Thursday, 28 August 2008


So apparently there are two kinds of videogame scholar, which may come as a suprise to those of you who thought there were no kinds. As I understand it, narratologists are the sorts of people who attempt to analyse the plot of Braid (hopefully without losing their already fragile sanity in the process) while ludologists play it and go "Look, he's going backwards! WOW." These two schools of thought are equally valid and should be given equal considerati- yeah, I know, the ludologists are right, but let's pretend, ok? In any case, it's not like you can perfectly separate the two. Take Phoenix Wright. The gameplay is terrible, and while it's pretty much the best-scripted game you're likely to find, it's still nowhere near the calibre of actual decent fiction. It's like playing a crap game while reading a crap book, and yet the result is not double craptitude but one of the most entertaining game series of the last few years. It's all in the connection between the two. Even Braid mirrors its story thematically within the levels (or so my narratologist friends tell me, before going back to... doing something prententious, or whatever? I can't bring myself to actually be mean about them, sorry.)

In any case, it should be fairly clear that narratology vs ludology is a false dichotomy. There's a third way. As a chap called Jonathan Culler apparently said at some point, "the theory of narrative requires a distinction between... 'story' - a sequence of actions or events, conceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse - and... 'discourse', the discursive presentation or narration of events". I don't know who this guy is, I just got the quote off Wikipedia, and I don't think he was talking about games. But it's like Half-Life 2 isn't it? It's one of the best games ever, and that's not because of the gameplay (well-executed but fairly ordinary gunplay) or the story (alien invasion hokum) but something in between - the rattle of a railway bridge as you cling to the struts below, the empty houses strewn with dead bodies, the echo of the Overwatch robotic announcer over the river at sunset. I guess that's what this Jonathan Culler guy was on about anyway. He wants to call this stuff "discourse", but that's a rubbish name, so let's call it awesomology.

Basically almost every game relies on awesomology. (I'm sick of that already. Let's go back to discourse.) But even this is impossible to separate from the other aspects of a game. Think about your favourite game, maybe it's Half-Life 2. If you were trying to isolate just the gameplay aspects, and removed all the plot and all the discourse bits, what would you end up with? At the most basic level, what you do in HL2 is press buttons and waggle joysticks (assuming you're on a console). So if you mapped out a full runthrough of the game in terms of user input, you'd end up with a list of instructions like "move joystick this way, press trigger, press A". Timing is important of course, so let's model the game as one big quicktime event. A button press flashes up on screen and you press it in time, or fail somehow (maybe by losing health, maybe by changing the subsequent sequence of button presses to something more complicated or roundabout). Rinse and repeat for 12 hours or so, and you've finished Half-Life 2.

Except obviously you haven't really played it at all. Output is important as well as input - it's what you're reacting to that makes games different from each other. But as soon as you bring in the elements that make it an FPS, ie the acquisition and disposal of enemies, you're already bringing in some level of discourse. Even if it's all stick figures and wireframe environments. More importantly, while it would still be a pretty boring game, it would at least be more fun than a giant QTE.

Discourse is everything. I can think of very few games that don't have any of it - Tetris, I guess, and other puzzlers, and maybe some hardcore reaction-based schmups and racers. You could call these games "pure", as if it's a virtue that they're unsullied by the horrors of plots and setpieces. A lot of games get called pure, though, and it's interesting to examine why. One game series I often hear the adjective applied to is the Mario series, which I'm inclined to disagree with. If you're hoping this post is turning out to be another installment in my perpetual vendetta against Super Mario Galaxy, then you're in luck.

I like Galaxy a lot, but it is not a pure game, not by any means. In fact, I don't think any of the Mario games since Super Mario Bros have been, which may explain why I'm not all that fond of them up until Super Mario 64. Discourse is inevitably tied to a lot of non-gameplay things, including graphics and sound, and once a game ages beyond the point where these things can still impress, it's only got gameplay to rely on. I enjoy playing, for example, Super Mario World, but for me it is nowhere near the transcendant experience it's described as by people who played it when it first came out. I think this is because I'm not playing it as the most technologically advanced Mario game to date, and thus I am not blown away by its increased scope and improved graphics. The graphics aren't even all that nice from an artistic viewpoint, either.

