Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What's in a roguelike?

Well, I was going to wrap up the year by posting a link to my second article on Unwinnable and calling it good. Unfortunately, it looks like I waited too long. In my laziness—perhaps as a result of it, for all I know—there seems to be a server issue with Unwinnable that has rendered anything pre-July 2011 inaccessible. Anyway, hopefully that gets resolved soon and I can furnish said link.

Still, that leaves the question of what to post for December 2013. So here's an idea. Let's talk about genre … or rather a particular sub-genre in the realm of video games.

Yes, I still want to be able to call FTL a roguelike.
It's recently come to my attention that some people have taken exception to the term “roguelike” — or rather, its liberal usage as a catch-all genre descriptor for a recent surge of games that involve a heady mix of procedurally generated content and permanent player death. I've written about some of these games on my blog (namely Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac), and in both cases I've basically called them both “roguelikes.”

It's also come to my attention that people have debated the usage of the term for different reasons, on the one hand because it may or may not violate a set of guidelines established by some people who met five years ago at a little get-together in Berlin. Other people say the term “roguelike” is just a bad name. It's confusing. Right from the get-go it references a particular game most people have never even heard about.

I may not have a personal stake in this debate, but I do have an opinion. I guess it just never struck me that the term was problematic.

I myself have never played Rogue or any of its spiritual brethren that used ASCII characters for graphics. For a couple of years I'd heard the term “roguelike” kicked around, not really knowing what it meant. Then, slowly, I began to piece it together. I started reading and following up on games like Epic Dungeon for Xbox Live Indie Games, 100 Rogues on iOS, and eventually the Spelunky remake for XBLA. The latter game particularly piqued my interest, and it was all I could do to resist buying it until it went on sale toward the end of 2012. It turns out I enjoyed the game about as much as I anticipated I would. And yes … it was sort of like being introduced to a new kind of game.

The game was like my own personal dungeon master. Each new attempt to make my way through the mines, jungles, ice caves, and that confounded temple was a unique experience. Each freshly generated level was like unwrapping a mysterious Christmas gift. It could be a Red Ryder BB Gun (a free jetpack waiting for me in a nearby item crate). It could be a lump of coal (a dark jungle level, wherein I stumble into a hive of giant hornets). I had to prepare myself for a multitude of potential scenarios, to gamble my precious time and resources on an unknowable path of downward progress.

This past year I played two of the other popular games commonly associated with the “roguelike” moniker—the aforementioned The Binding of Isaac and the spacefaring FTL: Faster Than Light. As far as I'm concerned, these three titles constitute the holy trinity of the neo roguelike. With no disrespect to the many talented developers who have been working within or around the genre for multiple decades, I think it's really these three games that have put the roguelike under the spotlight for a larger audience.

Partly what I like so much about the more generalized roguelike definition is how it puts the emphasis on something other than a game's central mechanics. In other words, by calling a game a roguelike we're not necessarily dealing with the specifics of what the player is doing. Spelunky could just as easily be considered a side-scrolling platformer, because the player must literally navigate their player avatar through a network of 2D platforms while avoiding hazards and fighting off enemies. Clearly, the same could not be said about The Binding of Isaac, which would more likely be pegged as a top-down dungeon crawler. FTL, which has players strategically managing the crew of a spaceship in a series of real-time encounters, is perhaps the most divergent of the three games, at least in terms of how the player interacts with it. What ties them all together is really more a matter of design philosophy. And while things like procedural content generation and permanent death might still be perceived as rather prescriptive or rigid genre signifiers, as these three games demonstrate, there are many different ways to put those signifiers into practice. There remains a similar quality to the playing experience, one that for me is about learning how to overcome the fresh surprises and incredible odds being stacked against me as I progress (hopefully) closer and closer toward the final boss encounter.

As I mentioned earlier, there's a crowd of people who take issue with the fact that these recent slew of games do not fit the more restrictive set of guidelines for what should be considered a true roguelike. None of these games are turn-based, grid-based, etc. None of them—to reiterate—use ASCII characters for graphics. This is partly out of deference and respect to a particular canon of games that became popular around the same time. It codifies a particular moment in gaming history.

In an attempt to satisfy the demands of the Berlin interpreters, some have suggested we call these modern-day imitators "rogue-lites" or—worse yet—"roguelike-likes." I myself am not a fan of either term. The latter one seems particularly silly and redundant. If we do have to make a distinction, I would rather use the term "neo roguelike," which I alluded to earlier.

I can appreciate the recent efforts of game developer Lars Doucet, who has tried to singlehandedly coin the all-new term “procedural death labyrinth” as a replacement genre name. I could maybe get behind the shortened term “deathlab” if enough other people did the same, but … here's what I really think.

Popular opinion has already spoken.

I think it's already been established by too many people that Spelunky, FTL, and numerous other recent titles are indeed modern-day roguelikes. To try and backpedal seems to do little to elevate the conversation surrounding these games. But more than that, it might be futile. There's nothing wrong with educating people about the past, but people need to understand that genres and terminologies tend to function more like avalanches than like meteorites—they pick up more stuff over time. If you ask a pop music historian what constitutes hip hop music, they might be tempted to correct you in saying that "hip hop" technically refers to an artistic subculture that originated amongst the black and Latino communities of 1970s New York. While most people might use the terms "rap music" and "hip hop" interchangeably, for many the latter usage would be inaccurate, because hip hop also encompasses DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Still, try and tell that to the people who organize the music section at your local big-box retailer. It will probably fall on deaf ears.

Even today, there are those who would argue that a film noir can't truly exist beyond the boundaries of 1958 without being a self-conscious imitator of what was previously an undefined and organic trend in American cinema. And while I admit there may be some truth to this—once a genre (or really anything) has been defined and labeled, it reshapes our perception of the thing—no one can deny that artistic influence shapes all creative output with or without the guidance of established genre definitions. Many of the classic film noir pictures would never have existed in the same way that we know them without the hard-boiled literature that formed the basis of their adapted screenplays. The original game Rogue might not have been the same game without the influence of Dungeons & Dragons.

