Monthly Archives: January 2014

Small Leaps and Minor Bounds

Small Leaps and Minor Bounds

Video games are notorious for attempting to fulfill power fantasies, reputable to the point of widespread (and rightful) criticism. You have to save the world, you have to win the Super Bowl, you have to rescue the princess. It’s all about empowering you in some fashion that you can’t achieve in your real life. There aren’t many ways, after all, for you to thwart a nuclear terrorist attack from aliens on Mars if there aren’t any to begin with.

Of course, to question that established order is to also shine a light on the entire concept of games, which to say anything that revels in victory. Your skill, luck, strength, or smarts or whatever determines if you can call yourself a winner or a loser, and that is the base level of the aforementioned fantasy: succeeding. It’s just a matter of finding what you want to succeed most in, be it space marines or Italian plumbers or blue hedgehogs.

Then we have to ask ourselves: what is the smallest form of victory achievable by a game? It seems to be a question asked rather often of late by smaller game designers. By virtue of besting the nuances and inanities of a system within a video game, you become the winner over the instituted mechanics. There are overt obstacles, usually, but the enmeshed obstacles of simply navigating the problem before you are the greater challenge.

QWOP

It’s a concept most likely seeded by QWOP, the seminal, nonsensical game from Bennett Foddy back in 2008. In it, you attempt to run a 100-meter hurdle race. It sounds quite simple until you hear how you’re supposed to do it. Instead of pushing right on a stick and pressing A to jump, you have to use the letters Q, W, O, and P on your keyboard to individually (and respectively) control your athlete’s left and right thighs and left and right calves. It’s a nightmare.

That, however, is pretty much the point. It introduces a unique challenge to something we take for granted on a daily basis both in real life and in video games. You say video game and you say run and you picture something very clearly: hold a stick and maybe a button to boost. The reality is that so much goes into the simple act of coordinating your leg movements to make you ambulatory that it’s almost impossible to totally conceive within your mind.

QWOP set the table for the idea of simple ideas with complex execution as a game. And then games like Receiver sat down and ate the dinner. You are supposed to go around and collect 11 audio tapes while using your gun to eliminate threats. Cool. Easy. 2EZ. The problem is that—oops—every single part of your interaction with your firearm has been moved into a discrete control. From setting the safety to pulling back and releasing the slide to reloading each individual bullet, you have to be cognizant of how the parts of your gun work in concert with the other bits.

Receiver

When you shoot a gun in Call of Duty or Gears of War, all you do is pull a trigger. It’s so simple. All the interim animations are just dressing. But in Receiver, they become challenges that will lead to your inevitable doom. Dropped rounds on the ground. Forgetting to chamber the first round. Not realizing you can’t do anything else with your flashlight out. (You only have two hands, after all.) It reminds you that, hey, even the simplest action is actually egregiously complex when you break it down.

Thrown under the umbrella of absurdism, these types of games make an important statement. The success of the improbable Surgeon Simulator 2013 isn’t just about how funny it is to watch your friends try to pick up something with a digital hand, but it’s about how incredibly insane it is that we never realized how intricate the simple act of manipulating your extremities is.

The latest in this string of ridiculous games is Octodad: Dadliest Catch (review forthcoming), wherein you play an octopus who also happens to be the father to two children and must care for them while going about your daily life, which is extraordinarily ordinary despite you being an, you know, octopus.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch

All you have to do is make this fellow be a normal dad. How hard is normalcy? You’ve killed Elites and you’ve ridden dinosaurs with a proclivity for fruit and laying eggs. You can handle being a father. But when you start accidentally throwing furniture and destroying your hovel, a revelation lands hard in your tentacled hands.

The triumphs depicted in games can be anything. The scale of it doesn’t matter. The power fantasy is truly just being capable, not specifically able to stop a rival spy from undoing your work or preventing a Templars from throwing the world into utter chaos. At the basest level, you seek to be able. In a daily life where you are told you can’t do this or that, a video game abstracts and manifests those challenges and makes them beatable.

That is the fantasy. That is the dream. The chance to prove they can do it, the ability to show they can follow through, and the boast-worthy accomplishment of doing it. At the base level of humanity, we just want to achieve. And these silly, strange, inscrutable games show that. So let’s not forget it, huh?

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Amalgams and Whatnot

Amalgams and Whatnot

There’s a trailer for an upcoming game that everyone’s been talking about. (I know. What a shock!) It’s an eight-minute walkthrough for Monolith Productions’ Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor wherein the protagonist—a ranger by the name of Talion—shows off his Wraith-like abilities by peering into the nether, controlling simple minds, and racking up a body count higher than the actual The Lord of the Rings movies.

It looks cool. Correction: it looks super cool. It captures much of what makes the battles of the films so cool, which is to say it makes the heroes feel powerful and the big bad guys commensurate, ensuring that victories feel worthwhile. The literal balance isn’t right, but hey, this is a pre-alpha build. And besides, it feels right. I mean, I’ve never sliced the head off of an orc, but I imagine it feels pretty good after slugging it out with him with sword and shield.

The crux of the trailer is highlighting the fact that every single playthrough of the game will be unique. Major enemies (and there are a lot of them) each have their own memetic interpretation and physical reminders of past events in the world. For instance, it could be as obvious as Orthog Troll Slayer having burn scars from Talion and his last fiery encounter, but it could also mean Ratbag’s career path goes down a different path, leading us to find him in one place instead of another.

It’s called the Nemesis system and seems pretty slick. Given that this is a game from Monolith, I have no small amount of faith in the game following through with the words of its marketing. We do have the results of F.E.A.R. and Condemned to back it up, so a modicum of respect is appropriate. Even their last Tolkien outing fared pretty well.

