Notes and photos from Tokyo, 2018

It’s a rare treat for me to be able to visit Japan two years in a row, but that happened last month after we realized my airline miles bank could handle it. Our time was largely planned around meals, exhibitions, and not a great deal else. Looking back, I should have spent a little more time making a good to-do list. As soon as we arrived home, I started hearing and reading about all sorts of other things we could have done. Maybe next year.

It became a bit of a tradition for me to make these konbini snack haul videos every night at the hotel, showing a camera all the native junk food and drinks I bought to eat while lazing around. Unfortunately, I didn’t do any this time around. Why? Leading up to the trip, I started eating less and being healthier so that I could pig out on holiday. Ironically, that had two effects: a smaller appetite, and a habit of reading nutritional info labels.

Once there, I was looking at the calorie counts on everything, and having more than a 400kcal sandwich and 150kcal milk coffee for breakfast seemed irresponsible. In the past, I was probably eating 1000kcals just at breakfast alone. Those colorful, convenient packages are more energy-dense than they look… like how a microwavable spaghetti ready meal from 7-Eleven will easily run you over 900kcals.

This trip will be remembered for having spent (too?) much of it in queues. Nearly straight off the plane, we stood three hours in line at Nakiryu waiting for their Michelin-starred take on Szechuan dan dan noodles. It was amazing but three hours is a little much. I’d do it again at twice the price and half the wait.

Another epic wait was at the fairly new “Borderless” exhibition by teamLab in Odaiba, where the line stretched as far as one could see, before extending around the corner for another equal length. You approach it from the head of the line, and then walk down the entire way to find the end, and it’s painfully demoralizing. We honestly considered skipping it and going home, but it moved quickly and only took an hour. Once in line, you will be kept entertained by the disbelieving faces of newbs going through the same rite of passage.

As an experience, I have to recommend it. teamLab pull off some amazing stuff both in terms of technical achievement and sheer conceptual audacity. I don’t know how many members they have, but I’ll bet they’re all overworked. This permanent exhibition is presented in conjunction with Epson, and when you look at the number of high resolution projectors employed to carve these interactive fantasy worlds out of the dark, it makes sense.

Continue reading “Notes and photos from Tokyo, 2018”

Akihabara Park, Real vs. Virtual Photography

There’s this spot in Akihabara Park beside the designated smoking area, across from Yodobashi Camera’s rear exit, where I’ve taken the same photo twice; on the second occasion purely because it was a beautiful evening and I suddenly remembered taking the first photo and wanted to replicate it from memory without referring to my Flickr account. They turned out pretty close.

The other day while playing the game Akiba’s Trip on my PS Vita, I decided to visit the same spot to try and take it again with the in-game camera feature (the title is quite an accurate recreation of the gaming/anime/gadget town); again trying to find the same spot from memory.

The level of detail is surprising, and this is just for one building out of many. I even got the same corner of the little rain shelter peeking in from the left. Makes me feel like I should visit again sometime soon.

➟ Turning Paper to Pixels with a New Game Design Tool

From Paper to iPad, Pixel Press Turns Drawings Into Videogames
Bonnie Cha, recode.net

I loved play­ing videogames as a kid, but I can’t say that I ever spent any time sketch­ing out ideas for my own games like my broth­er and his friends did. (My doo­dles usu­al­ly involved cute ani­mals or spelling out my crush’s name in bub­ble…

The core concept is every kid’s dream: designing their own games for friends to play through, or just for the heck of it. But without some serious inspiration, what you can do in a short platformer level is very limited. I remember a D&D game maker tool for PCs in the 90s; that was infinitely better because you could create a STORY, and set up narrative funnels for your players. 20 years later, our idea of imaginative play can’t be restricted to letting kids carve out crude worlds in 3D chunks and 2D lines.

Some Recent Games And Storytelling

I’ve had the luxury of some console gaming time these past few months, and managed to complete Metal Gear Rising, BioShock Infinite, and the rebooted Tomb Raider, while making progress in Devil May Cry, Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon, and Super Mario 3D Land.

The observation here is that in my advanced age, the definition of fun has changed. I used to be excited for sandbox experiences, building/business simulations, and multiplayer combat. I think if Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet existed when I was younger, I’d totally see the point of building a giant robot’s head in a mountainside. Now, the thought of spending hours on that kind of play instead of catching up on reading or working on other projects is out of the question.

Open-world games are in a precarious position. Five years ago, I could spend hours collecting Crackdown’s Agility Orbs. I’d mess about in Assassin’s Creed and forget the main quest entirely, writing my own inner narrative about Altair being a medieval pickpocketing Batman. When life next comes collecting, these games will be the first to go.

