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January 2009

The Art of the Video Game - review


One sure way to confirm the popular culture appeal of pretty much anything these days is the appearance of a coffee table book on the subject. Video games are no exception, and while many books do a terrific job of presenting the artwork of individual games - my favorite is the gorgeous Ōkami: Official Complete Works - only a few have appeared which cover a broad array of games from a variety of publishers.

The latest is The Art of the Video Game by Josh Jenish, and I've written a short review of it for the Moving Pixels blog over at PopMatters.

If you're looking for good writing about video games, you'll find plenty of it at Moving Pixels, by the way. Mike Schiller writes/edits the site under the PopMatters umbrella, L.B. Jeffries is a regular contributor, and you can't go wrong with either. PopMatters is one of the oldest and best online magazines devoted to cultural criticism, and I always feel priviledged to publish reviews there.

The Art of the Video Game review.

The spoiler ball and chain

Midna I love reading and writing about games, and it's a privilege to be part of a maturing movement that continues to broaden its scope and sharpen its critical eye. It's no longer difficult to find intelligent writing about games. As Clint Hocking pointed out recently after perusing the blogosphere for critical analysis of games, "we have arrived."

As we mature, we inevitably examine our methods, and in that spirit I'd like to propose a small change in the way many of us write about games. I think it's time to renounce spoiler paranoia. I think it's time we collectively agree to write about games as whole, complete entities that require us to consider them as such. I think it's time we say to our readers, "I'm writing about this game, so you should assume I'm writing about the whole game;" instead of, "I know a bunch of you haven't played this game yet, so I'm going to write about it without spoiling anything for you."

Purposely excluding plot or character details from our reviews and criticism needlessly limits our ability to write comprehensively about them. It seems to me we've painted ourselves into a collective corner by adopting a de facto standard that avoids "ruining" games for players. As a result, many of us have come to assume we are expected to maintain this persistent vigilance as if it were an inviolable contract between us and our readers.

I initially intended to argue that video game reviewers and critics need to behave more like their counterparts who cover books, films, and plays. These writers never worry about spoilers, so why should we? It's a decent argument, but it also reinforces the infantilizing notion that someday our little games will grow up to be culturally respectable like their brethren in the other arts. We should abandon our spoiler vigilance not because The New York Times doesn't fret about spoilers. We should drop it because it's the right thing to do if we intend to write about games freely, without self-imposed barriers.

So am I saying spoiler-alerts are a silly waste of words? Of course not, and I can certainly understand why it's important to alert readers in a discussion forum, for example, if you intend to reveal plot details other readers may not want to know. In certain online environments, this sort of respectful behavior makes sense because what's happening in those environments is a shared conversation that no one owns. If we're discussing our excitement about the new Prince of Persia, for example, and someone pops in and says (OK, here comes an ACTUAL SPOILER) "Hey, did you know Elika kicks the bucket at the end?" - certainly under these circumstances it makes sense for people to insist on spoiler alerts. I can also easily see the value of a "spoiler-free" game review policy for a site that wishes to explicitly offer such a thing to its readers.

If writers wish to avoid spoilers, or announce them every time they occur, who am I to say they shouldn't? But they should not be expected to do either. I don't mean to propose any hard and fast rules here; I'm simply suggesting we challenge the prevailing games writing and reading culture that says spoilers must be avoided at all costs. I say it's time to ditch this ball and chain once and for all.

The pig's with me

Peyj11 Yesterday I wrote about the character design choices that color the presentation of Jade in Beyond Good & Evil. Her appearance and animations separate her from stereotypical depictions of women in other video games; and the opening sequences establish her spirituality, nurturing instinct, and bravery. We also discover she's broke, she runs an orphanage, and she's a professional photographer. Not bad for the first few minutes of the game.

This is all useful information, but it's still mostly exposition designed to communicate the facts we need to know about our protagonist. Bits and pieces of Jade's personality emerge in this opening segment (and I confess I was already smitten by this point), but good writers know that characters are best revealed through their relationships with other characters. Nowhere in the video game universe is this more true than in Beyond Good & Evil.