The strange thing is that bits and pieces of the trailer (once you get past the highfalutin talk of dynamic, persistent, and determinant world interactions) feel just a bit…off. Perhaps just a tad too familiar, so much so that they actually seem too foreign to work. In reality, those moments of discontent—those moments where you try to recall something on the tip of your tongue while the answer hops away—are too familiar.

That’s because they are too familiar. It combines nearly every pillar of every successful franchise in the past few years into a single game and applies its own layer of specificity (which, obviously, is the most important part, but we’ll get there later). Talion can climb around on just about any piece of the environment, moving around the world like a Nathan Drake. He strikes with the speed and ferocity—and single-buttonness—of Batman in the Arkham series. Then his Wraith vision gives him Assassin’s Creed-like insight into any given encounter.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Each of these pieces has been previously adopted into other games as well, perhaps for similar reasons. Jumping and clambering about ledges and walls and conveniently placed ropes, we get hints of Tomb Raider as well, the bounciness of Croft and Drake’s collective climbing abilities noteworthy and inhuman in every regard.

The Arkham implementation of combat has been shoehorned into so many varied titles from Captain America: Super Soldier to The Amazing Spider-Man. Quick, one-time button presses that directly correspond to attack and defense, and each one as a response to an immediate need.

Detective vision has been the bane of many game critics’ existence. Named as such after the Arkham version as well, its origins go far deeper. Assassin’s Creed‘s Eagle Vision accomplishes the same thing, and The Amazing Spider-Man actually has something similar. Dishonored does it, too. But it’s a fine line between an addendum ability thrown in at the end of production and one that is finely integrated into the experience. Not sure where Shadow of Mordor lies yet.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

It’s very clear, though, that outside of the open world of responsive and unique enemies, Shadow of Mordor is really an amalgam of past mechanics du jour. It seems to have looked at a Rolodex of successful franchises in the past five years and said, “We’ll take one of each of those.” Once the initial amazement faded, a lot of ire of the trailer began to surface for this exact reason.

The thing to remember, however, is that it’s the particulars that make something work or fall apart. You know, devils and details and all that. Take a look at Resogun, one of the best games from last year. It was, without question, a simple cocktail of bullet hell games, Defender, and its own past amalgam of old school tropes Super Stardust HD.

It worked precisely because it combined all of those familiar elements in such a specific way. Like a surgeon, it cut out laser-level portions of things you’re accustomed to and then like Frankenstein, stitched it all together into something new. It’s the same reason why you can take flour, butter, and eggs and end up with either a bunch of great pancakes or a ruined Sunday brunch. It’s the particulars that matter.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Of course, the argument of familiarity is also an authentic one. A lot of resources obviously went into the whole Nemesis system; it’s not easy creating an open world that wholly responds to player actions like that. It’s pretty easy to cobble together proven successes when you run out of time to gin up something entirely original.

But that is also a cynical way of looking at it. The auteurship involved in mold individual corners of a simple box elevate or degrade it either to art or a travesty. We are, after all, all just lumps of carbon and water; what makes any of us better than another? The details, of course. That’s where all the devils live, after all.

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At A Loss for Verbs

At a Loss for Verbs

Adventure games are notorious for a number of reasons. Chief among them is probably the fact that they did used to actually end up being pixel-hunting debacles, and no one wants to sit and click 800 x 600 pixels just to figure out where to kick in a wall. It was a dark time and I’m glad it’s all behind us. (Mostly.)

The second is, strangely enough, also part of the charm of the genre. By and large, the interactions of adventure games are inscrutable. And by that, I mean that since they are sequential bits of scripted actions and conversations, the utility of any given item is entirely up to a brain that isn’t yours. That can get pretty frustrating.

You may end up with a knife, but its actual use may not be to cut something. It could be bartered or thrown or any number of things that don’t involve its intended purpose. Perhaps that’s more akin to real life where many things are rarely used as designed, but unlike real life, adventure games split your actions along the line of right and wrong.

Full Throttle

And they used to have an incredibly complex set of functions to be paired up with objects. Along with an inventory, you could usually pick what specific verb you wanted to apply to a noun, so you could choose to specifically hold an apple or eat it or throw it. And then you could do any of those things at another object.

That was where the charm was. It was in delving into this strange plane of existence where everyone but you knew the consequences of your actions. I may want to throw my single bucket of water into a wall, but the character will pipe up with “I don’t think that needs to be wet right now.” I can try to show off a stool I got to the mayor, but my character will just say “he doesn’t need to see that.”

As you can imagine, though, the permutations available to you for doing something like five verbs across hundreds of objects in a dozen screens are overwhelming. It has resulted in a simplification of the interactions in adventure games, to where the context of your actuated desire is determined automatically. I can take a brick and drag it onto myself, but my character won’t eat it because it’s a fucking brick. You don’t need dialogue telling you that.

Gemini Rue

It has, however, taken away the impetus to think critically in a way that was wholly unique to adventure games. Reducing the cloud of verbs to the single action of click makes you view the game’s puzzles as a bunch of locks and you must gather the keys. Having that expansive set of possibilities, though, made it seem much more like you were performing some arcane, ritualistic dance to coax those locks open.

Granted, you’re still doing the same basic function—hooking up one hose to another until the solutions to your problems come gushing forth—but the simple wrinkle of thinking How in addition to What makes the flavor of adventure game thinking unique. Instead of matching peg to hole, you have to think about what you’re going to do once you put them together.

Of course, that all comes back around to being a problem again. Do we really want to iterate through several non sequitur actions on an impossibly ridiculous combination of items? Does anyone truly desire the chance to decipher the alchemy of a designer’s machinations? Just drag this onto that and whammy. Done.

