Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Year's Resolutions, 2012

It's hard to believe that we've reached the end of another year. For the most part, I'm happy to see it go: 2011 had more than its fair share of rough spots. Thankfully, through all the tumult, I still had video games and a forum in which to discuss them. It's nice to have a daily routine that is both structured and creative; something that keeps all the corners of my mind from gathering dust. In the spirit of staving off stagnation, I always take some time at the end of the year to reevaluate what I've been doing and what I'd like to do in the next three hundred and sixty-five days.

Now that I've done this for a few years, I can also see how I've kept up with some past goals. Last year, I resolved to broaden my horizons regarding the types of games I played. Additionally, I expressed my interest in venturing away from the major release track and exploring the independent and experimental game scenes.

Overall, I think this plan was a success: thanks to our periodic Indie game podcasts and a concerted effort to pay attention to lesser-advertised games, I was exposed to a pretty eclectic batch of games. Inside a Star-filled was an classic shooter with a philosophical slant. The Cat and the Coup was a pleasant adventure game and a much-needed history lesson. Don't take it personally, babe... reintroduced me to interactive-fiction and reminded me how terrifying high school is. A variety of other independent and browser-based games reminded me how varied the medium actually is and that innovation does not necessarily require millions of dollars and a huge R&D team.

In a way, this resolution may have been too successful: I still haven't played some of the biggest mainstream games of the year. Skyrim is no where on the horizon, Dark Souls has been passed by, and I just now started Skyward Sword. Within the next few weeks, I'm hoping to fill in the biggest hole in my 2011 release list: Portal 2. I played the first game over a year late, so I guess it's fitting that I neglect the second one as well.

All this brings me to my first resolution: to strike a balance between playing major releases and independent titles. Both spheres are important, but I'm still trying to figure out how to balance my attention between the two of them without swinging wildly between extremes.

My second resolution relates to another strange section of the video game landscape: Facebook. As regular readers and listeners know, Jorge and I have been exploring the weird world of Facebook games recently. Going in, I had the stereotypical prejudices of a "hardcore" gamer: Facebook "games" hardly deserved the title. They were unethical, get rich quick schemes that extracted time and money from players without giving anything back in return. However, after more than a month of experimenting with a small selection of games, I find some of my assumptions crumbling. It's been nice having some of my prejudices challenged, and I'm looking forward to articulating some of my findings in the coming months by both playing more Facebook games and giving them the critical treatment most non-social games get these days.

If this sounds like I've gone off the deep end and joined the cult of social games, fear not. My third resolution is squarely within the realm of "traditional" video games: I want to build a sweet gaming PC. I haven't had a PC capable of playing games since college (and the one I had then was still a clunker), so it's been far long. The advent of Steam and the indie scene's proliferation makes the PC the most versatile, democratic, and sophisticated gaming platform out there. All that being said, I'm somewhat anxious about the process: it's been a long time since I've assembled computer parts myself and the freedom you gain in the PC world often comes at the expense of a console system's reliability. It'll undoubtedly be an adventure, one I'll share with you all, regardless of how many things explode.

So there you have it: a quick recap of last year's goals and a few new ones to tackle in 2012. Now, I'll cede the floor: Do you have any video game related New Year's resolutions?

Thanks to everyone for visiting the site. Jorge and I look forward to seeing you in 2012 (assuming the Mayan apocalypse doesn't destroy us all)!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

EXP Podcast #153: Too School For Cool

Normally I try to think about high school as little as possible. But recently Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku asked us all to revisit our bygone days and think about high school as an interesting setting for videogames. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I put on our school colors and discuss our experiences with media set in high school and the trials and tribulations of our collective youths that might make us turn on our console to visit, of all places, our own high school experiences. We encourage you to read Kirk's original piece, which you can find in the show notes below. We also want you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Discussion starters:
- What games set in high school have interested you and why?
- What high school experiences lend themselves well to gaming?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 31 min 10 sec
- "High School Sucked, Can We Please Have More Games About It?," by Kirk Hamilton via Kotaku
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011 Runners Up

The year is coming to end. It is time to round up our top gaming experiences of 2011. Before I collect my personal favorites for the EXP Podcast or for PopMatters, I want to discuss three games that will not make my list, but nevertheless delivered some the best gaming moments I experienced this year.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

