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February 2009

Moving to Japan


That's right, we're moving to Japan. The Vintage Game Club, that is.

Since we began the club last July, we've grown to 288 members; collected over 3000 posts, and discussed 5 games...but we've yet to focus on a Japanese title. So, for our next playthrough, we're soliciting nominations for games developed in Japan, and you're invited to jump in and submit your suggestions.

We'll welcome nominations through 10pm EST this evening (apologies for the late notice). Then we'll choose a handful of finalists, take a few days to discuss them together, and hold an official vote. You'll need to join the club to submit a nomination (simple registration requiring an email address).

As I've mentioned before, we use the term "vintage" purposely because its primary definition - "Characterized by excellence, maturity, and enduring appeal" strikes us as just the right way to describe the games we play together. As far as we're concerned a vintage game can be 20 years old or 5 years old. For our purposes, it doesn't really matter.

You can submit your nominations here. Happy gaming!

Put away your popcorn

Hot-buttered-popcorn Despite their obvious differences, we routinely compare video games to films, and it's easy to understand why. Games continue to rely on the shot-cut-shot language of film, and they've grown amazingly adept at mimicking cinematographic effects like diffusion filters, lens flares, and cinema vérité-style hand-held camera work, despite the obvious absence of an actual camera.

The widespread adoption of HD television has added another layer to the process, enabling console game designers to present their work in a widescreen aspect ratio, just like the movies.

Games look more like movies than ever and, we are told, they also deliver a "cinematic experience." Developer BioWare even has its own Cinematic Design Group responsible for merging interactive gameplay with film-like narrative. Mass Effect's Cinematic Designer Armando Troisi puts it this way:

Cinematic design is a unique position not only in BioWare, but the industry as a whole. We are responsible for supporting the narrative by delivering the emotional content. We generate cutscenes, conversations, level events, and ambient behaviors to tell the story the writers have laid out. It’s kind of like directing a film, except it’s interactive.[1]

And it's here that the game-as-interactive-movie train runs off the tracks. The notion that games can deliver emotional content merely by adding an interactive layer to an otherwise cinematic presentation is misguided. It presumes that we experience games like we experience movies, and it assumes we can enrich that experience by leveraging the interactivity of video games to make movies we can control.

It's a seductive proposition. In the sender-receiver mode of cinema, we can tell rich, complex stories with characters who earn our empathy. It only makes sense to assume that by drawing me closer to that character, my immersion will deepen and my engagement will grow. I love Batman, but what if I could BE Batman in an open-ended interactive Batman movie universe? That, many seem to believe, is the holy grail of narrative game design.

This conception of games is misguided because, in fact, we don't experience games like films at all. Designers may rely on the tricks and tropes of cinema to convey the worlds they create, but when we step into the shoes of that avatar, be it 1st-person, 3rd-person or otherwise, we exit the darkened movie theater paradigm and enter an intricate, performative, exploratory lab of untested ideas and speculation. We enter a playful space that feels and responds much more like a live theater rehearsal than an interactive movie or a triggered series of movie clips.

Comparing video games to other forms of art or media is always tricky business. The parallels are inevitably uneven. But it's worth doing, I think, because it forces us to think about the primary elements of each and consider how they function. I contend that, from the player's perspective, comparing games to movies is an apples an oranges situation. The more apt comparison - oranges to limes, if you will - works like this:

The defining activities of live rehearsal closely resemble the ideal experience of playing a game:

  • playful exploration
  • making discoveries
  • testing ideas and theories
  • performing and also evaluating performance
  • creating a character and also standing outside that character
  • moving forward and backward purposefully to play with and interrogate "text"
  • working synchronously and asynchronously with story/character, putting the pieces together over an extended period of time
  • interpreting or building meaning through personal experience that can be revised or revisited
  • process-oriented reflection based on first-hand, self-tested knowledge
  • having fun, pretending, and imagining in an environment that rewards such behavior with progress

Actors in the theater have long been called "players," and our texts are called plays because no word better describes what we do. Every actor will attest to the fact that performances are tasty icing, but rehearsal is where the cake is made. Good actors are fascinating in rehearsal, and from my own perspective I must say that no moment in performance, however exhilarating, can compare to the golden moment in rehearsal when an actor tries something new that breaks through to discovery. Such occasions resemble similar ones I have experienced playing games...much more so than anything I have seen or felt watching a movie.

