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December 2011

Before you go...


It is better to be looked over than overlooked. –Mae West

So there you are, my gamer friend, gazing wistfully at that dusty white Wii that held so much promise when you brought it home five years ago. If only it had realized more of its potential. If only somebody had thought of a sensible online strategy. If only it had glowed blue more often.

Maybe you’ve reached the end of Skyward Sword and thought to yourself, “If this is the Wii’s swan song, at least the little guy went out on a high note.” But hold on there, friend. Don’t despair. I’ve got good news! Mario Party 9 is coming next March!! …Ah, sarcasm.

Before you relegate your Wii to doorstop status, may I suggest one more old-fashioned retail box game purchase? This one comes at a discount price (Amazon sells it for $25), and it’s actually six games for the price of one: Bit.Trip Complete.

If one Wii game, or in this case a series of terrific games, has been most unfairly overlooked by players, it’s the Bit.Trip series by developer Gaijin Games. While I’ve got you here, I’ll also mention Little King’s Story, A Boy and His Blob, and Excitebots, but all things considered, the Bit.Trip games are the most criminally neglected.


Bit.Trip Complete collects all six Bit.Trip games: BEAT, CORE, VOID, RUNNER, FATE, and FLUX. It also includes a video gallery recounting the story of CommanderVideo, concept art, an audio gallery featuring fan remixes of the game’s original chiptunes, and a soundtrack sampler. All nice inclusions, but fairly standard stuff for game re-releases.

Happily, Bit.Trip Complete contains three other features that convinced me to take the plunge. Included on the disc are six actual letters to Bit.Trip fans written by the developers, explaining the symbolism behind each game. These commentaries illuminate, in a decidedly non-didactic manner, the designers’ surprisingly ambitious narrative goals for each Bit.Trip game. More on the “meaning” of Bit.Trip in a moment.

Bit.Trip Complete also features 20 new mini-levels, adding a significant amount of new content to the game. But the biggest reason many players will appreciate Complete is the addition of Easy and Hard difficulty levels. My only real complaint about the original games was that they were too unforgiving. BEAT, in particular, gave me fits, and only a tag-team sub-in from my son got me past the final stage. Complete’s Easy mode mercifully lowers the difficulty curve, while Hard mode delivers a motion-controlled flogging to anyone crazy enough to tackle it.

The Bit.Trip games deliver a clinic on the virtues of minimalism in design. When I saw them a few months ago at IndieCade, Gaijin founders Mike Roush and Alex Neuse discussed the challenge of pursuing a design vision defined by simplicity. Their presentation was originally called “Storytelling through Minimalism,” but at the last moment they changed it to “Storytelling through Symbolism,” which better captures how the Bit.Trip games convey meaning.

Homages to classic games can be found throughout the Bit.Trip games. BEAT is clearly inspired by PONG; RUNNER owes its existence to Moon Patrol. Roush and Neuse wanted to make “as close to a pure game as possible,” while opening up opportunities for narrative interpretation. They visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York and studied Mark Rothko’s paintings, among other artists. They also found sonic inspiration from the chiptune scene, citing Bit Shifter and Anamanaguchi as key influences. Music is a fundamental element of the Bit.Trip design, both aesthetically and as a metronome for gameplay.


Through six games released three months apart over nearly two years, Gaijin presented the story of CommanderVideo. “We wanted to tell a story, not just [release] arcade adventures… We wanted to tell a story of pre-birth to post-death,” Roush noted. “We needed to be able to tell our story in three interwoven ways: 1) Gameplay; 2) Music; 3) Art”

How many players seek or require a story in these retro-style arcade games? Why must we “interpret” them? Why can’t we just have fun playing them and overcoming their challenges? The wonderful thing about the Bit.Trip games is that they invite interpretation without requiring it. For many players, simply surviving to the end of a difficult level is engagement enough.

But Roush and Neuse were delighted by the overwhelming number of emails and online discussions scrutinizing CommanderVideo’s symbolic journey from life to death to rebirth. If you see CommanderVideo as an ethereal being who dreams of being corporeal - and then experiences the consequences of that transition - you’re on your way to accessing the Bit.Trip saga presented sequentially over the course of six games.

