Friday, April 22, 2011

Pwemed: Portal Edition

Greetings, beatniks.


Grab a cappuccino, crack open your composition book and pull up a stool in front of the open mic. We are gathered to celebrate the release of Portal 2—sequel to Valve's brilliant first-person puzzler—with a series of "pwems" dedicated to this beloved franchise.

To mark the occasion, I’ve trudged through the depths of my own inner-turmoil and despair, bouncing between portals of thought to navigate my way through the subconscious (hey, is my beret on straight?) in order find the most appropriate literary vessel for our subject. I figured, Portal is a short game. The premise is simple (GTFO!), but it's hardly a shallow game experience.

So how does one capture this essence in a poem? The dirty limerick seemed to lack a certain drama, so I went with my second choice. Ladies and gents, for your reading pleasure, five Portal haikus haiki haiku after the jump.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

PAX East 2011: Jurassic Park Preview

Editor's note: We couldn't be more pleased to announce that we've unearthed a major paleontological find—a relic from March 2011; a preview of Jurassic Park: The Game and an interview with Telltale Games' Nick Herman. From what our scientists could gather, this particular piece was buried in a massive landslide and fossilized a casualty of my own recent period of transition. The first of the game's five-episode season is due to be available this month and is currently available for pre-order through the game's official website.

Reporting for this piece is courtesy of Dr. J.P. Grant, Professor of Barbasol Embryo Studies at the University of Made-Up Doctorates.

At PAX East last month, I sat down with Nick Herman, Cinematic Artist at Telltale Games, who was on hand to demo the studio’s upcoming Jurassic Park: The Game. Like previous Telltale efforts, Jurassic Park will release in a five-episode format; the first installment is scheduled to drop this month on PC and Mac, and on consoles in the fall.

From the 20 or so minutes I spent with the game, it was easy to see how much Telltale is looking to the 1993 film for inspiration. Set halfway through the events of the first movie, the game will feature all original characters on another part of the island. We will visit some familiar locations, it seems: “A lot of environments that are in the movie, we revisit here,” says Herman. While there won’t be any cameos from Wayne Knight or Samuel L. Jackson, there will be references to characters, sequences, and artifacts from the movie—including, of course, the famous Barbasol can full of dinosaur embryos. Herman couldn’t get into specifics, but it looks like that particular loose thread from the movie may be tied up in the game.

So far, the game’s look tracks pretty close to the movie’s. “We want to make sure that people feel like it’s a good representation of the film, so of course we’re going to have to copy a lot of the lighting techniques and the colors,” Herman explains. He says the development team has worked closely with Universal Studios to ensure the game’s look and feel matches that of the film and is representative of the franchise. “They’ve been super supportive,” Herman reports, and have even given the developers assets to work with.

Although the story is linear—“It’s a very directed experience,” Herman says—Telltale wants to balance it with puzzle and action sequences. The player interacts with the game world through a series of Heavy Rain-style prompts, with occasional quick time events punctuating the action sequences. (I played the PC version using a wired Xbox controller; although this is the way Herman says Telltale recommends you play, the game is also compatible with a keyboard/mouse control scheme.) Unlike previous Telltale games, you can fail in Jurassic Park—leading to some brutal (and kinda hilarious) death animations. When you die, the game restarts you almost exactly at the moment you left off, minimizing frustration.

Two other conveniences help the player overcome challenges. The first is a system Telltale calls “Dialogue on Demand.” Pushing the right trigger brings up conversation options, which can lead to new actions. In one sequence, I had veterinarian Gerry Harding ask his daughter Jess to fetch an access code for a locked door. The game then transitioned me into the role of Jess so I could search her vehicle’s glove box. Later, I would guide Jess away from the gaping jaws of an attacking T-Rex. Because the story is so linear, the ability to experience the story from different characters’ perspectives is a nice twist to keep players engaged.

There’s also a sort of fast-travel system in Jurassic Park: The Game. Using the left trigger, you can pull up a menu of scenes, then use the D-pad to select the one you want to visit. Moving between scenes may transition you into playing as a different character. It sounds like this feature may be useful for solving puzzles that require contributions from multiple characters in multiple locations. Although the narrative is “very cinematic,” Herman says, the puzzle design is created to “make people feel like they’re having an effect on the world.”

Like most games aimed at a wide audience, Telltale has its work cut out for them in balancing simplicity with difficulty. While the developer is no newcomer to adventure games and even beloved movie franchises, this is the first time they’ve worked with a motion capture studio. Getting mocap data that can be used multiple times (for example, for similar animations) has been a challenge, Herman confesses. However, the result seems to have paid off so far, as Jurassic Park possesses a greater degree of photorealism than their previous efforts. And Telltale’s also been able to draw on an unexpected resource in working toward verisimilitude: a Bay Area paleontologist has been helping them integrate, as Herman puts it, some “real science” into the fantasy dinosaur fiction of the franchise.

Based on what I saw, it looks like Telltale could have another winner on its hands. However, given the limited means of interacting with the game world, the ease of overcoming obstacles, and the relentlessly linear format, I couldn’t help feeling Jurassic Park: The Game was geared toward a younger audience. It remains to be seen whether players of all ages will be willing to revisit Isla Nublar when the first episode of the game ships this month.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

PAX East 2011: Roundup, Part 2

Editor’s note: Somehow, a whole lot of time went by between “PAX East 2011: Roundup Part 1” and this post, but that’s only because we’ve been WORKING ON IT THE ENTIRE TIME.

