Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Gift of Knowledge

Well, it's Christmas time and while I can't give you readers any actual presents I can offer you the gift of information. In this case links to some video game "youtubers" who I've grown fond of this year. Here are the names and a little background information on five in particular that I think are somewhat special.

Far Lands or Bust - (link)
Probably best know for his charity driven Minecraft videos, Kurt J. Mac also plays driving games, mixed in with the occasional online FPS or aerospace flight-sim. What really makes his channel unique though is the man's passion for astronomy and spaceflight. As far as I can tell no one else has made videos going into depth on the features of software like Celestia, Space Engine or Stellarium. If you never heard of any of those titles then you are in the same situation I was until I paid his channel a visit.

Minecraft and More - (link)
More of the same?  Well...yes, but Paul Soares Junior has a slightly different take on things.  Most of his videos are more roleplaying oriented, and his "Survive and Thrive" series serves more like a TV style tutorial for Minecraft and it's myriad of features than anything else.  I'm partial to his XCOM let's play videos, but I doubt it will continue much longer considering the relatively low number of views.  Among other things, he does a sporadic "Indie Test Drive" series and frequent zombie themed survival games.  Check his videos out if it sounds like your cup of tea.

Epic Name Bro - (link)
This guy is a Dark Souls fanatic and as such could very easily be considered the definitive source of information on the title.  When Marcus isn't doing guides, Q and A or let's play videos of his favorite game he will dig out Binding of Issac, a 1.3 version of Final Fantasy: Tactics or some other Japanese game of note (incidentally, he lives in Japan so he sometimes has access to information that other people don't).  Not much else to say...if you're a fan of Dark Souls or just want to enhance your understanding of the series by all means watch a couple of his videos and see what you think.  That's what I did and I was thoroughly impressed.

The Procrastinauts - (link)
Lead by Pleborian, this channel is mostly dedicated to Kerbal Space Program.  And while the first youtuber I mentioned in this list also plays KSP, this intrepid Brit goes above and beyond all the rest with his heavy use of mods.  Base building, planet scanning, custom parts, you name it and he's tried it.  He's also the only guy on youtube that I've seen build multiple dedicated spacecraft only to have them all fail for one reason or another.  But hey that's part of the fun, right?  He also has some videos about FTL, Sonic and a few other games, but sadly the low view count on those make this channel the underdog of this list. Still, he's definitely worth a look.

WTF is - (link)
Totalbiscuit has a number of channels on youtube, but his video game focused "WTF is ~" series is great for gamers who just want the lowdown on a particular title.  This energetic Englishman also does his homework, giving his videos a brisk informed quality to them. That's not to say he's above personal opinion,  but at same time he doesn't straight up review games either. It's a unique take on game critique which is worth checking out at least once.

So, there you have it.  Not the best gift ever, I'm sure.  But hey...If your feeling board over winter break now you got some some stuff you can check out on youtube.  Incidentally, I specifically did not mention guys like "Two Best Friends Play" because I felt that, while funny, their crass sense of humor doesn't fit well with the holiday spirit.  One of the nice things about all the above mentioned is their voices are quite pleasant to listen too, which for better or worse is an important part of being a successful youtuber.   

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Mind Behind the Game

A game rumored to be so difficult it's recommended the player
don a suit of full plate armor before picking up the controller 
Diversity is the antithesis of wealth. At least that's what game publishers have decided. I mentioned ages ago that one game, or type of game, becoming wildly successful would be very bad for the industry and I still stand by that statement. At that time it was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but the truth is I'd be perfectly fine with CoD doing it's own thing and doing it well. The problem is everyone else trying to copy the magic formula. It's an un-creative naked cash grab attempting to exploit market trends. So now the market is flooded with military FPS clones, each less classy than the last.  It was bad when this kind of thing happened to survival horror franchises like Dead Space and Resident Evil.  It was even worse when it happened to strategy games such as Front Mission and Syndicate.  Now, Dark Souls II looks to be suffering a similar fate.  Granted it's far too soon to call judgment, but based on the information that's available at the moment, we're looking at a dumbed down experience aimed to appeal to the widest audience possible.  In other words, they're going to take out what makes Dark Souls unique in order to rope in people who prefer more generic fantasy/action RPGs like Elder Scrolls, Kingdoms of Amalur and Dragon's Dogma.

Indulge me while I go on tangent for a minute. Dark Souls doesn't need an easy setting. It already has one in the form of summoning other players online into your world for aid. Dark Souls' story isn't all that obtuse either when you assume that the game is designed to have communities around it. You're expected to gain information from other players via forums, chat rooms and the built-in messaging system. Could Dark Souls be better with regards to communicating the various system in-game? Sure. But its legendary difficult is a bit overrated. I personally got 100% completion and I'm not all that good at video games. The way I pulled this off is because when I got stuck, I swallowed my pride and consulted an FAQ. Be a skilled gamer or a humble gamer.  If you are neither you will rightfully suffer for it.

"What is a sword compared to the hand that wields it?"
Getting back on topic...I could be bitter about one of my most cherished IPs this console generation being sacrificed on the alter of profit, but I honestly can't get worked up about it. In part I feel this way because the games don't really matter to me as much as the people who created them. In this case Hidetaka Miyazaki is working on another project, and I find myself far more excited about that piece of news than anything having to do with Dark Souls II. After all the mood and atmosphere behind the Souls series was the direct product of Miyazaki's childhood experiences with indecipherable western fantasy gamebooks such as Fighting Fantasy.  I think that kind of creative wellspring cannot be replicated.  The same holds true for guys like Shinji "Zwei" Mikami, Ken "No-Brotastic-Boxart" Levine and Fumito "Where's-your-Game" Ueda.  So, I guess the takeaway here for me (at least) is follow lead designers who make games you like, rather than simply sequels.  They are, after all, the architects the world you inhabit every time you pick up that controller.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Memorable Quotes

Video games aren't exactly renown for their literary prowess, but every now and then a line of text or dialogue comes around that burns itself into or memories.  Tastes vary though, and oftentimes the quotes we remember say more about us than they do the games.  So, if you will indulge me, I'd like to share nine of my favorites with you.

