Still Playing: Spelunky’s Daily Challenge

September 11th, 2013

I’m a proud, if slightly occasional, member of Tom Francis’ Spelunky Explorers Club, a cadre of Daily Challenge players who commit their deeds to YouTube. I recently wrote about the revelation of becoming a member for Edge.

Everyone says they’re awful at Spelunky. Even the best. At least that’s what I tell myself as I die on level 1-2 from an arrow trap I’d noticed but instantly forgotten, or a bat I mistakenly thought my motor skills could defeat. But when good players crash out of Spelunky and curse their awfulness, they’re in the Ice Caves or Temple, or probably even further, frustrated that they messed up getting into the City Of Gold or Hell. Not the Mines, the first set of levels. My home and my nemesis. I really am awful at Spelunky. But I didn’t really know how bad until it came out on PC last week.

Read in full at Edge

The slow, sad death of 3D games: a tribute

September 10th, 2013

Having really been enjoying the stereoscopic 3D in 3DS Steamworld Dig, Etrian Odyssey IV and Fire Emblem: Awakening, I wrote about the sad demise of the technology for Edge. The whole stereoscopic 3D thing was always kind of crazy, and yeah, its story is a curious one of corporate hubris and desperation. But you have to admit a nice stereoscopic 3D menu design is super sweet.

Perhaps it’s finally time to raise a glass to stereoscopic 3D. Once a proud part of E3 press conferences and the core selling point of entire consoles, it seems to be quietly being shelved. It’s “not a focus” for Sony with PS4, which, if rumours are to be believed, seems likely to be graced with an Oculus Rift-style headset. And following a steady deemphasising of 3D in its 3DS marketing spiel, Nintendo’s gone and removed it completely for its new budget version, 2DS.

So no one really cares about stereoscopic 3D, but I like to think that’s mostly because it’s misunderstood. Because – and this might sound crazy – I actually really like 3DS’ 3D.

Read in full at Edge

Blood Meridian: War and games

September 7th, 2013

red_dead_redemption

I finished Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian last week. A story that follows the bloody trail of a gang of scalphunters as they murder their way across Texas and northern Mexico in the mid-1800s, it’s at once monumental and biblical, harrowing and graphically violent. It’s really stuck with me.

One of the many things I admire is its vision of the American (and Mexican) West as an ancient land, with a long history of people having come and gone before Glanton’s gang ranges across it. It helps to set base action – slaughter, rape, torture, disease, poverty, decay, hunger, greed, destruction – in the realm of something more timeless and fundamental: an examination of man and nature stripped of civilisation. But it’s still remarkably immediate. I didn’t realise until after I finished that the Glanton gang is based on a real one, which used the bounties on scalps made by various Mexican townships under attack by marauding Apaches as an excuse to go on the rampage for gold and blood.

The world Blood Meridian depicts is morally abhorrent, but it’s still somehow internally logical. The philosophical keystone is Judge Holden, an awesome figure, described as being seven feet high and hairless, and usually naked. He continually studies the natural world, drawing it, taking samples, and explains to one of his fellow gang members that he does it because, “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.”

He steadily lays out other such brutal ideals throughout the book, and one of them concerns the importance of games – principally betting games and sport, but it struck me that it gets at something fundamental about why we play.

Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all1. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.

I think that there’s a lot of truth in the idea that games are an elemental part of humanity, their abstractions of the rules of war and taking from others by force play on the ancient impulses that take us to those acts. We live for conflict in some form or other, and games can be a safe place to practise it.

Blood Meridian depicts pretty much every kind of mutilation and suffering I can imagine, and there’s a lot of it, too. But that’s not a criticism, because it proves that violence is just as much worthy of portrayal and reflection as anything else. Perhaps more so. Violence in videogames, though, is often dismissed as unnecessary or juvenile.

