Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Game Well Made: Threes

We've never been short of iOS gaming phenomenons. The rapid spreading with which certain games establish themselves amongst millions of users is a new form of going viral. After Angry Birds (arguably one of the first games to truly dominate a platform) there was the majestic and short lived Flappy Bird, and now there's Threes.

Threes is a puzzle game made by three people (Asher Vollmer, Greg Vohlvend, and Jimmy Hinson) in which you match numbers, continuously trying to save space on the playing board (the game ends when the board is full, and you have no more moves available) while trying to match large numbers for larger scores.

At IGF 2014 Threes got an honourable mention for Excellence in Design, and once you start playing it's immediately evident that it probably should've won the award. The elegance in the game's interface is simple yet well stylized - with the little faces on the number blocks sighing and talking occasionally, while also looking and smiling at their pair they're about to be combined with next to them - Threes layers charm and cuteness on top of a well-designed system of number-crunching fun.

There's two things which Threes has slightly going against it, but once you start playing you realize that they're both unimportant. The first is the price factor. At $1.99 on the App Store, Threes isn't really denting anyone's income severely, however for some when a game isn't free to play then it isn't on their radar. The second is the fear which some people (including me) have of arithmetic/number games. While one might expect that achieving a high score in a game called Threes would require a mastery of mathematic abilities, success in this game is based upon understanding the systems in order to make the best move to free up space, combine numbers, and have the next number on the board be in a useful position.

Threes innovates in its design and game systems, making for a game which is immensely satisfying and adorable to play. Already Threes has stormed to the top of the App Store's paid applications, and it won't be long before just about everyone you know with an iPhone is playing it. Fortunately, now that I've finished writing this up, I can go back to playing Threes.

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Game Well Made: Spelunky

I had made big plans for the month of December, and then Spelunky came along. I recently received a Christmas PS Vita, and having enjoyed similar "rogue-lite" games such as The Binding of Isaac, Rogue Legacy, and FTL, it was a perfect match. It had never dawned on me how fantastic it could be to have a game like Spelunky be portable. The game's tight controls paired with the well sized and vibrant screen of the Vita elevate Spelunky to probably my favourite game I've played this year.

In my post about Resogun I mentioned about the importance of variance. Whether it's enemy variance, or objective variance - keeping the player active and attentive makes for an engrossing experience. Games like Resogun and Dark Souls require attentive concentration and memorization; in order to keep your multiplier going or just stay alive, you need to always be thinking a few steps ahead. When I began playing The Binding of Isaac, and Rogue Legacy, the idea of memorization didn't apply quite to the same degree. Of course, memorizing enemies, threats, and item uses is important, however the random generation of levels makes for a much higher level of variance. Prowling through castle halls in Rogue Legacy, I never knew which painting would suddenly leap to life. While being cautious would probably be the smartest approach in those games - I was often able to simply wave my sword constantly like a cheerleader, attack every possible threat, and usually escape unscathed.

But Spelunky is different. Compared to all those other games, Spelunky is a sensory overload of variance. Just like Dark Souls, this charming platformer has a set of unforgiving and unchanging rules, but the procedurally generated levels make for continuously new environments to explore.

The fragility of your character, along with the unknown factor of every play-through leads to cautious exploration. Rushing often leads to a quick death, and only through clear situation analysis along with precise execution will you be able to progress deeper into the game's levels. The little success I've had with Spelunky could be attributed to refining my decision-making - reaching that sparkling jewel tends to be fairly unimportant if I'm going to take damage along the way. Realizing when risks aren't worth taking requires experience, and then actually walking away from that treasure chest guarded by a giant spider takes a lot more willpower (and common sense) than I usually have.

The game's normal adventure mode is definitely sucking away at my winter break's hours, but what sets this game apart is the daily challenge. Every player gets one attempt at the same level, leading to tension and competition as you try to survive (at least that's what I do) and compete in the leaderboards.

Right now a lot of the game remains still undiscovered to me. I've only arrived at the jungle levels a few times, and I've heard that there's a lot more depth and variance to the game as the levels continue. This element of the unknown is what makes Spelunky practically impossible to put down. Finding new levels filled with incredibly dangerous enemies alongside treasures and secrets gives this game it's sense of adventure. Progressing and surviving are incredibly satisfying, especially when you're on your best run yet, seeing (and suffering) what the newest world has to offer. Spelunky has some fantastic music accompanying you in your travels which really ties the game together; forward-striving melodies and occasionally sinister accompaniments embody the game's venturing and dangerous spirit. The explorative and varying nature of the game fits well with its rigid set of systems, and the daily challenge mode really elevates the importance of survival, making for some truly adventurous and exciting gameplay.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Game Well Made: Resogun

With the acquisition of a PS4, I was unsure of what expectations to have regarding the "next-gen" system and how/whether it would elevate my gaming experiences. I really didn't think that I would find something like Resogun on my PS4. Incredibly simple compared to the other games available for the system, yet with a variety of qualities which make it my favourite game available on the system thus far.

