Archive for Gaming

Among The Sleepless

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2014 by trivialpunk

What a ridiculous life I lead, sometimes. How insane can you make a banal life-style? I’m not sure, but I do know a lot of it has to do with perspective. And, luckily, that’s the theme of the game we’re reviewing today: Among The Sleep. However, before we cut to that, let’s mention Dream Journal (Cancelled due to circumstances beyond our control).

It’s my first web-series -written and produced by me. How weird could it be? Follow that link, and you’ll find out. There’s plenty more to come. However, if you’re in more of a Letsplay mood, you can follow this link to my Letsplay of “Among The Sleep”. You know, because it only makes sense to mention it here. Alright? We good? Let’s drift…

 Among The Sleep 1

 Among The Sleep is a first-person psychological-horror game developed, using the Unity engine, by Krillbite Studio, a small, dedicated indie studio based in Norway. So far, they’ve put out this game and “The Plan”. Would You Like To Know More? You know what to do. From this small sample of games, we can start to get a feel for the company, because they’re both dripping with atmosphere.

Pains were taken to craft these titles, and while I’d like to advertise for the devs and talk about The Plan, that’s not our business today. Today, we’re a 2 year-old; what the hell do we know about game-development? We’re talking to a teddy bear!

Sorry, flash-backs. But, that’s the basic idea. Your first-person perspective is roughly two feet off the floor and mounted firmly in the eyes of a child. As a result, you see the world a child would: one full of magic, wonder, imagination and danger. I know, that’s more adjectives than I’d like, too, but it’s from this miasma of descriptors that the game takes shape. Because, it’s a game about perspective.

I’m not talking about the angle, I mean how you perceive the world. The meat of the horror elements come from your childish view of the banal world you inhabit. For a child, everyday things are new and strange. Behaviors and understandings that we take for granted can be alien and disturbing to a naive viewer. It’s like landing in a new country, but the place you came from was an existential nothingness. It’s hard to relate the two.

The game is full of perceptual tricks and thoughtful arrangements that guide you intuitively through the levels. Of course, they’re not particularly huge levels, but you are playing a toddler. The size of the maps and the size of the character are well-matched, so the house becomes an Eldritch landscape, unlike any you’ve experienced for quite some time.  The puzzles are clever and very well themed. Although, the door-handles can be persnickety, at times.

But, it’s more than just a good horror-game set-up; it’s a well-executed horror game: one that understands that jump-scares are tools, not building-blocks. The horror is deep; it suffuses the shadowed textures and the narrative completely. There’s a lot going on here. To truly discuss it, we’re going to have to go a little psycho-literary on it, so we’ll finish the game-play first, then we’ll talk shop.

The physics engine works fairly well, and there aren’t any puzzles that rely on it in any annoying capacity. The game-play is tutorialized in an unobtrusive manner, and there are plenty of things kicking around the background for you to find and pick up on. I can’t tell you exactly what I mean without ruining some of the experience, but the obvious example is the drawings you find. (We’ll come back to those later) They’re scattered all over, and you don’t need them to understand the story.

However, if you start finding them, then you’ll start to see a disturbing situation unfold. But what is the story? (We’ll come back to that, too) Well, your mother has gone missing, and you’ve been dropped off at the toddler’s center somewhere in Silent Hill. So, it’s up to you to find the four items and rescue… the… Prin… cess. Well, maybe not. But, that’s the general idea: where’s Mom?

From there, it’s mostly fetch-quests and a little stealth. The stealth mechanics aren’t great, but they’re serviceable. I didn’t really feel like either the shadows or the bushes provided any sort of protection, but if you can put a wall between you and your hunters, then all the better. That’s the game; and it’s an intense experience. Try it out if you feel so inclined. (Its Score is highlighted at the end) Good? Let’s talk psychology, literature and horror.

Much of this game relies on the dissonance between your experience as a child-character and the reality that it’s masking. But, that’s just the start; they made that meaningful by masking something incredibly disquieting: abuse. What kind of abuse? Ah, that’s where they made things more interesting by using alternative narratives.

Crafting alternative narratives can be difficult, but here’s the basic idea: take all the elements available to you, then remix them. Simple, right? Well, if you change the presentation of some of those elements by translating them through a naive understanding, and a wonderful visual aesthetic, then it can become far more complicated. You can suggest far more stories that way, because you’re asking your player to interpret an interpretation of their interpretation. The possibilities are enormous, and engaging your player in that capacity is half the battle of a horror game.

So, how do you cull the divergent pathways? You pick strong symbols, almost archetypes. Then, you pick well-known cultural situations. In this case: a single mother and an abusive male voice at the door. That’s a text-book Disney-Dickensian broken-family set-up. Blend that with some suggestive drawings on the floor, and you’ve got a completely understandable story… (**SPOILERS PAST THIS POINT**) that you can begin to immediately call into question.

Because, the broader a symbol is, the more believable interpretations it can stand-in for. Why is that figure white, but that one’s black? Why are there two figures here? Why is the white one doing that? What is that shadow?

You see, in the beginning, you’re truly worried for your mother’s safety. Something has taken her away from you, and it seems to have had sinister intent. But, again, that’s only your interpretation of the event through the eyes of a child. These are strange, magical events, because they’re unbelievable. Why is Mom acting that way? Who is this other person?

Now, I know I saw the end-game interpretation pretty early, because I lived this. But, I’m not sure it’s as obvious if you haven’t. The Abusive Father-figure narrative is far more culturally salient where I’m from, so I feel like that’s going to be the general interpretation. But, there’s another narrative that can help you get there, and it exists within the pages of psychological theory.

When I was first playing the game, I was looking at things from a Freudian perspective, because there are clearly mommy-issues at play, here. But, are Mommy-issues a real thing? Is Freud really relevant? Here, he definitely is. You see, as unreliable as Freud’s theories are in a scientific capacity, their scope and internal consistency make them valuable literary fodder. His symbols and ideas are frameworks that we can use to communicate complex, emotional ideas to each other.