At its best, genre helps us identify and celebrate the ties, influences, and commonalities that underly a particular work of artistic expression in relation to other works that came before, after, or contemporaneously. Personally, I'm of the opinion that genre should try to be inclusive wherever possible and used as a means to encourage thoughtful elaboration, deviation, and reinterpretation of old ideas. Some of the best genre films, for example, have originated from iconoclasts like Robert Altman, who contributed to our understanding of multiple Hollywood genres by the act of subverting their conventions.

Then again, I also understand that we each must draw our own lines in the sand. Just as a particular camp of people have tried to argue for years that Citizen Cane is a film noir, so have a small but persistent number of people remained adamant that The Legend of Zelda is an RPG series. Determining whether or not a particular work of art fits a particular genre is always a matter of opinion, both to the populace and to the individual.

I will agree that the biggest danger with using the term “roguelike” is its inscrutability to the casual game player. But I'm also of the opinion that people marketing and developing games should find better ways to describe their products than through a reliance on genre tags. I'm more interested in the use of genre as a vehicle for rhetorical criticism. People who will want to know what a "roguelike" game is will be able to find out, just like I did.

As much as I might otherwise steer clear of semantics debates, I actually think it's a little bit exciting that this conversation is happening at all. I think it speaks to the fact that people do want to elevate and advance the way we think and talk about games. And whatever we want to call these particular games in question—be they roguelites, rogue likes, death labs, or something else completely—they've certainly struck a chord.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

So I wrote a thing for Unwinnable...

So I wrote a thing for Unwinnable. You can check it out here. It's a personal reflection on one of my favorite games of all time, Ion Storm's 2000 PC masterwork Deus Ex. The article doesn't really critique the game itself. It has more to do with coming to terms with how the game may or may not have informed my political identity and susceptibility to real-world conspiracy theories—namely those surrounding 9/11.

It was published last Tuesday to coincide with election day, but in reality I finished the article in early September—and I'd been trying to write it since early May.

The piece was partly inspired by a previous Unwinnable article written by Owen R. Smith—an old friend and coworker at my former newspaper job—in which he talks about how the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 made him reconsider his former adulation for the ending of Deus Ex. I had already been toying with the idea of trying to write for Unwinnable for a number of months, so I decided to see if I could respond in my own way to the game that had occupied a similar space in my own mind for so many years. I submitted a pitch to the site and then promptly failed to get my idea off the ground for months.

To be perfectly honest, I'm still not entirely satisfied with how the article turned out. Did I communicate what I had wanted to communicate? Sort of. But I only had a very nebulous idea of what I thought I had to say in the first place.

One of the things I found so interesting was how the choices I made while playing Deus Ex in the year 2000 felt more meaningful and predictive of my political identity than my actual voting choices that same year. Granted, I think that's more of a testament to the sad state of our present democracy than anything else. I really don't think the makers of Deus Ex were trying to make any kind of overt political statement—and my article basically suggests as much. It's more interesting to see how the choices of Deus Ex serve as a sort of personality test for the player, which—again—is not necessarily profound in and of itself. Nevertheless, I wonder if video games like Deus Ex—through their very emphasis on player freedom—lend themselves to a sort of libertarianism. Even when I listen to the rationale that Tracer Tong gives for destroying Area 51 at the end of Deus Ex, it's not a far cry from the rationale that someone like Ron Paul would offer for dismantling large segments of the Federal Government.

For better or for worse, I think there also seems to be a correlation between libertarianism and the conspiratorial outlook. In other words, people with a predisposition toward one have a tendency toward the other.

Obviously, a lot of people would consider this a negative trait. My feelings are a bit more ambivalent. I came to the conclusion long ago that I know very little about what actually goes on in the world—beyond what I can see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears, that is. There is a lot that I can choose to believe based on empirical evidence, popular opinion, and authoritative assurances. But I think it's probably just as unhealthy to subscribe to any old conspiracy theory as it is to write them all off just because they might be labeled such.

At the end of the day, my writerly feelings toward my own material notwithstanding, I did work very hard on the piece and I did manage to make a number of significant content revisions that made it stronger in the end.

As a matter of fact, it's a pleasure to be able to announce the article here at the two-year anniversary for this blog (see here and here). I feel very privileged to be able to share my writing with a larger audience, especially on a site that I truly admire and that has such a respect for the work of the writer to begin with. There's a good possibility that a second article of mine might be going up there in the near future, too. So … stay tuned?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Charmed to my wits end in the Machinarium

One of my favorite pastimes growing up was playing through Sierra adventure games again and again and again. I used to run laps around the fictional Kingdom of Daventry and its neighboring realms, playing speed runs that weren't really speed runs in the early King's Quest games. I had even more fun ripping through time and space as Roger Wilco in the satirical Space Quest adventures. Back then, it wasn't so much the challenge of the game that drew me in—I'd memorized the solutions to all of the so-called puzzles like the lines of dialogue in a movie. It was fun just going through the motions, triggering the animation sequences and sometimes having fun experimenting with all of the goofy ways to lose or die.

So it's interesting to return to the genre in the present day—even for a title as distinct as Machinarium.

Without a doubt, the game is a visual triumph. Its endearing hand-drawn art direction is the heart and soul of the entire playing experience. As I explored each location of the robot city, it was like peering into the daydreams of a gifted illustrator—someone who probably spent the majority of their high school days doodling away at the margins of their notebook papers.

