Monthly Archives: March 2013

Untroutedly So: Ridiculous Fishing Review

Ridiculous Fishing

Vlambeer, it seems, is on a rise, and their ascension appears to have no peak. The small Dutch studio run by Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman has an impressive and influential catalog of releases that they’ve somehow managed to cram into a mere three years of existence. The one you are most likely to recognize is Serious Sam: The Random Encounter, an RPG set in the world of Serious Sam, which is as outlandish as it sounds. But they’ve also got Super Crate Box, Luftrausers, and Yeti Hunter under their belt, all titles you may recognize as being pet favorites among the general games press.

And now there’s Ridiculous Fishing. It certainly looks a bit like past Vlambeer titles and certainly sounds like past Vlambeer titles, but that’s most likely because you associate quality with the name. Continuing the tradition of rather straightforward game titles, Ridiculous Fishing is about a fisherman named Billy who fishes in a rather ridiculous way.

When you tap the screen, a lure drops off the side of Billy’s boat and into the ocean. As it descends, you are to avoid making contact with any sea critters so as to reach the darkest and deepest corners of the colorful seas. When you either run out of line or you inevitably snag a fish, you’ll start to ascend, at which point the entire game reverses its design. You now are to collect as many money-earning fish on the way to the surface (while you avoid the cash-destroying jellyfish). When you reach boat-level, all the things you’ve hooked will be launched into the air and you pull out a pistol or minigun or orbital ray to kill and cash-in on the fish. Pretty ridiculous, right?

Ridiculous Fishing

It’s an immensely satisfying and fascinating loop of gameplay that can either go for a few seconds if you’re not paying attention or a few minutes if you’re really on your game and using your powerups effectively. Two phases are diametrically opposed while handling mostly the same (by tilting), but the fact that you still have to avoid things while a portion of your lizard-like brain is dedicated to only pursuing and collecting everything really tickles that complex, multitasking part of your mind.

Then the shooting is as big of a changeup as if you threw an angry cat towards a very surprised and a soon-to-be mauled batter, but it is a necessary change of pace. Not only does your entire mentality of how to interact with this game on a mechanical level change, but your physical handle on it does as well. You shift from a sturdy two-hand grip on your iPad or a single wrench grip on your iPhone and immediately and rapidly apply your finger to the screen as you attempt to blast everything in the sky that doesn’t have tentacles to smithereens.

What really makes the mechanical gameplay bits work is that Ridiculous Fishing is ridiculously responsive. The tilt controls are among the best (if not the actual literal best) I’ve ever used. Dodges that I thought were impossible in the moment were totally possible in that one-second hindsight where my internal monologue briefly gets to say “HOLY SHIT I MA—OH FUCK JELLYFISH.” And the shooting is largely unexplained by the moment you start tapping away, it makes such incredible and intuitive sense. The screen tracks the lowest money-earning fish, but as you shoot each one, either it is destroyed or buoyed higher, at which point the screen moves up and tracks the next lowest one. It just makes sense.

Ridiculous Fishing

It’s also super satisfying when you manage to reach what feels like the moon as you zoom higher and higher with each fish you catch in the air, but it’s also conversely terrifying and stressful when you just can’t seem to manage to get a handle on your haul so all you get to see are the splashes as each creature lands back in the water and you futilely dump round after round into the air. It’s fantastic.

The meat is a perfectly medium rare steak wrapped in bacon, but the veggies are just as good. The visual style, as I said before, just screams Vlambeer, but it’s still wholly unique. It has that pixel veneer that the studio is known for, but Greg Wohlwend—you know, the guy behind games like Hundreds, Gasketball, and Puzzlejuice—pushed that Vlambeer Play-Doh through a 45-degree thatched mesh and made an inviting yet aggressively angular visual environment for which you to do all your ridiculous things. And then Spelunky and Hotline Miami soundtrack contributor/composer Eirik Suhrke has crafted yet another chippy, thumping, addictive, and occasionally otherworldly set of tunes for this game.

What really shines through, however, is the perfectly designed progression system. When you collect enough money, you can spend it in a store where you can get a longer line (natch) to reach the deeper and deeper seas (which you unlock by catching more and more species of fish) or buy new, more powerful weapons, but you can also buy a toaster to attach to your lure so you can continue to descend after hitting one fish. Or you can upgrade your lure to be a chainsaw so you can plow through school after school of fish without worrying about dodging. Or you can buy a nice hat.

Ridiculous Fishing

It goes without saying, but you want it all. I mean, I know I did, but each thing you truly want is often trumped by two other things: 1) it is, at the moment, way out of your price range, and 2) there’s something totally within your price range that seems super-duper awesome. Each categorical upgrade (line, weapon, lure, etc.) has at least one thing where in each location seems like the thing you have to have, but just one notch below is something that could be purchased right f’ing now rather than after seven to eight more outings. And of course, the new thing helps you earn more money which will help you buy the thing you actually want earlier and so on and so on. It’s an absolutely sublime sense of progression. And get this: no in-app purchases.

Then when you grow weary of being an über fisherman, there are the little, more esoteric bits that keep you interested. There is what appears to be a totally absurdist story told through a Twitter lookalike called Byrdr, a service that Vlambeer also set up to be an ARG leading up to Ridiculous Fishing‘s release. The fishopedia is rife with funny and helpful descriptions (it will give hints as to when and where you need to be fishing to catch the more elusive creatures) that just drip with character. And the little battery indicator on your fake smartphone even mirrors your actual, real device’s battery charge.