I have shared my thoughts on both the terrible feature creep plaguing Revelations and the interesting narrative directions Ubisoft took Ezio. The single-player portion of the game differs only slightly from its predecessors and manages to mostly satisfy when not playing the irritating tower-defense components of the game. The multiplayer, however, deserts a heaping amount of praise. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood introduced the groundbreaking game of deadly hide-and-seek in which assassin’s simultaneously hide amongst crowds of character models, some of which match their own, and stalk their prey through these same crowds, looking for the hint of bizarre movement that separates player from computer AI. I implore you: Play either Brotherhood’s or Revelations’ multiplayer game and experience one of the most interesting and unique competitive games available.

While Revelations keeps the formula relatively consistent, it does sharpen some of its features, such as refining player radar detection. It also features a traditional “deathmatch” mode, which removes the “hiding-amongst-AI-clones” element by giving players unique character models. I initially disregarded this mode as a hastily put-together addition. Now I realize it instead polishes the sensation of the hunt, requiring players use a sharp eye and quicker fingers to take down components who know exactly what the hunter looks like. Revelations might not make my short list, but its multiplayer remains as rock solid as ever and one of the year’s highlights.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Rocksteady’s superhero star came out in 2009, but I failed to pick it up until just a couple months ago, so forgive me for stating the obvious: good god Arkham Asylum is good. Batman is already a fascinating icon, and Rocksteady pulls few punches in treating the character as the troubled, mortal, and intelligent person he is. They also put so much care in character animations that I felt very much in control, embodying Batman perfectly. I felt more like Batman playing Arkham Asylum than I ever did dressing up as the caped crusader for Halloween. I was also enamored by the island mental institution and its brilliantly situated pathways through its ever changing landscape. I am incredibly excited to watch Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises, but not as as excited as I was to get my hands on Arkham City, which just might reappear again on a year-end list.


Considering I first played Minecraft in 2010, I am hesitant to list the game on my own Game of the Year list. However, its official release occurred this past month, and it would be remiss to ignore what is undoubtedly a groundbreaking and phenomenal experience because of its strange release history. My highlights in the world of Minecraft include frantic journeys through darkened forests looking for a trace of the signal fire above my base and wandering around an immense cave system, refusing to leave until I had lit every shadowed corner. I also spent several nights exploring multiplayer servers, most notably a scale model of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middlearth built by committed fans and, without a hint of sarcasm, digital engineers. Today I rarely explore the cubed world of Minecraft, but when I do, I spend days imagining possibilities, mapping out a gorgeous base, investigating the work of others, then becoming disheartened by all the beautiful contraptions and fantasy islands I will never create. Minecraft is a world of the imaginary that takes a surprisingly large effort to shape to ones liking, but its allure is everlasting. For that alone it deserves my attention as one of the best games of the year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gamer Gifting

The holiday season has arrived! Although PopMatters is taking the week off, I thought I would spend some time here anyway to chat a bit about gift giving and receiving. As geek afficianados yourselves, surely you have received all sorts of terrible "game-related" merchandise from well-wishing friends and family - a game for a console you do not own, Lego Harry Potter, or a pair of Mario themed undergarments perhaps. Everyone underestimates the difficulty of shopping for game related gifts for the nerds in their life for several reasons.

First, we probably already own it. Have you seen the Steam sales lately? You can purchase an entire studio's backlog of games for the price of a single game. With a new deal every day, I would be surprised if failed to buy more gifts for myself this year than for my family. Also, did you hear Steam was giving away a prize that would grant the winner every single game available on steam? Yes. You read that right. All the games. Also, with all the sequels that have come out, your gift givers will surely think you already own that Uncharted, Gears of War, Batman, etc. game.

Second, there are so many options. More importantly, most of these options look the same. Could your grandmother tell the difference between Brink and Rage? What about Dragon Age and Skyrim? Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3? We have said this time and again, but the industry does not make games accessible to outsiders particularly well. Even the games that stand out - L.A. Noire or Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for example - seem questionable from the perspective of someone who thinks all games feature soldiers or hopping Italians. If family member is going to blow sixty dollars on a holiday gift, they will want to be certain they are making a smart choice. You can imagine, then, why a Gamestop might scare them off.

Solutions? Create a wish list, Steam and Amazon perhaps. Nothing helps a shopper more than an detailed list of gift ideas. You could also request gift cards. With so many great indie titles and DLC packs, some XBLA cash goes a long way. Alternatively, ask your friends and family to donate money to Child's Play or another charitable organization of your choosing. Who are you kidding any way. Your backlog is big enough without adding another game to the docket. Why not share the gaming love by helping out those in need. Your last option, of course, is to acknowledge that kind thoughts from loved one's are more important. Besides, who doesn't love Angry Birds pajamas?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

EXP Podcast #152: Musings on Mandatory Missions

Long before the advent of Achievement Points, players have chased after goals. But are all tasks created equal, or are some more important than others? This week, inspired by Wired's two articles on mandatory missions every well-informed gamer should undertake, we discuss some of the game experiences that give us common ground. As always, feel free to jump into the comments and share your thoughts. Thanks for listening!

Discussion starters:

- What do you consider to be mandatory missions?
- Is the idea of a set of canonical video game experiences useful or realistic?
- How has time and technology affected what we would consider to be defining video game moments?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 34 min 07 sec
- "9 Mandatory Missions All Gaming Geeks Must Master," via Wired
- "Readers’ Picks of 9 Mandatory Gaming Moments," via Wired
- An interesting interpretation of Portal: "Still Live? She's Free?" by Steve Bowler via Game-ism
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Favorites from Recent Years

It's the time of year when everyone is either putting together "best of" lists or looking forward to 2012's releases. I'll be sharing my thoughts on both of these topics in the days to come, but today I'm going to slack off a little bit. The subtle, yet ever-present pressure to stay abreast of the latest releases is felt most acutely during the end of the year. Even so, I still can't help but come back to some of my favorites from recent years.

VVVVVV: It came out in 2010 and still manages to impress me every time I load it up. From a design perspective, it has some of the tightest, well-executed platforming dynamics of any 2D platformer. It's level design is inspired and the level editor lets you explore the game's surprisingly-complex dynamics. On top of all this, it's hard to find a more rocking soundtrack:

PixelJunk Eden: It's still my favorite PixelJunk game. Something about the mixture of intense skill challenges, ambient music, and psychedelic continually draws me back. It makes a certain amount of sense: the game is cyclical in nature. You start off by collecting a single spectra, build up to five, and then go back to one on the next level. You move by making wide, arcing jumps and spin in circles to collect points and time. I find myself looping back to the game every few months.

Vanquish: Another one of my favorite games from 2010. Despite it's fast-paced, chaotic environments, I find Vanquish strangely relaxing. Extremely precise controls and a heavy emphasis on tactics let's me achieve a flow state. When enemies attack, I know exactly what to do and how to do it. It's mixture of cover-based shooting and high-speed melee combat offers a compelling alternative to the Gears of War school of third-person shooter design.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii: New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a social game in the most traditional sense of the word. When people come over to my house, I still try to get them to play a few levels with me. Of course, playing NSMBW will test even the strongest relationships (I'm pretty sure "assault with koopa shell" is grounds for divorce in some states). Because of this, I usually play with my brother, as we are quite accustomed to each other's mischief. Our current mission is to get all of the end-game stars, which means finishing multiple playthroughs while achieving objectives like finding each star coin or dying a minimum number of times.

Looking back on this selection, I see a pretty accurate picture of my natural gaming proclivities. When I'm looking for video game "comfort food" I turn to skill-based games that test dexterity and quick thinking. I love games that take simple concepts and then iterate on them to find all their permutations. Apparently, it doesn't hurt if they do so in 2D perspective either.

The years have tendency to go by quickly, as do the games released each month. Sometimes it's nice to slow down in the middle of the year-end rush, revisit some modern classics, and savor the experiences that often get left behind. I'll go back to talking about recent games soon enough, but before I do, what are some of your favorites from recent years?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Shigeru Miyamoto's Working Retirement

This week's PopMatters post is about a topic both Nintendo and I don't want to think about: Shigeru Miyamoto's retirement.

