Monday, August 18, 2014

Critically Damaged

Hello. So after six years of sharpening my teeth on Critical Damage, I've decided it is time I stop relying on a Blogspot website and make a simple, more straightforward website for myself to serve as a central place for my various identities and blogs on the web. So now you can find me at It has links to my academic research, my freelancing work, and my various other projects. I'm also going to start writing whatever blog posts I would normally have written here, over there. So, effectively, this is the end of updates to Critical Damage. It will all stay here, of course. I won't be removing any content (I am a strong believer in writers leaving their older writing up so that newer writers can gain confidence from seeing how terrible established writers used to be (not that I really count as 'established' yet)), but I probably won't be updating any more. So thank you for your support reading this blog, and if you want to find my more recent stuff, head on over to

Monday, July 28, 2014

Modern Warfare Critical Let's Play Series

For a while I've been toying with the idea of doing a 'Critical Let's Play' of the Modern Warfare trilogy. It's no secret that I guiltily thoroughly enjoy the Modern Warfare single-player campaigns a great deal, even as I know they are incredibly messed up for their glorifying of Western militarism. I always struggle to explain to people why I enjoy them so much, as it is really the moment-to-moment pacing and framing of the storytelling that I enjoy, more than any broad themes that are easy to explain in writing. So I thought I might record myself playing through the games, talking through them as I go, pointing at the particular little things that I like while being able to bring my audience a long and show what I mean about the pacing and about the framing of particular scenes and whatnot.

So I have started this. There is a Youtube playlist here (and embedded above) that I will be adding videos to over the coming months as I play my way through. I've put up four videos to start with, playing up to the nuclear explosion in Modern Warfare, and from now I might put up two more videos every week or so. We'll see. I don't want to just pile hours of footage in there at once as I really can't imagine anyone wanting to watch it all in one go.

I'm not the most experienced at capturing videogame footage, or at expressing myself vocally, so any and all feedback is appreciated, negative or positive. I'd love to know if you think this style of analysis is interesting and engaging, what works for you and what doesn't. Some things I've already realised: there is a slight delay between the footage and my voiceover. I think this is because the Elgato Game Capture software I use to capture from my Xbox 360 doesn't really like my iphone earphones+microphone I'm using. I'm not sure what to do about this, but I'll be sure to linger at scenes I want to speak about for a moment longer in future videos. Related to this, I need to not stop recording as soon as I say 'Thanks for watching', because I am losing the last few seconds of my talking. Finally, I clearly need to trim my beard because you can hear the iphone mic scraping against my facial hair in the second video, haha. #bro

I'm also toying with the idea of starting a Patreon (whoops, I did it) before I produce any more of these, on the off chance people are willing to throw a few dollars my way. I can't imagine this being a massive fund that would make me a lot of money, but I think if I am willing to put in the hours of work of playing through all these games again with an analytical eye, I might at the very least provide people the opportunity to pay me for it, since, after all, games criticism is labour worth being paid for. Again, I'd certainly appreciate any thoughts people have on this. I'd rather not put ads all over the videos, obviously.

So that's what I'm doing. If you watch them, do please let me know how you find them because, frankly, I have no idea what I am doing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Notes on Final Fantasy XII

1. To understand my current fixation with (and deep, deep satisfaction of) Final Fantasy XII and all its intricacies, one must first understand the game’s failings. Final Fantasy XII has a unique brand of ludonarrative dissonance (sorry). The story and the game do not match each other—not due to any kind of thematic dissonance between ‘story’ and ‘game’, but in the level of exclusive attention each demands of the player. The ‘story’ is one of competing kingdoms and arms races and both inter- and intranational diplomacy and bureaucracy. The player must keep track of name, militaries, geographies, family trees, timelines, and peace treaties if they are to follow what is happening. It is simultaneously the most mundane, most grounded, and most compelling story I have encountered in a Final Fantasy. The ‘game’, meanwhile, is a fascinatingly deep and intricate web of battle systems and side quests and hunts and secrets and rare items. The player is expected—at times almost forced by difficulty spikes—to put aside the story and spend tens of hours hunting a giant turtle or diving into an utterly optional area. It is, all of it, incredibly enjoyable, but then you return to the story and have lost all track of who is at war with who and the difference between magicite and nethicite (nuclear and atom bombs, I think) and just why you are going where you are going. Is the evil country Rozarria or is that the good guys? The first time I played FFXII, when it was new, I was eighty-hours in when I finally gave up. I had never before gotten eighty hours into a game without the end even being remotely in sight. I had just spent so much time doing other things that I didn’t even know what was happening, so I gave up. I had never before given up on a Final Fantasy. 

2. FFXII refuses to be played how it wants to be played. It is impossible. It wants 90% of your attention on this half and 90% on that half. It demands 180% of your attention. It is impossible to play FFXII how it wants to be played. But, just like Metal Gear Solid demands the player to accept they will be spending as much time watching as playing (or: watching is a major component of playing Metal Gear Solid), one can enter FFXII with a particular mindset, with a particular goal on what they want to get out of the game, and it can be the most engrossing thing. I’ve long wanted to return to FFXII to better explore its design: the gambits, the sidequests, the particularities of Yasumi Matsuno’s grubby design fingerprints smeared all over it. So I began again with an agenda: I am playing for the design, not for the story. I will focus all my attention on this aspect of the game, and ignore that aspect, rebalancing what the game gets so wrong. To stress, I chose to play a JRPG not for the story. This is not something I ever thought I would do.

3. If we ignore the story and how it is told, then, the design of FFXII is immaculate. By ‘the design’ I mean the way everything works together. The way it sets out to achieve certain forms of engagements with its rules and systems and mechanics. The way it translates the decades-old turn-based battle system into real-time, streamlining it and giving it a rhythm while holding on to its core focuses of tactics and strategy. The way it is so transparently influenced by MMO design. As long as one ignores the story, it becomes so explicit what the game is tying to do, and it just does it with a mighty level of confidence.