Ridiculous Fishing

There are so many things about Ridiculous Fishing that I could write about for what seems like eternity, but much of it is best experienced through playing the game rather than being told by a fellow with a keyboard and some jeans full of holes. Much of it is exactly what you need to believe that little mobile arcade experiences can thrive at a non-free/non-99-cent price point against a marketplace of lesser clones. And much of it is best summed up by what is guaranteed to be your reaction to the game.

“Wow, that was ridiculous.”

+ Fantastic, charming, and unique art and music
+ The store and area unlock progressions are pretty much perfectly tuned
+ It handles so well that you will now judge all tilt-based mobile games by it
+ Reading tweets from actual birds
+ Fish that become hats

Final Score: 10 out of 10

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Talking Space Dogs: A Look At Laika Believes

Laika Believes

“It’s like a 2D BioShock.” That’s all Shelley Smith, marketing director of Minicore Studios, had to say to get my attention.

It’s nearly three o’clock in the afternoon and the SXSW Gaming Expo has already been going for a while, but the walkways between booths is still just as packed as when the floodgates first opened. Smith and I had just spent the past ten minutes or so talking—or yelling, more likely, given the environment—about their iOS word game Tumblewords. It’s got great art and seems to actually make some interesting changes to the letter tile game landscape, but it’s already out. Noticing the other banner hanging behind the small, Austin-based team, I ask about Laika Believes.

“So how much do you know about Laika?” I offer her mostly a blank stare in response. “Laika was the dog the Russians shot into space,” Smith says, my mind making connections to documentaries I’d long forgotten and my head nodding in agreeance. “It’s actually a very sad story. But Laika Believes is about an alternate history where Laika crash lands back on Earth and has to fight the Soviets.”

Quite the alternate history, though it seems more perverse than slightly anachronistic in a purely academic kind of way. Laika, for instance, talks, wears shiny metal armor, and wields a bevy of armaments that likely did not exist back in the 1950s, like a sizable laser that would more accurately be described as an orbital beam.

It’s all necessary, though, as the Soviets have become a superpower in the world. Stalin has died, but not before he managed to turn America, Great Britain, and most of the rest of the world into the smoking, ashy remnants of former civilizations thanks to a newfound energy source. Laika crash-lands somewhere in the ambiguous Middle East and joins up with a resistance movement.

Laika Believes

The gameplay is most clearly described as a 2D platformer but with a dual-joystick combat scheme. Left stick moves Laika, right stick aims, and right bumper shoots while the D-pad changes between your four weapons, which include a spray-tastic machine gun and a Mega Man Buster-esque charge shot. On the left trigger is a shield that can absorb incoming fire. The more you take in, the more you can release in a massive explosion of energy.

The bit of the game I played starts out with Laika emerging from her spacecraft only to be greeted by an enemy helicopter dropping little robot hounds/hogs/ambiguous quadrupeds. It’s a fast-paced affair with a lot of running and jumping back and forth to dodge attacks while trying to line up ground and air shots to eliminate close quarters enemies while finishing off the source. Laika moves fast and handles adeptly, but the battle is over almost just as quick. I kind of wish I’d had more time to fight.

This feeling holds especially true because the rest of the demo takes place on a rebel base. In it, you meet several people including resistance leader Abram Krupin and chat them up. This gives the game a chance to flex its pacifistic muscles with some storytelling flourish. Some of the characters may be lighthearted, but the game itself comes across as fairly serious. Case in point: no one seems particularly troubled by this armored talking dog.

On the base, I collect an upgrade node that allows me to bump up an ability. Technical director Patrick Cunningham suggests I choose the double jump, so I do. It’s down one of three branches in the tech tree, and doing so allows me to more easily help someone shut down a dangerously broken and sparking generator. Electricity is shooting out of some hanging wires in a basement, but with the double jump, I can just leap over the damaged stuff and shut it all down for good. Cunningham points out I could also use my shield ability to eat up the electricity and get by that way, too.

When asked about inspirations, Smith said, “We originally billed this as a Metroidvania sort of game, but it kind of changed along the way.” The Metroidvania foundation sticks out like a sore thumb. The ability gates such as the double jump/generator puzzle are classic to the genre, and the map seems to induce a heavy Metroidvania high. It’s presented in a neat little 3D presentation of 2D planes all intersecting. It’s as if someone extruded a lightning bolt upwards from a flat image. It also feels a bit like Shadow Complex.

“That’s one of my favorite parts. It still confuses me sometimes. You’ll turn down parts of the game and you’ll be in a different view of the same section,” Smith says. It certainly sounds like Shadow Complex‘s locked 2D perspective in a 3D world, but make no mistake: it’s all discrete parallax. These are purely 2D scenes tied together at certain junction points, but it works just as well. Navigating the world is easy enough since everything looks pretty distinct in each scene.

Laika Believes

This base section, however, takes up the majority of the demo. The only combat I saw took up about 20 to 30 seconds. I’ve been wandering the base and talking to people for the past seven minutes. When I asked about the ratio of fighting to exploration, Cunningham said there would be a lot more combat. “This is the beginning, so there’s a bit more story,” he said.