I try not to get too involved in Internet kerfluffles, but last week's mini-panic about Miyamoto's possible retirement caught my eye. For one thing, it was interesting to see Nintendo's immediate response to people's reactions. Change is scary, and Nintendo knows it: the company was quick to reassure people that nothing was changing, that no one would ever abandon them, and that all was well in Neverland. It's unusual for companies to make such honest requests as "Please do not be concerned," but such public exhortations become more understandable when you consider that Nintendo's stock was actually affected by what was basically a joke Miyamoto made during his recent interview with Chris Kohler.

It's only natural to worry about the future of storied franchises like Mario and Zelda when you hear that their creator is stepping down, but things become less worrisome when you look at the bigger picture. For over a decade now, Miyamoto has been more of a consultant than anything else. Judging by his comments in the interview, Miyamoto appreciates the importance of this position, and is looking to both cede authority and mentor up and coming developers.

To hear Miyamoto talk about retirement is to listen to a man who sees an opportunity rather than an ending. He mentions that he would like to be more involved in the design process, make smaller games, and work with young developers. Sometimes, life is poetically cyclical: Miyamoto got his start in the arcades and gradually transitioned to big-budget console games. Now, as his exit from that scene approaches, arcade-style games have experienced a resurgence thanks to the downloadable and mobile spaces. The medium has never been more accommodating of small and experimental projects.

We may never get another Ocarina of Time from Miyamoto, but based on his comments, it seems safe to assume that he isn't planning on simply walking away from video games. His interest in pursuing smaller, more personal games and his dedication to mentoring the next generation of developers means that the medium will continue to benefit from his experience and creativity for years to come. Miyamoto's willingness to pursue unorthodox ideas was what made his games great. It seems fitting that his version of "retirement" holds the potential to carry on this innovative spirit. Miyamoto defined his generation of game designers in the 1980s and 1990s. Is it any surprise that he is trying to blaze a trail towards a new stage in life as he and his cohort approach retirement?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

EXP Podcast #151: We Got Next

No matter how many hours Scott and I spend playing, analyzing, and writing about games, there are still so many sub-cultures to which we remain largely ignorant. Competitive gaming, particular around the fighting game genre, continues relatively under the radar of both gamers and the public. I Got Next, a recently released documentary by first-time film maker Ian Cofino seeks to shine some light on the relationships players have with Street Fighter and its competitive gaming community. This week on the podcast, Scott and I discuss the movie, competitive gaming at large, and the fascinating community of Street Fighter players, friends, and rivals. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below. If you would like to watch the film before listening to the podcast, you can find a direct link to the Hulu source in the show notes.

Discussion starters:
- What are your experiences with competitive gaming?
- How might the competitive scene change if it were taken more seriously by the public? Is there something about gaming culture impeding its progress?
- What are your thoughts on the film?

To listen to the podcast:
- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 36 min 47 sec
- I Got Next, via Hulu
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The End of Ezio

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.

I am a long time fan of the Assassin’s Creed series, particularly its atmosphere and attention to detail. However, Desmond, the series protagonist, has barely piqued my interest in the slightest. Sure, I enjoy the mysteries of the Assassin brotherhood in modern times, and the always fabulous voice acting from good ol’ Nolan North, but the blank slate hero does nothing for me. Ezio, on the other hand, is actually a compelling character. After three back-to-back games with the Italian assassin taking the lead, I am ready for Signore Auditore to go, but I also have enough interest in the story to make sure Ubisoft manages his departure well.

Altair, the lead from the first Assassin’s Creed, received plenty of criticisms as a character. He comes off as shallow and uninteresting, and the sub-par voice acting did him no favors. Ubisoft surely took this precedent to heart when fashioning Ezio. From the beginning, Ezio has a family, love interests, siblings, and generally maintains clear motivations to pursue his work throughout. He also grows as a character through his three entries into the franchise - a startling departure from industry norms, I know. By the end of Revelations, Ezio retires from the franchise, and the Assassin lifestyle, with honor.

Ezio’s most interesting characteristic has been his understanding of the larger game narrative. He is not an unknowing avatar of Desmond. This fits very much into the series’ acknowledgement and inclusion of game tropes into the story. The user interface, the load screens, even player failure, all make sense within the narrative of the animus - Desmond’s, and by extension the player’s, entryway into the past. Assassin’s Creed manages to reveal the fourth wall without breaking it, wholly accepting “gamey” contrivances within the fiction of the world. Ezio plays his role within a larger narrative of which he is aware.

