“The Year of …………” – Interaction
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.
“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?
“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. ]