Yesterday

It’s a fine line to walk. Regardless of the implementation, this diverse smorgasbord of resulting actions is what sets adventure games apart. Shooters have fire, reload, duck. Platformers have run and jump. But adventure games have so much more. Climb, wave, lick, toss, eat, wink, etc. When it all gets relegated to “use,” though, it has the potential to be an unfortunate reduction. Oh well. I guess as long as we still get to make a tree barf up syrup, we’ll be just fine.

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Ten Thousand People or Ten Thousand Hours

Ten Thousand People or Ten Thousand Hours

And not 10,000 days. I’ve listened to enough of that since moving away from my Tool-obsessed college roommate. (Also, not about Macklemore.) This is about open development. You’re probably familiar with the concept by now. It’s where as a developer makes a game, they ask for feedback at every step of the way from their fans—and sometimes not fans.

It’s something mostly popularized by Kickstarter, though it’s simply another step along the way to the logical extreme where everyone makes the exact game they want and sell it to themselves. Before facilitated communications over Internet tubes, game makers just cranked out another game that incorporated the word-of-mouth feedback they got. Then they started doing betas, and now we’re at the point where players have managed to inject their input from beginning to end.

It is, quite frankly, a poisonous practice. Perhaps an extension of the equally horrific “the customer is always right” mantra, but it’s something that needs to end nonetheless. John Walker over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun (temporarily and brilliantly Candy, Saga, Crushgun) wrote something yesterday about it and absolutely nailed it. How do people know what they want if they don’t know there are things beyond what they already know?

Outliers

Open development homogenizes and averages deviations from the norm, but creativity thrives on those little spikes on the graph, those outliers from the middle of the bell curve. Once you filter one person’s vision through enough feedback, it’ll all come back out the same. Like how if you took into account a hundred people’s tastes at a one-pizza pizza party, you’d end up with gluten-free toast. But once people give money to the process (Kickstarter, Early Access, etc.), they feel entitled to own part of the creation. As Walker astutely puts it: “NO. NO NO NO. You’re a wallet, and that’s it.”

There’s a different idea, though, that I think contributes to the problem of this open development plague. Are you familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success? It’s a fairly popular book, but the main thing people took away from it was his 10,000-hour rule. It can be summed up in the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to get good at it.

That may or may not be totally true, but it certainly is skewed towards being right. The number one tip for writers is to just keep writing. Michael Jordan didn’t make varsity at his first high school basketball tryout, but he practiced notoriously hard to earn the title of His Airness and a stupidly successful line of hoop-centric footwear. How do you get to [insert prestigious competition]? Practice.

Carnegie Hall

Part of game development is producing things, sure. I mean, you’re not going to make a game without some skill in programming or making art or at least figuring out how to use Google to hodgepodge together the Internet’s combined knowledge in the field, but in the realm of creativity—simply ginning up ideas—doesn’t take any special skill.

In the startup community, ideas are feared. Ideas are worthless. Execution is where the value is at, and that holds up in actually any industry. But execution is not just turnout out concept art or 3D graphics libraries. It includes turning those ideas from nebulous, hazy blobs of imprecise desires into concrete, discrete chunks that can be put into words. No more hand gestures; they need to be put down on paper.

And that’s where the 10,000 hours come in. The ability to transmogrify an impulse or feeling into something actionable comes with practice. Think about Broken Age. Tim Schafer said that in documenting the development of the game, he hoped to show that it doesn’t take anyone special to come up with ideas; it just takes work. He isn’t some genius at coming up with stories. He’s just a guy with a bunch of notebooks full of rejected ideas and a few good ones.

Tim Schafer and Cookie Monster

Of course, he also proved along the way that game development is a lot harder than anyone suspects/knows/is willing to admit, but hey, surprises are part of life. But the takeaway is that he just worked his way into being able to turn those fleeting bits of “hey, it would be cool if…” and “oh man, I would love it if…” into a brilliant little adventure game.

But all those people giving feedback during open development don’t have the same practice. 10,000 people with a single hour’s worth of expressing concepts in terms of gameplay and mechanics is not the same as someone who has 10,000 hours under his belt already. It’s not that these people don’t have great ideas—some of them actually do, though admittedly most of them have nothing better to say beyond “this is good” or “this is bad”—but they just don’t understand how to turn those ideas into a game, let alone make it part of one that is already under another vision.

In the opening blurb to Walker’s piece on RPS, he says that everyone thinks they’re right, and everyone else is wrong. Part of the 10,000 hours of learning is also figuring out that such a simplistic dichotomy is, like, super duper wrong. You learn how to collaborate and incorporate things that are beyond your base instincts. What’s that they say about good artists and stealing?

Never Sorry

You figure out how to mold an idea into something usable. You learn how to blend your past knowledge into this new experience. You learn how to cut away what works and what doesn’t. But that doesn’t happen right away. All those people sending emails and posting comments and dumping their stream of consciousness into a Twitch chat—those 10,000 people—don’t know how to do all that. They don’t understand the alchemy of turning ideas into gold. They don’t have the experience of putting in the work.

They don’t have the 10,000 hours.

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An Age Broken in Two

An Age Broken in Two

Someone is telling you a story. It has you on the edge of your seat. Every word is like another tug on the line with you on the other end, hook, bait, and all greedily choked in your gullet. It’s a doubtless, quintessential sign of being totally enraptured. And then they stop. What is your reaction?

Surprise, yes; anger, I suppose. Those are the emotional responses, but what is your reaction? “What happens next?” Or maybe “what happens to them?” It’s a difference that sets apart two important facets of the experience: the storyteller and the story. When you ask what happens next, you’re asking because you just want to hear more. Anything. Whatever happens, it will be good because the person telling it to you is good.

