Monday, December 30, 2013

Lament of the Lynx

Ask a gamer what the best console is and you'll get a lot of different answers.  Ask them which console in the history of video games was the most deserving of more recognition than what it got and you will most likely here them speak of the Sega Dreamcast.  It is a sentiment that I can agree to on the one condition that we are excluding portable gaming devices from the conversation.  Otherwise I'd have to pick the the Atari Lynx as the greatest sufferer of gaming injustice.

I should mention that I never actually owned one of the things, but my brother had a revised version of the device.  It was an impressive piece of kit, with significantly better specs than any of its direct competitors.  The Nintendo Gameboy had a small display only capable of shades of grey.  The Sega Gamegear had a color screen, but it was only about two thirds the size of the Lynx's LCD.  Despite having a back light, the Lynx also boasted five to six hours of battery life compared to the Gamegear's three to four.  Another advantage the Lynx held was the ability to flip the orientation allowing the player to swap which side the D-pad and buttons were on, a great feature for people who aren't ambidextrous.

Sadly, there were a few drawbacks as well.  For one, the Lynx was a bit on the bulky side.  It was also more expensive than the competition.  Neither of these things were huge problems, rather, what really killed the Lynx was a lack of games.  Much like the Sega Dreamcast which came later, Atari's handheld couldn't get enough developers on board to build up a decent library.  It's a shame because the games that did come out for the Lynx were generally pretty good.  Faithful ports of arcade classics like Xybots, Xenophobia and Joust were made for it along with an excellent little WW1 flight-sim called Warbirds.  Tod's Adventures in Slime World was probably the single most outstanding game in the collection, and featured gameplay similar to Super Metroid (only it predated the SNES game by two years).

In stores the Lynx came packaged with California Games, and while I didn't care much for the skateboarding or hacky sack mini-games, surfing and especially BMX were a lot of fun to play.  I can remember my brother and I (along with several friends) trying to beat each other's high scores resulting in some rather insane tricks being pulled.  You might think it's impossible to do a 720 degree flip on a bicycle, but I managed to do in California Games...once.  A lot of the games also had a multiplayer component, but unfortunately my brother and I never got to really try that part out much because nobody else seemed to own a Lynx.

Overall the selection of games for the Lynx was well rounded especially when you look at the list of games that were in development, but never saw the light of day due to the discontinuation of the hardware.  The only thing really lacking was a strategy game.  Then again that particular genre was rare on anything other than a PC at the time.  Regardless, my brother's Lynx saw so much use over the years the LCD eventually burned out and one of the buttons stopped responding.  Rest in piece Atari Lynx.  You are, and will continue to be, miss.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Revenge of T.S.H.B.G.

Once more I have produced a list of three movies which would have probably been better off games rather than feature films.  For this outing I've decided to focus on some smaller budget lesser know motion pictures rather than the typical overwrought Hollywood blockbuster.  Incidentally, if you want to read the previous entries in this reoccurring segment you can check them out here and here.  Now on with the show!

Neither good enough to avoid a direct to video release, nor bad enough to enjoy cult classic status, "Moontrap" is a mediocre sci-fi flick staring Bruce Campbell and Walter from "Evil Dead" and Chekov from Star Trek.  The premise is sometime before recorded history humans got into an interstellar war with a robotic race capable of harvesting dead tissue and machinery in order to make Frankenstein copies of itself.  At around 14,000 years ago the conflict ground down to a stalemate and, while the Earth was spared any harm, the moon became...well, for lack of a better term, a trap.  Of course corny dialogue and nonsensical plot points didn't do this film any favors, but the basic components would make for an excellent horror game.  Think Echo Night: Beyond with a more comprehensible story, or Martian Gothic: Unification with better acting.

"The Last Battle," or in the original French "Le Dernier Combat," is a black and white art house film made by (the then 24 year old) Luc Besson, who later in life went on to  direct "The Fifth Element" among other movies.  What makes this post-apocalyptic tale stand out is the nearly complete lack of spoken dialogue.  Apparently people lost the ability to vocalize words as a consequence of the largely unexplained disaster which befell humanity.  Our hero is a lone male tinkerer, scavenger and aviator of sorts trying to survive in a desolate wasteland.  During the course of his journey he comes across a doctor who he befriends, and an adversarial brute who he does battle with using a lot of improvised weapons and armor.  Overall the film has a quasi-medieval vibe focused on basic needs such as food, water, shelter and companionship.  Imagine The Last of Us, Condemned: Criminal Origins and MadWorld all rolled into one and you have a pretty good idea of what this movie would be in video game form.

Last is "Gedo Senki" or "Tales from Earthsea" as it is called in English.  It's Goro Miyazaki's first film and a rare instance in which Studio Ghibli made a lackluster animated movie.  In part this is because of the ineptly written screenplay which disregards all the best parts of the source material in lieu of dull and disjointed attempts at an original narrative.  The saddest part is Earthsea is a rich and unique setting with interesting characters, plus a original system of magic based on Taoism and a bit of Jungian psychology.  By use of true names and an ancient language of creation, wizards are able to alter reality through spoken words which only a gifted few can comprehend.  The only problem is if the natural balance is disrupted to much the consequences can be disastrous both mentally and physically.  Imagine what this would be like as a video game.  It'd be like if Scribblenauts were to combine with Ni no Kuni and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

Beautiful graphics and original gameplay!?!  Where do I sign up?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Unseen, But Not Undiscovered

I read a statistic that claimed half of all the people who play video games are female.  While my first instinct was to cry "bullshit," I've since thought about it a bit and come to the conclusion that if we're counting casual titles with really bare bones gameplay then, yes, it's most likely accurate.  A good example would be the hidden object subgenre of puzzle games.

