Sunday, September 9, 2012

Minerva's Den and Alan Turing

Bioshock 2
System: Xbox 360
Developer: 2K Games
NA Release: February 2010

Part of what makes BioShock such an engaging series is the way it incorporates real-world concepts and philosophies into its ruined utopian fishbowl. The world is a steampunk-like fantasy, but the very human ideas behind its creation and operation resonate with this vague sense of reality—giving Rapture a “what if” kind of feeling that not many other games come close to or even intend to.

So through what better means can one tie in the theories of mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing?

Alan Turing
Turing's work with technology and his powerful role in history almost feel tailor-made for the world of BioShock. During World War II, Turing and his team worked for Britain under top secret conditions, creating methods and machines to crack the Germans' complex Enigma cipher and turning the tides of war intelligence toward the Allies' favor. For Rapture, which canon says was established in the '40s, Turing's accomplishments would fit in well among the man-made marvels upon which the underwater city's purposes and ideals were inspired.

“Minerva's Den,” a DLC add-on story to BioShock 2, ferries in what may be Turing's most well-known contribution to computer science. The story centers around Charles Milton Porter, a fictional character who worked with Turing in besting the Enigma. Unfortunately, he returns to London after his work to find his wife, Pearl, died in the bombings. A broken man, he ends up in Rapture and creates “The Thinker,” a supercomputer that serves multiple purposes, the most important being the regulation of life functions in the city.

Porter sees another purpose with the computing power he has under his control and thinks to the ideas of his former partner in Britain—specifically, the Turing Test. Turing was fascinated with the concept that a computer could be programmed to “think” like a human. He considered a test in which both a real human and a computer would respond to questions. If another human could not identify which responses came from the computer, it would be considered able to “think” equally to a living being.

C. M. Porter
You might be able to see where this is going. Porter believes he can beat the Turing test, and with this ability play a sort of futuristic Pygmalion, recreating the essence of his late wife. The events surrounding this and what direction the writers take it are something I will leave to be discovered, but I will say it is quite amazing. The character of Porter and the voice acting that brings him to life are superb.

People are still working with artificial intelligence, trying to create a true “thinking” machine, and many are disappointed with the progress so far. But what we will want to do with such programmed personalities and how our human natures will react with them are things that may need more consideration. The ways the world of BioShock brings cold, calculated logic and the human element into constant collision with each other lends itself surprisingly well toward such philosophical thought.

One other way in which Turing and Rapture have some odd similarity: in 1952, it was found that Turing was homosexual, a crime in Britain at that time. He chose “treatment” over incarceration, and was subjected to large injections of synthetic estrogen to kill his libido, chemically castrating him. People who had different ideologies were criminalized and “processed” in Rapture, too.

Of course, at the end of the day, Rapture is the rendering of programmed computers. What happened to Turing was the actions of man.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Home, Ladies and Tigers

System: PC (available on Steam)
Developer: Benjamin Rivers
NA Release: June 2012

“Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?”
The Lady, or the Tiger?

In 1882, writer Frank R. Stockton penned “The Lady, or the Tiger?” a short story in which a young man faced the trial of choosing from two doors. Behind one door was a beautiful lady, with whom he would win immediate marriage. Behind the other door was a tiger of inconsequential gender or appearance, who would win a meal of the young man.

Stockton makes great effort to lay out all the details surrounding the young man's situation. We learn of the loving relationship with the kingdom's princess that brought him there in the first place, how only that same princess has found out the secret of the doors, and the internal dilemma she faces in telling her love which door to choose. And as she covertly points him toward a door, the tale climaxes... by not climaxing. Stockton does not tie up his story. He leaves it in the hands of the reader to take the evidence presented and choose what happened on his or her own, ensuring his story would be read by frustrated high school English classes for all of eternity.

Now, only 130 years later, we get the same style of open-ended mystery in a nifty interactive form!

Retro graphics hearken back to old adventure games and add focus to the narrative.
Home, by Benjamin Rivers, gives players control of a man who wakes up in an unfamiliar house with little memory of how he came to be there and a dead body to contemplate. By exploring in classic adventure game style, the narrative is revealed through the man's first-person perspective, as if he's relating the events to an unknown listener. Even choices to grab items don't come in typical “Take paper?” fashion but more, “I wasn't sure what use this scrap of paper would be to me. Did I take it anyway?” It's almost like the listener is also a collaborator in some way, verifying whether the main character did or not do certain things.

This style is easy to get used to and starts to become a second thought—that is, until the questions become a lot more influential. It soon becomes clear that you need to take the sum of your experiences in the game, including all you chose to do and not do, to determine yourself what actually happens. It's “The Lady, or the Tiger?”, but instead of taking the side of the cutest person in class to argue how things might have gone one way or the other, you're there in the princess's seat, making the ultimate choice based on your perspectives on logic and human nature.

Not the ultimate choice.
And even then you're still not going to understand exactly what happened, leaving so much to think about and debate well after you've closed out the game. Rivers has offered a place for players to contribute their own interpretations, and it's just as much a part of the game, really.