Something which is absolutely necessary to making a shoot 'em up game like Resogun really enjoyable is enemy variance. This is what Resogun really nails with every one of the levels. Progressing through levels the enemies you blast through seem to go through an evolution of sorts, even just through the course of a single level. The mini-crabs which you tear through at the start of Decima gradually increase in size, begin hopping around higher, and are cleverly layered with other enemies making mere survival a tough task. Creating a variety of enemies, all with different speeds, attacking methods, and susceptibilities ensures that moment to moment action never gets boring.

The biggest contributing factor to keeping the game from losing its sense of direction is the continuous variance in objectives. Having to kill special types of enemies (called "keepers" - sometimes only on the screen for a short while, other times needing to be killed in a correct order) frees humans from glass boxes around the map which you need to pick up and take to safety for a small boost (just for a bit) to your weapon along with perhaps an extra life, bomb, points, or overdrive upgrade. Freeing all the humans on a level definitely isn't easy, especially because certain humans are only freed if you're keeping a high multiplier score. Resogun tries to make you play as efficiently as possible: always making sure you're targeting the right enemies, saving humans quickly, and maintaining your multiplier by continuously shooting at things while surviving.

As a result the gameplay feels frenetic but always about precision, keeping you active and hunting for enemies while making you wary not to waste table-turning resources like your boost, bombs, and overdrive. A lot very simple but well-crafted systems make the game fairly easy to understand and begin playing, but very difficult to master especially at the higher difficulties. Learning the smaller intricacies of the systems - like throwing humans while boosting to make them travel farther to their rescue point - makes for a cohesive and tight-playing experience which offers some spectacular and gratifying clutch moments of human-saving and enemy-blasting action.

The boss battles at the end of levels sadly lack a lot of these dynamic qualities which make the gameplay really shine. Often you'll be forced to peg away at most of them from a far distance while avoiding their waves of bullets. Rather than requiring quick decision making and the balancing of various abilities, boss battles are more of a rigorous exercise in focus and precise movement, changing the pace of the gameplay to border on tedious at lower difficulties, and frustrating at higher ones.

Despite boss battles which don't quite live up to the rest of the game, Housemarque's latest creation is still my most played PS4 title right now. For a game which cost me nothing (PS+ is a wonderful service), Resogun truly shines as one of the few launch titles which offers a deep and finely-tuned revision on the shoot 'em up style of game.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A December Filled with Good Old Games

December will be quite the month of gaming for me. While I had initially prepared it to be a cozy winter break filled with old adventure games, when I saw that was offering the early Fallout games for free (they're available until December 14th!), I couldn't resist. However I didn't really stop there. After all, I might as well go all out and play through a few other acclaimed legendary games of the past. So, I picked up System Shock 2 along with Half Life in order to ensure my December acquires that dark sense of fear which games like The Last Express and Trine 2 might not provide.

All throughout December (and well into 2014), I'll be writing about whatever captivates me in these various games. Hopefully analyzing the various storytelling technique and gameplay design will provide me with a better understanding of the various elements required to make an entertaining and captivating game.

Here are the various games I'll be playing this December:

  • The Last Express
  • System Shock 2
  • Half Life (1 and 2)
  • The Secret of Monkey Island (1 and 2)
  • Device 6
  • Trine 2: The Complete Story
  • Far Cry 2
  • Doki Doki Universe
  • Fallout (1, 2, Tactics, and 3)

This list is definitely daunting, and while I've started on a few of these I'm not expecting to complete all of them by the end of December. I'm also hoping to be able to fit in a few posts about the PS4 and the various games I've been playing on it (mostly pirates, soccer, and Resogun). Finally, if you have any game suggestions I should add to my December list, let me know in the comments! 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Use of "Combat Specific Music" within Videogames

After having recently returned to play through Bioshock Infinite again (on the tougher 1999 mode),  I couldn't help but notice the use of what I'd call "combat specific music", tying up the transition between combat gameplay and the game's more cinematic story moments, both in and out of gameplay. To properly define the what I mean by "combat specific music" is: any sort of repeated musical score which plays only when combatting with enemies in the game. If you're still not sure what I mean, it's alright, because you've probably encountered it before if you've played Pokemon. Whenever you encounter a wild pokemon or another trainer the game immediately begins playing its familiar combat tune and your pokemon battle commences.

