Archive for February, 2009

Dreamfall – “Adventure 2.0”

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When “The Longest Journey” was released, the adventure genre was still alive… barely so, but still alive. When its sequel, “Dreamfall”, came about less than three years ago, the genre had died. Perhaps not in the strictest of senses, as its influence had disseminated far and wide across the video-game genre spectrum, infecting everything from role playing to survival horror, but adventure game cannon was long gone. Apparently, Ragnar Tørnquist wanted to bring it back by producing “Dreamfall”, an attempt at revitalizing one of the most precious video-game genres. It’s a feat in itself, as few games have tried, and fewer even succeeded in re-imagining adventure game beneath the light of the XXIst century, with the blinding lights of modern shooters obfuscating every single piece of original entertainment. But “Dreamfall” tries, and succeeds, at that monumental task, and with an utter commitment to the original spirit of the genre, something which even “Fahrenheit” (often regarded as the second coming of the genre) failed to uphold.

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“The Longest Journey”, like so many adventure games, was something of a rocky gem. It’s narrative and aesthetic shone brightly, but a dated game-play model and an unfortunate sense of humor were in need of severe revising. “Dreamfall” is, in many ways, the hidden gem of “The Longest Journey”: it’s more pondered and contained, and more aware of the flaws of the genre in which it inhabits. That self-awareness allows it to counter-weigh such flaws, making it a more polished game than its prequel in almost every way. The exploration, now in full 3D allows for a greater sense of freedom and immersion in Tørnquist’s brilliantly concocted fantasy world; the puzzles are simpler and easier to understand (clearly a compromise with today’s difficulty standards); the narrative feels more balanced and structurally more sound, featuring denser characters and more twists, and being fully deprived of inopportune humor. Even the visual style, which at first glance seems to have lost some of the magic vibe of its predecessor, as a consequence of the move to 3D, ends up using the extra dimension in its behalf, conjuring up a dynamic, pulsing world out of the beautiful, yet static, paintings that composed “Journey’s” backgrounds. And on a purely technical analysis, “Dreamfall” is still one of the most impressive games today, with detailed backgrounds, a stunning lighting engine, and incredibly expressive character animations… all coming from a middle-sized European studio. That alone would be worthy of applause.

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But that’s not to say that the polishing of “The Longest Journey” yields a perfect gem. Unfortunately, some of the containment that can be felt in each of its expressive vehicles ends up marring the spontaneity of “Dreamfall’s” creators. The story, while equally elaborate as its predecessor’s, lacks the sense of bewilderment that you’ve come to expect from fantasy set pieces  – a flaw easily attributed to the more prevalent sci-fi mood in “Dreamfall”. That the plot is left unfinished by the end of the game, is also hard to sink in, even if it stems from Tørnquist’s apparent desire to further dissect his world. While the perfectionism of his tale remains breathtaking, the cost of the final cliffhanger is that the story does not achieve any sort of conclusion for the player, which, knowing the difficulties of the small studio behind it, makes it likely that a sequel may never be brought to life, thus leaving the story untold. The final polish that opens further cracks in such a gem, comes from attempts at making the game more pleasurable for modern players: by increasing the number of basic puzzle pieces, more akin to mini-games than actual puzzles, and adding short, simplistic action sequences, in which you play a stripped down version of a brawler. While these elements might have served to punctuate the slow-paced rhythm of the exploration portions of adventure gaming, they are so bland that they add nothing to the strengths of the game.