Sort of a digital evolution of those activity books for young children, the primary mechanic of hidden object games is to look at relatively static pictures and find things from a provided list.  The closest I've ever gotten to playing one of these games is a free flash title called 6 Differences.  In the case of that game it's a dreamlike visual tale about pulling an all-nighter in a big city.  The storytelling is practically nonexistent and there's no dialogue.  However, in the case of many hidden object games the story is much more prominent with text driven conversations and narration.  Plots also tend to by centered around mother/daughter relationships.  I should point out that not all these games are about ponies, rainbows and other "girly stuff."  A lot of titles feature themes straight out of pulp novellas.

Another interesting aspect to the hidden object subgenre is the way the games are marketed.  They tend to be downloadable only, include free trail versions, are very cheaply priced and have low system requirements.  Personally, the artwork and certain story elements remind me a little of point-and-click adventure games.  Especially when it comes to the relaxed pace and overall style.  Unlike adventure games that I played in my youth though hidden object games tend to feature an integrated hint system.

While not something I feel terribly compelled to get into, I have to admit it's a category of video games that I knew nothing about until its existence was pointed out to me in a video courtesy of Extra Credits.  Kudos to them for shining a light on what is a rather low profile part of the gaming industry.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

And the Winner is...

The end of 2013 draws near and that means is time for the (now annual, but still non-standard) game of the year awards.  A lot of indie games made the list year (for better or worse), and not a single next gen title.  Take note that there are a few disclaimers at the bottom.

Avant-garde Award:
When a FPS tries to be realistic it usually opts for stuff like muzzle climb, recoil inaccuracy and bullet drop off at longer distances.  However, a largely ignored fact of firearms is the intricate and complex variety of configurations.  So, here we have a unique take on the genre.  No ammo counter, you have to remember.  No targeting reticle, you have to line up the sights.  Instead of auto-reloads, players need to hit a minimum of three different keys (a lot more if you need to put fresh rounds in an empty clip).  Your enemies are sentry turrets and flying tasers.  And the storyline...well...let's just say it's out there.

Backlash Award:
Between this and Aliens: Colonial Marines it hasn't been a good year for sci-fi/horror games.  Unlike Gearbox's franchise flop which fell on its face out of the gate and ended up in most people's trash bins, Dead Space 3 keeps being brought up time and again as the prime example of everything wrong with recent game design philosophies; micro-transactions, "real ending" DLC, social desirability bias infested focus testing, plus it's made by EA.

Brutality Award:
Based on old arcade classics like Rastan and Ghosts'n'Goblins, this has to be the most difficult game to come out of Kickstarter.  Checkpoints are few and far between making it difficult for players that don't memorize the location of every spiked pit, giant snake, arrow trap and club brandishing lizardman that stands between Völgarr and his goal.  Let me put it this way, if this were in an arcade instead of on Steam it would eat quarters faster than the stingiest slot machine in Las Vegas.

Canvas Award:
On top of having several show stopping bugs at launch (which you can see here an here), this indie title starts off with predominantly bland brown/green foliage and dull grey stone.  Once you get past the early levels though it splashes you with a more vibrant color pallet.  Crimson rivers of blood, teal northern lights and the antique whites from the tree of life are just a few examples.  It's a sad story, but it's presented in a beautiful way.

Ecology Award:
Aside from some crudely repetitive animations and unremarkable voice work, this overpriced game is practically identical to its board game predecessor.  Gameplay, graphical presentation and the scenarios themselves are unchanged (dice rolls and all!).  Worse still no editing tools were included at launch, nor any other ways to customize or enhance the experience.  I guess the design team felt that anything other than a carbon copy replica would be heresy.

"Engrish" Award:
I'm not sure if the title of this game is meant to be catchy or simply a confession regarding a lack of branding creativity from the marketing department.  Either way it's not a translation error.  That said I think most people native to countries like Australia, New Zealand, England or the USA would raise an incredulous eyebrow when told the name of this game for the first time.*

Esoteric Award:
Yes, you can just slap a bunch of rockets together and make it into orbit or maybe even the nearest moon.  But if you really want to master this game be prepared to learn about stuff like Hohmann transfers, gravity assists, the Oberth effect, Tsiolkovsky's rocket equation and most importantly Kepler's laws of planetary motion.  Now if you'll excuse me I got to break out my calculator and figure out the delta-v budget for this new design I've been working on.†

Lemon Award:
No need to trigger an disaster from the options menu in the 2013 version of SimCity, just trying to play the game is a disaster in itself.  Countless bugs at launch, most notable of which was the inability to actually play do to always online server authentication issues.  More than half a year later it still has major problems, the biggest of which are fundamental design flaws related to poor AI for traffic and the citizen behavior.    