Which makes it all the more hilarious that I should have been thinking about Jungian psychology. Seriously, this Wikipedia Page is basically all the game’s narrative symbols in short-hand. They took their time with this. One in particular I’d like to point to is the Shadow. The Shadow is that space between who we think we are and who we really are.

The thing is, every person we meet has a shadow, for them and for us. They are different from the way we perceive them, and they’re different from the way they perceive themselves. It makes figuring out who someone is a far more complex problem than we often give it credit for. For a child who implicitly trusts their Mom? You know there has to be a long, dark shadow there.

And, that’s what kind of tipped it for me. The shadows that encroach on you in the opening are literally figurative. Even the goal of the game, to collect enough memories of your mother to access her current location, smacks of braving that dark wall of terror. Of course, I didn’t realize that until I was falling asleep after my first Letsplay session, because the streams of alternate-narrative are well-maintained.

It’s difficult to guess what’s really going on. And, in the dark, you begin to wonder what you’d prefer, which is almost more disquieting. It’s a lonely, frightening place to be for such a small person. (Protag-wise, you can’t get much more dis-empowered than an abandoned child) But, what makes it more frightening is its immediacy and the terrible truth it hides.

Because, for many people, this isn’t a game. I lived through many of those moments myself; I had to make the tough choice that you see at the end of the game. It brought me right back there. But, it did so with some grace. Powerful stuff.

Issues of family conflict writhe deep in every culture and nest silently in every mind. They’re not always our conflicts, and there aren’t always a lot of them, but it’s something we can all understand. You might say that it’s in our collective unconscious; we all know how important family can be, especially when it’s not around.

By carefully suggesting the elements of all sorts of family conflicts (by staying broad, remember), Krillbite Studio was able to weave many different possible interpretations into one game, making us consider all of their unnerving implications, before bringing it all into focus for the finale.

The dissonance between what we thought was going on and the terribly unfortunate reality is another shadow for us to explore in ourselves. Bring your teddy.

I’m giving Among The Sleep a score of: Candle-Lit Ghost Stories In A Thunderstorm out of The Thrill Of Your Darkened Basement. Enjoy exploring the void of The Shadow; I’ll see you on the other side.

All-New Advertising Gimmicks Really Aren’t Much

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2014 by trivialpunk

I’m shared between the rich and clever;
I’m the heart of each endeavor.

I gleam in every artist’s eye;
I’m the awe that fills the sky.

I am love, both old and new;
I’m the reason you can “do”.

Despite our clashing; I’m your friend, too;
You’ll use Me to figure out if that’s true.

Who am I?

The first letter of my name is the first clue.

The second letter begins the Tweet that holds the second clue. It’s the only one from June 26, 2014 that begins with that letter.
Ditto for the third letter.
The fourth precedes the beginning of the end;
And, even though it’s jinxing the entire thing, it refuses to move.

Yes, I absolutely put this together to spoil the title of my first ever web-series.
If I must advertise, then I want it to be enjoyable and challenging for everyone involved!

Good luck!

A Really Worldly Cause

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , on June 4, 2014 by trivialpunk

You know we’re on hiatus, right? That’s why I’m abusing this outlet for the first time in recent memory to encourage you to check this out.  

I’m a writer, so you know I love books, but, also, I owe almost everything I love to the pursuit of knowledge. Both my pursuit and humanity’s. And even though I constantly break writing conventions, I hold them dear, because it’s education and information that brought us BioShock. Dragon Age comes from the stories of “olde”, and your CPU relies on an incredible wealth of knowledge to even be conceived of. The food that feeds us now is possible through technology, and all the interconnectivity in the world doesn’t help if you can’t read.

I won’t patronize you further by spelling out why I think this is important: you get it. I get it. Let’s do this!

Moving On…

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , , , on June 1, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hello! It is I! I’ve been busy the last few days. Actually, weeks, truth be told. Working on this project or writing that script. And you might be wondering, where on earth is all this effort going? Well, I’ll tell you.

I spend a lot of time on here criticizing the work of others. But, that’s because I see those as examples to be learned from, experiences to be cherished. At heart, I am a story-teller. Gaming is my favourite medium, but stories have always been the core of it. And, a little adrenaline-agitating game-play doesn’t hurt, either. But, mostly the story bit.

So, it’s time for Valid and Sound to grow a little bit more. I’m working on plenty of other projects with other people, but I don’t want to spoil those until the editing and uploading are finished. So, here’s what’s going up this week: WATCH_DOGS dropped, so you know I had to put a Letsplay series together for it. I took a bit of a summer romp in Far Cry 3 land. And I’m kicking off a live-action (reading) series with Grimm’s own Rumpelstiltskin and Godfather Death.

There’s so much more I can’t even talk about yet! Augh! But, you’ll find out soon. As things come to fruition, I’ll post them here as up-dates. However, an unfortunate side-effect of all this business is that I’m going to be going on a brief blogging hiatus to focus on the work. But, be prepared, because you’re about to see a whole new side of Valid and Sound.

Until I’m finished with the shooting and the editing, I’ll be reblogging the work of the people that I read. If there’s something you need to know, then I want to be able to share it with you. And besides, a little more exposure never hurt anybody.

Thanks for coming with me on this weird journey. When we’ve wrapped the shoot, I’ll post a couple nice, long horror gaming posts. Probably about Among The Sleep or something similar, because that’s coming up on the Letsplay chopping-block. Or, even, a less disturbing metaphor, like “next on the list”. Although, that sounds sinister, too. I’ll leave the choice of metaphor up to you.

Thanks for always indulging my word-play, and when this huge gulf of work is through, I’ll see you on the other side.

