Sunday, 27 March 2011

Kirby's Epic Yarn

Kirby's Epic Yarn, this most wonderful of Wii games, was released on the same day as big-hitters Bulletstorm and Killzone 3. It's hard to think of a more extreme contrast in mainstream gaming. To ensure the general public were aware that everyone's favourite inhabitant of Dream Land had a new adventure out, Nintendo didn't lay on an exclusive AAA launch party nor did they spend lots of money on television advertising. Nope. Instead they decorated a bench in Elephant & Castle, an area of London declared "the greyest place in the UK" following a survey commissioned by Nintendo themselves, in conjunction with YouGov. Here is a picture of said bench:

The photo was sent to me by a close gamer friend, accompanied by just two words: "Properly. Shit."
Thankfully the game itself fared a lot better. My review follows after the cover shot:

Kirby’s long-held penchant for assimilating the abilities of his enemies reached a pinnacle in Super Smash Bros Brawl. Here the pink ball from Dream Land was a neat metaphor of Nintendo’s unparalleled knack for recycling their intellectual properties, the company devouring and regurgitating their many iconic characters in ever more unlikely and appealing ways, with the aforementioned chaotic Wii fighter being just another great example of this quality.

Two further exercises in this process complete what is, alongside Kirby’s Epic Yarn, something of a mini-trilogy of Wii 2D platformers. For the seasoned gamer there was the punishing Donkey Kong Country Returns, and for the retro twist there was New Super Mario Bros Wii. Kirby’s Epic Yarn, then, is the aesthetes’ choice – embracing a boldly wonderful visual design and (arguably) an even bolder gameplay mechanic. It’s adorable look and extreme accessibility reflect what is often derided by non-converts as the Wii’s innate childishness, when in fact Epic Yarn is another notable Nintendo success: playful, joyous and lovingly childlike in feel.

The patchwork aesthetic is explained in the game’s storybook-style opening. Kirby finds himself on Patch Land, which has been ripped apart by evil forces (his first line upon landing on the unfamiliar terrain is the hilarious “It feels like…trousers!”); Kirby must traverse the game finding magic yarn, so that Patch Land’s various worlds can be stitched back together. Although Kirby is to all intents and purposes made of air in Patch Land, and therefore unable to inhale foes as per usual, his new thread-based body is able to transform into various shapes with a touch of the d-pad. From turning into a car to dash across levels, to lassoing enemies, Kirby’s movements in Epic Yarn are a delight, and completely in keeping with his character.

The game’s overriding strength isn’t merely that it looks fantastic, which it does, but that the tactility afforded to the developers through the use of thread as a gameplay device is fully exploited to some quite ingenious ends. Each level has buttons to hang onto, zips to pull across, cloth to fold over so that jumps are suddenly smaller…the pleasure from Epic Yarn isn’t derived from merely progressing through the game, but from exploring each level, and the manner in which you’re invited to test the very fabric (no pun intended) of everything on-screen. It would be going a little far to say that the boundaries of 2D game design are being stretched here, but neither should the modestly clever way HAL/Good-Feel have used game space and platformer convention be overlooked.

It will come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing interest in the Kirby series that Epic Yarn isn’t particularly taxing. It is in fact impossible to die in the game, with any missed jumps or successful enemy attacks being corrected by a quick return to the last point of action. Punishment comes in the form of a loss of beads, the game’s most common collectable; as collectables (which also include bonus items such as music tracks and, er, pieces of furniture) are the main reward Epic Yarn offers the player for the thorough exploration of levels, their loss is a strong incentive to finish the stage carefully. But generally the cuddly exterior isn’t deceptive and there’s no fiendish challenge or devious level design being hidden away for unsuspecting gamers to stumble into.

These collectables link into the game’s wider structure, and it’s here where a few of Epic Yarn’s idiosyncrasies come to the fore. Very early on in the game Kirby is given his own flat in Patch Land(!), which you can decorate with any of the items found throughout the game (there are three unique to each level, including such random features as a frog umbrella stand and a chandelier). The landlord then starts asking for more beads from Kirby, which slowly expands the number of flats available. These flats become occupied when the correct pieces of furniture are found, with the subsequent inhabitants offering passage into such bonus modes as time-trials and mini-games. Arranging Kirby’s flat can get strangely absorbing, providing a weird Animal Crossing-esque distraction from the main game. Other weird – yet brilliant - things in Epic Yarn include: the sweet couple sitting under a tree that you can kill, the cowering enemies (who you can also kill), and the myriad vehicle set-pieces in the game (our highlight being the first world’s tank, which gives way to a lovely lullaby as soon as it ends).