Stockton received a lot of mail from readers demanding what the “real” ending to his story was, and Rivers is probably going to get his share of curious requests as well. Me? I doubt whether either ever had a definitive ending in mind—in fact, I would find it supremely gratifying if I knew they didn't. Crafting these kinds of tales take a lot of effort, but the ultimate intention is external: it is placing all your circumstantial evidence in another's hands and seeing what they find out about themselves by letting their minds and hearts fight over it.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Dust and Forgotten Time

Dust: An Elysian Tail
System: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Developer: Humble Hearts
NA Release: August 2012

“For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.” 
– Hebrews 8:12, The Bible (KJV)

“And stop worrying about who you are! You're Dust! You hear me? I don't care who you were, I don't even care if you used to work with that General guy, because you're DUST now!” 
– Fidget, Dust: An Elysian Tail

Amnesia, while sometimes considered cliché, can be a very effective mechanic in games. A playable character with little or no memories starts the game on a similar level as the player: aware of a certain potential as you figure out what the heck you're doing.

Games relying on the loss or manipulation of memories are tasked with weaving the factor into an effective plot to keep it from clunking along as an obvious gimmick. Some titles, such as BioShock, manage to do this quite well. Dust: An Elysian Tail does it so well that to consider it as a gimmick almost feels insulting. Not only is the theme told around the titular character compellingly developed, it made me think of memories and the past in a light I had never considered: that dispelling them can sometimes be a gift.

The past holds importance, of course. It is a well from which we can draw knowledge brought through experience and recall mistakes we intend not to experience again. However, it is also possible to carry so much of the past with us that it turns from a guide to a burden.

When Dust wakes up unable to recall who he was, his identities and decisions lie entirely in the present. His only personal resources are his observations of the world around him and how they resonate within his core—as much a shattered mystery as that is. His only other influences are the opinions of his two companions, a talking sword and a chatty, bat-winged fluffball named Fidget.

Using these points, Dust ultimately chooses a righteous path, helping a world he only knows needs someone with the skills he possesses. And yet, it becomes clear early on that there is some form of darkness residing in his past and part of who he was. Would he have been unable to choose to jump into good had he awoken with his knowledge? Technically, no. That's impossible. We have free will to make personal choices that can not be tangibly controlled by what has already happened.

But still, if he had remembered...

This is the haunting nature of the past. The same mistakes and regrets we strive to learn from are also the ones that try to seep into our identities in the present. They breed doubts, fears and hesitation into choices that could otherwise be plainly made. Is this enough to atone for what I've done? Will they take me seriously? Am I a hypocrite? How would failing affect the future me?

We take events we can not change and fetter them to ourselves at the only time we are able to have any effect on the world whatsoever. And as significant as it feels to us to lay our lives out this way, it's a fool's endeavor. I know I've spent enough time milling about pieces of my past, putting them together and imagining I know how my life would be now if I had made one choice over another and lamenting this non-existent path. Of course, my real present never changes this way. If anything, it just makes me overly cautious and paralyzed when it comes time to make my next choices.

It's a hard habit to break, however. Even after Dust blazes a trail across the world of Elysian Tail, throwing his own life in danger to save many others, coming into the full scope of what he did in the past brings him his moment of greatest uncertainty and an instant dive into the mire of redemption. How could he have expected to redeem himself so quickly, he asks himself, as if his new deeds have to bury his old sins before they can count. It takes Fidget to snap him out of his way of thinking, basically screaming at him that the only thing that matters now... is now.

In a world that weighs everything against itself, it may feel flippant or even wrong to abandon our pasts “unatoned” or “unresolved” in order to give the present the concentration it deserves, but as Dust demonstrates, we are needed when we can make real change. True repentance is not “making up” for past wrongs, but turning your back on them toward a new path. True forgiveness is not deciding someone has compensated for their offenses, but treating them as though they had never committed them in the first place.

As we move on, we will have regrets. We will fail even when we thought we did what we should have done. We will even willingly choose wrong. That's all part of our identities as human beings we will never escape. Learn what you can, then leave it and move on. While we may not awake in a beautiful meadow every time, we still have the same gift that was bestowed upon Dust. Every second that slips into the past resets our chance to choose the right thing and become a new person.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Katawa Shoujo and Comfort Zones

Katawa Shoujo
System: PC
Developer: Four Leaf Studios
NA Release: January 2012

I admit this one took a while to get to.

When I learned about the game from a superb article on Hardcore Gaming 101 I was immediately on board. "This sounds groundbreaking!" I thought. "I must experience it!"

I downloaded the game, which is free, but then it just sat on my computer. I would glance at it occasionally, but go on to play something else instead. It's apparently much easier to grab the gun than to pull the trigger, and my initial excitement to play the game had stagnated enough that other thoughts began to creep in, not the least of which was how was I going to describe this to people when they asked about it.

"Oh, I'm playing this visual-novel-slash-dating-sim, but the twist is it's set at a school for the disabled! Wait, I know that sounds kind of hinky, but it's being treated seriously and--well, yes, there are sex scenes, but I'm telling you that the anonymous people from 4chan who made this game have really thought it through and--look, it's getting hard to talk to you with how deep this hole is gotten. Just let me keep digging and I'll be right back up with you in a jiffy!"

Curiosity eventually won out, however, and I'm glad it did. For 27 ways to Tuesday this sort of concept could have gone wrong, Katawa Shoujo does a lot of things right.