As I wrote a few months ago, my affection for Jade has less to do with her appearance or personality than with her devotion to the orphans in her home and, especially, her warm, playful relationship with Pey'j, an anthropomorphic pig she calls her uncle. We learn more about Jade's true nature through these interactions than from any of the investigations or action sequences in the game.

When Pey'j first appears in the game, we hear him yell "Hang on, Jade, I'm comin'!!" as he bursts through a window to rescue Jade from the clutches of a monster. But he doesn't rescue her. Instead, he creates a diversion that enables Jade to escape. She must fight and destroy the monster herself while Pey'j encourages her (meanwhile teaching the player a useful maneuver).

The crusty Pey'j can't fight or get around like he used to. Battling with Pey'j at her side, Jade must not only defeat enemies, but also protect Pey'j. He needs her to survive, and the fact that they both know this without ever speaking of it adds a subtle empathetic dimension to their relationship. Pey'j is a proud character ("Maybe this old pig can't fly, but he's still got a bounce in his step."), and Jade skillfully helps him without making him feel dependent. After all, he's still pretty handy with a wrench.

As I noted a few months ago, I can't think of a moment in any game that grabs me more than when Jade hears Pey'j being attacked by soldiers and races to rescue him. The game cuts between shots of Pey'j being brutally beaten and Jade running in slow motion, helplessly hearing him receive each blow, desperately trying to reach him and ultimately failing to do so. The game has successfully earned our empathetic response by this point, so the scene avoids feeling cheap or manipulative. It's not an interactive moment - unlike a similar one that occurs in Fable 2 with Hammer and her father - but it still packs quite a punch.

Jade and Pey'j's relationship purposefully reverses the one we find in Half-Life 2, for example. Alyx and Gordon function as a team, much like Jade and Pey'j, but in HL2 their interactions tell us more about the NPC Alyx, than about the ever-mute avatar Gordon. The deeper we penetrate the story, the more we discover about Alyx: her past, her skills, and her personality. The same might be said about Link and Midna in Zelda: Twilight Princess. But Beyond Good & Evil reverses this arrangement, revealing ever more details about Jade's true nature based on her selfless actions on behalf of Pey'j (and later Double H), and her affectionate behavior with him. In this case, the sidekick reveals the hero.

Finally, I think it's worth mentioning that Jade and Pey'j work as a cooperative team in ways that also enhance the gameplay elements of Beyond Good & Evil. Plenty of games have employed sidekick characters that assist the hero in solving puzzles or overcoming environmental obstacles. Part of BG&E's unique charm is how it engages these two characters in dungeon challenges that deliver both gameplay and narrative rewards. Jade and Pey'j communicate their relationship to the player at the same time they are overcoming these obstacles. The recent Prince of Persia game (also by Ubisoft) attempts something similar, but more ambitious, in the gameplay/narrative depiction of the Prince and Elika...with mixed results.

There's more to say about Jade (hope I'm not overstaying my welcome here), and I'll return in a few days with more on how she evolves through the game. I'll also offer a few thoughts on what I see as missed opportunities in the game's depiction and in the player's interaction with Jade and the world she inhabits. But first I need to play some more. Now where did I park that hovercraft?

Here's Jade

Jade222 When Jade first appears in Beyond Good & Evil the camera sweeps down from the trees to discover her sitting in a lotus position on a large rock overlooking a lake. Next to her sits a small humanoid child. They are meditating.

Our view cuts to a close-up of Jade's closed eyes and lingers there. Suddenly, she senses danger and her bright green eyes open wide. The sky darkens and grows ominous. "They're coming!" she says, and her attention turns immediately to the child: "Quick, Fehn! Jump up," she exclaims, and the small boy (or possibly girl) jumps on her back and wraps his arms securely around her shoulders.

Jade runs toward the safety of the lighthouse where they both live. On the way, the action freezes and Jade is captured in a rapid-fire sequence of black and white camera shots. On the final freeze-frame the word "Jade" appears, and we know we have met our hero.