Unlike the Sierra and LucasArts games of the past, Machinarium tells its story without text or exposition. Characters communicate with body language and illustrated thought bubbles. The protagonist is a down-on-his-luck robot, who finds himself cast out from a towering robot enclave by a band of unsavory robot thugs. After sneaking back into the city and succumbing to further gaffes and blunders, the player must uncover and thwart a nefarious plot against the denizens of the city.

The story and style of Machinarium actually reminds me of the silent movie era—particularly the American comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, etc. I have no idea whether the influence is direct or intentional, but the plight of the protagonist does bear some thematic resemblance to that of Chaplin's tramp. The robot, while plucky and persistent, is clearly on the margins of this cold-hearted, industrial society, forced to navigate his many setbacks through impromptu tricks and disguises.

Those are the things I liked about Machinarium. What I didn't always like was how the game actually played as a puzzle-solving exercise.

It seems to me that the game's puzzles tend to fall into one of two camps. First are the environmental puzzles, the ones that involve finding clickable objects and inventory items to use and manipulate. These are the types of puzzles we typically associate with the classic adventure games genre. The second suite of puzzles were more like logic mini-games and brainteasers. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the latter much more than the former. The traditional puzzles rarely make logical or predictive sense, which means the player will resort to brute-force tactics—clicking the mouse cursor all over the screen in hopes of triggering some sort of interaction. In adventure game terminology, we call this activity “pixel hunting.” It's all the more frustrating in Machinarium, because the player is further restricted from interacting with anything outside of a short radius of the character avatar.

Part of the problem is the lack of visual cues. At one point in the game I had solved a pretty challenging mini-game puzzle, which—in my mind—should have progressed a related environmental puzzle. Unfortunately, I hadn't noticed a small button on a panel, because there was nothing that differentiated that button from being anything other than a simple screw, rivet, or any other pencil-textured circle in the homogenous background environment.

With Machinarium, the developers must have foreseen this, because they implemented their own in-game hint and cheat system. For most locations in the game, the player can click on a lightbulb icon that offers a quick hint. Nine times out of 10, these hints are useless. In that case, the player can click on a book icon that enacts a strange side-scrolling arcade game. By winning the game, the player will gain access to a page that shows a visual representation of the solutions to that particular game screen's puzzles.

At first I hated the very thought of this. But let me tell you, it was necessary to go back to that cheat system more than once. And I guess if it's right there in the game, it's not technically cheating, is it?

By the time I made it to the end of the short game, I was happy that I'd stuck with it. And I'm definitely interested to check out some other games (newer and older) from Czech developer Amanita Design. Based on this title alone, however, I would have to say they are much better at animation and illustration than game design.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Hot Dog Homicide

The guys in my freshman dorm section—myself included—used to play large-scale multiplayer sessions of Grand Theft Auto 2 over the campus network. This was in the fall of 2001, probably in the short window between 9/11 and the release of GTA III for the PlayStation 2. I don't even remember who it was that furnished the original copy of the game, but we all pirated it onto our laptops.

Those death matches were a lot of fun. The game would start and you would find your little avatar placed in some random location of the sprawling city. Your safest bet—regardless of your positioning—was usually to get your feet off the pavement and into a vehicle as quickly as possible. The easiest and funniest kills involved simply finding and running over anyone who hadn't yet managed to steal a car.

Our afternoon play sessions didn't last very far into the semester, which is kind of a shame. There was a quality to those matches that was both Darwinian and democratic. None of us had come to the game with any prior experience, so nobody ever dominated. We were equal-opportunity psychopaths.

A few of us struck out on our own and tried playing the single-player game, and that's when we got a taste for what the GTA experience was really about. I distinctly remember huddling around some friends and watching a dorm mate play one particular mission that involved rounding up random, unsuspecting citizens on a hijacked transit bus and driving them to a nearby meat-processing facility. From there, a Russian mafia boss tells the player character to go to the top of the cage and supervise (which really just means watch) as the passengers—now stripped naked—are brought in and forced at gunpoint onto a conveyor belt headed toward the grinder.

I think our collective jaw dropped at the scene that unfolded—crude sound effects of people sobbing and pleading, a cluster of reluctant victims running backward off the belt and being mowed down by machine gun fire. I couldn't have been the only person to notice the resemblance of this massacre to a particular historic event, now being turned (whether intentionally or otherwise) into some kind of cartoonish parodythe punchline being a hotdog delivery van filled with fresh cannibal chow.

“That's fucked up,” said the guy playing the game, and he was right.

Still, we couldn't help but laugh—just a little bit—if only at the sheer audacity. Or maybe just to counter the shock.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Requiem for a Halo

Creating a sequel is no enviable task, even less so when the original artifact is something truly special.

Granted, there is perhaps the thrill—particularly for newcomers—of becoming a part of the saga, of being able to contribute to a great and admired legacy. But fans are a prickly bunch—very difficult to satisfy. The fans don't always know what they want. A sequel has to be innovative, of course. But it can't stray too far from the original source, not in spirit and certainly not in whatever has been deemed canonical. It must be … faithful.

Having played through the first few missions of Halo 4, I think I can safely say the developers at 343 Industries have remained faithful to the Bungie games that came before it—for better and for worse.

I like the Halo games. They tend to have a nice clean aesthetic. They're linear and easy to navigate. You see your objective marked off in the distance and you make your way there—picking off all the enemies standing in your way. I like to play on the heroic difficulty. It gives me just the right balance of fun and mild challenge. Playing legendary is slow and punishing. Heroic moves at a much nicer pace. Sure, I still end up failing a lot and repeating the same firefights, but I know there's never any doubt that I'll soon get it—it might even be close and a little bit exciting. I'll shoot down one of the last standing elites, my shields blasted down to nearly nothing. Then I'll see those two glorious words display without fanfare at the bottom corner of the screen: “Checkpoint... done.”

At the same time, I know these games are stupid. I think it was while playing Halo: Reach that I finally saw how stupid it really was. It was most evident while playing with the game's Firefight mode, which sends increasingly difficult waves of Covenant enemies to attack your position.

