-quite-padded center.

It wasn’t pain in the fullest sense of the word, but there was still a certain amount of physical and existential discomfort involved. Physical, because ow, my thumb. Existential, because something had come between me and an activity with which I otherwise could have occupied myself to no end: I am made out of meat.

Fast forward about 20 years to Super Meat Boy, a game that brought me right back to the golden age of platforming. Two meat-filled hours of running and jumping gave my right thumb a glow as raw and red as anything the late ’80s could dish out. I don’t know if you want to call that a ringing endorsement, but I have to accept it as some kind of testament to the game’s quality.

This wasn’t the only sweet sting to be found in Super Meat Boy—let’s consider our protagonist. To call this a game about the experience of dying would sound macabre, heavy, and not a little bit melodramatic.  Meat Boy suffers from none of the above because is a game about dying over and over and over again; its primary sources of delight are the whimsy with which one can dispatch its central character and the accompanying balance between reward and punishment.

For starters, the life-and-death cycle of young Meat Boy is just so… rapid. We’re neither forced to watch him suffer nor suffer ourselves through the obligatory moment of reflection (and just-as-obligatory load screen) that accompanies player death in most games. Consider the out-of-body experience of dying in Fallout 3 or the hovercam I’m-being-eaten screens of Resident Evil; the respawn ceremonies found in shooters like Left 4 Dead and Halo; the absurdly melodic “You’re dead!” interlude of spiritual ancestor and brother-in-acronyms Super Mario Brothers. Super Meat Boy skips all of these conventions: our hero walks headlong into a waiting buzzsaw and reappears at the beginning of the level in about the time it takes for the player to blink. This rapid turnover (which also worked quite well for last year’s Limbo) is a huge part of what makes the title such a winner, a fact the game both recognizes and revels in.

Much has already been written about the post-level instant-replay feature (in which one also sees each ill-fated attempt replayed simultaneously), but it is nonetheless an enormous give-back to the player, and one whose value increases with each failure. In its way, the game actually rewards the player for failing. Beyond that, it rewards the player for failing A LOT. And beyond that, it even rewards the player for failing but getting SO CLOSE (all provided that one eventually goes on to succeed).

That’s not to say Super Meat Boy isn’t an intensely frustrating game, because it most certainly is. It takes nerves of steel to get that little sack of meat past through just the game’s first chapter, and one quickly learns that behind the gaping maw of each hazard lies another just as capable of rendering him into so much ground chuck. I’m not exactly sure what lies in wait, and I’ll naively declare that I’d like to eventually ooze my way to the end—it’s just imminently clear (to my thumb, most of all) that it won’t be possible in one sitting.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On a Mission... Statement

Hello, everyone! As Kirk has pretty much said everything that needs saying, I promise to keep this as brief as possible—I wanted to take just a second to say HEY!, again, as the newly minted editor of Gamer Melodico.

I absolutely couldn’t be more thrilled/honored to take the reins here, and what better New Year’s resolution could there be than “This year, I’m going to play more games”? (Because damn, to even try to fill Kirk’s enormous 101-posts-last-year shoes, I’m going to need to play a LOT more games.)

When Kirk and I first talked about launching this here blog, we had in mind a pretty clear goal to which we’ve done our absolute best to stay true. The mission statement that goal would eventually become has never been a secret and is easy enough to find, nestled humbly off to the right margin of any given page on our site, but in the spirit of reader service, here it is again:
Gamer Melodico is a blog about games, written by friendly people who like to play.
It’s so simple! But there it is, that’s as far as we ever thought this thing through—but here we are cleaning up after our first birthday party, welcoming our newest friendly person into the fold and looking forward to another great year, and I can’t help but feel like it’s a winning formula.

So anyway, HEY! There, I said it. Here’s to new beginnings, awesome opportunities, serial commas, and a brand new year.

Game the eff on,
Dan Apczynski

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch Changes

In what will no doubt mark the 1,350th time a blog has referenced Bowie in the title of a change-related post, I wanted to take a second to let you guys know about some exciting developments 'round these parts. First of all: I have accepted the position of Games Editor at Paste Magazine!

I'm pretty well over the moon about it—Paste is the outlet for which I wrote my first game review, and it has long been a bastion of quality games writing. So many of my favorite games writers have done work for them over the years—Gus Mastrapa, Chris Dahlen, Mitch Krpata, Ryan Kuo, Leigh Alexander, John Teti, the list goes on. What's more, my predecessor Jason Killingsworth is just about the coolest dude ever (he's gone on to be features editor at EDGE, I mean dang), and I've learned so much from his example over the course of the past year. And of course, the games editor before him was Mr. Kill Screen himself, Chris Dahlen, so... yeah. The shoes, they are large.

The question I wish to address here is: What does this mean for Gamer Melodico? Well first of all, since I'm going to be devoting all of my time to assigning, writing and organizing games coverage at Paste, I'm going to be stepping down as editor of Melodico. Taking over operations here will be Mr. Dan Apczynski. Dan is a rockin' good writer (which y'all already know), but in addition to that he's a fantastic editor—his day job is as editor at Acoustic Guitar magazine, and he brings print-level standards to everything he does. He's edited my submissions to that magazine on numerous times, so I'm as sure as can be that I'm leaving Melodico in good hands, and am really looking forward to seeing what he does here.

So while I'll still be around from time to time and will doubtless remain active in the comments and contribute to some group posts, but for all intents and purposes, Dan will be piloting the good ship Melodico from here on out. If you'd like to read my more casual bloggy stuff, I've redesigned and repurposed my own blog at Kirkhamilton.com to be more of a hub for me. I'll be doing a lot more game-related blogging over there, as well as probably posting screengrabs from old Buffy episodes and talking about how much I love my coffee maker.

So, onward to my second exciting announcement, regarding our ship's crew. I'm so excited to welcome Gamer Melodico's newest contributor, Jay Pullman! Jay may only now be coming on as a staff member, but he's been an integral part of Melodico from the beginning. With his thoughtful and surprisingly in-depth comments, he's certainly made me reexamine my own conclusions, and he's nice, thoughtful and kinda weird in a way that just fits so perfectly with the rest of us. I'm really looking forward to seeing what he comes up with this year, and hope that you'll join me in welcoming him aboard.

So. Lots of exciting stuff going on at the moment. I'm going to be working my ass off over at Paste, doing my damnedest to leverage my increased access into some kick-ass coverage. In particular, I hope to make Paste a place that is welcoming to game-designers, somewhere where we look at the work that they do and make it accessible to laypeople. I want to inform readers about the process of making a game, but I also want to talk about the people who make them.

So, I hope you'll stop by and give us your eyeballs and attention! Not like actually give us your eyeballs, just... you know what I mean. Paste had a bit of a tumultuous fall, and there will be some announcements shortly about the site's new direction, etc. But suffice to say, cool stuff is afoot, and we'll need everyone's help with getting the word out. In the meantime, I'll be getting up to full velocity over there, so I hope you'll take the time to follow us on Twitter, subscribe to our Games RSS feed, etc.

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and predict that 2011's gonna be pretty fun. Happy New Year!

Over to you, Dan.