Fuzzy Horribleness: Pervasive, Worrisome

These are the edited highlights of a three-way Twitter rant, simplified for flow and structure. Note that some of the features I lament here may well be present in the remake. I don’t really remember; it has been ages since I’ve played it, and I’m speaking to my vague, blurry memory of the game. If the remake retains the exploding eyeballs, which without checking it may well do, then… okay. Good job. How astute of you to notice. Here, bring this note to the old woman and she will give you a medal for your trouble.

Freezing Inferno: The Castlevania Adventure is not very good, but parts of it have a strange charm. When you play the patched version, I mean.

EJR Tairne: I don’t know what the patched version is, but where the game falls down on mechanics it truly excels in atmosphere.

I’ll never argue that it’s a good game, exactly, but I love the feel of being in the game.

It has sort of a neat silent horror, crackly expressionist tone that feels just right. That’s sort of the tone I get from the best Game Boy games. Gargoyle’s Quest, Return of Samus. Silent horror.

It’s a curiously appropriate side-step, considering the Universal monster movie tone to Castlevania NES. Instead of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, on the Game Boy we have Nosferatu. Sort of. Maybe a blurry print of Nosferatu, lacking a few intertitles and exposition scenes, played at the wrong speed.

It’s full of neat, weird ideas, some of which are creative workarounds to limitations; others… just odd. Had the game a billion times more checkpoints, I might call it playable. Still worth experiencing, though.

The Wii remake missed the boat by ignoring everything good and distinctive about the game along with the bad. The result is just about the most generic action-style Castlevania game ever, with the odd shout-out to TCA.

At least keep the game’s basic structure! Keep the ropes and the EXPLODING EYEBALLS and bounce-spit… things. Keep the weird upgrade path. Keep the most interesting setpieces. Keep the goddamned amazing soundtrack!

Why even call it a remake or reimaging if you’re going to throw away everything that defines the original?

ReBirth is like every shitty retroactive fan bullshit scenario of ignoring or “fixing” the oddball chapter to match. See the fan remakes of Metroid II, that try to make it more like Super Metroid. Or, well, Zero Mission. Except those had much more thought put into them, as misguided as the thought processes might have been.

In this case it’s more like some asshole looked at TCA and said, “That’s not a Castlevania game. But THIS is!” Then he ripped out random hunks of a half a dozen more-popular Castlevania games, and taped them together. I mean, of everything to replace, the music? Seriously? TCA has one of the best ever Castlevania soundtracks!

I mean. ReBirth is a polished videogame, if you’re looking for one of those. There are many out there. It just doesn’t have anything to say except, DUDE! THIS IS TOTALLY A CASTLEVANIA GAME! SEE! IT’S GOT ALL YOUR FAVORITE CASTLEVANIA MOVES AND MUSIC AND STUFF! IT’S ALL IN HERE! DUDE!

Fuckin’ gamer culture bullshit, that thing is. But it is a polished videogame, correctly made.

I mean, if you want to play that game, go play one of the games it’s tearing apart instead. Castlevania: Bloodlines is a good replacement. A near-era pastiche of the NES stuff, but weird. Or just play the NES games. Or Rondo of Blood.

Or… don’t. Go, feed the cynical meta-machine.

But… anyway. Yeah, I like The Castlevania Adventure.

Freezing Inferno: I remember being wowed by ReBirth, but I agree; there’s hardly a lick of any atmosphere.

EJR Tairne: Or originality. Or purpose. Everything in there is just repurposed from an earlier, better game. And unlike, say, Gradius V it doesn’t have anything new to say about the elements. They’re there solely to say, LOOK! HERE THEY ARE AGAIN! SEE! IT’S TOTALLY A CASTLEVANIA GAME!

The remake falls into the trap of thinking a game is defined by its content rather than concept. Gradius V is a game built on concept. It strips away decades of cruft to dwell on one idea. I don’t think there are even any moai in the damned thing. Just setpieces built around Options. It spends a whole game trying to break down and define the series’ defining mechanic: Options.

