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August 2009

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 25


I'm celebrating my 25th episode with a flurry of Gamers Confabs. This edition of the podcast features a conversation with guests Steve Gaynor from 2K Marin (Bioshock 2), Nels Anderson from Hothead Games (DeathSpank), and Wes Erdelack (aka Iroquois Pliskin) from the Versus CluClu Land blog.

We discuss the year in games to this point and the issues, people and games that have made the biggest impact.

Keep your eye on this space, as I'll be releasing 4 more Confabs with a gaggle of terrific guests over the next week. I hope you enjoy them.

  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
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Show links:

Podcast weekend


I've gathered the Gamers Confab troops, and we're ready to chatter! I'll record several segments this weekend with some of my favorite bloggers/journos/designers and begin posting them on Sunday. We'll discuss the games, people, and issues that have made the biggest impact this year, and we'll look ahead to the avalanche of games due to arrive in the coming months.

I hope you'll enjoy these conversations.

Happy gaming!

Devil Survivor: JRPG defibrillator


We who complain about modern JRPGs have a long list of grievances. We remember the days when games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII defined the cutting edge of both production values and intelligent game design. We've stuck by the genre through years of creative stagnation and formulaic iteration, celebrating occasional outbursts of originality (Persona 3, The World Ends With You) and wincing through bloated over-promised duds like Blue Dragon.

Balance is the monster most modern RPGs can't slay. How to design a game that holds true to the genre's core gameplay elements while not sinking under their weight? How to add new features without adding needless complexity? How to make a reliable, well-worn set of mechanics feel fresh and inspired?

When a game comes along that manages to strike these tricky balances and breathe vitality into the genre, we hardy JRPG defenders ought to grab our trumpets and blow them loudly. Well, folks, listen up...

Such a game has arrived and chances are you know nothing about it - Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor from our old friends at Atlus, the developer who has done more than any other to produce smart, polished JRPGs that extend and blur the margins of the genre while holding steadfast to its core elements. As I've noted here before, Atlus is the Republic Pictures of the game industry: a small player specializing in quality genre fare on a modest budget. If you've played an Atlus game, chances are you've come to recognize the Atlus signature: challenging, stylish, anime-inspired RPGs with slick presentations, clever interfaces, and careful attention to detail.

Devil Survivor succeeds because it does three things remarkably well: 1) it combines the best features from other genres; 2) it streamlines gameplay without oversimplifying; 3) it presents an adult story in which player choice feel genuinely meaningful. Longtime RPG players will appreciate the way Devil Survivor honors the genre by insisting on a thoughtful and strategic approach to resource management and tactics. But in keeping with Atlus' balanced design, newcomers will find many of the traditional RPG corners rounded, with less grind, micromanagement, and repetition.

Most successful games these days are hybrids of various genres, and Devil Survivor is no exception. It fuses elements of traditional (Dragon Quest) and turn-based tactical (Tactics Ogre) RPGs with monster collection (Pokemon) and time-locked adventure (Majora's Mask), all mixed together with a series of ideological paths and choices that have become a regular feature of Shin Megami Tensei games. Each of these elements feels polished and refined, rather than tacked-on, introduced to enhance gameplay and enrich the player's experience. In Devil Survivor no design element feels superfluous. Everything belongs and fits together beautifully.

Devil Survivor has the best battle system I've seen in any RPG, and I've played a few RPGs. After strategically positioning your teams from a top-down perspective, the view swings into 1st-person mode with your enemies lined up before you. You can attack the leader's minions, which may yield more points but exposes you to more risk; or you may choose to focus on the leader, who will likely be a savvy fighter.

All your team's special abilities come into play here, including the acquisition and fusion choices you made beforehand to maximize the powers of your demons. This combination of collecting (via demon auctions) pre-planning, creative alchemy, field positioning, and in-battle tactics results in a pitch-perfect system that never ceases to be fun and challenging. It also proves that innovation can sometimes be trumped by refinement and balance. Devil Survivor's battle system doesn't break new ground; it simply elevates a familiar system by recombining and perfecting its core elements.

