Friday, January 4, 2008

2008, Step Up to the Plate

It's hard not to say that 2007 was one of the best years for video games, art and industry. Every direction I looked—hardcore, casual, and indie—I started to feel a certain emotion for the art that I thought I would never feel again. It's a light, pleasant burning in my chest, I believe it's called pride but it's been a while so forgive me if I am wrong. Here, in no particular order, are just a few of the reasons I enjoyed 2007 as a gamer and why I look forward with unusual (yet hopefully not unwarranted) optimism to the art form's evolution as a game designer.


A year or two ago, I was watching X-Play with my friend when a preview video of a game came on. It was from a first person perspective, and obviously FMV. Some guy was chasing after a little girl with a wrench for some reason, not sure why, and then this bigger guy in a diving suit with a drill for a hand came and kicked his ass. I yawned, thinking about how typical it is that they would show an FMV instead of gameplay footage, completely unimpressed.

Flash Forward to fall of 2007, and everyone's talking about this awesome new game called “Bioshock.” My interest is caught, but come on; it's just another first person shooter, right? I mean, I've gunned down ignorant humanoids in narrow corridors in Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake, UT, GoldenEye, Halo, F.E.A.R—how impressed can I possibly be with yet another entry into the fray? Boy did I call that one wrong.

It isn't the high level storytelling that Irrational has gifted us with—games have a looong way to go in the interactive narrative department, regarding breadth, depth, and quality, if we still think the only dramatic dichotomy worth pursuing is that of choosing to be ‘good’ or ‘evil’. But pay attention to the narrative undertone, the story that emerges (Crawford, forgive me) from the gameplay mechanics as you explore Rapture. It's wonderful. Your flame plasmid sets the doctor on fire, but he just runs into the nearest flooded room to put it out? Not a problem, just shoot him with an electric buck and watch him twitch helplessly to the tune of irony. Tired of fighting altogether? Hack security bots, confuse big daddies, or send a swarm of hornets to do the job for you. Okay, so it's all combat- and resource-oriented, which is a sorta taboo topic among those wishing to elevate video games/electronic entertainment/interactive entertainment into a more diverse narrative sphere, but what did you expect? It's just another first person shooter.

And what another first person shooter. Game Industry, would you kindly take notes?


I couldn't praise Bioshock and not find room to equally laud Portal. I probably put a good 30–40 hours into Bioshock the first time through. Portal took only three hours to beat, and was just as fulfilling. I could talk about the novel puzzles allowed by the mechanics of this “shooter” or the fantastic dialog of GlaDOS and the magnificent voice acting of Ellen McLain, an opera singer who exhibits more talent than she has any right to. But what I feel is most important to learn from this gem is the fact that it proves that non-casual games can still be successful in small bites. 80 hours of gameplay for another Japanese RPG? No, my friend, it may take you 80 hours to complete said RPG, but I can guarantee Portal has more real ‘gameplay’.

I actually called this one somewhat correctly. I was anticipating Portal up until its release, and that faith was well-placed—in fact, the quirky story told in a non-intrusive style that Valve still holds the golden key to pushed the quality of this game above my already high expectations. Portal is so incredibly important to the art of game design because it reminds us that, like with any art, game design is just as much subtractive as it is additive.

Super Mario Galaxy

I called this one wrong too, and not because of Sunshine. No, Sunshine did not impress me much, but what was even more disappointing for me was Mario 64, which left me with luke-warm feelings toward any future 3D Mario. I know, I know, I'll let that sink in, even restate it here for clarity: Mario 64 was incredibly overrated and disappointing. I am obliged to say that I enjoyed the game thoroughly, even took the time to get all 120 stars, but it just wasn't as enjoyable as the 2D Marios. I always felt that it was a bit rushed, just the victim of a small era in video games when companies were first making the transition from 2D to 3D and did not quite get it. It's hard for me to really knock M64, as it did most things pretty well, but it certainly lacked the tightness and polish of its 2D predecessors. The controls were, understandably and yet still disappointingly, more difficult to utilize in 3D, and I found many jumps artificially hard as depth perception can falter when watching an avatar from a distance try to navigate oddly shaped terrain. Likewise, the pacing was not quite up to what I would expect from the series; 2D Marios streamline enemies, items, jumps, and excitement at you, while in 64 I found myself having to look for said excursions. I will never cease believing that the 3D in Mario 64 was more of a marketing necessity than a necessary addition to the Mario formula, one which Nintendo failed at the time to convince me they had gotten right. And yes, I do get a knot in my stomach every time I am reminded of its general popularity. I attribute this popularity to the probability that most fans and reviewers that elevated it to this level are too young to fully grasp the quality of the unquestionably superior SNES Marios which don't even appear on such charts; after all, it certainly can't be my opinion that's wrong ;).