As I noted, the parallels aren't perfect. It's hard for me to find a corresponding link between games and the lively nurturing collaboration that occurs among a company of actors in rehearsal. World of Warcraft raids are challenging fun, but they aren't quite the same thing.

The parallels needn't be perfect anyway. I'm not suggesting that playing games and rehearsing plays are the same thing. What I am suggesting is that if we want to understand what makes playing a narrative game engaging and meaningful - if we're looking for the "emotional content" Troisi describes - we're more likely to find our answer in a theater than at the movies.

Opening night

Pillowman If you're a regular Brainy Gamer reader, you may have noticed I've posted a bit less frequently of late. That's because I've been working on my production of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, which opens tonight. 

The Pillowman is a very dark comedy about a writer in a police state who is interrogated about the gruesome content of his short stories and their possible connection to a series of local child murders. It's a brilliant and provocative play that explores the nature of art and the explosive power of storytelling. I feel grateful for the chance to grapple with it over the last five weeks, and I'm proud of the work our actors have done bringing it to life.

I've missed playing and writing about games as often as I like, but these last five weeks have reaffirmed my love of live performance...and oddly enough, they've taught me a few things about the striking similarities between rehearsing a well-written play and playing a well-designed video game. I'll try to explain what I mean in a forthcoming post.

If you happen to be in the area, The Pillowman opens tonight and runs through Saturday at 8pm each evening in the Fine Arts Center at Wabash College. Tickets are available at the box office ([email protected]) or (765) 361-6411.

Note: The Pillowman contains adult language and situations, and it's probably not suitable for young children.

We know games


Video game enthusiasts are a cheeky lot. We write blogs and record podcasts spouting off about game design as if we know what we're talking about. We toss around phrases like "core game mechanics," and "level design," in our discussion of games, confident we're qualified to ring in on these subjects, praising or deriding games that succeed or fail in these or other aspects of design.

In fact, many of the most vigorous online discussions/arguments/flamewars about games revolve around design issues, conducted by enthusiasts, almost none of us designers, making big proclamations about pixel shaders, physics engines, particle effects, and all sorts of other technical terms we've learned second-hand.

We're experts with big opinions. Why? Because we play games. We play lots of games. We're qualified to evaluate game design because we consume it. The games themselves teach us all we need to know. If we pay close enough attention to a game like Bioshock, for example, it will unveil the underpinnings of its design to us as clearly as if we were diagramming a sentence. Right?

I have my doubts.

I spent the last two weeks working my way through Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, and I must say this book has enhanced my understanding and appreciation of games more than any single gaming experience I can recall.

To be sure, playing a great game can stimulate a useful analysis of its design, and veteran gamers can certainly assemble their experiences to draw valid conclusions about what's happening under the hoods of the games they play. But Schell has set out to unpack and scrutinize the principles underlying solid game design, and he has done so with great precision and elegance. This is the most readable book on design I've yet seen, but Schell has sacrificed no depth or detail in his 512-page effort to make his subject accessible to all curious readers.

Schell's premise is simple: game design is a relationship among designer, game, and player than can best be understood and explored as a series of perspectives - or "lenses," as Schell calls them - that provoke insightful questions. These lenses essentially explore ways of seeing and thinking from a variety of disciplines and fields of human activity such as psychology, architecture, music, film, theme park design, mathematics, writing, puzzle design, and anthropology.

Schell wisely avoids discussing these as abstractions; rather, he pinpoints the key activating aspect of each and explains how it enhances the game. For example, he notes that Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island began as a simple map of a fanciful island. He quotes from Stevenson: I paused upon my map of ‘Treasure Island,’ the future character of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.

