Boundary Scout

  • Reading time:5 mins read

My brother has been hounding me about how to recreate that crazy mysterious glitchy feeling from old NES games, and this whole time I’ve been telling him that I figure it’s impossible. But uh, I guess not!

Apparently the trick is to actually focus on making it seem mysterious and glitchy!

Well, the focus here is on the glitchiness — mostly because I think that would be a cool-n-subversive way of doing things. I think the real point is in the kind of thoughts and emotions and behavior that those glitches trigger in people who are prone to pick at them. I think all of those qualities are very close to the ideal purpose and potential of videogames in general.

It’s that feeling of breaking through the boundaries of an established system — of the suggestion of unknown yet possibly grand potential hidden somewhere beyond the mundane, that you — as a free agent and very clever person — are specially qualified to unlock.

The way a person might break through the boundaries could be mechanical or emotional or intellectual. Some of the best touches in some of the best games borrow from this principle. See the scanning in Metroid Prime, how it comes directly out of the themes at hand, then ties everything together, hinting at a sort of order and coherence and reality to the entire Metroid series and everything in it that you never really suspected before. Yet it never shoves the stuff down your throat; it’s just there for you to put together on your own — much like all of the abstract stuff in the original Zelda and Metroid and whatnot, except deliberate and intellectual rather than incidental and material.

And then there’s Riven.

I think my point with the overt fake-bugginess was to exaggerate and glorify the whole pointless search process that we go through — poking the edges of the scenery, seeing what’s possible within the world, experimenting, and only rarely being rewarded with anything for our effort. And when we are rewarded it feels cloying and false, like those dumb treasure chests that have to be at the end of every single cul de sac in every single dungeon, to overtly reward you for going down and simultaneously make you feel obligated to go down every one.

It’s working on the suggestion that maybe this behavior has a real purpose behind it after all, that sometimes — just sometimes — there’s something magical and special and completely unprecedented to find. And the point to that is to bring into light that whole behavior, that whole mindset — which, again, I think is implicitly what videogames are made to suggest, yet which I don’t feel is often really addressed for all (or even much) of its potential.

I think this mode can be addressed in less gimmicky ways, even if the gimmick is maybe one of the clearest ways to illustrate it. The problem is that a videogame has to work on a couple of levels at once. It needs to have a completely workable status quo, that feels solid, that the player is convinced is meant to be solid, for the player’s subversion of that status quo to mean anything. There’s a lot of psychology here; the player shouldn’t know immediately whether he’s supposed to be able to do what he’s doing, and that it has been accounted for; just that, for whatever reason, he’s able to.

Beyond the psychology and the multiple layers to keep track of, the game of course has to be designed and programmed as well as possible, to avoid unintentional exploits. So there’s a certain level of virtuosity required here.

Maybe I’m overstepping the line a bit, in defining the importance of these characteristics. The basic nature of a videogame lies in the causal relationship between the player and the gameworld; the basic potential lies in the narrative ability of that causal relationship (what it means for the player to act, given the established boundaries of the gameworld). The natural mode of player action is to explore those rules and challenge them. I suppose it doesn’t follow that the player need subvert a status quo as-such; it’s just, this is a good way to illustrate that mode of player interaction and its narrative and emotional potential.

The player should feel free; that he is at all times in control over his immedate decisionmaking, and that through his decisions he is just perhaps blazing into unknown territory, doing something nobody else has done, having a unique and visceral personal experience that’s entirely generated by his own free will. Half-Life 2 is great at making the player feel clever and subversive for doing exactly what the game is expecting.

I think it’s a misdiagnosis of this quality that has led to this sandbox nonsense (most recently reined in and made less inane by Dead Rising), and sense that players want “freedom” in their games.

I’ll get back to this. Will post what I’ve got now.

A completely unsaleable idea

  • Reading time:3 mins read

A vague concept came to me a couple of hours ago:

Take a game that, ostensibly is… this one thing; it’s of a particular genre, with certain goals — and it’s entertaining enough, if mired in its genre and a little buggy. If you’re so prone, you can poke away at the seams all over the place, and get effects that probably aren’t intended. The first model that came to me was something like a…

Side note: Wi-Fi DS or Wii Pictionary could be interesting. Not for this, necessarily; just had the thought.

Anyway. Something like a video board game; an adaptation of a very famous Game of Life clone that you’ve never heard of, or a Mario Kart or Mario Party clone. Something vapid and small in imagination and ambition, though diverting. The kind of trash that builds up on the store shelves and you never think about, though maybe with a little more personality and irony about itself.

Then if the player happens to be bored enough — happens to keep picking away at the discrepancies, at the bugs and exploits, happens to keep veering out of bounds, he’ll wind up… out-of-bounds. And then the real game will begin. If not, the dippy little game, with its goals and rules, is all you’ll ever see.