4. The ‘real-time’ battles. FFXII does away with the battle scenes of most JRPGS. In place of the stop-start pacing of running around a map and then, every few steps, everything blurring and a whole new battle screen appearing, enemies are visible and fought on the map. You just walk up to them, fight them, and keep walking. On the surface, this solves the various pacing issues that turn-based battle scenes have always been plagued by. But it introduces new challenges. Turn-based battles allow for deep, strategic choice and clear communication of intent without needing to hastily press the right buttons in the right order. The design of FFXII is at its most fascinating where it adapts the strengths of turn-based battles into its semi real-time design, while leaving aside the monotonous and boring parts. The transition from ‘walking around’ to ‘fighting’ is as simple as the characters pausing for a split second to pull out their weapons. From here, the player can press X to pause time and open a small menu no different to any turn-based Final Fantasy. You can choose attack, magic, item, etc. With the menu open, you can press left and right to scroll between the menus of different characters. The battle does not require a separate screen, but it still manages to use menus seamlessly and intuitively to ensure no lower level of strategic control.

5. The main restriction on real-time combat is the inability to control multiple people at once. You see this in other real-time JRPGS, like Kingdom Hearts, where the player is in charge of Sora, and Goofy and Donald just do their own thing. You can set vague AI behaviour (defensive or support or aggressive) but you lose the fine-grained control that turn-based combat can give you over an entire party. FFXII’s answer to this is the gambit system: the ability to finely program each character with conditional behaviour. I can set a character to cast Cure on any ally whose health is below 30%. I can tell a different character to Steal from any enemy with 100% health: they will steal once; my other characters will attack; and then they won’t steal again. I can set these gambits in a ordered list of priorities. My support character will stop attacking to cure anyone, but my tanks will only stop attacking to cure once there are no more enemies about. 
At any point, the gambits can be manually overridden by the easily accessible menu system but, for the most part, I can program my characters into a well-oiled machine that does exactly what I want to do. And it is terrific and streamlined. It feels like the antithesis of the labour required by a game like Tiny Tower (or any previous Final Fantasy, really) that never lets you automate or make more efficient the mundane level of action. FFXII let’s me prove, once, that I know what I’m doing, and then never forces me to do that thing again. Why should I have to manually choose to cure every time I know I need to cast cure anyway? Why shouldn’t I be able to prove to the game that I know I need to cure when health is low just once, and then have it automated? The beauty of FFXII is that it has the confidence to let me not press buttons. It has the confidence to play itself.

6. More on gambits. Not just a simplified programming language, gambits are also incorporated into the grind loop of JRPG play through the need to buy new gambits and use experience points on new gambit slots. Before you can set an “If ally: health lower than 30% then ‘cure’” gambit, you need to go to a gambit store and buy the condition “ally: health lower than 30%”. This probably annoys some people, but for me it incorporates the ability to set an intricate, well-oiled machine into that same grinding feedback loop as the one that lets me buy an expensive sword or use advanced magic. When I watch my team destroy an enemy without me pressing a single button I don’t just get the satisfaction of watching them do exactly what I told them to do, but of seeing my time and labour spent buying those gambits pay off. 

7. FFXII came out at a time that MMOs were all the rage. World of Warcraft was in full-swing. The previous Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy XI, itself was an MMO. MMOs was both what was trendy and what much of the development team had experience in. FFXII plays like a single-player MMO. I vaguely remember this annoying people (probably including myself) at the time, as thought it had just jumped on a bandwagon. But now I just find it fascinating, like everything else in the game. The real-time-ish combat is one element of this, with the way my team surround an enemy on the map and do their own thing reminding me of watching an old roommate doing raids in World of Warcraft. But the MMO influence is so ingrained. The countless sidequests and ‘hunts’ and secrets. Like an MMO, FFXII is selfconsciously full of stuff to do, as though the player should be paying a subscription fee. Of course, it is exactly this vast quantity of stuff that detracts from the story, so those critical of the MMO influence probably had a point. But the counter to this is that now that I am playing with an utter disregard for the story, I find myself loading up the game and thinking, “What should I do today?”. I have never thought this in a JRPG before. 

8. FFXII is also a game designed to be played with a game guide in hand. Or, to word that more cynically, it is a game designed in such a way to punish people who don’t fork out money for the game guide. This is before wikis and gameFAQs made such a business model rapidly outdated. But it means the game is full of the most hilariously obtuse sidequests and weapons. The Zodiac Spear, for example, is the most powerful spear in the game. To get it late in the game, the main condition the player has to meet is to not open a variety of chests earlier in the game. The game doesn’t tell you which chests, but there are chests in various obvious places and if you open them, you won’t get this spear. The only way you will know not to open them is to read the game guide (or, now, a wiki). Apparently people quit the game in disgust when they heard this (kitting all the characters out in the best weapons is, after all, a major ambition for many FF players). When my partner read these instructions out from the wiki page, I laughed and laughed. It was just so absurd. Another example is an unlockable fishing mini game which, among other conditions, requires you to talk to a man, run across one area to another area but not enter it, run back to the man, and then gain access to the mini game. To get a better fishing rod, you must first kill Gilgamesh. Maybe I’ve just lost my completionist streak in recent years, but none of this makes me mad. In fact, the idea of such an obscure, dense game existing makes me happy.

9. Yasumi Matsuno’s games remind me of Dark Souls. It’s something I first thought of when I played Vagrant Story (some thoughts here) earlier this year. Tonally and environmentally, it felt like the world of Dark Souls: alone in an obtuse, undead city; muted music (except for the occasional and unexpected boss battles) and just the ambient environmental sounds. Final Fantasy XII, similarly, reminds me of Dark Souls but not in atmosphere so much as obnoxiousness. Dark Souls is deliberately vague in what you are meant to do and where you are meant to go. It is a post-Twitter game, as Matthew Burns once said to me. It expects players to gather around the bonfires of social media and share tales of secrets they found. Final Fantasy XII just wants you to buy a game guide, but it gives it a similar sensation of depth, of jumping into a pitch black hole and not knowing how long you are going to fall for.