So when the nights are short, what games make the cut? The aforementioned games on Xbox360 (Metal Gear Rising, BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Devil May Cry) are marked by strong, cinematic narratives, or at least entertaining ones in the case of MGR and DMC. The remaining Nintendo 3DS titles succeed on pure mechanics, where joy is extracted purely from the timing of button presses, helped by exuberant character animations and inventive set pieces.

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Luigi’s Mansion 2 might be one of the most charming games I’ve ever seen, and like most portable titles, it satisfies in a different way than a blockbuster console title. Each level is polished and detailed to the point that it vibrates. From one minute to the next, you’re constantly having your assumptions challenged by experimental level designs, new enemies, and ingenious puzzles. There’s a simple set-up about why the ghosts are loose, but the game’s real Story is located in the way that these parts interoperate, and in how the characters react, much like how design was famously said by Steve Jobs to be the craft of how things work, not how they look.

Stories are perhaps the best reason to engage with any entertainment medium; often they function perfectly being the only reason, but videogames call for a balance between play and involvement to be fully realized.

Take BioShock Infinite, one of the year’s most highly rated games, if not the highest. To experience a playthrough is to see an ambitious, first-person SF story with many smart things to say about games, politics, gender, religion, and whatever else people want to see in it. As a game, mechanically, it’s mediocre for a lack of innovation. Fights play out in the usual fashion, with a few superficial gimmicks. When the supporting character, Elizabeth, throws you a health pack mid-firefight with a press of your "X" button, it’s an Auto Heal/Use Potion action in disguise. Much like how artists can throw new textures atop a game engine to create an expansion pack, BioShock’s gameplay designers have reskinned a generic FPS using emotion and worldcraft.

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Finding the combat somewhat boring, I started to cynically see places where narrative paint was employed to make the shooting gallery journey seem shinier than it was. It’s sad that a week after finishing the game, I mostly remembered its central conceit and frankly awesome ending sequence. This doesn’t happen in Luigi’s Mansion 2, because the gameplay itself is what you think about when not playing.

Why is BioShock Infinite so overloaded on the story side of things, constantly trying to shove more story in your face with voice recordings, environmental artwork, snatches of conversation, meaning-laden anachronistic pop song covers, in-game exposition cutscenes, etc., but so underdeveloped as an action game? I’m pretty sure the experience of watching someone play the game is >90% as satisfying as playing it yourself. It doesn’t have to be your hands on the wheel. I’ve played games where after a momentous moment unfolded on screen, I was left acutely aware of a lingering sensation under my thumb where things had been set in motion. The button press echoed through flesh and time. Triumph seemed to reside directly in my actions. Because of how little I cared for and enjoyed the gameplay, BioShock felt like pressing Play on a rented movie.

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Tomb Raider is more successful in several of these places. While well-written, the story isn’t mind-blowing in the way BioShock’s is, but it has its own surprises and is superbly paced: you always feel like the game’s climax is drawing near, and then the story horizon stretches out in front of you again like a challenge, taunt, and gift all at once. Traversing the world, hunting with a bow & arrow, scouting for hidden objects… did I just get tricked into playing an open-world game I said I didn’t have time for? As a combination of story and fun, and critically, by allowing enough freedom for its player to feel a sense of grace and mastery of the world, it succeeds.

Although progression is linear, how you navigate Tomb Raider’s world feels under your control. Lara is continuously gaining new abilities that open up previously impassable areas. It’s the old Metroid design, and a sound one. You could argue that the superpower-granting Vigors in BioShock play a similar role, but they are few, and the fun is taken out of them by the ammo limits. Tomb Raider doesn’t charge you for the joy of shooting a rope arrow across a chasm and zipping down it. Incidentally, where the ropes go is largely predetermined, but because the player personally installs them, the feeling is completely different from BioShock’s steel skyline cables, which herd you heavy-handedly around the map like the rails they literally are. A minor difference, design-wise, but one with an outsized impact on the experience.

➟ Graphic Adventures, the Book

Straight from the pages of Wikipedia, compiled and edited by one Philipp Lenssen, this book tells the story of an era most people my age lived through and think back upon with great affection: the early period of computer adventure gaming. Companies like Sierra On-Line, Lucasarts, Microprose, and Adventure Soft defined the boundaries of what we now know of interactive storytelling, plot-driven game design, and narrative/item-based puzzles. It’s on sale at Amazon for $29, and is also available as a free, downloadable HTML file with “loads of screenshots”. YJSoon has a useful tip: run it through Calibre to make an EPUB file, and it’ll sit nicely on your iPad’s iBookshelf.

Link (via @YJSoon)

➟ Studio Ghibli’s Ni no Kuni gameplay video

Following up on the screenshots I posted a few days ago, this gameplay video of Studio Ghibli & Level 5’s upcoming PS3 game, Ni no Kuni (The Another World), is just gorgeous in its 3D engine-powered approximation of the company’s signature animation style.

Link (via @davechua, who notes that the battle sequences are rather Pokemon-ish)