The story emerged from Stevenson's fascination with his imaginative locale. As Schell notes: "Most videogames do not happen in a world of words, but in a physical place. By making sketches and drawings of this place, often a story will naturally take shape, as you are compelled to consider who lives there, what they do, and why."

Schell believes the designer creates an experience that occurs in the player's mind, and this experience arises out of a game that provokes the player on a myriad of intellectual and emotional levels. He writes largely in 2nd-person, which may strike some readers as too casual, but the result is a conversational tone that creates a relationship between Schell and the reader that develops over the course of the book...a bit like the triad he describes among game, designer, and player.

The book is accompanied by a deck of 100 unique "lens cards" that feature key questions intended to kickstart your thinking about story, aesthetics, creativity, etc.. These cost extra and add no real content value to the book, but they are handy in breaking out the lens questions posed in the text, and they can easily be applied to inspire creative work beyond game design.

I have a feeling that real-world working game designers find little value in books like this. Perhaps, I'm wrong. But from where I sit, The Art of Game Design's real impact has been on my own grasp of design from a player's and a critic's perspective. Just as a proper knowledge of cinematography can enhance one's understanding of a filmmaker's technique and how a camera communicates meaning, thinking hard about the structural and philosophical building blocks of game design can enrich one's appreciation of a well-made game. That's precisely why I'm grateful for this book, and it's why I think you may find it useful too.

By the way, Jesse Schell will deliver the IGDA Education Summit keynote address at GDC next month. His topic will be "A Guided tour of The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses," scheduled for March 24. I look forward to being there.

Mixtape medley of blood


After recovering from the savory shock of seeing House of the Dead: Overkill running on my Wii, I stumbled headlong into a steaming vat of déjà vu. Sega's new light-gun rail-shooter breaks no new gameplay ground. Aim your Wiimote at Zombies and kill kill kill. The game sticks closely to its arcade roots, easing the difficulty, presumably, for the non-hardcore Wii audience that will, ironically, never buy this game anyway.

The real action in Overkill, and the déjà vu, is all about STYLE. This game is a nasty love letter to trash-cinema aficionados who will gleefully unpack its self-conscious funkalicious 70s B-movie homage and pastiche. Overkill is a mixtape medley of blood that relies on the power of one medium to dismantle another. It's a pop culture funhouse, especially if you're a gamer / movie-lover of a certain age, and it's well worth a visit. Just make sure the kids, if you've got 'em, are in bed. Overkill is absolutely an adult game with enough violence, gore, and F-bombs to melt your Wii's innards.

But wait a minute. We don't want our games to be like movies, do we? Yes, we do, when the game smartly employs the audiovisual tropes and genre-language of cinema as a framework for showcasing an experience that benefits from such treatment. Overkill isn't a game trying to be a movie. It's a game that leverages the grimy exploitation-film aesthetic and recasts a fairly standard zombie shooting game as a raucous and self-aware deconstruction. 

I know. Academics like me are suckers for this stuff. Sure, Overkill is a simple light-gun game with a 70s exploitation-movie vibe. But if you look a little closer, everything is heavily mediated. Overkill isn't inspired by 70s splatter flics or Romero zombie films at all. Its real inspiration is Tarantino/Rodriguez's Grindhouse films, which were, in turn, inspired by 70s films.

The badly scratched "film" look and the gravel-voiced narrator convey the trappings of the originals, but everything is a little more pumped up, exaggerated, garish, ala Tarentino/Rodriguez. Detective Isaac Washington (who shares his name with The Love Boat's bartender, by the way) owes more to Samuel L. Jackson than Fred Williamson. And the zombies in Overkill more closely resemble Resident Evil undead than anything George Romero created.