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Despite the sometimes excessive compromise with modern design, “Dreamfall” furthers the quality of its predecessor, effectively bringing its light to the XXIst century. It maintains the spiritual legacy of classic adventure gaming intact, but does so while lightening its silly idiosyncrasies in favor of more simple game design dynamics. And so, once again, Tørnquist devises a world that sucks you in entirely, filled with mystery and drama, and an aesthetic beauty that is unique to his creative imagination. Not only does it reinterpret adventure gaming, as it redefines it, completes it, and makes it shine as the inner gem it has always been… a gem that’ll mesmerize you with its seductive light.

score: 3/5

“The Year of …………” – Interaction

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Finally, we get to the core of video-game’s expression. If the aesthetic and narrative dimensions are crucial to video-game’s artistic power, it’s the audience’s chance to intervene and interact with video-games that ultimately defines them. If there is one pillar that supports video-game’s unique, precious elements, it’s game-play. And though in 08 games came out at a staggering rate, it’s dubious that there were any powerful reinventions of video-game’s inner matrix.

Mainstream video-games continued their parade of on-going genre stagnation, with casual and hardcore markets boasting the lack of inspiration of their designers; it’s a sad but easy to ascertain fact, but there are rarely any new genres or avenues for interactive expression in modern video-games. All you have to do is attempt to characterize modern video-games, and you will understand that everyone of them can be neatly inserted into an old format or genre: First/Second/Third Person Shooter, Action/Adventure, Classic Adventure, Platforming, Survival Horror, Puzzle, Vertical/Side-Scrolling Shooter, Beat’em Up, Brawler, Sand Box, Strategy, Japanese/Western RPG, etc, etc, etc. How many games do we know today that aren’t classifiable on this basis? Too few… in my account, at least.

Even concerning new IP’s, designers simply seem content in re-interpreting popular game-play trends, merely adding slight nuances, which of course, they elegantly boast in the back cover of each game – “New Weapon Systems!”, “Revolutionary Camera Angles!”, “A Bold Reinvention of the Genre!” – none of these change the way we play games, and for the most part, are mere tricks with which designers and advertisers publicize games. Innovation in the strictest sense, tends to come only from fresh artistic assets, perhaps as an attempt at masquerading the formulative design work that hides beneath the skin; and artistic and narrative assets being what they are in the medium… it does not bode well for a majority of original video-game series. The following, however, are some of the brightest reinventions in the field of game-play and level design.

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Echochrome” – How on earth a designer gets the idea to translate into interactive form a concept so hard to define, elusive and complex as impossible objects based on optical illusions (see this), is something that goes far beyond the reach of my mind. And to translate such a complex concept into game-play terms in such an elegant and simple way is all the more baffling. To apply the strange logic that hides beneath impossible objects, the game allows you to rotate the camera, as you would in any other game. As you do so,  the scenery – mostly comprised of simple corridors and columns floating about in an ethereal background – rotates, and allows you to create illusions of perspective. Thus you can, for instance, merge corridors from different axis’ planes, rendering impossible geometric architectures in a 3D space. In doing so, you allow the game’s puppet character to reach unreachable locations, thus allowing it to get closer to the game’s objective. The simple camera control then devises a perfectly balanced form of game-play that requires your brain’s readjustment to an alternate reality where space is defined only by the subjective perspective with which your eye pierces the scenery. Unique, elegant, and groundbreaking – what other game  in 08 reinvented interaction in such a way?

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Braid” – Once again, I come back to “Braid”. Not because of its interaction mind you, because as we all know, “Braid’s” main mechanics are clearly inspired by other video-games, and in 2008, time bending features are hardly innovative. However, the way in which each of the time-bending variants of “Braid” is applied to each level is the work of genius. As Fumito Ueda, the creator of “ICO” and “Shadow of the Colossus”, remarked concerning the last game he had played (in an 1UP post-mortem): “I feel a little dizzy when I imagine the workload that the level designer of this game took to ensure level consistency” – consistency is indeed, “Braid’s” most powerful feature. It’s easy to imagine how a designer might have felt the desire to cut corners and simplify levels in order to produce witty, complex puzzles, but Jonathan Blow took the high road and made each level meticulously consistent with the time-space laws it introduces. If in a level, time only moves forward as the character moves forward, and vice-versa, than that law is never broken; more surprisingly, the level’s puzzles are impeccably built around that logic, forcing the player himself to think of time and space in the same manner. The results are some of the finest puzzles ever to grace a video-game; tough enough to make you think, simple and elegant once you get around to understanding the way in which time behaves in each level.