Devil Survivor feels clever and new in large part because of its streamlined user-interface, a computer that functions as your primary conduit to the world. Gone (thank you, Atlus!) is a cumbersome overworld, travel and map navigation, dungeons, and random battles. The game is set in a nightmarish vision of Tokyo, overrun with violence, fear and paranoia. The mechanical drudgery of movement, so long a ball and chain for JRPGs, is replaced here with a system that prioritizes the people of each district and the special problems they face.

You should know three other things about Devil Survivor: 1) You must make choices, and those choices will sometimes cost lives. The game does an amazing job of making that matter. 2) Your choices will open some doors and close others. Once closed, they will never reopen unless you replay the game. 3) You have only one save file, so you must carefully consider how you wish to progress. The consequences of your actions may not be apparent to you until later in the game, so the old save/reset/retry ploy won't work here.

I have more to say about Devil Summoner's narrative and the frightening world it depicts. I'll return to those in my next post.

Note: Japanese trailer.


Bobbarker Confession time. I suffer from an odd disorder called This Could Be a Game Syndrome. Perhaps you can relate. I navigate through my daily routines - parenting, work, play, eating, sleeping - just like 'normal' people, but several times a day TCBAGS (pronounced 'Tee-See-Bags') strikes, and my consciousness is overtaken by an uncontrollable compulsion to translate whatever I'm doing into a video game. 

TCBAGS can strike anywhere. For example, I'm sitting in the dentist's chair having my teeth cleaned, and I'm suddenly seized by the idea of an anxiety-reducing game that enables a child to play the role of dentist and enact the same cleaning procedure her dentist will perform in advance of her visit. I've had similar TCBAGS attacks in the doctor's and optometrist's office. Just imagine how much more fun a visit to the eye doctor could be if a savvy game designer got his hands on the standard eye exam.

The idle mind is fertile ground for TCBAGS. The most potent attacks frequently occur in the shower or while lying in bed. Even the most mundane activities, like washing dishes, can spur an episode of TCBAGS. I recently designed an arcade game involving silverware, a sponge, a drain, and bubbles. I'm not suggesting it was a good game by any means. TCBAGS appears to have no impact on cleverness or originality.

I spend a fair amount of time being a dad, and I've often wondered why so few games deal with parenthood. As I've written here before, fathers can be brave. Fathers can be heroic. Fathers can do deeds of daring on behalf of their families. Novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers have been telling us their stories for as long as those media have existed. Everybody agrees fathers can be engaging and dynamic characters. So where are the video game dads? When TCBAGS hits me, it's often provoked by a feeling that fathers are driven by powerful motivations that, at least in my book, often trump those assigned the typical superhero.

Other activities can also bring on TCBAGS. Lately, without consciously choosing to do so, I find myself watching movies and brainstorming the many ways they could be turned into bad games. For example, I saw The Hurt Locker this weekend, a powerful account of a US Army bomb squad during the Iraq War in 2004. I greatly admired the film and enjoyed a vigorous conversation about it afterward with my son. But then TCBAGS kicked in, and we were soon designing bomb diffusing missions with cludgy Wiimote controls; rail shooting in tanks during sandstorms; and dialogue tree haggling with street vendors. Like I said, it's a sickness.

If anybody else has a self-diagnosed case of TCBAGS, I'd love to hear about it, if only to reassure myself that I'm not crazy. ;-) Maybe we could start a support group. Or, better yet, we could design a game about a support group of TCBAGS victims. Yeah, that's the ticket! I'm thinking a first-person shooter, no?

Stale Whale Tale

Ahab Call me Brainy. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on television, I thought I would write a few words about the gaming part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; I account it high time to play a game as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.

Sadly, my epic tale of high gaming adventure was cut short by a blow to the head from a ricocheting Wiimote. I now find myself a wandering amnesiac, adrift in an ocean of URLs and a homepage bookmark anchoring me to this strange place. So, call me Brainy or what you will, for I know not who I am. There is nothing surprising in this. Almost all games in their degree, some time or other, share very nearly the same condition as me.