When you ask about a character, it means you’re invested in more than the moment-to-moment jollies of being spun an entertaining yarn. There’s something deeper that you’ve connected with—a theme, a backstory, a person that reminds you of someone back home—and you need to know that your hopes can beat your fears. There’s trepidation, an apprehension in your asking as you realize this may not turn out the way you’d like, but you can’t help but ask. (I guess we’re all a bit self-sabotaging in that way.)

Broken Age

It’s the difference between a want and a need; do you just want to hear more or do you need do hear more? It’s a contrast you examine every day. You want to eat another burger but you don’t need to unless you want a heart attack at the age of 20. You don’t want to say sorry but you need to make amends. You want to hear a great storyteller keep telling a story but you also need to hear that everyone is okay in the end.

I’ve been thinking about that reactionary split since finish Act 1 of Double Fine Productions’ Broken Age. It is standard Tim Schafer, which is to say it is superb. It’s beautiful, it’s funny, and it’s strange. That is a man who has an unmatched ability to remind you of what it’s like to always think “what if,” what it’s like to never forget how to be a kid. It’s a pretty fantastic game, and you should probably play it.

But when it was over, I asked myself, “Well, what happens next?” I started to think about why I asked that. Perhaps it was the simple fact that I know there’s a second act coming out later this year to put a bow on Shay and Vella’s story. Maybe it was because I have a habit of asking pointless questions. But really, it’s because Schafer is an incredible storyteller.

Broken Age

He ginned up a world of psychic children fighting within their own warped minds. He made us laugh alongside a travel agent for the dead. He even kept us rapt with a biker gang in the dystopian future. He is without a doubt a storyteller to measure all others against.

Those games, though, didn’t have something they needed to say so much as something they wanted to say. Broken Age, however, actually had a message, a thematic examination of defiance, fealty, and expectations. Shay is part of a mission he doesn’t understand, living a life he doesn’t want, and doing things he doesn’t want to do. Vella is, well, about to be eaten by a giant monster and everyone else seems pretty chill with it.

These are two immensely interesting setups. What happened to Shay’s world? How did he end up on his spaceship by himself? Where the hell did Marek exactly stowaway if the ship doesn’t ever seem to stop? And what about Vella? Why did her village stop being warriors if there’s a big monster regularly attacking them? Whose bright idea was it to start doing Maidens Feasts? There is obviously a lot going on in the Broken Age universe, but we don’t get much of it.

Broken Age

Strangely enough, though, we don’t mind all that much because Schafer manages to tell a great story. Rather than answer those questions that build up Shay and Vella as people that we care about—the same questions that end with us asking “what about Shay and Vella” instead of “what happens next”—we keep getting distracted by questions too immediate to be ignored.

Like how is Shay going to rescue civilians from an avalanche. Or how is Vella going to get that bird to help her. Or how is Shay going to trick the navigator. A talented storyteller can do that. A talented storyteller can make you forget all the whys and make you wonder the hows. But we get enough of the how from Wikipedia. We end up caring because we get the why, because we understand the reasons behind someone doing what they do.

We don’t, however, get much of that. Vella is against her being eaten, sure. But why? No one else has a problem with it, so where exactly did this categorically rebellious notion come from? I totally agree with her, but I don’t know why she would be right there with me from the beginning. Shay has a similar problem. We inherently align with him because we find his days as boring as he does. But if that’s all he knows, there’s really no reason for him to yearn for what he doesn’t know exists. They’re both well in Plato’s cave.

Broken Age

It struck me, though, that it may be because Broken Age is broken into two separate acts, separated by some indeterminate amount of time. As a single cohesive story, it would work well to establish a character and then spend the second half following through the setup. But when it’s broken into two parts, they both need to be as gripping as the other. In the traditional format, though, that would mean we spend Act 1 going up the roller coaster and never coming down—cooking the steak but not eating it.

At this point, I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic that Broken Age as a whole will be a step for Schafer to start making points and relating thoughts and emotions rather than a good story. Act 1 already is a departure, skewing towards drama with highlights of humor rather than throwing a multitude of jokes your way and seeing what sticks. I just hope Act 2 ends with me saying “I needed that” instead of “I wanted that.”

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Broken Age Act 1 Review: For Yourself

Broken Age

Tim Schafer’s games have a tendency to put universal questions through a childlike filter. He poses setups that we’ve wondered and tucked away. What does it look like inside my head? What if Halloween costumes were more than costumes? What would a world inhabited by nothing but matryoshka dolls be like? But they’ve always been what ifs, flights of fancy made material. In Broken Age, he has made a beautiful game full of humor and whimsy that asks the single most important question a child can ask: why?

This is just about the first act of Broken Age, the game that told everyone the Kickstarter pool was nice and warm and waved thousands upon thousands of developers to jump in with them. It tells the dual stories of a young girl named Vella and a young boy named Shay. Vella lives in a baking town called Sugar Bunting, one of many towns in this world that pay regular sacrifices to a monster called Mog Chothra in the form of young women.

Vella, however, doesn’t get the point. For everyone else, they view it as a great honor to be selected to be put in the Maiden’s Feast, and an even greater one to be chosen by Mog Chothra by way of actually getting eaten (some girls actually do get passed up). Even Vella’s family recognizes they’ll be losing a daughter, but her sacrifice will be worth it to keep their village safe. But Vella would really rather fight back.