Those of you who know me may be all, "Ooh, I bet he went for the bubbly looking one with pink hair!" Well, you'd be wrong. I considered many other factors when making my decision. Also, she's not a persuable character.
The main concern with producing a story where your main characters have disabilities--or really any other sort of "minority" status--is the level of focus on which to approach them. Treat subjects too delicately and it almost feels like a form of discrimination in itself. Be too militant and you risk chasing your audience away with the Shame Stick. The latter was another reason I was initially hesitant about this game. I've seen enough shows and movies where the "lesson" comes in the form of the main character making an ass of him or herself and realizing how awful they've been to see others in a certain light. It may be the way some people really do learn, but it makes me horribly uneasy as a viewer. Heck, I always hated it when the Trix Rabbit was made to feel bad for just wanting some stupid cereal. There's a level of "live and learn" we all have to go through in life and the mistakes we make, but they're not always so blatant and exposed.

Katawa Shoujo, thankfully, seems to understand this and offers what I thought to be a very down-to-earth approach to the subject matter. The "playable" character, Hisao, finds himself having to attend his senior year at Yamaku High School and comes into contact with the five potential love interests, as well as supporting characters. The disabilities of these characters, which range from blindness and deafness to not possessing certain limbs, are never ignored yet never seem to fully define them. A strong personality has been built for each girl and the condition each faces physically only seems to be one part of what defines them. In my first playthrough, I ended up going down Emi's story arc not because she had prosthetic legs, but because she had promised to help Hisao with a running program that would help the heart condition he faces.

Emi Ibarazaki: The Fastest Thing on No Legs. The fact that it's she who calls herself that and laughs while doing so is a very liberating theme of this story.
Giving Hisao a disability of his own also strengthens the story by giving him a sense of vulnerability that is rarer in primary characters. Because his arrhythmia was discovered only recently, he lacks the time the others have had to come to terms with their disabilities. There are naturally some nuances he needs to figure out at this special school (for example, when communicating with a deaf and mute person when you don't know sign language, do you look at them or their interpreter when you talk?), but one of the biggest initial revelations he has to make is that he doesn't have to worry so much about everyone else's disabilities. "It's only a big deal if you make it one," a teacher confides with him, and most everyone gets along just fine as they are. In fact, at times it feels other characters are more concerned with how Hisao is adjusting to the changes in his own life. It's a brilliantly empathic way of drawing the player into this world without feeling like they're treading in socially taboo territory.

And, well, speaking of taboo, I guess I should address the adult content. As I said before, there are sex scenes with nudity and acts and... positions. That you see. It's difficult to say just how "hardcore" these are as my sensibilities tend to lie more on the prudish side. Maybe they're like an illustrated Fifty Shades of Grey? Well, I'm guessing about that. I wouldn't really know, haha! You can turn them off if you wish, skipping them entirely, and if you feel they would bother you I heavily suggest you do so because the warm and fascinatingly written story is still very much worth the experience. I guess you could say the scenes do fit into the story relatively well, though, if you feel that sort of thing happens a lot. They're pretty jarring when they start to happen, at least to me, but I guess the fact I find them way more uncomfortable than the the theme of disabilities is a big plus, so, uh...

Gah, where's my shovel? Just give Katawa Shoujo a try, remember to turn off the adult scenes if you want to, and maybe I'll have reached China by the time you're done.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Offroad Extreme and Being Special

Offroad Extreme! Special Edition
System: Nintendo Wii
Developer: Data Design Interactive
NA Release: November 2007

[NOTE: This post is part of the first Review a Bad Game Day. Witness others endure the horrors of gaming's mistakes at]

Mr. Rogers made it a point to say that everyone is special, and I'm certainly not going to argue with the legend. I will posit, however, that “special” does not always mean a grand thing. The Titanic was a special voyage, Ed Wood was a special director and Offroad Extreme! Special Edition is certainly a special gaming experience.

Even the cars look depressed to be in this game.

From what I've been able to find, Offroad Extreme! is a “special edition” because it's a port of a 2004 PS2 game updated with Wii remote tilt controls—for some reason at the expense of the original button controls. This is highly unfortunate as the motion controls are outright horrendous and almost seem selectively sensitive, choosing not to overreact to your tilting only when you're heading straight toward a yawning chasm. It's difficult to see why they couldn't have included both control schemes, but I like to imagine the discussion went something like this:

LACKEYS: Boss, we really need to put the button controls back in the game.
BOSS: But the motion controls are what make it special!
LACKEYS: That is technically true, sir. But, well, the motion controls are terrible!
BOSS: You're not understanding me, here. If we return the button controls, we give players the option to use them, yes?
BOSS: And if the motion controls are bad, players will use the button controls instead, yes?
BOSS: But the motion controls are what make it special!

The sad part is that Offroad Extreme! feels so lazily constructed as to have so little merit to deserve the moniker “special”... that it somehow manages to go full circle and madly becomes “special” again. A few more ways in which the game shines:

  • Your rival cars sounding like bees in a dryer at the starting line, which is about the only time you'll ever hear them as they eventually leave you to your wiggly-driving stupor—oh, except for the one or three that always relentlessly slam into you at the beginning and pin you mindlessly to the wall. It's like the developers could make AI for these cars, so they just programmed a brick onto their accelerators.
  • The apparent love of using a rain effect over the dull, brown, N64-quality courses, even though you never actually see the rain hit the ground, the sky often looks blue and sparsely clouded, and it does not stop raining when you enter a cave.
  • The way the announcer tells you to “Start your engines!” with just enough of a threatening tone as though he knows you're thinking of running.

