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December 2010

Holiday hiatus

Hiatus Happy holidays, everyone. I'm taking a little time off to relax, spend some time with family, and make a dent in this pile of unplayed games on my shelf.

I wish all of you a joyful holiday season and a happy new year. Thanks for all you've done to make 2010 so much fun for me, and thank you for reading Brainy Gamer.

Happy Gaming!


The action is in the margins


This post gets around to video games a few paragraphs in. I hope you'll stick with me while I try to set the table.

Earlier this week a stunt double named Christopher Tierney was injured when he fell 30-feet to the stage floor in a preview performance of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a $65 million musical (the most expensive in Broadway history) beset with problems.

Tierney's fall was the fourth accident to occur during the show's pre-opening run. The female lead who plays villainess Arachne suffered a concussion after being hit by a rope, a dancer broke both wrists in a flying sequence, and another injured his foot on the same stunt.[1]

Given Spider-Man's many production woes, the inevitable impulse is to question its creators' intentions. As one critic asks, "Is Broadway trying too hard to be like Hollywood?"[2] Theater, the thinking goes, should stick to what it does best and leave the epic visuals and high-tech stunts to the experts in Hollywood. Theater is a live, flesh-and-blood event. Its primitive nature is its biggest strength. An actor on the boards before a live audience - it was enough for Shakespeare. Everything else is window dressing.

That is, unless you get it right. When that actor playing Spiderman defies gravity and flies across the stage, casts his web and sticks his landing to the amazement of a live audience, suddenly the Hollywood comparison gets turned around. Why would I want to watch a CG-enabled Tobey Maguire pretend to execute acrobatic stunts on a screen when I just saw a real guy fly 30-feet over my head, somersault in midair, and attach himself to that wall?!

We routinely overvalue originality and undervalue boring stuff like precision and shrewd execution. Anyone who glances at a list of lifted-from-Hollywood productions that pass for Broadway fare these days: Elf, Billy Elliott, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, among others, could be forgiven for thinking the Old White Way ought to be relabeled Tinseltown East. Whatever happened to originality in the American theater?

But cursory glances can lead to misinformed assumptions, and that's precisely the case with two of the shows I mentioned above. Yes, Elf and Mary Poppins might best be described as showy cash-ins aimed at the tourist crowd, but that cynical description hardly suits The Lion King or Billy Elliott, two outstanding musicals that transcend the Hollywood material which inspired them. Billy Elliott is a grittier depiction of its title character and his dire circumstances than the movie version, and the sensational dancing flows from a palpable sense of desperation in Billy. The Lion King (directed by Julie Taymor) remains one of the most exhilarating re-imaginings of original source material ever staged.

So what does all this have to do with video games?

In recent years we've seen plenty of criticism (including mine) leveled at video games that rehash old ideas; games that rely on genre formulas; games that ape the language of film. Games, we're often told, need new ideas. Games need to grow up. Games should leverage their defining interactivity. Cutscenes are lazy. Let movies be movies. Players want to write their own stories. Games don't need authored narratives. Games don't need linear stories. Games don't need stories. All games should be fun. No they shouldn't.

The problem with these reductive arguments is they fail to account for how art rails against boundaries; how artists inevitably seek to situate their work in the margins no one can own. Artists instinctively push back against "don't," "shouldn't," and "must." This is why we give them genius grants. It's also why we put them in prison. The real action is in the margins.

Julie Taymor's Spider-Man won't succeed or fail based on its recipe of ingredients or fidelity to the language of stage or cinema. Its success will ride on the production's ability to entertain and communicate its core vision to an audience. In Taymor's gifted hands, that vision is likely to include a blend of theatrical and filmic elements that define her sensibilities as a director of both media.

This is why we should stop worrying about games that try to be like movies, comic books, or anything else for that matter. The mechanical syntax and visual language of existing media and genres inevitably inform each another, and we should celebrate these confluences when they work. When they don't, the problems are likely to be less about modes of expression than about execution. In other words, a good idea is an idea that works, regardless of its origins or the format used to communicate it. 

