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A Lighter Jog: RUNNER 2

March 17, 2013

I know what you’re thinking—this isn’t The Walking Dead! Indeed: although I completed the final episode today, I haven’t yet worked out what I want to say about it. So not wanting to rush things, I’m going to write about a game for which I’ve already collected several thoughts: Runner 2. Or, technically—and I’ll only spell this out once—Bit.Trip presents… Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien.

I acquired the original Bit.Trip Runner two winters ago, and quickly fell in love. It took me many months, totalling 13 hours, to complete it. It was a test of endurance, and of the fortitude of my stomach lining. It was brutally difficult, yet incomparably rewarding when I managed to—finally—succeed at each level. When I at last beat the game, it was pure ecstasy: I had conquered this devilish, this finely tuned, increasingly and almost comically difficult game. Consequently, I eagerly awaited Runner 2, which would offer another chance to experience the elation of overcoming what, at first (and second, and twentieth, and hundredth) encounter, seemed like impossible obstacles.

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Blood on My Hands: THE WALKING DEAD, Ep. 2

February 25, 2013

Last Sunday was my introduction to Telltale’s story-driven zombie adventure, The Walking Dead, and it seems that this is going to become a Sunday tradition for the next few weeks. Today I’ve played through the second episode, Starved for Help. Taking a hint from the game, I’d like to dump my thoughts now before they wither and die, then come back to life a festering mess.

In this post I’ll only be talking about my impressions of the game, without regard to its place in the wider world of gaming, but sometime soon I hope to discuss the “notgame” debate regarding the definition of what makes something a video game. And especially relevant to The Walking Dead is the problem of making a good adventure game, an article about which Polygon recently published, which you can read here. But these topics are much too broad to slip casually into this post, and I want to give them due consideration, and maybe do some more research beforehand. For now, I’ll keep the blinders on: let’s get back to the zombies.

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I have wasted my hours

February 23, 2013

Hot on the heels of last week’s immensely satisfying The Walking Dead playthrough is a series of woefully disappointing gaming experiences. It reminds me that there are few games out there that I find to be truly valuable—that there are plenty of poorly executed ones that just aren’t worth my time when there are other games to try, other things to do. Life is pretty big, you guys. I don’t want to miss out by spending all my time playing junky games.

For posterity (maybe our children will be able to right our wrongs), I’d like to go through what it was about each game that I didn’t like, occasionally offering some suggestions for improvement. Read more…

Everything Matters: THE WALKING DEAD, Ep. 1

February 17, 2013

Simply put, I am blown away by the first installment of Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead. I knew going in that it was supposed to be great, but I didn’t know what to expect. This is a story-driven game, so how much interaction was I going to have? Would I just be selecting a few dialogue options now and again? Well, yes, you do, but right from the start it’s made clear that what you say in those conversations actually matters. The consequences of your actions are not always immediate, but the game hints at the significance of your choices with text that appears at the top of the screen: “You checked on Clementine”, “You showed an interest in Kenny’s family”, “Lilly remembers what you said about her”, and the like.

Because of these hints, there wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t careful about how I responded when talking with others. And the game puts a timer on your responses, solidifying the feeling that everything you say (and do) matters. Furthermore, there’s rarely an easy decision to make: it’s not clear whose side is better to take, who’s worth saving, or how much information you should be sharing about your own past. There’s always the looming concern that the wrong decision will turn around and bite you down the road. But that’s exactly what makes The  Walking Dead different from other games: I didn’t spend my time trying to find an optimal outcome—there isn’t one. Read more…

On Harmonious Communication, with Examples from Journey

July 22, 2012

Video games, like all media, are about communication. To some, games are about having fun, which is, ostensibly, not about communication. Yet I would suggest in response to that view that even games that are simply meant to be ‘fun’ are still communicating with the player—and I don’t think that that’s hard to see. Probably the most prominent example of ‘mindlessly fun’ games are FPS and war-based games, and do these not contain messages about perspectives on war, combat, and killing? But even if you can pull up an example of a game that contains no obvious messages (perhaps some arcade-type games like Bejeweled fall into this category?), the game still communicates the rules of the world it creates, and provides feedback to the player, effectively communicating either, “You understand the rules of this universe”, or “You do not understand the rules of this universe”. And typically such messages are not quite as overt: they manifest as, respectively, increases in points and nice jingles, and point decreases and Game Over screens.

So may we be in agreement that games communicate with the player in at the very least a trivial manner? Understanding that games do this (just as films, music, television, visual art, and performance art do) is important because it prepares us to explore both the messages that a game presents and the effectiveness of their presentation. But given that this is certainly a multi-faceted issue, I wish to step away from the general and move toward the specific. In particular, I would like to discuss harmony in game communication.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will understand ‘harmony’ to mean “consistency, accord, or agreement”. And in particular, we will understand ‘harmonious communication’ to mean “a presentation of messages which are consistent, accordable, or in agreement both in the content of the message and the way in which they are presented”. Already I fear two things regarding this topic: first, it may already seem too theoretical and will thus become entirely intangible, and second, that this topic, though more specific than ‘game communication’ as a whole, is still too large to be covered in a single essay. Regarding both fears, I will state clearly now that I will be touching on only a fragment of the topic and will do so with specific examples from Journey, since just today I’ve gone through the game taking notes with this in mind. A more thorough examination of harmonious communication in video games would be nice, but I’ll leave that for the future.

