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March 2009

Shooter with strings: the music of Far Cry 2


When I told a few friends I was planning to attend a session at GDC called "Far Cry 2: Creativity and the Musical Challenge," one replied "Oh my god, I hated that music. I turned if off after ten minutes." More conversation revealed that their objections weren't so much about the quality of the music itself, but in the way it was implemented in the game. Drawing your gun, for example, often triggers an intense action music cue, even when you're alone in a benign location. And despite 3 hours original music and 247 separate cues, the score can occasionally be repetitive, especially if you linger in an area too long.

But turning off Far Cry 2's music after ten minutes is a big mistake, in my view, because it denies the player full exposure to a remarkable score that rejects the standard cliche-ridden Hollywood action movie soundtrack in favor of something far more organic, expressive, and distinctive. In one of the most informative sessions I attended at GDC, Producer and Mix Engineer Rich Aitken explained how the creative team at Nimrod Productions built the score for Far Cry 2 and responded to Ubisoft's challenge to musically match the game's narrative ambitions.

Composer Marc Canham tried to find a sonic and compositional approach that could serve the game's dual natures: Far Cry 2 is a personal, emotional and atmospheric experience; but it's also an action shooter with intense and dynamic sequences. The challenge was to "mesh authenticity with sonic impact." Canham responded by suggesting a more intimate, less bombastic score than players are accustomed to in the FPS genre. Ubisoft agreed, and the team adopted a minimalist approach.

FC2-Baaba-Maal The pivotal aspect of this spare aesthetic was Canham's decision to use a string sextet as the musical core - not exactly the instrumentation one expects to hear in an FPS - supported by African percussion, a strictly limited tonal palette, and vocals by Baaba Maal, one of the most influential Senegalese vocalists of all time. Maal's contributions went beyond songs and chants to include short rhythmic, percussive vocalizations that added authenticity and texture to the soundtrack. 

Aitken paid special tribute to Ubisoft for not imposing a temp track on the team. This unusual move freed the team to create original compositions, rather than pastiche versions of a temp track that Aitken says are far too common in game music. They were also given time to research local African rhythm patterns and instruments, finally settling on the Ashiko drum and Coucou and Kundabigoya rhythms as signature elements of Far Cry 2's score. No computer synth sounds were used, and samples were employed sparingly, mainly as sonic augmentation late in the process.

The strings were recorded at Abbey Road (Studio 3) in London, and players were chosen "who wouldn't be afraid to abuse their instruments with some ferociously attacking performances." The percussion sessions were held at Nimrod Productions' studio in  Oxfordshire, where 3 percussionists were recorded at a time to allow for separation in the mix. Ultimately, the team recorded 8 different Djembes, 2 Udus, 2 Kalimbas, and a variety of other African instruments. Final mastering was done back at Abbey Road.

Far_cry_2_music_teamInterestingly, the first submission to Ubisoft "was a disaster." The team received negative feedback on the score: "Too bombastic. Too big. Too much volume." In the process of building the musical cues, they had fallen a bit too in love with the percussion elements of the music and strayed from the intimacy of game. This feedback from Ubisoft was welcomed by the team, and they found their way back to the concept they had originally convinced Ubisoft to accept.

In retrospect, Aitken said the score for Far Cry 2 "could probably have used more textures and less melody to avoid the impression of repetetiveness." He also would have pulled back a bit on the strings and added another double bass to widen the sonic spectrum. He noted that on-location effects recording in Senegal provided excellent material that might have been used elsewhere in the score. An example can be found during the closing credits of the game, which the sound engineers recorded on the spot after discovering a local Senegalese vocal group that offered to perform extemporaneously.

If you'd like to hear a sample of Far Cry 2's exceptional soundtrack, I encourage you to click on the link below. Thanks to Rich Aitken for his well-organized lecture - and for chatting with me afterward and offering even more details.

The Curious Case of the Missing Fences

Fence This is about GDC, but I need a few paragraphs to get there. I hope you'll stick with me.

I've attended conferences and national meetings for nearly twenty years. Academic gatherings, industry expos, national society meetings, political name it. All these giant events bring people together, but it's what happens when you get there that makes or breaks a conference. And this is precisely where GDC succeeds like no gathering I've attended. I think I know why, and it has to do with fences, or the lack of them.

Most conferences establish and enforce specific policies about focus and audience, and over time these grow increasingly narrow. In my little corner of academia, the Theater folks have their big gathering, the Dramatic Literature folks have theirs, and the Technicians and Designers have theirs. Of course, nothing prevents a creative type like me from submitting a scholarly paper to the MLA conference, for example, but I'm unlikely to bump into many people seeking such cross-disciplinary conversation (I know because I've tried). We encourage our students to think across disciplines (we've even built a curriculum around that principle), but when it comes to our own work, we build silos with fences around them. Despite many common interests, we're all pointed in different directions, and that seems to suit everybody just fine.

Large groups with common interests tend to segment toward specialization. This makes sense, of course, and it's easy to understand how organizations develop their own criteria for expertise, their own jargon, and their own A-list of mini-celebrities. In the Humanities this has resulted in a honeycomb of tiny fenced-in areas of scholarship in which an increasingly small sub-subset of experts present research to each other about scholarly minutiae no one else cares about or understands. Authority in this realm is derived from staking out a small patch of intellectual turf and defending it against all comers.

