new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Discovered Country

Console Gaming is all about the characters. Sure, Gordon Freeman might entertain some mild celebrity on the PC, and the Doom Marine is a fairly ubiquitous icon, but really, no character who calls the PC home can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Mario, Sonic, Snake, Lara, or even the Master Chief in terms of fandom, fanaticism, or following. This happened for a number of reasons, the most obvious ones involving the way in which PC games and console games elect to relay their experiences. PC games tend to favor either the more immersive first-person perspective (found in shooters like Doom and Half-Life, and RPGs like Oblivion and System Shock) or extremely detached perspectives (found in “god games” Like Black & White and The Sims, and RTS games like Age of Empires or Warcraft). Also, PC games tend to use cut scenes quite differently than console games. Whereas Blizzard might use a spectacular cut scene to illustrate the general, conceptual conflict between humans and orcs, Konami will use their cut scenes to show the character Raiden (“hero” of Metal Gear Solid 2) getting all badass at the expense of several frightening pieces of machinery. And of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Doom 3 uses cut scenes to prominently feature their main character, and conversely, first-person shooters, RPGs, god games, and real-time strategies all reside on consoles comfortably. But in general, I assert that when it comes to strong characterization in games, PC and consoles are in completely different leagues.

That’s probably why third-person shooters are all the rage on consoles as of late. Undoubtedly spurred on by the success of Resident Evil 4 (and certainly a product of console gaming’s two-dimensional roots), games like Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, Rainbow Six: Vegas, Gears of War, and Mass Effect have all experimented with third-person perspectives heavily influenced by RE4’s claustrophobic – but character-centric – camera angles. Previous attempts at third-person perspectives have largely come off feeling a lot like first-person shooters, prioritizing feel over aesthetic. Avatars would whip around unnaturally, trying to maintain controller immediacy, eschewing any and all notions of composition, believability, or cohesiveness. On the other extreme, when third-person games are mindful of character sensibilities, they oftentimes end up feeling sluggish and unresponsive. What RE4 and its offspring have begun to focus on is reinforcing the feeling of actually moving a meaningful person around in a world space while also being fun to control – something that first-person shooters – still the lords of the PC action experience - have all but abandoned. Beyond modeling a set of arms and putting a wobble on their guns (which is annoying as hell), first-person shooters seem largely content with having control interfaces that feel like you’re maneuvering disembodied limbs through meaningless space. For better or worse (I lean towards worse), Resident Evil has always tried to increase tension by making character movement a conscientious, weighty act, thus strengthening the bond between avatar and player.

It’s looking like consoles may have finally bridged the gap between the responsiveness needed to feel good and the aesthetics needed to look right. Don’t believe me? Well go download the Xbox 360 demo for Lost Planet. Upon its release, Lost Planet will be the best game for the Xbox 360, period. Now, it’s possible (although not probable) that Capcom will screw this game up between now and its end of the year release, but based on the impressions I’ve gathered from the demo, this game is shaping up to be one of the most powerful and satisfying shooter experiences ever. I want to take a look at a couple of the things that Lost Planet does so well, the things that make its feel stand out amongst the flood of third and first-person shooters rising around us. Let’s take a look.

The first thing I noticed about Lost Planet is what I like to call “The Dead Zone.” While moving the target reticle with the right analog, I noticed that the camera did not update its position until I had breached some invisible box, which exists just above the head of the main character, and stretches a few shoulder lengths beyond in each direction. Thus, when aiming within that area, the camera maintains a fixed orientation while the reticle moves freely. This, in turn, coincides with the player avatar adjusting his animation as well, in synchronicity with the reticle. I, perhaps confusingly, commented to a colleague of mine that they had, “…made game function and character movement exclusive.” I don’t think he understood what I was saying, but in traditional shooters, particularly of the first-person variety, game function – things that relate to the player and his interface with the game (which could include utilities like heads-up displays, camera control, navigational abilities, etc.) – are typically streamlined to produce the most immediate, perfunctory service to the player, so that as little interference as possible gets in the way of world orientation/navigation, aiming, and subsequently firing at a target. Reticle aiming, for instance, typically moves at a one-to-one pace with the camera; differentiating between reticle movement and camera movement in traditional shooters is usually meaningless – they are the same action. Character movement and orientation usually get dragged behind this functionality in most shooters, with any positioning and movement by an avatar merely serving the basest level of believability and appropriateness. Lost Planet has broken from this tradition, and I was completely shocked at how dramatically the adjustment affected the overall feel of the game. Now, when I aim, it’s Wayne (the curiously antiquated name of Lost Planet’s main character) on screen repositioning his gun sights, rather than me the player moving a camera with a crosshair attached to it in abstract space.

