Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Last Concert

I was there when they set the world record. ‘The first concert to take place in the real world as well as virtual space’ - it sounds more grandiose than it actually was. Scores of us clustered about the stage jumping and chatting. Even in a sea of identikit avatars I felt old - mine was the only avatar with facial hair. A referee kept appearing on stage to gee up the audience and tell us to remain patient, the band would be there soon.

“the daaarees!” one girl yelled.

Her cries were echoed throughout the Snowhill moshpit:

“we want the dares!”

“where iz da band?”

Pixie players danced at the crowd’s edge while Chugawugs capered far from the stage. The Chugawugs were NPCs but on that day, everyone was dancing.

The Dares appeared; the chat window scrolled too fast to read. Players whooped, yelling “Yessss!” in multi-coloured text and as the band struck a chord the frame rate slowed to a stutter.

They sang the Free Realms theme tune. a pop-rock ode to following your dreams. “It’s your world!” they sang, and though the video had deteriorated into a series of static frames the audio never dropped.

I'd loved Free Realms once. I'd rambled there, finding exploration tokens hidden in hollow tree stumps, under bridges. Between the Bejewelled minigames and WoW-lite combat Free Realms’ exploration was an unexpected gem. Little compared to the thrill of finding tokens in the game’s early days, of scaling a hill or delving deep into Blackspore Swamp and knowing few players had been there before. Myself and a couple other gamers - who were strictly too old to be playing - helped each other trading the whereabouts of these tokens. Collecting a complete set earned our avatars a hat, a backpack - nothing much, but enough to keep us searching.

Snowhill had always been my favourite location in the game, a location I used to sell Free Realms to sceptical gamers. “The fighting’s just like World of Warcraft,” I told them. “Pulls, instances, aggro - the lot. The rest of the world’s like a giant theme park. Snowhill feels like Christmas.”

Greetings card cottages, snowball fights and a tinkling theme to warm the cockles of your heart; Snowhill, where gusts rise as you scale its peaks and bring upon them the wild Yule of yesteryear: wolves, clear mountain skies and snow like magic crunching beneath your feet.

Sony retooled the game soon after the concert and the world moved on. There are too many gimmicks there now - arm-flailing inflatables, pets won from trading card packets. The userbase has grown to a staggering seventeen millio, but it doesn’t feel like Free Realms anymore; it doesn’t feel like Christmas. It’s like being at a concert surrounded by squalling tweenagers, and I miss how it was.

Massively multiplayer game worlds evolve; I know that. As successful as the game’s gone on to be, sometimes I wish the concert had been it’s last song.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Wonderputt

When Flash animation started appearing on Cartoon Network and cluttering up Saturday Morning CBBC schedules I felt rather used. Flash was our thing, for Internet shorts about sexy squirrel ladies and eggs waffling on about pie.

The Internet’s animation community must have felt the same way; they upped their game, cocking a snook at their televisual peers to deliver elegantly abstract reactive universes in games like Windosill and the Grow! series.

As delightful as those games were, they played more like Fisher Price activity centres than, well, games. This is a real game; it’s a real golf game with all the discovery and wonder of the very best Flash toys that went before it.

Wonderputt is an adventure golf sim. If, like me, you were more interested in the windmills and other moving features on a miniature golf course than putting then this is the game for you.

At the start of the game the course looks more like a surrealist Crystal Maze than it does a golf course: there’s Stonehenge, an industrial zone, a desert zone and a recursive waterway like a water park lazy river as designed by M.C. Escher.

Then, bam! Meteorites pit the desert zone with craters and the game begins.

It starts simply enough: chip the ball from crater to crater until you get it into the hole. The controls are simple: hold the mouse away from the ball and click to tap it in the opposite direction. The further away you hold the cursor, the harder you hit and the further the ball goes. The way the ball rolls around the craters’ curves demonstrates the game’s physics nicely, but sink it and things start getting weird.

There’s a grassy pavilion in the right hand corner of the map; the marquee erected in it ups sticks and turns into a flying saucer. Cows emerge from sheds to the side to eat the grass and as they do the saucer abducts them one by one, leaving the field masticated into an angular design that functions as your new golf course.

When you sink the ball a cloud rains on the field, making grass grow and prompting the cows to come out again to eat it, but the next time you sink the ball the cloud brings snow that turns the field into a ski slope, and you have to slalom the ball up and down hill until you reach a conveyor belt that gives you access to the hole.

Wonderputt does for golf what Flipnic did for pinball. The snow melts and freezes to ice and you then navigate ripples frozen into the pond’s surface. In my favourite part of the game, the ball’s shot from a submarine inside a torpedo that, mid-flight, opens in the manner of an old Airfix construction kit. You play silly golf in model assembly instructions. It’s wonderful.

I’m one of those horrible old curmudgeons who complains that gaming’s lost its sense of wonder. Wonderputt - and rarely has a game been so appropriately titled - restores it and then some. Never resting on its laurels each new course has its own gimmicks, from playing leapfrog across lily pads to a moving factory sequence that plays out like a modern day Screwball Scramble. As a kid, part of the fun of miniature golf was putting into a hazard on the course and never knowing which of its holes the ball would emerge from on the other side. In Wonderputt the whole course deforms into new configurations: standing stones become pinball buffers, skulls emerge from the bowels of office blocks. It displays the depth of imagination you might associate with games like Super Mario Galaxy only it’s all available for free and playable on a netbook.