This system works perfectly well within the merit/reward structure of higher education, but in my discipline it has sadly sealed our fate. Academic scholarship on theater bears almost no relationship to the creative human event of making theater. We operate in separate worlds, and the space between us has bred mistrust, misunderstanding, and even contempt.

It wasn't always like this. The dialogue among artists, scholars, and critics fifty years ago was significantly more relevant and productive. It's hard to imagine a visionary like Jerzy Grotowski provoking today the convergence of theory and practice he achieved in the 1960s. We don't talk to each other anymore. We're specialists. We've built our fences, and we stay in our yards.

GDC is different, and not simply because it's an industry event. Despite rapid growth (this year's event drew 18,000 attendees), GDC has largely avoided erecting arbitrary barriers that choke off meaningful conversation among people with a variety of interests and expertise. GDC advertises itself as an industry-only gathering, but it isn't really, and thank goodness. The fanboys and fanbloggers are kept out, but GDC opens its gates to a range of other attendees, including the general press, games journalists, design students and professors, games studies scholars,and folks like me who fancy ourselves critics.

The GDC schedule is unwieldy and over-programmed, but it's also wide open. An aspiring level designer may wish to concentrate on the Design track, choosing from among dozens of design-focused lectures, tutorials, roundtables, etc.; but he's free to mix in sessions from the Production track or the Programming track, many of which bear directly on design. If he happens also to be keen on "Meaning, Aesthetics, and User-Generated Content," that door is open too. What's more, this designer's conference fee was likely footed by his employer who presumably encourages such inquisitive behavior. Fancy that.

Leaving the door open is fine, but ensuring that people with big ideas remain accessible to attendees is quite another, and it's here that GDC succeeds most admirably. I know a young developer from Canada who shared a dinner conversation with the Narrative Designer of Far Cry 2. I know a philosopher who discussed games with the arts and entertainment reporter from the Wall Street Journal. I know a young writer who discussed games criticism with N'Gai Croal.

I also know a certain Midwestern blogger/prof who found himself in thoughtful conversation with Clint Hocking about the degree to which game creators should participate in online conversations about their work. Halfway through that conversation, Jesper Juul grabbed a nearby seat. Minutes later, their photos were taken by the young man who composed the music for Flower.

That's what happens at GDC, a lumbering spasmodic mess of a conference ripe for repair. Someone will propose fences. Quick, somebody hide the hammers.

The taciturn designer

Scc  Killer7 Fallout_3_03_1920x1080

The most promising panel discussion at this year's GDC may have been the one featuring a trio of extraordinarily gifted designers: Goichi Suda a.k.a. SUDA51 (No More Heroes, Killer 7), Fumito Ueda (Shadow of the Colossus, Ico), and Emil Pagliarulo (Lead Designer of Fallout 3). As moderator Mark MacDonald pointed out, these three men may share little in common as designers, but they clearly admire each other's work, and they all emphasize highly creative collaboration united around a single vision.

The discussion began with the designers affectionately introducing each other. Suda paid tribute to Pagliarulo by expressing deep admiration for Fallout 3 and its vivid environments, noting that for fans of the game, including himself "We're all living in his world."

Pagliarulo introduced Ueda by recalling the impact of Ico on himself and his colleagues. "We got a copy of Ico and all gathered around to play it. Within two minutes we understood this game was not just a game. It had a huge impact on us." Finally, Ueda introduced Suda by observing that they both share a love of certain games, such as the Burnout series, but they are also rivals. "We create very different games, but we share similar backgrounds."

Introductions complete, I settled in for a scintillating discussion on current and future game design...but, unfortunately, it didn't happen. Pagliarulo offered some interesting observations about Bethesda's approach with Fallout 3 (more below), but Suda and Ueda spoke mostly in broad generalities that failed to illuminate their work or their design philosophies.

I suspect the language barrier was an issue (we all wore headphones, and the discussion was simultaneously translated into English and Japanese), but having listened to artists from a variety of media discuss their work over the years, I think there may be more to it than merely translation issues.

The fact is, sometimes artists aren't very adept at discussing their work, especially when asked to account for their process. Designers like Clint Hocking - who, in a maddening example of GDC programming, spoke at the same hour - have a penchant for unpacking their ideas and methods in accessible ways. Wynton Marsalis does the same when he talks about jazz; Toni Morrison can be similarly effusive discussing literature.

But for every Wynton Marsalis or Toni Morrison there is a Miles Davis or a Thomas Pynchon for whom discussion or analysis seems distasteful or even impossible. Watching Ueda today, I saw a designer who struggles to articulate his philosophy of design, as if he were being asked to elaborate on something that requires no elaboration. At various points in the discussion he appeared at a loss for words, often deliberating on a question before finally answering it with a few basic and seemingly obvious observations. Suda, perhaps predictably, chose to deflect many of the questions posed to him with jokes or little outrageous responses. Neither seemed interested or willing or able to dig beneath the surface of basic generalities.