Highlighted in red, the glorious "Dead Zone".

The next thing I noticed was the variety of expressive feedback that Wayne has. A friend/co-worker of mine and I were having a discussion about what this “next generation” really meant, and we seemed to agree that if nothing else, the amount of information communicated visually from the game to the player will increase dramatically. As such, subtleties that were only implied previously can be conveyed much more explicitly. Lost Planet is a game set in a snowy world, and when Wayne is running, he has to take these high, measured strides through the knee-deep snow. When walking, the effect is exacerbated with even more pronounced struggle animations and haggard, beleaguered breathing sounds. After jumping down from height, Wayne is completely disrupted, crashing heavily back down the ground, going as far as to use one of his hands to prop himself up and temporarily losing the ability to aim and shoot. One particular enemy in the demo has ground-shaking attacks, and if Wayne stands too closely, he is again affected by stumbling, temporarily suspending the ability to retaliate. Weapon choice is reflected accordingly as well. Heavy weapons that are typically affixed to the robot suits (called VSs) that dominate the Lost Planet landscape slow Wayne’s movement when the player carries them, requiring him to stand still when firing. This type of gameplay has met with some controversy in other, more traditional shooters (in Counterstrike, which does have a weapon weight system, players go as far as to switch to lighter weapons during moments of the game where navigation is more important than firepower – an option that Lost Planet, with its inability to store heavy weapons in your inventory, does not allow). In the world of Lost Planet, though, it makes complete sense. What’s perhaps most contextually interesting is what happens when Wayne is hit with heavy fire of caught too close to explosions. On several occasions when playing the demo, I would become caught between two or more opposing enemies’ fire. This oppressive barrage would inhibit my ability to move by throwing Wayne into reactionary fits, oftentimes resulting in my death. If within range of an explosion, Wayne can be knocked completely off of his feet, further exposing himself to additional damage. These types of consequences are what you’d expect from a melee-based action game, not a shooter (although to be fair Call of Duty has played with a disorienting shell-shock effect for some time). It’s pretty standard affair that while enemies may buck or tumble under fire (although some games, like Quake 4, don’t even respect this notion), but typically the player and his avatar and able to run through bullets as if they had never been hit. Punitive reactionary systems not only exist in Lost Planet, they thrive.

I’ve been paying close attention to the buzz surrounding both Lost Planet and its stable mate Dead Rising. It seems that people are really responding well to them – particularly Lost Planet – which got a lot of attention due to its brilliantly timed demo. I hope Capcom gets to reap the rewards for their efforts with these two games, as the 360 could really benefit from Capcom’s continued support in the coming years. While I consider my 360 purchase money well-spent, the game library it has amassed so far doesn’t really suit my tastes as well as I’d like. What you have on the 360, by and large, are very big, bold, safe games (with perhaps the one notable exception being the phenomenally underrated, yet gloriously worthwhile Condemned). Lost Planet is big and bold, but I would call a shooter from the land of the shooter-phobic many things before I would call it safe. I have to give credit where credit is due and acknowledge Capcom for being the most adventurous big publisher in videogames today.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Games I'm Playing Right Now - Part 5

It’s been a while since I’ve done a proper one of these, and since the last I’ve played and beaten a couple of games, which as such don’t really qualify as games I’m playing, but I’ll include my thoughts on them nonetheless. I’m currently working on an article about a game I’m really, really, really obsessed with right now, and I may even post it one day. Until then, you’ll just have to make due with my cruel pontifications…

The Elder Scrolls IV – Oblivion (360)
I played Oblivion exclusively for about 80 hours before beating it. During those weeks I couldn’t imagine myself playing any other game. I would come home from work and play for hours a day, every day. And then I finished the critical path, turned the game off, and have never looked back. There’s quite a bit of work I left unfinished in the land of Cyrodiil; in fact, immediately after completing the main quest some woman came up to me and requested that I help her father who had gotten himself into some trouble of some sort. Or perhaps it was her brother, or husband. Either way, she’s still there, waiting in the world for me to return. She’ll probably wait forever. This probably says more about me than it does about the game. In truth, Oblivion is easily one of the best games yet released for the young Xbox 360 – but let’s face it, that isn’t saying much. I’m a goal-oriented type player, and I just saved the whole world, so I have little motivation to go help get some guy out of jail. Go figure.