The story stuff seems pretty interesting, though. Laika Believes will be in three parts, and each episode will have you making decisions. From what I saw and was told, it will come through in actions you do like turning off the generator and decisions you make like picking a dialogue option. They will also persist through all three episodes so as to shape your experience into a more personal one.

A concern, though, that I bring up is the one of player choice and authorial power. For instance, backlash hit Mass Effect 3 because the entire sprawling space epic seemed to dovetail into a handful of outcomes rather than a barrel full of possibilities. People praise The Walking Dead, however, because it smartly hid its personalization in the details and not the huge overarching plot points. Where, then, would Laika Believes fall?

“Closer to The Walking Dead, definitely,” said Smith. “We’re aware of how player choice affects the narrative, and we’re trying to make a narrative push.” And that is where the BioShock influence comes through. There is a ton of ambient storytelling. You can investigate the scenery around you like posters on the walls and the vehicles in the hangar to get a better idea of the world you are in without anyone explicitly telling you an entire history of everything ever. Your investigations will also yield more dialogue options which may in turn yield more arcs.

While I only saw a very small chunk of the game (Smith estimates the whole package will eventually total to somewhere around 25 hours), Laika Believes seems to have some potential. I’d love to have had more combat, but the bit of it I tried was fast and satisfying in a scarf-down-some-Cheetos sort of way. And the story stuff actually does seem interesting. With just the small bit I played, some choices already played out differently, albeit in largely inconsequential ways, so hopefully that means the bigger stuff is even more varied.

Like I said, though; I don’t know. But I do know that given the option to take a look at a game about a talking space dog with Metroidvania and BioShock influences, I will take it every time.

Expect the first chapter of Laika Believes to hit PC and XBLA sometime this spring.

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An Expedition: Nintendo At SXSW 2013

An Expedition: Nintendo at SXSW 2013

This was my first time at SXSW, the annual, um, collection of film, interactive, and music festivals held in Austin, Texas. It has grown each year with this iteration aiming to break the 70,000 attendee mark. It effectively reduces all of Downtown Austin to a singular fleshy, drunk mass covered in free T-shirts and party wristbands. Thrust deep into the inebriated conglomeration, though, you can start to perceive distinct subsections of this ecosystem.

Out on the streets, it’s somehow a much more orderly and dignified affair than in most of the indoor venues. The lines for all the theatres are civil and are largely composed of people tired of standing, talking about what they’re about to see, and drinking from brown paper bags. Wandering between the streets are those looking for food, usually of the free variety. It’s more or less what you would see at any other film festival.

Once you hit the convention centers (of which there are three: The Long Center, The Palmer Events Center, and the Austin Convention Center), though, you might as well be in a zoo. There is a mishmash of folk who forget how to walk and by the laws of physics, gravitate towards the center of walkways. There is a solid and unrelenting contingent which simply hoves between booths and tables to get free logo’d stress balls and bracelets. It is, without qualification, a hot god damn mess.

The gaming expo, however, is a bit…strange. The ACC has those seeking networking opportunities, the Long Center full of panel watchers, and the outdoor tent rife with space and NASA enthusiasts (it was AWESOME). Inside the Palmer, however, is something so totally different from everything else. On one end is a job fair, so you have the hopeful attempting to present a dignified, hirable veneer. On the other end is a darkened exhibit hall that serves beer. Oh, it also just so happens to have all the video game stuff.

It is, for the most part, sponsored by Nintendo, which coincidentally has the largest booth besides the IGN IPL stage and the Xi3 nightclub. As soon as you enter, you are greeted with gigantic displays of Luigi and Lego City Undercover and a healthy dose of thumping electro house beats. I walk up for my noon appointment for the Nintendo tour, and I expect to be drowned out by the huddled masses of children playing 3DS and Wii U demos, but instead my voice is swallowed whole by Skrillex shaking and rattling everything south of Lady Bird Lake.

Xi3 SXSW 2013

Xi3 has turned their floor space into a veritable lounge of club music and flashing lights. There is a sizable staff of dudes with backwards hats and women in ripped up shirts that seem to never really do anything besides play through demos and point visitors to people with pamphlets and prepared patter. The Xi3-branded waterfall ripples in the background of their product showcases while the blue LED-tinged leather couches seem to vibrate along the broken dub beat.

So standing three to four feet above most of those in the Nintendo booth, cognitive dissonance was weighing fairly heavy on my mind. But with a cosplaying Link and Diddy Kong wandering around (presumably unattached marketing-wise to Nintendo PR), I was buoyed in approaching and beginning my tour.

On opposite ends of the space were 3DS stands where four or five units were laid out for people to come up and play games. One entire cluster was dedicated to the recent release Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, a game bordering on Tom Clancy levels of title endurance-wearing. I have yet to play it, but it at that point had been out for five days. No point in spending time on it now.

I’m led around to the other side where there is a TV set up to face outwards on the very edge of the blue Nintendo carpet. On it was Animal Crossing: New Leaf. A Nintendo fellow was demoing it for two women as I sidled up with my tour guide. It had already been out in Japan since November, so I moved on beyond that just as quickly (also because the aforementioned Link cosplayer was standing uncomfortably close to me and smelled of raw chicken).

IGN IPL SXSW 2013

We then try to squeeze into the sardine-esque conditions of the middle of the booth where three humongous displays show off The Wonderful 101, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, and Lego City Undercover. Stuck between a rock and what feels like a thousand people, we stop as I ask him some questions.