Testosterone Award:
Where to begin...drinking, smoking, drugs, shootouts, brawls, tattoos, torture, rock music, tough guy one liners, jumping/sliding/exploding chopper motorcycles. absurd sex scenes, and a revenge plot involving 1960s California biker gangs...check out this rather graphic trailer for just a sample of what this 20+ hour game has to offer.  Why did I choose this over the better made, but similarly themed GTA V you might ask?  Well, unlike this id fueled teenage power fantasy, GTA V has a bit of intellectual sophistication in the form of biting social commentary and snarky satire on the ills of modern life.

Underdog Award:
Originally released by Level-5 as part of the "Guild01" game collection only available from the 3DS eShop, this obscure little title is the product of Yasumi Matsuno (creator of Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy: Tactics and Vagrant Story).  It represents a fusion of board game and video game; players can role polyhedron dice using the touch screen and navigate by selecting rooms from a hand drawn dungeon map.  Combat is done via in-game miniature figurines which twirl, topple and shake.  To a degree you can choose what loot you get from defeated enemies which is important since characters only improve by equipping better gear.   Definitely worth checking out, if for no other reason than the evocative writing.‡  

*Only out in Japan in 2013

†Counted as a 2013 release because of the addition of a campaign mode

‡Actually a December 2012 release, but counted here since it was after last year's award ceremony

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Adventures with the Old, Obscure and Odd

I was fortunate to have access to computer games early on in my childhood.  Unlike most kids my age, I didn't actually own a Nintendo, but instead had an Apple IIc.  By far my favorite games on that machine were Sierra "Quest" titles.  However, those weren't the only adventure games that stuck with me all these years.  In fact there are a few oddities that I can still remember playing in detail, not because they were fun, but rather because they were truly bizarre one-of-a-kind experiences.

T. rex was probably the first adventure game I ever owned.  Like many children, I had a deep interest in all things dinosaur related.  Advertised as a simulation/education game, it was more like a crude prehistoric version of Dark Souls.  The gameplay mechanics were unforgiving to say the least. despite being labeled an adventure game, survival seemed to be the only real goal. A bleak atmosphere mixed with feelings of foreboding also permeated the entire experience. Needless to say, my poor Tyrannosaurus became a premature fossil so often that the tagline "Prepare to Die" really should have been printed on the box. For me though, the most outstanding memory I have of this game would defiantly be the time I finally managed to bring down a Triceratops only to perish immediately after from overeating (as if worrying about things like dehydration, body temperature and fatigue weren't bad enough, the Tyrant Lizard King can also eat himself to death).  No wonder dinosaurs went extinct...

Next  up is Dondra: A New Beginning.  Basically it's a text adventure game with some pasted still images mixed with crude animation.  This one really threw me for a loop though with its 3-D sticker box art.  At the time, I had just seen a censored version of the cartoon film "Heavy Metal," obviously there is a parallel with regards to amazonian looking women riding on giant bird-creatures.  I couldn't understand what the relationship was between this game and that movie though.  Many years later, after the invention of the internet, I did a bit of research and found out that Dondra also goes by the name Questmaster.  Apparently it had nothing to do with any other licensed property.  Regardless, the setting was a bewildering collection of random places and characters which exuded a fantasy vibe, yet featured jarring signs of modernity such as firearms and industrial machinery.  Granted, weird adventure games were hardly anything new at the time.  I had already played Manhole for the Mac and that featured a fully voice acted jive talking dragon!  The interface was also strange.  At first glance it worked like most text parser adventure games, but had several areas in which the player would die if they lingered for very long.  To compensate for this it was possible to turn off all the images (making it a truly text only adventure) as well as the ability to stack input commands such that multiple things could be carried out in rapid succession.  Supposedly, two sequels were planned that would allow you to import your character from previous entries but for whatever reason Dondra never got past its first outing.  Maybe because no one could figure out what the game was supposed to be about...?

Zork has actually been around for quite a while.  Originally a text only adventure game series, it eventually became a point and click Myst-style game with the advent of CD-ROM technology.  This was a major departure since in its new form Return to Zork featured live action prerecorded video and audio segments along with detailed still images. Performances, generally speaking, were bad despite a cast consisting of real actors. Gameplay was mostly item gathering mixed with brief character interaction. There were a couple of mazes to navigate through as well. One unique feature was the ability to take photos of people or places and then show the pictures to other characters, who would comment on them. It was also possible to kill or scare off just about anyone in the game. Although doing so usually resulted in an un-winnable situation. Luckily this problem was offset somewhat by multi-solution puzzle design. Much like Dondra or Manhole the setting is really random and without a hint guide most players will spend the game fumbling around trying to figure out what to do and where to go. At one point in the game you are required to dump everything you are carrying in order to progress (rather cathartic for an adventure game). The story is incomprehensible and culminates in a sort of face off against the big bad (Morphius) which is settled by a match of "survivor" (it's a little like chess except each side only has one piece). Since the game didn't bother to explain much to me, I can't explain much of the narrative to you, but to this day I do remember little details like the Bonding Plant (needed to gain access to a comedy club) and a glows-when-wet fuel source called Illumite. Other than those factoids though nothing made more sense at the end of the game than it did in the beginning.