  • How the camera will reverse angle when you try to back up from yet another slam into the wall but wont always return to facing frontward when you hit the gas again, often turning the simplest of maneuvers into that underground tunnel cart scene from Austin Powers.
  • The collectable dollar signs that litter the tracks like a poor rapper's Geocities page and are all worth exactly one dollar. What did you get for fighting busted controls, crappy physics and broken cameras for three laps? $27! Extreme!
  • If you take too much damage, which is nigh guaranteed, your vehicle explodes into an cheaply overlayed fireball animation of Birdemic-caliber laughability—twice. I can't actually cite this one as a fault, though. I could never find myself able to change one poorly rendered piece of this glory.

It is bad enough to face the cheap, unplayable pile of shame that is Offroad Extreme! Special Edition, but it's especially egregious to know this was all part of the now defunct Data Design Interactive's (DDI) business model. Wanting to take advantage of the growing family and casual markets, the company squeezed out as many abominations of gaming as it could, sacrificing any semblance of quality in an apparent attempt to take advantage of novice gamers' ignorance. They even copied and pasted large swaths of code in what they called their GODS engine to speed the process, making their games figuratively inbred.

But do you know what the worst part of this sordid legacy is for me? It's not that DDI helped pox the reputation of the Wii as a shovelware system, nor even the fact a bunch of kids got screwed over on birthdays and Christmases by well-meaning family members who were suckered into buying malfunctioning dreck. Those are certainly bad, but what outright haunts me is that Mr. Rogers was right: everyone is special, dammit, and there could have been some specially talented designers working for DDI.

We laugh at and pan shovelware, and that's often healthy. But there could've been people just trying to find a foothold to get noticed who ended up strapped down by the paltry budgets and push-it-out-the-door timetables of a company that was in too much of a hurry to milk another buck out of an unsuspecting grandma to take the time to make sure IT STOPS RAINING IN CAVES. These people's time and talents could have been wasted, and now they have pangs of hesitation and regret every time they think of writing “Data Design Interactive” on their resumes.

It is my great hope that, if this rings true for anyone, they are working at a place where the true meaning of “special” is known and acknowledged.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Earthbound and Getting the Girl

System: SNES
Developers: HAL Laboratory, Ape, Nintendo
NA Release: June 1995

[CAUTION: This post contains mild spoilers to the endings of EarthBound and the movie The Big Year. One you should really play if you haven’t. The other is just wasting time that could be spent playing the first.]

I sat down recently to watch The Big Year and came to some surprising revelations:

1. If you want to make a stale, plodding movie about birdwatching, then by gosh you can! It doesn’t even matter what fantastic comedic talent those evil Hollywood executives will try to foist upon you, you have the God-given right to underutilize them and ride your anemic, beige starmobile all the way to the Dullard Nebula. Yeah, America!

2. Even boring bird movies will make me think of EarthBound.  

Admittedly, though, even I’m surprised how this thought train circled around. Enduring The Big Year not only called me back once again to the most iconic game of my childhood, but it finally brought into focus this one tiny part that always stuck in my mind.

Upon defeating the final enemy in EarthBound, the credits don’t start rolling. You actually get the chance to walk around and explore the whole world to see what changes have happened as a result of your journey. Your other two companions, Jeff and Poo, go off on their own, leaving you to escort Paula, your first teammate and the only girl, home.

So the game is winding down, it’s just you and her, and you finally bring her back to her doorstep. The pixellated air is dripping with the potential of a big scene, and she says this:

Thank you for escorting me home.
...There was something I wanted to tell you, but I’ve forgotten it.
I’m sure I’ll remember by the time I see you again.
Well, I guess this is it...
...So long
...See ya

And of course Ness just stands there like a dummy in true RPG main character form, but it further adds to the awkwardness. Even my naive, 12-year-old self felt something was off about the whole thing, so when Ruffini the Dog, possessed by the spirit of the game designer, provided an address to send questions and comments (have I told you I love this game?), I actually wrote in asking what it was Paula had meant to say, thinking I might’ve missed some sort of plot point. Things aren’t supposed to just drop off in these sorts of situations, right?

Sixteen years later, I’m watching Jack Black’s character in The Big Year going on his own quest to spot the most species of bird. Stuck in a job he hates and with little money, he makes sacrifices and maxes out credit cards to pursue his dream.

He falls just short of being the top birdwatcher in the end, but still tells his friend Steve Martin that they came out winners. And indeed he did. He became a seasoned traveler, visiting sites many will never even know existed. Not only that, but he finally earned the respect of his father, who initially thought he was wasting his life by not pursuing a lucrative career. It’s a very touching scene--or it would have been if they had made any allusion that this is what Black’s character was talking about.

No, this entire time he’s making eyes at his new girlfriend, played by That Woman from Parks and Recreation. She’s introduced and developed for about 5 minutes of the movie, then conveniently dumped out of the plot by the revelation she already has a boyfriend. We see nothing of her until 10 minutes before the movie ends, when she calls Black to say she and Nameless Other Guy broke up.

I am aware this sort of thing happens in many other movies, but perhaps it was my desperate attempt to suck whatever marrow of significance I could from this movie that made it strike a chord with me this time. What a crock! There was so much else Black’s character could have emphasized, his father being arguably the most important, yet they employed some arbitrary love interest as if all his other accomplishments weren’t enough--as though we can’t completely accept happy endings otherwise.

And that’s when it all came into focus. In EarthBound, a relationship between Ness and Paula was never really developed. Really, there was little more than the occasional NPC saying they looked like a cute couple and Paula’s parents keeping an eye on you. It just feels like they should be together because we’ve come to believe that has to happen; that to completely find oneself means finding love too, and that’s just not right. Ideally, that should come after one is confident and set in who they are. It can be a side effect of the process, perhaps, but it is not the necessity we want it to be.