I can't think of another video game that communicates so much about its main character so quickly. Jade's peaceful, contemplative nature is conveyed, if only briefly, as is her willingness to act decisively to protect the child in her care. She is a photo-journalist, and the game captures her in much the same way she captures the stories she pursues: candid, in-action, on-the-go photographs. The beautiful world she inhabits and the colorful art style chosen to depict it are both underscored by a flute playing a lilting, faintly Asian melody. All of this atmosphere contributes to a presentation of Jade that suggests simple beauty and quiet spirituality.

We soon learn much more about Jade when the game hands control of her to the player. But before that happens, it's worth considering the game's presentation of Jade's appearance. A couple of years ago Chris Kohler at Wired wrote a story called "Jade Is Black?!": Racial Ambiguity in Games" in which he reported on the confusion among gamers regarding Jade's race. Some people think she's black; others think she's Asian; yet others see her as Latina. Conversation over the last few days on the VGC continues to reflect a range of interpretations. Kohler believes designer Michel Ancel purposely designed Jade as racially ambiguous to enable players to project whatever they choose on the character.

That may be true, but Jade's race is only one part of her presentation, and it's clear that Ancel and his designers decided to present a female protagonist that defies many of the visual tropes we've come to expect from video games. Jade's teensy waist, exposed midriff and somewhat oversized breasts (I'm on shaky ground here, but they seem so to me) conform somewhat to stereotype; but her green lips, boyish hair, utilitarian clothes and equipment strapped across her body distance her from all that. Voiced by Jodie Forest, she speaks matter of factly in a decidedly non-breathy, non-exotic, non-sexualized manner. In other words, she sounds like a regular person. Her animations contribute to this overall impression. She walks, runs, climbs, and jumps efficiently and with great athleticism. Jade is her own woman, comfortable in her own skin, and not at all interested in striking a pose for others' approval.

She's a skilled fighter too, and her combat animations are subtle, varied, and easy to control. I find it telling that combat is a breeze in Beyond Good & Evil, but taking photographs can be difficult. Fighting requires little skill beyond hitting the A-button (I'm playing the Gamecube version), but taking a good photograph requires precision, careful positioning, and a bit of luck with your subject. In other words, taking pictures is more interesting than fighting in Beyond Good & Evil, and that seems appropriate given the nature and sensibilities of its hero.

We learn even more about Jade in this opening segment of the game. We learn she can't pay the electric bill. We learn she runs an orphanage with a menagerie of children and animals that have become her family. We learn she loves them all, homo sapiens and "capra sapiens" alike. And we learn that she's teaching these children how to care for each other. If you take the time to wander around the lighthouse and grounds before setting off on the first mission, the game continues to flesh out Jade's character, contextualizing why she must take on these dangerous missions and what's at stake for her.

And we also get a small taste of her relationship with Pey'j, a pig-like creature she calls her uncle. This relationship, which I'll explore tomorrow, goes a long way toward making Jade a fully 3-dimensional character the likes of which few video games can match. I'll explain why I think that's so and continue to explore the game's presentation of Jade in my next post.

Character Close-up: Jade


I'm launching a new recurring series here on Brainy Gamer called Character Close-up. I intend to carefully consider selected characters from narrative games in an effort to better understand how they convey meaning to us through their design, presentation, storytelling, and interactive relationship with the player.

I've focused on characters here many times, but never in a truly sustained way that tracks the arc of a character through an entire game. Don't worry, I'm not interested in recounting a blow-by-blow account of plot-points so much as chronicling a character's path through a game, taking into consideration the ludic, narrative, and aesthetic elements of that journey.

As is often the case with video games, we're all figuring out how to do this as we go along (which is half the fun, I think). Artists and scholars have well-honed tools for analyzing characters in books, plays, and films; but we continue to invent, borrow, and modify the tools and language needed to carefully scrutinize video games. Part of my effort is to see if I can help advance that ball a bit farther down the field - without drowning myself in jargon or academese. Mixed metaphors there. Sorry.