Now here's a game that's talking sense!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Going Medieval

I've never been an avid reader of comic books.  That said, I am familiar with some of the more iconic superheroes such as Superman, Ironman and of course Batman.  Most of what I know about The Dark Knight though is from the cartoons and movies rather than the original graphic novels.  I like the character, but I'm not so onto the setting.  Enter a small collection of concept art entitled "Gotham 1459."  Here's what one person had to say in the comments:
I actually think having Batman being placed in a time when the concept of the knight was dying off, would work. Batman would use a sword instead of the new guns and other new weapons of war, as well as other techniques. He would hang on to the idea of honor and chivalry (an idealistic idea, even in the golden age of knighthood, but Batman, being born after the heyday of the knight would have only known the good parts) long after the rest of Europe began to depend on mercenary armies. I want to see Batman’s alter-ego and the other characters!
A literal Dark Knight
After reading this my mind was filled with ideas on how this re-imagining could make an excellent video game.  I don't think setting the game in America would work though.  Instead, I'd recommend Königsberg (now called Kaliningrad).  Back then it was a built up fortress city complete with plenty of classic Gothic architecture.  It was also a cosmopolitan city of sorts (a mixture of Jews, Pols and Lithuanians.  As the capital of the Duchy of Prussia it was also part of the vast Holy Roman Empire some of which was made up of what is now modern day Austria, Italy and Denmark along with the entire countries of Germany Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.  The city is also connected to the Baltic Sea via the Pregolya River.

The world at the time was in a state of flux with the War of the Roses in England, Ottoman encroachment into Europe, and the start of the Renaissance (typically associated with the fall of Constantinople in 1453).  The king at the time was Frederick the Third, a ruler who had a fondness for marking things with the acronym A.E.I.O.U. although the meaning and reason for this has never been firmly identified.  A riddle, perhaps?

"Bruno von Wagner"
as Germanic Batman
A lot of classic Batman villains would fit easily into this proposed spin-off; The Joker could be court jester, Catwoman a wronged gypsy, Scarecrow a vengeful serf, Poison Ivy a pagan herbalist, and Two-Face a member of a Vehmic court (an infamous form of law enforcement that was quite popular at the time).  Then, of course, we have the Bruce Wayne character.  Perhaps he is a Landgrave from a diminished noble line whose true (but long forgotten) coat of arms is a black bat on a field of grey.  Maybe he is even a former Teutonic Knight.  While his collection of gadgets might be a bit more limited because of the technology of the era, there are some advantages as well.  For one thing the absence of electricity means that nights are really dark, and law enforcement lacked the levels of organization it has today.  That's not to say Commissioner Gordon (or should I call him "Schultheiß Gorder"?) isn't a secret ally of Batman.  There was also no shortage of trouble making henchmen to be found, everything from elites such as the Landsknechte and Swiss mercenaries to petty riverboat smugglers and common thieves.

Reminds me of Kefka
 from Final Fantasy 6
Enough about setting though, lets talk about the video game itself.  Assassin's Creed might sound like the obvious parallel, but I think the Thief series might hit a bit closer to the mark in that Batman doesn't kill.  To re-enforce his non-vigilante ideology The Dark Knight could use rebated weapons along with good old fashion fisticuffs.  That last bit might sound out of place in a medieval setting, but it's not a stretch when you consider that Batman's manor (or castle?) could have a Greek treatise on pankration in its private library.  Combat could be based on recent Batman games such as Arkham Asylum, Arkham City and the newest Arkham Origins.  Instead of a Batmobile, our hero could ride a black stallion and the bat cave...well, very little in the way of change is necessary.  Plate steel armor had reached the pinnacle of design allowing from heavy customization of protection and in turn counter weaponry.  Not to mention the flamboyant styles of clothing at the time would make for some very colorful over-the-top foes for Batman to fight.  The concept of detective work didn't really exist yet, but as mentioned earlier the Renaissance had begun so ideas of logical observation and deduction existed to enough of a degree for a video game to squeeze in some non-combat segments without it seeming forced.  This would give medieval Batman some mysteries to unravel much like his successor does in the modern day.

You'd think with the popularity of Batman movies and the Game of Thrones HBO mini-series the idea I'm pitching here would have been done already.  I guess comic book conservatism has kept it form happening though.  After all superheroes are supposed to be American, not German.  I have a feeling doing a Prussian Batman would inadvertently conjure up Godwin comparisons and possibly "master race" emotional baggage left over from the events of World War 2.  It's a bummer since the time period predates Nazism or even the country of Germany by several hundred years.  Not to mention that the real Batman is a white guy which means his ancestors had to have migrated to America from somewhere in Europe.  Oh well...if some people don't like the idea that's fine, but I still say it's a better idea than Superman versus Batman.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

From Print to Digital (Part 2)