The Last of Us, in which you have little agency other than to hit things or shoot them, came under particular fire for this recently. I agree that some of its lingering animations of bludgeoning and smothering do seem to take a pleasure in the act that is less about articulating the character’s part in it than a pornographic attempt to satisfy players’ desire to witness it. But I have no problem with the central role violence plays in the game. It’s the player character Joel’s main means of self-expression; the way he gets his way in a world without civilisation. It’s fitting, and the game explores the repercussions of Joel’s actions on himself and his relationship with Ellie quite well.

I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the general argument that videogames are too violent. Whether they depict it well is another matter, but violence is such an inherent part of ourselves and, as the Judge says, the reason why we play games that I think it’s completely valid that games should attempt it. Especially as so many other forms of media are so concerned with violence. Whether as a result of the fear of violence or the desire to commit it for self-protection or to dominate, it drives most drama.

So why shouldn’t it drive many games too? I think there’s a kind of truth in the naturalness with which games depict and are underscored by violence – it’s part of the grammar of humanity.

  1. There’s your reason why Spelunky’s Daily Challenge is so fun right there.

Nintendo the iOS game maker: part II

August 30th, 2013

There’s something something I failed to explain properly in my post about Nintendo as an iOS game developer – about the relationship between business and craft. But this story kind of gets to it, told by Robert Krulwich, the more down-to-earth and substance-concerned part of Radiolab.

He’s describing seeing a former colleague at CBS and traditional newspaperman, Charles Kuralt, being upset upon learning that CBS had hired a new boss for him, a man who had raised his previous station’s audience share from 6% to 50% by getting new, young and beautiful newscasters to report from the beach wearing beachwear “where they got kind of wet, showing off their extra beautiful parts”.

The natural reaction, as Krulwich observes, is that any business should get a 50 share of a market if it can.

But when Charles Kuralt went to CBS, it wasn’t a business. It was a calling.

For me, that’s Nintendo, too. Today, it’s slowly sinking into deep trouble, with little sign of a clear path out of it. But to lose its hardware side would be to lose something integral – its beautiful grasp of the relationship between game design and hardware design. Game creation is far more important than mere business, just as journalism is (or should be). It’s a calling.

For Nintendo to become just another developer and give up the greater language of interaction that buttons afford over touchscreens would really be a tragedy.

Nintendo the iOS game maker

August 29th, 2013

I say they should just give in and start making iOS games. They’re not going to win this battle.

I wish John Gruber wouldn’t talk about games, because I don’t think he really understands them. Here he’s reacting to Nintendo’s surprise 2DS announcement.

Sure, Nintendo has a lot of problems. And, yes, many of them are a result of losing a vast amount of control over handheld gaming since the advent of iPhone. But still. He sees games/devices as a ‘battle’ in which sheer numbers are the only marks of success rather than long-term passion and wonderful expressions of creativity (you know, like many of the things he celebrates Apple for). He’s also ignoring the clear and present benefits of gaming-centric hardware. Like many, I don’t want a future in which handheld gaming devices don’t have physical buttons and joysticks. Broadly speaking, 3DS is better for games than an iPhone. Anyone who loves games should abhor the idea of them losing such vital parts of themselves.

I think also that the iPhone/iPod Touch argument as the ideal gaming device ignores the practicality of a (far cheaper) Nintendo handheld for kids. Among other reasons, they’re more or less indestructible and their games don’t include the terror of microtransactions.

And besides, Nintendo’s real issue right now is its bid for the living room, not the pocket, with the floundering Wii U. I’d be surprised if Nintendo hasn’t explored making iOS games in its labs, just to figure out what they are and how they work, but for Nintendo to simply become an app maker would be to lose its very soul.

NB I wrote a second part to this that hopefully makes me look less like a naive idealist (instead just an idealist).

Blast

July 28th, 2013

I really like Naoya Hatakeyama’s Blast series of photographs. I’ve had the following as my desktop background for months.

Hatakeyama_Blast

I came across the A BIRD/Blast #130 series earlier, and it’s an amazing piece of visual poetry. There’s the initial calm over this otherworldly place of bare rock and dust, a bird in the sky above.

BLAST1

And then it explodes, and it becomes even more unworldly.

