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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.

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➟ 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)

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➟ 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)

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➟ Studio Ghibli’s Ni no Kuni for PS3

Studio Ghibli and Level-5 are making a videogame for the DS, and it’s just been announced that a version for the PS3 will also be released; most likely a different story in the same world rather than a straight port. The screenshot above is purportedly the actual game being rendered by a 2D/3D animation engine. Compare it to a still from an actual animated cutscene here. They are almost indistinguishable in terms of art quality. That a console game controlled in real-time by a player can look (at least when paused) just like a real Studio Ghibli movie is utterly amazing.

Link [Joystiq.com]

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A short aside on handheld game prices

When I bought my first Nintendo DS in the spring of 2005, touchscreen gaming was new to the mainstream and the idea of downloadable handheld content was still a few clouds short of a perfect storm. I believe you might have been able to download a game directly to a Windows Mobile PDA, but syncing them over from a desktop was the standard practice.

At that time, I was happy to plonk down £20+ (nearly SGD$60) for a simple casual game like Zoo Keeper, which many will recognize as a clone of Popcap’s Bejeweled. Yeah, that game you can play for free online. I remember ordering it online from the American Amazon.com because it wasn’t yet due in England for some time, and the ensuing wait for something to play on my new DS was torture.

Even though it launched alongside meatier fare like Super Mario 64 DS, this Match-3 game was an incredible new experience. The ability to directly manipulate blocks onscreen was hailed in the gaming press as something that could “only be done on Nintendo’s new machine”. You could even wirelessly engage other DS-owning friends in a competitive mode without them having to own a copy. I have fond memories of Zoo Keeper because its mechanics were finely tuned to allow ever-flowing speed combos, and till today still consider it a better Bejeweled than Bejeweled itself.

Present day: one can download a similar game onto an iPhone in under a minute, for free or about a dollar. You compete against hundreds of friends online through Facebook. If Zoo Keeper were to be ported to iOS tomorrow (please please please), USD$4.99 (about SGD$7) would seem too high an asking price. Even Popcap’s own sequel to Bejeweled goes for $2.99 on the iPhone while desktop PC/Mac versions continue to retail at $19.95. How did we get to this point? I love a low price on games, and while $60 for Zoo Keeper was certainly too high a price – accepted at that point in time as a form of “early adopter tax” whereby new technology for which no benchmark price has been established often goes for as high as producers dare hope the market will bear – I worry that this might not be sustainable for our ecosystem of independent and major developers. Which is why I welcome Apple’s iAds program onto my device, and everyone whining about having ads in their games can go buy themselves a PSP Go or whatever.

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➟ Wired hands-on with the 3DS

Wired’s Chris Kohler gets a little time with the newly-announced Nintendo 3DS. It’s only the most promising handheld gaming device since the original DS! Does everything an iPhone can do and more, now that it has 1) a more powerful graphics processor, 2) an accelerometer and gyroscope built into each one for six-axis motion sensing, 3) a touchscreen + analog joystick + D-pad, 4) a download store. Of course, there’s also the 3D screen that gives the illusion of depth without the need for special glasses.
The games announced for it so far include a really epic-looking Kid Icarus title, a remake of Ocarina of Time (widely considered the best game of all time), Paper Mario, Pilotwings Resort, Super Street Fighter IV, and all-new entries in the Saints Row, DJ Hero, Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid franchises. No pricing info or release date yet, which leads me to believe they’re trying to bring costs down, but we should expect a higher than usual number. Say around USD$200-220.
The graphics, which are much more advanced than you’d expect from Nintendo, left me pretty much in disbelief. They’re on a level with Sony’s PSP, probably even a little better than that. But the eye-popping 3-D effect makes everything that much richer.
You can only see the 3-D effect if you’re looking at the 3DS screen straight on, although there’s a good amount of fudge factor there — you can move the unit around quite a bit and still get the effect.

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Here are some DS games I’ve been playing lately: