Games I’m looking forward to playing in 2009

As counterpoint to Michael’s post about not having games to play I thought I’d be more optimistic and point to some games that I am looking forward to playing when they’re released next year.

So far:
Flower (Playstation Network, thatgamecompany): We’ve played with an early version of this game some months back and it can give one a feeling of absolute euphoria. Floating along on a breeze, the controls felt just right even back then. It looks like some game-like elements have been added but I bet it won’t dull the primary effect putting you in a dream-like state and giving you a moment’s release from care.

Noby Noby Boy (Playstation Network, keita takahashi, Namco): something that looks this exquisitely insane has GOT to be good. I am also pleased that the designer doesn’t consider it to be a game. The aesthetic is fresh, the play looks open, I can’t wait.

Gyakuten Kenji/Miles Edgeworth Perfect Prosecutor (DS, Konami): Confession, I have played ALL the Phoenix Wright/Ace Attorney games. I find the writing to be on par with any television series. The stories are funny and tragic and sometimes a bit strange. Great character design throughout. A spinoff featuring Miles Edgeworth is a fabulous idea.

Calling (Wii, Hudson/Konami?): I’ve only seen (apparently leaked) videos on the net but this spooky game looks awesome! I hope to no end that it gets released outside of Japan. The interaction reminds me of a design we’d come up with for an unfinished game called “The Apartment.”

F.E.A.R. 2 (PC, Monolith): not because i will actually play the game (I cannot play FPS games) but because i think Alma (all grown up now) is the sexiest, most compelling, female character in action game history. What I do with games I can’t, or don’t want to, play is I look at clips on YouTube so I can skip the shooting and get to the good parts (which are the parts in-between the shooting usually.) The first F.E.A.R had some priceless moments. I’m hoping this one will be just as striking.

what can i say, i’ve got strange taste in women.

Tension/The Void (PC, Ice-Pick Lodge): Speaking of mysterious women, this game by our friends at Ice-Pick Lodge is intruiging. It’s getting a release outside of Russia courtesy of Atari. Good on them. While I’m not sure I’ll love the gameplay (but it could happen) I think it may have some interesting narrative resonance. I definitely am looking forward to fully exploring this world. I admire the character and environment design to no end.

Pikmin (WiiWare, Nintendo): i played this on gamecube and it remains one of my favorites. I think the addition of Wii controls will totally add. I’m looking forward to throwing the little guys around. Not so much to having them eaten, set on fire, blown away and rolled over by the garden’s creatures. But hey…

#1 game I’m looking forward to is: The Path (PC, Tale of Tales), of course. Because we’ve been making it for 2 years and having it done is the only thing I can really think of right now. Gaming comes *after*. So many hopes…

So, What games are YOU looking forward to playing?

Are videogames contracting the meaning of the word game?

Noby Noby Boy

We’ve had our fair share of discussions around the term “game” on this blog. Often inspired by the fact that it was problematic to categorize our work as games. Up until now, our answer has always been that we are trying to expand the meaning of the word “game”. But perhaps something else is (also) going on.

Before videogames, the word game could be used for many things. And it still is used like that by people outside of the gamer elite. Basically anything whimsical, childish or silly was a candidate to be called a game. Game was even used as a term to denounce certain practices, as in “that politician is playing a dirty game” or “she was playing games with my feelings”.

Videogames, possibly because they are made with computers, have formalized games into something that is perhaps a lot stricter than what a game used to be. As games continue to become an economically important industry, this formalization only gets more extreme. I clearly remember as a turning point somebody from Activision saying, in 2004, that they “make games for gamers”. Up until then, there was still some doubt about what videogames could be. And ambitions about reaching new audiences. But since then, videogames overall seem to have become increasingly “gamey”.

The success of Nintendo has of course altered this course somewhat. But not to the point where the word “game” is being redefined -or given back its former meaning. Nowadays, we’re simply getting more and more comfortable with the idea of playing “non-games”.

Like watching non-movies and reading non-books. It seems rather silly.

Survival Horror is (not) dead

So whatever happened to our imperfect, psychologically damaged heroes, our creepy little doll rooms, our feeble switchblades, our crawling dread? And why have they been replaced by gun-toting professionals and space marine types – as if gaming needed any more space marines?

Leigh Alexander answers this question in a very rational yet disappointing manner.

Perhaps the Silent Hill series might have attained still more widespread appeal if it had, to be blunt, made just a little more sense

Because contemporary games cost more to make, the size of the audience needs to grow and thus the content needs to be adapted to the tastes of a larger audience. And of course you choose the hardcore gun-toting-space-marine-loving crowd as your larger target audience, because they present the lowest risk factor.

There is another solution however: find a way to make these games cheaper. And stop compromising your vision. And don’t hide your lack of vision behind economic arguments.

The game barrel

So we used to use a metaphor: a barrel which holds water, a wooden barrel has all these pieces, and you use a frame to put them together. Each piece is for a different aspect of the game — one is for the graphics, one is for the sound, one is for design — and if any one of those is short, the water that you can hold is only up to the shortest part. And the water is the satisfaction of the player.

If you have terrible graphics, and everything else is great, the player will probably just keep saying, “Oh, the graphics suck!” But, meanwhile, if you have really wonderful graphics — like real graphics — but the gameplay sucks, they will still think the game is mediocre, because the gameplay sets the cap.

So, as a small team, there is no way that we can create a cap, a taller piece than a commercial game, but our goal is to keep every piece at the same height; so it could be even higher than some of the commercial games.

Wise words from Jenova Chen in a nice interview with Brandon Sheffield conducted at the Game Developers Conference where we met Mr. Chen for the first time. A very enlightening way of illustrating what we were trying to say in point 3 of our Realtime Art Manifesto, and a nice thing to keep in mind when working on a small budget and staring at those immense blockbusters in utter disbelief.