I've chosen as my first subject: Jade from Beyond Good & Evil. Jade's stature has continued to grow among gamers in many circles, and she is routinely listed among the best video game characters of all time. She's a smart, intrepid photo-journalist who busts open conspiracies and rescues orphaned kids. She even meditates. Five years after she first appeared, Jade still stands out from the crowd. She was a breath of fresh air to me back in 2003, and I'm eager to give the game a closer look to understand why. Perhaps, with dozens more games under my belt, I'll perceive her differently now. We'll see.

For my first time out, I'll be assisted by the members of the Vintage Game Club. We began our playthrough of Beyond Good & Evil today, and I'm sure I'll learn a great deal from the many informed opinions I always discover there. If you'd like to join us, please feel free to pop over and sign up. We'd love to have you.

I hope you will find this project interesting and useful. As always, I value your comments and feedback...especially on a series that I'm sure will evolve as I go along. I'll return tomorrow with some thoughts on Beyond Good & Evil's expositional presentation of Jade in the early stages of the game.

Gamer Pozole

Mexican_pozole The holidays have come and gone, and the tide of enthusiasm for games given and received has mostly ebbed. People in my family generally expect to receive games from me, and I'm always happy to oblige. Since my family is scattered far and wide, I especially enjoy giving DS games because I know these will be played as we all make our ways back home. We are surely Nintendo's dream consumer family.

But this was a bleak holiday season for new DS games, and I found myself stretched to find good gift options for folks that have become, whether they realize it or not, savvy casual gamers. In the end, when it came time to choose one for my wife, I took a leap of faith and gave her a game that isn't a game at all: Nintendo's Personal Trainer: Cooking.

And guess what? It's probably the best purchase I made. In fact, it's the only "game" I bought before Christmas that we're still "playing." Why? Because it's terrific. Personal Trainer: Cooking has modest goals, but it achieves them so cleverly and elegantly that I consider it a model of user-interface design. It's a cookbook that fully exploits its digital, portable, interactive leap.

Am I really posting an analysis of a glorified recipe collection? You bet I am. The best way to do this, I think, is to focus on a specific dish and consider how PT:C delivers the experience I'm describing. So join me, won't you, for the creation of a delectable Pozole (spicy pork and corn soup).

Ptc3 You begin by choosing a dish, and PT:C offers several ways of sorting through its 245 recipes, including by country, ingredients, requirements (cooking time, calories, difficulty, etc.), or keyword search. I chose Mexico and was presented with a side-scrolling bar of small photos of various dishes. Choosing Pozole on the bottom screen causes a larger picture to pop up on the top screen with additional info (70 min. cooking time; 330 calories). Tapping the small photo again brings up cultural details on the dish and how it's typically served. Nice.

Once you've confirmed your selection, you're offered several optional top screens of "tips and advice," which in this case very helpfully recommends other options if Ancho chilies are unavailable in your area. Beneath these options are choices to start cooking: 1)View ingredients, 2)View steps, and 3)Cook. You can also tap "Notes" to enter any recipe-specific info you like on a separate savable screen.

Tapping "Ingredients" takes you to a bottom screen with a list of, yup, ingredients and required utensils (tapping each produces a corresponding photo on the top screen). If you don't have certain ingredients on-hand, you can tap the checkbox next to each, and PT:C will generate a smart shopping list that's accessible from the main screen of the game. If you change the number of servings you want (also available on this screen), PT:C will automatically adjust your shopping list accordingly. I love the way all these elements mesh together visually, and PT:C was clearly designed with a cook's workflow in mind.

Clicking on "View Steps" opens a bottom screen that lays out each preparation step (Cutting the corn, Cutting the onion, Peeling the garlic, etc.) - with helpful photos of each appearing on the top screen - followed by each cooking step, broken down into specific actions ("Making the soup" consists of "Pour in the stock," "Add the vegetables," etc.). You can skip past any of this you wish. PT:C is clearly designed for absolute beginnners, but seasoned chefs needn't get bogged down in all these details.