It was during these staged battles that I began to question the entire Covenant military strategy. You see, the Covenant are an alliance of alien races, all bound together in service and adherence to some kind of religious order. There's a social hierarchy to the species, which shows in their military structure. The Grunts are the lowest ranking members—the cannon fodder. They're the squat, slow-moving creatures who get sent off to the front lines of skirmishes. Half the time they can't even figure out where they're supposed to be going, their relentless squeaking chatter giving away their position as they approach. When a human soldier actually engages them in combat, it's not uncommon for these grunts to simply turn around and waddle away in terror.

The next most-common enemy is the Jackal. Sometimes I think these guys are even stupider than the Grunts. The Jackals are easily spotted by the circular colored energy shields they carry around with them (some enemy types from this species forego the shield for a two-handed rifle). Their modus operandi is to fire off the occasional shot from behind cover before deciding—for whatever reason—to start creeping around the open battlefield, often turning their shields away from the line of fire in the process. Some are a little better at staying hidden than others, but when you happen to approach a Jackal in close quarters, don't worry—they're extremely frail and timid. Most of the time you can just punch them repeatedly until their shields peter out and they die. You'll feel like the playground bully, but it's faster than wasting ammo on their shields and having to reload.

The Elites are a different breed, and their name is no misnomer. Elites are the true soldiers of the Covenant military. They're tall, athletic, and they come equipped with surprisingly effective energy forcefields that the player needs to wear down before being able to impart any lasting physical damage. These guys employ much more believable fighting tactics. They take cover when shot at. They charge when desperate. Simply put, they're a worthy adversary.

I guess it just makes me wonder, why does the Covenant bother with the Grunts and Jackals at all? Are they simply meant to soak up and deplete the enemy's limited ammunition? I guess that might be a reasonable explanation if the rest of the crew managed to get the job done. But the Covenant troops are constantly failing—to a lone space marine, no less! As opposed to placing the Elites at the outer edge of the conflict, would it be more effective if they just rushed out with a giant horde of Elite soldiers right from the get go? Think of the terror and panic that would induce! Think of how quickly the humans would be wiped out.

That's close to what actually happens at an early point in the first game of the series, 2001's Halo: Combat Evolved. On the third level, the Master Chief and a band of human soldiers sets out on a kind of suicide mission—to covertly infiltrate a Covenant capital ship and rescue the imprisoned Captain Keyes.

This is such an awesome game level, punctuated midway through by one of the most memorable fight sequences of any video game. As the player and a crew of allies gets beamed aboard the Covenant vessel, they find themselves standing in the center of a dark empty loading dock. Master Chief's A.I. companion Cortana makes an obvious, cautious observation about the lack of Covenant forces. This of course reassures no one. The player knows something is about to happen—the setting is beyond ominous, and at this point completely foreign. Suddenly, one of four surrounding doors makes a soft pulsing noise and flashes color. As it slides open, the familiar growl of an Elite soldier echoes inside the dark chamber (prompting one of your human compatriots to utter the famous line, “No Covenant. You had to open your mouth!”). If the player manages to locate which door has just opened, they might spot the nearly invisible enemy rushing forward with some kind of glowing energy sword.

Most of the people who play this sequence their first time through probably get slaughtered immediately. It's such a startling encounter, such a great way to introduce players to the sword-wielding Elites. The first time I ever managed to clear each of the ensuing waves, I ended up being the lone human survivor. During later attempts I was able to arrive at that location with a better strategy. I knew to lob grenades at the first sign of approach. But that first time … what an exciting challenge!

Unfortunately, there's not much that can top an excellent first impression, and the original Halo had a lot of firsts—the first ride in a Warthog vehicle, the first tango with Covenant Hunters (twin armored juggernauts with high-powered energy canons for guns), the first major gameplay twist introducing the dreaded Flood creatures. Hell, just booting up the game for the first time and and hearing that epic a cappella theme was an event. Subsequent games tried to replicate these iconic moments—it seems like most Halo games include an obligatory infiltrate-the-Covenant-ship mission—but they were never as surprising and rarely as effective the second time around.

Jumping ahead to the latest entry in the series, it all just feels a little strange. For the third time this console generation, the franchise has returned sporting cleaner, crisper graphics. They're high-fidelity graphics, yes, but with regards to what? Everyone knows there's no such thing as a “real” Covenant alien. So why are we so easily led to believe that these crispier and crispier representations are any more or less “accurate” to the mythical real thing?

I certainly think it's cool to play games with shinier graphics, but how is this constant pixel-pushing serving the series overall? Is it being used to tell a better story? Maybe that's asking too much from a Halo game. Is it at least being used to present new surprises or innovative enemy encounters—new memorable firsts? Unfortunately, I can't really say I'm in love with Halo 4's new enemy types, but at least it's an attempt at something new. One of the things I did during my last play session was to step into a mech suit, which was certainly another first for the series—and a bit of a surprise.

I think the original Halo accomplished something genuinely amazing in its day. It made the shooter fun … for everybody. If not everybody, it made the shooter accessible to anyone who would ever have any interest in playing a shooter.

Think of all the titles that came before it: Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Half-Life, Goldeneye 007. Were they fun? If you were already into games, almost undoubtedly yes. But they still had their quirks. They were mostly PC games. Halo: Combat Evolved made the experience of first-person shooting as kinetically fun, intuitive, and as streamlined as it would ever conceivably get. It did so many things right. It offered the best cooperative multiplayer experience of any almost game to date. Its competitive mode was incredibly well-balanced. It also told a coherent story that wasn't all juvenile gags and bloodlust. Halo was the Star Wars of video games, a true popcorn game if ever there was one.