Shigesato Itoi, writer and director of EarthBound, opened the entire world at the end as though he wanted players to realize the breadth of Ness’s influence and the effects those places had on him. It’s cool to think that Ness and Paula could end up together, but to have emphasized a relationship in the end would have detracted from so much more that the game and its characters were about.

So thank you, Mr. Itoi, for not taking the easy road. Because of your thoughtfulness, I remember more of your story after nearly two decades than that of a movie I watched less than a week ago.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Super Meat Boy and the Days

Super Meat Boy
System: Xbox 360
Developer: Team Meat
NA Release: October 2010

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

  And how should I presume?
--T. S. Eliot "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" 

Super Meat Boy is a crash course in balls-to-the-wall berzerkerism and trying again in spite of the odds. Dying feels somewhere between 99-99.9% of this game; something it lovingly reminds you of by playing all of your attempts on a stage at once when you finally beat it. Scores of little, hopping, optimistic meat beings are put through the grinders, exploding in a mix tape of squishy demises until your one success remains at the end.

Are these ballets of carnage a cheap shot at your lack of skills or a badge honoring your perseverance? It probably depends on what kind of player you are, but thinking about it recently made me surprisingly philosophical for such a corporeal game.

Imagine every day of your life plays out at the same time, just like a replay of Super Meat Boy. What would we see? Now certainly we won't start in the same spot every time, depending on moving to new places, waking up with no clue where you are and the name “Chris” ambiguously scrawled on a napkin in your underwear, etc., but odds are there will be a lot of overlap. Some events, like your morning commute, might look like a blur of yous. The various beds of your night might look like a deranged Tetris block of yous for 7-8 hours of each period, if you're lucky.

Is that depressing to think about? Again, it might depend on what kind of player you are. Personally, it's bittersweet. For each representation of us on these replays, there's a near infinite number of routes he or she could have gone, mostly depending on our desire to break routine and break from our imposed obligations. Some of those choices could have brought us incredible gains. Others, who knows? They could've put us in the path of a drunk driver, or put many of our next days out on the street.

Because when that one “you” of each of us blinks out, it's all over. Maybe it will be in a bed at a nursing home. Maybe it will be on that same blurred line we took successfully to work so many days. You can play the statistics but it's never possible to know for sure.

We're the opposite of Meat Boy and many other video game characters. While they expend their lives endlessly for the pursuit of that one time at the goal, we nurse ourselves along in hope of reaching the goal as many times as we can. Each new day we receive, in essence, is an extra life—our reward for surviving yesterday's level. But if we don't live with that Meat Boy berzerkerism sometimes, are we truly winning? 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Stacking and the Constructive Sandbox

System: Xbox 360
Developer: Double Fine Productions
NA Release: February 2011

The most memorable puzzlers allow players to take familiar concepts and accomplish goals well outside the realm of real-world familiarity. For me, however, the true joy comes in knowing that while I gain a great sense of accomplishment in mastering the physics of Portal, I can feel just as much of a genius by farting into a ventilation shaft in Stacking.

Let's try to keep it as classy as possible in here.
You never quite know what to expect next out of Tim Schafer's Double Fine studio, and Stacking plays much like a cross between Ghost Trick and Scribblenauts. As the smallest in a world of living Matryoshka dolls, you are able to climb into—and essentially possess—progressively larger dolls, using their individual talents to solve the various puzzles in your way. Each problem has several different ways to approach it and, like Scribblenauts, you are encouraged to wrack your imagination and find them all.

It is games like these that make me a bit sad to think the term “sandbox game” is largely commandeered by titles that emphasize speed and violence more than anything else. Not that there is anything wrong with those games. It's just that when I think of a sandbox, I see the greatest freedom in the minds of those using it; not the sand. Stacking fires the synapses by setting its toys in the box and asking the player to use them for more than their original purposes. The fact it's designed like a goulash- and Little Rascals-fueled fever dream adds just the right whimsical element that goads you to be a little more “child-like” in your cleverness.

The Fine Art of Seduction in the world of wooden dolls.
Perhaps one of the concerns we first had as gamers was feeling too childish in the shiny new sandboxes developers made for us, so we started off happier to run about kicking and smashing cities in an ironic showing of "maturity." And really, who doesn't want to have fun and blow off steam that way at times? But we've also come to learn that it feels better sometimes to sit down, take some time and actually be more like a child in heart; imagining, building, and feeling free to play in more fabricated worlds. Thankfully, games like Stacking, Scribblenauts and Minecraft are giving us chances to do that as well.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

To the Moon and Chasing Catharsis

To the Moon
System: PC
Developer: Freebird Games
NA Release: November 2011

Something about sad stories tends to draw us in. Perhaps by empathizing with the tragedies and mistakes of others, we allow ourselves an oft-needed rendezvous with our own mortality and humanity. We often consider grief a negative emotion, but its release can have a healing or edifying effect after we experience it. At least that's a better theory than us all being a bunch of emotional masochists.

How deep our connection to a sad tale goes relies greatly on how deeply we know (or feel we know) those involved, and this element is where To the Moon by Freebird Games most brilliantly shines.