Race The Sun: Inevitable, Yet Unexpected

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on May 24, 2014 by trivialpunk

Well, hello there! I’ve been writing fairly esoteric pieces lately, so they haven’t seen the light of day, except for a weird parable post. Today, though, I’m reviewing Race The Sun, so that’ll see some light. Even if it does sink beyond the horizon, dooming us to a dark oblivion.

ss_e6137a229e8c410293f71fa56684870d476492c4.1920x1080

Race The Sun isn’t a particularly long game. You play it in 30 second to 20 minute increments, depending on your skill level, and you’ve got only one goal: keep up with the setting sun. So far, so good. Your craft requires you to maintain line-of-sight with the sun, because it’s a light-weight solar-powered craft, and batteries are heavy. If the sun can’t see you, you’ve only got a few moments of precious manoeuvring time before you’re doneskies. Some pick-ups give you a boost for a short period of time. Others provide you with a shield. The green one lets you jump once. And, as you level up, you can customize your ship to let you carry more items.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it is an infinite runner game; you don’t want to have to make too many decisions at once. Because, you’re going to have to be making them really, really quickly for as long as you can. The core engagement of the game is the tension between the setting sun and the barely-glimpsed obstacles on the horizon. You need the creed of speed to lead, but you can’t end up flat as a bat under a very fat rat. And the faster you go, the more likely you are to end up in the latter predicament.

Designing games like this seem like an interesting challenge. You’ve got to ensure a level of variation in the procedurally-generated levels, but you can’t have utter chaos. Part of what lets people play this game is the pattern-recognition. We have a calculable reaction time, but it depends on the stimuli. You react faster to things that you don’t have to think about how to react to. And things become thoughtless reactions when they become entrained physical movements or response patterns. So, they solved this problem by making small, copy-pastable challenge zones. Those challenge zones are mixed throughout the Regions.

A Region is just a stretch of arbitrarily marked terrain, but, as you progress between them, your challenge becomes more difficult to surmount, until you’re trying desperately to flit between two giant blocks that are setting down for tea. There’s a bird or a bug-thing that comes and drops things for you between regions, but I don’t trust it. You shouldn’t either. Unless you’re running on normal mode.

Because, there’s a challenge mode called Apocalypse. And a Workshop full of user-made goodies. On those maps, you can never quite be sure what’s going to happen with the bird-thing, but you can be sure that the ride will be a trip. Obviously, not every map has the carefully adjusted challenge-curves that the main maps do. Some of them are totally unforgiving, and others are just blocks in space. They keep things fresh and clever, and some of them are more elaborate than the base game ever attempts to be. Never too elaborate, though; that’s what makes this game so interesting to me: the psychological aspect.

Were you really expecting another answer? The perceptual experience of dodging blocks is fun, but you might ask yourself, “Why blocks?” In a world of insane graphics technology, why are we dodging cuddle-puddles of unmarked squares? I’m sure part of it is that the game started out as a flash-game indie-project, but there’s another, even more practical, reason: details slow reaction time. Most of your reaction movements are guided by the movement portion of your visual system. The rods in our eyes are good at detecting quick movements, and they’re more sensitive to light than our cones. But, rods don’t see much colour. They’re concerned with contours and lines. Your cones, which are concentrated in the middle of your fovea, handle all the colour. This is why we react quickly, but sometimes without thought, to things in our peripheral vision.

It’s also why your eyes unfocus when you’re “in the zone.” Focusing is for depth, detail and distraction. If you want to react with the best of them, then you’re going to be reacting to vague shapes and contours, a’la TF2 characters and giant, unfriendly blocks. Of course, there’s way more to this story, but this is the gateway, and it illustrates how this game has to communicate. It can’t direct you; it can’t talk to you beyond an opening text-scrawl. All it can do is play on your perceptual experience.

And they take the opportunity to do so. Flashes of light, shaking and sound stand-in for explosions that you passed 3 seconds ago. There are no armies, just the suggestion of lines and ranks, planes and tanks. Invasions by aliens. And all of it fits into the gameplay, even the explosions are blinding obstacles that give you half a moment of vision during which to make all of your driving decisions for the next 5 seconds. For a game that’s so bare-bones, it’s remarkably good at telling a story. In fact, every piece of it is so important to the narrative that I had fun replacing the soundtrack on different gameplay sessions to see what kind of videos I’d create. These are my favourite ones, uploaded in shiny 1080P: Slow BurnPenumbra and Night of Chaos.

So, before we wrap up, what story am I talking about? Well, it’s pretty hard to say, because it’s like an odd Rorschach test, but here’s what shook out of it for me. The ship is one of us, and the pathing we choose is life. In order to ensure that we get to keep living in the light for a while, we need to do things; we need to take chances. We need to get jobs or meet people, have kids or drink sodas, we need to do the things that make up life. Some of those things are tricky, others are dangerous. But, there’s no reward without a little risk. That’s why the power-ups are peppered throughout the challenges.

But any challenge might overcome you; any turn might be your last. And every life ends in death. No matter how good you are, the sun always sets. It always, really does. So, what’s the point?

To chase the sun. To do a little better each time. To see what’s on the other side.

Digital Humanities: Double the Entendres, Thrice the Parable

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , on May 19, 2014 by trivialpunk

I’ve had trouble explaining some of the core tenants of the Digital Humanities directly, so here’s a parable of one of its ideas:

This is Newsman 1. He knows a lot about A. There are a lot of letters in the alphabet, though. 26, to be exact! That’s a lot of letters to pay attention to at once, especially since A splits off into Aa, Ab, Ac…

Now, there are plenty more letters than that, and the combinations get pretty divergent. But, Newsman 1 knows that the people reading him are really only interested in Aa. He knows a lot about that, and there are enough people in the world that want to read about Aa that he can continue writing about it specifically. So, he does. He gets quite a following, which invests him with authority when speaking about Aa.

Now, there are also the people that listen to Newsman 1 because he can explain the news precisely and concisely. He speaks clearly and organizes his thoughts very well. And these people need someone like that, because the amount of information available to the average news-reader has increased exponentially. The number of things they have to know about is insane, especially if you consider that some of them are experts on B-Z. So, they rely on informed individuals to explain the complex nuances of things like Aa and Ab.

