Sunday, October 23, 2011

Professor Layton and a Gentleman's Patience

Professor Layton and the Last Specter
Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Level-5
N.A. Release: October 2011

A stereotypical gamer action that has always annoyed me is the way some will complain about any text and semblance of story building a game, demanding they get back to “the action” as soon as possible. I'm willing to hold some empathy if the game is nothing but bullets and explosions and suddenly wants to derail that for a small Shakespearean performance, but if a game is actually trying to establish a certain atmosphere or depth throughout its course, then its dialogue and recorded contributions are worth more than a spastic mash of the continue button.

Of all things, I thought puzzle games would be safe from this knee-jerk criticism. They're about as cerebral an exercise as you can get on a screen, and if a player is willing to take a hefty number of minutes considering the answer to a puzzle, surely an interesting plot would be worth the time as well.

Note the lack of stoners and dog.
Professor Layton and the Last Specter, as with the other games in the series, loosely frames its puzzles within an overarching mystery that reveals itself in pieces along the way. Kotaku's Stephen Totilo, in a recent “quick impressions” article, expressed his distaste with the way Last Specter establishes its plot:

The problem is that the game opens with long cutscenes, a mistake in handheld gaming that I thought was exclusive to to the PSP and, 17 minutes into my first session, I only found one puzzle. I'm not playing Layton for the story. I want more puzzles, and I wanted them right away.”

I have no ill will toward Mr. Totilo, and his impressions are valid if this is what he felt at the time. However, I would like to offer a gentlemanly counterpoint.

I can clearly see how someone would be frustrated by cutscenes in a portable game if they had, say, limited playtime on the bus. The surge of phone-based games such as Angry Birds cater to this desire for a pick-up-play-and-quickly-stuff experience, and there is certainly no shame in that.

But to say that long cutscenes are a “mistake” for portable games that wish to employ them seems too broad of a statement. There are a great many people who play their DS and PSP at home for long periods of time. Each system possesses both quick-play games and lengthy RPGs that sink time into story. Both kinds receive loyal audiences and there seems to be no reason to decry one over the other.

A cutscene about reading? The horror!
To take the story out of Professor Layton would leave you with little more than an interactive puzzle book. Some people would like this, of course, and there are games out there exactly like that. But I'm not sure many Layton fans would want to see this happen to their series.

There is a unique and extremely charming style—both aesthetically and through its stories and characters—that sets the Layton series apart and helps drive its play. Is it always perfect? It may have a couple dull points, sure, as many stories do. But I doubt the majority of people who enjoy the series would be willing to drop it all to get to the puzzles quicker. It's not like Level-5 is just hacking this stuff up for filler. When your developer is working with the world-renowned Studio Ghibli, perhaps they know what they're doing.

I'm not so conceited to say that the mysteries of Professor Layton would appeal to everyone. That is a matter of personal taste and such criticisms should be respected. But to complain about the mere presence of a story over the actual substance of it, that... well, it causes an ache inside that makes me want to hug a book. Our world becomes increasingly geared toward instant gratification, but sometimes we need an English gentleman to remind us how to savor our moments.

Friday, October 14, 2011

K.O.L.M. and Mechanical Mommy Issues

Platform: In-Browser Flash
Developer: Armor Games
Release: November 2010

If you have not played K.O.L.M. yet, I heartily suggest you click that link above and give it a go before coming back here. It's a solid, simple, atmospheric platformer that'll take an hour tops to beat—and since you came here, it's likely you have some time to kill, anyway. Otherwise, you're going to hit spoilers, so don't say I didn't warn you.

K.O.L.M. is the charmingly mysterious tale of a robot brought into a bleak world by a remote, matronly being known as Mother. Stumbling and half-blind, the fragile creation leans on the guidance of Mother to find the parts he needs to become whole again.

I wish my mother used emoticons when I was growing up...
If you've been reading this touching synopsis so far (or not reading this and actually playing the game) and thought, “So when does Mother flip out and try to mess this robot's junk up?” then congratulations, you've been paying attention to the role of the matriarchal voice in many sci-fi games.

There's something about a dystopian future that seems ripe for the placement of a calm, feminine voice to lull the player toward the inevitable eviscerating machines. Portal's GLaDOS is the hands-down favorite in this department, although System Shock 2's SHODAN is noteworthy at the most very least for coming onto the scene 8 years earlier. Halo fans even question whether the helpful AI Cortana went nuts during the series.

Perhaps the element lies in the disorientation a futuristic setting effects upon us. Much like toddlers, we are attracted to a helpful voice, even if we aren't fully aware of its source and, as we gain more self-awareness, become increasingly wary and concerned of its behavior. You know, just like with real moms!