Tomb Raider: Legend (360)
I had been looking forward to this game for quite some time, pretty much ever since I heard that Crystal Dynamics was helming the project. No, I’m not a Legacy of Kain buff, and I passed on Whiplash, as did the rest of the world. So why the anticipation? Well, in part I guess it was just the idea that someone else besides Core Design was going to get a shot at the project, and I figured they couldn’t screw the game up anymore than it had already been screwed up. And I was right. Tomb Raider: Legend is not great, but it is good. It plays a lot like a Prince of Persia clone that’s trying really hard not to feel like a Prince of Persia clone, and that’s okay – nothing wrong with stealing successful formulas. There is one issue I had that stood out above all other issues: Lara kills pretty wantonly, and that bugs me. In a game that’s seems to be about exploring and discovery, every time I had to pull out the firearms and get crazy on some thugs, my respect for the game lessened a bit. I know, at this point I must sound like some peace-sign waving hippie, with all my whining about violence. I won’t try to convince you otherwise, but I still think Lara would do better to spend more time puzzle-solving and less time busting caps. Oh yeah, and the motorcycle levels suck.

New Super Mario Bros. (DS)
This game, functionally, is a sequel to the original Super Mario Bros. I don’t get to fly in it, and the only “suit” I don is a blue shell that might possibly be the most useless power-up in the history of videogames. I spend most of my play time feeling either bored or bogged down by tedium. It’s not fun that keeps me playing it so much as it is the hope that eventually the game gets fun (I’m on World 6). New Super Mario Bros. has broken my heart. Yes I’m completely serious.

Mega Man: Powered Up (PSP)
I don’t even feel right giving my thoughts on this game. You see, I hate Mega Man, and I always have (well okay, I liked Mega Man 8 for the Saturn, but everyone likes that one). MM:PU didn’t change this feeling, although I do like the new style choices. I wish I could put a finger on it – my hate for the series – but I can’t seem to. I mean yes, I can easily identify some decisions that I question, like dying on a boss having to send you way far back in the level, but I think the biggest beef I have with the game is that when I’m playing, I constantly feel like the game is being unfair – Mega Man is not a game that roots for you. It exists, and if you conquer it, so be it. If you don’t, the game will still go on, oblivious as ever. I’m really torn on this, as Keiji Inafune has recently become my personal god (knocking David Blaine out of a spot he has occupied for years), but I guess even gods have their off days, on which they can only hold their breath for seven-odd minutes or so.

Capcom Classics Collection Remixed (PSP)
I may have mentioned this before, but my second favorite game mechanic of all time is the helper system. I define a helper system as any in-game assistance that once acquired, augments your abilities through reasonably autonomous means, usually taking care of obstacles without your direct involvement. You’ve all probably played a game or two with a helper system – Gradius, Secret of Mana, Half-Life 2, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and a score of other games all flirt with it. Even Ico had a helper system of sorts. Magic Sword is my all-time favorite game featuring a helper system, and its presence alone makes this collection worthwhile. There’s some other games on there that I’m sure a lot of people will be interested in, but yeah, Magic Sword – totally worth it.

The Pirates (PS2)
So there’s this Japanese publisher called D3, and they have a series of budget games (actually, they have a few budget series, but I only want to talk about this one) that they release every so often called the Simple 2000 games. In a nutshell, these original games are made quickly and cheaply, and are accordingly expected to be fairly low volume sellers. Most of the games appear to be heavily influenced by other popular games released by various publishers. Zombie vs. Ambulance, for instance, was inspired by Crazy Taxi. If a game does well enough, sometimes they get sequels; I’m playing one of those now, but I don’t want to talk about it just yet. Instead, I’ll tell you that The Pirates is a God of War clone (it’s got a bit of Devil May Cry in there too) where you, the player, take the role of a Pirate sailing the seas and looking for treasure. In the midst of these treasure hunts you jump onto other ships filled with zombies and ghosts, and you exterminate them. Half of the fun of playing The Pirates comes from the fact that it’s such an obvious God of War clone – while the game doesn’t play nearly as smoothly, you can almost feel the unabashed joy the developers had in spoofing it. Such freedom of development must be pretty liberating for them. Either that or they hate their jobs thoroughly.