In designing everything around the delightful textiles of Patch Land, co-developers HAL and Good-Feel have ensured that Kirby’s latest and greatest transcends any concerns of style being prioritised over substance – the substance of Epic Yarn is in the style. There are other, equally fine, games for those looking to test their co-ordination, or bathe in the rays of nostalgia. Epic Yarn is a title for the player looking to be reminded what it’s like to have the emotion of curiosity triggered by a videogame. A game cut from the finest Nintendo cloth.

- Originally published by D+PAD Magazine.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

Although the subtitle Why Video Games Matter suggests a gamer-pleasing polemical defence of videogaming culture, Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives is, for a significant majority of its length, anything but. Through nine chapters Bissell probes various facets of gaming, highlighting the good points whilst repeatedly returning to what appears to be the book’s central theme: a desire for games to be even better (to reflect, in his own words, “deeper human motivations”) and, more specifically, for games to employ narrative in a way that genuinely works, and one which is also unique to the interactive qualities of gaming.

It’s a challenging argument, though I can’t help but think how differently Extra Lives would have read had the likes of Red Dead Redemption and Heavy Rain (etc etc) been released during its writing. In a way their existence is an acknowledgment of Tom’s argument that games should push at the boundaries of narrative; the games that interest him the most are those “that choose to tell stories”, and this is reflected in the games he does elect to focus on, with the likes of Braid, Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 coming in for close examination and conditional praise.

However, this emphasis on the narratives of games creates its own problems, and leads to a number of debatable points. One of these is the contentious claim early on that “comparing games to other forms of entertainment only serves as a reminder of what games are not”. You could of course spin this around to suggest that comparing films to games in the context of delivering a story can also remind us what games can do so well (the emotional investment of Mass Effect 2, for example); invariably the highlights of Extra Lives are those sections in which Bissell recounts his personal experiences playing certain titles, and the emotions evoked as a result. For example, his description of playing Resident Evil for the first time is among the finest pieces of videogaming writing I have ever read, and will chime with every gamer and their own moments of digital epiphany. A careful intersection of memoir and gaming history, it’s a style also replicated to great effect in later passages on Left 4 Dead and Mass Effect.

My earlier criticism is not to suggest that I am oblivious to gaming’s faults, but personally I have long since become accustomed, nay expectant, to the peculiarities of most mainstream game design, inconducive as it is to effective storytelling – their clumsy tutorials, barely-considered characterisation and teenage-friendly aesthetic. As Bissell neatly surmises when concluding his Resident Evil chapter, “Most gamers do not care because they have been trained by game designers not to care”. I have to confess to being one of those gamers, but then neither do I start watching a film or begin to read a new book with the expectation that the worlds and characters contained therein will represent the pinnacle of evocation and emotional engagement. It’s why when a Limbo or an Uncharted 2 does appear, I’ll play it with a wide-eyed wonder that comes with re-discovering the true magic of a medium. Not every game can feel rich or fresh, and the fact that the majority of all games are idiot-friendly wastes of plastic isn’t an indictment of an entire industry. Bissell certainly doesn’t suggest this, but it’s a point worth making all the same.

Following this introduction of his main focus on narrative, Bissell’s subsequent case studies examine the reasons videogames may suffer when compared to other media, as well as what they can offer which is unique. There’s the issue of delivered narratives versus those that are found (framed versus fluidity, or ‘ludonarratives’), whilst in the chapter on Braid there is an acknowledgment of the conflict whereby “stories are about time passing and narrative progression. Games are about challenge, which frustrates the passing of time and impedes narrative progression”.

The debate is one fraught with all manner of tensions, many of which are touched upon in Extra Lives: those between the common singular vision of a storyteller and the collective process of making a game, between the demands of story and the mechanics of play (which is what, after all, make a game) and the difficulty for videogames of achieving a level of realism so often integral to the “deeper human motivations” touched upon at the beginning. Although Extra Lives doesn’t posit any firm conclusions on the matter, it doesn’t really need to. By setting up some of the key arguments this book could likely emerge as a key reference point as more titles challenging the aforementioned contradictions emerge.