Complicating the genre hodgepodge is Overkill's status as a House of the Dead game, which brings with it a slew of other conventions that must be packaged into the medley. Interestingly, the developers at Headstrong Games originally intended to maintain the traditional House of the Dead look, then briefly considered a steampunk theme, before finally settling on the grindhouse aesthetic.[1] Clearly, they thought the simple gameplay could be transported to other settings, but they wisely went well beyond simply relocating the game. BritishGaming has a terrific account of the game's evolution, including lots of revealing quotes from the designers.

House of the Dead: Overkill is a victory of style over substance. It suffers from framerate issues, repetitive gameplay, dumb and predictable AI, endless duplicate zombies, and a general lack of new ideas. You should definitely check it out.

Fallout 3 - review


Hey, remember that gray little RPG Bethesda dropped on us last Halloween? The one with the wasteland, the super mutants, and the rusty locker full of GOTY awards? Well, I've reviewed it for PopMatters, and here's an excerpt:

How do we fairly assess an unquestionably excellent game that succeeds far more than it fails, even when those “failures” are largely related to execution? How many points do we deduct for quest bugs? How many do we credit for mastery of audiovisual aesthetics? Can we assign numerical value to a game’s emotional power and to the intensity and resonance of the experience it offers? When so few games reach these heights, how bothered should I be by the formulaic sameness of Fallout 3‘s interiors or the awkward compromise of its combat system?

Of course it's quite possible to assign a score to Fallout 3, and I did. The wisdom of doing so, however, remains an open question.

You can read the full review here. Thanks to Mike Schiller, my editor at PopMatters, for giving me the time I needed to finish and reflect on the game.

Flower in your hands


In my previous post I tried to describe the experience of playing Flower - discovering it, really - for the first time. Today I'll discuss Flower a bit more analytically in hopes of accounting for why this little game holds me so thoroughly in its spell. A second playthrough was required, of course, and I was only too happy to oblige. ;-)

Flower is a game that rests entirely in your hands. You ride the wind as a flower petal, climbing, banking, and descending purely by tilting the Sixaxis controller. Given the brief and spotty history of motion control on the PS3, this was clearly a risk for developer That Game Company, but the implementation is spot-on. The tactile-kinetic link between player and game is pivotal to the experience Flower delivers.

The sensation of floating on air driven by bursts of wind is communicated so beautifully through the Sixaxis that it's impossible for me to imagine receiving the same physical sensation via thumbsticks. The smart responsiveness of the motion controls, and the seamless way they transport you inside the game, make for a convincing refutation of the notion that motion control is a tacked-on feature of the PS3's  controller.

The wind has a natural life of its own in Flower. When you press a face button or pull a trigger (any button you choose will do), the wind seems to inhale briefly before launching you forward in a gust of air. It's a little thing, but it subtly conveys a sense of nature as a living, breathing, all-encompassing presence in the world.

Flower presents the player with a choice between free unstructured play and mission-driven challenge - occasionally intense, especially in its later stages. You're free to explore within the invisible walls of each level (enforced by gusts of wind you cannot overcome), but to proceed through the game you must restore each area to its natural state, ala Ōkami or the more recent Prince of Persia. So, perhaps Flower doesn't quite deliver the choice it appears to offer. You can float on the breeze, whoosh through the grass (easily, Flower's most stunning visual treat), and generally play in the environment for as long as you like. But if you wish to go anywhere else, you must complete a challenge.

And it's here that the evolution from TGC's Cloud to flOw to Flower can most clearly be seen. Flower injects a quiet narrative into the player's progress, presenting a series of dreams that collectively mesh into a story the player constructs in his or her mind. Your story will inevitably be different from mine...or you may simply choose to unlock each area with no thought of story at all. Flower can be fully enjoyed either way, as I can personally attest. I found Flower terribly moving, bringing tears to my eyes of both sadness and joy. My wife adores Flower no less than I, but her engagement with it has remained purely ludic. Predictably, I suppose, the pleasure I derive from the game has gradually come to resemble hers. 