10. Final Fantasy XII is beautiful. There’s a particular aesthetic of late-Playstation 2 games (and late-Playstation 1 games, in a similar way) where the resolution of the textures is disproportionately intricate compared to the low polycount of the models. The characters are these most basic models but the lattice-work of Fran’s armour or Balthier’s cuffs or Basch’s blonde locks or Ash’s belts are all so immaculate and intricate. It’s this really wonderful aesthetic juxtaposition, low-poly and high-res. I don’t have the art language to really describe why its beautiful, but I could look at these characters and their world all day, just as I could with Vagrant Story’s similar juxtaposition.

11. Yasumi Matsuno’s fingerprints are all over Final Fantasy XII and it is the most fascinating thing about he. He was the co-director before stepping down (over disagreements with changes Square wanted to make, I believe). So FFXII, at the same time, displays a clear lineage with Matsuno’s earlier games, but its an imperfect lineage. I think I just have a fascination of late of being able to sense an oeuvre of a game creator’s work. So Matsuno made Final Fantasy Tactics (which XII is based in the same world of), and Vagrant Story. He also directed Tactics Ogre, but I haven’t played that so I can’t talk to it. So let’s talk similarities across the games I have played. There is, on the most obvious level, the unorthodox battle systems, each game being mechanically interesting in a way the other Final Fantasies are not, with their semi-real-time battle systems or focus on tactics. There’s also little visual flourishes that connect the games. In, say Final Fantasy VII, casting magic is something very external, with green circles rippling out from the character. In both FFXII and Vagrant Story, meanwhile, magic feels like something introverted, like an inward focusing of energy rather than an outward pouring. The character raising their hand to their head and the blurs and lines kind of ripple more inwards than outwards. It is tiny, but it feels like a common strand. There is the aforementioned Dark Souls oppressiveness and the high-res-low-poly look. It’s risky to attribute too much to a single member of a large production team, but XII feels like a game conceived by the person who conceived it. It has a personality and a style.

12. But there’s more than fingerprints on FFXII’s design. There’s a transparency in is flaws. The late, hamfisted addition of both the license board and protagonist Vaan, added at the last minute as an androgynous anime teenage boy protagonist to a story originally written about Balthier (or so the story goes). In one scene, not far in to the game, Vaan stands up front and centre while, off to the side in the background Balthier calls himself the leading man, as though the voice acting had already been done and they just had to deal with it. And it’s true: the leading man is off to the side. It’s a flaw, to be sure, but such a fascinating one. FFFXII wears its design on its sleeve, and it makes it a much more interesting game to engage with.

13. Boss battles are usually dreadful in Final Fantasy games. They are boring and mindless, requiring more endurance than intelligence. I didn’t realise quite how bad they were until I played Persona 4 Golden, with its legitimately enjoyable boss battles The key difference: Persona 4’s bosses were not immune to every single status change. You could poison them, you could screw with their stats. In most Final Fantasy games, meanwhile, bosses are immune to everything except perhaps for an elemental weakness. Your inventory of tactical support spells is reduced to nothing more advanced than Rock Paper Scissors. FFXII, however, with its many hunts (optional boss battles) and rare hunts, has no shortage of giant enemies to endure and, importantly, they often are susceptible to this or that status effect. You can screw over their accuracy, you can silence their magic, you can dispel their shields. It makes such a difference. Suddenly, you can use tactics against them, not just mash away with attacks. My partner would look up the wikis about what particular tactics would work against which hunts and—this is important—it would be so satisfying to just execute the strategies the guide suggested, watching them unfolding in their intricacies. Like the time I set up my gambits to cast Reflect on all allies and then to cast Thundaga on those allies so that three Thundaga spells would all reflect onto the single, giant enemy, smashing its massive reserves of HP. It was satisfying to watch it unfold, as both a strategy and a system. 

14. Final Fantasy XII is a hot mess. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Another Quick Update

Apologies for continuing to not update this website. I've been teaching the last semester and that's taken up most of my time. I have been writing elsewhere, though. I've written a few quick columns for The Conversation. This one about Jane McGonigal's dubious play-Tetris-to-cure-PTSD project/blog was pretty popular. I've also written about how the Liberal Government's draconian, scorched-earth budget effects game makers in Australia, and my presumptive hostility towards blockbuster games with Themes. I wrote a piece for ABC's The Drum about esports and videogame spectatorship. I wrote a piece for Overland's print journal that has since been republished online, where I write the letter I would have written to Susan Sontag about games criticism if she were still alive. I'm pretty happy with that one. And, for the newly launched Unwinnable Weekly, I have a "Notes on Luftrausers" post in Issue 2, which I strongly encourage you to chip in some money for. I think this is my favourite Notes post yet, maybe, and I'm so thrilled to be able to get it published somewhere.

I've also been taking advantage of my ungaming tumblr to throw out a whole heap of super rough, unfinished thoughts. The kind of stuff that probably would end up as blog posts here eventually if I had more time. It's been really liberating to just dump them there, half-formed, and get people to engage with them. I really love how the design of tumblr kind of encourages that messiness. I've been using that blog for both gaming and non-gaming things. Here are some really rough thoughts on Final Fantasy XII that I am currently fleshing out into a Notes post. Here are some thoughts on why this console generation transition is really interesting because nothing is happening. Here are some thoughts about the federal budget which was, literally, forged from satan's own toilet paper. Here are some notes on David Sudnow's Pilgrim in the Microworld, which is a really great book.

Oh yeah, let's talk about what I've been reading. I read both of David Sudnow's books, Ways of the Hand (about becoming a jazz pianist) and Pilgrims in the Microworld (about getting really good at Breakout!) and both are excellent, closely descriptive accounts of what the hands do at various tools. Both are definitely worth a read if you have an interest in the bodily, phenomenological pleasures of videogames.

I also just this last week read Anna Anthropy's new book on ZZT, written for Boss Fight Books, and it is really remarkable. It does this incredible job of transitioning from a close, detailed look at 'the game itself' as this kind of seed in the first chapter that then shoots outwards into this vast discussion of communities and an important snapshot of a particular moment in time. Not only is it a really great analysis of a game, capturing both personal and broader cultural implications, but a really significant contribution to videogame history. Here is a cool quote from towards the end of the book on exactly why that history is important. Here is Cameron Kunzelman's review for Paste.

