Super Mario 64: The 1up Game

February 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

Out of all the articles I have read or watched this week, this particular item has entertained me the most.

Basically, it’s two Japanease guys playing Mario 64, but they’ve changed the rules of the game. Instead of playing the game conventionally – going through the levels, collecting stars and so forth – they have devised a new way to play. The aim of the game is now this: to collect all eight coins in each stage while avoiding the floating 1up mushroom which chases the player throughout. You see, in the original game the 1up mushroom needs to be activated, and from that point on it will chase the player around until it is picked up, thereby giving the player an extra life. So what these guys have effectively done is flipped the game on its head: instead of the 1up mushroom giving you an extra life, it now effectively ends the game, forcing you to restart.

What I love about this idea is just the child-like genius embedded within it. It’s so inventive, creative and nonsensical; I just love it. It reminds me of the games I used to play with my brother and sister. We would cook some ludicrous rules up and just pretend. It makes me happy to see this kind of brilliant, creative spirit because – God knows – we lack so much of it in everyday life. These videos express the most basic essence of a child in ‘play’, in which he creates his own world, his own characters and his own script. In this world there are no limitations or boundaries; there are no ‘good’ ideas or ‘bad’ ideas; there are just ideas.

It just makes me laugh; it’s all such silly, funny nonsense, but there is something so very charming in it all.

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PSP2 Rumours

February 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

An expansion of my comments here.

To my understanding, the PSP has sold over fifty million units so far. That means that there is a huge market audience out there with the console, and hopefully, willing to pay for games on it. There isn’t much the PSP could benefit from apart from a better control layout and a new storage format. I still believe that the PSP has the technological capabilities to be a great portable console. The problem isn’t so much with the console, it’s the way games are designed around it.

First off, I would say a significant portion of home console games don’t suit the concept of a portable console – a platform which must deliver high-bursts of short, segmented pieces of gameplay as its bread-and-butter. I bring my PSP on the bus, into town, on holiday and on the train; therefore, I need games which I can start and stop playing at any moment, and where I can get my thrills instantly. This doesn’t mean that designers should start doing endless clones of Wii/DS-style mini-game challenges; we can still have RPGs, racing games, strategy games etc… Depth shouldn’t be shunned in favour of shallow gameplay, I am not saying that it should at all.

Console games and portable games provide, in general, two seperate and different experiences. Because of the technological advancements with the PSP, a lot of developers have become blinded to this fact, and instead have become intent on trying to cram their PS3/360 game onto a UMD. I understand that portable consoles are used indoors and not always when in transit, but the thing is this: if I have a PS3 with Resistance 2 in my living room, why would I play an inferior version of that game on my PSP? It doesn’t make sense.

If developers want a portable game to be a success, while using some existing intellectual property of theirs – for example, the Resistance licence – then they need to think about redesigning that game from the ground up with that portable console in mind.

If Sony were to make a new PSP though, there are two additional issues that need to be dealt with: the first being the lack of a second analogue nub; the second, the issue of game piracy and copy protection. Touch-screens and motion control are interesting features, but I believe they are only secondary in importance to the points I have outlined above.

'Flashbacks of a Fool' (2008) DVD Review

February 18, 2009 § 1 Comment

Flashbacks of a Fool tells the story of Joe Scott (Daniel Craig), a soon to be washed-up Hollywood actor, who’s hedonistic lifestyle of excessive induldgence has gotten the better of him. After a hard nights binge of sex and drugs, Scott wakes up to receive a phone call from his mother, telling him that his childhood friend, ‘Boots’ (Max Deacon), has died, and that he is invited to the funeral. Scott then attends a meeting where he is told in no uncertain terms by his agent that his career is over. Distraught – and loaded on alcohol – Scott unwisely decides to take a dip in the ocean, nearly killing himself in the process. It is at this point that we go back to a time in Scott’s past and his teenage years spent in England. It is here we discover what has led him to his current condition of decedence, and more importantly, why.