Uncharted 2 is a great game, in part because its cinematic elements frame the player's experience and successfully convey its formal narrative. Minecraft is a terrific game too, partly because its primitive blocky visuals align with its player-focused building-block DNA. Interestingly, we tend to haggle over the merits of the first, but see the genius of the second as self-evident. Retro graphics suggest an artsy choice, but verisimilitude means somebody sold out. Neither preconception is reliable.

Good designers make formal choices that help express their creative goals. It's the critic's job to examine the meaning and impact of those choices. Why did Ian Bogost purposely constrain himself to chunky graphics and 4 kilobytes of memory for A Slow Year? Why did Krystian Majewski rely on high-res still photography for TRAUMA? Why did Daniel Benmergui choose text as a primary visual stimulus for Today I Die? Why does Monobanda offer the player no instructions for creating a tree in Bohm?

If we critics can meet games at the places they come to us; if we can examine their materials and try to understand why they were chosen and how they function; if we can allow every game to stand in our consideration untethered to other games or preconceptions, we will better comprehend how they work and why they succeed or fail. In the process, we will more ably fulfill our role as servants of the art form.

Here's hoping Spider-Man the musical overcomes its difficulties; but if it flops, sign me up for the autopsy. This one has a lot of moving parts.

The most important game of 2010


'Tis the season for reflection. Peering into my 2010 rear view mirror, it's easy to spot the Bioware Space Opera, the Bungie Space Opera, the Blizzard Space Opera and the Nintendo Space Opera. Ever the nonconformist, Rockstar bucked the interstellar trend with a Sandbox Oater. We also got more war games.

One game looms large in this rear view mirror of mine, but you won't find it listed on any GOTY lists. This game isn't the best or most innovative game of 2010, but I contend it's easily the most important game released this year. 

Infinity Blade, the first mobile game to use the Unreal 3 Engine, is the game that will matter most in the long run. It comes closer than any previous game to leveling the playing field between handheld devices and consoles, and it caps a year in which mobile gaming finally proved its case.

The bad news for Nintendo and Sony: Infinity Blade demonstrates why dedicated portable gaming devices like the DS and PSP can no longer assume superiority among gamers looking for "serious games." The next wave isn't here yet, but Infinity Blade is the harbinger of its imminent arrival. If I wanted to make Ian Bogost blanch, I'd say Infinity Blade is a game changer. Wait, make that GAME-CHANGER!

2010 is the year of the mass handheld migration. The game-on-the-go casuals are abandoning the DS/PSP for Angry Birds, Doodle Jump, and Cut the Rope. Seven of the ten top-grossing iOS apps this year were games. A Media Measure study published last week says 52 percent of tablet owners use the devices to play games, outnumbered only by the 58 percent who use them for web surfing.

Other numbers are more telling. 2010 is the first year a Pokémon game release failed to crush all other portable contenders. HeartGold/SoulSilver did well enough, selling 9+ million copies worldwide; but it hardly compares to Angry Birds' 42 million. Granted, "only" 12 million of those were iOS purchases. The wildly popular Android version of the app is free. But it's worth noting that developer Rovio monetizes that free version with ads that generate well over $1 million per month.

The numbers look worse the more you scrutinize them. Nintendo reported total unit sales of 1.7 million for all new DS titles through the first nine months of 2010. The top handful of iOS games routinely surpass that number in nine days. 

I'm no market expert, but it's hard to see how publishers can continue to sell handheld games for 30 bucks a pop when high-quality titles go for less than $10 - usually less than $3 - on iOS and Android. Maybe a market for $30 Zelda or Mario or Pokémon games will always exist, but as major devs like Epic, Sega, and id jump into the iOS pool - playing catch-up to established mobile devs like ngmoco and Chillingo - the prospects for 3rd-party development on Nintendo and Sony hardware appear to have dimmed. Perhaps the forthcoming 3DS and rumored PSP phone will prove me wrong. Nintendo has rounded up an impressive list of devs for its new system. We'll see how many of them stick around.