Loco Roco (Demo, PSP)
It’s just not cool to like a game simply because it’s from Japan and you think Japan is mysterious and exotic and home to these crazy, quirky games. If you think it is cool, well, at least now you know that I don’t think it’s cool. Loco Roco is a game with a very interesting visual style that I don’t like playing very much, yet. I hope that changes, because I really want to like some of these damn games I buy for my PSP. When the Nintendo DS first launched, it was accompanied by a bunch of tech demos masquerading as games, and it took a while for the system to get to a place where it didn’t feel that it had to prove its worth with every release. And when that happened, a bunch of cool games got made. The PSP hasn’t gotten to that point yet. Every time I stumble upon a game that I think I can get behind, I lose interest. So yeah, Loco Roco just isn’t fun. It’s got this really blunt control interface (combinations of the L and R buttons) that ends up making me feel really detached and out of control. I like being in control, and it’s unlikely that much is going to change in terms of the interface they give you, so my relationship with the game will probably be strained at best – that’s a shame.

These are the only games that I remember well enough to comment on. I played a little bit of Driver: Parallel Lines, but only long enough to realize that I hate it, so hopefully no one is out there eagerly awaiting my thoughts on it. I’m debating doing an E3 GIPRN edition, but I only played like 5 games there, and one of them was Call of Juarez, which I probably shouldn’t comment on, for obvious reasons.

読んでいただきまして ありがとうございました.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Alternate Routes to the Mass Market

I realized recently that my girlfriend is some sort of an observational genius, if there even exists such a thing. At the very least, when she and I look at the same thing, she perceives elements that I completely disregard or fail to interpret altogether (interesting, isn’t it, that I define genius as anything beyond my level of perception …). Her most recent proclamation occurred at this year’s E3, at which she assuredly declared, “There are too many fighting games.”

Note that when my girlfriend says “fighting games,” she doesn’t mean it in the traditional Street Fighter/Virtua Fighter terminology. In fact, she made this declaration in the midst of several futuristic (and props deserved – freakishly gorgeous) first-person shooters in the EA booth. Instead she refers to the act of people engaged in direct, harmful conflict with one another, typically resulting in injury and/or death. This definition encompasses fighting games, first-person shooters, action games, and virtually every other genre currently experiencing any sort of financial success on a videogame console, except of course for the perennially inexhaustible sports genres.

Of course, my girlfriend could have been simply expressing dissatisfaction at the lack of titles catering to her interests. While being nothing close to what I would consider a “gamer” in the traditional, somewhat condescending sense, she has a respectable arsenal of gaming experience stockpiled, having done recent time with several DS titles, including the very gamer-typical Mario Kart DS. Her most favorite games, at least as far as I can tell, are puzzle games. She still plays Puyo Pop Fever daily, and not too long ago she atypically went down to the local EB and placed a pre-order for Tetris DS. She counts Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario Bros. as two of her favorite videogame experiences ever, so she even flaunts some old-school credibility.

For whatever reason, though, her anti-fighting decree did not ring to me as sour grapes. Rather, what I heard sounded more like, “is that all there is?” Is this the pinnacle of our gaming expression? And for god sakes, don’t take this as either one: a rant about violence in videogames or two: another designer asking for games that make people cry. In fact, just about every single videogame I was eager to see at E3 this year featured violence as a main component. Instead, I’m raising the question, has videogame design really tapped into the most effective mechanics with which to reach our audience? In terms of premise, impetus, action, and response, are we really “next gen?”

