Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Unmanned: Dissonance as Play

I wonder if the makers of Unmanned watched the same episode of Frontline that I did last year. It was an episode called “Digital Nation” that attempted to grapple with a very ambitious but important question: How is the human race changing through its relationship to and growing dependence on digital technology?

The show covered a lot of ground, from the role of computers in the public education system to the problem of video game addiction among South Korean youth. One of the most interesting segments looked at the military's use of unmanned drones and the life of the Air Force pilots who control them. Almost like any other white- or blue-collar citizen, many of these pilots depart from their suburban homes in the morning and drive across the Nevada desert to work. Only their work consists of hunting down and firing missiles on suspected insurgents halfway across the globe. They even dress in flight suits, in part to reinforce the gravity and reality of their duties. But in actually their butts never even get off the ground.

The episode was sobering, and it also brought me back to thinking about the "Collateral Murder" video that had been posted on WikiLeaks the previous year (which itself was eerily reminiscent of a particular mission I had played in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2). Anyway, I ended up writing this short little story on my other blog (oh yeah, I've got another blog that preceded this one). It was sort of a brief, raw exercise in imagining the lives of three people—the first being a suburban-dwelling drone pilot—and their relationship to digital violence.

Unmanned uses the mechanics of a point-and-click computer game to examine a very similar subject: a day in the life of another such imagined drone pilot. Every activity, from shaving and driving to dropping bombs on terrorists, plays out like a short mini-game. Whether mundane or stress-inducing, they all present their little challenges, and as demonstrated through the man's own inner monologue and personal introspection, they're interconnected. His cognitive mind gives equal weight and meaning to each moment.

This would all be very interesting in and of itself, but the game goes a step further by displaying the action in parallel windows. As the player attempts to steer a car in a straight line on one screen, she or he must simultaneously cycle through a multiple-choice thought tree in the other. While guiding a drone on one screen, the player must carefully navigate a flirtatious conversation in the other. The implied anxiety of each moment becomes manifest through the mechanics of play. Turns out, it's neither easy nor comfortable trying to concentrate properly on two competing demands.

Unmanned is not so much a simulation or adventure game as it is an interactive metaphor for cognitive dissonance, the psychological discomfort that results when one's feelings or beliefs are at seeming conflict or opposition with one another. How does a married family man cope with his desire for his attractive coworker? How does one feel pride and honor for defeating an enemy in a way that perhaps feels dishonorable or even cowardly? What happens when all of these stresses are intermingling as a part of one’s daily routine?

What I like about Unmanned is it doesn't judge the imagined subject, at least not directly. There are different ways for the player character to think through his situation, and none of them are presented as definitive. Even if he muses about the satisfaction of killing terrorists during his morning shave, it's not apparent whether or not this is the man's genuine sentiment or a bit of coping sarcasm. It may be both.

In its swift 10 minutes or less of playing time, the game packs a wallop. It's as much a creative statement about American foreign policy and the war on terror as it is an examination of modern video games and the gamification of everyday living. It's about—dare I say—the human condition! One could argue the game is noncommittal, but I would strongly disagree. It's a game that deals in real politics without stooping toward the overtly ideological. It juggles questions of morality without resorting to didacticism. It also has a keen sense of irony, and the title of the game is brilliantly appropriate.

I'm glad there are developers such as molleindustria who are using games to tackle these kinds of issues. We don't have to be actual drone pilots—or fathers or husbands or even men—to understand what it's like to be at a moral or emotional stalemate. But good storytelling can help place us in these hyperreal situations and in turn reveal new truths or ideas not only about ourselves but the absurd world around us. Films and literary fiction have long served this purpose. Video games . . . not so much, and that's okay. But Unmanned gives me reason to believe that games can and will rise to that very challenge.

Unmanned won the Grand Jury Prize at IndieCade 2012. You can download or play it online for free.

(EDITOR'S UPDATE: I just came across some essential reading to add to this post. It's a Kotaku column by Paolo Perdercini, the very man who brought us Unmanned. In addition to clarifying the actual main source of inspiration for the game—it was actually the book Wired For War by P.W. Singer—he offers a very compelling argument for why we should be wary of the kind of black operations being seemingly glorified in the latest Call of Duty game. It makes for a great companion piece to the game. I'm left even more impressed at the ideological restraint with which Perdercini managed to approach the subject of remote warfare in his game.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Spelunky review – Respect the game

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” — Edward Whymper, first person to ascend the Matterhorn

I've heard mountaineers in documentaries describe how the world's highest peaks command the respect of those who attempt to climb them. You hear people talk about Mt. Everest as if it were some cold and indifferent god. It is not there to cooperate. To those it beckons, it does so without intent. And even for those climbers who prove themselves worthy enough to reach its top, they tend to speak not so much of their own triumph over the mountain but rather of being humbled.

Like a wild nature unto itself, the world of Spelunky on the Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) makes me feel insignificant as a video game player. It has no regard for my level of skill. If it rewards me with easy progress, I am happy. If it punishes me with overbearing obstacles, I try my best and am not surprised—or overly unruly—when I meet my grizzly end. That's just the way the cookie crumbles.

The game has been described as a rougelike platformer. The first half of that description refers to a sub-genre of role-playing games, derived from an actual 1980 game called Rouge, in which the game procedurally (or semi-randomly) generates new maps or levels for each play-through. Also, death in a roguelike is considered permanent. When you lose, you have to go all the way back to the start. No progress is spared. The objective may be to reach a predetermined end of the game, but if not that—since such an outcome is unlikely—then to simply make it as far as possible before dying will suffice.
In Spelunky you play either as a cartoony Indiana Jones lookalike or some other equally cute alternate character. You descend your way through a series of 2D levels, past all manner of enemies, hazards, and booby traps. Each level is composed of various tiles or building blocks, algorithmically arranged in a unique manner. There are some patterns that remain the same. The entry door goes somewhere at the top. The exit door is somewhere at the bottom. And there is always an available path to that door, however treacherous it might—or rather will—be.

The way you choose to traverse the maze is determined, in part, by your initial underlying goals. Do you try to collect as much gold as possible? Happy hunting. Do you simply try to beat the game? First of all, good luck. Your journey, should you reach your goal, will follow this rough outline: Four levels in the underground mines, four levels in the jungle, four levels in the ice caves, followed by three levels in the temple and a final boss room. There's also a shortcut system that you can build by completing each of the four main areas and donating a specific resource to the “Tunnel Man” in between stages. But there can be other goals as well, such as the ones set forth in the game's insanely difficult achievements, as well as secret paths I have yet to fully discover. Insane, I tell you!
But your playing style can easily change mid-way through the game based on your current health, as well as the resources made available to you as you explore. You start each game with four hearts, four bombs, four climbing ropes, and a whip. From there you can find or buy other items, and just about everything you pick up can also be thrown as a weapon. Get your hands on a shotgun and you may decide to wipe out those jungle enemies head on. Find a pickaxe or load up on more bombs and you might try blazing an entirely new trail altogether. It all depends on what the game throws your way. If I happen to be in the jungle levels and I see that I've ended up near a nest of giant bees, you can bet that I am going to throw a proportion of my caution to the wind in favor of a more frenetic pace. Seriously, those bees can be panic-inducing! But if I likewise happen to stumble upon a trapped damsel who will reward me with an extra heart if I successfully bring her to the exit, I might put myself in the path of harm for that very chance.

Every scenario in Spelunky is a risk-reward scenario. Mostly risk. You will quickly realize that death is swift and not even a stockpile of, say, eight hearts can assure your survival. The slightest misstep can instantly end what may have been your best play-through, often in ways you hadn't foreseen. It could be as graceless as a tiki man knocking you with a boomerang into a bed of spikes or as elaborate as being thrown around like a pinball by a bunch of yetis.
And yet even as it kicks your ass, Spelunky is addictive fun. It compels you to get better. You won't memorize the levels themselves, but you will memorize patterns and situations. If you lament your untimely death in one play-through, only to succumb to a very similar type of death several play-throughs later, you will curse not Spelunky but yourself.
There seems to be a recent mini surge of these procedurally generated games like Spelunky. I've been reading about a space game called FTL. Another is The Binding of Isaac (be sure to read an excellent column about that game here). The same underlying concept drives one of my favorite games of the year, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, which I previously wrote about. I think you can also identify it in those mobile-platform running games like Canabalt, which arrange an unpredictable path meant to keep you ... on your toes, I guess. It's that very randomness that makes those games so easy to pick up again. Every start is fresh and uncertain, but hopeful—always hopeful!
Spelunky also benefits for its attention to precision controls. For being such a game of patience and caution, the the character moves paradoxically fast, especially in a sprint. Character movement carries the goofiest physics that nevertheless become better controlled through sustained practice. There are situations I can memorize. I know that when I sprint from one ledge to another ledge separated by a gap two tile spaces wide, I'll end up hanging onto that opposite ledge.

Compare this to a much older game I've also been playing, which is Super Castlevania IV on the Super Nintendo, also a whip-wielding platformer and a great game in it's own right, I've determined. But in the physics and mechanics department, it's a game from a primitive era. Every jump feels accompanied by the weight of an invisible lead ball chained to the ankle. Spelunky may have its retro aesthetics, but it takes full advantage of modern mechanics.

Although I make my way down, it's as if Spelunky gives me new mountains to climb. I've finished the game once using the shortcut to the last four levels. My current goal is to beat it using no tunnel shortcuts. I've come close twice, only to be instantly killed both times by a crushing block on the penultimate level. It's frustrating, sure. But it's pointless to argue. I used to get exceedingly frustrated, for example, at the random “dark” levels. This is a scenario in which the entire level is almost pitch black outside the radius of a small halo of torchlight. The trick is to take this torch and make your way carefully to other torch beacons that help to illuminate other parts of the map. You can imagine how suddenly this random occurrence can diminish the player's likelihood of success. Enemies pop out of nowhere. Uncertain jumps can turn into health damaging free-falls or worse. But it can be done. And when it is done, it feels good.
The thing is, I've gotten to a point where I no longer fear these occurrences. I accept them like I accept a change in the weather. Is it fair? No. But Spelunky doesn't care. And if it laughs at me, I can only laugh back and face its cruel indifference like a challenge. The game commands respect because your virtual life depends on it. Just don't believe for a second that the respect is reciprocal.
The Score
  • Rolling Stone Magazine gives Spelunky 3-and-a-half-out-of-5 stars.
  • Pitchfork gives it an 8.7.
  • Roger Ebert says games games can't be art.
  • I say it's the best new game I've played this year.

Spelunky was made by indie developers Derek Yu and Andy Hull and is a remake of a free game of the same name that Yu originally developed for the PC. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Skyrim: Does size matter . . . or perception?

When I reviewed the original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic about a year ago, I described it as a game that relied on the player's either willingness or ability to suspend disbelief. I didn't really elaborate on that point, but I think it touched upon something worth thinking about. To me, the visual environments of KOTOR offered a poor abstraction of the Star Wars universe. Hence, they did a poor job conveying the sense of intergalactic, space-opera adventure they were intended to convey.

Part of the problem, I think, had to do with the Star Wars universe itself, too much a product of 1970s visual effects technology—awesome for its time, no doubt, but stifling perhaps as an aesthetic influence decades later. Drab spaceship corridors and flat desert expanses don't necessarily make for very engaging experiences when translated to the interactive medium of video game level design. The other part of the problem, of course, was the limited graphical rendering capabilities of 2003 game console hardware. It just never felt like I was exploring a living, breathing planet or space station when I moved around the 3D space. I was too fully aware of the environments as individual maps, separated not by geography but by programmed loading screens.

If The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is any indication, we've come a long way baby. I don't mean to compare apples to oranges here. I'm actually not trying to compare the two games at all. What I am saying, however, is that since first playing this game a couple weeks ago (a bit late, I know), I've never encountered a virtual environment so visually and technologically ambitious.

For those not versed in video game culture, the aesthetic style of The Elder Scrolls series is of the high fantasy variety that regards elves, trolls, and magic swords as the stuff of commonplace. If first we had J.R.R. Tolkein literature, compounded by Dungeons & Dragons role-playing, further compounded by The Legend of Zelda plus two-and-a-half decades of technological innovation, then today we have Skyrim. It's an open-world game in the truest sense of the word. In other words, there is no distinction between background art and foreground art, only a matter of simulated distance and perspective. Those distant mountains aren't just two-dimensional decorations. They represent a physical geography that you as a player are free to explore and traverse, provided you can find a path that isn't too steep for your character to climb.

The name Skyrim actually refers to the fictional region in which the game is set. Bounded by ocean and mountains, the interior landscape encompasses all manner of open valleys, craggy peaks, forests, swamps, and rivers. Skyrim is not the first open-world game. It's not the first and probably will not be the last game to wow me with its incredible scope and detail. That said, the detail in these environments astounds me. It's not just the millions of polygons that comprise both the macro and micro landscape. It's not just the beautiful HD textures that adorn those polygonal surfaces. It's in the sculpting of the geography itself, with its convincing shifts in elevation and assorted placement of boulders and vegetation. Never has a fantasy universe, in and of itself, felt so convincing. Never have I succumbed to such a grand illusion.

An Epic of Ant-Sized Proportions

Out of curiosity, I tried Google searching for an answer to how large is—in relative scale—the over world map of Skyrim. I couldn't find any kind of definitive answer, but some people were saying that the game world was roughly equivalent to the size of the game's predecessor Oblivion, and that game world was supposedly about 16 square miles. Unfortunately, I don't have any data or confirmation to really back that up, but it strikes me as a believable guesstimate. And all in all, I'd say that's a pretty impressive accomplishment, to be able to create such a enormous environment of such detail and inherent authenticity.

Oddly enough, however, I get the feeling that the game is intending to convey a world much larger than it realistically appears. How big is Skyrim supposed to feel? The size of England? The size of France? The size of Rhode Island? I really don't know. But the sheer amount of lore embedded throughout the world and its own implied grandeur—I'm talking annuls of wars and conquests—would seem laughably constricted to a mere 16 square miles. At one point while playing I ran down from an isolated monastery near the top of one of the game's tallest “mountains,” and it took me little more than a minute to get to its base, across a valley, and through the gates of a village called Whiterun. One of the reasons this Olympic-style feat was possible is due to how fast your character can sprint—straight down the side of a sheer mountain, no less. It's almost as if there's an invisible treadmill underneath my feet. But I think it's also because the game world is really not as epic in scale as it leads me to believe. In fact, I think very few game environments are actually as large as implied (Hyrule, Liberty City, etc.).

This isn't in any way a criticism. If anything, it's a testament to a game's capable art direction. The view from a 32-inch widescreen television screen is just not the same as observing the world with full peripheral advantage, and I get the impression my brain is blowing up all that virtual space to a magnified scope. What would this environment actually look like if I were able to inhabit it as a real space, I wonder?

Let's Make This Real

The first time I saw The Legend of Zelda—though it would be a long time before I played it myself—I looked on with a sense of wonder. Those simple graphics (combined with that iconic chip-tune melody) evoked a sense of adventure much larger in spirit and meaning than was contained in the individual parts themselves. I haven't played a new Zelda game since a little bit of Twilight Princess on the Wii, but it's interesting to see how Nintendo has reinterpreted the essence of that series using present-day hardware and technology. It's almost like they took those early abstractions as the real deal, and they've maintained the series as more of a brand than anything else. I do think that Ocarina of Time took the series an incredible step into the third dimension (I'm probably in the camp that ranks it as one of the greatest games of all time), and I'm sure the newest Zelda adventures make for great games as well.

But to me, it's almost as if Skyrim is a more authentic spiritual successor than anything Nintendo will probably ever put out again. It's a game more in keeping with the promises that the original Zelda made to video games as an expressive medium. While I find it hard to evaluate Skyrim for the actual game that it is (there's a lot more to talk about), as an experiment of pure immersion, it's like entering a whole new Hyrule—a vast over world with unlimited secrets and dungeons to explore. At the very least, it's as if someone took the original Zelda (itself a bit of a high fantasy adventure, by way of Japan) and decided to evolve the game's core aesthetic in the direction of photorealism (and now I realize that the first time I talked about Skyrim it had to do with photorealistic violence).

For good, bad, or for neutral, the need for suspending disbelief is becoming continually less of an issue.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

State of the Blog Address

I started this blog a year ago as an outlet for writing, a way to justify my time spent playing video games. I didn't know exactly what topics I would cover—old games, new games, game topics—or what form the writing would take. So far there have been some game “reviews” (although I use the term very loosely), some game-related “essays” (again), and even some attempts at creative nonfiction (emphasis on the “creative”). I guess I've laid out a few ideas that I'm happy about. Maybe.

Overall, I still feel very far from my goal, a bit like Socrates via Plato: “I know one thing, that I know nothing.” Games are an interesting beast, and there are so many ways to approach thinking about them that it can be difficult sometimes to know where to start.

One way to start would be to examine the unique experience of play. And when I say “unique” I don't mean different or unusual, which is not what the word means (seriously, “unique” is one of the most abused words in modern writing). I mean it in the truest sense of the word—as in literally one-of-a-kind. All games rely on a certain amount of variable input and internal randomness as part of their very design. It's part of what makes a game a game. An easy example of this would be an Elder Scrolls game, in which each individual's playing experience is going to be determined by their own meandering path through the sprawling virtual world. More importantly, different people can have different reactions to the same games, partly because of the game's own built-in variability, but also because folks are just plain wired differently and will react to virtually anything uniquely. Needless to say, there can be value in documenting one's personal experience with a game—the emotions invoked or memories recalled. It just takes a skilled writer to make it worth reading.

The second fundamental way to approach a game is through an examination of the game itself—its systems, mechanics, and overall design. How do a game's rules make for an interesting, provocative, or otherwise worthwhile playing experience? This kind of writing requires a perceptive mind, probably some familiarity with games, as well as writing skill.

Now that I've said all of that, you can probably forget everything I've just said. It's not like I really think about these things when I'm choosing something to write about. As much as I would like to be able to find my niche or area of expertise in this wide world of critical discussion, I simply don't have one. My approach is more of the shotgun variety—scattered, frantic, reactionary, imprecise.

I find it's still much easier to play games than it is to write about them. In fact, it's not so much that there is too much to write—because there is—but there is absolutely too much to play! Just offhand I can think of about 15 games I've played over the course of the last year that I haven't gotten around to posting about (a couple of those games I have tried to write about (frantically, imprecisely, etc.) but gave up on them when nothing was working). It pains me to leave them behind, because I genuinely feel that they all merit discussion. It's just a matter of finding the right angle, also a matter of finding the energy and inspiration.

This has got to be the most fascinating time to be player of games, and I'm not sure if I was aware of it a year ago. We have a multibillion dollar industry that is simultaneously dying and flourishing. Even as games make a shitload of money, that revenue is problematically concentrated in sequels and mega-popular franchises (the “blockbusters” of video games). Is there any room for risk or experimentation when, for each game, there are millions of investment dollars—not to mention jobs and livelihoods—at stake? There are untold fortunes to be made through mobile and social gaming, but has it become too saturated of a market for newcomers to make their mark, let alone an income?

Gaming platforms are changing. Games distribution methods are changing. Even the funding models for games are changing. Developers are developing on console platforms that are almost seven years old—a technological eternity!—precisely because there is so much uncertainty and so many unanswered questions. What will happen to Nintendo with the launch of this bizarre new console of theirs?

And just as the major publishers may be on the brink of implosion, more people are making video games than ever before (I don't have empirical proof of this on hand, but I suspect it to be true). The realm of independent game development is becoming just as vibrant and exciting as in the film and music industries. Go check out the Independent Games Festival website and just pore through the  titles that have been developed over the last decade. See how polished they have become. You might be amazed. People who grew up playing video games are gravitating to the medium to make their own games. Why? Because it's still fertile ground! It's become a much more accessible thing to do. There are so many different ideas that have yet to be tested, so many subtle variations of ideas that have the potential to change the entire landscape of games. Through small, independent games, developers have a better chance of making an actual authorial statement.

Unfortunately, I know more about the current games industry through gaming blogs and proverbial window shopping than through actual play. I have a stupidly hard time bringing myself to start new games. I think I take games too seriously. I don't want to go into things half-assed. I want to be sure that when I begin something I can give it my full attention.

It's my own fault, but I think it's partially a reaction I have to the way I see media being consumed in today's day and age. We live in such a hyperactive culture, in which our collective attention span has been reduced to the click of a hyperlink. Exposition has been reduced to an infinite stream of 140-character sound bytes. Games, music, media, and technology—it flows by on a high-speed, one-way conveyor belt. As soon as we pick something up new we're distracted by the next shiny thing whizzing by. I don't want to give anything up. And so it collects and builds up, all these forgotten treasures and junk. Try as I might to inventory it, I know it will never all get done.

Thus far I've really only given myself one rule for this blog, and that is to post something at least once every month. On more than one occasion, it's come down to the last day to get something out the door. It's not my favorite work, but it at least keeps things moving. Tonight I'm giving myself a deadline to post on the anniversary date of my first post, so I can look back evaluate my first year, generate new goals for the future. I can't say for sure how long I'll end up maintaining this particular blog, or whether or not I will continue my minimum monthly quota. But I'll try.

Friday, October 19, 2012

On the List — Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3

UDPATE (3/18/13): There's a slightly better version of this article on Gamasutra. Maybe read that one instead. K thanx.

"On the List" is a series that lets me talk about my favorite video games of all time, games that could potentially end up on a best-of list.

“So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking, racing around to come up behind you again.” - Pink Floyd

As I get steadily older, and as I become further poor of it, my time becomes an increasingly valuable commodity. It seems no matter what I do or don't do, all of my goals and aspirations outpace my ability to reach them. It's not often that I think about death itself, but I do think about approaching middle age. As pointless as it may be, I sometimes worry now about the regrets of what I might not accomplish in five, ten, or even thirty years time—assuming I'm fortunate enough to have them. What's wrong with me, right? Just get out there and live!

I remember when The Sims came out in early 2000. It was a fun little game about the pursuit of happiness—from a decidedly first-world perspective. Create a person or a family. Tell them when to bathe, when to be social, when to practice a musical instrument. Take care of their needs and hopefully watch as they progress through the ranks of their respective careers. And above all, help them to buy and decorate their house with the coolest stuff. The Sims was genre-pegged as a life simulator, but I'm not so sure what that means. I think it's a game that has more to do with socio-economics than with “life”—at least in the grand sense of the word. Where was the drama, the everyday anxiety of existence?

In 2007 I stumbled upon an entirely different sort of game, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. It was just on a fluke that I played it. Somebody gave me a hand-me-down Playstation 2 that hardly worked. As sort of a starter kit, the person who gave me the system also let me borrow this absurd looking Japanese role-playing game (JRPG). The first thing I noticed about it was its sleek anime art style, but I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The game centers on a band of Japanese teenagers who—as with every other band of JRPG teenagers—must contend with a dark and powerful, world-threatening force. Unlike other JRPGs, Persona 3 doesn't send you wandering all over the planet or parading around in big flying boats. Nor does the final battle take place on the moon. It actually takes place on the roof of your school.

Something is strange in the city of Iwatodai. Each night starting at midnight, the moon turns a sickly green color and just about everyone transforms into a coffin—literally. The students' high school morphs into a massive tower fortress known as Tartarus, and a bunch of shadow monsters start wreaking havoc. For some reason, this Dark Hour does not affect a select group of individuals, including the main protagonist, a newly arrived transfer student. These gifted individuals are the only people who realize the Dark Hour even exists. Worse yet, this strange phenomenon seems to be causing an ominous outbreak among the population known as Apathy Syndrome, whereby people suddenly fall into a numb, vegetative condition. As such, the protagonist joins forces with his dorm mates who form the Specialized Extracurricular Extermination Squad (S.E.E.S.). The group's members have dedicated their nights to hunting the shadows inside Tartarus, hopefully to vanquish the Dark Hour from existence.

The most interesting aspect of the game is its structure. Events in the game take place over a one-year period, with the days and weeks counting down to some kind of hinted doomsday. Daytime segments play out like a social simulator. During the weekdays, the player character attends school, then spends the afternoon either hanging out with friends, attending a campus club, or doing some other activity around the town before retiring to the dorm. Then, on most nights, the player has the option to form a party and go fight monsters at Tartarus. This is the combat portion of the game, one enormous grind of randomized dungeons, turn-based battles, and periodic boss encounters.

To say that Persona 3 takes its time is an understatement. As the game goes on, various plot twists formulate. New story clues comes to light. The members of S.E.E.S. undergo their various trials, both individually and as a team. But most days are just regular days, with the player deciding how the protagonist will spend his free time.