The app store game avalanche is just getting started. Epic Games VP Mark Rein announced last week that the Unreal Dev Kit used to create Infinity Blade is now available to iPhone and iPad developers. This is the same scalable tech used to build Gears of War and Mass Effect and includes bump offset mapping, normal mapped architecture, texture blending, global illumination, dynamic specular lighting, and real-time reflections and animation. I have a vague notion of what all this means, but a couple of game dev pals I consulted tell me it's mighty impressive stuff.

Apple doesn't need to convince us that its app store contains a satisfying array of accessible casual games. Infinity Blade - along with id's Rage HD and other 'hardcore' games on the way - suggest tablet and mobile devices are viable platforms for games at the opposite end of the spectrum. All the major games media outlets who regularly ignore iOS games - Eurogamer, 1UP, Destructoid, IGN, Joystiq - reviewed Infinity Blade (quite positively, btw) and covered its development for months.

Most-interesting-man-in-the-world Why is Infinity Blade the most important game of 2010?

The least interesting thing about Infinity Blade is the game itself. It's a repetitive, fantasy-medieval hack'n'slasher on rails. Punch-Out meets Groundhog Day on a touchscreen. Nothing wrong with that well-worn formula if it works (and it mostly does), but novelty doesn't matter in this case because Infinity Blade is more proof of concept than full-fledged game, and there it fully succeeds.

As every nearly drooling reviewer has noted, this game is goooorgeous. Infinity Blade is the iPhone/iPad game you force your buddies to stop and gawk at. The designers at Chair/Epic clearly love their visuals too because they take every possible opportunity in the game to establish locations with sweeping camera views and rising crane shots. It gets tiresome after awhile, but I must say I never stopped admiring the view.

Fortunately, Infinity Blade's charms are more than cosmetic. The game also boasts remarkably responsive controls. Swipe to slash or block; tap to stab or dodge - it all works beautifully and intuitively. Infinity Blade is the first iOS game I've played that imparts tactile gesture control of an avatar.. At no moment playing this game did I long for a controller.* Did it surprise me to learn Infinity Blade was originally conceived as a Kinect title? Nope.

Infinity Blade is the fastest-grossing app in history of the iTunes Store, grossing over $2 million in its first four days. One might argue the game's relatively high price ($5.99) diminishes that feat; but I contend its price suggests another reason the game matters so much. It successfully demonstrates that iPhone/iPad owners are willing to spend more for premium games, which will inevitably attract more premium game development to the space. 

I hope no one misinterprets me to mean the current crop of iOS developers is somehow lacking. The arrival of developers like Epic and id doesn't suddenly add respectability to a field of 2nd-tier studios. I've poo-pooed iOS games for two years in this very space, only to concede the unmistakable quality of games like Osmos and Mirror's Edge on the iPad. Did you know World of Goo is now available for iPad. Did you know it's the best version of the game on any platform?

2010 will be rembered as the year mobile/tablet games came of age, and Infinity Blade will likely be forgotten. Other more remarkable games will transcend it, and we'll all take for granted the viability of ambitious games on these miraculous devices we carry with us. Infinity Blade proves such games are possible, and that's why it's important.

*For what it's worth, I played Infinity Blade on an iPad using a BoxWave Stylus, but I also played the game with my finger and saw no decrease in performance. I prefer using the stylus because it adds a bit of useful distance between my hand and the screen and feels more natural to me for fast-paced games.

The mouse confounds


Ten minutes into Epic Mickey's tutorial level, Mickey got stuck between a statue and a wall. No amount of fiddling with the controls would extricate him, so I rebooted. Disappointing.

Later, Mickey stood facing a boulder. This boulder was nearly identical to one I erased with thinner minutes earlier, but no amount of thinner would make this boulder disappear. Confusing.

Moments later, Mickey reached the edge of a platform with a missing section. I aimed my Wiimote and squeezed the B button, but the paint sprayed wide of its target. I moved Mickey closer, aimed again, and missed. I adjusted the camera and pointed directly at the gap. Another miss. Frustrating.