That the golf game set against this backdrop is a damned good one is a bonus. The fewer strokes you need to pot a ball, the more points you get for it. Replaying the game after completion lets you to collect pick-ups scattered strategically about each course for extra points. Lose your ball off the end of the course or in a water trap and it’s placed roughly where you last left it, and it’s only in a couple of spots where the course’s perspective proves problematic and the ball gets caught up on hidden boundaries.

Wonderputt is the kind of game that would sell well on an iDevice and would have podcast presenters talking about their addiction to it for a week or two; frankly, that’s not good enough. I want a full blown Wonderputt sequel with lots of different arenas, all with the wit, warmth and wonder of this joyous piece of gaming. Animators complained that those early Flash animations were cheap and disposable; this descendant is anything but. It’s a game that deserves lasting recognition for turning hitting a ball with a stick into a thing of immense beauty.

For a long time I’ve berated myself for not writing about the games I’ve played and enjoyed. With the whole Internet at my fingertips I’ve became lazy, content to play the flavour of the week before moving on and forgetting about it. It took Wonderputt to move my shiftless arse into gear and get writing. Play this game and remember it always.

Play Wonderputt

Monday, 21 February 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Inside A Star-Filled Sky

Inside A Star-Filled Sky is a game about nanotechnology. Or Buddhist reincarnation. Or string theory. Or computer programming.

Or something.

You never know what you’re going to get with a new Jason Rohrer game. The man’s known for being something of an enigma - part beach-bum, part hippy, he seems to find most modern games dull to the point of disgust. There are YouTube videos of him at demonstrations for the latest and brightest titles, and as he watches the demonstrator saunter through lush 3D environments to show off the game’s physics and shooting mechanics, he nods, smiles politely and walks away, genial, yet seemingly frustrated. He wants games to be something more than mere shooting ranges. He wants games to be something more than they are.

Inside A Star-Filled Sky is a top-down shooter in the Gauntlet mould. You run through a maze shooting monsters, collecting power-ups, and trying to find the exit. The exit leads you to the next maze, where you do the exact same thing fighting slightly tougher monsters. It stretches almost into infinity in this way. All you old school gamers out there will be delighted to find that the game doesn’t end with a lavish cinematic outtro, but with a kill screen. You play either until you die, or until the game itself runs out of room for its calculations, and combusts. To get to this point will only take you a few decades of continuous gameplay. I’ll come back to that.

The game’s gimmick is that when you pick up any one of the game’s many collectibles you won’t be able to use them until you reach the exit and ascend to the next level. You don’t get to pick up extra health or a new weapon and use it straight away. In order to get anywhere in the game, you have to plan for the future,

You can also go back into the past and alter that future. This happens automatically when you’re killed - you’re thrown back to the previous level and into your previous incarnation. From here you can pick up a different set of power-ups and return to the next level to try again. In other words, you get another chance to make things right.

But what if none of the power-ups available are to your taste? This is where the game gets tricky. You see, you can ‘enter’ any of the power-ups (by pointing the mouse at them and tapping the ‘shift’ key) in the game to find a new level that’s also full of monsters and power-ups. Only this time when you collect power-ups, you alter the nature of the power-up you’re inside.

Okay, say you reach a point in the game where you feel you need more health. You enter a power-up worth one health point, collect all three health power-ups you find inside it, leave via the exit and the power-up you entered is now worth three health points instead of one.

Still with me?


The thing is, once you’re inside that power-up, you can then enter any of the other power-ups there, and then reprogram each of them. So if you reprogrammed each of those one-point health power-ups by entering them in turn and collecting another three health points in each, you could potentially make the original health power-up worth a whopping nine health points.

And health isn’t the only thing you can do this with. Your speed and the weapons you wield are reliant upon the power-ups you find. In theory you can amass a deadly arsenal by dropping down a couple levels into each power-up you find, reprogramming them, and picking up the vastly improved end product.

Similarly you can enter any of the monsters you run into to reprogram them. Run into a monster that’s too tough? Enter it and reprogram it to be slower, have less health, or a cruddier arsenal.

There is, of course, a catch to all of this reprogramming. The deeper you go into an item or an enemy’s infrastructure, the harder the game becomes. If you’re a whiz at 2D shooters you should be in your element dodging enemy fire and reprogramming everything you find to your tactical advantage. If not, things can get very difficult very quickly.

And that’s all there is to it.

Isn’t it?

Perhaps more than anyone else in the industry, Rohrer’s the poster boy for the ‘games as art’ movement. But art is open to interpretation. Where I might see Inside A Star-Filled Sky as a meditation on karma, you might see it as something different. Where I might see it as a game about the futility of trying to live the perfect life, you might see it as a sermon on the betterment and ascendancy of mankind.