[P.S. I will resume my reviews from now on, and will publish my final article concerning 08 in the coming weeks. Hope you appreciated my choices regarding the best of last year. Feel free to comment. ]

“The Year of …………” – Aesthetic

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Unlike Narrative, aesthetic elements have been present since the very birth of video-game as a medium. It’s then by no means a surprise to observe how far they’ve come as a complement to the interactive dimension. On the indie front, far from the censoring eye of money hungry producers, audiovisual marvels such as “PixelJunk Eden” and “Echochrome” showed the highest of cares with video-game’s aesthetic expression. “Eden”, a game entirely developed around the work of its art and sound designer, Baiyon, delivers one of the most original and stylized approaches to art design and soundtrack composition of the year, a game that feeds so much on its aesthetic expression, that only manages to feel downtrodden on its interactive counterpart. “Echochrome”, inspired by the notorious works of M.C. Escher, delivered a minimalist interpretation to Escher’s paradoxical works on perspective and geometry, accompanied by Hideki Sakamoto’s erudite compositions (“Yakuza 2”, “Yakuza Kenzan”), which undoubtedly delivers the best soundtrack of the year [thanks to Dieubussy for that one, if it weren’t for him, I’d probably miss it].

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On a lesser note, I can’t but mention “Braid”, with its surprisingly cohesive licensed soundtrack, perfectly in balance with its picturesque art design; surely, one of the most balanced aesthetic works of the year. To top it all off, a word of appreciation to “Mega Man’s 9” retro-aesthetic, unheard of in such a popular release. Though I am the last person on Earth who would enjoy “Mega Man’s” childish, hardcore approach to game-design, I find it takes a great deal of courage for Keiji Inafune and his team to consistently adopt an 80’s aesthetic, complete with low-definition artwork and soundtrack, in a 2008 release. It’s an example, and a notable precedent for designers everywhere; a remainder that aesthetics’ power goes far beyond the quantity of pixels and polygons with which games are rendered. Aesthetic is all about interpreting reality in a way that will force a particular emotional reaction on its audience, and that’s exactly what “Mega Man 9” accomplishes by forfeiting common “video-game” sense –  it takes people back to the  infancy of their video-game-ish musings.

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And yet, despite the startling aesthetic evolution that can be felt in most indie productions, top-tier games insist on a mostly “dark and gritty” visual style, where gray is the color around which most palettes revolve. Their musical background accompanies that same line of thought, orchestrations mostly reduced to a series of banal epic themes, increasingly simplistic in nature, with forgettable compositions serving as auditive filler for most of each video-game’s length. It’s then a breath of fresh air to lay eyes and ears on neoplasticism influenced “Mirror’s Edge“, a strikingly white visual tour de force, brimming with bright lights and shockingly vivid colors, splattered through the cleanest of scenarios, drawn along the most geometric of lines. The accompanying soundtrack, despite one or two unfortunate pop nuances, is smooth and atmospheric, avoiding altogether the “Wagner-made-dumb” refrains present in most blockbuster titles. Let’s hope “Mirror’s Edge” shows mainstream developers that colors aren’t a bad thing.