That’s a pretty efficient system for sharing information, but it has considerations that must be addressed. For instance, a lot of people who listen to Newsman 1’s  opinions about Aa also write about A or Aa. So, now Newsman 1’s opinions and ideas reach much farther than they did before. Some people credit him, some people don’t. That doesn’t matter for our purposes here; you can’t stop the signal.

This can be a good thing, if Newsman 1 is well-informed and even-handed. But, no one can know all things, even about something as specific as Aaa, let alone anything as generalized as A. That’s fair, though. We can’t expect people to be more than people, especially when they get to something they’re unfamiliar with. Or, when someone comes up with a new idea, like Aab.

Aab is kind of radical. Or maybe it’s counter-intuitive. Or maybe Newsman 1 just isn’t a fan of Aab. Either way, he says Aab is stupid and Aaa is obviously the superior idea. The people that listen to him take that negative impression into consideration when they’re talking about Aab. Now, Aab is always addressed from the angle of being compared to Aaa, which it might not have anything in common with, besides their shallow resemblances or context.

But, how could Newsman 1 know that? He writes what he knows and approaches that as thoughtfully as he can. Maybe he’ll change his mind, who knows? Maybe it’s a political idea, and he’s more on the fence than he lets on, but he has to have an opinion when he reports it. Whatever the reason for his disinterest in, or ignorance of, Aab, he is merely a dot in the chain of the spread of information. Whether he changes his mind or not, that perspective has spread through the web based on his authority on Aaa.

You might be thinking, “Yes, but aren’t there many different Newsmen. Surely, there are people who will provide coverage on the perspectives that Newsman 1 misses.” Absolutely true! But, what do you think the ratio is between people who interpret, then report, on A and those who read about it? It’s minuscule. The ideas of the many are being funneled through the visions of the few.

We rely on those people to be even-handed and informed, to report in an unbiased manner, but they’re already starting from a perspective. Unbiased reporting is a dream; good reporting takes bias into account as much as possible, but it will never try to convince you that it’s objective. Unless the reporters are lying to convince you of their opinions.

This parable represents a type of group-think on a scale that we could have never imagined before. Remember, in a world as chaotic and filled with information as this one, being even a little bit salient is a massive leg-up. It’s also a big responsibility. And it can be hard to know what information you’re actually spreading, some of it’s pretty tacit.

For instance, I used “Newsman” this entire parable. But, there are Newswomen. And, if I wanted to be truly thoughtful, I should say “Newsperson,” because I see the Gender Binary as an emergent, but artificial, social construct. But, if we ever get Androids to do the news or a member of an alien race, then “Newsperson” becomes a thoughtless generalization. And here’s where it gets tricky, if I say “Newsperson,” then will you ever imagine an alien doing it?

And if you never think of it, if it stays a strange, foreign idea, and you’re opposed to it, then how will you ever grow comfortable with it? Or even be exposed to it?

In a world as complex and chaotic as ours, as full of possibility and diversity as the bottom of the sea or the farthest star, the information people don’t address is just as meaningful as the stuff they do. A drowning man thinks only of the air-pocket, but ignores the ocean at his own risk.

So, that’s it: my triple parable. I don’t necessarily agree with all the ideas I put forth. And maybe later, I’ll realize I was being a newb and reconsider. But, for now, this makes sense to me.

The Titans Come

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hi! I just have to get this all out of my system, don’t worry about this becoming an exclusively Titanfall fan-site. I was working on a Titanfall fan vid and I thought: “Let’s procrastinate and make some Titan load-outs!” So, here are some of the things I came up with…

 OGRE-BP

The Hardpoint

Arc Cannon
Vortex Shield
Multi-Target Missile System/Rocket Salvo
Tactical Reactor/Regen Booster/Dash Quickcharger
Big Punch/Core Accelerator

Deployment: This is an end-game Titan and an important piece in any ground-engagement. As a giant hunk of metal and shielding, your battlefield presence is already impressive. But, augmented by your Kit load-out, you’ll be a persuasive force of battlefield control. The Over-shield Reactor ability always comes in handy, especially so when you’re taking some hits for your team in a narrow city-scape. Then again, there’s nothing like the ability to send a Titan flying with a single punch. Use your dash judiciously, or depend on your shields. Particle walls suit other load-outs, but you’re the mobile tank. You can’t afford to be unguarded on any side.

Don’t forget your true purpose: Staying alive and getting attrition points. Pilots, Spectres and Grunts are easy targets for the Arc Cannon’s chain-lightning. And every encounter you survive is another five attrition points denied. Be the shield. Live to tell the tale.

STRYDER-BP

Blaze of Glory

Quad Rocket
Electric Smoke
Rocket Salvo/Cluster Missile
Nuclear Ejection
Auto-Eject

Deployment: You are a missile that shoots rockets. Explode directly AT your opponents. Get them in clusters. Get them alone. Blow up from every available turret. This Titan is a sinister bet: that you can give more damage than you get. Calling this Titan down virtually guarantees your opponent five Attrition Points. But, that’s okay if you gained fifteen in the process. Or, if your team is getting spanked in the Titan game, and you need to level some Titans to level the playing field.

Nuclear Ejection is a powerful ability. Most Pilots are ready for it, but not everyone’s thinking about how much room they have to escape the blast. And, keep in mind, they might not be able to eject if you catch them, weakened, in the epicentre of your nuclear detonation. So, more points for you! But, try to make sure Auto-Eject has the air-space necessary to save your life, or you’ll bounce off the ceiling and back into some serious fallout. Don’t let giving up five points turn into giving up nine points.