BLAST2

Meanwhile, the bird veers from its course, apparently panicked by the explosion, and incredibly almost framed by the rubble.

I made a gif of the full series here – apologies, it’s a pretty massive file.

A BIRD/Blast #130

HOT, huh? (I admit it kind of bastardises the point of the originals that the event is depicted in distinct individual images, but hey.)

A BIRD/Blast #130 is owned by SFMOMA, which wrote a really interesting piece about the series and Hatakeyama’s technique, in which he works with blast engineers to place the camera as close to the blast as possible without it getting destroyed. He says:

I was moved by their ability to imagine in their brains how 2,000 tons of rock would break apart and then give me accurate advice. From having worked with the rock for so many years, they had gained a vision that I could never imagine. One could say that they were in dialogue with nature in the form of the rocks.

The screen and the real world

July 23rd, 2013

This isn’t some defence of Apple, much less a defence of some typically crass marketing message. But it is a defence, of sorts, of technology.

There’s an article doing the rounds at the moment called In 20 Years, We’re All Going To Realize This Apple Ad Is Nuts which criticises the tone of a new iOS ad, reasonably suggesting that the ad’s focus on products over people is a misrepresentation of what’s important about design. That’s all fine, but the article also includes a list of the ad’s various images of people being immersed in their iOS devices:

  • A woman closes her eyes on the subway to soak in electronic music.
  • A room of students looks down at their desks instead of at their teacher.
  • A parent and child cuddle, focused on a screen that’s so powerful it illuminates the kid’s face.
  • A couple kisses in the rain, then immediately turn away to look at a phone.
  • A tourist opts to FaceTime instead of bathing in visceral, smoky yakitori.

You know the observation that’s coming, and it’s an emotionally powerful one:

People are constantly directing their attention away from one another and the real, panoramic world to soak in pixels. They’re choosing the experience of their products over the experience of other people several times in quick succession. And Apple has a warm voice in the background, goading us on.

It’s easy to be swept along by this sentiment. Seeing people filming important life events rather than allowing themselves to be swept along by the moment is kinda depressing. The Facebook Home ads were all kinds of awful, presenting continual attention on the news feed as an aspiration.

Fact is, we’re all still learning how best to incorporate connected social technology into our lives, but we have to acknowledge it’s already there nonetheless. As such, it is the real world, not something that’s somehow separate.

The image of the woman listening to music: is the subway a “real, panoramic world” that you lose something in tuning out of? Is music really worse than the roar of train carriages and pre-canned announcements?

If the parent and child were presented looking together at a book rather than an iPad, would we think differently? I suspect so, but I don’t think we should.

And I recall I spent most of my time at school staring down at textbooks rather than at my teacher. In fact, during most talks, don’t we generally watch the presentation rather than speaker? And isn’t that the way it should be?

There’s an easy temptation to disregard the outwardly inscrutable nature of digital interactions as being lesser than the ‘real world’. The clear declaration of reading a book, its spine advertising its specific title and subject, seems more acceptable than reading a Kindle or – worse – a multi-use tablet, on which you can’t even easily tell what kind of medium it’s displaying. But what does the ability to identify have to do with the implicit value of a thing?

This isn’t to say that digital technology shouldn’t try to be more legible, and a more naturalised part of the wider world. Today’s flat screens of pixels are sure to be at least partly supplanted by alternative ways of making information interactive. Course, it’s a shame that one of the most famous current alternatives, Google Glass, seems to fall directly into similar pits of techno-social horror that Apple’s ad has, but there are plenty of other ways, using flexible screens, 3D motion capture like that of Kinect and Leap Motion (launched yesterday!) – even things like Little Printer.

But even before this stuff arrives, it’s a mistake to think digital technologies aren’t yet part of the real world, or that today’s smartphones and tablets are somehow separate from culture in general. They’re here, they’re meaningful and, speaking very broadly, they’re incredibly enriching. Let’s keep criticising their place in culture and society, but let’s do it smartly and with a sense of their value.

An old king

July 16th, 2013

crusader_kings

Crusader Kings II1 is suddenly starting making a lot of sense.