That’s just about the best ever reason to revisit an old concept: to better explore its purpose. The worst reason is to dwell on and fetishize past notions for their own sake. HEY REMEMBER THIS?

That latter path is the one that has dragged game design down its own anus since 1985 or so.

Freezing Inferno: [So] Rebirth is basically a piece of dread NOSTALGIA in [your] eyes. It references things and incites memories of old Castlevania things in the name of lighting up those neurons that remember Castlevania… but it lacks the atmosphere.

EJR Tairne: It’s not nostalgia per se that bothers me here, though I’m certainly no big fan of nostalgia in its own right. (Nostalgia is zombie thinking, out to devour the present and the future.) It’s more the regressive mindset of objective design — the idea that there’s some perfect game out there to be made; that design is all about doing things right, putting in all of the elements that people expect from a game. That’s as opposed to having a core idea, and then doing what is appropriate to conveying that idea to the player.

I’m being reductive. There was an idea to ReBirth: to “fix” Adventure and make it match all the other games. That, though, is the other thing that bothers me. It’s not much of an idea, but it’s troublesome in itself.

It’s one thing to look at the game and say, “Okay, what was it trying to do, and how did it fail in that?” and then to adapt all that, and try to accomplish those goals from a modern perspective. That’s cool and all.

It’s another thing to say, this sucks and it was wrong, because it didn’t match all of these other things. So let’s tear pieces off every surrounding game and fill the hole left by this unmentionable piece of shit.

That’s… I mean. It doesn’t affect me personally, but conceptually I find that kind of offensive. You know?

Freezing Inferno: Nostalgia in place of innovation. That’s the killer.

EJR Tairne: I don’t even really know what innovation means. It’s nostalgia in place of a distinct idea or voice or theory. It’s like people who instead of thinking problems through rely on quoting famous, semi-respectable people. No, I don’t really care all that much what E.B. White said here, cool as he is. Think it through yourself.

By the same measure, all these quotes from other games — I’m sure they were great in their original context. How, though, do they apply to the present conversation (not our conversation here; you know, the design’s)?

In a good design, every decision, every game element comes from within the basic thesis of your design. It comes pragmatically out of what you’re trying to say with the game, and what that logistically may imply.

This stuff that ReBirth is grabbing from everywhere, by nature it’s not coming from within but from without. That right there is the crux of my irritation here. It’s a prime example of contemporary design vapidity.

ReBirth is a well-made game that has nothing to say, and borrows ideas to serve little but a priori expectations. In its own right I don’t mind it. If it didn’t claim to be a remade, improved version of another game, then… okay. Whatever. It would just be another generic, low-rent Castlevania game. With a series like this you’re going to repeat yourself and borrow from the past continually.

This, though, is more than a case of a series caught up in its own increasingly rigid myth. It’s an empty-headed piece of rote repetition that holds this formula as superior precisely because of its familiarity. In the process it discounts every idea that doesn’t fit the template, precisely because it doesn’t fit the template.

This is a shitty way to think about anything creative.

It’s an attempt to make an individual game fit the series, rather than to explore what the game has to say — which is both a pointless exercise and a tremendous missed opportunity to do something genuinely cool.

Deny the outliers. Sanitize the dissodants. As opposed to helping them better achieve their ambitions. It’s a kind of intellectual fascism.

There is a fine line between this mentality and all of the shit that women put up with from Gamers. There’s this enfranchisement of extremist reactionary entitlement bubbling below the surface of Gamer culture. It shows in subtle ways, and in totally disgusting ways, but it’s all the same process in the end.

This all is a big reason why I hate Gamer culture and why I’ve backed away from game writing as of late. I realize that it probably should be a reason to write even more, and even more infuriating pieces. But. Well. I just don’t feel the responsibility anymore.