For all the seeming complexities of the game mechanics, Inside A Star-Filled Sky is a very simple game to play. Like some of the best classic arcade games it feels almost like a koan. Even without Rohrer tipping its hat with the title, there’s a certain order to the back-and-forth nature of the game the feels oddly familiar. Trial-and-error games have been around forever, but none have been quite as explicit in their portrayal as Inside A Star-Filled Sky, or as generous in allowing the player to right what once went wrong. Every decision you make in the game carries a greater meaning further down the line. When you fail, you have to choose how far back to go in order to right that failure, and the further you go back, the more difficult things become. As much as the game encourages you to go back and change things, it encourages you to think ahead.

In fact my main complaint with this game is, as much as it encourages forward thinking, there’s nothing to look forward to at the game’s end bar the kill screen. The game’s procedurally generated, meaning there aren’t ever more exciting enemies, weapons and scenery to look forward to; once you’ve seen the first few levels you’ve seen it all. There’s no high score to rack up, and the infinite nesting levels render the level counter worthless as a measure of your achievement. You play for playing’s sake. You play to pass time, or to fall into a zen-like state, and once you’re done you have nothing to show for it - not even a high score.

That Rohrer lists the kill screen as a feature on the game’s site adds a depressing air to the game. Even if you play it for the rest of your life, all you’ll get out of it is the experience of playing until it crashes and fails.

Maybe that’s the point.

Or maybe, as with any facet of Rohrer’s games, that’s simply me etching my own state of mind onto the game’s innermost workings. Maybe you’ll interpret things differently. Maybe you’ll have a different viewpoint.

I mean, isn’t that what good art’s all about?

Sunday, 6 February 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Sanitarium

Sanitarium is part of a literary sub-genre of point and click adventures that aspires to be something a little more than slapstick with puzzles. Don’t get me wrong - I like Monkey Island as much as the next guy, and I’m sure Sanitarium’s developers did, too. There’s nothing wrong with comedy adventures, but with such a narrow route through this kind of game and so little room for improvisation, why not tell a story with grander designs?

Sanitarium follows in the footsteps of Roger Zelazny’s Chronomaster and Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. While it doesn’t have a specific author’s name above its title it wears its influences on its sleeve. This is a world of twisted pustulant horror, of Lovecraft, King, Matheson and Bradbury. There might as well be a sign on the box before you: You are now entering the Twilight Zone.

One hundred minutes is enough time to take in one of Sanitarium’s tales of dread, for this is an anthology game that serves up vignettes of terror to flesh out the over-arcing backbone of its main plot. You play Max, a man who’s uncovered a terrible secret but who might also be losing his mind. After skidding off the edge of a cliff in the opening cut scene you wake wreathed in bandages, imprisoned in a burning asylum. It’s possible you’re an inmate here, and it’s possible you tried to escape, but in Sanitarium the truth is never that simple, and you’ll soon find yourself wondering if anything you encounter is real - including yourself.

Rarely has a game tackled such themes so successfully. Amnesia and the nature of reality are hoary clichés in video games, but Sanitarium blends them deftly into a cocktail of horror and intrigue. The asylum interior you wake up in is a gothic torture chamber full of stained glass, smoke and gibbering patients. The power generator’s on fire and a klaxon sounds, riling the inmates into further paroxysms of madness. It might look familiar - atmospherically it shares a lot with Batman’s Arkham Asylum - and it is place both outlandish and intimidating. Yet presiding over the whole affair is a stone effigy of an angel, out of place and bathed in an eery tranquility. It’s mere presence is enough to make you question the nature of this place, and make you want to find out more about it. As much as it chills the very marrow in your bones - and it does - Sanitarium also brings out the private detective in you. You’ll dig through files and pore over newspaper clippings, attempting to make sense of the world around you and your place within it.

As you approach the statue candles at it’s base flare to life. There are file hidden inside the guard station that refers to an ancient Incan key found on the hospital’s construction site. There’s clearly more at work here.

You might think you’d be prepared for whatever comes next. You’d be wrong.

The angel comes to life, envelopes you in her wings, and transports you into the gibberings of a mental patient. You found one of your fellow inmates rocking in his cell, muttering about his mother and how she punished him for stealing a piece of pumpkin pie. Now you wake inside his twisted delusion.

And I want to make this absolutely clear: this is no Psychonauts revery. I loved Psychonauts. I loved its imagination, and how the occasional dark wave lapped at its day-glow cheeriness. But if Sanitarium has such an ocean then the town the angel takes you to is drowned beneath it. Oh, it looks idyllic, and there are children playing on the swings, and skipping and drawing on the pavement in chalk. But the skipping girl has two wooden legs, the girl with the chalk has half a face, and there are roots and branches protruding from every crack in every building, snapping slats and window glass and floorboards and dragging the entire town down into the soil.

I wasn’t expecting this from a game. Video games tend to feature a standard brand of Hollywood horror. They borrow a little from the Alien movies, a little from Romero’s Living Dead films, and a little more from Japanese imports like The Ring and The Eye. They tend not to stray outside their comfort zone, and so their horror is built upon gore and shocks.

Sanitarium is a game built upon dread, not cheap spook-house frights. The asylum angel takes you to a town filled with mutated children, and it resonates in the most unpleasant of ways. You feel bad for the children, and yet you’re afraid of them. When you ask what happened to their parents they giggle and tell you Mother took them away. When you press them further they turn away, voices trembling, and tell you they can’t tell you - that they mustn’t, or else Mother will put them in the pumpkin patch.