ATLAS-BP

My Titan

40MM Cannon
Electric Smoke
Rocket Salvo
Fast Autoloader
Auto-Eject

Deployment: This is My Titan. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. It’s your basic Swiss-army knife. Does well at ranged combat, close-combat, Anti-Pilot combat, and leaves you alive to tell the tale… or to blow more things up. Control Line-of-sight with Electric Smoke, or use your agility to force a Titan into stepping inside the deadly vapor by dashing behind them and applying your fist. Once you’ve dropped their shields, hammer them with cannon-fire, liberally.

Your cannon doesn’t do a LOT of damage at once, but keep it firing and aim for weak-points carefully. A salvo of rockets should drop most enemy shields or tear a sizable hole in their life-bar. Either way, if their shields are down, shoot for the red until they’re dead.

OGRE-BP

The Hoplite

Triple Threat/Mine Field
Particle Wall
Cluster Missile
Regen Booster/Tactical Reactor/Nuclear Ejection
Survivor/Big Punch/Core Accelerator

Deployment: Not every mission calls for mobility. Sometimes, you’ve got to dig in. Hop in and become a wall. Clear buildings with your grenade launcher. Set the line in the sand with your Particle Wall, Mine Field and Cluster Missiles. Watch your enemies weather it all, then Big Punch them back through it.

It’s your choice. Depend on your shield, your Particle Wall or just raze the earth in the wake of your destruction. It doesn’t matter how, you hold that ground!

Good luck, Pilot.

Spider-man and Godzilla: Double Feature

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hey! There’s rarely been a better time to be a nerd, has there? Games, books and music are easier to access than ever before, and they’re making movies and television shows about things that are relevant to us! Cool, eh? But, as we all know, that stuff tends to get watered down as it runs through the process of going from culture, to concept, to cinema. But, hey, the more people get involved in something, the more money you need. And you know what they say about money and problems, don’t you?

Anywho, I was going to go fishing this weekend, but I came down with something; instead, I went to the movies. So, I figured I’d tie this paragraph into the first one by giving you my opinion on “The Amazing Spider-man 2” and “Godzilla”  in the clusters of words that follow.

images

I literally just got back from Godzilla an hour ago. And I have to say, I lovv… haaa….watched that movie. It was a bit weird walking into a movie-franchise that’s classically Japanese and having it redone by Americans. I got eerie Silent Hill flash-backs. It’s like leaving your house for an hour, then coming back and the walls are all a different colour. Troubling, off-putting, but not a deal-breaker. As long as you check the closets. And Godzilla has a pretty big closet, so let’s peek there first.

The weird cultural movie-thing you’ll probably hear about first happens within the opening twenty minutes or so of exposition. I mean… Wow. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say that the people who put this film together weren’t really being sensitive when they wrote the script. And I don’t mean to the material. I mean at all. Let’s leave it at: a nuclear reactor goes critical, because of an earthquake, within a Japanese city. Ooooh. Did… didja guys really need to do that? That’s like having a scene where Godzilla throws Mothra into the Twin Towers, one at a time. I felt a little sick to my stomach, but moving on…

It’s not really out of place, because the central conceit of Godzilla has always been that it represents a humbling force of nature for all humanity to respect. An unbridled power. As you’ve probably heard a thousand times by now, the original Godzilla was a metaphor for the atomic bomb. A power wielded by humans. It was our ultimate power for a long, long while. And I really like how the newest iteration kind of flips that notion on its head. Not in a de-constructionist sense, but it violates the concept by reminding us that the power of the atomic weapon is a force in itself. We merely poke at it.  Between this and Attack on Titan, it’s nice to see a reminder of our place within a wider Universe.

Remember, the forces of nature we’re talking about aren’t Just trees and bears. The forces of nature are reality; reality is an insane, emergent elemental “forces of the universe” team-up. It’s gravity. It’s suns that are so large that we can’t even grasp their immensity. It’s Godzilla. Who, oddly enough, kind of looks a little like a bear in this reincarnation. It harkens back to the original creature design very well. In fact, the monster designs, in general, are pretty damn good. Their movements and animations are top-notch, and I love the inspirations that the creature behaviours take from nature – really reinforces the monster-as-creature angle they’re going with. I mean, they didn’t flash “The Origin of the Species” in the opening credits for no reason at all.

I think Godzilla aficionados will enjoy the lore retooling, given the narrative re-write. The whole monster section is actually done really well. If you came to “Godzilla” to see a kick-ass Godzilla, then you came to the right place!

…for 30% of the movie. They did the Brad-Pitt in WWZ thing where they pick a generic white guy to follow around for most of the plot. And I think, much like WWZ, the movie suffered/was changed for it. Hideous contrivances are thought up to give this singular white-dude character a reason to be in the line-of-fire all the time. It’s not terrible, per se. It’s for personalization purposes, obviously. (But given that Godzilla is a global phenomenon, it kinda undermines the central narrative) At least, the plot mostly makes sense. But, there are plenty of moments in the movie where a monster punch-up is interrupted to give us more back-story about the humans, a’ la Transformers. It’s really irksome, because I came to “Godzilla” to see Godzilla, not some really generic family with a really generic set of movie-problems.

The human scenes are theoretically moving, but the people react to all this monster business with about as much fear and emotion as someone discovering that their milk has gone off. Mothers putting their children on buses with barely a tear in their eyes. My Mom was more broken up dropping me off on my first day of High School. It gets really surreal as the movie progresses. Did we really need these people? Think about it this way, though: can you really have a movie that’s just about two monsters punching each other? Demonstrably! You definitely can. Will that movie make the returns that Godzilla needs? I’m not so sure about that.

Adapting niche films is always tricky, because there might be a reason that a film has niche-appeal. A thing or emotion that it explores that isn’t always appealing to the size and type of crowd that can support big-budget movies. So, how true can you be to the original piece, while also putting enough into the film that it’s appealing to a large enough audience? I’m not sure. I don’t think there’s a direct answer, but this was a really good try. I think they might have done it, if you can ignore all the slow people-scenes.