And that's okay. I would have liked more insight; more give and take among these designers, and Mark MacDonald did yeoman's work prompting the panel with thoughtful questions. But I understand how it can be with artists. In the end, I'd rather they focus their talents on creating. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake as far as I'm concerned.

Nevertheless, some interesting ideas and observations did emerge from the discussion, many of them from the articulate Mr. Pagliarulo, but several from Suda and Ueda as well. The highlights:

  • Pagliarulo's philosophy of game design is to arrange a set of unique experiences for the player. He thinks about story and gameplay from the beginning and sees them as essentially inseparable in Bethesda's games. He thinks about "units with emotional impact" and tries to introduce fresh units over the course of many hours.

  • Suda accumulates ideas from film, television, and other games. He believes being alone is essential to creativity. "I go the the bathroom to poop, and I get ideas."

  • Pagliarulo believes great games aren't made, they're played. "You must play your game and learn what it has to teach you." Designers must be willing to give up what doesn't work. In Fallout 3, Liberty Prime was originally intended to be five times bigger, and the player was to be inside his head. The developers couldn't make this work, so it was scaled back.

  • Ueda noted that the design for Shadow of the Colossus originally required teamwork-based gameplay, but the idea didn't work. "Changing your ideas is a good thing," he contends because it unlocks other good ideas.

  • Suda likes to improvise and try new things, but his main design goal, once established, does not change.

  • Pagliarulo said that the Fallout 3 team purposely decided to design the game with an ending. "People didn't like that" because the game is "as much an Oblivion sequel as a Fallout sequel," and players didn't want the game to end. "So we've responded." He went on to briefly explain the forthcoming DLC.

  • Ueda: "I think about what kind of game I want to make, and sometimes what we want can't be done on a console." The changes that must be made help determine the focus of the design team's efforts.

  • Pagliarulo explained that when you're the lead designer, inspiration need not be specific. He cited Cormac McCarthey's "The Road" as a stylistically over-arching influence separate from gameplay or narrative issues.

  • Suda noted that sometimes even the other design team members may not fully grasp the big picture. "When I created Killer 7, even if I explained it to the people making it, sometimes even they don't understand."

  • According to Ueda, Team Ico was assembled as "a team that had the same world view." He also observed that when he starts working on a game, he doesn't know whether it's fun or not. "I stand behind the focus group player and watch as if I'm playing it for the first time." At a certain point in the process, game development becomes a series of tasks, and it grows more difficult to see the whole. Pagliarulo agreed, describing this point as the moment when "I see the game as a series of systems. It's hard for me to see the game at a certain point."

  • When asked to discuss the future of games, Suda mentioned emergent storytelling. "We need to bring the player into the game, and to do this we need more powerful expression." He cited the films of David Cronenberg as inspirational to him in this regard.

  • Pagliarulo wants deep immersion "without the gadgets. Real people that don't feel like NPCs. Feeling like you're living somewhere else for awhile. It's AI; it's visuals; it's everything." He cited Call of Duty 4 as an example of a game that hasn't received sufficient credit for its storytelling in this regard. He also warned against "drowning your player with text."

  • Ueda: "I'm trying for immersion in a temporary space while returning the player to real life space."

  • Pagliarulo: "People may be surprised to know how much we're inspired by games like Shadow of the Colossus with no dialogue. We probably use dialogue as a crutch sometimes." He noted that all the designers at Bethesda are also writers.

  • Regarding the "games as art" question, Pagliarulo observed: "Our primary responsibility is to be entertainers. We can say important things within that framework."

  • Ueda agreed. "I don't think about games as art. We are making a game to entertain people. We like feedback from our customers." Anything beyond that is out of his control.

  • Pagliarulo elaborated by suggesting that games become art along the way. "We'll come into our own. We try to make good games. The art will come on it's own."

I should note that the entire front row of seats was reserved for Nintendo executives, all of whom were racing to this talk directly from Satoru Iwata's keynote. If I were a big-circulation rumor site, I might make special note of this fact as indicative of something important. But since I'm not, I won't. ;-)

Note: For some reason, your comments on this post aren't appearing at the moment. I'm trying to figure out why and will have them restored ASAP. Rest assured that none of them have been lost.

Wagons Ho!

Gdc I'm headed west today, destination: the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. I'll be posting and recording from there, hoping to bring you a picture of the event that avoids replicating all the fine coverage you're likely to find elsewhere.

As I've noted previously, I can't possibly attend everything I'm curious about, but I plan to target some off-the-beaten-path sessions that I think many of you may find interesting. As always, let me know how I'm doing, and feel free to suggest ways I might improve my reporting.

By the way, in my recent "pick the keynote" face-off, the Kojima event beat out the Iwata event 150-117. So Kojima it is! I'm looking forward to it.

Stay tuned for more on GDC 09. I hope you enjoy

The Path


I sing in praise of The Path, a game that realizes - if only in fleeting brilliant flashes - the personal, expressive interactive storytelling experience video games have long aspired to communicate. The Path may not take us all the way to the promised land, but I believe it represents a small milestone in the evolution of an art form that thankfully continues to attract visionaries, naysayers, contrarians, and all manner of headstrong game makers who won't take yes for an answer.