The pumpkin patch becomes a place of mythic dread. You have to solve puzzles before you can reach it and when you do you find a little girl guarding the gates. Her eyes have been torn out and she has the body of a worm; she’s scared of Mother because Mother did this to her; more than that, she’s scared for you.

At the bottom of the village there’s a ring of children dancing around a large pumpkin, and as they dance they sing a song that drives you from them screaming, your hands covering your ears.

But the graveyard’s the worst place. The graveyard, where children shouldn’t be, where children shouldn’t play. Where you find Lumpy, a human wedge whose voice is garbled, whose head and face are sunk into his shoulders. He waddles about and is curiously upbeat, but his cheeriness adds to the revulsion. He’s less like a character designed for a video game and more like something ripped from Tod Browning’s Freaks. I expected him to point and chant “One of us!” at me, but what happened next was much worse.

You see, the children challenged me to a game of hide and seek. I accepted, and they split up and ran across the map in search of hiding places. One by one I tracked them down, but once I’d found them all and claimed my prize they told me I hadn’t found all of them, because I hadn’t found their ‘secret weapon’.

I talked to the other children in town about this ‘weapon’ and what it might be, and with mounting horror I realised the only child I hadn’t found and tagged was a little girl called Carol. I hadn’t found her because her father had beaten her to death a year previously, and because now she resided in the cemetery, beneath the hallowed dirt. In order to win this game of hide and seek I’d have to dig her up.

This isn’t a cartoony game. It isn’t caricatured. It’s grimy and it’s nasty, and by God, I didn’t want to excavate a little girl’s corpse. But that’s Sanitarium for you. Every step of the way you’ll question your sanity, not because you’re combining rubber chickens with pulleys, or trying to burst an inflatable rubber duck in some obtuse puzzle, but because it makes you do things like this. It makes you dig up dead children.

I did it, of course. And once I’d done so Lumpy, that little human nightmare, propped her up in the back of his Radio Flyer cart and wheeled her around town. She might have been dead, but she was still his friend. He still wanted to play with her.

Over the course of that first story I found Carol’s diary charting her father’s abuse, and uncovered what happened to all the adults, and why the children were all deformed. I also solved a clutch of traditional adventure game puzzles, and while most of them were fairly straightforward I did on occasion have to go pixel-hunting. There was also an ill-advised action sequence when I finally braved the pumpkin patch - but none of this subtracted from the game’s atmosphere.

The truth is, I haven’t seen anything so inherently creepy in a game in years. Sanitarium comes from a bye-gone age of experimentation, where the rules as to what you could and could not include in a horror game were not yet set - but it might as well come from another dimension. The stories that influenced Sanitarium weren’t created to jolt popcorn from teenagers’ hands, but to give people of all ages sleepless nights. The artwork, voice acting and animation might be crude compared to modern games like Dead Space, but Lumpy’s sunken head and rambling gait as he stumbled around, dragging the foetid corpse of his friend behind him will remain with me longer than any of those identikit monster-closet scares. This is Shadows over Innesmouth. This is In the Mouth of Madness. This is The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verril and The Homecoming, and a thousand other stories of true horror that have been passed over in favour of phallic monsters and cheap scares.

And this is only the first story in Sanitarium’s macabre anthology. As the chapter ended I found myself back in the asylum courtyard, standing beside a patient wearing furry bear slippers, wondering if what I’d seen was only a delusion and if I was truly going mad.

One hundred minutes down and I’m certain Sanitarium will throw up further nightmares to unsettle my sleep. Frankly, I can’t wait.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Arx Fatalis

Deus Ex. System Shock 2. Arx Fatalis. Wait, what?

Within seconds of hearing that Arx Fatalis existed I’d read a review, noted the score, bought the game and downloaded it to my hard drive. Some superstitious part of me screams that this is witchcraft. Once upon a time there would have been no way to find out if a particular game was any good outside of magazine reviews and word of mouth - and even then, if I wanted to buy it and my local W.H. Smith didn’t have a copy, I’d have been shit out of luck.

And let’s face it, they wouldn’t have had a copy of Arx Fatalis. This is an old game that had a niche audience at best back at release, let alone today. Once upon a time there would have been no way for me to get hold of Arx Fatalis.

But this is 2011 and the Internet has changed everything.

Arx Fatalis is not a wonderful game. In no way does it hold up to its illustrious peers, which is a shame because next to the immersive cyberpunk sim and the immersive space horror sim there should be plenty of space for an immersive fantasy sim. There should be a game that fills the missing link between Thief: The Dark Project and Deus Ex, and Arx Fatalis should be it.

Unfortunately for developers Arkane Software their game went up against The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind at release. Morrowind sneered at anything as conventional as a first person immersive fantasy sim, and turned the world of computer RPGs on its head. It perfectly captured that feeling of freedom and fantasy adventure; its open-ended nature allowed the player to go anywhere, to do anything, to be anything. And Arx Fatalis, which revels in its own claustrophobia and awkwardness, can’t hope to compete.