Today, 12 years later, the shooter finds itself in an awkward position. Sure, the genre still sells like hotcakes, but I'm not sure it generates the same enthusiasm it once did. We're hearing more and more voices in the wilderness calling attention to this glut of shooting insanity (for starters, see here and here). These are smart, critical minded individuals rightly questioning the present-day value of games that revolve around shooting things from a first-person perspective—maybe from any perspective.

And the Halo series certainly doesn't get a free pass for being sci-fi. Just because it substitutes its human targets for alien ones, it's still a series that glorifies the whole notion of military force. Halo 4 can try to re-frame the picture all it wants to with its opening cinematic (and whatever follows … like I said, I haven't finished the game), posing the question of whether it's the Master Chief's humanity or utter lack thereof that makes him an effective fighter. At the end of the day, we're still shooting sentient creatures in the face.

I wonder, is every shooter in a post-Spec Ops: The Line industry going to have to make some kind of straw-man attempt at justifying its own violent systems? BioShock Infinite is probably the most notable recent example of this dilemma. It's really no secret what's going on here. We're no different from all these gruff, battle-weary protagonists in our games. We've sustained ourselves for so long on shooting for shooting's sake—it's the Rambo effect. We don't know anything else. The industry can't help but transfer and project this weariness into its own games, and these moral questions are merely circling back on themselves in an infinite loop. All this immense effort of stuffing meaningful narrative into these games isn't going to work if we're still making the same games at heart.

Did I mention I do enjoy the Halo games? I do, and I meant all those nice things I said earlier. But I'm not going to be sad if this is the last Halo game I ever play. There's just no getting around it—this series is tired. Master Chief is tired. That's not to say he won't or can't fight. He's a Rambo character. He's invincible. But there's just no joy in victory anymore—no joy for this series. Remember when the Halo games still had humor? They cast David Cross as the voice of the human soldiers in Halo 2, for Pete's sake—and it was great! The Halo games lost whatever semblance of humor they still had with the passing of the original Xbox. So, yes. Master Chief is tired, and frankly, he's also a little cranky. If we could peer behind that golden helmet visor of his, I know his expression would prove me right.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Running the Gauntlet

I thought I wanted to be done with it—to move on with my gaming life. I was wrong.

Having clocked in at more than 108 hours on my first play through, Dark Souls comes pretty close to being the longest game I've ever played. Granted, I could have finished it sooner, but I knew that once I defeated the game's final boss I'd be forced back to the beginning of a new play through—my access to all the unexplored locations cut off until I could manage to run my way back through the long, punishing gauntlet once again.

So I consulted online to see what other optional content was left to experience. I let myself be pulled into the Painted World of Ariamis, a ruined stronghold with an apparent legacy of bloody violence, strewn as it was with hanging and impaled corpses, infested with crazed and in some cases gigantically head-swollen, toxic-blooded hollows (insane, undead enemies), as well as new monsters even more fearsome and grotesque than almost anything previously encountered. Even in this cut-off—possibly imaginary—place of magical exile, the undead curse had taken hold.

I later made my descent (more like a death-defying, vertical plummet) through the Great Hollow to the quiet and immense basin of Ash Lake, a place where immortal pillars of vegetation held up the canopy of the entire world above.

By chance, I managed to pick up the Artorias of the Abyss DLC for a discount price on Xbox Live, and the timing couldn't have been better. After a frustrating first night of halted progress—hindered by my inability to slay the corrupted knight Artorias—my second evening with the new content was among my most fruitful hours of play in the game to date. After deftly taking down Artorias with the help of a summoned phantom, I managed to go solo against two further bosses (two of the toughest in the entire game) and restore peace—perhaps?—to the land of Oolacile.

I vanquished another hidden boss. I sought out any remaining secrets until there was nothing left to do. By the time I found myself attacking the game's non-aggressive NPCs, simply to claim their loot and humanity for a possible NG+ (new game plus) run, I knew it was time to finish the game—time to put this long journey to bed.

But then—lo and behold!—almost as immediately as I had cut down the ancient Lord Gwyn with my black knight great axe, pondered the unsettling non-closure of its ending cinematic, and returned to the game's title screen, I found myself back inside the character creation interface, trying to come up with a name for my brand new female sorcerer.

Just to be clear, I have never done this before! As much as I've enjoyed a good role-playing game in the past, I've never felt compelled enough to go back and do it again—at least not without a considerable amount of time in the interim, as in several years. And even then, I've never managed to make it very far into a second play through before abandoning my quest.

The funny thing is, I know I'm not the only person who has experienced this with Dark Souls. What is it about this game?

There's already been a lot of insightful commentary written about this game. The sense of place is palpable, something I've only marginally conveyed in my above descriptions. Lordran is a world with variety, character, and genuine "wow"-factor scale. The game's online interconnectivity with other players is forward-thinking.

What surprises me the most, however, is how well the game overcomes what might otherwise be considered a rather simplistic element of its design, which is the largely static nature of things. I'm talking about a game world populated entirely with pre-positioned enemies who remain non-aggressive—and for the most part motionless—until a certain programmed radius is intruded upon.

Once that radius is breached, of course, the meat of the game ensues. The dance of combat. Relentless exchange of swings, kicks, rolls, blocks, parries, and dodges as each enemy reveals its unique pattern of movement and defense. This is a far cry from the world of procedural generation or dynamic world simulation. It's a rudimentary approach, but it's designed with precision. And it works. Each new enemy or group of enemies presents a distinct, life-threatening challenge that is typically bested only with patience, practice, and observation.

Taken as a whole, the game is really one giant crushing gauntlet, a multi-directional barrage of pain. Everywhere you go, your enemies await—on your left, on your right, from above—their only purpose to deal the most possible damage and humiliation as you pass. And it is painful. As the game deals death after death, the repetition can be excruciating—like a nightmare version of the Groundhog Day syndrome.