And it's within this limited freedom that the game truly shines—as a game. The choices available to the player present themselves in a largely scripted fashion. As the hours tick by from early morning to mid morning, from mid morning to after school and onward, there are moments that come up. Some mornings the game's focus will narrow in on a classroom lecture, during which a teacher will be going on about some subject. If the teacher pops the protagonist a question and the player answers correctly, that protagonist's popularity rating will increase. Sometimes the game will give the protagonist the option to take a nap during a lecture. Whereas doing so temporarily improves the character's physical condition, paying attention to the lecture will result in a permanent increase to the player's academic ranking.

A similar choice presents itself during most evenings. If the player decides not to go battle during the Dark Hour and retreats to the dorm room for the night, there will generally be the option to either stay up studying or go to bed early. These studying opportunities can be valuable for gaining those academic skills. But getting rest is equally important for preparing the body for battle during the Dark Hour and for preventing sickness.

The most interesting choices are the ones that involve social interactions with other characters, sometimes forming social links. During my play through of the game I befriended a fellow track athlete, an eccentric old couple who ran a local bookstore, a drunken monk at a nightclub, an MMO computer game player, a little girl in a park, some of my fellow S.E.E.S. members, and more. Some of these social links are more difficult to access than others. Certain options will not appear until the protagonist has reached a certain benchmark in academics, charm, or courage points. Others are available only through exploring particular areas of the city at a certain time and day of the week. Each of these relationships forms a social link that, when leveled up, allows the player to create more “persona” characters, which are used like summonings during battle. Some story branches lead to other story branches.

My protagonist, for example, had an interesting love life. After going out with a fellow athlete for a while and maxing out that social link, he started following a link with a shy girl from the Student Council Club. When I realized this character was forming a crush on my character, I decided to stop pursuing that social link. It was a tough call, especially knowing that by spending time with the girl she was beginning to overcome her self-confidence issues. Oh well. Closer toward the end of the game, as my character's stats began to reach the higher echelons, I suddenly found myself with the option of pursuing all three of the women in the protagonist's dorm—a pretty satisfying reward for his persistent leveling. Of course, social dynamics played a factor. Dating multiple women at the same time would lead to trouble, and there was probably only sufficient time to pursue one of the three girls.

But I really kind of admire how the game stayed true to this rigid design throughout the game. Unlike so many RPGs that give the player so-called freedom to explore every last quest and side story to their neurotic content, here is a game that forces actual choices. A year is a long time, but not long enough for everything. If the player chooses not to participate in certain holiday festivities, or to pass up on a invitation to hang out with an acquaintance, those social opportunities and potential memories will be lost for good.

I think this resonated most when it came down to the small daily choices—when to sleep, when to study, when to go battle. It's something I relate to every day when I come home from work. What is the best use of my time? Is it in writing (boosting academics)? Going for a run (combat training)? Spending quality time with my wife (improving my social links)? And in this way, the game feels like a much more accurate “life” simulator than any kind of glorified dollhouse game—as great as it may be in its own right.

The game's opening cinematic makes multiple textual references to “Memento mori,” a Latin phrase that translates to something along the lines of “remember your mortality.” It also refers to an artistic theme popular through classical and medieval European history. Painters would depict still-life images of skulls and skeletons to reinforce the message—remember that you too will die! Is Persona 3 a modern-day Memento mori?

Interestingly, the opening animation juxtaposes this textual reference with the game's most iconic image—attractive characters shooting themselves in the head! This is actually the animation that happens all throughout the game whenever a character in combat summons a persona. They do so by aiming a pistol-shaped device called an Evoker at their noggin and pulling the trigger. The characters don't even keel over, but the wispy particle substance that emanates from the other side of the head is clearly meant to resemble something much more violent and permanent.

Is this supposed to be symbolic, the stark reminder of death implied in the “Memento mori” reference? I imagine that's a part of it. But wouldn't an image of suicide sort of contradict the implication of that very reference? I suppose one could argue the game is engaging in a form of psychological reverse engineering, inverting a dark and highly suggestive image of giving up in a way that it becomes a much more positive representation of fighting back. I imagine it's also an exercise in being subversive for subversive's sake. If anything, it's provocative, an interesting way to illustrate the undercurrent of teen angst that flows throughout the game.

Ultimately, I think there's an even greater irony that relates to the entire Persona 3 playing experience. For a game that does such an effective job of reinforcing the seize-the-day outlook, it does an even more effective job of sucking away one's otherwise productive hours. Persona 3 is the longest game I have ever played. While I managed to spread it out over a six-month period or longer, I'm pretty sure my final play through clocked in at over 120 hours (I made sure to basically erase the save file from existence as soon as it was over). I remember being just stunned as the hours continued on past the 50 or 60 mark and just . . . kept . . . climbing. It got to the point that I had to ask my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) for a day of solitude to complete the game. I don't think she took the request very well, but it did the job. I spent probably an entire weekend to wrap it up, and I still had to stay up quite late to do so.

As I mentioned once already, one of the game's optional side stories involves the protagonist playing an online role-playing game. It's bordering on metafiction. In doing so the protagonist befriends a player who goes by the name Maya. It's kind of a fun story segment that involves selecting the dialogue options, which the protagonist types to his online companion. Maya, in return, types back a bunch of playful comments, mixed in with all manner of chat abbreviations and emoticons, and there's a flirtatious little relationship that forms between the two. It's later revealed that the anonymous Maya is actually your character's homeroom teacher, who gets like totally embarrassed when she finds out she basically fell in love with her student. Persona 3—like so many Japanese games—has its cheeky moments, little bits of nerd fantasy indulgence. But the funny thing about that social link is that the option is only available on the weekends. And by playing the online game, the protagonist spends his entire weekend playing the game, thus eliminating the possibility of doing any other activities all day. I swear the game developers at Atlus must be aware of this ridiculous setup they've created. Here I am, whiling away my own precious hours role-playing as a make-believe Japanese teenager who is flirting with a make-believe online game player—to the point that I have to seclude myself from my very real girlfriend to keep playing the make-believe game! Obviously, this was one minor part of the entire game, but it does sort of put things in an interesting perspective.

Looking back, I actually think my time playing Persona 3 was time well enough spent. Not that I ever want to ever go back! This was four years ago when I was knee deep in a very stressful, life-sucking career as a newspaper reporter. It was a job that drained so much of my time and energy, and playing Persona 3 was for a time my mode of escape—not so different from the protagonist taking a deserved break from his own exhaustive battle against the Dark Hour to unwind with a video game. Abnegation, at times, does have its merits.

