by Jill Adams
I am from the elitist camp of bookworms that might have avidly played Super Mario 3 from start to finish in 1988, but then happily went a decade without owning a television, right up to my late 20s. Post-Mario, my understanding of video games evolved via media stereotypes: Guns!! Rape!! Sedentary, mind-poisoned, racist tv zombie bros!!
Then I was swept off my feet by a gamer. This charming, adorable, hilarious man with a devotion to making me happy pranced in, and we now live happily ever after. With a very big television. And two gaming consoles. A PlayStation Vita (handheld gaming system, for the uninitiated), Trittons (advanced headphones with a built-in mic, meant for gaming in groups), at least 7 controllers of various shapes and sizes… you get the picture. Never in my life would I have imagined emotions other than disdain for this sort of thing, but much to my gamer’s credit, I enjoy a nuanced appreciation for what I now understand is an emerging art form. Or, an emerged art form, little did I know.
So this post is to explain my conversion experience: how I went from hearing “gaming” as “slobbering nerds or douchey guys shooting stuff,” to being genuinely impressed.
L.A. Noire came out in 2011, and was very highly anticipated in my house. Set in 1940s L.A., you play as a detective working his way up through the ranks by solving cases around the city — stolen trinkets, jewelry heists, missing starlets. The art style is solidly film noir, and does a lovely job of putting you in full Sam Spade mode. The art style alone was enough to impress me, but L.A. Noire’s biggest accomplishment was that it brought humanity into the game in a way that completely surprised me.
The developers employed a new technology called MotionScan, which turned the game’s characters from plastic Ken dolls into people — people who could lie to you. Convince you. Evoke a sympathetic response. The game is all about solving cases by reading the clues, including reading the witnesses and suspects. You are asked to assess people’s truthfulness, in order to make progress. Seeing someone squinch their eyebrows at the wrong moment, or shift weight in an untrustworthy manner — these added a real twist of intrigue that I didn’t expect to ever get from a video game.
Not to mention that the MotionScan technology is completely amazing.
It always seemed to me that there was no place for irony or cleverness in gaming. I only ever heard about machismo and a kind of sardonic cruelty, or alternately, puffy silly games for kids. It didn’t seem like there was any place for my inner snark — a world that would correlate to “The Royal Tenenbaums” or “Napoleon Dynamite.”
When my gamer got his Vita a few months ago, Escape Plan was the first game he had me play to understand why this $300 toy was worthwhile. In a black-and-white factory universe, this game features Lil and Laarg, two herpaderp characters that bumble along, doop-a-doo.
Your job is to help them through the gauntlet of factory dangers to escape from level to level without being sliced, squashed, imploded, or brained by any number of blades, traps, or other dangers. (Remember Happy Tree Friends?) I am convinced Escape Plan was developed by a dry, evil wit of British origin, down to watching Lil’s drunken, bubble-induced hiccups float the character over a lethal threat.
Another mention in the strange humor category goes to Frobisher Says. Frobisher is akin to a Monty Python skit gone even more mad.
Frobisher barks absurd commands in a British accent, faster and faster, demanding that you “Deliver my pudding!” “Fight this bear!” “Poke the otter with a stick!” The Vita has both front and back touch screens, joysticks, arrow controls, trigger controls, and each task uses different means of accomplishing the command. Meaning that you begin to look like a crazy person, waving, whacking, and wielding the Vita in whatever way necessary to keep Frobisher from mocking you when you’re too slow, in order to receive the coveted, “Splendid!”
Community Investment and the Artistic Process
There are lots of anti-gaming arguments to be made in favor of moving your ass off the couch and having a real conversation with other humanoids, in an effort to be a viable member of society. That said, it’s very easy to discount the real bonds that are formed in the gaming community.
For me, the most impressive example of this to date is Sound Shapes. TheSpawnPoint has done some extensive coverage on this game recently, for good reason. The basic principles are about levels and music. A player moves through a screens of a level, collecting little coin-like symbols. The faster you complete a level, and the higher the percentage of coin-things you collect, the higher you’re ranked. The muscial element comes in from the creators — each coin-thing represents a musical element, perhaps a percussion sound, a synth riff, or a melodic hook. So, as you go along playing the level and collecting coins, you build a song.
But Sound Shapes has a dual purpose: both to play levels, and to make levels. Players are provided with some pre-programmed sound bits and graphic elements, which with my creative juices would stay pretty basic. But the community has gone wild, using these elements to create elaborate soundscapes and story lines, and even stop-motion animations that the Sound Shapes developers didn’t realize were possible.
A little sample of what’s possible starting with geometric shapes and small sound elements, from maker Daftbomb.