My elderly petty king, Áed Ua Conchobair, better known as King Áed I of Connacht, is now tearing through Ireland, having made decades of clodding mistakes in his earlier years. He’s creating spurious claims on every territory around him, assassinating untrustworthy vassals, and steadily swallowing the island up.

It’s a pity about Áed’s eldest grandson, though. Tadg threw his own wife (who happens to be William the Conqueror’s daughter) in prison after Áed finally relented to giving him his own title and lands. When old Áed dies (given that he’s 84, it won’t be long) I’m going to have to play as this fucking clot, because he’s next in line of my proto-dynasty.

Cecilia, you see, is key to our claim to the English crown. Oh hang on. Cecilia of England had a lover called Richard de Conteville. That would explain some things. Still, I’m not looking forward to having to be Tadg, the douche. Quite how he’s going to amass the lands I need to generate an army big enough to take on England, I don’t know. Still, it’s only 1099. There’s everything to play for.

  1. A strategy game in which you play as a historically correct ruler of any land in Europe, north Africa and the Middle East in the years from 1066. The aim is is to preserve your dynasty for as long as you can, ensuring your lineage and not getting stabbed. As far as Crusader Kings 2 is concerned, survival horror in the Medieval period is all about intrigue, diplomacy and childbirth – essentially, it’s Game of Thrones: The Game (naturally, there’s a mod for that).

Backgrounds

April 28th, 2013

I got a bit obsessed with this showcase of 125 animated fighting game backgrounds today. Just the backdrops from different stages (as far as I can tell all by SNK, dating from the mid to late 90s, and probably ripped from SNK Wiki), stripped of player sprites and health bars, they’re gorgeous flowerings of visual design.

Truth be told, I’m a bit tired of pixel art, but work like this aspired to transcend mere pixels. And I think that’s why it still packs a punch for me today. It’s evidently not content with the paltry colour depth and resolution it’s forced to use. It’s not about celebrating its form, unlike today’s pixel art, which is all about the form and evoking aesthetics of the past without quite nailing their fundamental nature. Instead, these backgrounds are all about what they depict – little scenes, ripe with little stories and humour, and inflected with travel pornography.

Real Bout Fatal Fury 2: The Newcomers
Real Bout Fatal Fury 2: The Newcomers (1998), Xiangfei’s Stage

There are the guys stealing boxes out of the blue van; the guy straining to get the pig out of the tomatoes in the back of the red pickup; the woman tugging the guy’s trouser leg for attention on top of the truck; the dog and its excited owner. This fight is staged in a place with its own history and populated by people who have nothing to do with your dumb fight.

The King of Fighters 96
The King of Fighters ’96, Korea Team’s Stage

There’s quiet genius in many apparently simple ideas. Puddles reflecting the sky and the flow of water into them at the back here is a fantastic way of making the flagstones dynamic and interesting.

The Last Blade
The Last Blade (1997)

Lots of them, like that The King of Fighters stage and this one, take you to exotic and romanticised east Asia. Here, the gentle movement only emphasises the sense of silence, ready for the contrast of the bout itself.

Garou: Mark of the Wolves
Garou: Mark of the Wolves (1999), The Lillien Knights’ incursion on Blue Wave Harbor stage

And then there’s this one, which is all movement.

Samurai Shodown II
Samurai Shodown II (1994), Galford’s stage

I spent a few minutes mesmerised by that revolving shark. I suppose the constant repetition also taps into the reason why gifs (and latterly Vine) are so compulsive.

Garou: Mark of the Wolves
Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Free Field, Second South’s slums stage

Some totally reference film, instantly evoking a specific milieu.

Anyway, for me, these backgrounds’ beauty lies in their navigation of technical constraints. They push through the problems of low resolution with sharply outlined elements or subtle gradations. They’re incredibly careful with the number of animations they show and how many frames of animation from which they’re made. Some look like living scenes, even if the effect’s set by a surprisingly small number of moving components.