Get thee gone darkness!
- Ashley Riot, Vagrant Story
You seem human and yet...what do you here?
- Maria, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
That's disgusting.
- Regina, Dino Crisis
You will be a god among men.
- Harlan Wade, F.E.A.R.
Chicken, fight like a robot!
- Robot, Berzerk
You really don't know what it is you have, until it's gone...gone...gone.
- Conker, Conker's Bad Fur Day
Who are you that flies so good?  Are you insane?
- Retro Pilot, Privateer 
To see a Keeper is not an easy thing, especially one that does not wish to be seen.
- Artemus, Thief: The Dark Project
I'm not letting anyone leave my town.  Everyone's going to die!
 - Brian Irons, Resident Evil 2

I know what your thinking.  No quotes from Duke Nuke'em, Zero Wing or House of the Dead?  Yup.  As far as those one liners are concerned, they've been repeated ad nauseum across the internet.  So I decided to pick some more obscure stuff.  Also, if your wondering why I only have nine picks instead of the usual ten, it's because I think double digit lists are for chumps.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Oftentimes developers are tempted to simply copy past glories, or worse still steal another's formula for success. But I feel that the study of why a  game fails to be a commercial success can be an even more useful tool for avoiding disaster.  To illustrate my point I want to examine four games that appeared in the early 1990s, all of which suffered from being of two minds when it came to development.

Battle Bugs is one of Sierra's more obscure titles and a strategy game no less. It has real time game play similar to a traditional RTS, but allows the player to pause at anytime to issue orders to individual units. In this case cartoon looking bugs ranging from ants, cockroaches, rhino beetles and even spiders (which incidentally aren't actually bugs). There are flying units too such as mosquitoes and wasps. All battles are pre-set engagements and usually have objectives involving capturing food or exterminating enemy forces. Despite the lighthearted presentation and lack of base building the game was really hard. Usually there is only one way to win a battle, making the game more akin to the puzzle genre than strategy. I'm not sure who the target audience was for this game, considering that it presents itself like a children's game, yet is far too difficult for anyone but the most skilled and determined tactician.

Robinson's Requiem is open world sandbox set in a sci-fi backdrop. You play the role of "Trepliev 1," a stranded survivor of a crashed spaceship on the planet Zarathrustra. Starting off with nothing but the clothes on your back you are forced to eek out an existence on an alien world. The game tracks your character's vitals and has some curious effects such as a jiggling mouse pointer should your character become ill from harsh elements or food poisoning. It's possible to loose eyes and limbs in this game and you could even be forced to amputate body parts should wounds become gangrenous. Sounds like a hardcore simulation, right? Well, once you get into the story a bit the game takes a turn for the goofy. Amazonian women who speak in broken English want you to fight a T-Rex, and another companion you come across turns out to be a lycanthrope. Did I mention that the acting is incredibly hammy? So in the end your left with a game that feels like it was made by someone with a split personality.

XF5700 Mantis: Experimental Fighter is a space flight simulator with realistic Newtonian physics. That's right, no air drag here and even firing the fighter's nose mounted slug thrower at a dead stop will create a slight backward motion. As you can probably imagine dog fighting the hostile bug-like enemies of F.O.E. (Fists of Earth) was really tricky. For the most part missiles are needed to have any chance of success. Regardless, it could have been uniquely engaging if the game didn't piss all over it's own attempts at realism. For one thing the XF5700 has wings (why do you need airfoils in space?) and a FTL drive. There's also sound in space. Nearly 100 missions in length it occasionally throws in a cut-scene now and then to given a sense of story. Unfortunately, it's so random with dead end plot threads and characters coming and going out of nowhere the entire game ends up feeling like a poor man's Wing Commander.

Amazon: Guardians of Eden is love letter to 1950's pulp serials complete with cliff hangers at the end of each chapter.  The story centers around finding a brother who disappeared while on expedition in the Amazon jungle.  Betrayal, mystery, a robot security guard and lots of attractive women are just some of the highlights.  It also has a cool little program which hits the player with a number of anecdotes and trivia while the game installs off a large number of disks.  This was in part because it used limited digitized speech and FMVs (I should note that playing the game in its high-res setting only results in the screen being reduced in size with inventory and other windows filling in all the empty space).  A built in hint system is included which is a nice feature, but also brings us to the game's greatest flaw.  Its B-movie charm is tarnished by the fact that it's a point-and-click adventure game at heart.  Complicating things further is the possibility to miss key items, and timed action sequences that can (and often do) result in gory deaths. I'm not sure why exactly, but I got to play a preview build of this game in a software store and for some reason it featured even more grotesque death screens than what was featured in the final product.

While it doesn't hold true for all situations, when it comes to video game development it's better to do one thing well than do two things poorly, wallowing in mediocrity is the worst possible result.  Sticking to a vision though (regardless of the results) will at least earn you fame/infamy.  Don't believe me?  Two words for you - Tim Schafer.  He still has a job as a creative director despite making far more commercial failures than successes.  And the reason for that is he chose a creative direction and went as far as he could with it.