Ptc Once you've got everything assembled and ready to go, PT:C shifts to a very different mode. It assumes you'll need to be hands-free at this point, so the DS mic is enabled, a small floating chef's head appears, and you are told to get out your cutting board and kitchen knife. From here your little chef buddy talks you through each step of preparation. Clear photos appear to show you what you should be doing (videos also accompany other recipes), and all the fonts and button sizes grow larger to account for the fact that you'll be working away from your DS. Speaking "continue" into the mic advances you through each step. Certain steps include a "More Details" option, such as how to properly peel garlic, if you need specific help. You can also say "repeat" or "last step" if you want to hear something again or return to a previous step.

Little details like coloring all the measurement units green and special instructions red help you quickly distinguish important information. PT:C also lets you know how many steps you've completed and how many more you have left. A small "Cooking A-Z" button is always available on the bottom screen for things like tips on chopping and cutting and utensils.

After all the prep is complete and the soup is on its way, it's time to simmer the pork for 40 minutes. At this step, a "Show timer" option appears in the top right corner of the bottom screen. Selecting it allows you to start the timer, already set for 40 minutes. You're then returned to the prep screen where you can continue with the Ancho chilies. A small bubble with the remaining simmering time now appears in the bottom corner of the top screen, so you can keep an eye on it as you continue. When it expires, an alarm alerts you no matter where you are in the program.

Finally, PT:C walks you through finishing the dish and properly serving the cooked vegetables, pork, and soup ladled on top. Garnish and it's ready to eat. In typical Nintendo style, a steaming photo of your finished Pozole appears accompanied by applause and colorful confetti.

If you'd like a cool, nifty twist on the standard cookbook, Personal Trainer: Cooking could be right up your alley. But I think this particular "Touch Generations" title has other, less obvious, value too. If you're a gamer interested in well-designed user-interface and content delivery systems on gaming devices (the many comments left on my previous post suggests there are lots of us), you may discover this "game" is just your dish. Bon appetit!

Forgotten fingers

Fingers We typically measure the success or failure of game controls by their effectiveness at facilitating the player's interactions with a game. We describe them with words that convey their tactile nature: smooth, fluid, tight, floaty; and we tend to value systems that make immediate sense to us, labeling them familiar, intuitive, or user-friendly.

Seen within the larger context of game mechanics, the experience of manipulating an avatar - swinging a sword, leaping over a chasm, aiming and firing a gun, or simply moving a dot around on a screen - delivers the kind of deep visceral pleasure that we have yet to fully explore or appreciate, in my view. Something basic and primitive about this experience satisfies us in ways that are hard to explain, even though we've been pressing buttons and gripping joysticks since Asteroids and Space Invaders.

The games that succeed best in this regard separate themselves from those that don't, and they do so more significantly than via any other differences we might consider. In other words, with few exceptions, a game that tells a decent story with lousy controls is dead in the water. People tell me Kane & Lynch has a cool offbeat story, and I'm normally just the guy for such a game, but 30 minutes with those controls sent me screaming into the wilderness.

I've been trying to figure out what, exactly, I prize about the controls of games like Defender, River City Ransom, Super Mario Bros. 3, Jet Set Radio, Halo, Wii Bowling, Rock Band, and Geometry Wars II. Vastly different games, but all deliver a feeling of "just right" to me. Of course, this feeling (and it really is purely non-intellectual) lasts for only the brief moment I stop to consider it. Ultimately, I suppose the best praise we can lavish on a game's controls is to say, "What controls?" We forget about them because they're designed to be forgotten.

But I'm trying not to forget them here because I think the subject is worth thinking about. Developers clearly continue to grapple with game mechanics and interfaces, both of which must be accessed by the player in ways that make sense and feel right.

So what distinguishing features do good game controls share? Words like "responsive," "intuitive," "precision," "feedback," and the old reliable but nebulous "feel" get close to it, I think. But they don't quite capture everything I experience when I'm playing a great game that controls like a dream. It's times like these when I feel the limits of language most acutely.

If I get right down to it, games with great controls render the distance between my hands and the game almost nonexistant. It's as if I'm both inside and outside the experience: outside with my eyes gazing at a screen I can never quite forget. But inside with my hands holding a controller or touching a keyboard I always forget. Manipulating not only my avatar, but often also my point of view. I am the eyes of a man or woman and also the eyes of a camera.