If you really think about “Memento mori,” there are two ways of responding to the message. One day you will die, so get out there and do something with your life while you still have time! On the other hand, no matter how important you think you are, and no matter how great or small your individual accomplishments, you too will one day die. So what's the point in worrying about everything so much? I'd like to think there's a balance to be found in between the two, and that there's a perfect time for everything. I could spend probably a lifetime trying to find it.

Images were borrowed from megamitensei.wikia.com.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Silent Hill review — Paint It Black

This past month I finished the original Silent Hill game, and for weeks now I've been trying to write something about it. Unfortunately, no good ideas were coming to me. So in order to at least purge this game from my system I've decided to just throw words on paper. I don't know if any of it sticks.

I will just say that it's a very interesting game, far from perfect but almost better because of it … if that makes any sense. Anyway here are some of my impressions.

Start Me Up

Silent Hill has one of the weirdest opening cinematics I've ever seen. I'm talking about the film segment that plays before the main menu comes up, before the player even starts the game proper.

The first thing that stands out is the song by Akira Yamaoka. It's got this haunting mandolin over guitar (I think) that quickly turns into something from a James Bond theme that soon gives way to a bit of a spaghetti western feel. However you want to describe it, it's a good track.

The accompanying CG montage, although it doesn't initially make any contextual sense to a beginning player, is pretty interesting as well, even more so after you finish the game and realize that most of the sequences do not appear anywhere in the actual game. It's only later that you go back and begin to try to analyze what some of the images are referring to—a mansion in an open landscape, a nurse in a physical altercation with a man. The sequence does a good job of priming the brain for what will end up being a rather puzzling experience all the way through.

I Saw Her Standing There

After the opening montage, the game begins with an equally great playing segment. Your player character Harry Mason wakes up in a wrecked car. His seven-year-old daughter is missing. You emerge from the car to find yourself in what appears to be an abandoned town. It's foggy, gray. Snow is falling. You step forward.

You see a figure standing in the distance, partially submerged in the thick fog. Is it your daughter? Just as you approach her she runs away. You run after her, follow her trail into a strange alley. You pass through a gated fence with a “beware of dog” sign, and there's blood on the ground—and a fleshy mess—but from what, or whom? That doesn't look like the work of any normal dog. You keep going, and the alley becomes narrower. You pass through another gate and suddenly it's dark as night, so Harry pulls out a lighter (it might be a match). There's a crashed wheelchair with the wheels spinning. What's that about?

As you continue on the camera angles become all wonky and discombobulating, almost enough to make you want to throw up. There's blood everywhere, then some more scraps of flesh. You see some kind of skinned, crucified body hanging on barbed wire. Then, just as you try and flee in terror, these gray childlike monsters close in on you and stab you to death. And that's just the first four minutes of the game!

Deja Vu

It's almost impossible to talk about Silent Hill without talking about Resident Evil. It's no secret that the Silent Hill franchise was game developer Konami's late response to the survival horror success of Capcom's zombie series. The mechanical similarities are undeniable, from the tank controls to the puzzle solving to the mazes of locked doors and monster-infested corridors. And yet these borrowed mechanics—and their familiarity—serve the game rather well, because at the end of the day Konami ended up making a very different type of game. And it's the similarities that help make Silent Hill's distinct flavor all the more apparent and appreciated.

I've heard a lot of people describe Silent Hill as a more psychological game than Resident Evil. That's true. Silent Hill is a much darker game. Whereas Resident Evil (or BioHazard as it's known in its native Japan) deals with physical mutations and evil corporations, Silent Hill is straight up about the occult and demonic forces.

But that's not the only distinction. Whereas Resident Evil had a very keen focus on strategy, resource management, and the sheer challenge of getting from one claustrophobic corridor to the next, Silent Hill eschewed much of that strategy-based focus in favor of a more streamlined playing experience. Yes, there are ammunition supplies to conserve, but there is no time wasted in having to decide which weapon or ammunition type to carry around at a given time.

Silent Hill is roughly divided into two types of playing maps. There are the open-world segments, in which the player must navigate the large open streets of the town. Then there are what I would argue are the more Zelda-like dungeon areas (an elementary school, a hospital, etc.) that play more like a traditional Resident Evil map. And yet even in these dungeons, the game manages a kind of pleasant flow and progression. There's a method to getting around, which is simply to try and open every door you can, and the correct path becomes apparent through a process of elimination.

The puzzles in Silent Hill are a lot more cryptic than those in a Resident Evil game. Often they involve deciphering clues and hints delivered through pieces of text. There are certain aspects of Silent Hill puzzle solving that feel like a throwback to traditional text-based or point-and-click adventure games.

But one of the most notable (and yet subtle) differences between the two games is the combat. If you were to juxtapose Silent Hill's combat to that of Resident Evil—which has always been somewhat clunky in its own right—the latter game is downright agile in comparison. It's a slow and awkward sight to behold when Harry swings his lead pipe at an enemy, a maneuver that simultaneously leaves him vulnerable to counter attack. His shooting is not very good when not delivered at near point-blank range. And yet these same handicaps reinforce the narrative reality of the situation. The protagonist in Silent Hill is no action hero, and he never feels like one.

Obscured By Clouds

The early days of 3D were not always pretty. The 32- and 64-bit systems that ushered in a new era of real-time 3D rendering did so almost at the expense of the hardware itself. Sometimes it came down to a matter of what the developers were willing to sacrifice—realism or performance. Games with a lot of environmental detail and surface textures were more difficult to render. Thus, developers flooded their games with this environmental fog that masked the embarrassing effect of objects “clipping” into the view of the player.

Silent Hill was probably the first (and perhaps the only) game to really use that technical constraint to its advantage (it almost worked in Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, but not quite). Players wandering through the town of Silent Hill can't see more than about 20 virtual feet in any direction. This in and of itself was nothing new to games in 1999, but in most games this posed a number of problems for the player.

Not being able to identify any significant landmarks in a 3D game world makes it difficult to know where the player is at or where they need to go. Fortunately, Silent Hill incorporates a very helpful mapping system. Harry has a map that he marks on with information as he explores. If a particular street proves unnavigable, the game automatically makes a scribble on that area of the map for future reference. And by pulling out the map, an arrow points in whatever direction Harry's body is currently facing.