There now is your insular city of the Amnesiacs, Sanitarium, belted round by Rune Factory reefs - amnesia surrounds it with her surf. Alone in the Dark, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is Silent Hill, where that noble mole is washed by amnesia, and cooled by amnesia, which a few hours previous were out of Dragon Quests. Look at the crowds of amnesiacs there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Final Fantasy afternoon. Go from Baten Kaitos and XIII steps from thence, by Prototype northward. What do you see? - Amnesiacs like silent STALKERs all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in Lost Odyssey. Some leaning against the Metal Gear; some seated upon Red Steel; some looking Tormented over the Planescape as if striving to catch a Second Sight. But these are all amnesiacs; of week days pent up in amnesia - tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the original plots gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more amnesiacs, spinning Tales of the Abyss, and seemingly bound for Shining Tears. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of amnesia; loitering under the shady lee of KOTOR will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh The Witcher as they possibly can without remembering.

And there they stand - miles of them - leagues. Amnesiacs all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues, - north, east, south, and west of Xenogears. Yet here they all unite. Can you tell me, my memory-addled shipmates, if The World Ends With You?

Sorry Herman.



Lately, I feel very small. If you follow this space, you know I've recently been smitten by two very different games: Little King's Story and Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor. On the advice of a friendly reader, I've also been looking at Deadly Creatures, a game in which you're a scorpion and tarantula bent on survival against all sorts of gnarly bugs, rats, and reptiles.

Deadly Creatures suffers from some design issues that weigh it down - heavy reliance on QTEs, overly complex controls - but I'm attracted to each of these games, and when I reflect on my experiences playing them, I realize they share one distinctive feature that sets them apart: POV. Aside from their other virtues, all three games adopt a playful approach to point of view, positioning the player in relationship to his/her avatar in ways that enhance gameplay and encourage a perspective that feels different from most other games.

In Spider and Deadly Creatures, the difference makes all the difference. Both employ mechanics based on the characteristics of being an arachnid, which provides fun movement and skill deployment. Spider uses a 2-D framed portrait perspective, while DC relies on an over the shoulder (if arachnids had shoulders) 3-D perspective. Spider conveys a split sense of inhabiting and tactilely controlling a spider; whereas DC communicates the feeling of being a scorpion on the ground in 3-D space. In this game, climbing a wall can make your head spin.

In Spider, POV provokes you to think strategically and offers the possibility of constructing a narrative from a separate player's-mind POV that's always running parallel to the spider's. DC's POV, more than anything else, delivers a powerful sense of danger and brutal combat. Survival of the fittest takes on a new level of urgency when you experience it eye-to-eye with an angry arthropod. 

POV in Little King's Story is more subtle because it's not so much about shifting the player's visual perspective as about redefining genre expectations and repositioning your avatar's view of the world and people around him. LKS tricks you into thinking it's an isometric RTS dressed up in cuddly clothes. Looking down at the world from this perspective, we're conditioned to assume a cavalier attitude about life and death, tolerance, and morality.

The game even gives voice to this approach in the form of the King's main adviser, Howser. Rule your kingdom from above; expand it, take no prisoners; fill your coffers and dominate the world. The genius of LKS is the way it upends these familiar genre formulas, mainly by altering the player's POV as a child-king who must go to battle literally surrounded by the families he helped bring together.

I wish games played with POV more, well, playfully. Consider some of the most highly-regarded recent games: GTA IV, MGS 4, Bioshock, Gears of War 2, Fallout 3. Mostly guys with guns in that bunch. Don't worry, I'm not about to launch another "give us games without guns" plea, and I'm not suggesting these aren't terrific games in their own rights.

But there's an unmistakable sameness about how they deal with POV. When you consider the power of games to create virtual environments and define unfixed perspectives - 1st-person, 3rd-person; 1st-flower, 3rd-katamari (The Darkness is especially notable in this regard) - it's a shame they so often limit themselves to the standard playbook. Maybe game designers assume we don't want them to stray too far with POV. These three games make me wish they would stray even farther.



I'm devoting this post to Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, but I need to lay a little groundwork first. I hope you'll stick with me.

We often call video games an emerging medium, but what does that really mean? Nearly 40 years after they first appeared, can we still justifiably describe games as "in their infancy?" If so, when will they finally grow up? And when they do, how will we know?