The world is changing, or so AF’s story goes. The years pass slowly, and as they do the sun disappears over the horizon, never to rise again. Under threat of extinction the human race departs the planet’s surface and burrows deep into the underworld, to build cities and forge fragile bonds with the goblins and orcs who live there. It’s a wonderful story, beautifully told, of a medieval society cowering in the twilight of their world, and it’s a disappointment when the in-engine introduction that follows it adds ridiculous Matrix-style action sequences and an amnesiac lead character into the mix. With all the avenues of fantasy storytelling open it’s a shame the game leads down a path so clichéd and derivative.

I awoke in a prison from which I had to escape. The prisoner in the next cell whispered instructions to me, and I felt like I’d been here before, doing the exact same thing. The feeling persisted throughout the jailbreak, into the goblin fortress, and out into the game world itself. That evocative opening was squandered on generic fantasy.

And, like so much generic fantasy, the game’s incredibly racist. Oh, there aren’t any heroic Klansman or jive-talking black folk with chocobos living in their afros, but any character who isn’t a human in this game is moronically stupid. If it wasn’t for their different 3D models the trolls and the goblins might as well be one amorphous, mentally retarded race. “Me hate you stinky human!” one goblin says as I pass him by, but it could have been any goblin, any troll, anyone character wasn’t a human. It’s horrible.

The game is unwieldy. It features the same sort of world interaction as Thief and System Shock 2 - you pick objects up, drag them about, and make them throw little fits when you try to push them through nearby walls or tables. You to hold down the shift key to pick them up, the ‘F’ key to equip weapons or eat food, and double-click to use items inside your inventory or in the world itself. There are no contextual menus, just a series of clumsy button presses, and the inventory doesn’t sort itself meaning that when grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle little heaps of medicinal powder are distributed randomly throughout it. Constantly tidying stack-able items into piles is practically a mini-game unto itself.

Having the map, spell book and character sheet accessible through the same tab at the side of the screen is just as unwieldy, but the game’s biggest UI crime by far is its magic system. It makes me feel bad to give Arx Fatalis’s magic a kicking because I can imagine what the producers were thinking and how they wanted to revolutionise spell-casting in RPGs.

But it’s based upon gesture recognition, and it’s a failure. So many years later and gamers still groan whenever gesture recognition crops up in Wii or Kinect games: It just doesn’t work. Games never recognise our sloppy loops as circles. They might as well yell “That’s never a 90 degree angle!” when we’re trying to construct squares.

And most of the time, when you’re mouse-drawing spell runes in Arx Fatalis, the game simply won’t know what you’re doing. This is illustrated perfectly in the game’s first spell, where it has no problem recognising a straight line as the first part of it but the second, a rune in the shape of a square wave, is rarely if ever recognised. It’s hair-tearingly frustrating to be bested by the first spell in the entire game - a spell that lights torches and sets fire to fireplaces and is, for all intents and purposes, the game’s equivalent of a light-switch.

The developers must have realised how poorly implemented the magic is, as they’ve included a system to pre-cast up to three spells at a time, for later use in tricky situations. It would have been much better if they’d simply assigned numeric keys to each of the spells. It would certainly have made the magic less frustrating.

So why didn’t they? I’m not entirely sure, but I have an idea. This is where the game’s saving grace - its atmosphere - comes in, because there are few games as atmospheric and immersive as Arx Fatalis.

I love the back story. You already know that. But living inside that world that story speaks of is another thing entirely. Looking up and knowing you’ll never see stars up there, nor sun, nor sky. Discovering squalid tunnels where nothing sentient dares to tread for fear of rats, spiders and demons. Finding a luminescent crystal pool glittering in the gloom, and setting up camp next to it. Lighting campfires and cooking racks of rat-ribs on them. Travelling so deep into troll cities you find labyrinths overrun with monsters and tip-toe through them, fearful of what will happen if they hear your footsteps or catch your scent.

The useless magic system plays a part in this. Magic spells aren’t weapons - they aren’t tools to be picked up and played with on a whim. You have to plan the spells you’ll need and it’s only in your direst of moments that you’ll risk waving hands and chanting runes in the hope that you might escape this battle with your life intact. As frustrating as it is when your gestures aren’t recognised, when they are you feel an immense sense of achievement. You’ve drawn the perfect circle or ninety degree angle and your hard work pays off with flaring torches and magic missiles. Getting spells right in Arx Fatalis makes you feel like a wizard.

I finished my first one hundred minutes facing the first true puzzle of the game. I have to meet with the goblin king, but he’s barricaded himself into his throne room and refuses to talk to anyone except the chef who cooks him cakes and slides them under his door. Meanwhile, I have access to the royal kitchen, and have met another goblin who claims the king stuffed the ballot box, and demands he be overthrown. I don’t have the first idea how I’m going to solve this puzzle, but isn’t that the point of immersive sims? Unlike all those first person games with red key/red door puzzles I have to rely on my own ingenuity to work out what to do next. Can I poison the king’s cakes? Can I kill the chef and take his position? Is there some hidden entrance to the throne room?