“The Year of …………” – Narrative

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The relationship between narrative and video-games has always been troublesome, so much so, that many scholars, designers and journalists vehemently oppose the notion of the two merging together. It’s a difficult conundrum to solve: interaction is based on notions of free-expression and free-choice, and narrative (especially in its dramatic form) is sustained by inevitability, causal relationships and linearity; the two seem in complete contradiction. Throughout the years, there have many attempts at blending narrative with interaction, but the simplest, most effective one today, is still the use of a perfectly linear storyline which the player experiences without any chance to intervene. The use of cut-scenes – small interludes in which the plot is explained via a cinematographic language – have become the cornerstone of video-game’s narrative expression. Last year, the cut-scene dogma was upheld in earnest, with very few video-games relinquishing it in favor of new approaches. “Braid“, Jonathan Blow’s indie title, is the only recent game that tried to translate some sort of narrative through more than just its non-interactive segments, and that is why it deserves a honorable mention. By using text to establish a meaningful narrative context, it challenges players to interpret each game-play exercise as a metaphor for a story –  one told through each level’s interaction, design and aesthetic elements. While most found it confusing or cryptic, I found it intelligent and heart warming. And it assumed a compromise which few have the courage to stand for: if the player wanted to decode the narrative, he had to forgo an interpretation of the semiotic language employed by the game, but if he didn’t, he could merely accept the game as a platformer homage with random text segments. But the main reason “Braid” gets this mention is because Jonathan Blow’s work truly is a meaningful step towards video-game’s true narrative expression, one that revolves around interaction, instead of clashing against it.

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But the paradoxical nature between narrative and interaction isn’t the only challenge developers have to face, as telling stories through non-interactive segments alone, is something which has eluded game designers and writers for years. A simple comparison with cinema, literature or theater, shows how much more infantile and poor video-game’s stories and narratives are, from all standpoints: from character expressiveness to dialogue writing. In that sense, my other choice for this category goes out to “Lost Odyssey“, for showing that even the most linear and cut-scene driven narrative can be used to make you feel… a quality we’ve come to deem exclusive to other art forms. Cut-scenes, now regarded as undesirable by a majority of mainstream media journalists, are the clay with which Sakaguchi works his fantasy tale, molding a human journey of self-discovery and tragedy, far more powerful and well told than any other game of the year. Unlike “Metal Gear Solid 4”, “Lost Odyssey” swings gracefully between action rhythms, dramatic segments and the standard anime comedy relief, using the appropriate cinematographic language,  thus harnessing the emotional power of a century of evolution in film devices (mostly absent from videogames’ formally constrained cut-scenes). Additionally, the “Thousand Years of Dreams” – the series of short stories written by Kiyoshi Shigematsu for “Lost Odyssey”, accompanied in-game by the delicate strings of Uematsu’s compositions – prove that even the most minimalist of expressive vehicles, such as text and audio, have a narrative potential still to be fully harnessed in video-game form. This is why Sakaguchi’s work is so impressive and important: it shows that game-design has evolved so much, and yet, designers are still are incapable of properly channeling the most basic expressive power of their means, in order to tell a simple story. “Lost Odyssey” tells that story… how many games have achieved that feat?

“The Year of …………” – Action

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Besides casual affairs such as “Rock Band”, “Wii Fit”, sports games or the occasional MMORPG (read “World of Warcraft”), action games have become the last bastion of the industry when it comes to the aptly named “hard-core” gamer audience. FPS or third person, linear or open-world, whichever the case, action games have become the norm for most gamers. The trend continued last year with an onslaught of shooters hitting the market: “GTA IV”, “Army of Two”, “Dark Sector”, “Dead Space” (yes, I am also inserting it in this category), “Crysis Warhead”, “Gears of War 2”, “Resistance 2”, “Far Cry 2”, “Left 4 Dead”, “Metal Gear Solid 4“, etc. Not only is this trend concerning for those who appreciate quality as well as diversity, as it hides another heinous trend in video-games – the continuous launch of sequels. Amongst the ten named beforehand, only four are original video-games, which amounts to less than half. Because of that fact, you can’t expect much creativity from this batch, nor any true surprises.