Some say the critics will tell us. A game will arrive and be universally hailed as a landmark achievement demonstrating the power of the medium as an interactive art form. You know, the Citizen Kane argument.

Others say the market will tell us. When video games achieve the kind of penetration books, television, and movies enjoy, then we'll know they've truly arrived. Mario has appeared in over 200 games in 28 years, but his total sales are less than half of Harry Potter's, accrued in only 12 years over 7 books. On the other hand, a recent NPD report says 63% of Americans have played a video game in the past six months, compared to 53% who report going out to the movies.

Yet video games remain on the cultural periphery. Film studies programs proliferate at colleges and universities while many of us continue to plead the case for teaching even a single course devoted to video games. And as popular culture fetes go, well, there's the Oscars and the Golden Globes; the Grammys and the Pulitzers...and there's the Spike TV Video Game Awards.

I say these cultural barometers are mostly irrelevant. They measure and reward factors with few analogs in games, and they rely on formulaic ways of knowing that increasingly seem irrelevant to understanding games. Aristotle's Poetics - still the blueprint for framing our understanding of literature, drama, film, and television - has served us well for 2300 years, but dramatic theory cannot adequately account for the structural or experiential nature of games. Roger Ebert may be the elder statesman of American film critics, but applying film theory to games is an effort that fails before it begins. Even market validation is problematic. It's easy to count how many people buy movie movie tickets, but unit sales don't always paint an accurate picture for games, especially for social titles shared by friends and family over months and even years.

We who love games wait and wonder, but what are we waiting for? To be taken seriously? To be highly regarded? To have our place at the table? I'm not suggesting we're wasting our time making the case for games. I spend an inordinate amount of time doing just that with my academic colleagues. But if the door to cultural affirmation suddenly opened, what would we gain by walking through it? How would our efforts to evolve and grow change? Might we, upon reflection, decide that an "emerging medium" is actually quite a fine thing to be?

The best case for video games as an emerging medium comes from the people who make them. One might assume gifted designers like Harvey Smith, Brenda Brathwaite, Jenova Chen, and Soren Johnson (to name only a few) would position themselves on the front lines, demanding respect and acknowledgment for a medium and industry they're working hard to build. Instead, they spend most of their time looking inward, challenging themselves and their peers to push the artificial boundaries of games and re-examine self-limiting assumptions. I've seen this conversation occur at GDC , and I've written about it here many times. But something happened this week that highlighted just how intensive and illuminating this process can be.

A few days ago I wrote about Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor and praised its elegance and simplicity. I promised to return in another post to discuss the game's unique hook: a surprisingly vivid and disturbing story that emerges for the player willing to construct it by paying careful attention to the game's environments.

In the ongoing search for interactive storytelling language, the game takes a fascinating step forward by trusting the player, whose avatar is a spider, to do what spiders do (move from place to place spinning webs and eating insects) and thereby uncover a deeply human story. No amnesiacs. No aliens. No supernatural events or save-the-world imperatives. Just a simple, but startlingly poignant family tragedy revealed via the game's environments, photos, heirlooms, and small bits of evidence left behind.

Your growing curiosity compels you to explore, but the limitations of being a tiny spider both limit and free you. As a result, your actions and decisions seamlessly weave gameplay with storytelling (and a bit of puzzle-solving), and your experience is refracted through an intriguing split persona with tension between the two. You're eager to know more about the wedding ring in the sink pipe, but you're running low on web juice, so you need to find a tasty bug soon.

I love Spider because it points the way to a kind of storytelling unique to games, and it does so on a device that developers have only begun to exploit. It's a lovely game with delicate visuals and music - and you simply must feel for yourself what it's like to flick your finger across the screen and send your spider flying gracefully from one object to another.

But Spider isn't good enough for its creator. In a post-mortem published in this month's Edge Magazine, Randy Smith calls the game an "elegant dodge," and explains why, in his view, the game falls short of his vision for narrative games. As he puts it, "Spider is a game that strives to have an elegant awareness of the interactive media but doesn’t try hard to open up its frontiers." "This is a dead story, one you cannot change but only discover through exploration."

I might quibble with Smith's contention that authored narratives are "dead," but what most intrigues me about Smith's response to Spider is his unyielding sense of where he believes games must go and his willingness to share his ideas and reflections, even when they highlight his own shortcomings.