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The Return to Midgar

February 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

I have recently had the opportunity to go back to playing Final Fantasy VII again – not difficult considering my currently unemployed status. There were two things I noticed in the first couple hours of play or so. The number one thing I noticed – and which I had forgotten about – was how hideously intrusive and disruptive random encounters are. It’s a real shame because Square Soft obviously went to some lengths to create atmosphere in the game through the music, the artwork and the dialogue. All these efforts are severely undermined by the random encounters, which throw you from the game world to the battle screen with a deafening, ‘whoooshing’ noise. It’s very distracting and makes being immersed in the game difficult.

The second thing, and this came as a bit of a surprise, was that the plot and the dialogue wasn’t half as amatuerish as I had expected it to be. There are some quite mature themes embedded within the story: terrorism, and its effect on a society, being one of them. Obviously, the game is no great treatise on this subject, but it does at least approach it. In the beginning, a question is raised regarding your actions as having taken part in terrorist attacks; the game, after all, does inform you that civilians have been killed as a result of the attacks. There is a question of justification: of whether these acts can be forgiven as long as they are for some greater good. Avalanche – the terrorist group behind the attacks – believes that Shinra is destroying the planet, and that if nobody does stop them, everyone will perish. Ultimately, the game does side with Avalanche, and places you and several members of the organisation under the moral banner of the good guys. While there is little moral ambiguity over who is good and who is evil, I still think it was rather bold of Sqaure Soft to add this shade of gray to their game.

The thing is, don’t all terrorist organisations consider their goals and ideals to be supreme and above all others? Don’t all terrorist organisations believe that their actions are justifiable, as long as they are for some perceived greater good? Like many terrorists, Avalanche see their hand as being forced by some corrupt authority. They are therefore not to be held responsible for their own actions, no matter how appalling the outcome may be. Parallel to this, one of the game’s main characters blames Shinra for forcing him, and his terrorist organisation, to go to such extreme measures in the first place – because remember, it’s not him who’s responsible, noooo, he was forced to do it; it was all Shinra’s fault, don’t you see?

One could perceive Avalanche as a group of violent eco-zealots, willing to sacrifice human life for some very vague notion of saving the planet. They only happen to be the good guys because they end up being right.

Bowlby's Run

February 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

This is my first attempt at a YouTube video – a test really. I wanted to see how the recording quality would come out when uploaded. It took a ridiculous amount of time to upload the file considering the film is only three-and-a-half minutes long. I am considering doing more videos, mostly FRAPS recordings, but possibly with commentary as well.

In a way, I’m surprised at how popular YouTube is as a video-sharing site considering some of the technical barriers to entry. First off, you need to own a computer decent enough to run a game alongside FRAPS in the background, and if it’s a game like Doom 3 or Crysis, then boy, is it going to chuuuug. Second, the amount of hard disk space needed for even a small recording to take place at a reasonable resolution is quite demanding. Then on top of all that, you need to convert the files from their raw format to something a little more condensed. It took me a fair while to find such a program and get it working – and I’m pretty technically minded. Finally, when all this is done, you can start uploading your files to YouTube. This step is simple enough; it’s just that you have to bear in mind that it takes a lot longer to upload something than to download. In which case, 180 megs may seem small, but when you’re uploading something that size it turns out to be quite a burden to carry – at least for my connection anyway. Of course, this is all specific to my experience and is only really relevent if you’re going to be recording something using a computer. If you’re recording from a video camera and want to put the film on to YouTube, then it’s only the last couple of steps you would need to worry about.

Still, I can see the appeal. It’s very satisfying seeing something you made being published in a forum for all to see, especially if it’s something immediately accessable to everyone – like a video. You definately get a buzz from it, and it does make me want to do more, but the time it takes to make something good is considerable. All I did was upload something I recorded on my computer. I didn’t use any editing techniques whatsoever; I pretty much just copy-and-pasted the .avi from my computer to the internet, with no revisions or edits, and that still took me a while to figure out. Maybe next time it’ll be a faster process; that is, if I do end up putting myself through this ordeal again.

By the way, if you do watch the video, then be sure to use the ‘watch in high quality’ option on the YouTube webpage.