Monster Hunter is already out in Japan, right?”

“Yeah, it’s been out for a while over there. It’s been really well-received. They’ve been mo—”

“But it’s still just Monster Hunter 3, right? The Ultimate package is just a new graphical treatment and some new monsters?”

“Well, it’s also some new quests and—” I begin to lose interest. Not because of him or what he is saying, but more because a bearded guy standing next to me is eyeballing the breakfast burrito I’d been working on since the press brunch earlier. “Let’s move on,” I say.

We move over to The Wonderful 101 from Platinum Games. I start to watch, but it becomes apparent this is old as well. “How old is this demo?” I yell over the din.

“This is just the E3 demo,” he says. “So it’s kind of an old build, but it’s still fun to watch. Not many people actually manage to finish the demo because the boss has a time limit. Like two people have even made it to the other arm.”

I look around and amongst the already released games like Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U, I spot Pikmin 3. “What about Pikmin? Is that also from E3?” I ask.

“Yeah, that’s also from E3,” he says.

“So then really the only new stuff is Luigi’s Mansion and Lego City?”

“Right.”

“And they’re both out this month?”

“Right.”

Paramount Theater SXSW 2013

Somewhat deflated, I ask to check out Lego City. While I play, I begin to poke and prod at his PR defenses. We talk about how everything will moved to the eShop for digital purchase (every TV and stand has an eShop emblem affixed to it), which leads us to talk about the difference between owning games and licensing games in the digital world.

“You can move and transfer your content, so it’s still yours,” he says. Ah, but what about the problems people had with the hullabaloo about locked accounts on Wii U? “You just call customer service and we can help you with that.” But can they help if the eShop no longer exists and I still want my games? “Well, that hasn’t really happened yet.” Dead end.

Also, I’ve finished with my short but fun run in Lego City Undercover. Smashing around in Lego cars in an open world is as great as you’d expect, and the odd hodgepodge of major metropolitan areas gives a familiar yet alien feel to the setting (this particular area was strong in the San Francisco department). It still plays like other TT Fusion Lego games, though, with pretty much the same interface and controls.

The weird thing I noticed, though, was that there are real trees mixed in with Lego trees. I point it out as we walk away, and he says, “Ha! I never noticed that!”

Saddled up in front of some 3DS games, I asked if he’ll be attending PAX East. “Yeah. Are you going?” Why yes, I am. And I begin to pry again.

“Some of these games will already be out by then. Any idea what you’ll be showing in their place?”

“We haven’t really decided yet.”

“What about at E3? By then, most of these games will be out.”

“Yeah, most of them will be out by then. Animal Crossing actually comes out just before E3 starts.”

This guy is a pro.

“That’ll be an interesting time. Nintendo already has the jump with the Wii U. Do you think they’ll be trying to compete with Sony and Microsoft on the Big News front or will they just be riding the wave?”

“I dunno. It’ll be interesting to see what Sony and Microsoft do.”

Stonewalled.

Xi3 SXSW 2013

It’s been almost an hour since the start of our Sorkin-esque walk ‘n talk, so I shake hands and leave my PR companion as I found him: inundated with hyper children and drinking parents. I find myself nearly as unaffected by the experience. I know a little bit more about how Lego City Undercover will play (it has a lot more cutscenes that you would think, and most of them are pretty entertaining) and confirmed just how little patience I have for being near smelly Hylians, but there’s not much else to say.

It’s not surprising, though, since this is SXSW, which is through and through not a gaming expo. That means it shines in other ways, though, such as through panels with John Romero and Jenova Chen, stage talks with Gary Whitta, and seeing people like Geoff Keighley and Cliff Bleszinski not constantly flooded with fans. There was also the weirdest product demonstration I’ve ever seen with Xi3’s Piston (that day might have actually been the progenitor of the hubbub of Xi3 vs. Valve). And then there are the smaller guys you would just never see at a PAX or E3 like local developers Minicore Studios or Syraca Studios. SXSW’s gaming offers are well worth your time.

Just don’t expect to get much out of the big guys.

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Magically Mundane: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone Review

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

A lot of love went into The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I was steeped in the late 90s and early 00s magic culture, soaking far too long in the realm of websites that gated off access by quizzes on who invented the Tenkai palm, people who argued on the best patter, and why the Masked Magician was ultimately a harmless loon. Knowing all that, it’s very apparent that people that genuinely love and care about magic (or at least used to) made The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Both broad and specific references litter the movie that will ring a bell in at least 90% of the world’s population. The question, then, is if all that heart makes anything resembling a good movie.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is about a magic duo featuring Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). They have performed the same show for the last two decades as the headlining act at a hotel in Las Vegas and their relationship, once rife with joy and creativity when forged in their childhood years, has become stale and hostile. The last straw in the camel’s milkshake is a new hotshot named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) who specializes in brutal, graphic street magic.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

The parallels are fairly obvious. Gray is so on the nose as a terrifying cocktail of David Blaine’s nutty stunt work and Criss Angel’s intense style that it almost hurts (his television special is called “Brain Rapist”), but Carrey manages to pull it off rather well. As an over-the-top caricature of two well-known former celebrities, it fits that the actor portraying him is also over-the-top. He gets the horribly inane shtick of Angel down by being self-serious in a way that looks (relatively) authentic but feels like a farce. A delightfully psychotic farce that totally feeds into all the crazy theories that a nascent internet purported as real magic.

Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton have a similar amalgamatory sensation, though nothing in particular sticks out. They are a general reference to the entirely of 90s magic where there were entire two-hour long specials on David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear and The World’s Greatest Magic. The shiny sequin suits, lion’s mane hair, and time-wasting, mumbo jumbo-filled, yet wholly interesting patter all fall in line with the days of old when stage magic reigned supreme. The commentary on magic legends being relegated to Las Vegas Strip shows is painful and all too truthful.

The problem is that Carell doesn’t do arrogance all that well. The first third to the first half of the movie is spent establishing Burt as a crass, womanizing, egotistical dick who has given up on magic, friendship, and mostly everything that doesn’t involve intimate female company. And if you’ve ever seen any other Steve Carell movie, you know that doesn’t work. He excels at playing characters hiding a heart bigger than they show, but the beginning of the movie presents nothing more than someone trying desperately to be nothing more than horrible.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Carrey and Buscemi definitely carry the bulk of the movie. Anton is fascinating simply because it’s always neat to see an animal in its natural habitat not knowing it’s being hunted, being told, and then reacting accordingly. Steve works simply because it is Jim Carrey behind the wheel and he is used sparingly enough to where you don’t go “ugh, come on, enough with the faces.” A children’s party in the latter third of the movie is simply sublime.

Alan Arkin, though rarely used as founding father magician Rance Holloway, is exceptional while billing Olivia Wilde as a headliner in this movie is a bit misleading. She is great when she’s in the movie, but Wilde is so ephemeral that it seems wasteful. And beyond that, she has such interesting folds to her character that are ultimately glossed over and brought up only to suit the whims of the plot. Her past, her talents, and her current struggles could have been so much more interesting if they’d only be incorporated better and more often.

And that kind of goes for the whole movie. While the actual discrete jokes of the movie are pretty fantastic, the narrative thread gets buried from time to time. We start out seeing Burt as a loner who is ostensibly forced to regularly eat bark and get punched in the stomach while celebrating his birthday all by himself. We love him and pull for him and when he makes a friend in the equally lonesome Anton, it feels good because good things happening to good people is just, well, good. So when we smash cut to asshole Burt, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

While the thread gets lost in the film, though, we the audience never lose our grasp on what will eventually happen. As obvious as it was to most magicians in the mid-00s that their time in the spotlight had come and gone, it is as obvious where the story goes (split friendship, downfall, rebuild, and triumph), so the fact that we know what the film itself doesn’t known makes some of the 100-ish minutes a bit of a chore.

It often feels a lot like someone taking a plate of mashed potatoes and trying to mold it into Michelangelo’s David despite it constantly falling over and becoming a limp pile of pale starch. While not a terrible movie, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is definitely a bit of a disappointment. At certain points, it feels like an amazing movie, but too much of it simply fails to deliver on the ripe, untapped world of millennial magic.

+ The countless homages to 90s and 00s magic feels right at home
+ Jim Carrey and Steve Buscemi are fantastic as caricatures of well-known magician archetypes
– Burt Wonderstone’s character arc is ham-fisted
– Olivia Wilde and Alan Arkin are mostly wasted with minimal story involvement and aimless character turns
– The plot meanders, forcing the audience to get ahead of the movie

Final Score: 6/10

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Mining For Mind Gold

Mining for Mind Gold

You wouldn’t expect it, but smell is a contender for Most Important Sense. It is closely tied to memory; once your sense of smell goes, it’s likely that your ability to recall information deteriorates. You can develop dementia or Alzheimer’s or even mild depression. It’s not definite whether it goes from nose-to-brain or vice versa, but science has decided that the link is there.

Smell is a great way to trigger latent memories, experiences buried under years and years of disuse or disinterest. Clearing out your parent’s attic, you open a box and a big whiff of something from your old dusty books hits your nose. What do you remember? Perhaps sitting on your floor, poring over the cover over and over until you build up an entire story detached from the world within the words. Or maybe lying in bed, reading through the night and all the way until sunup.

But that is of the olfactory sort. Video games don’t have an equivalent for that. Visual, auditory, tactile. Games have those in spades, but they sincerely lack that of what is supposedly the strongest memory affiliate we’ve ever discovered. And yet we still have strong, nigh unbreakable mental and emotional bonds with certain games.

It’s an important distinction, though, of what we’re supposed to be remembering. The smell of those books, that sepia-toned dust filling your nostrils as it filters out the streaking sunlight, brings you back to a place and a time, but it rarely enables you to recall the words you read in that moment. You can transport yourself back to the years gone by in a place that is the same while wholly different but none of it is in regards to the book’s content.

When I remember a game, though, I remember specific actions and inputs and the correlating output. The story, yes, sticks with me, but the stickier notion is what I was doing to progress that story and its ostensible folderol of walking and looking.

When I mash on a button to sprint, my mind digs up all that time I spent in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Back then, Rockstar didn’t have a walk/jog/sprint differentiator, so tapping the run button allowed you to run farther and longer before getting winded. It brings me back to a very specific instance of running away from some cops in Little Haiti after my motorcycle lodged itself into a little side entrance stoop.