But … it gets better. The grind pays off, and not only because the player gains a statistical advantage through leveling. There's an equal growth curve in terms of skill.

My first play through of the game was as a bandit build. I started out proportionately high in strength and continued in that vein through my leveling. But I also got a little distracted by throwing some precious points into faith, intelligence, and attunement, traits that I did not utilize practically at all. My best bet in battles was generally to strike hard and heavy and to block between hits—keeping an eye on my stamina gauge. By the time I had discovered a full set of black knight armor near the final boss, I couldn't resist turning it into my main duds for the rest of my play session.

With my sorcery build, I've been smarter in my leveling. I understand the convoluted mechanics more clearly. And it's been a much different overall experience, easier in some instances and more difficult in others. This time my main strategy has been to take enemies down using magic projectiles—trying to steer clear of physical contact as much as possible.

If it had simply felt like more and more of the same, I might never have kept playing. As it stands, I'm now over 50 hours in and arrived once again at the previous crossroads. Having vanquished all of the required bosses save for the final Lord Gwyn, I could easily make my way to the Kiln of the First Flame and cash out. Instead I'm poised ready to try my hand once more at saving the darkened kingdom of Oolacile in the DLC content. From there it will be another trip to the Great Hollow and Ash Lake. And then—finally—I might actually conquer the final obstacle and retire from the world of Dark Souls once and for all.

But I'm not making any promises.

Images were borrowed from http://darksoulswiki.wikispaces.com.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Dark Side of Nostalgia

There's a game that's been on my radar since first reading about it on The Verge last October. It's called Routine.

There weren't a whole lot of details released at the time, and from what I can tell now, there still haven't been, aside from a new alpha gameplay trailer that you can see embedded right above you. But from the information that has been fed, consider my interest piqued.

It's a first-person, sci-fi horror game about a derelict moon station that the player has supposedly been sent to investigate. The game features permanent death, forcing players to be always alert and mindful of their decisions. It also foregoes a standard heads-up display, meaning there should be nothing to distract the player from the immersion of the environment.

And, I must say, from the early announcement trailer to this newly released footage, it's the environment that has really captured my attention. The aesthetic of the game is built around a vision of the future circa 1983 or thereabouts—one in which floppy disks and other now primitive computer technology is the cutting edge. From the look of things so far, I'd say they've nailed it. It's in the gray computer consoles. It's in the boxy station architecture with the rounded rectangular windows and TV screens, the Spartan corridors decorated and sprinted into visual motion by way of simple, dark color stripes.

Many people have been quick to point out the recent surge of retro aesthetics cropping up in games. There's the Saturday-morning cartoon neon flair of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. I've recently been playing quite a bit of Hotline Miami, which takes something like an artificial coke-addled memory of 1980s Florida to use as the backdrop for its—how to say it—ultra-pixel violence?

I think those are different from what's going on here. The retro look of Routine is neither parody nor abstract. It's a high-definition, totally realized and believable setting, and it strikes me as a brilliant move on so many levels.


Because, from a certain point of view, nostalgia in itself can be terrifying.1

Maybe it's because the era that's been so effectively encapsulated represents a time that I actually lived through, but I was also young enough that my memories are unreliable at best. I associate these aesthetics with my childhood and all of the confused and buried emotions that go along with it—the thrill of discovery (with a mind neither corrupted by nor enlightened with the perception of reality) coupled with the crippling urge to flee from everything dark or scary and simply crawl back into the womb. The fact that Routine borrows from the very aspects of 1980s culture that would most represent this convergence of real human wonder and dread—emerging computer technology—only serves to heighten the psychological tension.2

I listened to a 10-minute conversation with one of the game's developers from Lunar Software, and from the way he was describing things, it makes me wonder if there will even be a traditional win-state to the game. He at one point describes his vision for Routine as being more of an experience rather than a traditional game. They seem to be describing a built-in randomized structure, as if multiple players will end up uncovering different secrets and aspects of the moon base—suggesting that no one person will have a complete view of things. Will this be the Proteus of survival horror?

Maybe not quite, but I'm looking forward to whatever it will be. Even that depends on whether I'll be able to play the game—not just because it will need to be released for Mac (according to their Steam page, it will be). It's also a matter of whether or not I'll be able to face the horror. I've had my Humble Bundle copy of Amnesia: The Dark Descent sitting on my hard drive for months, but having seen prior footage and read some of the commentary about the game I haven't yet mustered the nerve to give it a try for myself.

Here's a last bit of interesting information. If you haven't yet watched the trailer, take a look now. It looks fantastic, yeah? It's actually being developed by a team of just four people—three full-time developers and one contracted sound designer. That's incredible.

Oh, and the game is also coming to the Oculus Rift headset, which I guess is pretty cool ... if you're into that sorta thing.

1. For a long time growing up, my sister and I used to watch The Price is Right every morning at 10 a.m. I loved that show—the set pieces and the tactile, moving nature of the individual games. And, come on, Bob Barker was the man. Later on, in middle school and high school, if I ever happened to be home during a weekday and I watched the show, it became slightly unsettling. It was years later and yet nothing had changed. It was like the reverse of cryosleep. Instead of returning from an interstellar journey, still young in body and looking out upon a radically aged world, this was like watching an anomaly of the space-time continuum—something forever stuck in a temporal stasis. As much as we think we might yearn for the past, there's a part of us that understands change as a natural process, cultural progress as a worthwhile ideal.