A day or so before E3, a trailer for Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 hit the net. I admit with no shame that I am a huge fan of this series; maybe it’s the volleyball, I don’t know (I consider Beach Spikers to be among the best games on the Gamecube, so there’s at least evidence to support that hypothesis). A lot of the videogame press, in my opinion, rather hypocritically criticized the game for being gratuitous in its use of graphics - Team Ninja had the audacity to use great looking graphics to sell their game! I guess good graphics are alright so long as they’re used to create guys in spacesuits with guns and aliens, but beach volleyball should utilize nothing more than a text-based interface or something. Anyway, while watching this trailer, I was really impressed with the elements that Team Ninja has cobbled together into what will ultimately comprise this game. It seems as if the Dead or Alive girls have once again taken a break from their usual corporation-toppling hijinks to take a well-earned vacation, full of innocuous party-gaming and volleyball. If the trailer is to be believed, there’s even a bit of water park action to be had, as one of the girls was inner-tubing down a giant waterslide. Besides the pick-up games of volleyball, there’s nary a traditional videogame genre in sight. And yeah, it also has some really, really pretty graphics – hopefully pretty enough to attract some deserved attention in this technology-centric, gun-toting period in videogaming.

The one-two punch of my girlfriend’s observation and DOAX2 has really got me thinking. The fact of the matter is that a very specific type of game maker is making a very specific type of game for a very specific type of game player. This vicious cycle began accidentally, but now has become formula, as the videogame audience has reached a sufficient level to sustain videogame development’s rather myopic goals. Nevertheless, I’m going to spend some time in the near future developing different strategies with which to approach the creation of a successful, mass-market videogame that doesn’t rely on traditional “fighting” sensibilities. I think it’s a worthy endeavor, and at least my girlfriend will appreciate my efforts.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Games I Want to Play Right Now – E3 Edition

So a friend/co-worker of mine asked me for my recommendations on what to make sure to see at E3 this year, and I thought it’d be cool if I made a post out of it. So what follows is my complete and wholly subjective list of the 10 games of E3 that I am most looking forward to, done up in a handy ranking format:

10. Resistance: Fall of Man

I don’t consider myself a shooter guy by any means. Sure, I buy them just as often as any other genre, and I count Half Life 2 as one of the greatest games ever made. Doom and Doom 2 probably hold the record for games I’ve beaten the most times, and the series gave me my first taste of competitive multiplayer gaming, from which I’ve never truly recovered. But I’ve never reached that Nth level of nirvana, never truly connecting with the spirit of the first-person shooter in that way that I’ve connected with, say, the fighting game. Thus, it may seem strange that this game appears on my list. Well, R:FoM is being developed by none other than Insomniac Games, makers of by far and away my favorite video game series of this generation, Ratchet & Clank. I will go anywhere they lead me, and from the looks of things, where they’re leading me is to a grayish world with heavy guns and scary monsters. Sign me up.

9. Gears of War

What’s this, another game with heavy guns and scary monsters? I’m sensing a next-generation theme here. I respect Epic as a company, but I’ve never been personally enamored with their games. But with Gears of War, something changed. That something, I think, is that the games that the developers name drop when describing their game – namely Resident Evil 4 and Kill.Switch – are pretty cool in their own right, and in this industry great ideas tend to be built on the backs of other great ideas. Plus, Epic seems poised in the exact same position that Criterion was in last generation. They are the makers of the hottest middleware in town and they must show the power of what their product can produce. Criterion did it with Burnout, and Epic will do it with Gears of War.

8. Resident Evil 5

So Capcom did something really cool last generation. Without anyone really noticing, they quietly produced some of the boldest, most daring, and purely entertaining software around. Then they capped it all of by releasing Resident Evil 4 – a game that many consider to be the best game of last year (more on this later). If I was a betting man, I would wager that subsequent Resident Evils will owe a lot of their themes and concepts to RE4 (and to a larger extent, many games in many different genres will all take a feather out of RE4’s cap. Look for closer third-person cameras, cameras offset from directly behind the character, escort missions, and horror themes to permeate into all your favorite games). Resident Evil 5 will garner huge attention the closer we get to its release, and I’m hoping that all kicks off starting at E3.

7. Dead Rising

If you know anything about me, you probably know that I like zombies. There is just something about the despair created by the world falling apart and the co-dependent relationships that develop as the few remaining survivors struggle to make sense of it all that I find irresistible. The Japanese, on the other hand, like zombies because a zombie is as close as you can get to killing real people without actually killing real people – something that, I guess, is still largely distasteful there. So like chocolate and peanut butter, my love for the human drama and the Japanese love for killing humanesque things will come together in the form of Dead Rising. Plus I hear the blood effects are pretty swanky. We’ll see.