Give Bit.Trip Complete a try and support the work of designers trying something different…and familiar at the same time. Each game can also be downloaded individually via WiiWare. Bit.Trip BEAT is also available for PC/Mac and iOS.

Can you recommend other overlooked Wii games? Let me know about them in the comment section below.


MiscellaneousI’m happy to report on a few things I’ve been up to lately. If you follow my work here on BG, maybe you’ll be interested in checking them out.

I was recently invited to be the first guest on a new podcast called Second Quest, hosted by Eric Brasure. Second Quest is a website devoted to “critical discussion about issues of interest to the videogame community.” The new show is a reboot of an older ‘cast called Cartridge Blowers, which ran regularly since 2009.

Eric and I discuss a wide range of topics related to games, and if you listen, you’ll quickly discover what I discovered during the interview: Eric does his homework. I enjoyed the conversation, and I’m grateful to Eric for inviting me on the show. You can listen to it here.

This week I’m also chatting about the Games of 2011 in Slate Magazine’ 5th annual Gaming Club. I’m joined by three terrific writers I admire: Chris Suellentrop, Tom Bissell, and Charlie Yu. We’re exchanging essays over the course of three days in a conversational format, doing our best to address issues as they emerge. I’m big fan of previous editions of the Gaming Club, so I’m honored to be included this year. You can jump in and read at any point in the conversation, but I recommend starting at the beginning. You can find Slate’s Gaming Club here.

Finally, I’m preparing to record my annual “Favorites of the Year” podcast. Stay tuned for an all-star gala confab featuring some familiar voices and a few new ones too. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Happy holidays, everyone. Thanks for reading Brainy Gamer!

Who needs winners?

Skyrim  Minecraft

What can you find in an old picture except the painful contortions of the artist trying to break uncrossable barriers which obstruct the full expression of his dream? F.T. Marinetti, “The Futurist Manifesto” (1909)

Modernists ruin everything. Prior to the 20th century, visual art was mostly pictorial, depicting scenes and themes from the real world. Artists painted or sculpted images that anyone could recognize and understand. Then, in 1863 Manet scandalized the art world by painting a naked woman at a picnic. The Impressionists soon emerged and did their best to mottle everything up.

Then along game the Cubists. And the Dadaists. And the Expressionists. And the Surrealists. Manifestos whizzed by like flying plates, and suddenly nothing made sense. Reality was up for grabs and nobody knew what they were supposed to think or do anymore. Arguments raged over lighting and brushstroke technique. Critics praised or condemned in fits of unbridled vitriol.

It wasn’t just the painters. At the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1911, a riot broke out in the theatre between audience members who reviled the production and others who loved it. (I should note that the Theater has a longer history with hot-tempered audiences. In 1849 one patron expressed his displeasure with William C. Macready’s rendition of Hamlet by hurling the carcass of a dead sheep onto the stage.)

Hausmann_art_criticIt was a time of upheaval, ideological clashes, and reinvention. And it was wonderful. Art - and what that art meant or represented - mattered to artists and the public in ways it rarely does today. These days an occasional kerfuffle may arise over public funding for “offensive” art; or maybe a festering hip-hop feud re-erupts now and then - but it’s hard to find artists and audiences locked in spirited philosophical debate over “the future of art form X…” or “why artist X is advancing/killing art form Y.”

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Those kinds of heated exchanges (not always civil or enlightening) are a regular part of “the video game conversation” occurring all around us. It unfolds on forums, chat rooms, and comment sections, but it can also be found at the local GameStop, in dorm rooms, and even in the classroom. One of the most vigorous debates I saw this semester occurred among students focused on the question of whether The Legend of Zelda’s Link should ever speak.

More importantly, the debate (healthy and constructive) continues among designers. I’d say roughly a quarter of all sessions at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco could be classified as mini-manifestos, calling in one way or another for a change in thinking, a reassessment of methods, a challenge to assumptions. GDC and similar gatherings continue to ask fundamental questions about the nature, form, and purpose of games. Heck, we still have rip-roaring discussions on the basic question: “What is a game?”

This ongoing analysis of fundamentals distinguishes games from older media. I’ve attended theater and film conferences for many years. Trust me, we don’t spend much time asking those kinds of basic questions anymore. We’ve got that stuff figured out. Heh. Yeah.