Don’t get me wrong: We need people-scenes. We need pacing. We Don’t need to obsess over generic story-lines. You use generic, stereotypical story-lines because they don’t need to be fully developed. We know, with a look, what it can mean to lose your child. Or, at least, we understand what they must be feeling. Sadness, generally. Anger, maybe. Fury, definitely. But, unless you have a damn good reason, do you really need to have the entire thing unfold before our eyes, instead of a monster-battle? (If we’re there explicitly to see monster battles, I mean)

It’s difficult making monster-movies, because two giant monsters punching each other isn’t a plot, however cool it might look. But, weaving a plot into it is the initiation requirement for making a good creature-flick. The human plot of Godzilla is contrived and, at times, lacks the emotional tone the dialogue suggests. However, it does manage to echo and tie into the monster-plot in a meaningful way. The main characters are the luckiest unlucky family ever. The best actor is killed off early. Military hardware is shielded against EMPs. And if they aren’t, then why are you using them to transport your timed MacGuffin? And, no, that wasn’t going to be a safe distance, however much Dark Knight Rises logic you use.

I’m not giving anything away, really. It’s all pretty clearly foreshadowed. I’m just saying, now, the things that you’ll be thinking as you watch it. And you should watch it. Because, the 30% with the monsters is fantastic. The cinematography is divine. Even the scenes are well conceived. The transitions between punch-up and human-jabber is pretty seamless, and they get some really good shots of the fights. You can see what’s going on, and there isn’t a smoke-barrier occluding absolutely everything. Oh, it’s still there. It’s just not blocking all the things. Also, there’s no shaky-cam to ruin… stuff.

There are some really nice call-backs to the original films; some of the people involved with this film’s production clearly knew the material. There’s wit and charm in there, and a visual direction that begs to be experienced. It’s a shame that it all hangs off of a human-plot that doesn’t always do it justice. But, the broad strokes are there. The creatures, the lore, the world, and the look. Even the dialogue, writing, and acting are done competently. If there’s a Godzilla 2, and they look over the script a couple more times for localization faux pas, plot-holes and hacky plot-points, then it’s going to be an absolute monster. Until then, check out what we’ve got so far! Just, expect that there’s probably a little more human in your gumbo than is recommendable.

The-Amazing-Spider-Man-2-Full-HD-Poster

The Amazing Spider-man 2… is pretty amazing, honestly. I wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did. I’m not doing a long review here, because it’s been covered pretty thoroughly by the rest of the inter-webs: Standard intro-Spidey plot-points, with a slight movie-make-over and a bit of a back-story reboot. The changes aren’t really a deal-breaker, because they hit the same notes in this iteration. Guilt, super-powers, responsibility, etc. But, the coolest thing they do with this iteration is actually make it a Spider-man movie.

Do you remember Spider-man? Cheesy one-liners and silly characters. Stereotypes, accents and science so soft that it could function as a non-Newtonian fluid, if you consider inquisition a percussive force. These are generally seen as bad things, but we’re in a super-hero universe, so relax. Spider-man is a teenager’s character. He has their problems and their outlook. He’s fiercely intelligent, but he lacks the experience necessary to be awash in wisdom. His story is the path to gaining that wisdom, and he exemplifies the will to carry on in the face of hatred, oppression, mis-understanding and the unknown. When you can’t even trust your own body, and the world is a confusing mess of rhino-people and living electricity, you need something to stand on. Like a roof-top, for web-slinging.

And the web-slinging here is great. Andrew Garfield started out as a gymnast, and the experience/flexibility shows. This guy does a lot of his own stunts, which really helps with visual continuity. Or, if you don’t notice that, then it’s a nifty tid-bit. Again, the visual design is more than impressive, and I really enjoyed the design of the Rhino-suit.

But, that’s not really what I wanted to cover. I could have summed all that up in: “The Amazing Spider-man 2 is a fairly faithful comic-book adaptation that takes itself seriously enough to actually be a Spider-man movie.” The important thing I wanted to talk about was the villain threshold.

Going into this movie, I was dumb-founded by the thought that they might try to squeeze three villains into one movie. It seemed pretty impossible. But, they did it really well. And, without giving anything away, I’d like to pontificate on why it worked.

Villains aren’t just bad-guys. They bring out something in the main-character. That’s what makes them compelling as Villains. Otherwise, they’d just be thugs. Batman has the Joker; The Joker forces a mirror up to Batman’s face. He shows Batman his own hypocrisy and his madness. The blue-print for the Joker swims in the veins of the back-story of the Batman. That’s why they’re such a great couple. Spider-man has similar nemeses. Doc Oc is his fascination with science, but, also, the danger of scientific obsession and personal vendetta. Peter, as a man of science and progress, understands Doc Oc better than almost anyone else. They’ve both been given power by their obsessions; how they differ in the usage of that power defines their characters.

So, how do you make a multi-villain movie? Take some themes that resonate deeply with your main character: say, celebrity and responsibility. Then, ensure that the villains each explore an aspect of that. But not in the same way. Those of you familiar with video games know that there’s more to an encounter than simply combat. And you know that, because most boss encounters are simply combat. But, people challenge us on multiple levels. Intellectually. Spiritually. Sexually. Emotionally. Philosophically. Down any given -ally is an opportunity for character exploration. Use those opportunities carefully.

Tie the story-lines together in a meaningful way, which should be easy, because they’re thematically linked through a single individual. But, make sure each individual has their own story-line and likeability factor. Now, recombine until smooth.

It’s not a simple task; if it was, then it wouldn’t remarkable or “Amazing”. But, this movie makes it work. It doesn’t force meaning into places where it doesn’t exist by stretching out encounters. It’s simple, because the creators trusted the source-material. They didn’t dress it up more than they needed to. They weren’t afraid to be silly, and they did some pretty damn cool stuff. It’s not perfect; what is? Give it a shot, but don’t expect an epic, timeless tale. Expect Spider-man, because that’s what you’re getting. And if that’s an epic, timeless tale to you, then tell canon to shove it, because I love him, too.