I bought a WiiU last week for Mario Kart 8, and have since been instagram-ing countless slow-motion replays. I should have a piece up soon about how spectacular (in the most literal sense) that game is. I also finally played A Dark Room to completion on iOS after reading Cara Ellison's piece on the first Unwinnable Weekly, and it was truly remarkable. I've also gotten sucked into Pocket Trains because NimbleBit knows how to hook me.

And that is what I am up to.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Quick Update

Sorry I haven't been updating here as much as I used to. I was backpacking around Europe for a month and now teaching has started again so everything is pretty hectic. It might be a while before you see another 'Notes' post on here (though I'd like to write one about Final Fantasy XII and one about Netrunner after I've played each game for a bit longer).

I'll be in San Francisco next week for GDC, Lost Levels, Critical Proximity, and Wild Rumpus. I'll be charing this panel at GDC, and giving talks at both Lost Levels and Critical Proximity. At Wild Rumpus I'll probably just be drinking a lot. If you are around, do feel free to say hi to me if you see me at any time during the week.

I haven't had too much writing published yet this year. My column at The Conversation has been going alright. My recent piece on Ken Levine firing everyone and getting patted on the back about it got quite a bit of traction. I wrote on Unwinnable about the shameful response to Flappy Bird, and I wrote for the American men's magazine M about videogames and masculinity (available online here). I also have a piece forthcoming in the next print issue of Overland about videogame criticism and Susan Sontag. I've also been rambling a bit on my new-ish tumblr, ungaming, which I mostly started to have somewhere to dump incomplete thoughts and junk that was longer than a tweet but messier than a blog post. I've written a few games-related rambles there and some non-games rambles. Also posted lots of gifs.

And that is what I am up to of late.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Games of 2013: Part Four

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Spelunky (Mossmouth)
Spelunky just made it onto my list last year. More out of respect than anything, I guess, looking back now. Kind of like my first dabbling with Dark Souls, I don’t think I really truly appreciated Spelunky back when it came out on Xbox Live. I’d learned to appreciate it as a slapstick comedy because that is all I was capable of appreciating it as.
This year, however, when the game made its way to PSN and Windows, I picked it up to play on Vita. It seemed like a perfect portable title to play a little bit here and there. I found myself playing it a bit every night before sleeping, getting better and better at it. Soon, I had surpassed my ability (and score) from the time spent sitting in front of my Xbox.
Significantly, I also started watching livestreams of PC players completing the daily challenge (most notably Jason Killingsworth), and learned all kinds of tricks and secrets I had no knowledge of (Black Markets, Temples, Cities of Gold, Bosses). I learned tricks like how to kill shopkeepers without committing suicide and how to aim bomb throws. Much as with Dark Souls, I felt like I finally got it
600 deaths later and I’m still going. Thanks to Sony’s Crossplay, I am playing both on my Vita here-and-there, and again on the big screen through my PS3. I’ve ‘finished’ the game the ‘easy’ way several times, and gotten to Hell several more. I’ve even reached Yama, the final boss at the end of Hell once, but died before I could defeat him. My relationship with Spelunky in 2013 has been nothing like it was in 2012. I feel like I am actually getting somewhere. I feel like, miraculously, like I have learned a whole lot, like I am still learning. 
Douglas Wilson’s breakdown of Bananasaurus Rex’s Eggplant Run is a great piece of games writing from this year I heartily recommend. Joel McPherson made a fascinating bot that records animated gifs of people's deaths and uploads them to tumblr. 