Graphics are relatively simple, but offer a fitting Chrono Trigger vibe.
The mere premise of the game can be enough to make your heart twinge: two scientists explore the memories of a dying man, Johnny, with the goal of producing a new set of fake memories in which he is able to do the one thing he has requested, but was unable to accomplish, in life: go to the moon. That alone is enough to let many people begin to relate to the man, but the masterfully woven story of To The Moon adds layer upon layer to Johnny and his loved ones as the scientists travel backward from old age to his early years. What at first was a story about the fulfillment of a dying wish becomes much more complex as reasons beget reasons and others' lives intertwine with Johnny's. We feel we eventually come to the core of Johnny and his desire, and the ending explodes outward like a cathartic megaton bomb, consuming each layer of the story back to the beginning.

Oddly enough, I believe it is fiction that gives us this best chance to explore this way. The stories we come across as spectators in reality are often just beginning to scrape the surface, like the beginning of the game. We know when something is poignant, of course—that there is some emotional or spiritual significance—but we can't delve into all the memories and souls that led up to it. We can't see the layers as the scientists in the game come to see them. And yet sometimes we seem to crave that deep, tragic connection. Look at all the people who come out when a popular figure dies because they feel “connected” to a person they thought they knew intimately, even if much of what they felt they knew was a facade.

A happier memory, but how does it fit in?
In reality, we just don't try looking into others' lives that far. When I covered a tragic story as a news reporter, I could tell you what the mother of an Iraq soldier who lost his legs told me on the day their family learned, but I couldn't tell you everything that was behind her exhausted, wavering voice; why she was trying so hard to be stoic that I had to go cry in the bathroom after talking with her. Really, I would not have wanted to, nor would I have had the right to out of simple respect and dignity. Even Johnny asks about his privacy in the game, but fiction gives us that key to tread freely. We must know for the experience to be as powerful as it is and we are more comfortable doing so in fabrications. In essence, we build our own experiences to reach a goal much like the false memory tracks of the scientists' design.

To the Moon reminds us that we are inherently complex creatures built of simple needs and desires. When we look into others to find meaning and significance we can relate to, we are often like the scientists, starting at one point and only able to see a couple clues just beneath the surface. The ways in which the game demonstrates the true depth of life are amazing, and I have not dared share any here in hope of not spoiling this experience for anyone. Highly recommended. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Commander Shepard and Captain Planet

Mass Effect 2
System: Xbox 360
Developer: BioWare
NA Release: January 2010

Back when neon was king and Paula Abdul was coherent, environmental matters were an issue of great media attention—by which I mean exploitation.

The global warning debate barely garners a yawn on the airwaves anymore, but the '90s bombarded us with tons of bright, whimsical shows and games that fell along the same general lines: Nature good! Big greedy dirty corporations and their machines bad! Evildoers—you could tell because they were ugly and often voiced by Tim Curry—sought to take over worlds by pillaging them of their resources and overrunning their dry, smoggy husks with metallic contraptions. These plans, of course, would be foiled in extreme '90s fashion by wildly colored characters like Captain Planet, Sonic the Hedgehog and Widget the World Watcher.

You know! Widget! The World Watcher? Ah, forget it.
Setting things in space does change things significantly. In the Mass Effect series, the metal of ships and stations becomes a primary means of life, with the natural settings of planets mere specks compared to the grand void of it all. Still, I had to muse how the influence of environmental messages has seemed to wane as I shotgunned probe after probe onto every planet I could find to satiate the game's never-ending demand for natural materials.

Mining in Mass Effect 2 is a simple matter of scanning planets from orbit and firing probes onto locations that spike the readings. Whatever needed materials are found there are automatically added to your store. Ores include Irridium, Platinum, Palladium and “Element Zero,” which is probably what powered Ma-Ti's heart ring.
Even he knows his useless ring's going to get him hurt.
On the surface, probing is a fun little mini-game, but go deeper and the propensity for environmentally based backlash rises right along with the likelihood of making dubious metaphors. For a series that enjoys delving into moral quandaries so often, I'm surprised I haven't come across any sort of tough choices in this department. Firing probes at a planet from space can not be the safest means of exploring. Many of these planets are noted as being inhabited, so it would only be a matter of time before you hit something important. It's much the same reason they banned lawn darts, only now you're playing it in someone else's backyard with stakes the size of the Eiffel Tower.

"I'll build on that Palladium deposit!" I said. "Who's ever going to need Palladium?" I said!
And how do the materials instantly transport to your ship? It doesn't look like the universe has teleporters yet or else you'd be Star Trekking all up in this place. I can only imagine a long, Dr. Seussian hose snaking out of the Normandy and onto the planet, sucking all the elements up while fluffy Neptunian dodos or what-have-you shriek and flee in terror.

Of course Mass Effect shows that the universe has a lot of gray areas, but when my '90s kid mind sees me hopping from planet to planet, depleting planets of their metals in order to fabricate weapons and war machines, I'm suddenly Dr. Shepbotnik. I just can't get around it.

Perhaps I've missed a scene where mining is brought into question or one is coming my way, but I think it would be an interesting subplot. Trust me, though; even if it's not, this definitely isn't the end of the world for me. I can only shudder to think of what Mass Effect could have been if media's extreme '90s environmental push was still alive today. We could be playing some cross between Star Fox and Awesome Possum.

Remembered so it may never happen again.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Phoenix Wright and the Fallacy of Infallibility

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
System: Nintendo DS
Developer: Capcom
NA Release: October 2005

Ace Attorney is a series I would follow to the grave. I freely admit that its logic can feel a little spacey at times its representation of the modern justice system is about as solid as Taco Bell's representation of Mexican food, but engaging mysteries, a cast of extremely likable characters and the exciting back-and-forth nature of its courtroom battles more than makes up for any shortcomings.