Other contemporary designers like Jason Rohrer and Jonathan Blow helped open this Pandora's box of so-called "art games," but Tale of Tales' Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn have been at it even longer, and in The Path, they have given us a game of great personal vision and conviction. I'm aware that some people see such games as a kind of self-important pestilence on gamer culture. But it's worth remembering that while Pandora's curious jar was said to unleash untold evils on mankind, the content it ultimately delivered was hope.

The Path is built around an atmospheric experience, and this experience requires time. The game insists you go slowly, and it requires you to explore the same forest six times as each of six sisters. Each has her own story and personality, ranging from Scarlett, the oldest, saddled with responsibilities due to an absent mother; to Carmen, a teenager exploring her sexuality and aware of her physical allure; to Ruby, the goth girl with a leg brace who sees a world full of judgment and decay; to Ginger, the adolescent tomboy who likes to climb trees and collect sticks. Each personality fuses with the player's imagination to form a way of seeing and being in this world that feels unique, but malleable.

Much of The Path's appeal is expressed through the transgressive natures of these young women. Each time you begin the journey to grandmother's house (The Path is based on the Little Red Riding Hood tale), you receive very clear instructions: "Stay on the path." Dangers lurk in the forest, but so do liberation and self-expression, and the game subtly urges you in.

Once there, you soon realize you've lost all sense of direction, and the path has disappeared completely. A little girl in a white dress can sometimes be found, and she will lead you back to the path if you wish, but she has secrets of her own that you must play the game to discover. Ultimately you're on your own, and what you discover and learn are in your own hands. The pacing of the game encourages, even insists, that you reflect on these small encounters. If you're unwilling to do this, or if the game  fails to provoke such reflection, you may find The Path tiresome or repetitive. But if you can jettison the "beat the game" imperative that so often dominates our approach to playing, you may welcome the chance to reflect on and interpret your experience while continuing to linger inside the game world.

As Harvey and Samyn told me at last year's GDC, The Path is designed to be accessible to all players. No time limits, no collection thresholds, no unlocking areas, no bosses to defeat. Almost every activity in the game is optional. If you want to stay on the path and go directly to grandmother's house, you can...although this will result in a "failure," which I interpret to be less about the player's failure to achieve an objective, and more about a young woman failing to satisfy her natural curiosity and test the limits placed on her.

I should mention that The Path is a horror game. Bad things happen in the forest, and grandmother's house is no picnic either. So be warned. It's not graphic horror, which would seem out of tune with the aesthetics of the game. Instead, The Path offers a profoundly psychological and emotional ride that provokes you without silver plattering its meaning. You will piece things together in your own way, and when you complete the game (if you're like me) you will immediately yearn for someone to talk to. If you find yourself in this boat - and if, like me, your wife/husband/significant other won't play the game because it's "too scary" - I recommend the lively discussion over at the Tale of Tales forum. The Gamers With Jobs gang are also discussing it. Of course, you can always post a comment here too. :-)

The Path isn't perfect. It's got cumbersome controls, a sluggish camera, and its otherwise elegant girls often move like tanks. Game developer and blogger Nels Anderson outlines some of his complaints here, and I think they're mostly valid. Gameplay and control issues aside, some will consider The Path too slow, overly obtuse, or even self-indulgent. So it probably isn't a game for everybody.

But if you're patient - and if you're curious to see what a forward-looking video game can do with storytelling and poetry and seductive imagery and representations of gender - and if you're willing to accept the game on its own terms - I believe you will find The Path an innovative and uncompromising experience worthy of your attention, and even your respect.

I'm glad we opened that box.

The PATH ----- Launch Trailer from Tale of Tales on Vimeo.

Pick the keynote

GDC header I've begun to arrange my schedule for next week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and it's quite a task. With dozens of sessions on game design, production, visual art, audio, and a myriad of other topics - in formats ranging from roundtables to lectures to panel discussions to tutorials - I've got way more interesting options than I can possibly attend.

This, of course, is a wonderful problem to have. I'm grateful for the opportunity, and I intend to make the most of it. I'll attend three days of sessions and do my best to report on what I see and learn. I'll also be at the Independent Games Festival and on the Expo Floor checking out some of the newest indie games and meeting their designers. And I plan to do some recording for the podcast. So, yeah, it'll be a busy week. I can't wait.

Since I need to make some choices, I thought it might be fun to solicit a little help. This year's GDC features keynote addresses by two industry luminaries: Satoru Iwata, President of Nintendo; and Hideo Kojima, Head of Kojima Productions and creator of the Metal Gear series. Given my hectic schedule, I've decided to attend only one, and I'm asking you to help me choose. Here are the program notes for each:

Hideo KojimaHideo
"Solid Game Design: Making the ‘Impossible’ Possible"
Thursday, March 26, 10:30am-12pm

Known for giving rise to the stealth action game genre with his creation of the acclaimed Metal Gear series more than two decades ago, Kojima’s keynote will focus on conquering various development obstacles with creative game design, using the driving game design philosophies behind the Metal Gear series as reference.  The address, “Solid Game Design: Making the ‘Impossible’ Possible,” marks Kojima’s debut appearance at the GDC.