Shay is in a similar situation, though not identical. He lives day in and day out on a spaceship under the control of a severely mother-like computer system. With nothing but his safety and health in mind, it feeds him nutritional paste, but with his happiness in mind, it also concocts ridiculously hammed up “missions” to save Yarn Buddies (exactly what they sound like) by eating through an ice cream avalanche or surviving a hug attack.

Neither of them is happy with where they are in life: bowing down to the whims of others. It’s not that it happens at all, but rather that it happens without question. They are told that’s how it’s always been done, or that you need to respect it without understanding it, or that it’s what’s best for you. And it doesn’t matter that it is good or bad or anything; it only matters that they have a question and no one will answer them.

It’s such a childlike notion of asking why, but Broken Age puts its importance in the light. Without asking why, or asking if there’s a better way, maidens get eaten up with too much pomp and circumstance but little reason why. A boy’s life is put in a jar and lost on a shelf, contributing nothing and learning nothing. Children ask why the sky is blue and we learn about Rayleigh scattering and diffuse sky radiation. Vella and Shay ask why we do what we do and we learn about ourselves.

Broken Age

The entire game is built around the idea of children and their seemingly impossibly light interpretation of the world with such a heavy question. The art is just stupidly gorgeous, bringing to life the dozens of hand drawn books your parents used to read to you at night. The bright and colorful worlds you ginned up in your mind have been made real by art director Lee Petty, animating in such a delightfully bouncy and happy way.

More than that, the characters are just sublimely made human and yet more jubilant than anyone you’ve ever known. Not just Vella and Shay, but even the teleporters on Shay’s ship are infectiously happy to take you away somewhere. Vella’s sister is having the best day of her life because she just downed six cupcakes and finally got to tell someone.

Of course, that’s all to say that 1) Schafer’s impeccable ability to characterize outlandish mindsets and psychologies into grounded and approachable roles is here in full force, and 2) the voice acting is just superb. Elijah Wood as Shay is fantastic, his naturally ethereal yet puckish voice ideal for Shay’s space-bound innocence and combination resigned-rebellious view of his lot in life.

Broken Age

Masasa Moyo as Vella is equally great. Moyo manages to make even the lies Vella sometimes tell sound like they come from a place of absolutely no ill intent. Her earnestness makes Vella simply sound like someone you would want see succeed for no other reason than having a passion (even if this passion happens to be self-preservation).

And Jack Black, Wil Wheaton, and Jennifer Hale all obviously do a wonderful job as well, but the true highlight for me is David Kaufman as Marek, a mysterious fellow you’ll meet fairly early on into the episode. He just has the perfect shady, subversive, I’ve-got-an-agenda-but-I’m-not-telling-you timbre to his croaky voice. I couldn’t wait to get back to interacting with him just because I knew I would get to hear him again.

Getting back to major story beats actually took less time than I was expecting. The interactions of the game are very much a traditional adventure game as originally promised, but the puzzles were never to the level of pounding your head against a wall, hoping a fortune would rattle loose from your head and tell you the solution. There’s no hint system to speak of, but you’d never need one anyways. The puzzles were crafted just so to take some very hard thinking and logical elimination of possibilities but never dipping into Hulk-rage status.

Broken Age

The problem is, though, that this first act ends so abruptly. It ends in a logical and appropriate place, but it leaves so many things open to be addressed (or unfortunately forgotten) in the subsequent episodes. Marek kind of withers away from a major role to nothing, and Vella leaves more than a few characters hanging. That’s kind of par for the course in an adventure game (causing chaos to serve your own needs and leaving before you see the aftermath), but the sudden cliffhanger is still a bit startling.

It doesn’t change the rest of the experience one bit, though. Act 1 of Broken Age is still an amazingly charming, beautiful, and lighthearted display. It shows that Schafer still has it within him to take something you’ve long forgotten how to do—imagine this, ask that, be a child—and turn it into a game. It’s a game that invites curiosity and then celebrates it. Ask me why you should play Broken Age. I think you just got the answer.

+ Stunning art and animations that make your brain want to play
+ Voice acting talent is simply amazing
+ Orchestral score is catchy as fuck
+ Reminds you to ask why and reminds you to laugh
– Abrupt ending also makes you ask why but without an answer

Broken Age

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Broken Age – Act 1
Release: January 28, 2014
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Available Platforms: PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Ouya
Players: singleplayer
MSRP: $24.99
Website: http://www.brokenagegame.com/

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Nintendo and The Dour Prediction

Nintendo and the Dour Prediction

Sometimes the truth is undeniable. It’s raining. It’s dark out. Nintendo just isn’t the powerhouse it used to be. These are simply facts that we know because they’re observed to be true. I can see rain pouring from the overcast sky so it must be raining. The sun is down and the moon is out so it is nightfall. And Nintendo revised their yearly sales forecast from a 55 billion yen profit to a 25 billion yen loss so, well, you get it.

As it’s been for the past decade or so, though, Nintendo is a much muddier story than that. Look at the 3DS. It was the top selling console for both December and all of 2013 last year with a projected finish for the fiscal calendar at 13.5 million units. It absolutely crushed the PlayStation Vita, which apparently sold somewhere south of 95,000 units in December. (Yikes!)

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s absolutely abysmal for Sony but great news for Nintendo. They’re stomping their direct handheld console competition (mobile phones and tablets, however, are another discussion entirely). The Vita sold that poorly even with Sony aggressive tie-in marketing and development features with the newly launched PlayStation 4.

Nintendo 3DS

The 3DS released in February of 2011. It sold 13.95 million in 2012, and Nintendo revised the 3DS’s projected sales down to 13.5 million from 18 million. If anything, the company’s new sales forecasts do nothing more than take the 3DS down from the “holy cow this is some hot flapjack shit going on” range to “well, this is still doing pretty good” territory.