Ace Attorney is obviously not a “standard” game series in terms of action, but it's still easy to assume some basic tropes. Each case is primarily a “Point A to Point B” affair, with the end goal being the acquittal of your client, the defendant. You accomplish this by “defeating” your opponent, the prosecutor, in the legendary ways of defense passed down by your forebears, Perry Mason and Matlock.

Pictured: The former face of edge-of-your-seat courtroom action.
Of course, as this is a game, you always want to win, right? And since earning the freedom of an actual murderer would besmirch the essential nobility of your character, that means all of your clients have to be innocent, right?

It would have been easy enough for that to have been the case. A course of constant victory is so expected in the medium that hardly anyone would have ever batted an eye if a flawless record was in fact the goal.

But then a case comes up (I will not go into specifics as to which) that threatens to throw this concept out the window. It's a powerfully played twist that drives home the stories and connections between the characters—by far one of the series' strongest points—over simple criteria for winning. Playing Ace Attorney is not so much about reaching specific endpoints as it is about uncovering the truth in each case and the threads that tie them together and to the characters; and often the very rivals you face, by serving as the voice of opposition against your imperfect character, ultimately become partners in arriving at this greater good once they eschew their own desires to be perfect.
Which is not to say you won't still take sass from them.
Now, let me pull back and give you a number: 1,071. It probably doesn't ring a bell, but it's a big, shameful figure. This is the number of days (as of April 4, 2012) since Congress has passed a real budget for the United States instead of a steady stream of stop-gap measures. Being unable to work out something so essential to one's country for nearly 3 years is horribly embarrassing—or you would think so, at least. However, Republicans felt wise in trumpeting the 1,000-day mark without a budget in an attempt to hurt Democrats, even though they are very much responsible for this mess as well.

Ideally, the government system was set up as a means of debate and resolution with the greatest good in mind. Today we're lucky if we get a few bi-partisan bills on weak subjects, and are even luckier if they actually make it through the legislative houses. Instead, both parties seem so locked on being “the ones who are right” and scoring superficial zings on their opponents that they can't see their self-made arena is collapsing in on them.

So yeah. A video game starring a bumbling defense attorney and his burger-loving assistant understands more about tact and compromise than the most powerful government in the world and its parties' most stalwart supporters. Think about that this November--or heck, just the next time you're arguing with someone.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Portal and Selective Safety

Portal 2
System: Xbox 360
Developer: Valve
NA Release: April 2011

I hope we find extra-terrestrial life someday. In fact, I hope we find a number of diverse species out there; a whole universal network of cultures and species. And I hope, out of all them, we get to be known as the only ones who've invented things just for an excuse to strap them to our bodies and fling ourselves around in various ludicrous and high-speed manners.

As a race, we seem to love challenging the old adage of “If God meant for us to _____, he would've given us _____.” We give ourselves the blank to do blank all on our own. We were not supposed to fly, but we created the hot air balloon. Then the airplane. Now we're tweaking jetpacks. But each technological advance we make almost always comes with the need for a bunch of safety measures to ensure our adventures into defying our own forms don't end up with our insides oozing out custard-like onto the pavement.

No matter how many times we try.
Video games don't really have to worry about this reality at all. Mario was able to fling himself off the highest block in the Mushroom Kingdom and land with all bones unbroken. It was a land of pixels and innocence back then, but as games have become more realistic we've come to wonder a little more about the survival of our characters. Or maybe we just get envious of their indestructibility.

This is why I love the “long fall boots” of the Portal series.

You hardly ever see these things in the games, but heck if I'm not constantly reminding myself they're strapped to the main character and test subject, Chell. When it all comes down to it, the boots are nothing more than an excuse for Valve to “allow” the player to plummet great distances without penalty. They could just not be there at all and we could've gotten used to the fact that Chell can fall without getting hurt, but then it would've nagged at us, wouldn't it. I mean, we have no problems at all making Chell play with lasers, automated turrets and deadly water, but letting her drop without deus ex Reebokinas on her feet? That's just ridiculous!

It's a bit funny how we can have such daring spirits yet are soothed by the security of a little safety net, even in a completely fabricated realm. And yet, what great exercises for our minds these conditions present! As we push our bodies to limits and purposes previously unrealized, we're in an endless mental race to design ways to protect ourselves and overcome the fears of our own fragility. Within every new helmet, protective suit and roll cage lies engineering brilliance and maybe just enough of a confidence boost to break the barrier into something new and amazing! And even the fiction of Portal may inspire new devices in our reality.

We'll let the aliens decide if any of it's actually worth it when we find them.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dear Esther and the Surrender of Control

Dear Esther
Platform: PC (via Steam)
Developer: thechineseroom
N.A. Release: February 2012 (retail form)

Story is an essential element to many games, but is almost never the one driving factor that defines them. There are many games that have strong and engaging plots—and I wish even more took the cue—but ultimately the story connects the processes that the player controls. It doesn't make sense to proceed to the next action scene without a good reason to be there, and it is what the player actually gets to do that tends to make or break a game in the eyes of its players.

Dear Esther is a different creature. It is a game that relies so dominantly on its story that some hesitate to call it a game at all. “Interactive story” and plain old “experience” get thrown around, and you can refer to it however you wish. I don't care about semantics as much as the reasons why this idea is so nebulous to people in the first place.