6. Lost Planet

Lost Planet – the third Capcom game on my list – is a game I’m looking forward to both as a fan and as a developer. I’m excited as a fan because the game looks amazing – the enemy designs and setting choices are spectacular. I’m not a big mech guy, but this game seems to be trying really hard to correct that, and the on-foot action looks frenetic and exciting. Am I the only one who detects a slight Zone of the Enders vibe? As a developer, I’m really curious about the third-person shooting. I find the third-person perspective to be so much more compelling for a console audience – particularly the Eastern audience, which places a very high value on character attachment, and I’m eager to get a non-Resident Evil take on the perspective.

5. Metal Gear Solid 4

By George, this generation I became a Kojima fanboy. Having never thought the Metal Gear series to be anything particularly special, I was completely caught off guard by Metal Gear Solid 3. I personally find it to be a more compelling and enjoyable experience than nearly any other game this generation, up to and including the venerable Resident Evil 4. As has been stated many times before, Kojima Productions holds a stranglehold on presentation and refinement that no other developer on the planet can seem to match. But not only that, Metal Gear seems to possess an awareness of what it is as a game and a purposefulness in what it intends to communicate to the player that just seems light years ahead and what anyone else is attempting. And yes, they make very pretty games as well.

4. Virtua Fighter 5

I must preface this by saying that although probable, no official mention of a console release of Virtua Fighter 5 has been announced. With that said, it’s more than a little likely that one of Sega’s “three surprises” at E3 is an announcement of exactly that. VF has regained much of its lost luster in the eyes of the Western market with the release of Virtua Fighter 4 and its update, Evolution, and it’s virtually guaranteed that Sega will capitalize on this at the show. My thoughts on this are simple – Virtua Fighter is to fighting games as Ferrari is to automobiles. There are lots of car companies making lots of cars, and while many are good, only Ferrari is truly great. Like it or not, it is the same with VF.

3. Sonic the Hedgehog

The very first booth on the very first day of last year’s E3 that I visited was Sega’s, and upon reaching it I immediately got in line to see what they were showing in their theater. I got to see video of the games they were showing on the floor that year, and many of them were pretty interesting. But of course it was the next generation video that piqued my interest the most, and out of all the games in that movie (Afterburner, Chrome Hounds, and Virtua Fighter 5), it was Sonic the Hedgehog that left the greatest impact on me. In this current generation, Sega has really abused the Sonic franchise. For whatever reason, these games of questionable quality have sold by the bucket load, and it seems there is a new one out every quarter. I have skipped most - but not all - of these games (I did buy Sonic Heroes, which was awful, and Sonic Rush, which was great), but there is no way in hell I am skipping Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s as if Sega is looking at us with a knowing, apologetic look, and Sonic the Hedgehog, with one gloved paw, may wipe a generation’s worth of bad memories from our minds.

2. God of War 2

Let’s get it straight people – God of War is the best game of this entire console generation, let alone the last year. No other game player better, looked better, sounded better, storied better, did more for the platform, or left a bigger wake than Sony’s big-budget action romp. All you people evangelizing while holding down the B-button to run, take note – I’ll be over in the Sony booth, motion canceling my ass off and tipping my hat to the guys – an American team – who showed once and for all that Western development is about more than tech demos and horsepower. This year’s E3 is definitely going to be about bright and shiny next generation consoles, and that’s understandable, but something tells me that you’re going to see more than one game that is directly influenced by this genre-defining series (I’m playing one right now).

1. Super Mario 128

When the time of human beings is over, there is only one videogame from one series that I really and truly hope survives as evidence as to what humanity accomplished with videogames, and that game is Super Mario Bros. 3. Like a lost people roaming the desert, I have waited for a decade for Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka to show me The Way by giving me a proper console iteration of Mario (Sunshine be damned). It’s entirely possible (although not probable) that the only taste of Mario I will get is New Super Mario Bros., but somehow I doubt that. Nintendo is really good at E3 surprises, and I think the speculation regarding this game from the pre-E3 hype is conspicuous by its absence – something tells me that people know more than they’re letting on; here’s hoping I’m right.