Unfortunately, Nintendo doesn’t only deal in 3DS sales. There’s also the big, white, dual-screen home console elephant in the room: the Wii U, which even anecdotally isn’t selling very well. How many of your friends do you know own a Wii U? And how many of those play it regularly? Exactly.

In this set of revisions, Nintendo reduced their Wii U projects from 9 million units to 2.8 million. For comparison, the Wii is similarly projected to sell 1.2 million (another downgrade from 2 million). That’s a significant drop, and more importantly, makes it easy to contrast success with treading water.

Wii U

The most telling figure is second year holiday sales. Every console takes a huge bump in the second year. Well, almost every console. Two notable exceptions are the Gamecube in 2002 when it went down 344,000 units (in the same year, the original Xbox went up 96,000) and the Dreamcast in 2000 when it went down 620,000 units.

Now the Wii U isn’t doing as terrible as those two historical train wrecks, but it is doing quite poorly. If you look at the November second year numbers, the Wii U dropped 210,000 units, which puts it in company with the Gamecube, Xbox, and Dreamcast, even though its second year holiday sales look to be about the same as its first year.

Henry Gilbert over at GamesRadar made a good point back in August. The Wii U mirrors the Gamecube in a number of significant ways: low console sales bolstered by handheld sales, handheld sales boosted by a Pokémon title, and a roster of impressive exclusives. But how is this not bad news? Well, think about the Gamecube now. For one, it gave us The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Metroid Prime, and many more amazing games.

Wii U

And more importantly, it adds evidence to the pile of things that proves that the industry moves in waves. Nintendo used to be the big dog, but then Sony came along with the PS2. Then Microsoft’s Xbox. And then Nintendo struck back with the Wii. And now we have a new generation to discover how it will all shake out.

Someone will always be on the ropes. That’s just how business works. Leisure-based consumerism is largely a zero sum game where one company getting money is just as good as taking it away from another. They are constantly fighting for your money and someone is always losing, just as someone is always losing. This is obviously bad news for Nintendo as they are currently the ones falling behind, but it’s not bad news for their existence. At least not yet anyways. It does all hinge on Nintendo pulling its own weight.

But I mean, jeez, it’s not like they’re Ouya.

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Her Most Interesting Question

Her Most Interesting Question

The most thought-provoking parts of Spike Jonze’s Her is also the weirdest. And know that this being a movie about a man who falls in love with an operating system, the bar for weird is pretty high. It’s strange, though, not in its content but because of its implications. Stranger than that, however, is that it might have been purely coincidental.

(First off, you should go watch Her. There aren’t any spoilers involved in this piece, but I just really think you should watch it. Besides, it will help illuminate some of the more specific references I make to the actual film.)

I mentioned it in the review, but I’m going to bring it up again because it’s central to the point I’m trying to make. In computer science, there’s this notion of a finite-state machine. This machine (in most cases, a computer) can only be in one state at a time, and given an input, goes to another state. Basically, for every “if,” there is a discrete and predictable “then.”

Her

Even random numbers from computers are only pseudorandom; they are generated by an equation based on a seed number. If you ever play a game that procedurally generates its levels or enemies or whatever and it asks if you’d like to supply a seed number, that’s what’s going on. It’s asking you for the genesis for all its randomized elements. A discrete and predictable output.

Save for cutting edge technologies like quantum-based devices, all computers operate as finite-state machines. We tell a computer what to do and it does it, but more importantly, we know what it will do and how it will do it because we can trace it as it goes from state to state. It’s like watching a much more elaborate and cerebral series of dominoes being tipped over.

It’s also one of the reasons why we’ve yet to properly emulate the human brain with the computers we have today. In terms of computation, the single most defining element to humanity is that we are (or at least bear the potential to be) irrational. Put quite simply, we make no sense.

Her

That is the basis for many relationships, or at least the seed for it. Love is an immensely irrational act. Amy Adams’ character in Her puts it like this: “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.” And she’s not wrong. Crushing on someone is chemically identical to a psychological obsession.

And truly, how many relationships do you know of that make sense? Superficially they may seem logical; two of your friends end up dating and getting married. They’re both smart, attractive, and charming. They share interests, they share ideals, and they share the capacity to love someone who isn’t him or herself.

But that’s all gravy. That’s just a handful of cherries on top of two scoops of Neapolitan nonsense. It’s much more important that somewhere along the line, they both had succumbed to some illogical jump from not loving this person to loving them. All that talk about finite-state machines? None of that here.

Her

That makes Her so interesting to think about. Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly falls for Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha. It doesn’t make sense in many ways: she has no body, she’s a collection of artificial intelligence subroutines from innumerable programmers, and she is legally not even a proper entity. (Philosophically, that’s another question; who are we to judge who falls in love with what or who?)

More notably, however, is the fact that his love is based on irrationality, and though we don’t know exactly what kind of computer Samantha is—obviously far more advanced than anything we have now—it still brings up the idea of the contrast that she is based on logic. Her affection for Theodore can be traced from beginning to end. From soup to nuts, we can see the inputs she takes in from the world’s collection of knowledge in combination with his actions and speech and see how Samantha arrived at loving Theodore.

It brings some interesting considerations in that light: at what point does love truly blossom? Is love inherent in a paired interaction or is it concocted through a combined, running total of meaningful exchanges? Really, this is a question of fate. Is there absolutely someone out there for each and every one of us or is the idea of “making something work” a viable one?

Her

It’s such an amazingly complex and layered question to ask, and in Her, it’s mostly an ancillary one. For the most part, I think it’s an examination of the validation of relationships based on electronic interactions like texting, Snapchat, MMO chatrooms, and, if you’re old-fashioned, e-mail. But there’s something else happening in Her that deserves consideration and it might not have even been entirely intentional.