Tomb of Horrors is unique in that despite being a dungeon crawl there really isn't much combat.  What it lacks in foes though it more than makes up for in deadly traps and oppressive foreboding.  I'd like to take a moment to stress that unlike the Hollywood move set lighting we're used to seeing in video games and recent Dungeons and Dragons artwork, these old modules base their imagery on real life caverns, tunnels and tombs (in this case Egyptian).  Firelight, whether it be candle, torch or oil lamp, was the only non-magical form of subterranean illumination until the invention of electricity.  This fact of underground exploration is reflected in many of the visual pieces produced back then.  As for traps...there are so many at times it feels more like Super Meat Boy than a RPG.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a bit of a genre bender in that the premise revolves around a crashed spaceship high in the mountains.  The vessel has a floor plan layout straight out of FTL and is filled with living specimens taken from various planets.  The crew have long since perished from a disease which oddly poses no danger to the player characters (possible H.G. Wells reference).  So, the alien lifeforms have been getting out of their pens and into the wild.  If you've ever wondered how some of those really bizarre entries in the Monster Manual (like Bulettes and Beholders) came to be it turns out they're from outer space!  In part, this ecological disaster is the fault of the ship's malfunctioning automated machines.  One of the most hilarious parts of running this adventure is seeing how fantasy magic-users, barbarians, thieves and clerics deal with police robots, medical robots, janitor robots and my personal favorite a gym coach robot.  Another interesting twist is a lot of the loot that can be found acts like magic items, but is actually just extremely advanced technology.  A belt of levitation is really a personal zero-g field generator, a wand of death ray is actually a laser pistol, and magic suits of armor are powered exoskeletons.  Needless to say any heroic explorers who make it through alive are probably going to throw off the balance of game such that it will look and feel more like Saint Row 4 than any traditional fantasy setting.

H.P. Lovecraft stories have always left a big footprint in Dungeons and Dragons, but no more so than in The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun.  It's probably the most Cthulhu Mythos inspired module to be produced and also has some of the best cover art of any module, in my opinion.  I particularly like how it looks bright, colorful and inviting at first glance, but then becomes more and more sinister the longer you examine it.  The focal point for players is a ziggurat and the hidden temple underneath.  The deeper players go the creepier it gets.  Rituals must be performed in order to access the inner sanctums.  In all likelihood insanity or death will claim any interlopers before they can make to the "Black Cyst," a prison for the dark god of chaos and destruction.  The climax to Quest for Glory 4: Shadow of Darkness seems to have borrowed whole cloth from this adventure module.  The fact that player can very easily miss important secret areas also makes the underground parts feel like something out of a Metroidvania title.

The Isle of Dread was included in one of those boxed sets that used to be sold back in the 1990s.  As such it's probably one of the most well know modules produced.  Superficially, it feels a lot like Skull Island from the film King Kong.  However, I personally think Author Conan Doyle is the chief source of inspiration here.  A distant little known land inhabited by primitive natives and overrun by not-so-extinct dinosaurs is part of it.  The biggest thing for me though is the high plateau complete with precipitous rope bridge patrolled by overly aggressive pteranodons.  At the very least players will spend a lot of time exploring and doing battle with everything from giant oysters to carnivorous plants.  Other nods include a pirate base and and ancient ruin which would make this an ideal place for a Lara Croft game.

Castle Amber is split into two parts.  The first is a chateau inhabited by a variety of denizens including a family of nobles fallen from grace, a sun knight, mimics, giants, profiteers and a hideous coroner-like creature with spider limbs called the "Brain Collector."  Did I mention that the place is surrounded by a colorless fog?  While never referenced by anyone over at From Software I have a gut feeling that somebody on the design team got a look at this module before they set about creating the Anor Londo area in Dark Souls.

The second half of Castle Amber mostly involves journeying through the lands of Averoigne.  If you've never heard of this place it's basically a patchwork amalgamation of short stories written by Clark Ashton Smith.  In game terms though it really only serves as a backdrop for fetch quests as players try to gather the necessary items to free the lord of the Amber family from his ethereal imprisonment.

Treasure Hunt is the last one this list, but first when it comes to starting fresh with a table-top gaming group.  The idea with this adventure is players start off as level zero slaves washed up on the shore of an unknown land after the their galley wrecked in a fierce storm.  Rather than choosing a class during character generation, players are eased into one based on their action during play.  Unlike most fantasy which tends to drag out the greater destiny trope, this module has a Robert E. Howard vibe to it.  Players are expected to forge their own path in life through desire and cunning....and, of course, a whole lot of lucky dice rolls.

Whew!  Well, that was a little blast from the past for you.  Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

From Print to Digital (Part 1)

I recently played through a pretty big chunk of the free-to-play online game Card Hunter.  Ultimately, I found the progression a bit too slow and the fundamental mechanics kind of frustrating, but I don't really want to complain about it because I never spent any real money while playing.  What this tongue-and-cheek parody of tabletop gaming did inspire me to do though was go back and reexamine some of those old classics.  In particular, I want to focus on some early Dungeons and Dragons adventure modules.

I've mentioned the problem with video games falling into the copycat trap several times before on this blog.   Basically, it comes down to making copies of a copy and feeding them back into the machine over and over so many times the desirable elements have become washed out and faded.  By drawing from table-top gaming booklets, sometimes twenty or even thirty years old, we're able to see a much rawer form of design that (while lacking in polish) can still be applied to video games in this day and age.  Before I dive in though I should mention that these adventures were derived from other sources too.  However, given the time in which they were created it tended to be stuff like pre-CGI films and what is now nearly century old literature.