Okay, that’s not exactly true, but there is still much to be said about the weekend. For one thing, there were other people there, some of whom had things to say about other things. There were talks, meetings, gatherings, panels, round-tables, and various other community-minded experiences to be had. Let's talk about those, shall we? We are joined again by our Senior PAX East Correspondents, J.P. Grant and Sarah Elmaleh.

Do you have any thoughts on the panels you attended?

Sarah: Might as well start with people’s inability to ask proper questions. It’s a mainstay of any Q&A, across all fields and interests, so I don’t hold it against PAX or its attendees in particular. It’s just a perennial pain in the ass.

JP: Good Lord. One marvels at the consistency on that front. I mean, I understand being star-struck to some degree, but nothing excuses getting up to the mic to ask Ken Levine a tripartite question about Big Daddies’ genital endowments.

Sarah: Wow. I meant making sure to have—and justify—a question mark at the end of your comment. But that’s...that question is literally improper. I actually remember being surprised at the quality of the questions at last year’s PAX East, surpassing all other Q&As in memory. Particularly on the gender/LGBT front.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Finish Him

I never would have expected today to bring the amount of Mortal Kombat into my life that it did—due in no small way to two related posts that I happened to read. What a trip. It’s fair to say that I spent more time reminiscing about Mortal Kombat today than I have in the last decade. My Kombat of choice was MK2, and it was at a lawless arcade called Tilt that I chose to nuke my 1994 allowance.

Looking back, I think the craziest part of the whole arcade fighting game phenomenon was the word-of-mouth nature of the insane button sequences required to pull off the moves—particularly the game’s trademark “fatalities”. We used to watch and wait our turns, trying to catch a glimpse of what other players were doing to generate difficult moves. The fact that I was terrible at this approach is probably largely responsible for my dismal win record (which I wouldn't have a chance to correct until the game hit consoles).

It’s been a while since I picked up a fighting game in any real way, although there was a time in my life when I considered myself to be a pretty formidable cross-title opponent: Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Tekken, and Killer Instinct were all experiences with which I was pretty well acquainted. I tried Tekken 6 a while back, and found it a pretty empty experience—it was like two close friends meeting up for the first time in ten years and realizing that they actually just didn't have much to talk about.

As Kill Screen’s piece observes of Mortal Kombat, “You beat up people/demons/robots. The game is more fun the better you are at playing it.” It’s sort of a universal maxim for fighting games—prepare to commit, or don’t even bother! The thought of memorizing the proper button combinations to pull off a finishing move is just astounding to me now—there’s just no way. I regret that I may never again be able to truly love a title like this in the way I had once been able to.

Nevertheless, upon opening the KS post, I was absolutely entranced and couldn’t stop myself from fording that river of fatality clips from MK9.

Afterwards, I must have been woozy from soaking my brain in all that serotonin, because I suddenly found myself standing in the center of the room, just kind of shifting from knee to knee while staring blankly downward and to the right.

To and fro. Swaying. Waiting.

Then, when nothing happened after like five seconds, I fell over onto my back.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

It's Not a Friggin' Walking Stick

I JUST CANNOT TAKE IT ANYMORE. I can no longer sit here and be a party to what is happening in this game.

Dragon Age 2 is a game that is, at least in part, about an escalating philosophical and cultural conflict between two groups of people located in and around the fictional city of Kirkwall. On one side, there are the Templar (have I pluralized that properly? Has a much more elegant ring than "Templars"), an armor-clad and institutionally corrupt group of anti-magic fighters and rogues. On the other, the mages themselves, a group whose unpredictably potent powers have made the Templar Order a necessity. The Templar exist ostensibly to help protect the world from the mages (and the mages from themselves), a relationship that raises some serious human-rights (and elf-rights?) issues that are naturally exacerbated by the aforementioned abuses of power.

Many mages, seeking to avoid repression, do their very best to escape the attention of the Templar, who in turn scour the city of Kirkwall for unregistered magic users. Even among Hawke's own party, there is some amount of disagreement over whether mages should be granted the same agency and freedoms as non-mages, and a degree of fearfulness among Hawke's magic-using friends about being discovered.

(Deep breath.)

Let's forget, for a moment, that the nature of this repressive relationship is somewhat dissonant (if the mages are as powerful as alleged, the Templar's abuses seem unlikely; if the mages are weak enough to be thusly controlled, then the Templar Order would seem like less of a necessity). Let's also forget the ham-fisted parallels to Earthly human-rights struggles (particularly the groan-inducing references to a "Tranquil Solution" uggghhhhh).

As far as advancing the plotline is concerned, I've definitely aligned myself with the mages. They can't help the gifts that they've been born with, and my bro-Hawke rogue is steadfast in his conviction that education and tolerance would catch more flies than purges and isolation. Plus, magic is cool.

And despite all of this, I'm about to throw the Templar Order a bone. So here goes:


Dear Templar,

For as long as we have known one another, you have been scouring the lands of Kirkwall and Ferelden (
DA:O, holla) for apostate mages. While you seem to have achieved a fair amount of success, I could not help but notice a glaring oversight in your methods.

Have you ever noticed all of the people running around Kirkwall with staves attached to their backs? THOSE ARE THE MAGES. GO AFTER THE PEOPLE WITH THE EFFING STAVES!!

Dan Apczynski

Monday, April 11, 2011

Movin' On Up

Hello everyone—so sorry for the radio silence at Gamer Melodico for the past two weeks! My wife and I have been in the middle of an across-town move, and life has just been a flurry of packing tape and trips to Home Depot. I’ve been almost completely out of the loop—what have I missed?

I’ve barely even been playing games, aside from my continuing slog through Dragon Age 2. But damn, our new apartment is just amazing. This about sums it up:

More to come. Feels good to be back!