I mean, Jonze doesn’t have a computer science degree, but the comprehension of the limitations of computers isn’t too hard to grasp or even discern on your own. That accessibility, though, lends itself to this thought experiment. The idea of what a computer can and can’t do is so easy to grok, but the concept of love is so incredibly vast and impossible to put properly into exhaustive words. That contrast forms the core of Her‘s most interesting question: is love discovered by a lonely, heartbroken man who writes letters for a living or created by an office building full of programmers and an internet connection?

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Her Review: That She Did Say

Her

Her is an exceedingly beautiful and real look at relationships and the inherent irrationality within. It picks apart the modern inanities of the courtship process as well as the clichés that tend to stick around because they’re so god damn true. Everything in the movie is geared towards making a point—from its cinematography to its writing to its tender actors—but then it goes about half an hour past its purpose.

In Spike Jonze’s latest, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly in some near future. He writes letters for people who simply can’t express their emotions in words the way he can. But he’s also a bit lonely. Recently beginning the process of divorcing his soon-to-be ex-wife Catherine, he spends his time playing video games and perusing Internet porn (in his words anyways; all we see is the video game part). That is until he buys into the hottest new tech, a learning, artificially intelligent operating system called OS One.

Or at least that’s the product’s name. Theodore’s OS in particular is named Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She starts out just reading his emails and asking him about his day, but as she learns and becomes curious of the world, he soon begins falling for her. She’s quirky, funny, smart, a little raunchy, and, most importantly, has fallen for him as well. They go on dates, they meet friends, and they even make love. They are, as far as they are concerned, a couple.

Because of this rather exotic setup, Her works best as 1) a pointed allegory about finding and trusting love, and 2) a thought experiment. For the latter, you have to consider computer science. AIs operate as finite-state machines, which to put it simply means that for every “if” there is a discrete and predictable “then.” It’s one of the reasons that emulating the entirety of the human psychology and general thought process is largely impossible at this point in time.

But it puts into stark contrast the idea of being rational and being emotional. Chemically, falling for someone is the same as becoming obsessed with them. It is, quite literally, an irrational act, something Jonze points out in a well written and, soon, often quoted line from Amy Adams. So you have to consider the logical, procedural nature of Samantha’s programming versus the human, random nature of Theodore’s heart. Who is right? Who do you sympathize with? It raises some interesting questions.

As for the allegory, it’s hard nowadays to find any relationship that isn’t based on form of connectivity. Even grandparents that had long sworn off the possibility of learning how to operate a computer beyond calling over their 12-year-old neighbor are mostly likely capable of sending a text asking, “HOW DO I FIND PEACH COBBLER RECIPES 🙂 🙂 :)”

Her

That kind of begs into question the validity of some of these friendships, especially the ones where the digital avenue is the only one that exists. To most of us that would consider ourselves the denizens of the Internet, it seems only natural that we wouldn’t have to justify the meaning behind a friend we’ve never seen but have exchanged millions upon millions of words, silences, pictures, videos, and dumb, silly links to dumb, silly websites.

But to many others, the equivalency between face time and meaning is the only one that exists. Jonze has decided to turn a lens on the question and says quite proudly (and quite rightly) that of course these friendships and crushes and deep loves are 100% legitimate. Those that question it are painted to be in the wrong, and the ones that openly accept it (an adorable child who finds it stranger that Samantha doesn’t live in an orange house and a friendly receptionist who doesn’t miss a beat after Theodore tells him he’s dating an OS) warm our hearts with their open eyes.

Theodore and Samantha don’t miss anything that human-to-human relationships get. They go out on random trips to the beach; they go out on long walks for no other reason than to talk; they cuddle. And we don’t miss out on anything either as the viewer. Much of the movie is nothing more than Phoenix in closeup and Johansson’s voice.

Her

The way the world blurs out and all we can see is Phoenix’s (stunning, emotive) eyes puts us in the shoes of Samantha, arguably the hardest part of the movie to sympathize with. But we get it; we’re not there next to him, but in any given moment, he’s all we can see. He’s all we know of this world, and that’s just how it is for Samantha as well. The understated landscape of future Los Angeles bokehs out into delightfully sprightly, hazy colors, and we see the world as love as made it for Samantha.

And while the supporting roles of Amy Adams as Theodore’s neighbor and Rooney Mara as ex-wife Catherine are portrayed so tenderly yet hard-edged, it can’t be stated just how well Phoenix and Johansson do in the lead roles. The vast majority of the film is spent looking into Phoenix’s eyes, and they are perfect for the role. Each one is a character. They become sad, they yell, they walk along the words Johansson lays out, and they live in each moment you see them. Of course, Phoenix himself also performs superbly, showing shades of anger, frustration, and affection that you would be hard-pressed to put into words let alone direct someone to emote.

Johansson is nothing more than a voice, but she fills her voice with such pregnant emotion that it makes you want to hug the screen. Her trademark smoky vocal breaks are applied in just the right ways, matching our breaking hearts when things take a turn for the worse and our irrepressible joy when things go right. She does sultry, playful, aggressive, angry, pointed, inquisitive, mysterious, flirty, forlorn, and so much more all with just her voice.

Her

The story eventually reaches a conclusion of sorts and resolves in the way you would expect…but it keeps going. It branches off into some more fascinating but tangential questions of intellectual gratification and its genesis between Samantha and Theodore (they are emotionally in sync, but she outpaces him severely when it comes to the ability to question and investigate the world around her). But they are just that: tangential. They stray from the finely hewn and gorgeous point Jonze spent the first 100 minutes making.