I am a runner. I am a guitarist. I am a deadly shooter; nimble, fast, accurate - all on instinct, impulse overriding thought. All enabled by fingers pressing buttons; fingers long-forgotten once the games begin.

Vintage Game Club: Beyond Good & Evil

BGE_ART_05 The members have spoken, and the next title up for the Vintage Game Club is Beyond Good & Evil. "For centuries, the planet Hillys has been locked in conflict with a race of relentless alien invaders. Wary of her government's promises to repel the aliens for good, a rebellious action reporter named Jade sets out to capture the truth behind the prolonged war."

As I've pointed out in the past, we all have busy lives, so the club requires nothing but your interest to join. If you decide to start a game with us, but can't continue it - or if you post a comment but can't return to follow up, no big deal. The club is just a framework for bringing us together. Join in, drop out, come back...whatever. We're here to have fun and broaden our knowledge and awareness of important games.

A few details:

  • When do we start? - Sunday, January 25. That should give everyone a chance to get their hands on the game. PC users can purchase it from Direct2Drive, Steam, and GameTap. The game is also available for Gamecube, PS2, and Xbox (not 360-compatible, unfortunately).
  • How will it work? - We'll try to play together at roughly the same pace and post our thoughts as we go along. Post daily, weekly, every once in awhile - whatever works for you. We will organize the forum threads so they flow in a way that reflects the unfolding of the game. We hope these posts will look more like a conversation and less like a series of disconnected comments.

If you've never played Beyond Good & Evil, now's the time to give it a whirl. If you've already played the game, feel free to jump in and lend a bit of your expertise to the discussion. All are welcome.

The Vintage Game Club

Into the dark

In the last game we met Drake under special circumstances. Almost immediately he was called to rise above his normal nature and be a hero. But we hinted there were shadier sides to him. In this game we want to explore that...We want the player to see the contradictions. He’s affable and charming, but he can also be a jerk. I don’t want to imply we’re getting heavy and angsty...but we really want to show a character with more colours to him. --Naughty Dog creative director Amy Hennig on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves [1]

Frozen drake The January issue of Edge Magazine features a cover shot of Uncharted's hero Nathan Drake, bedraggled and unshaven with sunken eyes and cuts on his face and arms. The accompanying article describes developer Naughty Dog's effort to "go deeper into Drake and see what makes him tick." [2]

This got me thinking about depictions of video game heroes and the seemingly inevitable trajectory towards darker, grittier renditions when they reappear in sequels. Many games assume, correctly I think, that when we return to a character we've seen and played before, we want to know more about who that character is on the inside.

Not every character requires such exploration - I'm pretty sure I know all I want to know about Mario and Luigi's sibling relationship - and sometimes the "go deeper" treatment needlessly muddies the water with little impact on the player. Rockstar's decision to feature a decidedly unhip, unglamorous (some would say sociopathic) Niko Bellic as the hero of GTA IV added a psychological dimension to the character, but from a striclty role-playing perspective, I preferred the less-defined (and less contridictory) presentation of CJ in GTA San Andreas. I'm probably in the minority on that one.

This trajectory into the dark can be explored from several interesting angles, but for now I'll focus on only one: the visual evolution from lighter, mostly straightforward depictions of heroes to their darker, more brooding, and often more stereotypically masculinized transformations. The fact is, most serialized video game heroes grow angrier, more muscle-bound and generally appear more malicious or disaffected.

Why that is and what it all means is a subject for another post. For now, I'll just assemble the images in hopes of stimulating discussion. What impressions do these images convey? Can you think of others that belong in this gallery; or characters that defy my thesis?