The difficulty of Bioshock Infinite on 1999 mode makes the game's combat sequences much longer, and the accompanying combat music which always returns definitely highlights the game's two distinct elements of combat and story. There's definitely something to be said about the high quality of the sound and music production in the Bioshock series, especially in the way Ken Levine (creative director and writer for the first Bioshock game and Bioshock Infinite) links music with story, like Cohen's Scherzo in the original Bioshock and the "God only Knows" barbershop quartet found in Bioshock Infinite. However the use of combat specific music is definitely a decision which was decidedly made to help the player immediately discern what type of sequence is about to play out.

Interestingly enough, it had been a while since I'd heard and noticed "combat specific music". While I can't quite remember if it was also present in the first Bioshock, the fact that the developers of Infinite chose to include such an archaic mechanic in a game which pushes the boundaries of storytelling is a little confusing. It's not that "combat music" is jarring or unpleasant, but in a game which is so narrative-focussed like Bioshock Infinite, to have a specific musical piece begin playing when enemies are on screen definitely reminded me that I was playing a videogame. It brought to mind that the story I was following isn't much more than some cutscenes all glued together by a bunch of combat sequences (something that developers generally tend to try to mask rather than accentuate).

Perhaps the reason that Bioshock Infinite can pull off having "combat music" without affecting the gamer's immersion is that its environments and gameplay sequences which are out of combat are all meticulously well-crafted. Strolling through Columbia's streets isn't quite like an open-world experience, but the density of story-amplifying elements within the environments (voxophones, npc conversations, differences in white man/black man washroom) definitely helps create that immersive (and sometimes oppressive) game-world which ultimately helps sell the story to the person playing.

A screenshot of a combat sequence of Dragon Age: Origins
But enough about Bioshock Infinite, after all, the "combat specific music" mechanic has origins which are far more interesting than its use in Bioshock. The mechanic of "combat music" has always associated itself with RPGs in my mind. The stark split between in-combat and out-of-combat which older "classic" RPGs built themselves on lends the idea of music associated with the in-combat phase very naturally. While I mentioned Pokemon earlier, there are still newer RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins which use "combat music". However Dragon Age: Origins tends to have a bit of an old-school feel (it remains very true to the origins of the complex RPG genre), making it very different from Skyrim, an RPG which still has "combat music", but is able to blur the defining edges (of in and out of combat) with a more dynamic and varying musical score.

There's definitely a lot more to be said about the way developers link certain elements of their game together with music, especially about the directions in which newer games are taking this idea of a harmony between music and gameplay. I'm definitely curious about people's thoughts about "combat specific music" and its use in games, do you like it? Does it affect your immersion when playing a game? Share your thoughts below in the comments.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hearing the Sounds of "Gravity"

After my brief step into the world of film with my post about the 1984 movie "The Hit" I felt that I should return to the origins of this blog: music. However, after recently seeing the new box-office hit that is "Gravity" I desperately wanted to write about it, so I decided that the solution would be to write about the sounds and music of Alfonso Cuarón's work.

Please be aware that I will be spoiling parts of the movie below.

"Gravity" is a movie which has an incredible depth when it comes to the way it tells its story and conveys information to the audience. It has stunning visuals using camerawork which pans, swivels, and rotates (very reminiscent of certain moments within 2001: A Space Odyssey), yet "Gravity"'s success lies more within the atmosphere it establishes through sound.

While the movie begins with the duo that is Kowalski and Stone (aka Clooney and Bullock), Stone is soon left alone in the vastness of space. Managing and manipulating the oppressive atmosphere that manifests itself in this setting is key in keeping viewers stimulated and interested in the movie. "Gravity" manages this with its more than competent score, which is carefully manicured to be in harmony with the plot. Climactic scenes are accompanied by sharp and tense music, while the grand swooning orchestral style pieces are befitting to the many panoramic shots of earth, the music often just delicate enough to accompany those pensive moments.

Aside from the well done musical score, there's something to be said about the way in which "Gravity" plays with sound. The emphasis on the sounds truly "surrounding" the audience is an aspect which the production team obviously put in a lot of hard work. I say hard work because it must have been quite the task to properly map a character's voice as the camera and perspective is almost constantly in motion. Yet the work pays off, adding most importantly another sense of immersion to the setting that is space. Having the voices and sound effects truly surround you as your eyes drink in the sweet nectar of 3D visuals (for those that saw it in 3D theatres) makes for a truly immersive experience.