GTA IV” is, in essence, “GTA III” with a dramatic, socially aware story, which is one of the best of the year (if you forget about its atrocious structure, that is); “Army of Two”, “Dark Sector”, “Dead Space”, “Crysis Warhead”, are all mediocre shooter games, mostly well designed, but with little (anything?) to set them apart from the rest of the pack; “Resistance 2” and “Gears of War 2” are sequels in the worst of senses – they look like exactly the same game with buffed up graphic engines… and well, they’re both “bigger, better, more badass”, whatever that means; “Far Cry 2” could have had an interesting, fresh take on its genre, and yet wastes it with a simplistic interface, bland artistic assets, and a bucket load of generic quests; finally, “Left 4 Dead” the less formulaic of all these titles, showed an on-line mode with a great deal of care in forcing interesting group dynamics unto its players, in the process perfectly translating the defining notions of survival horror (the movie genre), but unfortunately, lacked any of the formal requirements for it to be a memorable experience (decent level design and pacing, ambiance and character design, etc). Curiously enough, of all these games, the only one that sticks out to me… is the one with a big fat “4” stamped on its cover.

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Metal Gear Solid 4” – Despite all my criticisms towards Kojima’s farewell ode to Snake, it is still the only game in this category that at least tries to tell something, to convey a story, to spark some sort of intellectual, emotional reaction in its audience. The care with voice acting and character rendering alone (the facial animations are probably the best of the year), are proof that Kojima is trying to tell stories with his medium; stories about people, of humanistic concerns, and not some random rambling about war with explosions and firefights. It’s a work of superlative beauty as well, conjuring up carefully orchestrated images and sounds into a brainless genre that thrives so much on grey-washed color palettes and bass-filled soundtracks. And notice how inhabiting the popular aesthetic of shooters such as “Call of Duty 4”, “Metal Gear” still comes up as more balanced, aesthetically convincing game in every way. Kojima simply plays with video-games’ expressive elements as much as he can, bending the preconceptions of what defines a genre, and what defines a game even, in the process  delivering notions of dramatic construction, aesthetic ambiance and contextualization that go far beyond the crude matter of its peers. In the game’s formal structure, for instance, Kojima divides the game into acts, but instead of being content on establishing different narrative points to match that structure, he went as far as adapting each of the game’s expressive vehicles to the context of each act, establishing different aesthetic moods and game-play styles to fit the story – in essence, altering a dramatic structure (originally designed for theater) to blend with the interactive medium. Who does that? Whether inside or outside the genre? Very, very few designers. And doing all this, while also presenting an entertaining game which even the most simple-minded of gamers can appreciate, makes this title soar high above the rest of its pack. In such a bad year, it’s definitely one of the best the medium offered.

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“Biggest Disappointment” – “Metal Gear Solid 4 – You must be thinking – “What? How can the same game be the best and the most disappointing of the year?” The answer is simple: despite all its qualities, “Metal Gear” is the best also by demerit of its peers; it’s a disappointment because it’s beneath the grandeur of its author. Think about it, here we have one of the best designers of this industry, the man who did “Snatcher” and the original “Metal Gear Solid” – someone who we’ve come to look up to in awe, for his quality both as a script writer and as a revolutionary game designer – and the best he can come up with is a safe sequel, one in which he surrenders creative freedom to please his  die-hard fans. “Metal Gear Solid 4” has details of sheer genius, and yet it wastes them on the silliest of plots, one that stinks of fan-service in every cut-scene, just so that the fan-boys can be content with a neat little ending to their precious ten year old saga. The notion that the audience can decide the fate of a work coming from such an influential author is, to say the least, frightful. The game’s form and overall tone only serve to make it even more of an insult, reveling on low humor and tons of silly Anime tropes that break the otherwise tragic tone of “Metal Gear Solid’s” story. And thus, a game that could have been labeled a masterpiece is, in many ways, a mediocre title polluted by all that is wrong with the medium. Which begs me to think that though Kojima is an incredibly talented man, he is now chained to a successful product, dictated by the most prosaic and demeaning laws of franchising – if that is not a reason to despise the state of the industry, I don’t know what is.