Regardless, considering Mario 64 left a less-than-stellar impression on me and I had to put up with years of fans hailing it as one of the best games of all time (Hello—SMW? Yoshi's Island??), it is easy to understand why I had no excitement held in me for Galaxy. But where Mario 64 felt like a premature release of the “Mario enters 3D” concept, a C-section perhaps spurred on by the craze over 3D gameplay at the time, Mario Galaxy feels like a sculpture whose artist poured his heart and soul into it, adding here and removing there until only an ideal realization remained. If you have not yet played it, there is really very little I can say to make you appreciate how good Galaxy turned out. I will say that it did away with most of the problems I had with 64; the planetoid level design makes this the only 3D platformer that I have ever seen to successfully capture the streamlined adrenaline of 2D platformers without losing the exploratory freedom one can enjoy in a 3D realm*. Game designers, aspiring and veteran, I implore you to ponder this with the sincerity and wonderment of a group of chemists reviewing a recent discovery that water and salt can be mixed to create oil.

The game did have its flaws. With many different avatar control schemes, from riding on the back of a sting ray to floating around trapped in a bubble, there were times when I found myself facing an artificial difficulty in mobility. The worst offender of this is swimming: Why does my analog stick behave differently when I am on land than when I am under water? Even worse, why does it behave differently when I am swimming under water than when I am swimming at the surface?? But it's hard to fault the game too much for a few questionable control decisions and the occasional iffy camera placement when it presents 120 of the most innovative and well polished levels in video game history in a non-linear manner. Don't like swimming? You can beat the game without ever getting your feet wet**. Super Mario Galaxy is possibly the most important game that was released this year, for it shows that a cash cow sequel can still be a fantastic and innovative title by its own merits if the developer truly wishes it. Though their comfort zone coincides a bit too much with the space of established franchises, Nintendo shows us time and time again that they get this—so let's start showing that we as an industry get this too, okay?

Nights: Journey of Dreams

I have a small set of games that are so good, yet so incomparably different from each other, that they are tied for first place as my favorite games of all time. Nights: Into Dreams is one of them. I always wanted a sequel to this game, not because I was naive enough to think that every good game would benefit from a sequel but because the first, wonderful as it was, was so short as to leave me with an appetite yet. I hear that if you stop eating a meal before you are full, your stomach will eventually stop sending hunger signals to your brain as it realizes that no more food is coming. In the same vein, I eventually moved on and stopped longing for a sequel to this magical title. When I heard about JoD in March, I was swallowing my excitement and prepared to slap someone (an innocent bystander or coworker at the least) if it turned out to be an April Fool's joke.

It wasn't, I avoided having to attend a seminar on workplace assault, and Journey of Dreams was released in December of 2007. It was not a disappointment, but nor was it a soul-entrancer like the original—essentially, it was what I expected, and I was very pleased. Sub-par platforming levels and too few dreams (as many dreams as the original, though each dream has a lot more content) prevent this game from being particularly respectable. But JoD is a spectacular tribute to its predecessor, and if you played the original and did not smile and chill up with nostalgic goosebumps while playing the Bellbridge dream in JoD, you may in fact be an android.

I generally like my sequels to be large enough steps forward to warrant hiding behind the safety of its predecessor's fame. JoD did not really manage this, though I don't think it was released in a manner to take advantage of the original's cult success (11 years is an awfully long time for hype to wear thin). JoD managed to improve graphically (so you can see more than 10 feet in front of you before polygons start bailing) and was a little longer with a little more gameplay variety. Unfortunately, not all of the variety was as enjoyable as the pure flight-based formula that Nights was built on. The music was just as fantastic as the original, and even the non-remix tracks overflowed with nostalgia. Nights can talk now, for better or worse—the voice acting is well-done even if the script is a little laughable at times, but where did my silent avatar go? My conclusion is that if you enjoyed the original or are looking for a fun, quirky title and own a Wii, you can't go wrong with this game. I wouldn't say it has done much for the artform or the industry, but it did a lot for me—which is also what this list is about.