When I launch an enemy into the air and air juggle them or launch them off into nothingness, I recall playing the God of War challenge where you had to kill enemies to raise a platform. Sitting in my room, I was only my twentieth attempt and one of my roommates could hear my frustration. He came in to watch. We tried and tried until an hour later, I completed the challenge. I can remember that because of the elation I felt when I beat the challenge. But I still remember almost exactly, play-by-play, what I did to do so. Double jump over, L1+X, L1+square, L1+X, L1+X, circle, square…it’s all still there.

It’s strange to remember a place that doesn’t exist. I can picture the associated surroundings of my gaming memories: my family’s old white wraparound couch on our white carpet in front of our severely out-of-place 80s, wooden entertainment center; sitting on my forest green foldable chair mere feet away from my 15″ CRT television, the red part of the RCA cable from my PS2 dangling from the video/mono audio inputs; and the wet, rainbow floor of Tilt at the mall after my friend and I beat House of the Dead and knocked our Icees down to the ground in celebration.

But those specific moments of running around Hyrule and Kokiri Forest; turning and diving as I try to catch MIPS in the basement of Princess Peach’s Castle; and walking through the rafters of 2300 AD Arris Dome. None of that existed except in my mind. People will recall being there, too, but not really. Not the way I was there. My specific button pushes and stick movements are so ingrained in my mind that for someone to share that memory feels like a violation.

What then, if anything, triggers these memories beyond seeing that game again? Smell is out of the question; that takes you back to a very real place in a very specific time. Visuals work much like a scrapbook and seem less to elicit properly potent nostalgia and more a vague fuzzy sense of recollection.

Sounds are a good start. Hearing the Half-Life health station ch-sss teleports me straight to the first one you find in that original game. Listening to Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away” puts me back in the saddle of my chestnut steed, who somehow found his own way across the San Luis River, as I crested that first hill and the sun began to set. The Legend of Zelda treasure fanfare will never not remind me of winning the Piece of Heart in the Treasure Chest Game in Ocarina of Time.

I can accomplish similar feelings, though, without an auditory cue. The simple act of a rote mechanic like the button-mash sprint is enough to remind me of Vice City, so it seems that a physical trigger exists as well. Alternate button mashing goes straight to International Track & Field: Summer Games. A very specific physical step sequence will put me back in Dance Dance Revolution.

The crazy thing is, though, that much like how olfactory memories spring up from the most random seed, these digital experiences erupt in a similar fashion. Much of this I did not remember (and will likely soon forget) until I recently came across each respective trigger in watching videos or playing games or even just taking a dance class. Each one was dug out from beneath the earth with a specific, single-use shovel and pulled out into the light. And now I can’t keep myself from hoping for the next one.

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The Relative Scale Of Tomb Raider

The Relative Scale of Tomb Raider

I promise this will be the last time I write about Tomb Raider. Okay, probably not, but it’s a Good Game, and Good Games tend to bring up a lot of interesting questions. Journey, for instance, is a Good Game, and it asks you what does unconditional love mean to you. Shadow of the Colossus is a Good Game, and it asks you if doing bad things to enable good things is truly good or bad at all. To be fair, bad games make you ask questions, too, like why oh why have you forsaken me god, but that’s not necessarily an interesting question for video games.

The question that Tomb Raider asks is can you divorce the scale of experience in gameplay from that of the narrative. As you are probably well aware of by now, this Tomb Raider is a reboot of the entire franchise. There is a new real life person playing the role of the series protagonist Lara Croft in the fantastically British Camilla Luddington, the raiding of tombs has gone the way of hunting deer, and gun battles with jungle cats have been replaced with stealth kills with a bow and arrow.

This reboot includes the fact that Lara is no longer the gymnastic-enabled, quip-wielding badass from the old games. She is still quite a badass to be sure, but she is also much more inexperienced (it is, after all, her first expedition and boy do things go sideways) and thus much more vulnerable to jarring encounters. This famously includes near-rape, her first murder, and a sizable puncture wound through the entire side of her lower abdomen.

Narratively, this all works. Lara is established in just the way she needs to be: young, naive, and untested. We feel for her even before the real meat of the game begins because we all know how it feels to be in her shoes (or at least relative to what the character used to be and what other video game characters offer). I don’t know if we necessarily want to protect her, but we definitely do pull for her. She, much like all of us, is vulnerable. Her mortality is tangible and authentic and, above all else, breakable.

So when she is chased down like an animal by a bigger animal (metaphorically speaking, though she soon will be running from real animals as well), it’s not hard to sympathize with her because that fear is palpable. When she escapes a collapsing tunnel, we get that sense of urgency because we know that just a single rock could jeopardize her freedom. That three feet of iron she gets through her side is a reminder that she is not unbreakable, that is she not a space marine or tier one operator.

All of that sets the relative scale with which we operate. It is the ruler by which we measure all other circumstances of the game. Because Lara fails to make a jump over an inhumanly sized chasm is because she is supposed to be human, so we set the baseline of the scale. Because she is able to kill but is visible shake over the traumatic experience, we know where the spectrum ends.

But when the gameplay of the game snaps the ruler in half and stabs a pirate in the neck with the jagged stumps, we’re confused. Now that one of the few rules we’ve managed to establish in the game (and make mistake; rules are important, even when they’re just the ones we’ve cooked up in our head) is totally and utterly broken, we don’t know how to feel about subsequent events. It’s like holding a magnet near a compass; our compassion is thrown out of whack—skewed.