Smith has appeared in the vigorous discussion of Spider at Touch Arcade, offering a few helpful hints as players attempt to decipher the game's many clues; and he has stopped by here too, encouraging me to read the Edge column I had already scoured after completing the game. :-) More importantly, Smith has delivered some of the most thoughtful and pioneering talks at GDC, challenging other designers to think purposefully and self-critically about interactivity and its relationship to narrative. With Spider, Randy Smith walks the walk.

If this is what an emerging medium looks like, I hope we never stop emerging.

Simplicity plus

Shatter  Foyer_frenzy

A year ago N'Gai Croal said on my podcast he found himself increasingly drawn to simple games that deliver bursts of fun streamlined play. I recall thinking he was crazy (a thought I timidly kept to myself). In August of '08 we were feverishly anticipating the arrival of the Serial F-Game Trio: Fallout 3, Fable 2, and Far Cry 2; close on the heels of the Serial Acronym Duo: MGS4 and GTA4. Big games with big ambitions all.

Lately, I'm coming around to N'Gai's way of thinking. I'm learning to more fully appreciate the little things small games do well. While I'm sure I'll break out my happy dance at the inevitable Persona 5 announcement, I don't measure games by the same value criteria I applied when I was younger. 50-hour RPGs and games that offer lots of replay value are nice, but these days I'm just as happy to play a polished well-designed title that executes on its concept, even when that concept is quite simple.

Simplicity isn't easy. We say less is more, but most people don't believe it. I teach writing in my courses, and year after year my students struggle to produce clear, concise prose. For many students this:

In my opinion, there are many possible explanations for how and why teenagers are drawn to certain video games, but perhaps the most logical reason is because they provide endless hours of fun recreation.

is perceived as 'smarter' than this:

Teenagers enjoy fun video games.

I try to convince them otherwise.

Simplicity is nice, but it only gets you so far. Two games I've played this week: Shatter and Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, illustrate the allure of simplicity when coupled with two other key ingredients: elegance and a hook. In the hands of the right developer, this simple recipe can produce a truly marvelous game.

Shatter (PS3) mashes up Pong and Arkanoid/Breakout, with a healthy splash of Rez. You must deflect a ball with your paddle to destroy a field of blocks and clear each level. A handful of power-ups give you more power or add to your point totals. The elegance comes via its smooth responsive controls, subtle sonic and tactile feedback, rock-solid mechanics, and slick presentation highlighted by a retro-inspired soundscape that "flows through electro rock, epic guitar solos and spacey vibes." It's not quite in the Rez soundtrack league, but it comes fairly close.

Developer Sidhe could have left it there, but they wisely added a couple of hooks that elevate the gameplay: the ability to release multiple balls at once, and the "suck and blow" mechanic (I don't make 'em up, folks, I just report 'em) which enables you to further manipulate the flight of the ball. These two small but significant additions distinguish Shatter from its influences and make the game feel fresh. I can't stop playing it.

Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (iPhone/iPod Touch) is a very different kind of game, but it relies on the same recipe of simplicity, elegance, and hook. You play as a spider in an old abandoned mansion, and you must spin webs to catch insects and transport yourself from one room to the next. Nothing very complicated about that, but the game encourages you to find your own path and succeed with your own strategies.

Movement and mechanics are handled adroitly, which is saying something for a game emphasizing locomotion on a platform full of clunky-control games. Visually the game is an utter treat with hand-painted backgrounds and beautifully animated insects that deliver a palpable sense of space and place. Elegance would seem to be a core design principle in Spider.

So what's the hook? Well, it's a big one that I'm saving for another post. For now, I'll simply say that Randy Smith and David Kalina co-founded the new company that designed Spider, and if you know anything about their work or their innovative ideas about storytelling in games, you will find this little game functions as a startlingly successful proof of concept. Spider makes a virtue of simplicity; but it also suggests simplicity can sometimes conceal things that aren't simple at all.