Disney's Epic Mickey is a confounding game. I know because I played it from start to finish. Twice. Why would I do that to myself? It's complicated, but I'll try to explain. The short version: Epic Mickey is a disappointment - and maddening at times - but its vision makes it hard to dismiss.

Part of me despises the game. I'm frustrated by its basic ineptitude at presenting a navigable 3D space. In my boss battle with Captain Hook, the animatronic pirate killed me once; my own mistakes killed me twice; but the infernal camera did me in over a dozen times. 

The reviewers were right. Epic Mickey suffers from major camera issues, and Mr. Spector's recent defensiveness on the subject is discouraging. Third-person camera may be "the hardest problem in video game development," but a creative artist makes the hard stuff look easy. Or he conceals it. Or he goes with Plan B. 

When I must fight the game's sluggish camera and imprecise aiming system to make Mickey do what the game requires, that's a big problem. Naming it so does not mean I "misunderstand the game." In fact, my understanding and appreciation for how the game occasionally transcends its problems are precisely what kept me playing past its less than stellar first hours.

The game confounds in other ways. Its paint-by-numbers approach to presenting each level denies the player an opportunity to develop strategies through exploration. A new area is introduced, a video tour reveals most of the key items, and Gus tells you exactly what to do. I realize Epic Mickey was designed to welcome newcomers, and that's a praiseworthy goal; but too often it spoon-feeds instructions to the player, diminishing what might have been playfully discovered. Even worse, its quests treat the player like an office intern, running errands, retrieving books, and fetching ice cream for people you barely know.

And that's where Epic Mickey's moral choice system falls down. EM's theme-based worlds are full of NPCs, but they're cut-and-paste versions of characters you meet in the first hour. This is by design, and the game explains why these forgotten characters all look alike; but the result is a universe that feels emptier than its designers intended. Spector's "playstyle matters" mantra only applies if I genuinely care about the world and the outcomes I provoke.

Oswald is a fascinating character, and Mickey's unintended impact on his life makes for good storytelling, but he is the only developed character in the game, aside from Mickey. Unfortunately, the game wants to involve me in the snapshot-view lives of many other characters, most of whom exist only to gate my progress. Emotionally detached from a series of similarly-desolated environments, my moral choices carry little weight. If I save Wasteland and redeem Oswald in the end, regardless of my actions and choices, did my playstyle really matter after all?

The game contains other baffling design choices. Enter an empty house (presented in 2D) and discover nothing to do there. Move to the door, and the game asks, "Are you ready to leave place X?" Yes! What else is there for me to do here? The time wasted clicking through these unnecessary prompts far outweighs the time I might have lost accidentally exiting a few buildings.

Speaking of wasted time, was it really necessary for me to backtrack ten times through the same platforming section separating Mean Street and Ostown? What design goals did such required backtracking serve?

Paint the town to repair damage or restore life, return moments later, and those changes have disappeared. Memory limitations may restrict permanent changes to the environment, but the result is a nagging inconsistency throughout the game. Sometimes Mickey is asked to alter the environment and his actions stick; other times he performs the same tasks, and they evaporate.

The game's internal logic doesn't hold. If a tool produces an outcome, the game world must be designed to enable those outcomes consistently. Epic Mickey wants very much to be a Zelda-like adventure, but its towers and castles lack the internal coherence of Zelda's dungeons. Paint and thinner are marvelously apt "weapons" in Epic Mickey's universe, but too often their efficacy feels arbitrary. They work when and where the game says they work.

So here I am 800 words into a negative assessment of Epic Mickey, and I haven't explained why I also like the game, despite its many flaws. This part is harder to account for because Epic Mickey's charms are so subjective.

I'm drawn to the basic premise of Epic Mickey: a devastated world of abandoned and forgotten cartoons, with the world's most famous animated character to blame. The game does a remarkable job of getting this right tonally. Much has been made of EM's art style, but screenshots fail to convey how unrelentingly dark the game really is.

