Fuzzy Horribleness: Pervasive, Worrisome

  • Reading time:10 mins read

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.

A Life Worth Living

  • Reading time:1 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

Some of the typical themes to indie games, and art games, and deconstructionist games in general, include violence, death, and loss. I find it interesting that the deeper problems of game design, toward which the more thoughtful game authors are drawn, so closely mirror a boilerplate list of human concerns. At least, metaphorically speaking.

Of the three, death and loss, and the association between the two, are the bigger concerns — perhaps because in the short term, with such a narrow communication bottleneck, it’s more worthwhile to hand out monosyllabic verbs for the player to sling around: shoot, run, jump, grab. Let players use the grammar they know, while you precisely sculpt a context to lend the discussion an illusion of eloquence.

( Continue reading at DIYGamer )

The Nephew Set

  • Reading time:2 mins read

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”.

R9

  • Reading time:1 mins read

There’s a bonkersly thoroughly contemplated recombobulation of R-Type on Xbox Live. It’s two-player co-op; it’s got an instant-respawn option, and a million redone graphics options. Hitting the “Y” button flicks between original 2D and remade 3D (with various graphics filters) at will. It’s an instant fade. Crazy!

This game seriously has some of the best music ever. Hearing that theme reappear and develop as the game progresses is weirdly poignant — I get a chill in the back of my neck, as I do whenever some permutation of “Esaka Forever” pops up. It’s just one of those soundtracks.

And the game is now more playable than ever! You can do the proper survival horror experience, or you can just have fun with it in full Life Force mode.

The New Generation – Part Two: Masterminds

  • Reading time:23 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

Something is happening to game design. It’s been creeping up for a decade, yet only now is it striding into the mainstream, riding on the coattails of new infrastructure, emboldened by the rhetoric of the trendy. A new generation of design has begun to emerge – a generation raised on the language of videogames, eager to use that fluency to describe what previously could not be described.

First, though, it must build up its vocabulary. To build it, this generation looks to the past – to the fundamental ideas that make up the current architecture of videogames – and deconstructs it for its raw theoretical materials, such that it may be recontextualized: rebuilt better, stronger, more elegantly, more deliberately.

In the earlier part of this series, we discussed several games that exemplify this approach; we then tossed around a few more that give it a healthy nod. Some boil down and refocus a well-known design (Pac-Man CE, New Super Mario Bros.); some put a new perspective on genre (Ikaruga, Braid); some just want to break down game design itself (Rez, Dead Rising). In this chapter, we will highlight a few of the key voices guiding the change. Some are more persuasive than others. Some have been been making their point for longer. All are on the cusp of redefining what a videogame can be.

The New Generation – Part One: Design

  • Reading time:15 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

An idea is healthy only so long as people question it. All too often, what an idea seems to communicate – especially years and iterations down the line – was not its original intention. Context shifts; nuance is lost. To hear adherents espouse an idea, measureless years and Spackle later, is to understand less about the idea itself than about the people who profess it, and the cultural context in which they do so.

In 1985, an obscure Japanese illustrator slotted together a bunch of ideas that made sense to him that morning, and inadvertently steered the whole videogame industry out of the darkest pit in its history. Since that man’s ideas also seemed to solve everyone else’s problems, they became lasting, universal truths that it was eventually ridiculous – even heresy – to question.

So for twenty years, skilled artisans kept building on this foundation, not really curious what it meant; that it worked was enough. They were simply exercising their proven craft, in a successful industry. Result: even as technology allowed those designers to express more and more complex ideas, those ideas became no more eloquent. The resulting videogames became more and more entrenched in their gestures, and eventually spoke to few aside from the faithful – and not even them so well. Nobody new was playing, and the existing audience was finding better uses for its time. A term was coined: “gamer drift”.

Mostly for my own later reference:

  • Reading time:3 mins read

Curious. I’ve been, for a while, bewildered about the way people in The Industry classify their audience — namely as “casual”, “hardcore”, and “non-gamers”. Marketing people and the mainstream media tend to consider anyone who buys Madden or Halo, or who bought the Xbox 360 around its launch date, a “hardcore” gamer. Recently and more vaguely, the term “core” gamer has arisen — a gamer with any kind of a core at all! Even when you step back that far, it’s like calling anyone who buys a DVD of Spider-Man a movie buff. It’s… sort of a strange way to do things. I can’t imagine it’s much help from a business perspective.

Though I’m not certain this is absolutely better, it’s not a bad go.

  • Power gamers — the obsessive few who buy everything
  • Social gamers — what it says; people who play for companionship
  • Leisure gamers — people who play a lot of Tetris and Bejewelled; passively interested
  • Dormant gamers — people who don’t really get much chance to play anymore
  • Incidental gamers — people who play games out of boredom
  • Occasional gamers — the sudoku/solitaire crowd

I like the idea that this system is based on personal motivation rather than money; that’s a hell of a lot more useful. I wonder what the exact theory is, though. And I assume the theory goes more in terms of percentage than a binary yes/no value. That is, a person might be both a strong social gamer and dormant gamer, yet also have a bit of power gamer in that he buys a bunch of junk he never gets around to playing because he doesn’t have the time and nobody’s ever around to play with.

One problem is that this scheme doesn’t seem to account qualitatively for what the players are looking for in a videogame. The focus is still… off. It’s more about when people are interested in playing than what people expect to get out of the experience. How would you classify the target audience for Gradius V? Shadow of the Colossus? Katamari Damacy? OutRun2? Would you lump most of these in with “power gamers”? How about people who can’t name a single game that sells less than 500,000 copies or that was released more than four years ago, yet who shell out money for the newest system and all the latest mainstream hits? Are those also “power gamers”? If so, that’s not very helpful!

Neither would it do much good to get into literal specifics — “retro” gamers or “indie” gamers or “sports” gamers. Don’t even want to go down that road.

There’s got to be a simple theory out there to roughly account for all three significant factors — buying trends, the role that games play in a person’s life, and what they’re looking for in a videogame. EDIT: Perhaps how informed they are?