To me, that stuff is lovely. The techniques they used are something to really celebrate, even if technology has moved games far beyond them now. I’m happy to leave that artistry in the past, though, and besides, today’s games use new techniques that are just as worthy of celebration. But perhaps it takes a decade or two to allow us to fully appreciate them.

On experience

April 14th, 2013

Experience

The first time I heard ‘experience’ used in earnest as a marketing term was during a trip to Microsoft’s Redmond HQ in 2008. Very much in earnest, in fact – I was there to see New Xbox Experience, which is what Microsoft was calling its new Xbox 360 dashboard design.

New Xbox Experience. This was no mere update. Microsoft was fashioning something that would touch every user and shape their entire conception of the Xbox 360. Which is kind of true, in the sense that Microsoft put out a redesign that’s between mildly and seriously annoyed everyone who’s ever used it since. That’s because NXE was not really focused on improving the experience of its users. It was actually mostly about pushing Xbox Live Marketplace content and advertising at them.

This is the modern interpretation of ‘experience’: throwing stuff at people, whether they like it or not. And it’s a term that has now propagated throughout the game industry, used to describe entire games or parts of them.

There’s that time 2K Sports extended the “NBA® 2K13 Experience with NBA 2K Everywhere”. The Battlefield Premium Edition is “the ultimate Battlefield 3 experience”. WWE ’12 was “the WWE experience you’ve been demanding”.

Experience is also readily applied to gaming paraphernalia. Origin for Mac offers “the same Origin experience and features that define our PC app”. Nvidia GeForce Experience is a program that applies optimal graphics settings in games to suit your PC’s specifications. That’s if by ‘optimal’ Nvidia means ‘a bit janky’. And there’s Sony’s Xperia PLAY Experience Pack, which is a charging dock, USB cable and three Android games. Experience that slight convenience, punters.

Sometimes, the word leaks unbidden into journalists’ lexicons. To pick a couple at random, “EA reveals ‘single identity’ cross-platform gaming experience”, trumpeted Mike Schramm of Origin’s triumphal completion. “Crytek CEO Says Graphics Are 60% of Crysis Experience” reasoned Jonathan “JohnnyBigBoss” Leack. In neither case did the story’s source reference the word.

Experience is also everywhere else in tech. Here’s Daring Fireball’s John Gruber on (what else?) Apple:

What is Apple at heart: a software company, or hardware company? This is a perennial question. The truth, of course, is that Apple is neither. Apple is an experience company. That they create both hardware and software is part of creating the entire product experience.

Back to Microsoft, Windows Vista’s transparency-based Aero theme introduced the Windows Experience, which gives a technical rating for your PC that showed whether it would run Vista nicely (probably not: this is ‘experience’ in the sense of whether you’d feel constant rage or not).

And it’s in film, especially in the marketing flapping around 3D and hi-def formats. Get a load of Jake Hamilton of Fox TV’s critique of the Titanic 3D re-release: “Experience one of the greatest films of all time like you’ve never seen it before!” And you don’t watch IMAX films, you have The IMAX Experience.

Sometimes you get to smoosh Microsoft and film marketing together and experience the lurching chimera of the “The Dark Knight Rises experience on Xbox SmartGlass”. Which is mostly quotes and trivia you could Google.

Is all this really about our actual experience? Hang on, what on Earth is experience, anyway? Something formlessly personal? A sort of emotional engagement? I suspect marketing people would hungrily contend that it absolutely is. Can you package an experience up and boot it into someone’s life with a £10 price tag?

‘Experience’ is being cheapened through its association with stuff you don’t really want or need, but there’s another problem with the term. It’s really hard to think of an alternative way of describing what someone goes through while playing a game, using a device or watching a film. Just look at the number of times Gabe Newell says ‘experience’ to the BBC here. Gabe’s no stranger to crappy buzzwords, but he’s not grasping at marketing half-truths.

I suspect something as fundamental as our emotional response to what we perceive around us is getting debased in all this. All apparently because companies can’t figure out how better to sell stuff that has no definitive value. Bit of a shame, that.