Final Fantasy XII (Square)
Final Fantasy XII is another game I played on release that I’d been feeling the desire to return to for quite some time now. When it was new, it was the first Final Fantasy since I entered the series at VII that I did not play to completion. I gave up because the story made no sense to me. The story made no sense to me not because it was poorly told, but because the game gives you so much other stuff to do that it is so easy to lose track of the intricacies of which made-up pseudo-European-sounding King is from which kingdom. I enjoyed both the story and the stuff, but the two together were incompatible, so I gave up. 
I returned to FFXII not to find out what happens in the story but because I had this striking memory of all that stuff, all the ‘gamey bits’ being incredibly weird. When FFXII came out in 2006, MMORPGs were all the rage and looked, for a time, like the dominant way forward for RPGs generally. This lead to FFXII functioning as a kind of single-player MMORPG. You have guilds and a gazillion sidequests and this kind of battle system that isn’t separate from the world you walk around in. You have all this stuff to do, as though Square were trying to get a monthly subscription fee out of you. Also Final Fantasy XI was an MMO, so I imagine a whole heap of design ideas were carried over from one to the other.
Returning to it now, I find the transparency of FFXII’s design history fascinating. On one layer there is that MMORPG-inspired design, but there is also the clear fingerprints of Yasumi Matsuno threaded throughout the game’s design. Most explicit are the game’s connections to Final Fantasy: Tactics (another of Matsuno’s games) through the use of the same world and species. But there are also connections to Matsuno’s previous work Vagrant Story in both the kind-of-real-time-but-not battle system and the game’s broader visual aesthetics. Most explicitly, the downplayed aura of light when casting magic spells as opposed to the spectacle of other Final Fantasys strikes me as a very personal flourish of Mitsuno’s. 
But also fascinating in the transparent design is everything that went wrong. Matsuno stepped down from his leading role before FFXII was finished, and Square apparently made all sorts of changes that he wasn’t happy with. The license board was something he apparently loathed to see implemented, and it feels bluntly jammed on. More visibly, Balthier is clearly intended as the protagonist before Square decided the game needed a preppy young anime boy for the marketing. The way Vaan seems so hastily jammed into the plot is fascinating. There are several cut-scenes where, in the background, Balthier refers to himself as the leading man. 
Beyond all that, I found the game sincerely enjoyable. The fluidity of the real-time-but-turn-based combat is excellent, effortlessly combining the strategy and mediation of turn-based combat with the stronger rhythms and engagement of real-time. It feels like the developers marched into the cobweb-filled attic of the series’ Active Time Battle and threw out everything that didn’t need to be there. What could be automated is now automated; what needs to be manually controlled can still be. Fighting in FFXII feels like walking in Dear Esther and makes fighting in previous games feel like walking in QWOP. It’s an act of design minimalism pulled off with great elegance. 
Most ingenious of all are the gambits, something I’ve come to appreciate over time, having played too many games with terrible AI-controlled companions. Gambits are a basic programming language used to script your companions. This allows companions to be, at once, automated but also doing what you want them to do. Why click ‘cure’ every time your health gets below 50% when you can just program a companion to heal you if your health goes below 50%? Further, not all gambit conditions are available from the start, but must be bought from Gambit Stores, adding a new level of upgrading. Essentially, gambits allow NPC behaviour to be incorporated into the personalised sense of character building. It feels natural, both streamlined and meaningful. 
I still haven’t finished FFXII—I haven’t even gotten as far as I did when I last played. But by trying to care less about the story that I will inevitably lose track of anyway and more about the design and the systems, I’ve learned to appreciate it on a far deeper level than previously.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Konami)
First, an explanation for why I have not yet played Metal Gear Solid 3. I missed a whole heap of the glorious Playstation 2 games that came out in 2004 and 2005. Ironically, perhaps, this is because I lived in Japan for all of 2004, and had no access to my game consoles. When I returned to Australia in 2005, I moved out of home and started university, becoming incredibly poor in both time and money. Several years later, my brother gave me a copy of Metal Gear Solid for my birthday, but it was too late. Console generations and game design had moved on and I really struggled to play this strange relic that seemed to age so quickly. So, despite someone who considers himself quite learned in the Metal Gear Solid series, Metal Gear Solid 3 remained a conspicuous hole in my knowledge.
Which, now that I have played it through, I’m amazed I ever allowed that to happen. Metal Gear Solid 3 is, with no mistake, the best realised game in the series. It is the most Metal Gear Solidest of the Metal Gear Solids. It is, on the one hand, the most solid stealth game in the series, with long uninterrupted segments that allow an objective to be approached from a variety of directions and approaches. On the other hand, it is Hideo Kojima at his most self-indulgent and absurd, and simultaneously his most confident and experimental. Entire boss battles can be avoided by shooting a dude in the distance or, simply, not playing the game for a few days. Magic realism emerges far more explicitly than other games in the series as a scar transforms into a snake and slithers off a woman’s body. At one point, Snake dies and travels to the afterworld where he is haunted by every human and animal the player has killed over the course of the game.
It was wonderful, utterly wonderful. I think my favourite thing about Metal Gear Solid 3, and the Metal Gear Solids generally, is that they exist. I want more self-indulgent games by auteurs that don’t know how to edit themselves. It would be a welcomed respite from the waves of utterly depersonalised paint-by-numbers blockbuster games devoid of any personality. When I play Metal Gear Solid 3, I can tell a human being made this game.
I had not played a Metal Gear Solid for quite some time when I played Metal Gear Solid. 3, so I readied myself to approach it a certain way. I readied my body for an experience that was going to be as much about watching cut-scenes and listening to dialogue as it would be moving through environments and menus. I approached Metal Gear Solid 3 on its own terms, and I loved every minute of it.

UN EP (Ian Snyder)
Music and videogames have a long, intimate relationship, as musician/games critic Kirk Hamilton and musician/game designer David Kanaga have both pointed out. The short version: it’s no coincidence that we talk about both music and games as things that are ‘played’. The past few years have seen no shortage of music-based games—not least of all Proteus, created by Kanaga and Ed Key, where the soundscape and the landscape are symbiotically connected. It’s a space ripe with experimentation as developers pick apartand stitch together the feel of games and the rhythm of music. 
One music game from this year that has passed with tragically little fanfare is Ian Snyder’s UN EP. Created as part of Unwinnable’s “Playable” series that teams up developers with writers to create games and writing about said games side-by-side, UN EP is somewhere between a child’s toy and a musician’s scrapbook. Various ‘worlds’ offer unique combinations of visuals and audio, tied to the click or movement of the mouse. There are no goals; there is no ‘point’ beyond the simple pleasure of playing with the game to make wonderful sounds and sights splash before your ears and eyes. But the experience is magical and memorable, and I find myself returning to each of UN EP’s worlds again and again just to touch them, just to hear them.

Katamari Damacy & We Love Katamari (Namco)
Keita Takahashi’s Katamari games suffered the same fate as Metal Gear Solid 3: lost to that same Playstation 2 Golden Age in which I was not buying new games. I discovered a digital copy of Katamari Damacy hiding on the US PSN store and, finally, picked it up. And, man, what an utterly wonderful and delightful game. There’s this sincerity to the game, a full-heartedness, a happiness, and a vibrancy. It’s the kind of game you get when the person making them is more interested in being an artists or a designer than in Making Games™. It is not just a “whacky Japanese game” (indeed, no game really is), but is an incredibly clever and self-aware game that David Surman has aligned with the superflat aesthetic of Takahashi Murakami
At the core of each game is that pleasure of getting larger without ever really noticing when exactly you got larger. You go from rolling around a tabletop, bumping into dominoes, to being just large enough to realise that shape looming over you is a sleeping man’s head. Eventually, you are picking up the man and the entire house. You roll around a city, then you pick up the skyscrapers, then you pick up the continent. It is a simple pleasure of shifting dimensions that never gets old.
It’s an ever fluctuating relationship with objects (something Darius Kazemi explores with a great essay). Everyday objects are replicated and distributed across areas they never should be, like Andy Warhol putting soup cans in an art gallery. There’s something calming about all these objects—mundane and mythical, everyday and ecentric—just waiting to be collected, and something even more calming about the bubblewrap-popping sound as you roll each one up.
The vibrant pop aesthetic is crucial to the game’s success, from the bright colours to the campy and teeny attitude of the King to the lively renditions and remixes of the music. Then there is the self-aware sequel, We Love Katamari, that mirrors Takahashi’s own surprise at the success of the original. He made a sequel because people loved the original; the game’s plot is that the King sends the Prince to roll up more Katamari’s because people loved the first game. But this isn’t some overly serious meta-commentary. It’s just flat is-what-it-is sincerity, and it’s lovely. Everything about these games is lovely.