Satoru IwataIwata
"Discovering New Development Opportunities
Wednesday, March 25th, 9-10am

The development of both Nintendo DS and Wii was based on the idea that the video game consumer base could be broadened if the definition of a video game…and ways to access games…were viewed differently. The fact that these platforms have been accepted so enthusiastically around the world shows that there is opportunity for developers to stretch the boundaries of what was  previously viewed as possible in terms of realizing a creative vision.

In his keynote address, Nintendo global president Satoru Iwata will talk about Nintendo’s role in creating better tools and bringing opportunities for developers to introduce their innovative ideas to a marketplace that is increasingly willing and eager to embrace new game design possibilities.

Vote below for the keynote you're most interested in, and I'll attend and report on the winner. I'm earnestly interested in both, so I won't be disappointed either way. Thanks for indulging me in a little GDC March Madness, and may the best industry titan win!

On face value images


Bob Dylan got me thinking about Resident Evil 5 today. Maybe I should say he diverted my attention from the RE5 debate and directed it back onto the game itself and the meanings of images. I'm pretty sure he didn't mean to.

Next month, Dylan will release his first album of new music in almost three years, Together Through Life. In an interview on his website conducted by Bill Flanagan, Dylan likens the sound of the album to the old Chess Records vibe. "I like the mood of those records - the intensity. The sound is uncluttered. There’s power and suspense. The whole vibration feels like it could be coming from inside your mind. It’s alive. It’s right there. Kind of sticks in your head like a toothache." The man still knows how to put words together.

Dylan famously avoids discussing the meaning of his work. Like most artists I know, he gets skittish when critics or fans try to fence him in. Nobody owns the meaning of his songs. Not even himself. Dylan has spent a fair amount of time over the last forty years trying to knock us off his scent. We know Blood on the Tracks was about his first marriage breaking up. He knows it too. But one man's story won't hold all those songs, and only a fool would insist otherwise.

Nevertheless, people have always tried to assign specific meanings to Dylan's songs, and he probably asks for it. As a songwriter, his lyrics are loaded with images hanging on words that fairly demand to be unwound. We can't help it. We're hard-wired to make meaning, regardless of authorial intent or denial.

But something fascinating has happened in the autumn of Dylan's career. As he's grown older, and as his poetry has distilled and grown spare, things have begun to change. And Dylan has noticed. From the same interview:

I see that my audience now doesn’t particularly care what period the songs are from. They feel style and substance in a more visceral way and let it go at that. Images don’t hang anybody up. Like if there’s an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs it’s not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed. Images are taken at face value and it's kind of freed me up.

Q: In what way?

Well for instance, if there are shadows and flowers and swampy ledges in a composition, that’s what they are in their essence. There’s no mystification. That’s one way I can explain it...
All those things are what they are. Or pieces of what they are. It’s the way you move them around that makes it work.

Images have power because we associate them with ideas, emotions, or other images. A single image can resonate, titillate, or infuriate all by itself, purely because of the potent history it carries with it. Joyful or painful, it all adds up to meaning.

Most visual and performing artists make peace with the ethereal nature of meaning. They know the folly of trying to deliver a pure, unadulterated message. A single universal reception is impossible. A fixed meaning cannot be foisted on anyone, partly because meaning is inherently interpretive, but mostly because art isn't viable under such conditions. So, as Dylan suggests, we can take things just as they come to us, at face value without mystical authorial control, and create our own meaning. We needn't sort through the Dylan back catalog or parse his lyrical symbolism to determine which of us got it right.

I don't know if RE5 is a racist game. I'm not even sure it's possible for a game, by itself, to be racist. What I do know is that RE5 contains historically and socially charged imagery that seems irresponsible to me and makes me feel very uncomfortable. Frankly, I doubt if anyone cares whether or not I think RE5 is a racist game, but when I look at the contextual images RE5 communicates, I see offensive cultural and racial stereotypes, and I have a difficult time thinking of that experience as fun.

But not everyone sees it that way, and I think we need to be very careful about assuming those who don't are racist or somehow perpetuating racism. It's very possible that the meaning I derive from these images is quite different from the meaning others derive, and I'm not prepared to accept the idea that this difference is proof of my enlightened social consciousness versus someone else's ignorance or self-delusion.

Willful disregard of one's own privilege or prejudice is one possible explanation for an indifferent reaction to RE5, but it is by no means the only explanation. Some people can look at RE5 and simply see a screen full of zombies. "All those things are what they are." None of us owns the meaning of these images.

And this is a two-way street. We must be respectful to those who find the game offensive. We should always be inclined to take people at their word when they say they find certain images, words, or depictions personally insulting, demeaning, or otherwise objectionable. It's disturbing to see these legitimate concerns routinely and glibly dismissed; or, worse, people's motives questioned for raising them. It's terribly harmful to dispatch a person's suffering by suggesting he or she "get over it" or "lighten up." As I've noted here before, we can engage in meaningful conversation and even explore our disagreements about these things, but only if everyone at the table feels genuinely respected.

Play the game yourself and make up your own mind. Then we'll talk.