Ramping up


Wii Sports Resort is a mixed bag of games, but when Nintendo gets something right, they really nail it. I'm enjoying Frisbee, Archery, and Bowling, all of which feel solid and responsive. Swordplay, which initially struck me as another 'madly-waggle-wiimote' game, has grown on me, especially now that I better understand how it rewards a balance of offensive and defensive strategy.

But just like its Wii Sports daddy, the Resort edition features a terrific and hugely addictive tennis game that best demonstrates Nintendo's marriage of hardware and software - and it works beautifully in both single and two-player modes.

Some have complained about the lack of a doubles option, but table tennis is far too fast-paced for me to share my side of the table with someone else. Besides, I can count on one hand the number of times I've played Wii Tennis with three other people. It's a nice option, but how many of us live in a space large enough to accommodate four Wiimote swinging players? And then there's the guy who moves to the ball wherever it lands, despite the fact that it's completely unnecessary. Two-player tennis is just fine for me, thanks.

Table Tennis gets it right for several key reasons. First, it's an uncanny representation of the real game. While not exactly a simulation, it accurately conveys a sense of holding a paddle and moving from forehand to backhand positions in a near 1-to-1 fashion. Resort golf doesn't feel like golf; wakeboarding doesn't feel like wakeboarding; and the misguided and painful cycling feels like anything but cycling.

But Table Tennis does a remarkably effective job of positioning me in the space and responding to my actions in ways that feel very similar to actually playing (okay, I'll say it because I've always called it) Ping Pong. I wish the game offered a first-person mode that brought me closer to the table, but I understand how that would defeat the 3rd-person design principal Nintendo has consistently applied to its Wii Sports games.

Secondly, Table Tennis is the game that best illustrates the MotionPlus technology Nintendo built this game to showcase. Applying spin to the ball dramatically changes the dynamics of play, and the new juiced-up control system makes it work nearly flawlessly. Varying degrees of top-spin, under-spin, and side-spin can alter the trajectory and bounce of the ball, and your progress as a player is largely determined by your mastery of various spin dynamics - both delivering it and quickly responding to it when the ball is headed your way. Spinning a ball wide of the table and watching it drift back just enough to catch the edge of the surface feels like genuine shotmaking. It may also result in your wife throwing a table lamp at you.

Finally, single-player Table Tennis sends you on a ramping up journey that accomplishes several useful things: 1) You learn how to play the game; 2) You gain confidence by defeating easy opponents, offering you room to experiment with tricky shots that may fail; 3) You gradually hone your skills as each succeeding opponent pushes you a bit harder; 4) You learn strategies (especially use of spin) from opponents who use them liberally, and you learn how anticipate the ball's behavior; 5) You discover when the level 1500 "Champion" makes mincemeat of you that you're not quite the bad-ass Ping Pong king you thought you were, spurring a mad vengeance-driven imperative to defeat the "Champion" at all costs.

Table Tennis does that Nintendo thing we've seen for 25 years. It offers a simple but addictive, immaculately designed game dressed as a puffy grinning cartoon intent on bringing you to your knees in agonized frustration. Want a bit more challenge? Press the 2 button at the Match loading screen and see what happens.

Happy waggling.

Rock Band University


Few games have the staying power of Rock Band. With a steady stream of DLC, hugely addictive "I know I can do better than that, dammit" gameplay; fabulous co-op play ideal for parties; perfectly scaled levels of difficulty; and the easy imaginative leap it enables from 'guy with plastic guitar in living room' to 'mega rock star in arena' - it may be the most perfectly designed and executed game of this generation.

But as the years pass I'm finding another less obvious attraction in Rock Band: it's an amazingly effective teacher. I don't simply mean that it contains a solid tutorial or that it encourages you to improve your skills as a player. It does those things, of course, and its methods are worth considering for those of us who teach for a living.

What draws me lately to Rock Band is its facility for teaching music appreciation and even basic music theory. I can't begin to describe how much I've grown in my understanding of what's going on musically behind a talented musician's performance. Clearly, a gap exists between what a real guitarist is doing on strings and what I'm doing pressing buttons; but that gap narrows a bit when you're singing or playing bass, and it nearly closes when you're playing drums. With cymbals attached and freestyle mode enabled, playing drums in Rock Band 2 gets you very close to the real thing. In fact, maybe it is the real thing.