I'm also struck by Flower's subtle pathfinding. At times the camera swings the player's view toward the next objective (not so subtle at all), but more often the player is left to explore the lush (and not so lush) environments on his own, gradually discovering what must next be done. Apologies for repeatedly dragging my spouse into these matters, but I was fascinated watching her begin the opening level with no instructions from me or the game. Predictably, her first response was "What am I supposed to do?" followed shortly by "Where am I supposed to go?" Within minutes, she had her answers to both questions, and the game made her feel as if she had discovered them by herself. Well designed games do this well. Poorly designed games do this poorly.

Flower would be inconceivable without its music that responds to the player's actions and movement. Some levels are better than others in this regard, but when Flower soars to its fullest potential and most exhilarating release in Dream 6, the music elevates to support it. These culminating moments of Flower remind me why I continue to believe in the power of games to say and do beautiful things. Even if you find yourself indifferent to Flower's charms, you owe it to yourself to experience the last 30 minutes of this game.

Flower is a simple, purposeful, and extraordinary achievement. Its opening menu screen and final credits are better than most games I've played in the last year. Would I recommend buying a PS3 to play a $10 game? Maybe. I'll put it this way instead. If you decide to take the PS3 plunge, you will likely be very satisfied without purchasing a single shrink-wrapped game. And one more thing. TGC still has one more game to deliver in its 3-game deal with Sony.  ...Bouquet!

Flower song


Flower transports me to a memory of the gamer I used to be. Before consoles, before blogs, before "gamer." When I played only to play. Pure beguilement, first-thought, joyful discovery. The marvel that held me rapt was astonishing: I can live for awhile on this screen. I can move through this world with my hands. The simplicity of it. The small miracle. Flower gave all that back to me, for a time.

Flower brought me home to play, suspending my analysis-mind. I didn't think that was possible. I'm too far gone for such surrender. Critical gaming is the only gaming I know anymore, and that's okay; it's not a burden, nor does it diminish my enjoyment of games.

But Flower intercepted all that, quietly offering a way to play and a way to be with a game that instantly felt both very old and very new. It touched me, and it restored something in me - a sense of wonder beyond conscious thought - that can only be appreciated in retrospect, after you put the controller down and reflect on what just happened; after noticing that goofy smile plastered on your face.

Flower communicates a poignant sense of longing. A poor wilted indoor plant dreams of living in a lush open field, riding the wind, bringing life to other flowers. Longing is an emotion few, if any, video games have meaningfully explored. Flower communicates it gently at first, and then in subsequent dreams it gradually evolves into mourning, desperation, hope, and finally transformation. So it was for me, anyway. Flower may work its magic on you very differently. Such is the evocative power of the experience it delivers.

How a video game can convey such emotions without words or a formal story is one of the most remarkable aspects of Flower's achievement. The player's experience is rooted, from the very moment he or she takes flight, in exploration (with or without urgency) that feels exquisitely liberating, as if the player and the dying plant are both discovering how to fly at the same time. A feeling of oneness with the flower petals, the environments, and the wind is thrillingly conveyed through the player's own discovery. No tutorial, no HUD, no map, no forced objectives, time limits, or death.

The uniqueness of Flower's gameplay is palpable, even as it evokes memories of games like Lost Winds, Ōkami, and NiGHTS. Floating on the wind and whooshing through waves of blades of grass simply cannot be described in words. One feels an exhilarating sensation of controlling the wind while also being subject to its uncontrollable power. The Sixaxis control scheme is a major factor in all this, but that's something I'll talk more about tomorrow.

For now I merely hope to account for the reeling state I found myself in after playing Flower for the first time. As I've said, I didn't scrutinize this game in my initial playthrough. I simply played it, embraced it, and got lost in it. I made no effort to turn off my critical-mind. It just happened that way. I guess you could say I forgot to turn it on. I'm learning it's not easy describing one's experience playing a game (formal analysis has cool anchors like methodology and terminology!), but it seems like the right way to go this time.