I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s refreshing just to have that wealth of options available to me. And to make this choice deep inside a fantasy world where the sun will never shine, well, that’s why no amount of creative theft or poorly constructed interfaces can make me hate this game. Arx Fatalis might be a mess, but it’s a hauntingly evocative one, and I have to love it for that if for nothing else.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Final Fantasy X

I am not a JRPG boy. I like my role playing games in a Western flavour which means exploration, customisation, story branching and a unique player experience are all par for the course. My trip through Baldur’s Gate might be very different from that of my neighbour, and my journey through Morrowind certainly would be, but that’s what’s so great about Western RPGs. Even the most rigid titles adapt to your own personal gameplay style. Want to play Mass Effect through as a psychic peacenik space hippy and not a gun-toting soldier out for blood? Knock yourself out, kid.

This is not the way of the JRPG, where character customisation is often limited to renaming the lead character from ‘Crono’ to ‘Boobies’. Which isn’t to say that this individualism is replaced with a deeper story or more sympathetic characters, resulting in a richer and more absorbing experience. In fact I’ve never played a JRPG that has a more engrossing narrative or more memorable characters than those in than any of Bioware’s games. Which leaves me wondering just what people find so appealing about JRPGs.

And they do. The ongoing success of the Mass Effect series has gone some way to redress the balance between the two hemispheres but it’s the Final Fantasies and the Dragon Quests that dominate RPG culture. Convention-goers are much more likely to dress up in towering spiky wigs and wield gunblades than they are to cosplay as a Krogan warrior or an Asari consort. You hear strange tales coming from Japan about the economy suffering as a result of so many people taking a particular day off work just to play the latest Dragon Quest title. As a Westerner it’s bizarre to think of these games in terms of the popularity associated with the Call of Duty franchise. One’s a dumb-as-a-rock first person shooter and the other, well, the other’s an RPG. It’s weird.

So when the opportunity to revisit the old PS2 back catalogue presented itself I thought I’d pick up a copy of the highly-acclaimed Final Fantasy X to see what all the bother was about. It’s not like I’ve never touched a JRPG before you understand, but this game constantly appears on lists of the systems best titles. If anything could sell me on the JRPG it would be Final Fantasy X, right?

One hundred minutes is, of course, nowhere near long enough to explore such a title. JRPGs are made for longevity; the fans demand it, and seem to harbour a certain sneery attitude toward shorter games. After a hundred minutes I still hadn’t played my first game of Blitzball, a sport that’s introduced at the very start of the game, and I’ve heard some FFX fans mention they’d spent hours upon that particular minigame alone. But one hundred minutes of any game should be enough to show the player a sparkling core of gameplay and give them an inkling as to whether or not they’ll like the rest game.

After one hundred minutes my first impressions weren’t negative, but I’m afraid they’re not entirely positive either.

I’ve always hated that JRPGs speak in stilted riddles. When reading or listening to dialogue I’m always aware that this is a game made for a faraway audience, that’s been translated from a faraway language. Final Fantasy X does not buck this trend. Nothing in it feels natural, and in a title that’s otherwise highly polished this awkwardness stands out as a terrible flaw. The characters undergo titanic mood shifts far too often, leaving them seem brittle at best, unhinged at worst. They voice their thoughts often and when they do it it’s out loud, in a comic book style, but their thoughts are usually half-formed. “But that means-!” is a phrase that typifies this kind of dialogue. It’s there to indicate the character has come to a certain conclusion, but the dialogue surrounding it doesn’t expand upon that conclusion, leaving the gamer to hazard guesses as to the conclusion - or even the mood - of the character itself. Maybe if the voice acting was a little better we’d be able to fathom the emotions of the characters; sadly it’s merely competent, and errs toward that of a cheap import cartoon voiceover. If the Pokémon voice track has you reaching for a shotgun in order to end the pain, you might want to turn FFX’s sound down.

In spite of the acting and dialogue there is something deeper to these characters, something to latch upon. Take Tidus, the main player character. He has the spiky hair and the massive sword, and he’s cocky almost to the point of obnoxiousness, but he’s also a sports megastar whose father abandoned him as a child and left him angry, bitter and confused. Further subtleties of his character are screwed by the broad mood changes and poor translation, but there’s enough emotional content there to grab onto.

It’s the same with Yuna, the squeaky-voiced summoner who’s trying to follow in her father’s priestly footsteps, or Wakka, the burly, big-hearted idiot who pines for his dead father and hides his grief between Blitzball and improbable hairstyles. This disparate band of misfits might be irritating and something of a cliché, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t endearing. It seemed terribly unlikely that I’d ever come to care for them when I first met them but one hundred minutes into the game I was starting to smile at magician Lulu’s callous put-downs, and Wakka’s oxen stupidity.

But the real pull for me - the factor that keeps me playing in spite of my better judgement - is the story. Which is strange because I’m not sure I actually like it, and I definitely don’t like how it ties into the gameplay itself. You begin the game as the aforementioned Tidus, sweeping into town in a limousine, signing autographs for swooning fangirls and pegging it towards a gargantuan Blitzball stadium across silvered walkways, beneath neon lights and vid screens showing endlessly repeated footage of your missing father. And there’s something there, something different to all those other spiky-haired heroes with daddy issues who have something to prove to themselves. Tidus has already proved himself worthy to take up his father’s mantle - he’s a star, he’s beloved. When you reach the stadium (and in a master stroke the fans cheers and well-wishes you encounter along the way intermingle with your own, internal narrative, blending the here and now with future reminisces) the crowd goes mental, and every tuck, toss and turn of the Bltizball game is met with fresh applause and adulation. All the while, mysterious figures watch as the nearby ocean erupts to engulf the city, destroying skyscrapers and walkways, sending flurries of demonic ‘Sin-spawn’ down to terrorize the citizens and finally sweeping you into the heart of the aquatic attacking demon, a water-monster called Sin.