Watching my gamer interact with the developers and level makers has brought on a wholeheartedly positive vibe. All these guys genuinely appreciate the labor and focus that go into the creative process, and spend a lot of time commending each other and talking about method and process. It’s akin to watching friends in design discuss typography or collage, and deeply centered in the art of the experience.
The Art of Place
This one was a real conversion point for me. It’s one thing to have a generic battlefield, or an outerspace outpost with an alien war underway. It’s another thing to show beautiful crumbling mosaic tile murals in Istanbul (Uncharted 2), or climb some historically-accurate buildings in 15th century Florence (Assassin’s Creed II).
The attention to detail is astonishing, both as a consumer, and from the perspective of art direction. Not to mention historical accuracy, as the makers of Assassin’s 3 are about to demonstrate.
And then there’s the idea that gaming can be an existential contemplation. Journey is hard to describe — imagine being a faceless, robed, monk-like being, traveling the desert alone. Your destination: a mountain in the distance. Your means of travel: floating along on a mystical drift, or the occasional flying carpet or draft of magic sparkledust. Along the way, you pass through ancient stone cities… Perils appear, mirages and oases shimmer in and out of reality, and occasionally you bump into another lonely traveler. With only a speech of singing bells to help you, you can help each other gather more energy, in the form of a rune-covered magical scarf that grows. And in the end, you arrive at the mountaintop nirvana (*spoiler alert*), to be transfigured by a ray of cosmic shooting light into a sparkling comet.
It was so beautiful, so uplifting and magical, that both my gamer and I nearly wept at points.
Which is all to say: given the choice between watching reality tv and playing a game like Journey or Sound Shapes, my husband chooses gaming. And I’m glad.
Late last year I wrote our “Coming in 2012″ article that culminated with my declaration that Journey from thatgamecompany was my most anticipated title of the early gaming season. After playing through it the other day I know without a shadow of a doubt that it was the right choice. Journey has come at a very interesting time of my life. I am getting married in a month and just this past week started writing my vows. Now, I am pretty good at expressing my feelings but having to actually write them down gave me pause and made me choose very measured and thoughtful words when deciding what to say to my future wife. It made me think about many things: promises made and kept, future and past mistakes and most importantly life, death and all the small moments in between. Journey is about all those things and more, and this is what has both drawn me to it and has also made it one of my all-time favorite games
Jenova Chen, one of the founders of thatgamecompany, once said in an interview that every game they make revolves around evoking a feeling. Journey seems like the personification of that statement.
You start off in the desert as a cloaked figure and you can’t speak, but have the ability to make audible “chirps”. These chirps not only are necessary to snag cloth (which when illuminated in your scarf gives you the ability to fly) but also symbolizes your character in the world. You go from stage to stage adding more cloth to your scarf while exploring all these extraordinarily beautiful vistas. Journey has some of the best art direction ever put into a game. People thought that the sand in the last Uncharted game was amazing but Journey uses it in such smart and interesting ways that it blows you away. The movement, the lighting and sound all combine to make a feast for all of your senses.
Your main objective is to get to this mountain in the distance. None of this is explained explicitly but you are drawn to the beacon of light that it’s emitting. I don’t want to ruin any of your 2-hour gameplay experience so I’m glossing over it here but I will tell you about the part of the game I found most intriguing: its multiplayer aspect.
Multiplayer is amazing and done in a very interesting way. There are no lobbies and you can’t invite your friends to explore with you. At first hearing about this I was doubtful that I would want to play that part of the game but after having played it now 5 times through, I’ve found the multiplayer to be its most rewarding and compelling component. You may find yourself in a stage and see another person off in the distance. You can decide to go with that person and continue your quest or pay them no attention at all, the decision is all up to you. If you choose to take someone along, you engage in this audible ping pong of chirps and leaps. I found that every time I played with someone, the experience was different. My first couple of play-throughs had me in the role of explorer/student–my companion would help me recharge my scarf and lead me to hidden glyphs and areas. In the later bunch of play-throughs the roles seem to be reversed and I would be the one leading people to all the hidden spots in a stage. I found that there was a very clear balance between letting the person experience the game for themselves and guiding them to things that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise. That was what kept me coming back over and over again: the feeling like I was an entity of that world. I felt like I was an usher to all the magnificent sights and sounds that the game had to offer. My experiences being with another person and wondering if they had the same emotions during certain parts was exhilarating.
The gameplay is simple, the graphical fidelity is both void of clutter and also filled with gorgeous visual density. Journey’s soundtrack is delightful, whimsical and poignant; the texture it adds envelopes you and gives you an appreciation of the orchestral score.