As for what’s out there, I don’t know. It could start off just seeming like an error — the Metroid Secret World sort of effect. Random garbage that it’s interesting to screw with. Then keep picking through the garbage, and eventually there’s something grander beneath that. Like you’ve just emerged from a dungeon into the blinding sunshine. And it just keeps getting more and more mysterious. There’s no explanation for any of this; you have to piece it together on your own, through exploring and continually picking away at the edges of what’s possible and observing and filing things away in your head.

What would be even better is if the initial part of the game had some kind of license — say, a videogame version of Jeopardy! or some other known quantity — to further cover up what’s really going on.

And then put the game out and say nothing. And see how long before someone finds the secret, and word begins to spread. Then see the noise grow and grow, and paranoia develop about the glitches in every other game under the sun, as people wonder if they lead to anything secret and special — the way we used to, twenty years ago when we didn’t know any better.

I don’t know. I think it would be kind of neat. If impractical. It would require a Kenji Eno or some other funster, to take charge then sit in the background and not be credited.

The Crying Game

  • Reading time:14 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part six of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation under the title “Can Videogames Make You Cry?”.

A few weeks ago, Bowen Research published the results of a survey, on the role of emotion in videogames. Hugh Bowen polled 535 gamers on their own views and history, with the end goal to rough some kind of an objective analysis out of their subjective experiences, and thereby maybe to shed some light on what emotional effect videogames have had in the past. The paper is well, and humbly, written; its conclusions, though, are less than revelatory: the only genre that tends to elicit reasonably complex emotion is RPGs (presumably Japanese ones), while other genres all inspire at least some basic kind of motivational urge in the player – be it rage or fear or what have you. Meanwhile, the paper is full of comments about Aeris, and the profound affect of her death on people who had never played Phantasy Star II.

The problem, I suppose, is in the question being asked: “Can videogames make you cry?”. It’s a binary question about a complex issue, much like asking whether Americans are happy and then concluding “sometimes!” And indeed, Bowen’s answer seems to be “well, yes… probably. In theory.” A second issue is the way Bowen approached the issue as a matter of statistics – and then based his analysis on the subjective responses of a skewed sample. “Gamers”, as with any obsessives, have by nature a peculiar perspective of their medium – a medium which, furthermore, is not yet refined as an expressive platform.

The question should not be whether videogames are capable of eliciting complex emotion – as, given the complex analog weave of our brains, anything can result in an emotional response of any depth and sophistication. Rather, what Bowen might have asked is how innately bound any emotion is to the current fabric of videogames (that is, whether it has anything to do with what the medium is trying to accomplish), how much emotional potential videogames might ideally hold, and – assuming some degree of innate potential – how best to insinuate emotion into the framework or theory of a videogame. Or rather perhaps, how best to cull emotion from that same framework.

Crowns & Crushers

  • Reading time:3 mins read

Thom: I always get crushed by the crushy-things in the second stage of Castlevania
aderack: I used to have real problems with that, to the point that I was terrified of that section.
Thom: I think I still am
aderack: Yeah. The first one you can just walk under. The one that trips everyone up is the half-height one. Harder to judge.
aderack: Interesting that these things never appear again.
Thom: yeah
Thom: that is weird
Thom: and there’s no special weapons between there and the boss
aderack: If this were designed by Sonic Team, they’d be everywhere just to capitalize on the creatve investment.
aderack: They did come back in Castlevania 3, of course.
Thom: this is always where I stopped playing castlevania
aderack: It’s the middle one that’s half-height, right? Walk through the first, wait, walk halfway across the second, duck. Stand up, finish walking across, wait. Walk through the third one.
Thom: yeah, I figured that out last time, unfortunately it was my last life before I had to continue
Thom: so I’m back at the start of the stage
Thom: plus I didn’t have a sub-weapon, so Medusa kicked my ass
Thom: holy shit the treasure chest
Thom: had forgotten all about that one
aderack: Yeah.
aderack: I love those things.
aderack: You just don’t see that kind of thing anymore.
aderack: It’s kind of Zelda-ey in how magical it feels.
aderack: Like you’re exploring an ancient castle and you hit the right switch — and there’s a glowing crown, flashing crazily.
aderack: Like something out of a dream.
aderack: Flashing treasures. That’s what I like about early NES games.
Thom: the weirdness?
aderack: Dreamy weirdness, yeah.
aderack: Sense of… anything being out there, if you know the right incantation. Like a world before science.
aderack: NES games have a certain air of alchemy to them.
Thom: probably due to their sitting in-between pure abstraction and realism
aderack: Also, their… crackliness. Like. The Metroid wall-door hidden world thing ON TOP OF the intended mechanism for finding stuff by shooting random walls. You never knew what could be hidden where, in part because the seams overflowed so much. And the bugs produced such magical results, taking you to places like the Minus World.
aderack: Again, on top of intentional secrets like the warp zones and the beanstalks.
aderack: Do the right spell, hit the right sequence of buttons, enter the right password (ICARUS FIGHTS MEDUSA ANGELS)…
aderack: Stand in the right place for the right period of time, hit your head on Deborah’s Cliff…
aderack: Duck the right place, burn the right bush…
aderack: I spent so long looking for a third quest in Zelda. Some kind of entry portal to a “dark world” that I’d seen in a dream.
Thom: the second quest is really quite a mindfuck
aderack: I was convinced I just had to find the right bush…
aderack: And then I’d find something nobody else had ever seen. I’d be immortalized in the Nintendo myth.
aderack: You know the great Nintendo myth, that resulted in stuff like The Wizard and Captain N. Where Nintendo was a whole lifestyle. Sort of a Willy Wonka thing.
Thom: yeah
Thom: you might have found something nobody had ever seen, if you were playing one of the more obscure games
Thom: there’s probably some great glitches that nobody’s ever found
aderack: Undoubtedly. Those often scared me a little, though. I didn’t understand a game like Dr. Chaos. It didn’t register that the game might be poorly made; it simply upset me. It seemed hard and strange and threatening.