So that’s my must-see list, but it’s obviously not all I hope to see at E3. I’m actually really hoping to see a new Silent Hill, maybe even one that responds to what Resident Evil did to their pre-existing gameplay mechanics. I would also really be pleased with a new iteration of Ratchet & Clank; I’m one of those crazy people who enjoy both the platform-centric and shooter-centric versions of the game equally, so I’ll be pleased with pretty much whatever they come up with. I’m also pretty damn excited to see Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. After two versions of the soul capturing system, I’m really looking forward to Iga and the boys (and girls) covering some new ground. Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball 2, Ultimate Ghouls N’ Ghosts, Tekken 6, and I’m sure a metric ton of other games will all get at least some face time with me; this looks to be one of the best E3’s in quite some time (although nothing really tops the Oddworld booths of old).

Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Mistaken Identity

A friend of mine suggested that I start writing articles about the way I think games should be. I have no earthly idea how games should be, other than exactly what they are. This doesn’t mean I think that the games industry is perfect; rather I simply don’t think I’m in any position to proclaim anything definitive regarding issues I’ve only dabbled in professionally for a few years. So there’s no way I’m writing anything even closely resembling a manifesto. Well, I mean other than the one I’ve already written.

Instead, I’ll just write about this idea I had.

This idea came to me while misinterpreting something I saw in a screenshot, which in and of itself is kind of cool. If you think about it, my brain connected dots that only existed in my own head – it was a flaw of the brain’s ability to process images that brought about my new idea. No, I don’t know which screenshot it was, because I don’t mark events like that as an occasion. But I do remember the game – it’s called Contact, and it’s for the Nintendo DS. On certain days, Contact looks like the type of game I would never play – and what a rare type of game that is! On other days, I can imagine myself regretfully plunking down my hard-earned dollar on a game I know I should avoid (I will more than likely buy Contact). The Japanese RPG is probably my least favorite console genre. Please don’t take this statement as a challenge to either come up with a genre I should like less or to come up with a Japanese RPG that will change my mind about the genre. I liked Final Fantasy 6, so there.

Anyway, here’s what I thought I saw in Contact: I thought I saw two characters, one on each screen. They were in the exact corresponding spot on each screen, meaning that if the two screens were superimposed on top of each other, only one character would appear, because he would overlap the other. The environments on each screen had the same basic geometry, more or less, but the environment locations themselves were completely different. The top screen reflected something reasonably familiar, a science laboratory or hospital, something cold and clinical with bright fluorescent lights. The bottom screen’s environment was completely different – some sort of dark, organic, alien swamp. The two locations both had corresponding entrances and exits, as well as generally comparable navigational land masses.

I refocused my eyes on the screenshots, however, and this vision was gone.

I’m sure you’re all at least somewhat aware of Rubik’s Cube. In short, you have these six colored sides of a cube, comprised of nine mini faces on each side. The goal of the Cube is to get all 6 sides of the cube completely uniform in color. Rubik’s Cube is a puzzle because the relative position of certain mini faces with regard to one another is fixed. In other words, you cannot move faces singularly, and the orientation of one face can have a direct (constant) impact on the orientation of another; to move one face to where you want it to be, you’re going to have to bring some others along for the ride. Ideally, where the first face ends up is beneficial to the rest. Sometimes, the road to that beneficial position goes through what appears to be less-than-ideal orientations. But in the end these temporarily inconvenient positions ultimately lead towards the greater good, and the solving of the Cube.

This, in effect, is what I thought I saw in the Contact screenshot. I honestly thought there was a gameplay mechanic there in which you controlled two characters with one input – in this case the game’s d-pad and face buttons (let’s face it, the DS’s best games don’t even need the stylus). Guiding these characters through two similar but different worlds, I imagined one character on the bottom screen needing to cross a large gap, and there being a tree log close by that he could use to accomplish this. On the top screen, the other character would not have the corresponding large gap requiring a log, but the path he would have to take, pulled along by the other play’s need to get to the log, would be beset by some other challenge – say a series of undulating platforms. The player would have to negotiate the platforms on the top screen, acquire the log on the bottom screen, make it back over the gaps on the top screen again, and place the log across the large gap on the bottom screen, allowing both characters to progress to the next area. I thought this would be a pretty fun game to play. It would take some work to create enough interesting character abilities to keep each challenge fresh, and I really think you could create an intriguing enough storyline/premise to tie the whole thing together.

I’ll probably never get the chance to make a DS game, but if I did, I think I’d try to make this one. If you guys think this idea is cool, or even the worst idea you’ve ever heard, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for reading.