I want to personally thank Jenova Chen, Kellee Santiago, thatgamecompany and Sony for being extremely brave for bringing a game like this to market. Their commitment to making games that leave you with both something to talk about and require emotional investment is something that I believe gaming sorely needs. The payoff at the end of the game not only wrapped up an amazing experience but also left me feeling like there was some hope that our gaming medium can do more than provide XP boosts, leaderboard climbing and braggadocio behavior. That it can be used to resurface feelings that humanize us and bring us all closer as people.
Journey is now in my list of all-time favorite games. I implore you to play this game, share your experiences with your friends of all stripes–gamers and non-gamers–and although it’s short, take time within the gamespace to enjoy the hard work and courage it took to get this game made.
If you’ve played it, please leave me a comment. I would love to hear from you.
Christmas is less than a week away, people have stuck their gaming gifts under the tree, and we are still playing through the glut of games that came out during 2011. The only logical question to ask is “So, what are you going to play next?” The crazy amount of awesome games we all got to experience this year was pretty mind-blowing. There was so much to choose from and play that there are still things that I haven’t had the chance to tinker with, but we as gamers are always looking for the next best new thing. So I thought now is a great time to look at what the industry has in store for us for 2012 by giving you our “What, do you think money grows on trees? Ok here is my money most anticipated 2012 games list”.
First up is a game that intrigued lots of people back when it was announced in 2010 and really got a lot of buzz going after its trailer at the 2011 VGA’s. This game is Bioshock Infinite, set in the dystopian floating city of Columbia where raging factions are fighting for control. The protagonist Booker Dewitt and his newly found sidekick Elizabeth are stuck in the middle and need each other to survive. The game has a number of good things going for it, beautiful graphics, engaging fast-paced gameplay and lots of new interesting systems going on at the same time. The best thing it has is Ken Levine, he has been making thought provoking games since System Shock and with him again behind the helm of the Bioshock universe, it can mean nothing but good things for Infinite.
Next up is Ghost Recon:Future Soldier. Now I’m sure someone just looked at their screen and gave this article the side-eye. I can understand why, they had a pre-alpha showing and a Kinect demo that left a lot to be desired; BUT I can say with the latest couple of videos Ubisoft has shown they might have a really awesome tactical team-based, third-person shooter on their hands. The game seems to have all the cover-to-cover, flank your opponent gameplay plus all the tech you would want from a game based in the not-too-distant future. There was an awesome article on Popular Mechanics about some of the tech in the game. Check it out here.
A game that I think will be on people’s radars is pretty awesome because it’s both a re-imagining and a reboot of a popular decade long franchise. Tomb Raider with a totally new and updated lifelike graphic style, new gameplay elements like broken bones affecting movement and using scavenger survival tactics will hopefully take the game in a totally new direction. The one glaring issue for most after watching the trailer was all the QTE’s. Trust me, although I love Heavy Rain I hope this game is not super QTE heavy.
Grand Theft Auto V is hopefully coming out this year as well. Little is known about it besides the fact that you are goin’ back to Cali. It looks like they have made big strides using bits and pieces of the GTA IV and L.A. Noire engines. For open world gamers this might be all you need in 2012.
Last but not least is my most anticipated/wanted game. It’s something that for me and many others seemed to have come out of nowhere and has captured my imagination; this game is called Journey. From ThatGameCompany creators of Flow and Flower, this game is just honestly one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever seen. I usually don’t heap praise like that upon games unless it deserves it and this totally does. The amazing use of scale, desolateness, subtle nuanced music and minimalist gameplay elements combine to make what I hope is a huge success for those developers. I hope it’s a success because it would prove that games that don’t require you to be a guns-blazing meathead can prosper in today’s gaming market. The game drops you into a world with no direction but shows you a huge beacon in the far off distance. It uses human intuition as a gameplay mechanic to a certain extent–you see things and you go and explore them. By exploring you gain fabric to extend your scarf, the longer you’ve been playing, the longer your scarf will grow and obtaining fabric also lets you open up new areas to explore.
The scarf mechanic really becomes interesting in terms of how multiplayer works. The trick is that you can’t pick who you play with; you will always play with strangers and that is the best part. You will have to use “body language” and audible chirps to coordinate how to progress during the game. Also you can’t start a game with someone, there are no lobbies so if you come across another person you can decide to follow or go it alone. This provides the player the chance to have a totally different experience every time you play. After playing the beta earlier in the year and seeing the gorgeous vistas, this has to be at the top of my list for next year.
There are also some honorable mentions that I won’t go into detail about now but will later when more information is released. Some of them are The Last of Us, The PSVITA games Sound Scapes and The Escape Plan. These are just a taste of the games that will be or should be released this year and should provide massive amounts of gaming goodness for all of us. If there are any games that you think I might have missed or want us to cover for your list, please drop us a line or shout it out in the comments below.