When you wake up a thousand years have passed and with it, the grandeur of your home city. In its place are a series of fishing villages, temples containing tedious puzzles revolving around juggling spheres, and the rest of the game.

It’s a big letdown. It feels like you’ve been promised Blade Runner only to be given Doc Hollywood. But again, there’s enough to grab onto and hope for the best.

That’s the feeling I emerged from the first one hundred minutes of Final Fantasy X with - a sort of hopeful disappointment. While the game is often beautiful in a primitive sort of way, it revels in its own narrowness. There is only the one path through the game, and every battle, puzzle and plot-point you encounter is just another obstacle to surmount. Battles - still simplistic this early into the game - are defeated with a set sequence of button presses. In fact if you deviate from the battle plan the game actively scolds you, telling you to leave certain enemies to the group member who deals with them the best. There’s no room for improvisation - there is only the plan. There is no room for exploration - there is only the path.

While I can’t say I dislike FFX, I can’t say I find much joy in it either. JRPGs have often come under fire for being more akin to interactive novels and movies than anything else, and I think it’s fair to say that thus far, that’s exactly what FFX is. It’s something to sit and watch rather than something to experience, and for a game that’s something of a sin. When a cut scene ends it’s simply a case of moving from point A to point B and climbing the obstacles you encounter until you reach the next cut scene and progress the story. It’s almost like the game is happening to someone else and you, the player, are just a voyeur.

I feel sad that I went into this game hoping it would change my mind on JRPGs; if anything it’s reinforced my opinion of them. Pretty cut scenes, obtuse battle systems, dodgy translations and plenty of pointless, non-interactive scenery - all these are evident in FFX, as they are in pretty much any JRPG you could mention. And again, I wonder why this genre has such fervent and dedicated fans when compared to the open worlds of WRPGs they are little more than narrow, well-decorated corridors.

Still, I’ve only played one hundred minutes of a fifty hour game. Maybe it’ll change my mind after all.

Friday, 7 January 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Culdcept

Culdcept was released on the DS in Japan. Think about that for a moment.

If you know the game, chances are your eyes are boggling, your jaw is dropped and your tongue is lolling. Your hair stands on end and you’re looking like Large Marge, the phantom truck driver from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, because the sheer impact of this dangerous knowledge is too powerful to contain within your physical body - you need something in claymation to convey your feelings, and you’ll probably need a translator on hand too because those aren’t words you’re speaking but gibbers and hoots, and howling discord.

It’s insane. It can’t be. It’s simply too dangerous to put a game like this on a card the size of your thumbnail and let anyone play it anywhere, and at any time.

How has Japan not fallen? Why haven’t its planes crashed from the sky, its cars smashed in the streets, its buildings crumpled and its sewers overflowed with filth? Why hasn’t this mighty country been brought to its knees by a sudden slothful plague of inaction caused by the release of Culdcept DS? Why haven’t pilots, drivers, janitors and plumbers alike stopped in their tracks, mesmerised by this ingenious, devilish little title?

I’ll tell you something: It beats the hell out of me. But considering the game never had a global release it seems clear that someone did realise the potential this game had to being about Ragnarok, and what a narrow squeak the Japanese release of it was.

Talk about your gaming crack . . .

I’ve been playing the PS2 release of Culdcept. It was one of only a couple of completely unfamiliar titles that appeared on a list of game developers’ favourite PS2 games. In amongst mostly-safe selections like SSX3 and Shadow of the Colossus, Ken Levine of Bioshock fame mentioned Dark Chronicle - my all-time favourite JRPG - Mercenaries, and Culdcept. This was an unconventional selection and one that caught my eye. When I read his reason for adding Culcept, even though it hadn’t had a European release on any format, by hook or by crook I knew I had to play this game.

Ken’s reason for adding it - and my reason for getting it - was this: It’s like Monopoly meets Magic: The Gathering.

Now anyone who caught my appearance on Michael Fox’s Little Metal Dog Show podcast knows I’m not a fan of Monopoly. Neither am I much of a fan of Magic; I tried it once as a teenager, and was soundly beaten by a twenty-something who was trying and failing to grow a beard.

But the two of them mushed together? How would that even work? I had to play it.

I tracked down a cheap copy on Amazon. played it on my wife’s NTSC PS2, and when I slotted it into the drive something magical happened. The disc drive that had been stuttering so badly it would only recognise a game disc if the entire console was turned upside down and laid on its lid worked. It worked quietly, it worked flawlessly. Where Suikoden III, Valkyrie Profile 2, Final Fantasy X and numerous PS1 games had failed, Culdcept had worked.

The game hadn’t even begun and I was already impressed.