First up is a collection known as Scourge of the Slave Lords.  This series serves as an excellent example of linear vs non-linear design.  The first part of the game has players spending a lot of their time slogging through underground sewers (yes, one of those levels) fighting mostly orcs, ogres and some insect-like creatures.   Pretty much bog standard stuff, but once players have gotten about a third of the way through the module they travel to a new zone consisting of a stockade in which players have to use stealth and fast hit'n'run tactics in order to whittle down the opposition before the general alarm can be raised.  It's kind of like Metal Gear Solid meets Thief except the enemy strategy and overall layout of the area feel reminiscent of the castle stage in Resident Evil 4.

Keep on the Boarderlands is a classic example of outdoor adventuring.  Players find themselves at a remote outpost surrounded by numerous points of interest.  Bandits, monster infested caves, hungry swamp dwelling lizardmen, a mad hermit and his mountain lion plus intrigue in the keep itself are just sampling of the things that can be encountered.  Unlike most video games these events don't have to end in bloodshed.  Clever players might convince a faction or two to join with them or perhaps pit one against another.  Think Skyrim meets the original Quest for Glory (or perhaps I should say Hero's Quest), but with a much more flexible system of interaction.  No dialogue wheels here for better or worse.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits has the quintessential video game ending.  After defeating minions, slaves, guards and captives including but not limited to giants, drow, and kua-toa, players must journey to the 66th layer of the Abyss to fight their way through a cluster of compartments in the bowels of a huge mechanical spider.  This culminates in an epic showdown with the last boss, Lolth (no relation to Shelob or Ungolant).  So, basically the same as every big budget action/adventure/RPG video game to come out for over a decade except in table-top form.  All that is needed is some chanting music.  Winning this scenario is pretty tricky though considering there's no such thing as grinding in Dungeons and Dragons.

Dwellers of the Forbidden City features a jungle engulfed Aztec-style city ruin overrun with frog people (called "Bullywugs"), a snake cult (called the "Yuan-ti"), degenerated mongrelmen (called...well...mongrelmen), and tree climbing cat-goblins (called "Tosloi").  People versed in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs will immediately spot his influence here.  When it comes to monsters though the real treat is the Yellow Musk Creeper.  A plant that infests the mind of its victims slowly turning them in zombies.  Sound familiar?  If you've ever played The Last of Us it should.  If they ever make a Uncharted 4 this would be a perfect place for Nathan Drake to visit.  Alternatively, it would make an excellent subtitle for an Indiana Jones game.

Ravenloft is currently a setting in Dungeons and Dragons, but it originally started off simply as an adventure module with a significant number of key elements randomized, including the big bad's motivations and the locations of various treasure caches.  The medieval gothic setting speaks more to the writings of Bram Stoker than any traditional fantasy author.  Interesting when you consider that the module was authored by Margret Weis and Tracy Hickman, creators of the Dragon Lance series (a decidedly high fantasy universe).  Obviously, there's a lot of replayability here.  Even more than what you typically find in any video games outside of rogue-like titles.  That said it does bear an uncanny resemblance to the obscure PC title Veil of Darkness.

Well this is getting long so in going to break it into two parts.  Look for the second half coming soon.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Space Race

There are space programs...

"It's about the journey, not the destination," is a saying I'm sure we've all heard at least once about life.  What you may not have heard though is it applies to certain kinds of video games as well.  Not in the Kurt J. Mac's "Far Lands or Bust!" walk-a-thon for charity sense, but rather with one of the ways games get made.  Minecraft, Don't Starve, Dwarf Fortress and pretty much any other game that is made available to the general public while still in active development falls into this category to varying degrees.  As updates are made and new features added, the fundamentals of gameplay can significantly alter.  What's more, fan feedback often influences the direction of future iterations.  In the case of Kerbal Space Program, this evolution has become one of the game's most outstanding aspects.

My God!  It's full of Kerbals!
I've heard it said that playing through each version of Kerbal Space Program is akin to reliving humanity's history of spaceflight endeavors.  In early versions of the game players were limited to small simple rockets only able to achieve orbit.  Eventually other tools were made available, giving players the opportunity to explore more distant stellar objects.  New planets and moons have been created to give players something to strive for, and from humble beginnings they are now able to extend their reach further and further into the cosmos.  What's more the advent of docking has made it possible to build space stations and even dedicated spacecraft.  Space planes are also become a feasible venture, although still a bit more tricky to use than traditional rocket designs.  All these things hew closely to the progress of institutions such as NASA and the CCCP.   True to the legacy of spaceflight, players can feel the trials and tribulations, along with triumphs and tragedies much like what it must have been for real space agency planners.  However, there is a dark side to all this as well.

