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Archive for July, 2011

It’s all about the narrative. This week, two games, both widely divergent in theme and scope, caught my fancy because of their stories. Neither will likely sell like L.A. Noire here in the U.S., one because it’s too small, and the other, because its nightmarish tale is weird and long-winded. Yet both are fascinating examples of how plot can inform the design of video games.

Catherine (Atlus Games) is a nightmare of a game. It’s rife with long, angst-filled scenes from main character and semi-slacker Vincent Brooks. He spouts words of drunken introspection and contemplation that give way to excellent timed puzzles. These eventually become so difficult, you feel like Sisyphus. You frantically try to climb a high tower to get to freedom from your horrible dreams. You often fail, only to begin again. What causes these dreams of terror is unveiled in the story, but it’s about the guilt that comes when you cheat on your significant other. Less so, it’s about giving up the single life after being pressured into marriage.

Catherine’s story of yearning and worry has been said by critics to be so wonderfully based in real-life situations (which unfold prior to the nightmares) that it’s a must-buy for gamers. But the dialog and drama are uneven. And sometimes they’re banal and predictable. The nightmares are strange, not scary: you converse with the paranoid sheep of your dreams, for instance.

If the game makers had actually been able to pull off constant feelings of terror in addition the tension and oddness that marks real-life dreams, Catherine would have been one of the year’s best games. It’s still very much worth its hours of play, if only to see how the Japanese tell the story of relationships gone ironically awry circa 2011.

Bastion (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment), on the other hand, offers the kind of people who like Mario games a tightly-written story full of oomph, humor and comic-book-like pizzazz. Bastion feels both like a platformer and a role playing, and game journalists have piled on so much love in the few days of its release that it’s become a critics’ darling. While the hype is somewhat overblown, Bastion is a fine game with a lot of variety in terms of weapons and power ups to use on your journey.

As The Kid, a silent, but ardent and heroic character, you must rid the country of strange beasts that appear after a disaster dubbed only as The Calamity. Yet the primary feature that makes Bastion a cut above the rest is the tight, witty writing. It’s voiced by Logan Cunningham, who has a god-like, strong and booming voice, somewhat like James Earl Jones. Whoever penned this game should be writing dialog in Hollywood. It’s that good. The music is never jarring or weird. In fact, it’s a component that energizes your resolve and helps to drive you forward.

Bastion isn’t a perfect game. Its game design, while varied, doesn’t break much new ground, for instance. Yet there’s that writing. Man, it’s tight, inspired and seemingly live — in that the narrator actually reacts to the moves and decisions you make.  He’s your guide, the person you look up to. As the narrator says, “You ain’t in this alone. That’s a promise.”

 

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As Zynga prepares for its IPO, I often wonder about the future of social games. Social games are most often thought of as Facebook games, and they’re the most addicting form of media I’ve ever seen. That includes games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft.

Social games are free to play – initially. But after you play for a while, you have to pay for upgrades in order to proceed. Or you have to invite your pals to help you out of a jam. Or you have to do both. A few of the players, called “super whales” in the social games business, spend up to $6,000 a year playing social games (according to a study/ press release from Meteor Games). That’s an incredible amount of money to spend.

For instance, I recently indulged in a much-touted role playing game from Playdom called Deep Realms. Some of the top game journalists and videogame developers were giving Deep Realms a swing as well.

But when I found myself trapped in a dungeon, I found I couldn’t beat a large demon with the powers assigned to my avatar. I really didn’t want to bother friends for help. And, though the story was not very impressive and the graphics were circa the late 80s, I liked the role playing game genre enough to want to continue. So I spent $5 to upgrade in the hopes of defeating the demon and leveling up.

It did no good. Clearly, the game wanted me to spend money and bug my pals to help me. Or, they wanted me to spend even more money to get out of the cave. I stopped playing.

Social games such as Deep Realms are in their infancy. But they need to get a lot better and they need to do that quickly. The game design needs to be less repetitive. And there needs to be a narrative, a strong story that keeps players engaged. The tale of a young farmer eschewing the plowshare to pick up a sword and find his missing brother was not just derivative. It was mediocre and banal.

But what if social games were, as they say, ripped from today’s headlines? What if there were a News Corporation/Rupert Murdoch-inspired social game called Scandal?

And Scandal could be multi-faceted, a gem of social gaming.

The premise: Start out as a reporter/intern and work your way up to head a behemoth like News International as power attempts to corrupt you. You could solve cases as an investigative journalist, and your friends could help. And, as you move up the ladder and level up, you’d need to buy upgrades to make your way and exert your savvy upon those with whom you work.

And then when you’re on top, when you are buying and selling the biggest of media companies, how do you prevent a scandal from ruining your empire? Not to mention the sheer embarrassment getting pied.

I don’t know about you. But I’d play it.

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Recently on Live Digital, Shelly Palmer’s NBC television program, I talked about a new Android phone with 4G T-Mobile service. The G2X from LG has a dual core processor, which makes it really quite speedy for games. That means car racing games don’t drop frames, and it also means that the artwork in games can be particularly well-defined.

Take for example the game I showed off for Shelly on the phone, Samurai 2: Vengeance. Now, the game from Czech developer Madfinger Games has a mediocre-bordering-on-miserable story attached. Presented between each level in panel by panel style like a graphic novel, the banal tale almost made me avoid playing the game in full.

Yet because the Japanese woodcut-inspired artwork has so much lurid personality, I felt immersed in this fast-paced, inexpensive game. For instance, as I peered over a wooden bridge, a river below flowed red with burbling lava. Japanese folk music was strummed quietly. And then, whoosh, I’m ask to slice and dice the baddies who stop me from wreaking vengeance on those who murdered my wife and child (at least that’s how I remember the mediocre plot).

For the four hours it took to play to the finale, I even marveled at the bloodletting. With a gruesome swish, you cut your foes in half. With a splatter of blood on the wooden bridge, they fall, and you move on to the take on the next enemy. I had the most difficulty with a whirling dervish of an enemy, who spun and cut me even as I bolted away.

There was a problem that bedeviled me, however. The touchscreen controls for battle are far to the right of the screen, almost at the edge. Often in the anxious heat of battle, my finger moved slightly to the right beyond the screen to hit the home button on phone. Which meant I had to boot the game again. Such a wild move paused the game, so it didn’t require a full restart. Still, it was annoying to be taken away from the brutal action so constantly.

Overall, though, I felt the graphically superior games I played on the Google Android operating system performed quite well. Certainly, the number of games on the Nvidia Tegra platform pales in comparison to the behemoth competition of Apple. Yet to find more than a modicum of games available was a happy surprise. And Samurai II: Vengeance had moments of console-grade excitement. And, oh yeh, when the T-Mobile service finds 4G service, it’s really zippy, even when you want to send the cut-above 8 mega-pixel photos the phone’s camera takes.

–Harold Goldberg

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