In simplest terms, Dear Esther has the player travel over and through a deserted island while a voice of a character (likely the one you control, but everything is open to interpretation) reads excerpts from letters written to “Esther.” That, in all honesty, is it—and why I believe it blows so many players' minds when they get into it.

The setting.
I love looking at the behaviors and expectations we've picked up through playing video games, and Dear Esther was a humbling lesson in stripping away how entitled I feel to have control over what is in front of me. Looking back, it is embarrassing to note that my first action upon opening on the shore of an island that is both strikingly beautiful and God-forsakenly lonely was not to admire or reflect, but to test the boundaries of the world.

“See if you can walk into the water,” my Gamer Sense told me.

I did. After a few feet, I went under, then was gently recalled back to where I began. Dear Esther is patient like that, and my Gamer Sense was appeased. Derp.

I proceeded along the island, eyes on the rocks and an occasional fence, and quickly discovered the narrator continued as I reached certain points.

“Aha!” my Gamer Sense piped up again. “Hit all the points. Find all the secrets. Make him talk!”

I started poking through nooks and crannies, zooming in on anything I felt could be important to the character. I did not find one damn trigger that was anything more than proceeding along the set path. Eventually, I gave up and carried on.

And then, along a beach, an interesting pattern had been drawn into the sand.

“PUZZLE!” my Gamer Sense squealed. “Get paper! Draw! You'll need this later!”

Nope. No puzzles, either.

Sounds positively dull from a gaming standpoint, doesn't it. Just walking along and listening to some guy read letters. And yet, as I continued, my gamer spirit yielded to the feelings and desires of this fictional person, crafted through an exquisite use of language. Looking back, I can see how I gradually stopped panning for items that would yield a response and just let the man continue when he was ready. When a path split, I would choose a path and stop doubling pack to see if I missed something. All roads seemed to end in the same place anyway, and it just seemed ridiculous for the man to travel like that.
There is never danger. Just the way further into the story.
Eventually, I ceased to see the island as a “sandbox” and more as a large, fully realized work of art that I was on tour within. When I passed something the man may have mentioned, I stopped and looked; not seeking answers for a solution to a game, but asking questions that often had no answers. What does this mean to him? What does it mean to me? What does its meaning to him mean to me? It was like a melding of minds; a form of gentle possession as I just wanted to lead the character to the end of his story.

Dear Esther is rigid like a book. Where we love to have choices in the stories of other games—and there is certainly nothing wrong with that—this experience is much in the hands of the creators. The only story forged by you through all of this is “wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww,” the button you hold down to move forward. At first glance it seems to derail the overall strides games have made to give players freedom, but there is actually an extraordinary freedom to be found in this game. It comes after the end, when the screen fades to black, and you're left for days to wonder and interpret what happened. Find a forum on the game and you can have some outstanding discussions with others who may have heard different parts of the same one story.

So Dear Esther may not be a “game” through certain lenses, but the potential it shows as a method of literary experience is incredibly exciting to this English major. The right stories, gently manipulated by the right hands through a rendered “game,” could have an amazingly powerful and captivating draw. And just imagine what a book that already pushes against the rules, such as Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, could provide within the right interactive medium.

I'm not saying this will replace reading as we know it, but it's absolutely encouraging to see developers willing to try something beyond a digital Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Bastion and the Great Mosaic

Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Developer: Supergiant Games
N.A. Release: July 2011

Every game has pieces, but there are few games like Bastion where every piece is sacred.

And no, I don't mean that you have to hoard or conserve everything in the way many games have flippantly employed the term. That's an external importance; one assigned only to you. The sacredness in Bastion is intrinsic, and comes from the meaning that has been ascribed to every last one of its elements.

Everything is something.
The world the player gets to experience in Bastion is the shattered remains of civilizations, ruined by a great “Calamity.” You are thrust right into the aftermath of all this with absolutely no backstory, and the game takes great pride in this fact.

“A proper story's supposed to start at the beginning,” says the voice of a narrator at the opening of the game. “Ain't so simple with this one.”

The narrator is a constant presence and serves as the glue that holds what the player finds together, offering his perspective and knowledge. He only progresses as the player finds the pieces, but pieces is really all there are to the land anymore. The land literally rises and falls into place around you bit by bit, forming the path ahead. Every object found is linked to the people and a way of life that no longer exist.

Even the enemies you face have a history intertwined with the past world.
Even the game's most basic unit, the fragment, is treated as essential to the mythos. Where in other games it would just be considered a form of currency, it is implied that fragments are the world itself. Things are not exchanged for fragments, but made and restored from them. So, for example, you collect fragments to create an object from the old world (that you are told about) which is used to modify a weapon from the old world (that you are told about) that belonged to a certain class from the old world (that you are told about). It all builds on itself, and all carries a certain weight of importance.

The way Bastion diffuses its story across every component of the environment makes it very much an archaeological experience. Everything you find or witness must not only be considered in itself, but as part of one overall picture. The player is charged with piecing this great mosaic together--with help from the narrator, but also through his or her own imagination--and must eventually make an enormous choice based on their own interpretation of the image they've pieced together. It's a powerful conclusion, and I had not been so hung up on an in-game choice for some time.

It's a little disconcerting to consider this piece-by-piece philosophy against our reality. In one sense, there is something relieving in thinking that who we've been and who we are is influenced by so many different sources, such that no one can ever have full sway. The responsibility is lessened that way. And yet, if our world were ever blown apart, what pieces would the future find and what would they say about us? Should we be more responsible, regardless?