For all the immense beauty locked within the first three quarters of the film, the last bit splashes around in a puddle of philosophy that honestly feels like it should be in another movie, despite how equally thought-provoking and visually delectable it is. But for that to be the only obvious flaw to the film, it’s easy to see Her as the smart, emotionally aware, and modern tale of e-love and digital friendship that it is.

Her

+ Asks (and attempts to answer) many worthwhile questions about modern relationships
+ Has a point about human love and manages to say it
+ Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson make essentially a two-role film feel impossibly large
+ Shot beautifully and in a way that enhances the purpose of the movie
– Just a tad too long and tangential at the end

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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Saving Mr. Banks Review: In the Bank

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks is a movie-watching experience that parallels its own story. It goes from cold to foreign to awkward to an amenable turn to resolution. The actual content of the film is fine—hell, it is even exemplary—but it struggles precisely because its genesis: Mary Poppins (and her creator P. L. Travers) exists. If you have any fond, bucolic, sepia-toned memories of the book or the movie, then it will be difficult to see the quality imbued in Saving Mr. Banks.

The movie tells the story of how Walt Disney romanced the film rights to Mary Poppins out of author P. L. Travers and joy back into her life. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, has been holding out on signing over the ability to make her beloved character (and sole source of income) into a movie for fear it gets butchered, bastardized, and turned into an animated Disney travesty by Disney himself, played by Tom Hanks. With money low, Travers agrees to travel to Los Angeles to reopen initial negotiations for production and monitor pre production.

(Right off the bat, you should know that this is a largely fictionalized account of what truly happened, and that isn’t what’s being reviewed here. There’s already a documentary out there that accurately tells the story, including how the core conceit of the film is false; Disney already had the rights when Travers went to Los Angeles. Also, Disney didn’t stick around at all to win her over, Travers was a lively person, and she never found catharsis regarding the film. So ignore all that.)

Travers is a disturbingly cold person. She lives on her own in England and somewhat callously fired her maid after realizing her Mary Poppins royalties were drying up. And she seems to have terrible beef with everyone in the world, including a mother and child on the flight over to California, her friendly Disney-assigned chauffeur, and, especially, Mickey Mouse. She hates pears, her production team, and generally everyone and everything who isn’t her.

Ignoring the slightly obvious foreshadowing for emotional resolution, it’s hard to look past the immense ability for Emma Thompson to embody this cruel British spinster. She is cold in just the right way; she doesn’t push anyone down or away from her, but instead she just expects everyone to come up to where she is. It’s a nuanced flavor of mean that is hard to pull off, but Thompson does it with aplomb.

Similarly great is Tom Hanks, who somehow shows us yet another distinct shade of fatherly, amicable, and charming all wrapped up in a mustachioed package. When he is the Disney you see in old marketing footage—the legendary figure waving and smiling to the crowds and cameras—Hanks is great, but when he takes things down a dire corner, it is pretty fantastic. You can see his eyes flit about and consider his responses, not just recite lines.

Saving Mr. Banks

Truly, this is a film just stuffed with great performances. Paul Giamatti as the overly helpful and approachable driver for Travers is incredible at showing hidden pain; Colin Farrell changed my mind on what kind of actor he can be; and the young Travers by Annie Rose Buckley breaks your heart every time she loses her smile. Even the small roles like Disney’s secretary by Kathy Baker are done well.

Which is good news because the story has certain issues. The writing is actually quite good, but the beats to the story are a bit heavy handed. From the get-go, you can see where the story goes not just because you put two and two together about where Mary Poppins originated from but because the elements of hinting and elbow-nudging are just too on-the-nose.

The complexity of the beats, however, merits positive mention. For a Disney film, it goes in some rather dark places. Of course, it never ends up hitting the wall at the end of disaster, but it certainly takes longer than you’d expect for it to hit the brakes on the drama. It addresses many adult-child complications like relinquishing hurtful love and holding onto the good kind, letting emotions go freely when holding them out is easier, and childhood interpretations of trauma versus reality. It’s impressive.

Saving Mr. Banks

The single greatest problem, though, is the fact that Mary Poppins is a book and movie many people already know and love. If the character was completely fictionalized for this film, this would be a quick and easy review: great movie! But throughout the entire two-hour runtime, it’s impossible to forget that Disney is fighting for something you love and Travers is fighting to keep it from you.

This turns Travers into the villain for the majority of the film, inserting a strange division between the young Travers and the elder one. The internal conflict as a viewer makes for a confusing experience. It’s worsened when you consider that artistically, Travers is still the hero in the charge for defending auteurship by the creator. Disney wants to take something made by someone else’s hands, mold it in his own vision, and then sell it for his profits.

There’s a scene towards the end that cements the notion that this film is actually re-up of the industrialized notion that “Disney always wins.” It’s a heartwarming sight and makes you realize the emotional resolution Travers found was well worth the trip. But it also reminds you that there’s no point in fighting a media giant, a corporation so big it has its own city. But don’t worry! They’re friendly! They have a mouse with pants!

Saving Mr. Banks

If you can get past all that, then this is a great—maybe even terrific—film. It tells a delightfully grownup story through a cast of incredible actors and lets you tap into a part of your childhood nostalgia for Disney movies and characters you used to watch and love. But it’s that same emotional attachment that breaks the foundation of the movie. Saving Mr. Banks is a good film troubled by its own reality.

+ Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are amazing on their own but even better together
+ Tells a great story about some complex, adult issues
+ Funny, charming, and sprightly writing
– Doesn’t hide its corporate attachment
– Characterizations are warped by the fact that Mary Poppins already exists

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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