Max Payne 3 (Rockstar)
I’ve come to realise this year, above all else, that I value a game with a clear and consistent aesthetic direction. I care less about what a game is trying to do, and much more about how well it is doing what it is trying to do. It could be trying to make some insightful social commentary, or just be a good action game, or just be a bit of a time waster, but if it does that well, then I really appreciate it. So games where the music, characters, gameplay, user interface, menu colours, sounds, HUD design, every all seem to contribute and reinforce a central aesthetic tone. It’s why Killzone: Mercenary is on this list. It’s why I really love Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us. Bulletstorm but not Bioshock: Infinite. Splinter Cell: Conviction with its black/white/red HUD and seeping aesthetic of a broken man, but not Splinter Cell: Blacklist with its HUD of full-colour Playstation buttons and loadouts and Conviction hangovers that seem to have nothing to do with what Blacklist is going for. I am far more interested in the overall tone of a game, how all the bits fit together, than in simply how the ‘core’ game functions.
I realised this when I fell in love with Max Payne 3. It’s not that the story is particularly deep or intelligent, but that the game knows exactly what it wants to be, and it does everything it can to be that. From the drone of Health’s magnificent soundtrack, to the way Max holds his weapons, to the gritty and pointless mundanity of his plight. It’s almost restrained in its commitment to be what it wants to be. 
Most of all, I love the pacing. That slow, snowball build across the levels to the final, almost-but-not-quite redemptive stage in the airport where Max just walks in the front door, knowing full well what he is doing for once. This magnificent pacing is in the little things. It’s in the way Max will walk a few steps automatically after a cut-scene instead of fading to black, stitching cut-scene and action together instead of jarring them apart. It’s in Max’s slowly changing appearance and the constant drone of the music. It’s that slow build across all the levels up to the final moment of the penultimate level where Max kicks a locked door and literally howls “Fuck” before marching into the airport. It’s not until the game’s closing scenes, where Max picks up a grenade launcher and chases a airplane with a car that the game finally lets itself run free from its own constraints. But even then, it doesn’t feel like a lack of self-control but more like a final flourish, like an encore. Like a celebration of itself. Like the developers knew they’d done something magnificent and wanted to let their hair down to celebrate.

I loved it. It’s just such an incredibly well put-together game that tries to do something and just does it. This isn’t a ranked list, but I think Max Payne 3 is my favourite game that I played in 2013. 

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Games of 2013: Part Three

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]
Dark Souls (From Software)
I first played Dark Souls in 2012, but I never got far. After much grinding, I reached the gargoyles on the church roof, decided I ‘got it’, and put it aside. But I continued to hear stories. Whispered rumours of forests and tombs and painted worlds and an ancient city and demonic ruins. I read “The Hollowed Killer of Lordran” and was captivated by the mention of these names and places that were uttered, like foreign countries on continents I had never heard of. My Twitter feed was still a crossfire of characters and spells and tactics and other words that I didn’t even know what they signified. Eventually, it felt like I had read the opening chapter of The Lord of the Rings but never left The Shire. I needed to know what everyone else was talking about. I needed to see what else was out there.
So I returned. This time, I was willing to use guides and walkthroughs all the way through. I was less concerned with ‘beating’ the game than ‘getting through it’ just to see what was there. I started a new character, a pyromancer on Twitter’s recommendation, and went on my way. What took me about twelve hours on my previous game took me about two. A few hours later and with a bit of help I beat the gargoyles and rang the first bell. I ventured into Blighttown and Queelag’s Lair by myself to ring the second bell. With a guide’s help, I defeated the Iron Golem of Sen’s Fortress and took photos of my television screen as I set foot in Anor Londo. With the help of human strangers I defeated both the painted world, and Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. I didn’t finish the game—at least, not yet—but I got that bit further. There’s still more to see, but I feel like I understand and appreciate Dark Souls and its world that bit more.
Most satisfying of all was that feeling of camaraderie with other players past and present. Anyone who has played Dark Souls is more than happy to help a newcomer. I felt this bug myself when I saw people start the game after me; so eager I was to jump in and give them tips. It’s because people who have played the game understand the joy of Dark Souls is not in overcoming the game by yourself, as ostensibly single-player as the game might be, but in the sense of solidarity with other players. The joy of the game is in overcoming this cruel game together: in being helped by those that come before you, and helping those that come after you. It’s players versus game both inside the game and outside of it. The world feels so hostile to make friendship feel so warm
So when I decided I would use guides and walkthroughs to see the world at any cost, I was accidentally approaching the game how the game should be approached: defeated at any cost. When I put aside my stubborn sense of ‘fair play’ and ‘doing it myself’, I realised that there is no ‘fair play’ where Dark Souls is concerned. It refused to treat the player fairly, so why should the player treat the game fairly? Swallowing my pride and using guides just to get through the game didn’t weaken my experience in the game, but made my antagonistic relationship with it all the more vivid.