'F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin' PC Demo Impressions

February 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

So I played the FEAR 2 demo and it’s ok. It’s a fairly alright run-and-gun, corridor-shooter with some slow-mo bits and a little horror on the side. The only thing is this: that is exactly what its predecessor was. The only difference here is the graphical upgrade (which, incidentally, is pretty flashy). I suppose that this is all fine with fans of the last game but, for me, I need something a little extra to make me fork out for a FPS these days. Quite frankly, the combat without the slow-mo, ain’t that super-fantastic. The AI also isn’t much to shout about either; but then, given that the AI has such limited environments to work with, this doesn’t come as such a surprise. With the original game I remember not particularly finding the environments all that interesting and the same applies here. The scare aspect is also based more on jump-based set-pieces rather than actual tension.

One thing I did like which others have been finding rather annoying is the HUD display, both in regards to the on-foot sections and the mech-piloting bits. The HUD is claustrophobic; almost to the degree where it starts to impede on the player’s visual breadth. I actually like this because it reinforces this idea of being in an inclosed space, and of increasing the player’s sense of being trapped or vulnerable; others find it damn annoying. I almost forgot to add how amusing piloting the mech in gunning down underpowered soldiers and similarly-powered robots. This is the best part of the demo but I think that this aspect of the game actually serves to undermine itself.

I’ll explain. The game wants you to be scared, to feel trapped, claustrophobic and vulnerable. It tries to do this with making the design of the game closed off, and by squeezing the player’s vision through an obtusive HUD. This makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is then giving the player access to a big-ass robot which basically ass-rapes everything it comes across. Any sense of feeling scared is completely destroyed as soon as you enter the cockpit of your nice, comfy war-machine. As a reflection of this change in temperament, I actually started to perceive the mech HUD as sort of protecting me, making me feel safe. This is in contrast to how I previously felt when I was on-foot, where I frequently felt boxed in by the hud which limited my view of the area.

It is in my limited opinion that I don’t think the game works on a survival-horror level, and if it doesn’t work on that level then it’s the combat mechanics that have to pull the game through. As I mentioned before though, I don’t really enjoy the combat in the game that much, and again, a lot of thathas to do with feeling so overpowered that you never feel in any danger or jeopardy — another reason why the game fails in inducing real panic in the player.

Breaking the Fourth Wall…

February 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

Imagine you’re in a cinema; the lights go down, and the film starts.  You’re watching the film and you start to lose awareness of what is around you. You start to become enveloped in the story, the characters and the dialogue. Suddenly, one of the characters turns towards the screen, starts to talk to you, and says

“You’re in a cinema, I am an actor, this is a film-set and none of this is real”.

Now imagine this happening every fifteen minutes until the film ends. This is the point we have reached regarding storytelling in video games.

Games which try to tell a story are ultimately faced with a bit of a dilemma: a conflict between functionality and immersion. In order for the player to know what to do, for him to be able to make sense of his surroundings; a certain amount of information must be made obvious to the player i.e. what items can be manipulated, the player avatar’s health status, where to go next etc… If these things are not made obvious then you risk losing the player’s interest as he starts to become confused and ultimately frustrated. At the same time, introducing these gaming conventions breaks the forth wall, while reminding the user that what they are playing is just a game.

A strong narrative requires that the design of a game must have more to it than just the bare minimal. Good dialogue is not merely functional; it should be smart and entertaining. Good level design can’t just be a long, narrow corridor separated by rooms; it has to introduce dead ends, it has to be superfluous. Good stories can’t just be a case of getting from A to B; they must include red-herrings, they must include divergences. This, of course, means that developers need to take risks with the player’s frustration levels.

Mere functionality just isn’t strong enough to allow for a good narrative. If you want to create an immersive, organic world; you must find a way to dissolve the conventions which gamers rely upon heavily. Given the chance, an experienced player will seek to reduce a game’s environment to a straight line. The job of the developer is therefore to disorientate the user so he is forced to re-analyse the situation, re-examine his environment, and take note.

Games are highly structured works of design; the key to holding on to the user’s attention is in hiding this fact from them. It’s like a magic trick: once you know the trick the magic is lost.

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