Addendum: However, some people hated it. So, here’s a link to a critic I trust: MovieBob. I can see his points, even if I still remember enjoying the film while I was there.

Combat Evolved

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hello! It was just my birthday! Which means I’ve passed the threshold necessary to be +1 years old. I marked it on my character sheet this morning. (Make one for yourself; it’s nerd-cool >.>) So, in honor of my newly gained age, this week, I’ll be up-dating The Gift Box with a new game every 26 hours. (If I can’t get to it in time, I’ll double-post the next one!) Also, I’m going to teach Valve a thing or two by releasing some third instalments: Final Fantasy 14: ARRDark Souls and Titanfall

I was going to do another post on Titanfall, but I figured that you might want me to punctuate the giant robots with a little something else before this site becomes free advertising for Respawn. So, let’s do some free advertising for Microsoft, instead. Playing Titanfall got me thinking about next-gen game design, which, of course, brought me back to the first time I noticed a shift in design principles in my games: Halo: Combat Evolved. Now, I know a lot of people deride Halo as the beginning of the boring, cover-based, two-weapon shooter, but I protest. I don’t think you’re quite remembering it right.

That sort of thing started with people misunderstanding the thrill of the adrenaline-fuelled five-minute tactical fire-fight. A limited number of guns makes sense in that situation, because you’re never going to need more than one, really. You can switch between spawns and try new strategies with very little down-time. Stretching that hot-zone of bullet-riddled chaos into corridors of pop-up targets is what not to do. So, what do I think Halo did right? What problem do I think they were trying to solve? Let’s get to it.

Halo-combat-evolved

As with every post of this nature, I’m purely speculating. These are things that make sense to me, but life is rarely so orderly. But, let’s step back in time, nonetheless. You’re playing Doom. You’re low on ammo and high from blood-loss. The sounds of explosions and feral death-dealers aren’t far behind. You’ve got no health. You fucked up. Now, what if I were to auto-save the game for you, right there? Crap. Well, I guess you’ll either have to master the game very quickly or restart. That sucks.

It does, indeed. For gamer and developer alike. Because, gamers have to play around it, but if situations like that are too plentiful, then it could break your game. Worse than that, your franchise, and the work you put into it, might suffer. So, developers have to plan their levels around situations like that. Health-packs, ammo dumps and obvious save-points/quick-save features are a few solutions. However, the necessity of each of those features is going to limit what you can do with your levels, and, therefore, your game.

There are games that just don’t handle the injection of quick-save features very well. Choice or story-based games come to mind, especially if you want to increase re-playability by weaving a complex, swerving narrative into one story. But, challenge-based games can also have their flavour changed quite significantly by the ability to restart from any point within the challenge. Sprinting an entire kilometre is an impressive feat of human perseverance, but not if you stopped to nap every fifty meters. It loses something in the process.

So, if you don’t want a quick-save, and you don’t want to be limited by weapon/health availability, what do you do? You ensure that your player can easily return to their full-health/ammo resting state at any point in the game. And, we facilitate that with the use of energy shields and limited weapon capacity. No, seriously, a limited number of weapons, and the similarities between the human and Covenant weapons, can encourage players to switch tactics mid-combat. You can’t really run out of ammo, because everything you kill drops a weapon. You’re not hoarding ammo, because you’re not carrying an armory on your back. But, your weapon might run dry, encouraging a quick swap. Done correctly, this can add variety to the combat.

If you remember, the first Halo game wasn’t quite ready to dump health bars altogether. Which I was alright with it, because it encouraged me to play intelligently to be pressured by a waning life-total. But, the shield bar did allow the devs to know approximately how much health you were walking into a given situation with. This allowed them to plan accordingly. Now, they could fine-tune the levels to any challenge level they wanted. Do you remember that structure from when you first crash-land on the planet? It was basically a mini-fort guarded by aliens.

I remember it as being challenging, but not impossible. As I ramped up the difficulty, the number of enemies increased, sure, but their placement became more thoughtful, as well. Phalanxes of Jackals protected Elites, as the Grunts swarmed forth unto death. It was neat. Each time I played it, the challenge remained robust, until I got to the point where I’d played it into the ground. And I think a lot of that has to do with a well-tuned challenge curve that benefited from a design that suited its deployment.

Am I saying that shield bars are better than health meters? Not even a little bit. But, there are benefits to shield bars that health bars don’t possess, unless they regenerate (very small practical difference, at that point), and vice versa. All I’m saying is that the mechanics craft the game-play, which is used to craft the experience. And the experience, here, is being Master Chief.

As a character, Master Chief was designed as a mobile weapons platform. His visual design echoes a tank for a reason. But, he’s not just the fire-power, he’s the intel, too. Cortana, his tactical A.I, gives him the tech-presence to also be a mobile command post. His whole deal is being a walking army. An unstoppable force wielding an immovable object as a shield. And what game-play style reflects that? Fast-paced, wit-fuelled, weapon-swapping, on-the-fly tactical combat. And when you were deep in the on-line melee or had it cranked up to Legendary, it could start to feel like that. Yup, that sounds like the right amount of bad-ass to me.

That’s not even mentioning what the increased processing power of the next-gen might have brought in terms of level-design freedom. But, honestly, I don’t know if it played much of a role, so we’ll say no more about it.

Every mechanic is another piece in a developer’s tool-kit, but not every tool is right for every job. Thinking about how those tools can be used to best effect has brought us some pretty excellent games. It’s given freedom to devs and allowed them to craft more thoughtful experiences. Sure, some people use mechanics thoughtlessly because they seem well understood, but when someone brings it all together to make something new, I call that next-gen. Graphics and processing power are fantastic, but next-gen is just an idea. So, ideas are its heart and soul.