Vagrant Story (Square)
I didn’t return to Dark Souls the moment I thought about doing so. I spent several months hesitating beforehand. I felt the desire to play it again, but not the confidence. So, instead, I returned to Square’s very odd and fascinating Playstation title Vagrant Story. It had been years since I last played Vagrant Story, but my memory of it gave it a kind of Dark Souls vibe. Not necessarily in mechanics, but in atmosphere: the solitary character in a quiet and dead city full of monsters. Just without the finger acrobatics demanded of Dark Souls.
So, on my Vita, I started a new game of Vagrant Story. I found Yasumi Matsuno’s game fascinating for the ways it mutated and mashed together both traditional JRPG and action RPG elements, combining command menus with semi-real-time combat. 
I enjoyed its systems, as dense as they are deep. There is the peculiar mechanic that the more you use a weapon on a type of enemy, the stronger that weapon becomes against that type of enemy (and the weaker it becomes against an opposite enemy type). This requires both grinding and planning. Attacking every enemy with the same sword will get you nowhere. Instead, you must use this sword for beasts, that hammer for zombies, that crossbow for humans, etc. Where it breaks down, however, is when you come across a boss that is a type that you have rarely confronted before. So, to be sure, it is not a balanced game.
Having to constantly change weapons has the potential to be terrible, especially in a game that predates the normalisation of hotkeys on console games. Every time you want to change weapons, you must open your menu system, open the equipment menu, scroll to your weapon, open the menu of all your weapons, find the right weapon, equip it, and press cancel about five times to climb up out of the menu pit. This can get pretty infuriating, especially as you want to be changing weapons every third or fourth enemy. Indeed, I remember it infuriating me last time I played the game.  What got me through this time, though, was a desire to play the game ‘slow’. I wasn’t rushing; I didn’t need to get anywhere quickly. I would play the game at its own pace, and Vagrant Story’s pace is slow. The minimal background music and the environmental stillness makes Vagrant Story’s world feels timeless much as Dark Souls’s world feels timeless. It wants you to take your time, so I took my time. When I did this, constant burrowing through menus felt a bit more tolerable.
Most of all, though, I enjoyed the game overarching aesthetic, both in the world and in the menus. In menus, the audio and visual design is satisfying. Every menu dongs like a grandfather clock as you enter it, and swipes away with a ‘swoosh’ as you go back up a level. There are vast swathes of information about every piece of equipment, but it is all relatively easy to parse. In the world itself, however, the game’s visual style really shines. Vagrant Story is one of the few games I have played that takes the graphical look imposed on so many Playstation-era games (chunky with low-res textures) and turns it into a style. Rooms, enemies, and characters are all modelled in very intentful and particular ways. These are not just low-polygon, chunky humans, but stylisied humans that fit the game’s technological constraints majestically. Often I would enter first-person (which would have the surreal effect of pausing game time, but not character animations, so enemy skeletons would just sway and breathe contently in front of you) to look around the wonderful buildings and at the phenomenally detailed character models. Indeed, so much detail is only visible from that first-person perspective. Make no mistake: Vagrant Story is a beautiful game.
Ultimately, it was the outdated save system that defeated me. I encountered a difficult boss a significant distance from the closest save point and felt my enthusiasm be sapped from my body. So I never finished Vagrant Story, but I’m incredibly glad I returned to it.

Earth Defense Force 2017 (Sandlot)
Earth Defense Force 2017 (EDF) is one of those Japanese games people like to point at and laugh about being “So bad it’s good” when, really, what they mean is “that game is incredibly good despite being made on a tight budget”. “So bad it’s good” claims, especially when applied to Japanese games, usually just refers to an imagined level of graphical fidelity not reached, of a certain sincerity to its ‘wackiness’, of a jangliness and a clunkiness. Binary Domain and Deadly Premonition are examples of sincerely good games that are sidelined under the “so bad it’s good” label when, really, they are only bad if you use the wrong measuring stick.
EDF places you in the role of a single soldier alongside many others, defending Tokyo from giant bugs and aliens. Though, I get less of a sense of the bugs as ‘giant’ and more of a sense that I, in fact, am really small. I feel like a toy soldier in a Tokyo diorama put too close to an anthill. Regardless, the sense of drama and scale are the same. The visuals are lo-fi and the animations are jangly, but none of this detracts from the breathtaking spectacle that is watching a wave of giant ants pour over skyscrapers towards you. The b-grade horror music looping in the background only adds to the atmosphere.
This is a game with no pretension, a game that does so well exactly what it is trying to do. Yes, it is ‘rough’ and low budget, but time and labour have clearly been dedicated to the places it needs to be dedicated for the game to achieve what it wants to achieve. The sense of scale, in both quantity and sheer size, in EDF is unmatched by any other game I can recall playing, with the possible exception of Shadow of the Colossus.

Doom 3 (Id Software)
Doom turned twenty years old this year. That feels like a big deal, and I’ve been enjoying the various retrospectives  coming out that are trying to appreciate just why it was so special (none more than Liz Ryerson’s excellent video series). Doom 3, however, seems to be often dismissed for not reaching some ideal, nostalgia of the original games. For not ‘being Doom’. At the same time, though, it also seemed to fail at being what, on the surface, it looked like it wanted to be: namely, a survival horror game. It seemed torn between wanting to be a run’n’gun game and a survival horror game. Playing it directly after a replay of the first Doom, though, I found it incredibly enjoyable. I approached it like Doom, running and gunning through its corridors. This gave me, through the jump scares, a constant sense of paranoia. Playing it ‘like Doom’ drastically changed my experience of the game, for the better.
I’ve already written quite extensively about Doom 3 in a Notes posts so I won’t repeat myself here.

Spider (Vector Park)
Amazing animation and a simple idea incredibly executed.

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Games of 2013: Part Two

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Ridiculous Fishing (Vlambeer)
Ridiculous Fishing is an arcade game with a three-act structure. Act 1: A fisher in his boat, you drop your line into the sea. Tilt the phone left and right to avoid fish and get as deep as you possibly can. Act 2 begins once you eventually and inevitably fail Act 1: bump into a fish, and you begin to reel the line in. Now you must hit as many fish as possible, accumulating dozens of them on the end of the line. Act 3 begins once the line returns to the surface: the fish are flung high into the air and must be blasted with the fisherman’s firearm for cash that can be spent on longer fishing lines, better weapons, and other upgrades.
It’s a hypnotic rhythm in itself, but the upgrades also add a sense of exploration. The deeper you go the more exotic fish you will find. The more fish you capture, the higher you will fling them, and the more celestial bodies you will see. The game constantly swings from seeing how low you can go, to how high. Decorating it all is a distinct and eye-catching visual style of thick borders and slanted lines and diamond fish. 
The cloning saga that saw another company duplicate their earlier Radical Fishing before Ridiculous Fishing was finished almost destroyed Vlambeer, sapping their motivation. But for anyone on the outside who has followed Vlambeer and their various incredible games, it was clear this wouldn’t destroy them. Vlambeer’s ideas might be easily cloned, but the feel of their games is something only Vlambeer can achieve. There is a crunchiness to the interactions in their games, a satisfying meatiness to every button press. And, sure enough, when Ridiculous Fishing finally did come out earlier this year, it far surpassed its cloner on its own merit. It was the kind of game only Vlambeer could make, and it gave them the success they well deserved.