Galaxy's graphics, meanwhile, are. I consider it one of the prettiest games ever, and the settings are evocative, and the music isn't half bad either. There's something else going on here though. I guess it gets called "pure" because of sections like "Revenge of the Topman Tribe", one of the stars in the Dreadnought Galaxy. There's a bit (about 1:55 here) I call "radiating circles of laser doom" where you have to jump over a load of radiating circles of laser doom, hence the name. The guy in the video messes around a lot, but it's a pretty easy section - just run from one end of the platform to the other jumping over the radiating circles of etc. It's pure platforming, and quite entertaining. It's odd though, because if the platform was arranged differently - say, a long thin walkway with moving straight lines of laser doom - it would be a lot less fun, and yet it would "play" basically the same. You'd still be running and timing jumps in the same way, just in a less funkily-designed environment.

It's almost as if the game is relying on the anticipation of gameplay to impress rather than the gameplay itself. When you first see Bouy Base, or the capsule in the Good Egg Galaxy, there's a sense of excitement because it looks like a fun section. But once you're in, it's standard running-and-jumping antics that would play out just the same in a less interesting setting. That's how I felt, anyway. Maybe you found them just as much fun as they looked. If you did, I can't blame you for thinking it's the best game ever, as so many people do. For me, it felt like smoke and mirrors.

I don't mean to imply that making a game visually interesting is somehow duplicitous, just that there's a lot more discourse going on than is immediately apparent, and sometimes - because of a mood you're in, or a preconception you have about the game, or a million different reasons - you can find yourself immune to it. That's the main reason I don't think Galaxy is one of the best games ever. Now hopefully I can stop going on about it and get on to something more interesting. Like Smash Bros in-jokes. Woo.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008


After extensive statistical analysis I have determined the best course of action re the Banjo-Kazooie situation (see previous post). Assuming that the original's a tenner and the new one's £40, and that you'll get the original no matter what, the expected profit from pre-ordering is £(10-40R), where R is the probability that Nuts & Bolts is rubbish. Based on this equation, you ought to take advantage of the deal if you are more than three-quarters certain that it'll be good.

This ignores the factor of being disappointed if you don't pre-order and then it does turn out to be good and you could've saved money. If you want to assign a utility value to that outcome and model the situation as a game theory problem, go ahead. Personally I'm an empty soulless drone who feels neither excitement nor disappointment, nor any emotion bar a perpetual all-consuming apathy, so I'll pass. Have fun though.

Super Everything 64

So if you preorder Nuts & Bolts, you get the original Banjo-Kazooie on XBLA for free, two weeks early. I definitely want the original but I'm not sure yet if I want the new one. It looks good (not literally: the art design and next-gen sheen make me vomit blood from my eyeballs), but it also brings back disturbing memories of the terrifying nuclear holocaust Rare perpetrated on the world of 3D platforming with Donkey Kong 64. Is it coincidence that the genre has been in freefall since? I don't think so. Anyway, it's a question of risking £30 for a potential profit of £10. Well, not profit, but you know what I mean. It's like the bloody Prisoner's Dilemma. I'm seriously considering formulating the situation as a game theory problem and leaving the decision up to maths.

The main qualm I have about Nuts & Bolts is that it's not a "traditional" 3D platformer. This is a vague term, so I'll define it: any game you can tell apart from Super Mario 64 at ten paces isn't one. Yes, I'm a fundamentalist on this. Like any sane person, I tend to think that any given game can be improved tenfold by making it more like Super Mario 64. I'm barely even joking here. I'd probably have liked GTA IV if it had had bob-ombs.

Unfortunately this principle also applies to other Mario games, which is why Sunshine and Galaxy were various levels of disappointing to me. Let's take a moment to remind ourselves of the differences. In Super Mario Sunshine you go into a level, get shown a star in a cinematic, and go get it. The end. In Super Mario 64 you get a single-sentence hint and are unceremoniously dumped into a dazzling non-linear playground (where any number of stars are also available to you) and left to get on with it. And that's if you manage to even find a level in the first place, what with them being hidden behind walls and in mirrors and so on. Sunshine's approach is fun; 64's is effortlessly magical.