John Thyer: Yeah, when you’re approaching every game as an imperfect permutation of some non-existent ideal, of course you’ll react with hostility to experiences outside the norm, often games by marginalize authors.

Like, Gone Home really isn’t that radical all things considered! But it still falls outside the closed mindset. And it’s ultimately what leads to the creator of Depression Quest being bombarded with rape and death threats.

EJR Tairne: “Yeah, when you’re approaching every [woman/person] as an imperfect permutation of some non-existent ideal,”

It’s all the more raw and disturbing with games, compare to other media, as games are bottled perspectives. They’re not just a narrative that you follow. A game is a thesis about the way the world works. “If I do this,” you say, “then this happens.” Then you hand this to people, and let them see the world by your rules.

And in response, they get fucking furious and want to kill you.

Anyway, there’s something about mainstream game design that reinforces, rewards this way of thinking. It’s a small stimulus, but it feeds into this entitlement and pettiness, normalizing it as a thought process.

It’s not even the deeply ingrained violence that I’m talking about. It’s the Pavlov factor. Keep hitting your head on that button until you get the shiny reward. No means maybe, which means yes.

I’m being simplistic here regarding cause and effect, but there’s a fuzzy horribleness to game psychology — and that it is so pervasive is worrisome, especially when you consider the number of people who obsess over videogames, who make them their lives.

Because of the way that our brains work, everything that you do becomes a part of you, just a little bit. Learning is all about reinforcing those pathways between nodes. And the pathways that videogames reinforce… well. It’s not much of a mystery why gamer culture is host to such a population of irredeemable fucking monsters.

And that concludes my review of Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth.

Good Games, Bad Design – Episode 1: What’s at Stake

by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

There are two basic ways that video games communicate ideas — through the actions allowed the player, and through the environment on which the player may act. The player’s every action changes the player’s immediate relationship with the environment, which in turn shapes the player’s potential for action. Let’s say you shoot an asteroid. Although the immediate obstacle is gone, now you’ve several smaller rocks to deal with, moving faster, in different trajectories.

The more you do, and the more feedback the game gives you, the more you adapt your behavior. When an action results in success or a reward, you tend to repeat it. When you get an unpleasant result, you tend to avoid repeating yourself.

A successful game environment does four things:

  1. it teaches about the player’s relationship with the environment;
  2. in doing so, it directs and focuses the player’s behavior;
  3. generally it obscures this manipulation from the player; and so
  4. through the invoked behavior it evokes in the player a certain mood or mindset.

If the player doesn’t know why he picks the routes and actions he does, yet in picking those routes and actions he comes to adopt the intended perspective, you have successfully communicated. Think of all the moments in Half-Life 2 where you think you’re being clever under pressure, and you’re actually choosing the only possible path — or how The Legend of Zelda keeps you on-track by making the woods scary and dangerous, so that you will tend to leave them until you’re stronger and more experienced.

Is level design everything? Only if your game has something to say. If you’re retreading old ground, and you expect the audience knows the routine, then you can toss them any old nonsense. Of course then few of the player’s actions will have real consequence, so the game will feel unresponsive and dull. Still, maybe if you add some flashy features or cutscenes you can distract the player for a while. If you’re afraid of putting people off, you can patronize them with elaborate tutorials.

There’s no fooling the outsiders, though. If your game fails to communicate on its own merits, then no one besides the fans will bother with it. And even within that audience the conversation will narrow and turn from big, nourishing ideas to minutiae — as if the differences between one leveling system and the next really matter in themselves. This heads-down view leads us away from meaningful representation, and toward thoughtless copying and repetition, abstracted and regimented genres, fractured markets, and eventually a whole medium that is impenetrable to outside eyes.

As in any human endeavor, sloppy or thoughtless design is perhaps more the rule than the exception. And that’s fair enough, when that design is a part of a lousy game that no one is likely to take seriously. More worrisome are the otherwise good, solid games that a student of design may well look to for inspiration. Games don’t have much of a critical history; their culture treats anything “good” as model of perfection that everything new should strive to imitate down to the pixel. It’s hard to break out of that mindset, and to look at design in terms of problems and solutions.