When the apparitions of the first civilization reveal themselves to Desmond through Ezio, for just a moment the game becomes incredibly meta. The creators of hidden secrets, the “designers” of Desmond’s fate, reveal themselves to Desmond, the “player”, through the intermediary of Ezio, the “character”. Assassin’s Creed is a story of a videogame character who becomes self-aware, knowledgeable of a secondary existence outside their own, a piece within some stranger’s personal story.

How does Ezio react? By continuing to fulfill his role. Ezio’s actions become more heroic when considering his relationship to Desmond/the player. It is rare to feel as though a character has agency outside the player without removing interactivity. Ezio, in a bizarre way, maintains a unique layer of self-awareness while also fitting naturally within the fiction of the Assassin’s Creed universe. At the end of Revelations, Ezio speaks directly to Desmond, aware that he is listening, and states “I am only a conduit for a message that eludes my understanding.” He recognizes his minimal role with a larger story that encompasses the entire series. As I sat on my couch, I heard Ezio speak, at least partially, to me. Setting the tools of his trade aside, Ezio departs the series not as an extension of my will, but as a compatriot on one leg of my journey as a player.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Logic and Illogic of Skyrim

My latest PopMatters article is now live: The Logic and Illogic of Skyrim

Until Skyrim, I had never played an Elder Scrolls game. Apparently I have been missing out on one of the most epic fantasy RPGs franchises available. I really did not enjoy my time with Fallout 3, so I had written off Skyrim initially. Then I started hearing stories. Early responses to the game barely scratched the surface of its actual mechanics and instead dished out amazing tales of encountering demigods in hidden corners of the world, or changing upon dwarven ruins while navigating the jagged rocks of looming mountain. Listening to people talk about Skyrim can feel like listening to people sharing legends. The logic of Skyrim can turn play into a mythological experience.

Allow me to describe the moment I was hooked into the world: It was my first time leaving the village of Whiteru. I had explored a nearby ruin before and explore the surrounding area superficially, but I had never strayed far from the safety of the town. In the dark of knight, I chanced upon an area full of steam vents and hot springs. I was elated and went splashing about the pools. When I looked up, I caught a glimpse of dark wings blotting out the stars and diving behind a tree. I felt as though I was being hunted, and a chill went up my spine.

I thought I knew what an open world could be. I was so, so wrong. Skyrim is so consistent and realized that it is hard to stay away. I find myself avoiding the main quest lines just to explore the world more and discover more hidden treasures. Sometimes I play specifically to undertake certain quests. Other times I just wander from town to town, hoping to encounter some strange mystery along the way.

Of course the game's many absurdities stand out, partially because everything else is so clean. Yes, I can put a bucket on someone's head and then rob their home without them noticing, and yes, sometimes dragon skeletons move of their own accord, rolling over themselves like an energetic puppy. I do my best to look away, to keep that fourth wall solid and impenetrable. Ignoring the game's most obvious blunders is not easy, but it is very much worth it. When I am truly lost in Skyrim, when I am fully immersed, it will take more than an glitchy dragon or a wandering head of cabbage to shake me out.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

EXP Podcast #150: First Facebook Forum

Admit it: You didn't think we would do it, did you? You thought all our talk of investigating Facebook games was brought on by too much turkey and an overabundance of holiday spirit. Today, Jorge and I are happy to present to you a conversation about our initial experiences with a handful of Facebook games. In addition to the games themselves, we discuss the nature of social games, monetization, and ethical design. As always, we look forward to hearing your thoughts and we invite you to join our experiment by befriending us on Facebook. Thanks for listening!

Here are our dedicated Experience Points Facebook accounts:

Jorge's account
Scott's account

Discussion starters:

- What are some of your favorite Facebook games?
- For those of you who play them, how do the social aspects of Facebook games influence your behavior while playing?
- What game genres are still underrepresented on Facebook?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking here. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 40 min 34 sec
- Games discussed
- Ravenwood Fair
- The Sims Social
- Hero Generations
- Dragon Age Legends
- PixelJunk Monsters
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Potential Ambassador

A while back, Jorge shared some thoughts on potential cultural ambassadors that could bridge the divide between video games and other media. When it comes to this topic, I'm usually of the mind that video games should send their stars outward instead of recruiting flag bearers from the outside. Having Martin Scorsese direct a video game might attract a few newcomers, but I think having Will Wright do the talk show circuit would raise more awareness for the medium in general. However, a recent podcast has me rethinking this opinion, at least as it pertains to one person: Guillermo del Toro.