FJORDS (Kyle Reimergartin)
I haven’t played enough Fjords to really understand or appreciate it yet, but I’ve played enough to know I need to put it on this list. I am intimidated by Fjords and my ability to hack (a term I use literally) its world. It feels like walking into a pitch black room I have never entered before and not knowing if it is a ballroom or a broom closet. It’s remarkable but I still don’t quite know why or how. Indiestatik perhaps can give you more information.

Time Surfer (Kumobius)
2013 was not a particularly exciting year for iOS. There were some really standout games, to be sure, but I certainly spent less time checking Game Center leaderboards than previous years. Or, perhaps 3DS and Vita games just started dominating the time I would have usually spent on iOS titles. Time Surfer was an exception, though, and I spent many a train ride or night on the couch chasing those highscores, boasting and lamenting on Twitter.
Some have dismissed it as a Tiny Wings clone, but I prefer to see it as Tiny Wings with a solution proposed for the one thing I hated about Tiny Wings. That is, in Tiny Wings, all that hard-earned momentum could be lost in an instant with a mistimed swoop. Once you picked up speed, it became a matter of luck whether you landed properly or not. Time Surfer’s time-reversal mechanic offers a solution to this—you still make the inevitable mistake, but now you can rewind to undo the mistake. Rewinding is a valuable energy, however, and you want to react the instant you land wrong, rewinding just far enough to adjust. There’s a twitchiness to it as you stay attentive, hoping not to miss your own mistake. You need to know that that one is the one you should rewind to keep your momentum up. 
It’s unfortunate and unfair, the clone label, applied simply for building a game with the same fundamental mechanic. As though every FPS is a Wolfenstein 3D clone. As though a song can’t use the same core instruments as another to do something original. I am no less interested in the games that fine tune and iterate than I am in the games hat attempt something that has never been done before. To only be interested in those games that are ‘completely’ new is to like precious few games.

Stickets (Wanderlands)
Melbourne-based game designer Harry Lee has been making a bit of a splash on the local scene over the past couple of years. His minimal but ingenious games such as Impasse and Midas have turned heads, their deceptively simple presentation hiding oceans of clever design. He’s been central for a range of local groups and events, such as the Glitchmark meetings and, perhaps most importantly, as co-director of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival. Oh, and he is twenty-years-old.
Stickets is Lee’s two-man studio Wanderland’s first commercial release. Like all his games, it at first seems deceptively simple: a match-3 game mixed with a tile game. Place L-shaped tiles, each constructed from three different coloured squares, on a grid. When three squares of the same colour are touching, tap that group to make those squares disappear. The goal is to place as many L-shaped tiles as you possibly can before you can place no more. It’s slow, deliberate, and meditative. You have all the time in the world to choose where to place the next tile, and where you might need to place the one after that. It’s a game about thinking and planning, not about rash decisions or reflexes. This is no less true for the Timed mode, that required you to completely reprogram how your mind approaches the game, but still rewarded careful deliberation over rash actions. The turning point in this mode, for me, was the realisation that time only counted down if I made an action; I still had all the time in the world to just think.
Underlying it all is subtle but ingenious sound design. Each position on the grid makes a different sound when tapped. Move a three-square tile over the grid, and chords are strummed. I’ve spent many minutes just playing with the Stickets board like some kind of abstract instrument.
Despite Lee’s youth, Stickets has the feel of a confident designer that knows exactly what they are doing. It’s a wonderful achievement from someone who is going to be a defining character in Australian videogames in the coming years.

American Dream (Terry Cavanagh, Stephen Lavelle, Jasper Byrne, Tom Morgan-Jones)
Apparently this game is over two years old, but I had never heard of it before going through Terry Cavanagh’s collection on the Ouya store (side note: I wish more developers would use the Ouya as a dumping ground for their otherwise browser-based and free small games). Much like with Knightmare Tower, I lost an entire night sucked into American Dream’s absurd world of trendy furniture, cartoon orgies, and celebrities traded on the stock market. 
That’s… pretty much it, really. You move between a screen of your house, where you are able to spend money on seasonably trendy furniture to replace that furniture you bought last season, and the stock market, where you buy and sell shares on Sylvester Stallone and Madonna and Michael Jackson. Make enough furniture, and then you can buy more furniture. The ultimate goal is, simply, to make a million dollars, but if you want crazy sex parties, then keeping your furniture up to date is essential. 
It’s a simple, cynical, and nonsensical game, but its slick and lo-fi presentation is like having your eyeballs sucked into a whirlpool. Of utmost importance are the quick transitions between the game’s various screens. These tie everything together. Be it the quick screen that representations your character travelling from home to the stockmarket, or the montage orgies of the sex parties. They all give the game this hyperalert feeling that everything has to be done now. You must buy and sell and fuck and buy furniture and it all has to be done yesterday, like some 80s cocaine-fuelled capitalist dream. No time to talk, I gotta go buy 200 shares in Barbara Streisand. 
If I had attempted to play this game on my computer, sitting at my desk lurched over a keyboard, I would have played it for a few minutes, thought, “heh, that’s cool” and moved on. On a console in my loungeroom, however, lounging on my couch with a controller in my hand, I got sucked into the game fully, staying up late to see it through. It’s a prime example of why I think the Ouya (and micro-consoles generally) are important: to take that experience that was previously constricted to the desktop and put it in the loungeroom, an environment where many such as myself feel far more able to devote time and attention to a game. 

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]