Despite the engaging manner in which such important theoretical factors are raised, there is still a faintly disquieting tone winding through the book, one of pessimism at what the majority of videogames represent and the gulf between them and where they should, in the mind of this writer, be. It’s a discontent that is understandable, but frustrating given that Bissell’s writing is at its most illuminating when, as in the already-discussed Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead passages, he allows himself to focus more on the positives of his engagement with particular games. A little more acknowledgment that sometimes it’s okay for games to ‘merely’ offer unreconstructed escapism wouldn’t have hurt.

Escapism is in fact the key theme of Extra Lives’s startling final chapter about Grand Theft Auto IV, one that was also published in full by The Observer last year*. Of this era’s major releases it’s GTAIV that continues to polarise opinion like no other. Personally I stand on the side of the fence in which GTAIV is held up as the flawed masterpiece of this generation, an ambitious example of everything Tom Bissell presumably wants videogames to be. Its far-reaching HBO-aping narrative arc, the new-found emphasis on solemnity and the regular interruptions from NPCs were three of the factors that some gamers cite as an example of the wrong direction in which Rockstar took their most iconic of franchises, but its these design decisions that Bissell finds most interest in.

He begins by somewhat uncomfortably detailing his videogaming-led descent into an unproductive stupor, losing interest in literature as his obsession takes hold. GTAIV, then, becomes something of a symbolic nadir (or peak, depending on how you look at it) of Bissell’s dependence – troublingly the drug-like metaphor would be apt were his marathon sessions playing GTAIV not supplemented by a steadily rising coke habit. Bissell takes his first line as GTAIV loads, ultimately coming to the realisation that what video games have in common with cocaine is that “they have no edge. You have to appreciate them. They do not come to you”.

It’s a miracle, given Bissell’s disintegrating lifestyle at the time, that he can recall and discuss GTAIV with such intelligence – or maybe it is in fact the drug that allows him to deconstruct GTAIV with this clarity. Regardless, the chapter is excellent because not only is it amongst the best writing on the subject of such a monumental game** but it perhaps inadvertently ties up some of Extra Lives narrative threads. In one passage Bissell writes: “While moving through the gameworld, I did my best not to hurt innocent people. There was no ludonarrative dissonance for me, in other words, because I attempted to honour the Niko of the framed narrative when my control of him was restored”. This was for me one of the biggest strengths of GTAIV – go along with the gravitas, spend enough time with Niko, and you end up treating him as a cipher, projecting your own behaviour and morals onto Niko’s in-game, non-mission actions.

Extra Lives is a frequently illuminating, fresh approach to video games, and a book that would be worth reading by anyone with even a passing interest in the medium. That it doesn’t spend its 200-odd pages merely placating the conscious of millions of gamers is to its credit. It demands we ask serious questions of the medium, however difficult they may be. Video games do matter, then – but almost as much for what they could one day become, as for what they are now.

*You can read the entire chapter, entitled ‘Grand Thefts’, here.

**He also gives the most succinct analysis of the Grand Theft Auto series as a whole: “Most games are about attacking a childlike world with an adult mind. The GTA games are the opposite”.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Pokemon Platinum

I was going to introduce my 2009 review of Pokemon Platinum - posted here to celebrate the UK launch of Black and White - with some considered analysis of writing about Pokemon, and how nearly all reviews (including my own) follow the same structure of bemoaning identical mechanics and fan exploitation while simultaneously praising the series' finely-tuned perfection and addictive qualities. Then I remembered that I had this photo of Pikachu seemingly laying waste to New York City:

Who needs a deconstruction of videogame journalists' predictable tendencies when instead you can see that? Anyway, here's the review.

To the casual observer the Pokémon games are understandably seen as just one small piece of a wider cultural behemoth that encompasses all manner of merchandising, their combined revenues bigger than that of many small countries (Platinum is, by our rough estimate, the fifteenth ‘proper’ Pokémon RPG). However, it’s easy to forget – bombarded as we have been by the cartoons, plush toys, towels, Pikachu money banks – that Pokémon actually began life as a videogame, and an astonishingly good videogame at that.