And yes, it’s even got the Konami code.

  • Reading time:9 mins read

Ken Burns’ Civil War series is showing on PBS this week, two episodes every night. I watched another chapter a few moments ago, but I just don’t have the patience to stick around for the second one. It’s interesting stuff, but this miniseries has perhaps the most soporific presentation I’ve ever seen. Must escape before I lapse into a coma. Sorry, Grant.

Onto other things.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance has a very nice tone to it. It’s… a little harder to immediately get into and enjoy than was Circle of the Moon. It’s not as instantly agreeable, and it feels kind of… cold. But now that I’ve played a little bit, it’s opened up a lot and it’s become clear how much more well-made this game is in general than KCEK’s last effort. The control is much tighter. The level design is more interesting. And the entire thing is much more Castlevania-ey than CotM ever managed to be. It’s got that same slightly… uneasy tone that most of the main chapters have had, and which I’ve not felt for quite a while. All of the edges of the screen are crammed full of minute and curious gothic detail.

The game also has a constant sense of forward motion that was lacking in CotM. It feels like I’m going somewhere when I’m playing — like there’s a goal — rather than like I’m just puttering around randomly in an adventure game world. CotM was fun, but that was about it. A fun, Metroid-style platformer with Castlevania trimmings. HoD feels like Castlevania. You know how that map popped up between levels in the first game? You know how in level three you could see the final tower in the background as a goal? It always felt like you were making progress. And that sensation is back.

What’s more, and what is interesting — something I’ve not felt for a very long time with this series is that… old movie sensation. The first few games in the series were spattered with spoke holes in all of the title screens and menus, as if you were playing through a silent horror movie. And the games had an aesthetic and an atmosphere to match. HoD seems to bring this general feeling back. It’s not just going through the motions, it’s doing its best to do things right. Igarashi seems to really understand the heart of the series, in a way that KCEK just can’t handle.

As for the music: you’ve heard how awful it’s supposed to be. This is both entirely true and false.

To be sure, compared to what KCEK achieved with CotM just a year ago, the sound quality is a obviously lacking. A few months ago I spent an hour, one night, simply lying in bed and listening to the Catacombs theme from Circle of the Moon in a pair of headphones. Much of the music in CotM was borrowed and remixed from other games (mostly Bloodlines and Dracula’s Curse), but the music quality was higher than anything I’d heard on a handheld system before. And indeed, it was some of the best Castlevania music I’d ever heard. What’s more, the original compositions were absolutely perfect and memorable additions to the growing roster of Castlevania anthems.

This comparison is, I think, the greatest factor which initially makes the music in Hod so very startling, and for a while even a little grating. Although it might be interesting on its own right, the music is not of the same almost unreasonably high standard set both by CotM and by Castlevania in general. This just doesn’t sound like what you inevitably going to expect. Beyond its mere quality, the composition is also a bit odd.

That said, it’s not as bad as people say, and it has its own odd personality. Try to picture Darkstalkers music played on an NES. Now mix in the occasional motive from Simon’s Quest, and top it off with a few tunes from the original Gameboy games. That’s the HoD score, in a nutshell. It sounds like NES music, basically. But like Castlevania music. Only… a more recent kind of Castlevania music, played on an NES. It’s atmospheric and sprawling. As opposed to NES Castlevania music, which is more melodic and clever. Got it?