And it's usually a good idea to know where you need to go and get there quickly, because wandering through Silent Hill is never safe. There are all sorts of demonic, Lovecraftian monsters lurking around. Due to the fog, it can be almost impossible to know where they're at or how close they are. The Silent Hill developers only partially solved this problem. First of all, Harry receives a portable radio that inexplicably emits a static noise whenever a monster is near. That gives the player a clue to watch their step. But the problem of not seeing the enemies, in this case, isn't such a bad thing. As with the feeble combat, the limited seeing distance creates tension and dread.

Shine A Light

There's another tool in Harry's inventory that adds yet another interesting component to the playing experience. It's a flashlight that Harry clips to his chest pocket, which he automatically turns on during the nighttime (or Otherworld) segments.

I didn't realize until about a third of the way into the game that the flashlight is really an optional device. During the daytime segments, there is no need to use the flashlight and it doesn't come into play. But when it gets dark, Harry actually has the option to turn the flashlight off. While this might seem like an idiotic thing to do, it can be used to the player's advantage. Even though the player will have a harder time spotting the creeping monsters, the creeping monsters will simultaneously have a harder time spotting the player.

During many of the game's open-world segments I often found myself simply turning off my flashlight and running through the darkness as fast as possible. Even though there were monsters nearby, my strategy was just to run and run and hope for the best. It's kind of the equivalent of a child who hears a strange bump in the night and pulls the covers tight over their head, trying to block out the fear by refusing to pay attention. By running blind, of course, the player eventually loses sense of direction. As a rather smart move on behalf of the developers, the game does not let the player consult the map unless the flashlight is turned on. In doing so, however, the player risks giving up their location to whatever enemies are nearby.

Sad Lisa

Silent Hill feels like an incomplete game, almost like a beta test or a clever experiment for a game. Even after the credits have rolled, regardless of whether the player receives either a “good” or “bad” ending, there's really no sense of closure. From a narrative standpoint, it's not readily apparent what just happened at all—logically or otherwise.

We know there is a strange cult in town. There may be some drug trafficking involved. And there may be a crazy woman who sacrificed her seven-year-old daughter in a fire as a means to usher in the birth of some demonic entity. But if the real “story” of Silent Hill exists somewhere as a complete and delicious meal, then the game treats the player more like a dog under the table than a proper dinner guest. We like the scraps we're given and we want more.

The Harry Mason character is more blank slate than Deus Ex's J.C. Denton, an empty vessel meant only to represent the point of view of the player. It's the strange people Harry encounters that are far more interesting.

The most fascinating is Lisa Garland, a hospital nurse who appears in the game's otherworld setting. She's a desperate character, and in the end a tragic character. The first time you see her, she clings to Harry with startling affection (via CG cutscene). As Harry drifts in and out of consciousness between the day world and otherworld, there's a subtle relationship that develops between the two characters.

On the one hand she acts as a kind of anchor. Amidst all of the freakish encounters, Lisa is like a calming and familiar presence, a confidant of sorts. And yet, why is it that she only appears in the nightmarish otherworld reality? Even as Harry makes an offer to try and protect Lisa, she herself appears to be strangely anchored to that hellish hospital where other zombie-like nurses wander around the hallways in a fiendish stupor. Harry's final encounter with Lisa immediately goes down as one of the most gut-wrenching moments of any game I've ever played. Game artist Takayoshi Sato, who singlehandedly created all of the game's CG cutscenes, had an incredible influence over the mood of the game, and his scenes with Lisa Garland are by far the most memorable and effecting.

David's Song

Do you like David Lynch? If so, this is the game for you. Silent Hill is absolutely dripping with his influence (or at the very least wringing juice from a cut of the same fetid cloth). 

Consider the audio onslaught of Eraserhead, the strange industrial noise that permeates the entire film. Silent Hill creates a very similar soundscape, from the diegetic radio static to the sometimes grating and unnerving musical score. Even the game's visual world—as it transforms into an alternate nightmare version of itself, all rusty metal and dystopian decay—shares a similar grotesqueness to the wasteland set pieces of Eraserhead.

Some parts of Silent Hill feel very reminiscent of Twin Peaks. Think of Silent Hill as the quiet small American town with a dark, mysterious undercurrent. There's a CG reel in the closing credits of two game characters sway dancing rather hypnotically and suspiciously, which I'm sure is a nod to the midget dancing in Twin Peaks. But even the setup of Silent Hill has some parallels to the TV series. Twin Peaks begins with the mysterious murder of a teenage girl and an outsider who comes to the town to investigate. Silent Hill begins with an outsider coming to investigate the disappearance of his daughter. It's the plot device that sets all of the madness to follow into motion. One of the game's creators (not sure which one) has been quoted as saying that the name Cheryl Mason (Harry's daughter) is a reference to Sheryl Lee, the actress who played Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks.

Then there are the themes of duality, the Lost Highway ambiguity of what is real versus what is a hallucinatory nightmare and the gradual merging of the two, to the point that there is no longer any real distinction. Who is that doppelganger of Harry's daughter? And isn't it interesting how the interrelated characters of Michael Kaufmann and Lisa Garland appear in the same hospital room, only that Lisa appears in the otherworld version of the room?

Basically, the entire game playing experience is akin to the Jeffrey Beaumont character in Blue Velvet. Like Beaumont, we find ourselves drawn to that darkness, lured deeper and deeper into the knowledge of evil.

Tell Me What You See

There have been a lot of indie titles that have been sporting a retro art style. They look like old 8- or 16-bit games. Nobody that I can think of is touching the look or style of the 32-bit era. Like I said earlier, it was pretty ugly.

But the grainy, pixellated look is absolutely perfect for Silent Hill. The monsters are so much more effective, because frankly it's hard to tell what they look like. They're more suggestive than representative. 

The environmental gore—the fleshy objects, the hanging bodies—leave much more to the imagination than if they were drawn in modern high definition. There are even many sections of the game where the wall textures look like those old ink blot tests.

And I feel that's pretty representative of the entire game. It's open to interpretation.

Silent Hill gets three out of four stars.