2. Take a look at the 0:35 mark on the alpha trailer. There's a robot that walks by that looks like an old Macintosh computer on legs, emitting the kind of sound you'd expect to hear from a battery-operated toy (remember that Electronic Talking Battleship game your family was probably too poor to own?). It's a perfect example of that horror and fascination all wrapped up into one package. Machines on the edge of both servitude and sentience. Childhood innocence turned to foreboding. This is not, of course, entirely groundbreaking. It's recapturing the same latent paranoia that fueled much of 1980s sci-fi cinema. The cool thing now is the ability to re-frame that paranoia given 30 years of hindsight.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Loss is more

I had a friend once who lost a finger. It was the unfortunate culmination of a construction job, a scroll saw, and an momentary lapse of concentration. He was all right in the end. It was a just pinky finger, and only a day after it happened he was making jokes about the whole incident, more a testament to this individual's character than anything else. But still, I remember it kind of shook me. How would I respond to that kind of loss?

Sometimes I look at my own hands. I move my fingers one by one in a swift, rhythmic motion, as if they're treading water or pressing against some tiny invisible bicycle pedals. I see my bones press up against the skin of my backhand like the spindly metal arms of a typewriter, and I marvel at how simultaneously complex and fragile I am as a physical form—a soft package of nerves and flesh and blood, capable of moving and feeling and accomplishing an infinite number of tasks and feats, but also subject to immediate termination should it intersect with some fast-moving sharp (or, more likely, blunt) object.

Anyway, the point is that some things heal. Other things don't. Some things can be reclaimed. Other losses are permanent. That's life.

As we all know, video games—even the ones that emulate it—are not life. Okay, video games can be life for those of us that spend a lot of time playing them, but I'm really talking about what games represent. Everything is ultimately expendable in games, even 'lives.' Video game lives are a plentiful digital commodity that, unless they happen to be tied to quarters in an arcade cabinet, can be very easily resupplied through the quick punch of a reset button or its equivalent. This is one reason why games are so incredible. They can simulate just about any activity, while at the same time removing almost all danger and consequence.

All the same, I've been thinking for a number of years now about how fresh it would be to play a game where this wasn't necessarily the case. I would play a stealth-acton game like Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and chide myself for my habit of restarting a checkpoint immediately after being spotted and shot at by a patrolling guard. I wouldn't even have to die. I just didn't like the fact that I'd been compromised and forced to absorb bullets. It wasn't the narrative I wanted to believe. And so I'd try again, and again, and again. By the time I actually managed to perform my so-called 'perfect' play-through, it was a stale, lifeless accomplishment.

In many respects, this was really just a matter of discipline. The game wasn't forcing me to behave in this manner. I was doing it of my own free will. And it wasn't just Splinter Cell. It was really a pattern of behavior that would manifest itself in other games as well, particularly ones that allowed me to save anywhere. A creeper in Minecraft would destroy my laboriously constructed home, and instead of dealing with it I would reload a previous save. My companion Lydia would die valiantly in the bowels of some Skyrim dungeon. Did I give her the humble honor of 'a good death,' as one particular orc in the game liked to say? Oh no. I resurrected her every time.

And so I began to look out for a game in which I could learn to actually practice this idea of letting go—yield control of my ability to reverse my mistakes or bad decisions.

One game that seems to encourage this is Civilization V. After all, here's an example of a turn-based strategy game—emphasis on the word 'strategy.' What's the point of playing a game of strategy if you don't allow your poorly strategized decisions (usually, in my case) to play out to conclusion? I've more recently come to enjoy the permanent deaths of Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac. As it turns out, the roguelike lends itself to this kind of playing style as a matter of its design philosophy, which is great, but even a rouguelike has its limitations. By nature of its difficulty, a roguelike game teaches a player to be both cautious and daring at every step, but it also tends to foster a kind of attitude whereby nothing is precious. Whereas victory becomes a genuinely satisfying accomplishment, that victory is more often that not simply an outlier experience, a monument built atop the burial of hundreds, if not thousands, of previous failures. There's no point in really mourning all those losses as anything truly lost.

I'm happy to say there's another game that does a remarkably fine job of allowing the player to experience loss. I'm talking about The Walking Dead, an episodic adventure game series developed by Telltale Games, based on the popular graphic novels created by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore. I had been hearing a lot of good things about these games over the course of 2012. I think it's the first game that really managed to nail the episodic format. It was a running water cooler conversation. People were talking about these games like a television show. Having finally played the games myself now, I can see why.

So if it wasn't obvious from the title, The Walking Dead is yet another game about the zombie apocalypse. Unlike the glut of zombie stories that treat the subject as either one of horror or satire, The Walking Dead series falls closer to drama—intense, violent, shocking drama. It sort of asks the question, what would life be like if this really happened? Specifically, the game puts the player in the shoes of a character named Lee Everett (voiced by Dave Fennoy) as he makes a go at survival among a band of fellow struggling humans.

While 'adventure game' is probably the best available genre for which to describe The Walking Dead, it's a lot different from adventure games of the past. Yes, there are point-and-click segments aplenty, whereby the player uses a cursor or reticule to interact with objects in the environment, and to call these segments irrelevant would probably be a bit overzealous. But I don't think it would be unfair to say that the real standout portions of the game occur largely outside of that traditional framework. It's in the conversations with other game characters. It's in the interspersed moments of crisis, danger, and trauma, when the game confronts the player with a series of timed choices. What do you as the player character say in a given situation? Who do you save? Who do you hurt? Where do you go?

At first I wasn't sure if I liked it. Its earliest instances of decision-making felt strangely binary and mechanical. There was one early encounter that particularly irked me. Some zombies attacked. A good person died. But it all seemed so cheap. I felt I hadn't been given enough time and information to turn that situation towards a better outcome. Maybe I helped the wrong person. I still don't know. The important thing was that I didn't bother going back to try again. I didn't go online and look up what else might have happened. I would treat it, as best as I reasonably could, like a 'real-life' scenario. I found myself more interested in actually internalizing the situation as an honest-to-God role-played experience.

I think the four episodes that followed actually ironed out some of those early kinks. The moments of choice felt more personal and organic. They were based on relationships and power dynamics with other characters. Certain decisions and conversations stacked on top of previous decisions and conversations. Dialogue options seemed both appropriately varied and surprisingly believable.