So basically I entered the Mario universe with the game that's least like any of the others, and now I'm in love with a series that doesn't exist. I guess I wasn't the only person to be disappointed by Sunshine - actually this little quirk of mine probably aided my enjoyment of the game by initially masking all its other shortcomings - but admitting to not liking Galaxy is essentially Nintendo heresy. As it should be. I did like Galaxy. I just didn't like it as much as 64 and, more depressingly, I saw it as a sign that the series was set on a different course to the one I wanted it to follow. Marry Galaxy's level of invention and beauty to 64's structure and intricate genius and you've got got the best game in the world, although since 64 itself is already more or less the best game in the world this might be asking for too much.

It wasn't as if the find-the-stars-yourself-damnit approach was a creative dead end, as SM64 spawned a number of clones. Most notable is Banjo-Kazooie itself, of course, and it'll be interesting to see how my second playthrough of that goes (the first time I played it, I hadn't yet played SM64, although I've since completed it half a dozen times). There was also a rather splendid effort from Ubisoft called Rocket: Robot On Wheels where you drove a little unicycle robot around a theme park and had all sorts of fun with a quite advanced physics engine. It was like Half-Life 2 meets, er, Super Mario 64. Like I told you, it works with any game. (Allegedly SM64 was even the inspiration for Goldeneye's mission structure.)

In the field of nontraditional platformers there's Mirror's Edge, which looks better and better every time I see it, and then there's always stuff like Tomb Raider, obviously. Supposedly both games are moving away from linearity and towards finding your own route through the level, which is definitely a step forwards if you ask me. Although with Tomb Raider I still wish they'd get rid of the combat. And put in collectable stars, and maybe a race against a giant penguin. They're already got dinosaurs in it, although if you went up to one and asked for 100 lives it'd probably bite your implausibly large breasts off. Still, you can't blame them for trying. (The developers. Not the breasts.)

Monday, 25 August 2008

Braid To The Past

The quite extraordinarily brilliant Braid has got me thinking about other puzzley type games, the Zelda series in particular. For me, the thing that sticks out about Braid, apart from the lovely aesthetics and completely incomprehensible plot, is how much it makes you genuinely think - and, in turn, how rare this is in modern videogames.

I say modern. Since I've only been gaming for about ten years now, I've a very limited idea of whether this has always been true. Everything I know about gaming pre-1997 is basically stuff I've learned from the Wii's Virtual Console, and that's not much. Solomon's Key is a good brain workout, although it has action leanings as well (hamstrung by putting jump on D-up, but that's the NES for you).

One thing the Virtual Console neatly illustrates is how the Zelda series has got progressively easier with each installment. This is actually almost literally true. The original NES Zelda is a complete nightmare. "It's dangerous to go alone, take this! You'll die a dozen times on the second screen anyway but, y'know, take it." I felt a colossal sense of achievement when I made it so far as to find the first dungeon (which actually turned out to be the third dungeon, but let's not quibble). Link To The Past has a bit more signposting - I reached the first dungeon first, and the second dungeon second, at any rate - but it still makes it very difficult to stay alive in a way the 3D Zeldas completely don't. The Mario and Metroid series seem to have undergone similar transformations. (I still haven't completed Super Mario Bros, even with full knowledge of the warps.) Maybe this is an artifact of the 2D setting (although it's not true of the Game Boy versions), or the advent of save functions, or the ethos of the era, or something else entirely.

It does have the effect of making your quest seem a bit more epic (in the same way that a successful run of Mystery Dungeon is all the more satisfying for having previously died in several hundred different ways that were completely not your fault). That Zelda dungeon I eventually reached did seem pretty mysterious and threatening in an 8-bit way, partly thanks to the excellent music. Which is fortunate because in the puzzling stakes it was singularly unchallenging. This is the point I'm slowly gravitating towards. I actually never bothered to finish Link To The Past because the first three dungeons were so uninteresting. The very first is almost comically dull - literally the only difficulty is in finding your way around.

So I think this is one way in which the Zelda series has actually improved. Twilight Princess's dungeons were pretty good, especially the Lakebed Temple (it's inferior to Ocarina's Water Temple, but then, so is more or less any level in any game ever). Wind Waker, too, had some fine attempts once you got past the pathetically easy first and second dungeons. But none of these games tied my brain in quite as many knots as Braid... if you see what I accidentally did there.