Much like real life astronauts, there isn't a whole lot for Kerbonauts to do in the depths of space, or even on the surface of another world.  Sure, you can plant a flag, walk around collecting samples, maybe even pose for the camera, but that's about it.  Also like reality is the fact that sending off unmanned missions is far easier with respects to not having to worry about returning or rescue.  While Kerbal Space Program has no mandatory budget restrictions yet, there are fundamental design limitations brought on by how many parts the graphics engine can handle on screen, as well as the load bearing strength of various components.  Mods offering weaponry have drawn mixed responses from the fan base.  Even without mods it is perfectly possible to design vessels capable of waging war.  Polluting wreckage, space debris and radioactive material from nuclear based technologies are all concerns which exist (or have existed) both in game and in reality.  Perhaps the biggest issue though is where to go from here.

All these worlds are yours except Magic Boulder.
Attempt no landing there
Scientific discovery is great, but what about the human, or rather, Kerbal element?  Much like the real solar system we humans live in, none of the other stellar bodies in the Kerbin system harbor life (at least beyond micro-organisms).  Of course colonization is a possibility, but the prospect is daunting and would require extraction of resources at local level in order to be an achievable goal.  Needless to say such infrastructure is still only on the drawing board both in game and out.  Journeying to other solar systems is still pretty much an impossibility with currently available propulsion systems as well.

"You can do anything!" is as true for Kerbal Space Program as it is with any other sandbox game, but the kind of question I think both the lead developers over at SQUAD and NASA are asking themselves in the back of their minds is, "where are we going with all this?"  We have rockets, but where do we fly them?  We built space stations, but what purpose do they serve?  We can traverse sizable gulfs of empty space and set foot on the surface of another world, but ultimately to what end?  Perhaps a better and more basic question to ask would be, "what do we do with all these giant spinning balls of gas, liquid and rock?"

These aren't easy questions to answer definitively, nor will any answer given be agreed upon by all.  Whatever answers there are though, I wonder if they will mark a major schism between game and reality, or will it be a vision of things to come?  I have a feeling it will be many generations yet before anyone knows which is the case.  Perhaps it doesn't really matter though, so long as we all get to have fun in the meantime.

And then there are SPACE PROGRAMS!

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Return of T.S.H.B.G.

I'm back with another segment of They Should Have Been Games (T.S.H.B.G.), films that really would have been better off had they been video games instead.  If you missed the first one you can check it out here.  Up to speed? Good.  Lets get started then.

I'm going to break with tradition right away here and go with a fantasy, rather than a sci-fi flick for once.  "Snow White and the Huntsman" felt like a poor man's version of Game of Thrones.  Most of the characters don't really get enough screen time to be fleshed out in a satisfactory way (especially the dwarfs).  The middle act was also an overly long aside.  None of these things would have been a problem though if it had been an RPG.  Think about it, plenty of time for character development, a chance to explore a wider range of themes, and an audience more tolerant toward mediocre storytelling...sounds like a great project for Level-5.

In Japan they have lot of things which you don't see anywhere else.  Two in particular are humanoid robots and raiser-sims.  So, why not combine them and make a video game version of "Real Steel"?  We have the kid protagonist, who acts as the player's in-game proxy.  The dad is your generic short haired, scruffy thirty something perfect for pasting pictures of all over the box art.  Toss in some Punch Out gameplay, a bunch of customization options, plus an upgrade tree and *BOOM* you got an instant knockout hit on your hands.

Moving on we have Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan.  Two of the most overrated talents in Hollywood teaming up to bring us "After Earth," a movie with a script that feels like it was copied directly from a video game design document (possibly Metroid: Other M). Just check out this short breakdown of some of the story elements:
  • A super suit
  • A mission control guy
  • An impractically cool weapon
  • A time limit
  • A geothermal checkpoint system 
  • A final boss  
Really, this should have been a Naughty Dog or Ubisoft project....

For the sake of enjoyable film viewing experiences, I hope I don't have enough material to write up another one of these for awhile.  Then again we have an extensive back catalog to dip into as well as new releases coming down the pipe all the time so you might see another installment in the not too distant future. 

Lucas Arts...ahem...Telltale could have done a lot with this franchise

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What Nightmares May Come

As promised here is the third and final part of this October's look into horror an video games.  Enjoy these six video teasers, previews and trailers of upcoming titles.  Oh yeah, and a happy Halloween!

Ghostship Aftermath
I wasn't all that interested in this game until the interior helmet view was added in.  Then what was a fairly generic sci-fi FPS suddenly transformed into a much more immersive and claustrophobic experience.  Honestly though, who needs big toothy mouthed monsters to make things scary?  Playing this on the Oculus Rift during a zero-G segment alone will likely make your blood run cold.

Back in the days when PS2 reined king of the video game consoles there was a series of Japanese themed ghost photography horror games know as the Fatal Frame series (Project Zero, if your in Japan).  While the franchise lost it's edge sometime around the third installment, this new take on the concept looks to be trying to swap out the Japanese themes for something Indonesian in flavor.

As it has been said many times before this game looks to be anything but routine.  Using randomization elements found in rogue-like games, the danger players face won't necessarily be the same thus eliminating set piece scares which are the bane of most horror games in terms of replayability. As if that's not bad enough it also has permadeath.

There's not a whole lot of information available for this game yet, but I can tell you it's made by Frictional Games, makers of the Penumbra series and Amnesia: The Dark Decent.  Apparently they didn't actually work on Machine for Pigs, rather that was brought to us by the creators of Dear Ester.  So this is their next big project...sadly, it looks like we'll be waiting awhile since the release date isn't until 2015.