Ratchet and Clank
Ratchet and clank 1         Ratchet 2/

Ryu (Street Fighter series)

Super_SF2_Ryu              Ryu2 

Jak and Daxter
Jak and Daxter 1

Prince of Persia
PoP1          PoP2

Link (The Legend of Zelda)
Link WW          Link2 TP

Sonic 1          Sonic2

Advance Wars
Advance wars 1 box            Advance wars 2 box

Nathan Drake (Uncharted)
Uncharted 1          Uncharted 2

Sam Fisher (Splinter Cell) - variation on a theme?
Samfisherref1           Splinter Cell 2-1

Courtesy of reader suggestions:

April Ryan (The Longest Journey / Dreamfall)
April1            Aprilryan_2

Ethan Thomas (Condemned series)
Ethan1          Ethan2

The invalidation game

Argument I don't know about you, but I find myself increasingly drawn to the online conversation that inevitably arises in response to new game releases. Whereas I used to hit the standard assortment of review sites to get a sense of the critical reception to certain games, lately I'm more likely to lurk around places like the Escapist forums and NeoGAF for my daily fix of info about new games.

Things can get a little unruly on these sites, and the chatter tends to splinter off in all directions. And, yes, the snarky blowhard guy makes frequent appearances. But despite these distractions, plenty of thoughtful people hang around these places and contribute valuable observations. Most of the time these remarks stimulate a flurry of posts from gamers with enough passion, experience, and intelligence to sustain a fairly useful analytical discussion.

The recent discussion of Crayon Physics Deluxe on the Escapist forums, for example, features comments by L.B. Jeffries, Russ Pitts, Jordan Deam, and Susan Arendt - all writers whose opinions and observations are well-reasoned and respectful to other points of view. The willingness of the Escapist staff to jump into these conversations signals to readers that a posted review (in this case written by Deam) is really just the start of a broader conversation that will include the reviewer and gamers interested in pursuing issues raised by the game. The fact that you're here reading this now means you're probably keen on this whole "thoughtful conversation" thing too. :-)

Not all discussion forums work like this, however (surprise!), and when they don't it's usually because people fall into the trap of playing the invalidation game. This pernicious little game has a way of stifling conversation and turning analysis into defensive posturing and personal attacks. Even a simple charming game like Crayon Physics Deluxe can become fodder for purveyors of the invalidation game. How? Like this: First, something or someone must be invalidated. In the case of CPD, the game itself becomes the target. "It's not a game, it's a *#% toy. Why should I waste my time playing with a toy that offers me no challenge?" [1]

The question of how to classify CPD is actually an interesting one worth pursuing. I personally think it functions elegantly as both a game and a toy (as many great video games have done), but if you begin the conversation by defining the game in strictly negative terms and then reject the game on those very terms, you've basically invited a series of defensive responses from people (like me) who believe the very "toyness" of the game is its greatest asset.

"If you want to play with crayons, then get out your crayolas and coloring book. We don't need more games like this. If you want to play with physics, then go play Portal or grab your HL2 gravity gun." I don't need to unpack this one. The player is invalidated; the game is invalidated; the designer is invalidated. And, most likely, this response will itself be validated by other haters egged on to pile on. I've never quite understood the hostility some people bring with them to online forums. It's not enough to disagree. The enemy must be destroyed and, better yet, humiliated.

I promised to share a few thoughts on Crayon Physics Deluxe today, but I got derailed by a little surfing tour that I found disappointing (and illuminating). CPD is a terrific little game - not earth-shattering, not a towering achievement, not World of Goo - but a good game nonetheless that offers more puzzle-solving freedom than some players seem to want. Perhaps more than the game itself, CPD's design raises some interesting issues about how games work and what we expect from them. This is a conversation well worth having, but only if we can steer clear of the invalidation game.

1. I should point out that this "quote" and the one that follows it are amalgamations of comments I discovered from various places online. I've chosen not to link to them directly because I have no interest in sending traffic those ways. If you're looking for online vituperation, you'll have no trouble finding it on your own. ;-)

The crayon trail


One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight...He made a long straight path so he wouldn't get lost. And he set off on his walk, taking his big purple crayon with him. --Harold and the Purple Crayon

Crayon Physics Deluxe designer Petri Purho cites the classic children's book, Harold and the Purple Crayon, as an inspiration for his wonderful new game. It's a nice homage, and the connections between the two are easily seen. But as Purho freely admits, he hadn't read Harold while working on the game; "but I knew the plot and the magic crayon."[1]

The real inspirations for CPD suggest a fascinating design-influence circle that accounts for why, to me at least, CPD functions as a perfect companion to one of my favorite games of last year: World of Goo. Sure, both are physics-based games, but so was Spacewar! back in 1962. It's possible to find more precise and more interesting connections.