But the most impressive thing about Culdcept is that Ken Levine was right, as was the Wikipedia page about it, as was anyone who’s ever played the game and came away from it describing it thusly: Culdcept is Monopoly meets Magic: The Gathering. And it bloody works.

It’s strange charm begins with the opening movies. There’s the usual JRPG gumph about goddesses and magic, and then there’s some kind of space ship heading toward the camera, only it has an old man’s face on the bow and isn’t a space ship at all but a sentient walking stick sent by God to find people who are really good at playing cards. Even by JRPG standards it’s a bt wonky.

Thankfully when the old man walking stick is rendered in-engine it’s much less frightening, hopping about like Zebedee from the Magic Roundabout, spinning in place when it’s flustered and addressing me by name when it asks me to join it’s card-accruing quest.

Then a demon shows up and challenges me to a duel. It’s that kind of game.

Here’s where the magic starts. Here’s where Culdcept presses its needle-jaws into the soft flesh of your brain. This is where your addiction begins.

Level one is a simple loop of five by five squares. The graphics are isometric 3D with 2D sprites, and the level looks like a diamond. You and your opponent must follow dice rolls and race around the board. When you land on a square you have the chance to play a monster card from your hand, which will hold that square for you and accumulate magic points as you move on. The squares are different colours, indicating different land types. If you match your monster type to the land type - by playing a merfolk card on a water square, for example - you accumulate more magic and your monster gets stronger. You can also spend magic to level up your land, which raises the toll for that square.

This is where the Monopoly element comes in. By placing a monster on a square you effectively buy that square. Any player that lands upon it must pay the toll, unless they summon a monster of their own and defeat your monster in combat. Which is where the Magic: The Gathering element comes in.

Though the game informs you if the challenging monster is likely to beat the defending monster, both players can augment their monster’s abilities using weapons, armour and spells they might have in their hands. There are other spell cards that can be played at other points in the game, enabling players to fudge dice rolls, destroy their opponents’ cards, and weaken or attack monsters already in play.

It’s all oh-so baffling at first. There’s a rough tutorial in place that fills you in on what’s happening, and an online help system that can be accessed at any time, but any hints you might get as to how to play the game are sandwiched between character banter and it’s difficult to make head or tail of the proceedings. Why did I just lose that fight? What did that spell do? What difference does levelling-up land make? Why did the music just change?

Why did I just lose?

As opaque as the game is, there’s enough charm there for it to seem like fun, even if you have no idea what’s going on. It makes all the right sounds, the limited monster animations add a lot of character to them, and by the end of the first game I was growing rather attached to certain monsters - even if they tended to be the ones who kept winning battles.

And then, right after I lost my first game, something clicked inside my head. Almost as if the game could read my mind it seemed to say “Aw, that’s too bad. Here, have these new cards and try again.”

This is one path to addictiveness Panorama should have covered. Rewarding failure in the attempt to get you right back in the saddle.

It worked. The bouts last so long and can’t be saved mid-match, but as soon as you finish one and see your fresh set of cards you’ll be itching to try them out. Even though I couldn’t play Culdcept again for days I kept thinking about the difference these new cards would make. The Fire Drake! That looked powerful. With a card like that in my hand I bet I could take that pesky demon down a notch or two.

Winning cards is only a part of the whole collectible card game addiction. Once you have them you can remove your older, weaker cards and replace them, in time reconstructing your entire deck. There are ten slots in which to save custom decks, so if you want one geared towards playing on a certain kind of land as well as one that revolves predominantly around magical attacks, hey, knock yourself out.

Back in the saddle I raced around the game board. Suddenly my rolls were more favourable, my hands luckier. My new cards came in handy as I positioned a hornet over a desert, swapped a few land squares around to bolster its attack and the attacks of the monsters around it, and played some pustulant larva thibg that, though it required that I sacrifice a card from my hand every time I used it, managed to worm its way through the enemy’s defences and cause him grevious toll shock every time he landed on its square.

I ran through the game to a glorious, almost embarrassing victory, and with the demon sent packing I got to gloat over my newly-won cards and fantasise about all the tactical advantages they would offer me.

And then it was back to the game board for another practise round against my moustachioed walking stick friend.

And another.

And though I can’t claim to have gotten very far in the game or to have plumbed the depths of strategy it offers, I’ve looked at the mammoth grid where all your cards are catalogued, seen the multitudinous empty spaces within, and I know that this is a game I could play for a very, very long time. It’s the kind of game that would so effortlessly lend itself to handheld play that the only reason Culdcept DS was never released outside of Japan must be because its so insanely addictive it would have been dangerous to do so.

I could recommend Culdcept unreservedly, but to be honest you’re not going to get a recommendation any better than the one Ken Levine game put on his list of PS2 favourites. It’s Monopoly meets Magic: The Gathering. If you don’t like the sound of that then by all means steer clear, but if you do and you can track down a copy and have the means to play it then man, I hope you don’t have an addictive personality, because this game will destroy you. It’ll take your eyes, your thumbs, your smile and your brain, and it’ll melt them all down into a cheery gaming gloop that exists for no reason other than to appease the goddess Culdcept. And you’ll love every gelatinous minute of it.