A solution, of course, only makes sense in context. In a game, each mechanism serves to illustrate to the player some concept, or to solve a logistical problem in the game’s premise. Anything that serves neither of these purposes is extraneous — and the key to communication is if you don’t need it, cut it out. It is in this spirit that some case models may be illustrative.

( Continue reading at Game Career Guide )

The Nephew Set

If I were to give someone a Famiclone or one of those NES handhelds, and… let’s say ten, fifteen, twenty games, which games should I choose? Here’s my current list:

  1. Zelda 1,
  2. Super Mario Bros. 2,
  3. Simon’s Quest,
  4. River City Ransom,
  5. Life Force,
  6. Tetris,
  7. Dragon Warrior,
  8. Mega Man 2, and
  9. Blaster Master all need to be on there.

Runners-up include:

  1. Balloon Fight,
  2. Jackal,
  3. Goonies II,
  4. Bionic Commando,
  5. DuckTales,
  6. Ninja Gaiden II,
  7. Solomon’s Key,
  8. Rygar,
  9. Sky Kid,
  10. Wizards & Warriors,
  11. Marble Madness, and
  12. Lode Runner.

Maybe something like Rolling Thunder or Dr Chaos, if I want to be strange.

There are so many factors to consider. I’ve discussed them with Amandeep, somewhat. I don’t want to repeat myself here, if just for impatience on my part. But yeah, it’s kind of like constructing a mix tape. You want all of the elements in harmony. Not too much of this or that, be it the developer or the perspective or mechanics or tone. You want to cover all the bases without bowing too much to convention. It’s more about giving a broad range of ideas than about checking all the boxes of a typical curriculum, if you will. If that means leaving out some obvious choices and including some seriously weird shit, all the better. Though I’m not sure I’ve done an excellent job of either, in this case. Maybe I need to think about this a little more. If by “need” we mean “am liable to”.

Mobility (Tangent)

The last few days I’ve been playing through old Castlevania games – first Harmony of Dissonance, then Simon’s Quest, then Castlevania. Now I’m working on Aria of Sorrow.

The structure to Simon’s Quest – I’d never noticed before, as the game is so obtuse in directing the player around; if you know what you’re doing, the game has some genius level design, both within the mansions and in the overworld. The game is always directing you where you need to go next, and unless you’re a dunderhead and fight the obvious clues the game goes by very quickly, and rather elegantly. The only catch is in how well the game obscures some of its “keys” – the crystals and Dracula’s Heart, in particular.

The elegance here shows up Dracula’s Curse all the more. I should really finish cursing that game out. So to speak. I wonder if anyone would be interested in publishing my manifesto.

The Playlist / Those Tenuous Twos

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

You may have read the first part of this column in the December 2009 Play Magazine. It was intended as a single article, and the start of a whole series of such lists. In the event, I was asked (due to my incorrigible verbosity) to break the article into three pieces; only the first found its way to print. Here is the column in full.

Used to be, when a game was successful enough to demand a sequel, the design team would do its best to avoid repeating itself. Though I’m sure they mostly wanted to keep their job interesting, the practical effect was that if the games were different, they would both remain relevant. In an arcade, Donkey Kong Jr. could stand handsomely by its father, each shilling for its own share of the coin. You might call them companion pieces, rather than updates or replacements.

When home consoles hit, design teams were even more modest, and were generally left to do their own thing. So starting on the NES, you will see a certain trend: successful game spawns weird, only tenuously related sequel; fans of the original scratch their heads; a greatly expanded dev team releases a third game, which is basically just the first again, on steroids; fans think it’s the best thing ever, because it’s exactly the same, except better! And to hell with that weird second chapter.

Thing is… usually the second game is the most interesting you’ll ever see. Continue reading “The Playlist / Those Tenuous Twos”