Among the Sleep
As if being unarmed isn't bad enough, here comes a game in which you play a toddler barely able to stand.  Based on the video bellow I think it's safe to say players will be doing a lot of crawling away from boogieman style threats.  On the plus side if your character craps themselves in fear at least their wearing a diaper.

Neverending Nightmares
Successfully Kickstarted and under development by a self confessed mentally ill person, this game promises a wide variety of grotesquely authentic fever dream imagery taken straight from the minds of those who habitually wake up terrified in a cold sweat.  Call me squirmish, but I'm not sure if I really want to play this game in all honesty.  So, consider yourself warned when you click play on the video bellow.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"Booh," not "Boo!"

Exploiting fear of the unknown is a big part of making a successful horror game, which is why it's difficult to produce a good sequel.  After awhile players will understand their foe all to well for it to be a spine chilling experience.  Doubly so if the player is packing enough firepower to overcome most any obstacle.  Here's a list of six titles that fell into this trap.

Resident Evil: Code Veronica
John Woo style duel gun wielding, a cross dressing antagonist and Leonardo DiCaprio look alike love interest are hardly elements conducive to horror.  Disgust...possibly.  Annoyance....definitely, but not fear.  The bio-organic weapons this franchise is so famous for are mostly recycled from previous games (Bandersnatchers being the one noteworthy exception).  While the series did see somewhat of a revival with Resident Evil 4 and the Remake thanks to Shinji Mikami's later return to form.  This entry definitely marked a low point in the series though, at least until Resident Evil 5 and 6.

Dead Space 3
The first outing with Issac Clarke (ya know...before he got plastic surgery) felt fairly derivative, but at least it came across as a worth tribute to sci-fi/horror movies and games of yore.  Not so with this entry in the series.  By the third time around Issac has become a one man necromorph dismembering machine with support from a no-nonsense space marine via co-op play.  Perhaps these changes were what motivated the designers to throw in silly enemies such as suicide cultists and "brethren moons."  Regardless, I think making the Unitologists into fanatics lead by an evil space Brit alone drove the franchise into wholly unscary territory.

Alone in the Dark 3
How Edward Carnby went from private investigator to cowboy is a bit of a stretch to say the least.  Supposedly, a 1920s film crew goes missing in the Mohave Desert and our protagonist has been called in to figure out what happened.  Aside from supernatural themes of a curse this third outing has all the clunky gameplay of previous titles but none of the southern Gothic or unknowable Mythos flavor that made this paranormal PI's adventures so interesting in the past.  Instead we get to do ridiculous stuff like shoot up lots of mooks, transform into a spirit animal and jump steam engines over a gulch for highlights in this blandly presented survival horror title.

Silent Hill: Downpour
I'm a rare exception here in that I actually enjoyed all the mainline Silent Hill games up to this one (yes, even Homecoming).  Dwindling quality with each sequel meant that by the time I got to Downpour though there was nothing left to offer.  The characters are uninteresting, the enemies uninspired, the levels recycled or else feel forced (a roller coaster ride!?...seriously?), and worst of all is the story which has more in common with Steven King's later work than any of the superior, but possibly exhausted, sources the series drew inspiration from previously.  Silent Hill 4 lost a lot of fans by breaking with tradition, but at least it went in to new unknowns.  This game doesn't pay proper tribute, nor does it do anything fresh or original.

Read Dead Redemption:
Undead Nightmare
Let me preface this one by saying I enjoy campy horror flicks and a bit of black comedy.  Cult classic film sequels like "Return of the Living Dead" and "Army of Darkness" are guilt pleasures for me.  That said I couldn't get into Undead Nightmare even though I really enjoyed Red Dead Redemption.  Granted the narrator sounds like Vincent Price and I could have sworn I saw Elvira somewhere, but there just wasn't enough scares or humor here.  The zombie hoards copied straight out of Left 4 Dead are easily gunned down, particularly with some of the new DLC weaponry such as the blunderbuss and sadly, the locations in places like the ghost town Tumbleweed, were a lot more chilling to explore in their original form (especially with all the poltergeist sighting internet rumors circling around it).

Dino Crisis 2
In a lot of ways the original Dino Crisis was Resident Evil except the zombies were swapped out for dinosaurs.  What it did have going for it on its own merits though was atmosphere.  The environments were distinct in that they were entirely metal making the only organic things the player, NPCs and of course the bloodthirsty bird/reptile hybrids themselves.  This created a distinct contrast between angular and curved, natural and artificial, as well as hi-tech and primordial. Another cool aspect of gameplay was the rendering done entirely using in-game engine resources which allowed limited panning and sweeping camera views (a one of a kind for PS1 survival horror titles at the time).  The sequel threw all this out though, and instead opted for the same old plastered on pre-rendered backgrounds of tropical jungles mixed in with over the top action sequences.  The real mood breakers though were mini-cutscene puzzles in which attacking velocirators would be forced into an idle animation (giving the impression that they were patiently waiting for some player activated device to finish it's work before resuming their attempts to eat you alive).