Images were borrowed from silenthill.wikia.com.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Work is Fun: A Minecraft Observer's Review

“In every job that must be done there is an element of fun.” – Mary Poppins

It used to baffle me as a child. It seemed almost every weekend my parents wanted nothing more than to stay home and work around the house. My dad would mow the lawn. My mom would toil away on her hands and knees, grasping for weeds in one of her five or six gardens as a heap of roots and other organic detritus collected by her side. I, of course, thought that this was the most boring thing on earth. Who were these people? Why stay home when we could … when we could … we could go to the mall?

If you were to go to my parents' house today and observe the humble magnificence of their property, you might be able to understand — better than I was able to — why my parents preferred their weekend work. I think it's even nicer now than when I lived there. They've got a greenhouse. A pond. There are still a bunch of gardens and places to sit around during the nice summer weather.

But it's funny. If there's one thing that has remained true about my parents' two-and-a-half-acre spread of land, it's that it has never been static. Slowly but surely, it's always changing. Not only are the state of the plants and trees in constant flux (my parents' never-ending campaign against the creeping blackberry vines used to suffer crippling setbacks almost every year) but even the manmade features are impermanent. Once ambitious gardens fall to ruin while new ones thrive. Wooden birdhouses disappear, replaced later on by homemade bells. My dad's first attempt at a pond was for years just a gaping hole in the ground before getting filled back in. These were the types of gradual and sudden changes I didn't notice and appreciate quite as much until I went off to college and started coming home only every few months. My parents' work is never finished. The prominent features change over time as their resources and focus shift between various projects.

I guess I've noticed a sort of parallel phenomenon watching my wife play Minecraft Xbox 360 Edition. It's great. Every day last week I would come home from work and get to hear about all of the mini emergent adventures my wife had experienced that day. Her intrepid mining expeditions. Her taming of a huge pack of dogs and getting lost for hours in the wilderness. Better yet, I got to see the latest iteration of her ever-expanding “home.” I got to watch over time as her survival cabin at the top of a hill became more of a faux-house concealing her much larger bunker underground. Pretty soon her bunker had expanded to encompass most of the hill. Then one day I came home to find that the hill had basically become like one big cobblestone castle. And it all happened one block at a time, without an instruction manual.

I recently watched an interview snippet with Sid Meier, creator of the Civilization series and many other highly regarded computer games. He spoke in pretty plain language about the distinction between fun and work when designing games. If something in his games begins to feel too much like work, they have the computer do that for you. Imagine the tedium if, as opposed to simply commanding your Civilization workers to improve tiles, you had to somehow do that work yourself. Imagine if your peons in Warcraft required that you click continuously on each tree you were making them harvest. It would detract from getting to focus on the bigger picture, the satisfaction of the macro-management.

How interesting then to consider a game like Minecraft, in which almost the entire playing experience consists of simulated labor, and not the kind in which you simply command and watch your minions but rather one that has you play as your own lone minion in a world all your own (which encompasses both master and minion, I suppose). It's essentially a do-it-yourself game. It involves cutting down trees, shoveling dirt, hunting for food, tilling soil, building tools, and moving thousands of blocks from one place to another. I jumped into the game for a little bit the other day and helped my wife completely level half of a mountain. Talk about landscaping. We picked and picked and picked while the sun was up and retired to bed at nightfall. In human time it probably took about forty minutes or so.

What the playing experience doesn't include is the physical strain — the soreness of muscles, the shortness of breath. There's no cleanup involved, no tracking mud into your home at the end of the day. Still, I would wager money to guess that if Minecraft did not make the player “work” for those resources, so to speak, it wouldn't have the millions of players that it does. Minecraft is much more than a game of infinite legos. It really is about the work, or the idea of work.

Because the human species craves work! Rather, they crave the accomplishment that emerges as a result of the work. People enjoy Minecraft for very much the same reason they enjoy sweets. It's biological. A delicious fatty food contains so many calories in such a condensed form that it's almost impossible to pass up. It eliminates the need to forage, the need to hunt. What an incredible opportunity! This is why raccoons pick through the neighborhood Dumpster. It's why the squirrels load up on free food from my parents' backyard bird feeder. The intense desire for accomplishment through work is just as inherent to the human species as is the need for physical sustenance. But whenever an opportunity arises that appears to satisfy what we need, or which appears to eliminate the barriers separating us from those things that we need, that opportunity is very difficult to resist. Minecraft eliminates the unpleasantries of work while retaining its core essence, which is precisely what makes it such a near perfect substitute.

That's really what a lot of video games do so well to begin with — reward the player with a sense of accomplishment. Usually, however, both the reward and the means of obtaining the reward are completely arbitrary. It could be doled out however the designer sees fit. Complete a level, advance to the next one. Defeat a boss, enjoy a cutscene. Solve a puzzle, gain a collectible star. Earn a set number of experience points and level up. Minecraft, by contrast, does not seem nearly as concerned with having to impose a set of goals and objectives upon the player (other than staying alive, perhaps). It says to the player, “This is your world. These are its rules. Do what thou wilt.”

My wife could just as easily venture off into the wilderness, perhaps go exploring the mysterious nether world for the first time. For now she still seems to find just as much enjoyment staying close to home, steadily improving the scenery within rendering distance of her glimmering tower, plucking away at her ever-changing list of pet projects. So much work to do!

It's pure indulgence, sure. Isn't any game? But there are things that Minecraft and other games allow us to experience that we would not otherwise, at least for the foreseeable future, get to experience. Take owning a house, for example. My parents might have had the benefit of purchasing property in the 1970s. They were able to actually build their own home. They have a real landscape on which to sculpt their improvements. It's a little different for my wife and I. At least, the barriers standing in the way of us doing the same thing are significantly greater, 30 years later. My wife's heart literally aches for owning a puppy (well, a very specific pure breed of puppy). We don't currently have the setup to make that particular dream a reality, but you should see how excited she is while playing Minecraft and coming home to her pack of blocky, domesticated wolves. I guess what I'm saying is simply in answer to an internal question bouncing around in my head: Why not enjoy a bit of harmless indulgence when it helps you cope?

(Final thoughts (which are not my final thoughts): There is a lot more to talk about with Minecraft than this piece gets into, especially considering the Xbox version is still rather primitive compared to the latest PC version. I've specifically used the word 'review' here, because my posts titled 'review' seem to get more hits than the ones that don't. I'd definitely like to talk more about my experiences with this game once I've had more of a chance to play it. This game is worth trying out at least once just for the experience of getting lost.)

Images were borrowed from mine craft.wikia.com.