Tomorrow I'll return to describe my second playthrough of Flower, and I'll try to provide a more careful consideration of the game and its design elements. Needless to say, if you're able to somehow get your hands on Flower, I strongly encourage you to do so. I guess it's obvious that I feel an earnest sense of gratitude for this lovely game. It arrived just when I needed it, and it hit me right where I used to live. Saying thanks feels fitting, necessary, and somehow insufficient.



I hope you'll forgive me for posting in such an off-the-cuff "more to come" fashion, but moments ago I just put down my controller, ran to my computer, and started typing what you're reading now. I generally try not to produce giddy, unconsidered writing here, but I guess you could say I'm throwing caution to the wind today.

I've been playing Flower since late last night with a brief intermission for sleep, when I dreamed about flying. Today I find myself in a state of exuberant euphoria, brought on entirely by my joyful immersion in this simple, beautiful, thrilling, restorative game. At this moment I want to jump up and down, fly a kite, hug strangers, and post exuberant blog entries with no analytical content whatsoever. And so I am.

I must work today. I will teach and deal with email and attend meetings and do all the stuff I get paid for. But I know I'll be thinking about Flower all day long. I'll be longing to tilt the controller in my hands and float again on the wind.

Soon I'll sit down and think about this game, and I'll try to write about it more carefully and more thoughtfully than I've done here. But for now, it feels good - and deeply satisfying somehow - to climb to the top of my little blog mountain and shout for all to hear: I LOVE THIS GAME. IT MAKES ME VERY HAPPY. Thanks for indulging me. :-)

Flower is available now in Europe, Japan, and Australia. It will appear later today is now available in the U.S. Playstation store, and it costs $9.99. I can't wait to discuss it with you.

Bringing the boost


I heard the other day that Criterion had released another Burnout Paradise update. So I loaded up the game (I have the PS3 version), downloaded the update, and jumped into Paradise for a little night racing. It took all of two seconds for me to stop and do a double take. BP has always impressed me with its stylish visuals and sturdy 60 fps, but I didn't expect the marked visual boost that greeted me. It's really quite stunning. Criterion introduced day/night cycles in one of its earlier updates, and while I enjoyed the variety, I found it difficult to see well enough to avoid crashing, especially at top speeds. This is no longer a problem. The update enables you to see clearly while preserving the feel of night driving.

Dawn arrived with a bit of fog, which soon gave way to bright sunshine, and the full measure of Criterion's visual enhancement could easily be seen. Everything looks brighter and more vibrant. Billboards are easier to see from a distance; jump ramps have a gentle flash that makes them easier to locate; and the quality of lighting and shadowing throughout has been significantly improved. Nothing garish or over the top. Just a series of deft visual tweaks that reemphasize the strong message Criterion has been sending out since they released this game over a year ago: We still care about Burnout Paradise. We listen to the community. And we continue to dream up new ways to make this game feel fresh and fun.

I think we ought to acknowledge developers who go the extra mile for their users. Yeah, I know those blokes in Guildford aren't the Salvation Army. They're driven by the same profit imperative every other game developer faces. But it seems to me Criterion, in particular, has identified and implemented a strategy that works remarkably well in the current games marketplace: release the best product you can and stand behind it; improve the quality and player experience with frequent upgrades; offer additional value-added content worth charging for; nurture the relationship between your consumers and your development team; and give folks what they want.

Six updates in twelve months, nearly all free, have added motorbikes, new multiplayer modes, events, and challenges, a dynamic weather system, a day/night cycle, an in-game browser to manage current and future content, legendary cars, and all sorts of gameplay fixes and refinements. A local multiplayer Party Pack was just released addressing complaints about BP's lack of local competitive play; an event restart was added in response to throngs of users demanding it; an island expansion is on the way that expands the game world and offers more sandbox play; and a new "Cops and Robbers" mode will follow later this year.

Did I mention the first PC version of any Burnout game appeared a few days ago as Burnout Paradise: The Ultimate Box? And did you know they've released 23 well-produced and entertaining episodes of a video podcast called CrashTV? These guys just don't quit.