Picross DS

Okay, I'm going to wager that I took most of you by surprise with this one. As I just said, this list is also about games that gave me something, and for a simple logical puzzle game it is impressive that I found the time in my busy schedule of personal projects and industry crunch to put dozens of hours into it. I absolutely loved Mario's Picross on the Game Boy, and had no idea this game was released until I spotted it on a store shelf. It's rare to get two decade-late sequels to games that you really enjoy in a single year; but such is the magic of 2007.

Picross is a clever and addictive game based on the concept of nonogram puzzles, which in my opinion are lightyears more enjoyable than sudoku puzzles, assuming enjoyment can be measured in astrological units of distance. Here is a description of these types of puzzles, and here is an online example of such puzzles. Perfect as a DS game, no? I think it's fantastic that we are starting to see a valid place in the commercial spotlight for games like this***.

California Overtime Reform

No, this is not a video game title. There has been some reform in California that enforces overtime pay for certain positions in the game industry (and the software industry in general). I think this is important for the game industry because video games are, believe it or not, made by human beings and not machines. Human beings need variety in their life to be fulfilled, and doing something 80, 90, 100 hours a week is not healthy even if it's something you enjoy in smaller doses. Perhaps people outside of the industry don't see this as a problem, thinking that video game development is ‘easy’, ‘fun’, or gosh ‘not even real work’. I don't know where they get these ideas, but video game development is a real job with real challenges and real stress.

There are things I don't like about California (as there are things that I don't like about any state that I have lived in), but I do admire this initiative. Good games are made when talented people are treated like people and allowed to let their hearts guide their minds to create something wonderful and unique. Not-so-good games are made when talented people are worked like slaves and forced to shovel out a movie game in an unreasonable time frame because they didn't get the license until August and the movie is showing in May. Admittedly, I don't know many details of California labor laws, or any labor laws for that matter, and I will study them in the near future as it seems a topic worth my time to become educated on. But we as an industry need to realize that we are not a group of peons whose only purpose in life is to shovel out market-driven games, unnecessary sequels, and poorly planned movie titles to fill the pockets of filthy rich stock holders who haven't played any game more complex than Windows Solitaire and who get a majority of the profits and bonuses while putting in a fraction of the work to produce a given title. It's really a damn shame that this sentiment is not ethical common sense in our industry, and it is probably due as much to us escalating to promise the stars then finding that we can only deliver the moon as it is to unadulterated greed. But if the law must step in from time to time to try and shift us in the right direction, then I am glad that it is doing so, and I hope that we can capture this momentum instead of backsliding. Maybe someday we will mature to do the right thing without the law holding our hands.

I entered the industry

This last entry will not make much of an impression on any of you—yet ;)—but on February 20th, 2007, I finally accomplished a dream that I have had since I was five years old and drawing Mario levels on the back of my year book instead of getting it signed by classmates; I entered the video game industry. It has been a hard road, much harder than I imagined, and near the end I started to realize that this is not the first step nor the last step—it is just a step, one of oh-so-many along the road of fulfilling my true dream of becoming an accomplished designer of interactive entertainment and advancing the artform at an unprecedented rate.

2007, you falsified my jaded pessimism twice and tickled my nostalgia bone twice, unexpectedly. Well played. And 2008—it's a tough act to follow, I know, but what do you have? I can't wait to see.

* Sonic Adventure came damn close, but failed for having overly twitchy controls.
** I think—point is, you have a lot of variety in which levels you choose to get the 60 necessary stars, ala Mario 64.
*** Despite being a solid title, the original Mario's Picross was not much of a commercial success, probably because it did not present 150 of something to collect and trade with school yard buddies.


eiyukabe said...

EDIT: Oops, if you go to game rankings and lower the minimum reviews you can see some 16-bit and older games in the spotlight. For example, with 5 votes SMW actually does rank in above Mario 64, which puts a smile on my face. Makes sense that modern games would have more reviews because of the internet.

Unfortunately, people don't seem to have their Zelda priorities straight. OoT is so overhyped, I would put it behind LttP, WW, and even LA on the GB. That's a lot of abbreviations, so you know that I know what I'm talking about-or that I'm a lazy typer, one of the two.

Eric said...

Bravo friend!

I agree about OoT. I'll go as far to say that above The Adventures of Link on the NES, it is the worst of the series (even though still a good game).

Thus it is!

eiyukabe said...

I think I even liked The Adventures of Link more, though I will admit that that is probably because I was a lot younger. Come to think of it, The Adventures of Link is kind of the grindfest of the series. It was the only Zelda game where I found myself having to run around leveling up before entering dungeons. Glad they realized what an awful idea that was.

Khadalex said...

What's your feelings on the new Mario Kart set to release in April?