I don't know much about del Toro's game, Insane (no one does yet). But after listening to the last two episodes of the Irrational Games podcast, I want to believe that del Toro is the real deal. Although he's best known for his directing and writing accomplishments, it at least sounds like he's taking the right approach to directing his first video game. Here are a few of the reasons why:

He Actually Plays Games

What a concept right? Actually, it seems like many film directors, including the ones who make movies based on games, don't have a huge amount of experience playing games. Del Toro is able to keep up with Ken Levine and Julian Murdoch, two sharp minds when it comes to games. He readily cites examples of his favorite moments in games and makes it clear that he's followed the medium for some time. This gives me confidence that he's aware of design trends and how players interact with game systems.

He Can Think Like a Designer

On a related note, one of my favorite bits from he conversation was del Toro's description of what he and his team do after designing a sequence in Insane. After constructing a sequence meant to convey certain themes and create a specfic experience, he asks "What would the asshole do?" Del Toro repeatedly acknowledges the unpredictable dynamics of player agency, which suggests he is thinking about story telling as a series of actions and reactions instead of a linear narration. No matter how hard you work to create an illusion in a game or funnel the player through a tightly controlled sequence, there will always be people looking to tweak the system. Every developer tackles this challenge in a different way, but it's reassuring to hear del Toro openly embracing it.

He's Enthusiastic

It's difficult not to become infected by del Toro's gusto. He's candid and outspoken about his successes and failures. It's easy for him to say that he's not simply stamping his name on Insane, but his past works and overall view of video games suggest that he wouldn't be doing this if he didn't truly care about it. Films like Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy were clearly labors of love, and much of his excitement regarding video games stems from the potential of the medium itself rather than his specific game.

In this regard, he sounds very similar to people like Ken Levine or Peter Molyneux, people deeply committed to their own games, but also to the craft of storytelling. Regardless of how successful Insane ultimately is, del Toro's philosophy gives me hope that it will at least be a very interesting game.

Del Toro isn't the most mainstream Hollywood figure, but after listening to his passion for video games, I have high hopes for his ability as a cultural ambassador. Judging by the sound of it, he's working hard to make sure anyone he introduces to video games for the first time has a valuable experience.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Brave Design in Ico

This week's PopMatters post is about some of the brave design choices in Ico.

I like playing an old game in the midst of new release season, because it helps put contemporary titles into perspective. Ico came out ten years ago, but many things about it still feel unique. I recently played through Ico again while reviewing The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection and was struck by how risky the game felt in retrospect.

I had forgotten how quickly you are thrown into the game. Without any kind of tutorial, the game simply starts and lets the player learn how to navigate through experimentation. The game requires constant action: the lack of automation and quicktime events means you're responsible for making every jump and for helping Yorda over the course of the entire game. In 2001, the move towards more tightly controlled, streamlined experiences was well under way. Today, a game without an explicit tutorial and heavy automation is almost inconceivable.

Most games go to great lengths to pursue the player's attention. Flashy special effects, huge set piece moments, and extensive dialogue are standard features in most games, but Ico takes different road. Ico manages to feel large in scope without trading in bombast. Many of its most striking features are tied to its subtlety: the castle's soundtrack consists largely of wind and birds. Creaky machinery and worn stonework quietly tell the story of the game's world. Ico and Yorda's relationship is built up mostly through actions. It shows a lot of faith in the player: instead of being fed a story, you have to look for one and interpret things for yourself.

It can be hard to find thoughtful, thematically challenging games outside of the indie scene. Part of this is understandable: if you don't hook a player and keep them hooked, there's nothing stopping them from switching to another game. In some ways, it's very understandable that games assist the player and constantly present them with new stories and plot twists; it's a crowded market and people have plenty of choices when it comes to spending their time and money.

Because of this Ico strikes me as a very bold game. It requires more active investment in everything from the jumping dynamics to interpreting the story. It may have paid for its eccentricity during its initial release, but its lasting reputation and subsequent re-release vindicates Team Ico's brave choices.