Drop-Pod: Titanfall Review Supplement

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on April 30, 2014 by trivialpunk

Okay, so I wrote that review of Titanfall like an hour ago. After, as you can probably guess, I started playing Titanfall again. And I realized, as I played, that I’d left a few things out. Some minor things and one important one. I figured I’d throw the minor ones in and let you guess which one made me come back here.

titanfall-wallpaper

The minion-grunts (I refuse to pick a definite title) do a little more than Just add to the theme of the game or act as a mechanic. They’re also there to directly influence your behaviour by playing on your experience. As I was dashing around the world, spin-kicking and wall-running like I was in a wire-fu movie, I noticed that I was drawn to the sound of gun-fire. I realized that they were centralizing combat by drawing players towards them. Whether it was by revealing enemies on the mini-map or just drawing you towards them with their gunfire.

You see, the first minute of a Titanfall game is really quiet. It’s just two teams positioning themselves and crossing the map. But once the shooting starts, all hell breaks loose. And the pace never really stops. Part of the reason for that is the mini-map. Obviously, it shows you where other Pilots are, enemy and ally alike, but not all the time. Only when they’re engaged in combat or in the line of sight of an ally. So, minions break the fog of war the same way in both LoL and Titanfall, because the maps are big enough for giant robots. (They rhyme; now I’ll have to remember that forever. Damn.) But, they also serve a similar purpose in how they compel the player.

You know that desperate post-encounter moment in every FPS? When you’ve just finished securing a kill, And you’re running for your life, bullets pinging off your HUD, red EVERYWHERE, you’re  sprinting, looking for cover, hoping they won’t draw a bead on y…And you die? Well, there are a lot of those moments in Titanfall, except you don’t usually die. Because, usually, right after you’ve killed a Pilot, you’re getting shot at by grunts. And they don’t usually do a lot of damage, but they can scare the hell out of you. Or, in FPS terms, they encourage the application of an Expeditious Retreat. Wait, sorry, that’s D&D, I got my reference books mixed up. I mean, they make you enact a “tactical withdrawal.”

Also, last time, I extolled to you the virtues of the Smart Pistol. I told you that it was great for new players. I hinted that it could target grenades. What I didn’t tell you is how those two things are important to each other. You see, satchel bombs and arc mines are part of the standard Titan Pilot load-out. Most people use them once they get them. So, they can be littering the map. They’re pretty easy to avoid when they’re not being used aggressively, by which I mean, hurled directly at your face. Easy, that is, unless you’re not sure what you’re looking for. But, the Smart Pistol knows, because it’s… well, it’s Smart. It’ll target objects with a red line, alerting you to the presence of mines, bombs and skulls. Just another reason it’s great for initiating new players to Stompy-Robot Land

Finally, I compared Titanfall to CoD: Ghosts pretty frequently last time. And that’s because they’re the militaristic shooters that I’m playing right now. But what I left out were how those games made me feel. Well, I sort of told you how playing Ghosts made me feel. Either helpless or all-powerful. Maybe that’s just my experience of the multi-player, because I have either really good games or really bad ones. But, I didn’t tell you how Titanfall made me feel, besides what you might be able to extrapolate from my over-usage of the word “fun.”

It’s hard to explain, and maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it made me feel humble. Not, like, in awe of its greatness. God, I’m not that into it. I mean, it made me respect the skill of my fellow players and the power of wielding a Titan. Because, when you’re running around on the ground, you really are just an insect. You can jump on a Titan, yes, but if it’s an enemy Titan, and it’s doing any one of the following: dashing, punching, exploding, falling, shooting at you, etc, and you’re in the air in front of it, you’ll die. The only way to safely mount an enemy Titan is by dropping on it or jumping on it when it’s just walking. At all other times, it’s a wall of death. Of course, you can deal with that, because you’re a ninja, remember?

But, when I’m on foot and blowing up a Titan with an Archer missile, I feel that I’m dealing with a dangerous opponent. That it’s on me to respect it or I’ll die. I might still die, even if I do everything correctly, but that’s the truth of combat… That’s some Zen shit, right there. But, it’s true. The Titans themselves are a formidable force, but their power is magnified by the skill of the Pilot. As you become part of the ecosystem of robots, moving between Pilot-gnat and Titan-dog, you start to feel the flow of combat and your place within it at any given time.

Maybe that happens with every militaristic-multi-player FPS when you’re far enough in. I don’t know, because I haven’t used the word “l33t” to unironically describe myself for years. But, in Titanfall, between feeling the flow of combat and knowing the power of the Titans, I felt small as a Pilot. Powerful. Competent. But small. In a way, really human. And maybe this is just Attack on Titan resonance, but I started to respect and relish the power of the Titan. But, equally, to understand my relative size. And what did I do with that power once I had it?

Well, obviously, I used it to blow stuff up. I’d love to tell you that I used it to defend my friends and set up some moral lesson about empathy and compassion, but I can’t, because this isn’t the 80’s and I’m not writing a cartoon. Also, because blowing stuff up is what you do in Titanfall. That’s the game. But the impression stuck with me. And when I walked outside to check the mail, I looked into the sky and glimpsed a Titan in my mind. And I felt small. Singular. I imagined stepping inside, and I towered over my house. There is so much power in a Titan. But you remember, when you’re in that cockpit, what it’s like on the ground. It’s like a Spider-Man thing.

Feeling that power dynamic is nothing I’ve experienced in any other FPS. I can’t even explain to you why, because I’ve driven tanks in Halo. Vehicle combat is nothing new. But, Titanfall made me feel both powerful and tiny at the same time. I was both predator and prey. So, I felt humble.

I don’t know if that will be the common experience, because I got really into it. (It’s super immersive.) But, it’s there to be had, and I think that’s pretty cool. Cheers!

Addendum: Creative usage of Grunts. I saw a guy named IMC_Grumt that ran around with a group of Grunts so people would dismiss him at first and he could get the drop on them. Also, there’s a Spectre camo-costume.