Vintage Game Club: Chrono Trigger


We considered several classic Japanese games for the VGC's next joint playthrough, and the title that finally rose to the top is Chrono Trigger. Routinely listed as one of the greatest video games of all time, Chrono Trigger innovated the RPG genre and established a standard of quality few games since have matched.

In 1995, Dragon Quest creator Yuji Hori and Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball fame joined Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy series to form the collaborative "Dream Team" that created Square's Chrono Trigger. The masterpiece that emerged takes players on a swashbuckling adventure through time, allowing them to explore the world's present, future, Middle Ages, antiquity, and even prehistory.[1]

If you've never played Chrono Trigger - or if you have, but would like to play it again and discuss it with friends - we'd love to have you join us. 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, no big deal. The club is just a framework for bringing us together. We're here to have fun and broaden our knowledge and awareness of important games.

A few details:

  • When do we start? - This Friday, March 20. The game is available for the SNES, Playstation, and Nindendo DS. We're aware these versions aren't identical, but if you already have one on hand, there's no reason to purchase another version to play along with us.
  • How will it work? - We'll try to play together at roughly the same pace and post our thoughts as we go along. 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. You're free to jump ahead or take your time, if you like; the thread system will allow you to play at your own pace. Post daily, weekly, every once in awhile - whatever works for you.

We hope you'll join us for Chrono Trigger. All are welcome.

The Vintage Game Club

Mashup genius


Retro Game Challenge has shovelware written all over it. Another quick and dirty compilation of old school classics repackaged in a nondescript box with bad cover art. What's worse, its 8-bit collection of retro games are all knock-offs: the Space Invaders/Galaga clone is called Cosmic Gate; Star Soldier is called Star Prince, etc. You could hardly be blamed for assuming Retro Game Challenge is yet another cheap, derivative attempt to cash in on NES-era nostalgia. If you saw this game on a shelf you'd walk right by it.

And that would be a very big mistake.

Retro Game Challenge is a wonderful mashup of games cleverly tied together by a sublimely wacky story in which you are transported back in time to the 1980s and forced to play video games by the vengeful Game Master Arino. You are transformed to a child, and your gaming companion is a friendly youthful version of Arino, unaware of the evil transformation that awaits him. Your only way back to the present is to overcome challenges Arino throws at you from an array of retro games, including 2D shooter, sidescroller, racing, and even a surprisingly deep RPG.

It's easy to see how a collection of retro-inspired games framed by a properly nutty Japanese gameshow theme could make for a pleasant, off-center diversion. Throw in some gameplay challenges, a maniacal host, a few nods to game genres we remember fondly, and voila: a fun little handheld diversion.

But Retro Game Challenge transcends such a self-limiting design by aspiring to more than a simple old school mashup. It does several very important things very well. Among the lessons RGC delivers:

  1. Homage and parody don't exempt you from quality. True, RGC is full of games that ape the conventions of classic NES titles, but they also happen to be terrific games in their own rights. Cosmic Gate, Robot Ninja Haggle Man (Mario Bros./Bubble Bobble clone), and Star Prince are complete, multi-level games that control smoothly on the DS. When you overcome Arino's challenges, each of these games is unlocked for freeplay, and they are, in my humble opinion, every bit as good as their originals. I would even argue they play better than their overpriced official Nintendo re-release DS versions.

  2. Embrace your meta-self. One of the charms of RGC is its wry awareness of itself as a game.  Developer XSEED cleverly weaves ironic bits of commentary from Arino that suggest he knows you know you're playing his game of old games. The devilish glee he derives from throwing these challenges at you makes each one feel personal and delightfully ridiculous.

  3. Make the experience feel at once familiar and brand new. If you played any of these games in their original forms, RGC will offer little that seems new (though Guadia Quest riffs on Dragon Quest in some wondeful ways that are fun to discover). But the game delivers its challenges in a fashion that chops each homage into a variety of games within games that make you experience them in ways that feel fresh.

  4. Love the player and the culture. RGC is a gift to gamers. It includes a wonderful, well-written fake magazine called Game Fan that contains articles about the games, rankings, cheats, and even game advice from fake journalists, one of which is clearly modeled after Dan Hsu, former editor of EGM. All of this is delivered in loving detail, with fonts, graphics, and layouts reminiscent of the magazines many of us eagerly pored over back in the day.

  5. Don't take yourself too seriously...except when it comes to delivering an extraordinarily well-conceived, smooth playing, and refined game that cleverly hides all those tracks beneath a cheap, jaggy 8-bit veneer.

If you haven't yet played Retro Game Challenge, I strongly encourage you to give it a try. It's a terrific compilation of games that fairly represent the defining decade of the medium. Playing the included Robot Ninja Haggle Man series alone (1-3) conveys a remarkably accurate view of 80s game development from the earliest NES games to their more refined successors that appeared near the end of the 8-bit era. That alone makes the game worth playing.

Happily, its designers aspired to more than a history lesson or dusty rehash. Retro Game Challenge is a brand new experience all its own. Game Master Arino awaits you.

iPhone call for help

Iphone-game I had a nutty idea a couple of weeks ago. I thought it would be fun to devote part of my vacation to "catching up" on the iPhone gaming scene. I play lots of games, but I've pretty much ignored iPhone titles, partly due to time constraints - heck, I can't even keep up with all the console and PC games I want to play - but mainly because the first bunch of games I tried (Enigmo, Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart, Trism, Monkey Ball) simply didn't hold my interest.