Call of Duty, oddly enough, does a rather good job with this marriage of narrative and gameplay scale. Things that kill you in a cutscene—say like at the end of No Russian in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2—kill you in the game, i.e. a headshot. The problem that modern Call of Duty games is that the narrative scale is so huge, we become numb to anything over a certain threshold. One nuke might as well be two nukes or three nukes or a baker’s dozen. One dead playable character might as well be all of them. We don’t know how to judge the impact of major events simply because of the size of the scale.

One skyscraper in the middle of suburbia sticks out because you can tell that, relative to the little two-story houses around it, it is huge. But in the middle of Manhattan, 20 stories is just the same as 30 stories or 40 stories. That’s the problem of narrative scale. The problem with Tomb Raider is relative scale between its presentation of character and plot and its gameplay. It’s as if someone drew lines all over those skyscrapers and turned them into optical illusions. We still have the compass, but we’ve lost magnetic north. And now we’re lost with Lara.

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A Time And A Place

A Time and a Place

“Timeless” is a very interesting way to describe a game. In and of itself, it really just means that the passage of time is a nonfactor in the quality of an object or concept. Most often this is attributed to certain styles or designs because they are far removed from time in every critical way that they remain as valuable or beautiful as the day they were conceived. Classic cars, vintage clothing, and black and white photos of James Dean are all usually considered timeless.

Things that don’t have the ageless quality are generally stuck in the zeitgeisty part of our memories. These are events or fads that came and went because as time went on, we grew tired of them. Pet rocks. Slap bracelets. Kardashians. They all fade away and only surface in conversation when we laugh about how weird we were 10 or 20 years ago or when we’re cleaning out the attic and tip over a dusty box full of pictures. They were a novelty then and they are a novelty now, existing only as an ephemeral distraction from noting the gap between the amaranthine.

Video games, however, have a very different slant on timelessness. Retro games of the 8-bit era will always been unfading and eternal because their concepts transcend their visuals; they are the purest form of what they offer. But almost everything else is intrinsically tied to a specific time and, most likely, place. There will always be the Shadow of the Colossuses and the Mario 64s that come up every once in a while, but the pop culture surrounding games is half of what the entire industry is about.

Consider a game like Fez. While itself a great game and lovable in a curiously taxing way, Fez was designed to cultivated conversation and collusion in a way that was lost to a time before the Internet. For as charming its visuals were and subtly entrancing its music, Fez was about the communal aspect of discovering, discussing, and dismantling puzzles not explicitly laid before our collective feet.

You would hear from one friend who heard from another guy who read somewhere that the symbols mean something. An off-hand quip on a forum would lead you to realize that the bell is more than just a bell. You and four other friends would spend hours playing together trying to solve the ostensibly last great riddle of the game. For all the drama surrounding the game’s development, it accomplished what it intended.

But imagine trying to play it now. Fez‘s audio and visual design aesthetics will go down as some of the best to ever hit our eyes and ears (and hearts), but the global goal of trying to crack this one singular nut is gone. If you picked it up now and started playing for the first time, questions regarding the meaning of certain shapes and sounds would be just that: questions. Questions have answers, and everyone has answers. Mysteries are much more interesting in that way.

An example that might resonate with more people out there would be World of Warcraft. It is arguably the single most financially successful game ever made and continues to rake in the money, allowing Blizzard the freedom to take Valve-like lengths of time on new projects. But it cannot go on forever. It is tired, it is weak, and it is showing its age. In almost every single way, World of Warcraft is not an undying beast. It sustains simply on its numbers, and they are bleeding out, albeit slowly. The lukewarm response to Mists of Pandaria is proof of that. Mere months after its release, subscriber numbers have fallen back down to the Cataclysm low.

That, however, is not its fault. MMOs are social games by their very nature, and WoW succeeded in being one of the best in that regard. When—not if—the servers finally shut down for good, the entire premise of the game and its innate genre attributes will be sheared off with a single powerful gale. You can tell people about how you explored Ironforge or prepared for your weekly raid or conned your way into leading a guild, but that is all gone. There will be no disc you can put in and replay the campaign of your actions with WoW and there is no historia for the culture of the realms. The immense amount of social data and personal stories will be lost to a single keystroke and the tick of a clock.

Even before the certain end, WoW has changed. The people that were around in its nascent days are almost certainly gone now. It has been almost a decade since it launched. Ten years of people coming and going. Ten years of changing hierarchy and customs and norms and idiomatic speech. Every few years and every expansion is an influx not only of content and people but also of culture and knowledge. World of Warcraft was never built to be timeless.

And that may very well be true of most games. Catchphrases, I guess, linger like “war never changes” and yelling “SNAAAAAAAAAKE” when something bad happens, but rarely are entire games made to exist outside of time. They are products of their environment where the pop culture of design guides the hand of development to include active reload and quick-time events and motion controls. They are the result of a million minds pushing a single product into a particular ebb and flow of a national consciousness. The games themselves might not be the enduring result of the industry, the industry itself the immortal thing. And that might be what makes video games so special.

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Tomb Raider and the Croft-Drake Affair

Tomb Raider and the Croft-Drake Affair

Tomb Raider is a good game. I’m not quite done with it (damn you, friend-that-just-bought-a-pinball-machine), but I started out liking it and only felt my affection growing with each passing day. There were, admittedly, moments where I felt like it faltered or stretched itself too thin—Conan O’Brien’s “review” highlights one of these parts—but it’s hard to hold those against what is an otherwise well-executed and cohesive reboot of a known quantity.