You may wonder why I keep making the comparison, but Braid (despite taking more obvious cues from Super Mario Bros and other platformers) isn't so far away from Zelda. The structure's different, but you still gain a new ability, or have to deal with a new mechanic, for every level. It probably has more in common with Portal on the whole, but then again, maybe that's not so different either. The time-slowing ring might jar a little, but I don't have much trouble imagining the portal gun (if it was some kind of wand or something instead) popping up in Zelda.

Obviously, Zelda has more going for it than just the dungeons. Wind Waker in particular has some fantastic between-dungeon bits - ironically I'm especially fond of the section that fills the very obvious void left by the cut third dungeon, where Link sneaks onto the ship while the pirates are hanging out at Windfall. The problem is this. I fell in love with the series with Ocarina of Time, which came out when I was ten. I'm sure a lot of gamers are familiar with the phenomenon - the game's difficulty was perfectly pitched to befuddle my preteen brain, and now that I'm older and wiser the same difficulty level doesn't fill that puzzley void in my soul.

The semi-holy DS trinity of Another Code, Hotel Dusk and Professor Layton And The Curious Village failed for various reasons. With the first two, I was largely immune to their dubious narrative charms/character quirks and found the puzzles poorly integrated. Professor Layton gets away with murder in that respect, by somehow turning it into a charming quirk in itself - I began to glean a peverse enjoyment from the poorly-welded-together halves of the game ("My cat is ill! Maybe he'd get better if I could just solve this puzzle.."). But... consider this post an extended-length bragging session if you like, but they were just too easy. None were as disappointing as Phantom Hourglass though, whose facile puzzles and drab adventuring add up to the first Zelda since Ocarina I've actively despised. Apart from Braid, only Portal and Zack and Wiki have really given me the level of intellectual thrill I've so craved. (Intellectual thill? If there's a nerdier phrase in the English language, I've never heard it.)

Given that my Games Of The last three Years have been Twilight Princess*, Portal and (so far) Braid, you can imagine what direction I want the Zelda series to be heading in. With Nintendo's new family friendly direction, though, it seems unlikely. I guess not every level can be the Water Temple, but I really would appreciate... hang on, why can't every level be the Water Temple? Every level should totally be the Water Temple. Apparently the Zelda team are working on something at the moment, so someone pass on this message: make every level the Water Temple. Also put the portal gun in it. Thanks.

*Edit: Well why didn't anyone tell me Hitman Blood Money came out in 2006? Sod Zelda.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

In Brawl We Trust

Smash Bros is a religion, and these are its commandments.

I Link, Captain Falcon, Samus and Ike are all amazing, but thou shalt have no other gods before Wario.
II Any character that isn't amazing shall be referred to by a derogatory and increasingly unfunny nickname, eg: Mr Gay and Watch, Poocario, Ganondork, Mr Game and Crotch, Diddy Wrong, Wonkey Kong, Mr Lame and Watch, Lolimar, Mr Game and Wank, Mr Wank and Watch (even though that doesn't make any sense). Also Mr Game and Watch's final smash is called the Cocktopus.
III Suggested one-liners for various situations:
i) (Ice Climbers' final smash) "Ice to see you!"
ii) (Diddy Kong's "jump on your face and hit you" move) "I specialise in YOUR FACE!"
iii) (Meowth emerges from a Pokeball) "It's pay day, bitch!"
iv) (Jigglypuff falls asleep right next to an opponent) "NO Jigglypuff you stupid fucking twat."
IV King Dedede's glassy blank-eyed stare is the stuff of nightmares.
V So is Jigglypuff's final smash.
VI Whenever one of the crappy new Pokemon appears (ie more or less anything post-Mudkip) it must be immediately insulted for its inept design. ("It's just a cat with bits of plastic stuck on it!")
VII The co-op event match where you have to kill 50 Yoshis in one circuit of Rainbow Ride will eat your soul.
VIII Sonic is the worst character to play against, but by no means the best character to play as. No one knows why or how.
IX Whenever someone eats a poison mushroom you have to pretend you knew it was poisoned, even though independent studies have shown that it is impossible to tell the difference.
X Kirby's final smash is the cutest thing this side of Jigglypuff.