I found myself yearning for an Okami moment - Mickey's brush magically restores the land to its pristine beauty - but such a moment never comes. The game world feels like an enormous dingy warehouse with makeshift sets constructed to resemble a sketchy memory of Disneyland. For a game chock-full of Disney-ness, Epic Mickey's resolute desolation - we don't even see the sun until the very end - is a wonderful, if disconcerting, surprise.

The game also conveys an unexpectedly bittersweet tone, due mainly to the presence of Oswald. Spector has spoken about his affection for Oswald, Mickey's forgotten progenitor, and that warmth comes through in this game. The final chapters of Epic Mickey mix Oswald's growing admiration for Mickey with his bitter resentment and lingering sense of loss. Nobody will mistake Epic Mickey for The Cherry Orchard, but this game lives in a melancholy place few video games explore.

I also admire Spector and his team for expressing a kind of humane design in the game's combat and interaction systems. Players who don't wish to fight can befriend would-be enemies; flee bosses, and generally avoid good/evil binary options. A single virtuous choice often doesn't exist, and so the player must choose the path that seems best to him. I wish the stakes for these choices were attached to non-trivial situations and characters, but I applaud Spector's effort nonetheless.

Finally, I'm easy prey for stylishness, and Epic Mickey has it in spades. The worn-animation cutscenes are clearly labors of love; Mickey's in-game character animations are fluid and beautifully drawn; and Jim Dooley's score simultaneously conveys and deconstructs the Magic Kingdom's musical vibe. AAA 3rd-party games for the Wii are few and far between these days. Junction Point should be commended for building an ambitious family-friendly game amidst a flood of dreck targeting the same audience.

I wanted to like Epic Mickey more than I do, and I'm disappointed the game shipped with problems that should have been addressed before release. But flawed games can give us much to think about, and I believe that's the case with Epic Mickey. The post-credits ending suggests Spector has left the door open for a sequel. I hope so. I'd love to see him take another swing.

Let's talk about the mouse

Epic-mickey-1 If you frequent this space, you already know Epic Mickey piqued my interest well before its release last week. Warren Spector's creative involvement and passionate evangelism for the game made me curious to play it, and I was especially keen to investigate a genre mash-up of Zelda, Mario, and early Disney animation.

Well, I finished the game and began to write an essay on it. 300 words in, it occurred to me that I could use a little help. The question of what to make of Epic Mickey turns out to be more complicated than I anticipated.

Usually, I play a game, post my thoughts, and invite comments. A conversation often ensues, and my thinking is nearly always affected by that exchange.

This time, I'd like to switch it around. I want to invite your comments on Epic Mickey, and I want those comments to help inform my own thoughts on the game.

Why? Sometimes I play a game, see a film, or read a book and simply don't feel prepared to form a judgement about it. Sometimes my first impulse is to talk about it with someone else, not because I haven't formed any impressions, but because I'm unsure how firmly attached I am to those impressions. Sometimes it's helpful to reserve judgment and reflect on my experience in context with other people's views. It's something I routinely ask my students to do; but something, I confess, I rarely do myself. 

So, if you've played Epic Mickey and have an opinion or two you'd like to share, I welcome them here. In the meantime, I'll finish a second playthrough, and later this week I'll return with my own post on the game, inevitably informed by your observations here.

As always, thanks for reading and, especially, for contributing to the conversation.

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 31


This episode is all about music in games. I'm joined by guests Dan Bruno (Harmonix, Cruise Elroy) and Kirk Hamilton (Gamer Melodico, Joystiq), two excellent game writers who are also talented musicians.

We each play a collection of clips from our favorite pieces of game music, and we discuss why they serve the games they're written for so effectively. You'll hear everything from chiptunes to orchestral scores. If you can, listen to the show with headphones to catch all the details in the music we play.

I hope you enjoy the show, and thanks for listening!

  • Listen to any episode of the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
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  • Download the podcast directly here.

I hope you enjoy the show.

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