But why pull the turnaround at all? Why not keep the pleasant helper throughout the game, especially since it seems we're coming to expect the betrayal? Maybe, deep down, we want it?

I'm talking mainly to you, fellow primary male demographic. Although we grow up and even somewhat appreciate the queenly guidance we may have received growing up, are we still strangely terrified by yet attracted to the thought of meeting a girl who knows way more than us and is willing to use that knowledge to a manipulative end?

Are we frightfully allured by a woman who knows lots of SCIENCE and MATH?

Should I stop now before I try to tie these AWKWARD QUESTIONS back to our MOTHERS?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fallout 3 and Puppy Love

Fallout 3
System: Xbox 360
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
NA Release: October 2008

I'm standing in a puddle next to an undetonated nuclear warhead, letting irradiated water seep into my boots, and I have to wonder: just how far am I willing to go to please a woman?

That Moira Brown at Craterside Supply; I have to admit she's kind of a cutey. She's always ready with a kindly word in that folksy, Midwestern “don'tcha know” dialect that some small part of me finds a turn-on although I'd absolutely deny that in a court of law. And when she said she was writing a book? Literary type! Be still my heart!

Oh, Moria. What pillow talk we could have.

So when she asked for some help with her survival guide, I naturally said yes. Sharing pursuits is an instant foundation for a healthy relationship.

Then she told me to go out and contract radiation poisoning. I told her committing to such an act was ridiculous, but she pleaded that it wasn't and promised she would fix me up right away if I managed to stagger back to her in time. I guess a post-apocalyptic future negates the possibility of getting a simple homecooked meal as a reward.

But as I stand here waiting, watching my radiation levels slowly rise, I began to wonder if it's all worth it. I mean, I know I'm starting to get up there in years and the potential spouse pool is shrinking, but is a nice woman worth this much? I would very much like to continue the family name, but should I cast aside my self-integrity and risk passing on extra limbs and antennae to my kids merely for the chance?

But this is how devotion is proven, right? Men say they'd be willing to risk their lives for those they love, but you never know for sure until the moment arises. This is just removing all doubt right off the bat! Yes. I'll crawl back and pass out in front of her door. If she leaves me to decay, it was never meant to be; but if she takes me in, it'll be a scene worthy of any of those old romantic films!

I mean, this has to be my in. What else could she possibly ask me to do; walk through a minefield?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ghost Trick and the Gym Floor Lake of Fire

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
System: Nintendo DS
Developer: Capcom
NA Release: January 2011

Back in elementary school, I appreciated any physical activity that didn't involve dodge balls bounding off my face or making my best impression of a spastic pendulum at the bottom of the gym class rope. My favorite game was more cerebral; something the teacher not-so-creatively dubbed “Mission: Impossible.”

The class was separated into two teams, one on each side of the gym. In the middle of the floor, what seemed like the entire contents of the storage room were dumped into a haphazard pile: mats, cones, jump ropes, hula hoops, bean bags—you name it. A few of these items were also given to kids on each side. At the teacher's mark, the teams had to use their starting items through whatever means necessary to reach the cache in the middle and form a bridge to the other side of the room. The floor itself, in pure childhood form, was imagined to be lava and would force any player who touched it to start over.

The true fun in this game was the way it made us kids look differently at the items around us. Floor mats became scootable ships. Bean bags became a revolving set of stepping stones. The hula hoops... well, the hula hoops were junk, but you get the picture.

Ghost Trick, a clever and sadly overlooked DS title, runs much on the same improvisational mentality. As a freshly made ghost, players are confined to jumping from object to object around them, manipulating them in ways to open the path forward and save various characters from suffering the same ethereal fate. What were once simple tasks while alive must now be carried out with proper planning and precision using whatever is at hand. A smart style and sense of humor (think Phoenix Wright—it's the same creator) make for a fascinating, interwoven mystery to unravel, one item hop at a time.

In the "Ghost World," the items you can leap to are marked in blue.
Muse beyond the games, though, and both Ghost Trick and “Mission: Impossible” (I'm mildly ashamed to have to call it that) carry some sentiment to the ways we may look at life. Sometimes, we are hopeful we can hop to our goals, step by step; using a less-than-ideal A to get to B to reach the dream of C. We try to view and predict how it can all make sense, afraid of hitting a dead end or falling off into failure. Or, perhaps, we see ourselves more as the characters who need saving by the specter, hoping there is something behind the scenes pulling all the right invisible strings to ensure our welfare and success.

It's not a new idea.
And the fact is, there are paths that have been made that lead to goal, and there may also be something that guides the circumstances around us specifically to a plan. But whereas the other side of the gym and the end of the game are clearly laid out objectives, we are never privileged to know fully where our stepping stones may lead.