This isn’t a complaint for me, but I have noticed and agreed with some people pointing out that Tomb Raider also tends to skew a bit closer to the Uncharted series than you would expect. These moments largely fall in the first third of the game, but they’re definitely there. The seminal franchise from Naughty Dog is known for its bombastic set pieces that often include crumbling buildings, speeding trains, and capsizing ships with you placed smack-dab in the middle of them. Built on top of fantastic shooting and climbing mechanics that give you an over-the-top yet grounded interpretation of the Indiana Jones mythos, Uncharted pulls off spectacle with aplomb.

You should know, though, that “grounded” doesn’t necessarily mean realistic. It just means that the characters and situations feel like something born from this world and not one where everyone is built like refrigerators and have chainsaws attached to the end of their guns (not that there’s anything wrong with that). However, Naughty Dog knows they aren’t building a realistic setting for Nathan Drake to explore and fight in. For all we know, all of his muscles are contained within his arms and his bones are hollow like a bird. How else would he be able to jump and climb the way he does?

“Realistic” is what Tomb Raider goes for and, well, ultimately fails at. Realism is when Lara impales herself on a piece of rebar and is rendered immobile by it. Realism is when Lara has to kill a man with her own hands and is visibly shaken by the process. Realism, however, is not what happens immediately following those two events, namely killing shit ton more dudes with an adeptness and ferocity heretofore unseen save for the likes of Kratos.

And Nathan Drake. Along with the Master Chiefs and Kenshiros of the world, Nathan is one of the most prolific mass murderers ever known to mankind. But he started out so human. He was purposefully made and animated to stumble as he ran, not effortlessly glide across the map like some transplanted figure skater. Rocks and ledges and little divots in the ground would cause him to misstep as he ran through the forests and ruins of the world, much like we know we would if we were similarly accomplish travelers.

He would lean into or touch walls and railings. Not even his balance was infallible. He would lament the incessant flow of bad guys impeding his progress and point out the absurdity of his actions. He, for all intents and purposes, was like us if we had infinite upper body strength and a penchant for untreated gunshot wounds.

Aside from the aforementioned leaking bullet-shaped holes in his torso, Nathan is presented to us as a human. He is a human murder machine among a society of other ostensibly human murder machines, sure, but he is still presented as a human within his milieu. It just so happens that everyone else is as trigger-happy as he is. You can see this in the beginning of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves where Nathan infiltrates a museum with cohort Harry Flynn. We are shown right in front of our eyes that Nathan Drake is not a superman. Next to us is someone just as capable as our hero, just not as lucky. Or charming. Or kick-ass. But it shows us that in this world, Nathan is just a regular ol’ dude.

Lara Croft is given similar trappings in this Tomb Raider reboot. She is, by far, the least graceful iteration of the acrobatic archaeologist that we’ve ever seen. Rather than cartwheeling and flipping over gaps and sauntering into battles with tigers and bad guys with guns blazing, this Lara is made to be human. Big falls see her stumble and trip. Rather than scream a bloody war cry as she runs headlong into battle, her voice shakes and breathing quickens as an encounter with even a single enemy looms tall. Even acquiring her first weapon is no easy task. Solid Snake climbed up a tree and grabbed his gear. Lara tumbles back down to Earth.

As far as we can tell, Lara is just as durable as Nathan, though. Despite the three feet of metal piercing her side, Lara still manages to clamber up cliffs and parachute through a seemingly endless basin full of trees like a leafy game of Plinko. She absorbs a commensurate amount of bullets and punches from her foes and she still comes out the other end ready for more. The only difference is that the world that Lara is in—the one we are made to accept that she and everyone else in the game exists and operates within—is made to look as human as she is.

We are not given a Harry Flynn. We do not know that Lara exists in a world made for combat where guns and henchmen flow like wine and other flowing things. Her kills are instant with one-shot initiative. She is hyper-personalized, and thus we apply similar human facades to this largely faceless fodder.

Tomb Raider seems to have had an equal chance at being called Lara Croft and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, each unfortunate event on her maiden expedition being of Lemony Snicket proportions. And that’s something we can all identify with. Her circumstances make her a product of her environment, so from her personality to her aspirations to her fears, we associate those with being human, which is easy because they are all very human in nature. So it’s a sizable departure when she starts killing dudes by the droves.

Nathan Drake isn’t humanized in quite the same way. Through his attitude and interpretation of his predicaments we are led to believe he thinks like we do and acts like we do, but it just so happens that he can do so much more than we can do because he lives in a world where that sort of thing just happens. Jumping off cliffs into a raging river below just sort of happens when you escape from bad guys, just as you do climb a falling train car as you nurse a bleeding tunnel of mangled flesh in your side.

Tomb Raider is still a good game, and those Uncharted comparisons are fair, to say the least, but there’s a facet in that Venn diagram that goes mostly untouched, and that is where Lara Croft and Nathan Drake diverge in their presentation. It’s not just who they are and what they say but it’s also where they are placed and what situations are thrown their way, much like how it’s not just the meal served but the plating and the fancy Top Chef-esque squiggles of deliberately placed sauce that makes the dish. It just so happens that Nathan’s humanity was designed to accommodate his murderous bent while Lara’s was not. We hoot and holler when Nathan runs from an explosion, but we simply pull for Lara’s survival. And then we question why she has to kill 20 men along the way.

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