If you're genuinely interested to learn what Keith Moon was all about as a drummer, a very good start would be to download the early The Who tracks for Rock Band and study his parts. It's one thing to opine that Moon was a master of the fill; it's quite another to analyze his technique on screen, slow it down, practice it, and compare what he's doing to other drummers. Rock Band can't show you how he played, but it's very good at showing you what he played and encouraging you to learn by doing, not just observing.

It's quite possible (and, no small feat, fun) to learn basic elements of music theory like rhythm, harmony, melody, and structure in Rock Band. This 'learning' occurs mostly through osmosis, with the player unaware it's even happening - which many of us would suggest is the very best kind of learning. I'm not suggesting we're breeding the next generation of great composers via Rock Band, but at a certain level, the game insists on a kind of technical mastery that plugs into some useful knowledge of music.

I recently put this theory to the test with a music teacher colleague of mine who's not a gamer and had never played Rock Band or Guitar Hero. We isolated one musical characteristic: syncopation. I loaded up Steely Dan's "Bodhisattva," and put him on bass while I played guitar. I asked him if it was possible for a student to learn something meaningful about syncopation by studying and playing this song. I chose "Bodhisattva because it's all about syncopation...and I'm a Steely Dan freak.

After a few minutes of learning the buttons (musicians learn this stuff fast), his eyes lit up and a big grin emerged on his face. "Can it be harder? Can I play what I'm hearing?" I had underestimated his ability, and he was disturbed by the disconnect between what he was playing and what he was hearing, so I bumped the difficulty up to Hard. "Oh! OK. I can't handle this! But I see what's happening. Very clever. Very clever."

Afterward we discussed what the game was doing in terms of presentation, and he was especially taken by the scrolling fretboard and the clear horizontal lines indicating the beats. Here it was possible to see the syncopation and compare what's happening on bass to what's happening on lead guitar. He loved the idea that a student could feel, see, and hear the syncopation occurring in context with other supporting parts. He also liked that the game gave him feedback when he made mistakes, and he appreciated being able to hear the song without bass if he stopped playing (we used No Fail mode). My bottom line question: is anything pedagogically useful happening here? His answer: "Absolutely."

I'm scratching the surface here, and I'm sure many other teacher-types have already exploited Rock Band and Guitar Hero's possibilities for teaching and learning. What I find more interesting at the moment is how this game has enhanced my own understanding and appreciation of music, almost without me realizing it. And this makes me wonder about other people's experiences.

Beating "Painkiller" on Expert is a cool accomplishment (and impossible for some of us), but have you actually learned anything useful by playing these games? If so, I'd love to hear about it.

The thing about controllers


Bigredpotion-1 This past weekend I had the pleasure of appearing as a guest on the Big Red Potion podcast along with my Gamers Confab pal Mitch Krpata. Hosts Sinan Kubba and Joe DeLia produce a consistently thoughtful show, focusing each episode on a single topic.

In this episode we discussed game controls past, present, and future. Aside from a few rambling bits from me, it's a good conversation that I hope you'll enjoy.

You can download the episode here, and subscribe to the podcast feed here. Thanks to Sinan and Joe for inviting me on, and thanks to Mitch for always bringing the smart stuff.

Cute ain't pretty


When I first wrote about Little King's Story back in May, I praised the game effusively, but expressed concern that it might be overlooked when it arrived here in the States. While the jury is still out on sales figures (50,000 units worldwide so far, I'm told), I needn't have worried about the critical response.

LKS currently ranks 10th on Metacritic's "all-time high scores" for the Wii, and reviewers far and wide have sung its praises. Gamasutra has a fascinating interview with the game's director, Yoshiro Kimura; Siliconera reports a sequel may be in the works; and I'm selling copies of the game door-to-door in my neighborhood. So I'm delighted to report that LKS is getting the love it deserves, if not the cash, and no I'm not actually selling the game door-to-door.

The most common complaint you will hear about Little King's Story has nothing to do with the game itself. The game's biggest problem, and the reason it will be overlooked by most gamers, is that it looks like a cutesy kids' game. Its marketing would seem to confirm this impression: a colorful 2-page spread in Nintendo Power (but nothing in, say, Edge Magazine); a flash-based children's book-style website (with background audio of cheering kids); and the game's cartoonish box art - all apparently go out of their way to discourage so-called serious gamers from taking the LKS plunge.