I think it's also worth noting that Criterion is plugging into a mini-trend among some developers that update existing games, enabling less experienced players to jump in and enjoy the fun. We've seen similar efforts recently (albeit implemented differently) with PixelJunk Eden, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Runescape, and World of Warcraft.

For BP, Criterion has changed the vehicle dynamics of the cars that appear early in the game, making them more manageable and less prone to crashing. These changes don't affect cars that appear higher up the Burnout foodchain, so experienced players shouldn't notice a difference. I detected a discernible change in the handling of the Nakamura SI-7, for example, which makes me think it's now ever so slightly more possible that my wife will finally pick up and try this game...but I'm not holding my breath.

Wow, this is one gushy post, isn't it? Well, what can I say? We nitpick and complain (often with good reason) about various aspects of game design, wishing for more of this and less of that. It seems only appropriate that we also wax enthusiastic when game developers do things right on behalf of their game and its community. Criterion certainly isn't the only such studio (and I'm sure the EA bankroll can't hurt), but they do seem to me a model of sustainable synergy among developer, publisher, and players that I find exciting and worthy of note. And heck, what's wrong with a little applause now and then? :-)

Demo siren song


Game demos emit a strange, siren-song allure. They tease us with their free, no-obligation, limited-time goodness, enticing us to give them a whirl, even when we have very little actual interest in them. If you've ever stood in line for a swag bag, you know the feeling. That bag is probably full of junk, but you'll wait as long as it takes to get your hands on one...just in case.

I spent a good chunk of the weekend conducting my own personal demo blowout extravaganza. On the docket: Resident Evil 5, F.E.A.R. 2, MLB 09 The Show, and Phantasy Star Portable. These are all new games (Phantasy Star Portable is a bit tricky in this regard), and they offer a mixed bag of experiences. While I don't think it's fair to evaluate games in their pre-release states, it's certainly possible to glean a few impressions. I'll offer some of mine in a moment, but before I do, a quick word of caution. Sometimes game demos fail to adequately convey the full measure of a game (Burnout Paradise: underwhelming demo / fabulous game - and getting fabulous-er all the time [more on that later this week]). And sometimes a demo promises an experience that its final release ultimately fails to deliver (Clive Barker's Jericho). So a big grain of salt is probably in order here.

Resident Evil 5: Lots of people have weighed in on this game and its allegedly racist overtones. I frankly have a few concerns about this myself, but I'm going to withold judgment until I see the final release. I will say that Capcom has mixed a few white faces into the tribal zombie throng who weren't there in the early trailer that appeared months ago. I have no idea what this means or if it changes anything. What I do know is that the game feels like a major step backward in terms of controls. Moving, aiming, and shooting all felt stiff and unresponsive to me - a real disappointment given the evolutionary step forward RE4 represented in a series that has battled dodgy controls since its inception. I admit shooters aren't my strong suit, but I struggled mightily to survive the first level, and keeping Sheva alive felt less like fun and more like work. Maybe RE5 shines brightest in co-op mode (if so, I look forward to that experience), but in single-player I couldn't help thinking the game looks next-gen, but feels very last-gen. Or maybe the gen before that.

I promised to keep my hands off it, but I can't help noting one more aspect of RE5 that grabbed my attention. Sheva is a noticably light-skinned black woman, while the natives all appear very dark-skinned (except the sprinkled in white ones). Again, I'm trying hard to withhold judgment, but these things tend to leap out when you play this game. Perhaps I'm making too much out of the small snapshot I've seen.

F.E.A.R. 2: Hey look, another shooter! This short demo plays and controls well, and it continues the solid nightmare/explore/kill gameplay of its predecessor. But I couldn't help thinking as I made my way through each area how desperately this genre needs an infusion of new ideas. I'm wandering around a deserted school; a scary child appears in a ghostly form; I hear eerie voices and distant weeping; I stumble across voice logs of previous victims; I use bullet-time to gain an advantage over my enemies; etc., etc.. It's hard to see anything wrong with this sliver of F.E.A.R. 2 (aside from some significant framerate issues in the PS3 version), but it's also hard to figure out why I need to play this game. Again, it's a demo, so maybe Monolith has more up its sleeve than the demo suggests.