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Physical Touch and Love in Ico (and Games in General)

July 15, 2012

Lately I’ve been working on catching up on some classic PlayStation games that I can finally play now that I own a PS3. A couple of weeks ago I began playing Uncharted and Uncharted 2, finishing them this past week. Without discussing them in any great detail (since this post is not about them—their time will come), I was pleasantly surprised to discover that despite being “action movie games”, as people like to call them, they were really quite good and quite fun.

But now that I’m done with those (I’ll get to Uncharted 3 in due time), I’ve moved on to the HD remastered versions of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. I’ve only played about an hour of Ico so far, but already I have things that I want to discuss.

Since the whole game revolves around the parts of the game that I will be discussing today, I don’t think that a spoiler warning is necessary. Everything I discuss you will encounter within 10 minutes after the intro cutscenes.

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What Does It Mean to Be Independent? And Why It Doesn’t Really Matter

May 5, 2012

After a two-week hiatus to wrap up my last two courses for my degree (I still have my thesis to do), A Pixel Canvas will return to the usual weekly updates. This week I’ll be discussing what is means to be an independent game designer—this discussion is fuelled in part by the negative reactions to the “EA Indie Bundle” released on Steam this week. Many of the game developers that I know and follow on Twitter had something to say about it, and I do too. But there are deeper issue at work here, and I’ll be discussing them as well.

Not Indie

Before we get into defining what makes a studio independent, it’ll be helpful to list a few that definitely aren’t, and investigate why. Companies like NintendoSquare EnixBethesda, Blizzard, Obsidian, Ubisoft, Valve, and EA (hence the confusingly-titled Steam bundle) are clearly not independent—at least, no one in the industry would ever claim it. So why is that? Well, at least two things that they all have in common is their size and their wealth. Further, they all have well-established franchises that helped them to achieve their wealth.

But one thing that they do not have in common, but which often factors into the question of independence, is that some of the companies are funded by publishers, whereas others fund their own games. For instance, the upcoming Diablo III from Blizzard Entertainment is published by Blizzard as well. This makes sense, of course: Blizzard has made boatloads of money from World of Warcraft and Starcraft II in recent years, giving them no reason to seek outside funding. So in that sense, they do indeed operate independently. So what makes them so different from traditional indies like Introversion Software, creators of Darwinia and DEFCON?

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Disappointed with Q.U.B.E., Indie Fund

April 14, 2012

The Indie Fund, which I’ve mentioned previously, is a funding initiative created by a few indie developers, notably Jonathan Blow (Braid), the co-founders of 2D BOY (World of Goo), among others. The support from Jonathan Blow alone is enough for me to want to keep an eye on the games that the organization backs. Back in February, I discussed their second release, Dear Esther, which I decided was interesting and important to the game community, but did not appear to have much lasting value. This past week, I finally got around to playing Q.U.B.E., the first game backed by Indie Fund to be released, which came out at the beginning of January. I bought the game very shortly after it came out because I trusted the opinions of the developers behind Indie Fund. But it seems that my faith was misplaced, because Q.U.B.E. proved to be a frustrating, simple, and ultimately dissatisfying puzzle game.

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One Life, One Journey

April 8, 2012

In last week’s post, I exalted Thatgamecompany’s latest PSN game, Journey, for the wonderfully personal experience it gave me (I use the word ‘wonderfully’ in spite of—or, more truthfully, because of—the feelings of longing and loneliness I felt afterward). I have never felt anything like I did during or after playing. Why then, at the end of the post, did I tease that perhaps I would never play Journey ever again? This week I will explain myself and present my new philosophy for approaching these rich gameplay experiences.

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A Romantic, Tragic, Lonely Journey

March 31, 2012

The gaming world has been abuzz about Thatgamecompany’s latest PSN title, Journey. When it was released on March 13th, I was already itching to play it. I had done my best to avoid learning about the game so that I could play it with a fresh and open mind: all I knew was that the game begins with you starting off in a desert with a mountain in the distance, and the only logical step being to go toward it. That—plus a few screenshots—was enough to pique my interest. To my dismay, my schedule was packed with work and assignments, so I had to wait nearly two weeks to play it. Finally, last Sunday I was able to carve out the time at night to play. So, volume turned up and lights off, I began my journey.

Mine was a beautifully tragic experience. I caught a mere glimpse of what it could have been for me, and it haunted me. But before I explain that, I should speak a little about the game, for the uninitiated. If you’re at all interested in playing the game, please skip this post until you’ve played it: I do believe that going in knowing as little as possible is the optimal approach. Furthermore, I can say with great certainty that you will not fully understand this post or how personal my experience was until you’ve played the game for yourself. Here be spoilers.

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