They want to play…

Michael Abbott reports on an interesting observation, illustrating something that we’ve been saying around here for years. That games, basically, are a terrible waste of a perfectly fine medium.

Talking about trying to get his non-gamer friends to play Braid, he says:

The tragic thing is they want to play. The music, the visuals, the opening text – all hook them and pique their curiosities. They didn’t know games aspire to explore the human psyche. They didn’t know games can look like paintings. They didn’t know game music can feature a cello. Braid invites them in, and they willingly enter. Then, just as quickly, Braid boots them out and slams the door in their faces. They discover that the game is as inaccessible to them as an unknown foreign language.

From “Is this what we want?” on The Brainy Gamer.

Flower is beautiful!

At the occasion of E3 lots of new video footage has been released for upcoming games. Most of it is just more of the same. But there’s at least one exception. From our “sister company” thatgamecompany. We had the pleasure of trying out an early build of their upcoming Playstation Network game Flower earlier this year. And while that was a very memorable experience, the new clips show that the team around Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago have not been sitting still.

It’s so nice to see some designers being really creative and inventive. And not just applying the standard cookie cutter approach to whatever content comes their way. Let’s contrast the glory above with the absolute “horror” below.

It’s common knowledge that the Silent Hill series has been in decline since version 3. So why continue down the same path of “improving the combat” and adding more “cool features” when you know that the fans don’t appreciate this much at all? Lack of inspiration? Lack of love? (not lack of budget, that’s for sure…)

Crosshairs in Silent Hill? What is this a first person shooter? And that stupid blinking-on-screen-quick-hit-that-button-VCR-controls-in-disguise-whoever-invented-that-and-thought-it-was-a-good-idea interaction that nobody likes? Chasing enemies?? (Whatever happened to “RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY!”?) And no, I will not mention the character design. What character design?

Let’s just forget that ever happened.
Wash it all away with more Flower.

Really love those windmills. It grounds the game firmly in our contemporary world rather than offering a simple escape. More of that, please!

Reviewing games as products

We’ve mentioned it before on these pages, but Chris sums up the problem quite nicely on his excellent Survival Horror Quest blog: reviews of games often focus on technical features and rarily on content. And he illustrates his point with some amusing faux-reviews of works in other media.

Part of the problem with game reviews, I think, is that game journalists often try to offer objective analysis of the games that they review. It’s easier to be objective about something if you just stick to the obvious facts, which is maybe why games get treated like products rather than works of art.

I don’t think journalists are entirely to blame for this situation, though. Developers and publishers often think in terms of features and numbers of levels and hours of gameplay as well. Mostly, I think, because it is what their marketing departments know how to deal with. And I have seen several reviews of our own games that exclusively discuss content. So perhaps, it’s also a matter of developers taking the content they create a bit more seriously. A simple trick would be to remove all “features” so that there is nothing to talk about but content.

But then there’s of course the gaming audience. I’ve seen many remarks on forums and in blog comments from people who did not find the extra feature in the full version of The Graveyard (the added possibility that the protagonist can die) worth the money (5 USD). Someone even made a list of features that would be required for him to spend that money. The fact that the element of death drastically changes the emotional experience did not seem to be valuable to most players.

Players too seem to think of games as products. So journalists are just giving them the information they apparently need. The question remains: why? Why are games being judged as products, while books, films and music are not?

Enjoying horror…

Playing a small student game called Hush (or at least attempting to do so since I suck at any kind of challenge-based gameplay), made me realize how important the fictional aspect is for the enjoyment of horror.

Hush is a game set in Rwanda during the massacres between Hutus and Tutsis. You play a woman who is trying to silence her crying baby so that the invading soldiers don’t find them.
I have a lot of ethical issues with this game (and “news gaming” in general). And I completely disapprove of the confusion it generates between the emotions caused by the gameplay and those by the narrative. But that’s not the point here.

The soundscape of the game is incredibly effective. It’s frightening, it’s shocking. But because it is real, or pertains to a real event, I can’t seem to get the same enjoyment out of it as I might from a similar scene in an actual horror movie or game. In horror fiction, it’s fun to experience the threat of death and pain, to be overpowered by a massive and mysterious force, to be faced with a bleak and hopeless situation. But only, it would appear, within the context of fiction. Experiencing a life threatening situation in real life is not fun at all. Even imagining experiencing a horrific situation that happened for somebody else, is by no means amusing.

And yet we love horror!

Horror is not really about being frightened, is it? Experiencing real fear is not fun. What we experience in horror fiction is not real fear.
Maybe the emotion triggers the release of some chemicals in our brain that, when confronted with a real threat, help our body to respond appropriately. But when in a comfortable situation, these chemicals act like an amusing drug. Maybe all the things we do for entertainment manipulate the chemical reactions that used to be of vital importance to survival and turn them into a source of fun.

But it’s only fun if it’s fake.



We’ve been wanting to talk about the Russian studio Ice-Pick Lodge for a while now. Their 2005 game Pathologic is truly fascinating, even if it is “broken”, as John Walker put it.
Thanks to Rock Paper Shotgun we can now enjoy the game by proxy, through a grandiose triptych of a review, divided in Body, Mind and Soul.

A good read, especially with the new game, Tension, on the way.

Ice-Pick Lodge is one of those very few studios that make games from a deep artistic motivation. They don’t mess around with clever control schemes or gathering points. They have a story to tell and they use the interactive medium to tell it. Even if that means sacrificing the overrated “fun factor”. If games are ever going to become a mature artistic medium, this is where it’s going to happen.

How I wish Pathologic wouldn’t crash on my PC…