Phantasy Star Portable: The idea of a portable Phantasy Star game excites me to no end. The reality of a rehashed chapter from a fairly lousy PS2 game released in 2007 knocks the stuffing right out that euphoria. Repititous dungeon crawling, weak voice acting, and a recurring feeling that Sega has figured out a way to completely ruin a once proud franchise make me wonder why this game should see the light of day. Online mulitplayer could possibly rescue the ship - 700,000 copies sold in Monster Hunter-mad Japan suggests there's a big audience for this experience - but I was hoping for more. Even Sega's customary high production values appear to have dipped with Phantasy Star Portable. I suppose one upside of this demo is that it forced me to locate and charge my PSP, which I haven't touched for months.

MLB 09 The Show: The cream of the crop, the best of the bunch, and the biggest surprise of all. MLB 09 has the potential to be a very special video game. I'm saving my impressions of it for later this week, when I'll expand on why I'm so excited and why I think you should be too, even if you're not a sports-game nut. Stay tuned.

The magic of 4


I'm channeling an unlikely fusion of Andy Rooney, Jerry Seinfeld, and an imaginary NeoGAF forum poster with this one. Bear with me. 

Did you ever notice that when it comes to video games, "4" seems to be an unusually good number? More often than we might expect, it's attached to games that innovate, transcend their predecessors, establish new standards of quality, reformulate a franchise, or fundamentally revitalize an existing genre. In other words "4" (more often spelled "IV") has proven to be a rather magic number in the brief history of video games.

Consider the cases of Ultima IV, Final Fantasy IV, and Dragon Quest IV. Each represents a significant milestone in the evolution of those franchises. Each revised its existing design formula in ways that pushed the RPG genre forward. You might say there was no looking back in these series after their 4th installments pointed the way forward. All three are also seen by many players as the very best games in these long-running franchises. "Best" is, of course, highly subjective, but I think most of us would acknowledge the exceptional quality and evolutionary impact of these games when they were released.

And then there's Mario. Super Mario Bros. 3, which is actually the fourth console installment in the Super Mario series, remains the gold standard of 2D platformers nearly 20 years after its release. Even if you disagree with that assertion, it's impossible to deny the extraordinarily high level of refinement this game brought to the genre, not to mention its plethora of mechanical, gameplay, and level design innovations. Lots of players prefer Super Mario World, and Super Mario 64 was probably more innovative, but in my book Super Mario Bros. 3 reigns supreme - that is, if I leave the incomparable Galaxy out of the equation. :-)

But wait, there's more!

  • Metroid Prime
  • Call of Duty 4
  • Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
  • World of Warcraft
  • Civilization IV
  • Metal Gear Solid

All are fourth installments of illustrious and wildly popular games series. Some are radical shifts (Metroid Prime and Metal Gear go 3D and World of Warcraft goes MMO); others elevate what already works, refining a complex system, adding significant features, and making big AI leaps. Each can be seen as a high water mark in the evolution of its franchise.

Of course, you might say every new entry in a popular franchise tries to move its series forward somehow, and that's often true. But I think there's something about "4" that seems to function as a sweet spot in the overall quality of many video games, and I'm curious about why that is.

By the way, GTA IV and Resident Evil 4 would have made the list, but neither is actually the fourth game in either series. I think Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time belongs on the list too, but only if you don't count Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which is a side-scrolling RPG-esque game made by a separate team at Nintendo and often seen as the ugly stepchild of the Zelda universe. I think Ocarina helps confirm my "4" theory, but I'm not prepared to face the consequences of publicly jettisoning Zelda II from the canon for such a small victory.

Am I crazy? Did I omit other "4" games I should have mentioned? You tell me.