Purho credits Armadillo Run (2006) as his primary influence on the physics puzzle aspects of CPD's design.[2] In Armadillo Run the player builds structures in order to transport an armadillo to a specific location on the screen. The realistic physics simulation frees the player to identify multiple solutions for each level, from simple mechanisms to Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions.

Bridgebuilder Armadillo Run designer Peter Stock has cited Bridge Builder (2000) as a game that helped inspire the construction elements of his game. [3] Bridge Builder challenges the player to design bridges to allow a train to pass over chasms while sustaining as little damage as possible and staying within a fixed budget. Like Armadillo Run, the game encourages the player to explore a variety of creative engineering solutions.

Which brings us back to World of Goo and its opening chapter level entitled, appropriately, "Ode to Bridge Builder." Our tidy little design circle is complete, at least for now. The momentum behind physics-based puzzle games is strong and growing on all platforms, including devices like the iPhone. I have a feeling this circle will only get bigger.

WorldOfGooBuilding Of course, artistic roots rarely grow from single sources. World of Goo isn't merely the product of Bridge Builder and Armadillo Run. There's a bunch of Worms and Lemmings crawling around in there too. And Crayon Physics Deluxe, as Purho happily attests, also owes part of its existence to Braid. Which leads us back to not only Super Mario Bros., but also to literature (Calvino) and film (The Matrix)...and I'm just going to stop right here, or before long I'll be talking about Master Chief and the Iliad, and such things are better left to others. :-)

Tomorrow I'll return with more on why I think Crayon Physics Deluxe is such a successful game.

Unlock the door


A colleague whose office is next to mine mentioned a few weeks ago that he intended to buy Wii Music for his family to play over the holidays. I saw him this afternoon and asked if he was enjoying the game. "Yes," he replied, "but there's one thing about it I really hate. You can't play all the instruments (66 total) or all the songs (52 total) right away. You must unlock them first."

Then came the head-scratcher: "Why does Wii Music contain unlockables?"

Good question. My colleague is a longtime gamer. He appreciates the progression-reward mechanism in games dating back to the arcade era. He has no objections to end-stage boss battles or "use the tools you've earned" dungeon adventures. It's not a philosophical objection; it's a practical one.

Why should a casual game - designed and promoted as the ultimate user-friendly music toy by its creators - require the player to complete a series of lessons, gateway songs, and minigames in order to unlock all its content? Put more simply, why should a guy be forced to play through a game first himself in order to open up the content his kid wants to play right away?

I suppose one might argue Wii Music isn't really a kids game, and some of its advanced features are more likely to appeal to adults. Fair enough. But I can tell you from first-hand experience, none of that matters to an impatient kid who just wants to load up a game and have fun playing it. Offering a grand total of 5 songs at the beginning, with lots of visual teasers suggesting all the instruments and songs you can't play (and insisting the way around this barrier is to take "lessons") - that's a real non-starter for a small child. Later we can address patience, diligence, and the benefits of hard work. But not before 1st grade.

Did I misunderstand Nintendo's intentions with this game? Back in November I watched the (undeniably charming) Nintendo-produced promo video below and recommended that my colleague give it a look. Based on your own viewing of it, what might you have presumed about Wii Music?

Perhaps I'm reading it incorrectly, but that doesn't look like a game full of unlockable content. It looks like a game any child or parent can pick up, play together, and enjoy right away.

Why not simply put the decision in the player's hands? If I want a challenge, let me earn each song and instrument. But if I don't want that experience, why not offer me the option of unlocking everything at the click of a Wiimote? I don't expect or desire such an option in, say, a Castlevania game. But this is Wii Music, where I can wear a cat suit, waggle my Wiimote, and make meow sounds. C'mon, Nintendo. Unlock the door.

For a different, opposing view on this subject, you may be interested in Stephen Totilo's fine essay on Wii Music: I Think I Finally Get It - How ‘Wii Music’ Works As A (Hard) Game.