The mistake we often make with games is to assume that one design philosophy must defeat all others. It’s the nature of manifesto. “I believe this to be true and ideal,” which, by definition, invalidates any alternate philosophy. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, quoted at the top of this post, also contains this lovely sentiment:

Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.

Out with the weak, stupid old. In with the bad-ass, superior new.

Jasper-johns-target-15783History shows that no single aesthetic approach or philosophy ever “wins.” Representational art wasn’t killed by Abstract Expressionism; nor was classical Hollywood narrative killed by the French New Wave. But when you see a painting by Jasper Johns or a film by Martin Scorsese it’s easy to see how each style lives in the work of artists with many influences.

In the last month, four major games arrived that exemplify four distinct approaches to narrative game design. At the risk of oversimplifying, I contend these games represent the four major pillars of video game storytelling. The lines separating them aren’t impermeable, but each game presents a viable approach to narrative that many players find valid and meaningful.

You may be an exception - because, of course, BG readers are exceptional! ;-) - but most gamers I know prefer one, or maybe two, of these games over the others…which may prove why there's an important place for each one.

  • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - the latest edition of the definitive hero quest adventure game. Zelda narratives are rituals, with each game re-telling the same essential story, set in a familiar universe with recurring motifs. Exploration and puzzle-solving are similarly ritualized, with iteration gently rounding the edges of the series. Link remains the quintessential silent hero, a old-school convention in a game chock-full of narrative and ludic conventions.

  • Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception - the definitive playable movie. Sky-high production values, canny writing, and convincing performances elevate the series and punctuate its authored narrative with cinematic flair. The Uncharted games embed player-driven challenge sequences into the larger framework of a linear adventure story unfolding at breakneck speed. If you ever dreamed of stepping into the screen of an Indiana Jones movie, the Uncharted games offer a thrilling way to do just that.

  • The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim - the definitive open world RPG. A stunning universe built for a player to explore however she wishes. A central narrative thread is woven through the game, but the player is free to engage it, or not. Emergent possibilities arise at every turn. Listen to players discussing their experiences (telling their stories, really) in Skyrim, and you will hear nearly every account delivered in first-person. Skilled veterans of the series spend more time playing with Skyrim than playing the game as it was “meant to be played.” Authorship in this case is less about formal storytelling than about enabling player autonomy within constraints intended to spark imaginative, self-directed play. Engagement deepens through an avatar created and evolved through the player’s own actions and choices.

  • Minecraft - the definitive sandbox. A procedurally generated world in which players build, acquire, craft, and battle on their own, with no designer mandated directives aside from the single imperative: survive. So where’s the narrative? I’ll rely on Naughty Dog’s Rich Lemarchand for that answer, a fascinating observer, given his artistic connection to the Uncharted games, which, design-wise can be seen as Dr. Jekyl to Minecraft’s Mr. Hyde. As I reported in October on Lemarchand’s IndieCade keynote:

Lemarchand went on to consider the word ‘videogame,’ describing it a “a good word…but problematic.” It implies a win condition built into the system, “but lots of video games don’t have this state.” He praised Minecraft as one of his favorite recent games and admitted to developing a short-term addiction to it. “I play Minecraft narratively,” he said, seeing the game as a kind of “Lego I Am Legend.”

He also referenced Kent Hudson’s recent talk at GDC 2011 on player-driven stories, noting that agency within a game world can occur from top to bottom, throughout every element of design. “Minecraft expresses this perfectly,” and it does so entirely through its systems. A major part of Minecraft’s pleasure, for Lemarchand, is the player creating beauty and wonder through his own efforts. “It’s systemic Theater,” he observed. “Minecraft isn’t a story, but I made it one.”

I realize my claim that four games can stand for all narrative games is bound to fall short. My intention isn’t really to classify every storytelling game into one of these silos. But I do believe these games represent distinct and viable paradigms for storytelling.

Maybe the real value of such classification is to better understand how designers find inspiration (and unacceptable limitations) in these games moving forward. For example, it’s easy to see how BioWare positions its games somewhere in the space between the Uncharted and Elder Scrolls games. The artists I mentioned above understood it well. The real action is in the margins, crafting something new out of lessons learned from the old.