The thing is, the music here manages to set its own sort of retro tone. If you’ve played the NES games and the original Gameboy trilogy, I think it’s a lot easier to appreciate what’s been done. Try to take the music as a low-fi experiment, rather than a result of ROM budgeting. On its own level, especially in contrast to the high-budget presentation of every other aspect of the game, the music has its own interesting tone going on. If anything, I think it helps just a bit in adding to the “grainy” emotional texture of the game that I was getting at before. If there’s anything that Castlevania needs in order to retain its unsettling ambiance, it’s a certain offputting creakyness — and the music in HoD seems to do a very good job in maintaining this sensation.

Controversial? Certainly. But I think the music succeeds in its own strange way. Perhaps I’m being too forgiving, but I dig.

All of the other sound effects are great, though (further adding to the perplexing aural quality of the game). Something that strikes me: there’s a strange, startled “nAnI?!” whenever Juste is poisoned or cursed. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be Juste’s own squeak — as it doesn’t sound like the same voice who does all of the item crash screaming and the hopping grunts and so forth — or if it’s intended to come out of the monsters which are whapping him. I suppose the latter wouldn’t make much sense, so I suppose it’s kind of amusing to see a Belmont (especially as arrogant a one as Juste) lose his cool when things don’t go as he plans.

The control, again, is so much better and tighter and more… full-seeming than in CotM. Don’t get me wrong; I loved how Nathan felt in that game. But the control was generally pretty loose, and while Nathan always did exactly what he was told to, he didn’t seem to have much… substance to him. The entire game had that weird sort of a sensation for me, so it’s not just the control. But there was no heft. What flexibility he had felt both kind of messy and strangely contrived. Why did he suddenly get certain abilities when he did, for instance? Why was being able to push crates a special power? What the heck is that “rocket jump” special move? Where does it come from? Whenever I learned a new move with him, it felt more like it had merely been arbitrarily unlocked for me so as to allow me to progress.

Juste, in contrast, starts off feeling much more… rigid than Nathan. His dash ability is indescribably helpful, and it’s neat that he’s able to swing his whip around as in Super Castlevania IV. But he’s less of a jumping bean, he doesn’t start with a slide move, he initially can’t automatically twirl his whip as Nathan could. He’s certainly animated a hell of a lot better than Nathan, and his sprite is larger and more visible — but he’s… well, he feels more like a Belmont than a random platforming character with a whip. Just as floaty ol’ Nathan was great for soaring aimlessly around the open structures in his game, Juste has a much more satisfying kind of focus to him. What he loses in out-and-out freedom he gains in precision and, frankly, respectability.

Nothing seems to be wasted on Juste, and nothing seems to be arbitrary. His starting abilities make sense, and (at least so far) every time I’ve gotten a new one it’s been a pretty logical (and balanced) addition. Plus, if you’re missing a particular move from nearly any other Castlevania game — it’s apparently in here somewhere. Now that I’ve got a slide move and can automatically spin my whip around as Nathan did (although I could manually approximate this effect before), I feel like I’ve earned the abilities and like they’re natural extensions to what I started off with. They’re not just there.

I also like how carefully Igarashi has been to make clear the time period in which the game takes place, and exactly who the characters are in relation to the universe we know so far — from the box to the instructions to the game itself, there’s no mystery at all. It’s stated right out that fifty years have passed since Simon’s Quest and that Juste is Simon Belmont’s grandson. It says what he’s doing, what the relation of this task is to the previous game (chronologically speaking), and how uncommonly gifted he is even for a Belmont. And in the (commendably well-made) instructions, it quickly mentions that his magical abilities come from the Fernandez (Belnades) family.

I’m only about two hours in, but — as you’ve likely gathered — my impression is good so far. The game feels — again — more like a true Castlevania game than any I’ve played in a while. And there are elements I’ve seen from a bunch of other Castlevanias, here. The refereces are particularly heavy to the first two Gameboy games, to the NES trilogy, to the Dracula X series (which makes sense, seeing as how HoD can sort of be considered the third game in that subseries), to Bloodlines, even to CotM and Super Castlevania IV. And heck, the N64 games are even referenced slightly (what with the Fernandez name).

I think a few more things probably could have been done with the game, but in general I’m impressed up to this point. And I’m more confident than ever that Igarashi is the guy who should be heading this series; no one else at Konami seems to really get it the way he does. And even if the game does have its flaws, it feels real. It’s not hard to tell how much effort went into the game, and how devoted the man is both to the legacy of the series and to its fans. This isn’t something you get a whole lot in any form of art or entertainment, seemingly least of all videogames and film. And it’s exactly what was missing from Circle of the Moon. He’s got my trust for the future.

A short note: Is Ayami Kojima (Igarashi’s chosen artist since Symphony of the Night) of any relation to Hideo? They both work at Konami, after all.