What's more, the game's opening sequence (preceded by a Wii menu screen puppet show animation) conveys the unmistakable sense that we're being placed on a storyteller's knee to hear a once-upon-a-time tale about a timid little boy in a far away land who becomes a king. The farm animals and hyper-melodious narrator seal the deal: this is a game for kids.

But what if all this is part of the point? What if, instead of being fatally saddled with a 'kiddie' presentation and art style, Little King's Story was deliberately designed in just this way to enhance, not diminish, its quietly subversive content? What if, instead of lambasting the game's art style as yet another dose of cutesy Japanese anime, we examine the in-game character designs and flowing watercolor visuals inspired, it turns out, by Russian paintings? In other words, what if they did it this way on purpose?

If you have two normal people standing there, and one of them says 'I KILL YOU!' and stabs the other one, that's just sad. But if you have two little anime-cartoon cute guys, and one of them says [high-pitched voice] 'I KILL YOU!' and stabs the other one, it's serious, but it's really funny. It's the opposite of real people in games doing corny, goofy things... we have little goofy guys doing very serious things.[1]
                             Yoshiro Kimura, producer/director of Little King's Story

Little King's Story doesn't contain a complex narrative with 3-dimensional characters. The game doesn't require such baggage because it functions as a fairy tale in the purest folkloric sense of the term. Each of the rulers your diminutive king must confront represents a different take on society and its priorities. The citizens in these countries suffer from the same blindness as their kings because they've mindlessly accepted these despots' self-indulgent delusions. Find happiness by being attractive; find it by partying; by endlessly consuming. Find happiness by defeating foes you deem inferior, take their land...and justify it by claiming you're "unifying the world." In its own charming little way, this game takes no prisoners.

Little King's Story sneaks up on you because it masquerades as a frolicking, accessible RTS. And as we all know, the minions you command in such games are disposable peons that can be easily replaced. But in LKS, these characters have names. They have families you helped create by pairing them up and directing them to be married in a church. When one dies in battle, he or she will wash up resuscitated on shore the next day, ready for reassignment. Usually. But not always.

One of the more startling moments I've experienced in a video game occurred when I emerged from my castle ready for a new day and discovered all the construction workers in my town dressed in black suits and dresses, mourning the loss of a departed friend. I was told the funeral would be held in the church, and when I arrived there I found a handful of people and a single child standing alone. Her father was her only parent. He died because I was careless with him the day before. Suddenly the cutesy angle took a sharp turn.

Little King's Story is full of dark sardonic humor that's funnier and darker in its fairy-tale setting. The other kings (essentially bosses) are at once goofy, eccentric, and oddly pathetic. Realistically rendered, I doubt they would have such appeal. The game also assumes you have a brain in your head. You'll catch references to Cervantes, for example, and when you reflect on them later realize they function as more than superfluous cultural name-dropping. They reflect on themes the game mines for meaning: coexistence, responsibility, the middle way.

Beyond its breezy accessible appeal, LKS trusts you to construct meaning in a non-linear self-directed fashion. If you choose to embrace the residents of your country by learning their names and protecting them, you will likely modify your gameplay strategies, and LKS will reward you for doing so. If you wish to explore the rich allegory that underpins the game's narrative, you will find it worth the effort. But you don't have to. You can play LKS as a straight-up RTS/RPG/Sim game, and if you crank up the difficulty (user-adjustable at any time), this game will knock you down hard. Many times.

Little King's Story will suffer at the cash register for its child-like aesthetic and presentation. It will suffer as a mash-up of genres that, while offering unique and refreshing gameplay, also ensures it has no built-in gamer base. And LKS will suffer because it's an unfamiliar 3rd-party Wii game that looks and plays nothing whatsoever like a Nintendo game.

I'm tempted to say that's a shame, but I won't. I have a feeling its gifted developers knew exactly what they were doing and decided to do it anyway. And that's a big reason why Little King's Story is the best Wii game this year.