The 1996 Game Boy originals laid the template, one that has had very little reason to significantly change in the intervening thirteen years. Though this has thrown Game Freaks open to the charge of milking the franchise, it has arguably only been the titles that exist on the series’ boundaries – the Puzzle Leagues and Mystery Dungeons of this world – that have done this, and many of those weren’t even developed by Satoshi Tajiri and co. The core Pokémon titles have instead slowly tweaked and updated the formula where necessary, ensuring an experience that grows and develops with the hardcore audience. The games have also tended to embrace whatever technological innovation the latest Nintendo hardware brings, a trend that reached its peak with Pokémon Diamond and Pearl.

Introducing Wi-Fi, touch screen and even microphone support, alongside the full rundown of 493 Pokémon across both titles, the overriding sense around Diamond and Pearl was one of liberation, the DS’s array of features opening the way for all manner of ideas. It quickly became considered the definitive Pokémon experience thus far. This preamble is not just a shortcut to a healthy word count, but a verbose way of establishing the idea that on paper, in both the context of Pokémon and the series’ so far distinguished presence on Nintendo DS, Platinum seems a tad superfluous. Can it really add more to Diamond and Pearl’s exhausting package?

The key reference points here are Pokémon’s Yellow, Crystal and Emerald. If the charge of fan exploitation could be levelled at Game Freaks, then these three titles would be the prosecution’s main evidence. Virtual remakes of previous games, the lack of significant new features (unless Yellow’s addition of a Pikachu that follows you around could be considered significant) brought the franchise closer in spirit to EA Sports-style annual updates, something that the release of Platinum continues.

In itself this is no bad thing. After all, the original DS games coincided with the handheld’s growth from quirky hardware to Soccer Mum-approved ubiquity. There are now several million more owners then there were back in 2007, and for the majority of them (and indeed all those who missed out on Diamond and Pearl), Pokémon Platinum approaches a certain level of necessity. The basic aim remains to traverse the land (in this case Sinnoh) and catch the Pokémon through turn-based battles, slowly building an army of the creatures to aid your progression. There are gym leaders to beat, fellow trainers to meet, and badges to earn. Whilst the early games are now looked back on with much fondness because of their relative simplicity, Platinum is exceptional because of the sheer wealth of things to do. Our personal favourite was the Wi-Fi Plaza, a basement of multiplayer mini-games found in every Pokémon Centre. Spend too long in there and you’re eventually whisked away by a boat in the shape of one of the more iconic Pokémon; we’re told such a time limit exists to prevent score manipulation, but what shines through is the attention to detail and obvious love that Game Freaks have for their creation.

One of the few criticisms levelled at Diamond and Pearl was that, while they made excellent use of the DS hardware, they were less successful in eliciting more than a perfunctory grunt from the graphical and audio side. In this respect Platinum is slightly more impressive. There seems to be more variety in the locales, and a little more colour, but it’s a shame that the battles still exhibit about as much dynamism, relative to hardware, as the Game Boy originals.

The single-player campaign is substantial (and that’s without even considering the idea of finding all the Pokémon) but it’s in the online department that Platinum really excels. The Wi-Fi options are extensive, and aimed successfully at building a network of traders as opposed to a more console-orientated approach of faceless random battles. For the first time you can record your favourite battles, which is a nice touch, though you’re limited to saving only one of your own. In fact it’s online that the strides Pokémon has slowly taken over the years are truly evident, as well as serving to underline what genius game design this is: communication, battles, trading, rivalries, strategy…a large chunk of videogaming is right here.

Pokémon is one of those series where it’s hard to separate one game from the larger history. As a result we find ourselves swerving from admiration for the sheer effort that goes into the game to fighting off an inevitable déjà vu. Gamers are, after all, rarely content. It would be nice to see a little more experimentation soon, or perhaps a complete reinvention like the one Capcom has promised for the next Resident Evil, if only because the economic and developing clout Game Freaks have had for the last decade seems wasted when spent on such baby steps as Platinum, however fine tuned and well accomplished. Until then it’s very much a case of damned if they do/damned if they don’t – to those whose obsessive desire for collection and completion has been hard-wired over the last thirteen years, the thrill of the search will likely never fade. The bad news for everyone else? DS remakes of Gold and Silver arrive later this year.

- Originally published over at D+PAD Magazine in 2009.

- The photo that begins this post was taken by a friend. In case you were wondering, it is in fact a Pikachu float in the process of being deflated. But let's not let accuracy get in the way of a perfect image, eh?