My initial "Wow, I can play games on this thing?!" soon gave way to "Wow, why would anyone want to play games on this thing?"

To be sure, the first wave of games on any new system tends to be dominated by franchise ports, less than stellar launch window releases, and proof-of-concept titles. The iPhone has seen more than its share of such games, and by "more than its share" I'm saying the percentage of truly awful iPhone games is extraordinarily high relative to other systems.

I should note this observation is based on an unscientific sampling of 50 or so iPhone games played (some for only a few minutes) over the course of the last two weeks. It's entirely possible I simply picked the wrong batch of games. The problem is that it's very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff...and, as I've discovered, the iTunes App Store's definition of wheat (based on sales and user reviews) is usually my idea of chaff. More on that in a moment, but first some dizzying data:

The ongoing avalanche of iPhone games is unparalleled in the history of gaming. In the 20 months since its release, 6439 games have been released for the device, accounting for 23% of all iPhone apps, and nearly doubling the nearest category (entertainment).[1]

Compare these numbers to those of the Nintendo DS, the device on track to become the most successful game system in history. In the 4 years and 4 months since it appeared, approximately 800 games have been released for the system worldwide. That's 15 new DS games per month versus 322 new iPhone games per month, and the iPhone numbers continue to accelerate.

Airhockey So the reasons behind the wheat/chaff problem are fairly obvious, and while I initially applauded Apple's decision to avoid playing application gatekeeper, I've begun to wonder if somebody ought to at least be playing quality control officer. Letting the market sort things out makes sense under some circumstances, but the abysmal system of perusing games and reviews via iTunes makes this nearly impossible.

And does Apple really want a game as broken and awful as Air Hockey on its shiny trendy gadget? When it was submitted for review, why didn't someone in Cupertino play this game for 5 minutes, raise a mallet high in the air, and bang a gong to the tune of "Rejected"?

Plenty of good games are available for the iPhone, such as Edge, Eliss, Fieldrunners, and Zen Bound. But of these, only Eliss and Zen Bound seem to have been conceived as iPhone-specific games. While it's terrific and well-designed, Fieldrunner's main selling point is that it's a tower defense game I can carry in my pocket. Aside from that, it's basically just another solid tower defense game. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I think it's been over-praised mostly because it exists on the iPhone.Zen-bound-003

Edge strikes me as a different sort of animal. It's fun and challenging, and I admire the art style and overall vibe of the game. But I find it hard to overlook the fact that its primary gameplay mechanic is managing the iPhone's touchscreen or accelerometer. In other words, the real challenge Edge presents the player is doing things on the iPhone that would otherwise be child's play with a gamepad or mouse. Lots of iPhone games fall into this trap, as did the first wave of Wiimote-obsessed Wii games.

Hugely popular games like iDracula also suggest that we're still swimming in a sea of adulation for this tricked out uber-iPod. Described by the developer as "The Most intense game ever! Not for the nervous!" iDracula is routinely hailed by one reviewer after another for its amazing graphics. And they do look impressive on the iPhone's screen. It's also rather amazing to play a 3rd-person shooter on a device with no hard controls.

Unfortunately, as a shooter iDracula is brain-dead and repetitive with a control scheme that has carpal tunnel written all over it. The only possible explanation I can offer for why this game is so popular: it's currently the best we can do for an action shooter on the iPhone.

Despite the 6000+ games currently available, I guess I still have my doubts about the iPhone as a gaming platform. When your primary input device (your finger) obscures your view of the screen and field of play (a problem in most of the games I've tried), it's hard for me to see that system as optimized for gaming. I also find holding the iPhone uncomfortable after 15 minutes or so of gaming. Despite its superlative graphics and sound capabilities, the device simply doesn't feel like a game system to me. Tapping or dragging my finger across its screen feels like a compromise, not a feature.

Clever game designers will surely make me eat my words, and I welcome that day. I'll happily keep trying new iPhone games (next up for me is WordFu), but for now I'm sticking with my DS and PSP. Retro Game Challenge and Crisis Core are both making me very happy. More on each of them soon.

Fireworks and finger gymnastics

We're vacationing in Santa Fe, New Mexico this week, and I'm spending part of my free time playing a slew of recent portable games on the iPhone, DS, and PSP. Please don't look for any hard analysis in these little missives. They're mostly just for fun. :-)

Cultures collided today when we visited a French pastry shop famous for its crepes. The lunch special: a chorizo and egg crepe topped with green chile sauce. Somewhere in Paris a pastry chef just shuddered in horror. We, nevertheless, enjoyed every scrumptious bite.

I played a couple of terrific games today, both suggested to me by readers: Big Bang Mini for the DS (thanks, Nat) and Eliss for the iPhone (thanks Alex). These two games share almost nothing in common, aside from the fact that they both make excellent use of what's special about their respective systems: Big Bang Mini relies on the stylus to launch fireworks onto the upper screen; and Eliss takes advantage of the iPhone's multi-touch capabilities to control an abstract universe of blendable planets.