I mentioned above the importance of keeping the viewer stimulated in the desolate and lonely story of a woman trying to escape space. The director Alfonso Cuarón shows an incredible sense of pacing in the way he seamlessly transitions to and from scenes, and of course, he uses sound as a nifty tool when doing so. While the audience becomes quickly accustomed to the muffled space-suit crackle voices of the characters, Cuarón throws in a new element by occasionally transitioning to inside the space-suit. The first time he does this, it's an incredibly tense moment which features the camera constantly inching closer to Sandra Bullock's helmeted head. We hear her constantly talking, and at a certain point the camera traverses through the helmet, and that is when we hear the character's pure unaltered voice for the first time. From the visual vicinity of the shot to clearly hearing every inflexion within Sandra Bullock's voice, there was a distinct intimacy that the viewer felt with the character.

The role that sound production and music play in movies is immense. It's very easy to forget about what the interplay between visual and audio can do in terms of immersion and connection with a story. Cuarón's "Gravity" seems to have plucked a very deep and instinctual string within our hearts, as it pushes a very vulnerable and relatable character to the brink of isolation in the immense mystery that is space. Yet it all could have easily fallen apart without the proper attention and detail regarding the sounds necessary to immerse the viewer in the atmosphere. Next time you see "Gravity", make sure to pay special attention to hearing the sounds which accompany the lonely protagonist in her journey.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Protagonists Within Stephen Frears's "The Hit"

While this blog began with my analysis of classical, it's about time I began to branch off. While I'll definitely continue writing about music (from classical to modern day), after seeing the 1984 film directed by Stephen Frears "The Hit", I couldn't resist writing down a few thoughts about it. In case you haven't seen the movie, I suggest you go watch it before reading this because I'll be spoiling things (and also because you probably won't understand much of what I'm musing about if you haven't seen it).

"The Hit" is a movie which provokes us to search for its true protagonist. The first name coming to mind would be Willie Parker (portrayed by Terence Stamp), after all, he's the only character in the journey who immediately fills our expectations of a protagonist. After doing the right thing and ratting out his criminal buddies, he's kidnapped and to be executed. He's a good-looking smooth-talking fellow (checks the boxes of "hero" so far), delivering constant philosophical ramblings and coy smiles which pervade the thoughts of his captors who pretend to be so indifferent (but probably have a more monotonous effect on us viewers after a while). Willie becomes the archetypal sage hero in his calm acceptance of his fate, we quickly grow bored of him, and because of this we turn to the two characters holding Willie's destiny in what seems to be a fairly shaky grip.

The poor souls that are Myron and Mr. Braddock become much more interesting than Willie, and while at first it's difficult to see them as heroes in any way, they quickly affirm themselves as key protagonists. Tim Roth definitely succeeds in performing the wild and insecure Myron, gifting us viewers the easiest character to decipher in this film which changes our expectations of who characters really are, and how quickly we should change our opinions about them.

As we hunt for who the true protagonist is, director Stephen Frears gives all of the characters enough depth to don at least a glimmer of heroism. Even poor Harry (the Australian gangster inhabiting the Madrid safehouse) who himself admits that he was just "in the wrong place at the wrong time", has an arc which after its end solemnly sticks with its memorable moments. He's almost the first of many to face death (don't forget Willie's bodyguard who early in the movie heroically faced an oncoming car with as much gusto he could muster. That same heroic gusto is also seen later by the young man at the petrol station phoning the police before Mr. Braddock puts a lead pellet in his skull). Each man confronts his impending doom a different way. While throughout the movie we grow accustomed to Willie's instructive musings on the afterlife, it's only Mr. Braddock (the darkest and most unsettling character of them all) who seems to be able to remember Willie's soothing words after suffering the most gruesome death of the film.

While during the story Mr. Braddock does his best to maintain a cool professionalism, behind his shades and shifty names that others know him by, his constant struggles in pulling off "The Hit" definitively establish him as the most likeable of the protagonists. Especially when Willie, the mystical man with a plan shows his cowardly vulnerabilities and the fact that he doesn't actually have a plan against a loaded gun when Mr. Braddock decides "it's time". As for Myron, his hyper-active tension fuelling (but also tension-cutting with his humor) presence is just boyish enough to make you suffer when you see the lack of understanding in his face right before being taken out by Mr. Braddock.

"The Hit" undoubtedly challenges what we expect of characters in these types of films. While perhaps we were waiting for a singular hero to take command of the plot (funnily enough, if there is one it's the only woman in the story, Maggie), we discover that it was the mixture of these different and enigmatic characters which provided the special moments of the movie. When they all end up dead (except for Maggie, who interestingly enough if the main character we know the least about), we're left with disappointment not because a single protagonist died, but because the characters which drove the story through the gorgeous Spanish spaces are no longer there.