Big-bang-mini-box1-300x269 Big Bang Mini combines elements of Space Invaders, Meteos, and Geometry Wars to create a brilliant genre-combo shoot-em-up game that has me thoroughly hooked. You launch fireworks to fend off enemies, all the while dodging debris falling from the upper screen. Each level contains its own art style, music, and special abilities...and, of course, a boss battle that unlocks the next level.

The gameplay is frenetic, but fair, and it induces the kind of in-the-zone feel that few games seem to get right anymore. I so desperately want to describe this fireworks-based game as  "a blast to play," but even on vacation I just can't let myself go there. ;-)

For what it's worth, I strongly urge you to ignore the inexplicably misguided review 1UP gave this game. I rarely take issue with game review scores, but it seems to me the reviewer assigned to Big Bang Mini missed the point of the basic gameplay mechanics entirely. Shooting and moving your ship are designed as two separate activities that must be coordinated by the player. Suggesting that the game is fundamentally flawed because you can't move and shoot at the same time seems wrongheaded to me because it insists on a gameplay design the developers clearly rejected in favor of a different kind of challenge.

Eliss Eliss is a hard game to describe, so I'll let the designer, Steph Thirion, tell you about it:

Your job is to keep up harmony in an odd universe made of blendable planets. Touch-control multiple planets at once, join them together into giant orbs or split them up into countless dwarf planets, and match their size with the squeesars. Wipe off the stardust, resist the attraction of the vortex and other space phenomena, and slow down the passage of time. Each of the 20 levels will require creative ways and strategies in using your fingers. Warm up your hands, you're up for some serious finger gymnastics in the bizarro galaxy.

Finger gymnastics indeed. Eliss requires you to manage planets as they emerge, using the iPhone's pinch or expand control requiring two fingers. The game recognizes three fingers as well, and you'll need them to keep up. I'm still dubious about iPhone games that insist on obscuring the screen to deliver inputs, but Eliss cleverly relies on simple abstract circles of various sizes which are easy to see and control. This game has been nominated for an IGF award in the "Innovation in Mobile Game Design" category, and it's easy to see why.

I generally hate it when writers say "I can't describe this game. You need to play it for yourself." But in this really need to play it for yourself. In the meantime, you can check out the video below for some gameplay footage.

I'll be back tomorrow with more gaming on the go, including Zen Bound, iDracula, and Edge.

Portable gamer - Santa Fe

Note: We're vacationing in Santa Fe, New Mexico this week, and I'm spending part of my free time playing a slew of recent portable games on the iPhone, DS, and PSP. Please don't look for any hard analysis in these little missives. I'm doing them just for fun. :-)

I'll get to the games in a second, but first a few wise words from a local resident.

Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven't time, and to see takes time--like to have a friend takes time.

Nothing is less real than realism...Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.

I saw these phrases written on a museum wall today, and I couldn't help applying them to both my own work and my hopes for how we play and make video games. Georgia O'Keeffe defined her life and vision as an artist by relying on these two principles. They served her well.

I realized today that I've been unconsciously tracing the steps of Georgia O'Keeffe for most of my adult life. She was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, where I've spent part of every summer since 1998. In the '20s she and husband Alfred Stieglitz shared an apartment in Manhattan only a few blocks from where I lived in grad school. Her paintings, particularly those inspired by her deep love of the American West, figured prominently in my master's thesis research. Her Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills is burned into my memory like no other painting I've seen. And here I am writing these words a stone's throw away from the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in the city she loved and where she died at the age of 98.

Raymond Chandler would have described Santa Fe as lousy with artists. We met a man named Milton who makes some of the finest custom hats in the world. We met a sculptor named Heidi who specializes in smoke fired porcelain. She welcomed Zoe into her shop full of expensive, breakable works and gave her a small ball of clay to play with. Cormac McCarthy lives here; so did Douglas Adams before he died. Despite a population of less than 100,000, Santa Fe has nine museums, dozens of galleries, a renowned opera company, several dance companies, and a wide variety of ensembles.

The sky here is blue like no blue I've ever seen. The horizon stretches forever. We woke up this morning to a thin blanket of snow. By afternoon we were walking comfortably on the plaza without jackets. And then there's the food. Sachin Agarwal sent me a tweet about the "best green chile omelet on earth." Guess what? He was right.

What's all this blather about Santa Fe? Where's the game stuff? Oh. Right. Well, I played Rolando (iPhone) on the plane coming out here. It's cute and fun, but I still have doubts about using my finger as an input device for games that require precise movement and timing. Rolando is mostly about tilting the iPhone, which works well, but when I must touch the screen (thus also obscuring the screen), it feels awkward and unwieldy to me. The game shares some strong similarities with LocoRoco (PSP), but suffers in comparison, especially in terms of control. Nevertheless, I love Rolando's offbeat storybook art style, which looks terrific on the iPhone.

I've also been playing Crisis Core (PSP) and enjoying it far more than I expected to, but I'll hold off writing more about it until I get deeper into the game. A quick impression: this may be the first Final Fantasy game I'll play to the end without slogging. We'll see.

Sorry I didn't do so well with the games today. I'll do better tomorrow.