The Walking Dead is far from perfect. But it's a thrilling and surprisingly emotional experience. And I ask myself a similar question that Tom Bissell poses at the end of his critique for Batman: Arkham City when he says, “Am I alone in wanting to play a game this good about something other than a dude in a batsuit?” Should I hold The Walking Dead in less regard for being another game about zombies? I think the short answer is no. The Walking Dead isn't really about the zombies. It's about living at the end of your limits. It's about cutting through the bullshit of everyday existence and being forced to come to grips with what really matters. It's about holding onto a diminishing notion of humanity in a desperate world that has otherwise gone to hell. It's about the heavy weight of our choices in both word and deed, and coming to terms with the fact that real loss is permanent.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Wave of Mutilation

I find that when playing The Binding of Isaac, my rate of progress is inversely proportional to the unmolested appearance of my (digital) physical form. And for a game that starts me out as a naked crying child lying fetal in a shit-covered basement, that's really saying something. But it's true. The more unrecognizable I become, the better chance I have of beating the game.

To the uninitiated, The Binding of Isaac is an indie rouguelike dungeon crawler, created by Edmund McMillen (one half of the duo who brought us (the unassailable) Super Meat Boy) and Florian Himsl. The premise of the game takes a cue from the Biblical story of the same name—the one where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac on an altar and Abraham actually gets to the point where he raises his knife and then God intervenes, tells him to stop, and congratulates Abraham for passing the obedience test. In McMillen's modern retelling, Abraham is traded out for a psychotic Christian mother who gets a message from God to take the life of her son. In the moments before his slaughter by kitchen blade, Isaac discovers a hidden trapdoor in his bedroom and hops down into a hellish basement, which I'm pretty sure—if this were taken to be a real-world scenario—represents the moment of trauma-induced personality splitting. In other words, Isaac's mind makes a heroic getaway from reality.

The game itself is like a giant randomized Zelda dungeon with an ugly brown color palette and a penchant for grotesque monsters that fall everywhere along the spectrum of maggoty, larval, arachnoid, and demonic. Each new room presents a fiendish surprise. It could be as harmless as a couple of flies buzzing around some piles of feces or as sinister as a horseman or two of the apocalypse. You could say The Binding of Isaac is where the eschatological and scatological intersect. It's also a Freudian playground. Did I mention that your default starting weapon is projectile tears? Isaac literally cries his nightmares to death.

Of course that's just the beginning. For the player bent on actually beating the game, Isaac's starting condition simply isn't going to cut it. When not busy clearing a room of monsters, the player's secondary objective will be to scrounge around for access to items that will—hopefully, but not always—improve Isaac's chances of survival. Some items grant Isaac an extra heart of health. Others increase his speed, damage, or the distance and fire-rate of his tears. Some items function like a secondary weapon that can be used and recharged by defeating more monsters.

The game includes about 200 unique discoverable items, some of which were added as part of the Wrath of the Lamb downloadable expansion—and I must say, it is pure delight to stumble upon an item you've never before encountered, because its effects are never immediately obvious.

If the game's premise were not already gruesome enough, its use of items adds even further context. They're like the fragmentary narrative details that surface in the aftermath of a disturbing news story about a man discovered to have been living with a second family hidden in some underground bunker—maybe he dressed them up in clown wigs and had them sleep on piles of hay. Discoverable items in The Binding of Isaac paint a similar portrait of neglect and abuse. Isaac picks up a can of dog food, which the game labels “dinner,” and gains an extra heart piece. Or he finds and dresses himself up in mom's lipstick, heels, and underwear, each of which—when collected—add to his projectile range. These are some of the more brazen examples, the ones that make you chuckle painfully to yourself, because you realize this is comedy at its edgiest but comedy nonetheless. Many items derive from your everyday religious iconography—the halo, rosary, pentagram, and ouija board. Others are just plain bizarre, usually with a bent toward the grotesque.

I've already written about the joy of the rougelike experience in my review of Spelunky (where I also linked to an excellent essay regarding the refreshing unfairness of The Binding of Isaac), and I'm pleased to see many of that game's design philosophies carried over into this one. But I find myself even more interested in this idea of mutilation as the path to victory. I never quite know how my character is going to look by the time I finish a game—most likely in defeat—but I know it won't be pretty. Most of the passive items have some kind of disfiguring effect, which will stack up on prior disfigurements. I might end up bloated from lard, sickly green with a cold virus, shooting red beams from a cyborg laser eye, with an iron coat hanger protruding from my head. I may be the color of brimstone with devil horns and a bloodshot cyclops eye. I may be gliding like the cherubim over the pits and boulders. Who knows?

In another game, these items would be called powerups, and even in The Binding of Isaac, that's essentially what they are doing. They're making the player character more mathematically powerful against the hordes of enemies. But by their thematic subversion, they help to actually tell the game's story.

Now, I've done a lot of item scavenging in video games. Just this past weekend I was looting desks, trash cans, corpses, purses, and boxes of caramels (stuffed with hot dogs?) in Bioshock Infinite. Unfortunately, that game's narrative is so discordant with its bloated gameplay systems, it didn't end up meaning anything that my character was eating food pulled from the trash. In The Binding of Isaac, I am digging for spare change in excrement, and—what can I say?—there's just no getting around that I'm digging through excrement. My narrative situation has truly plummeted me to such lows.

I've tried to think of any other games that have similarly turned the tables on traditional protagonist empowerment. I couldn't come up with any concrete examples, aside from some vague, recurring game themes that have to do with the corrupting nature of violence, soul harvesting, etc. But what other game has rejoiced so profoundly in the suffering of its hero?

It's no secret McMillen has a complicated history with religion. He's basically gone on record to say The Binding of Isaac was informed by negative childhood experiences with Christianity, both his own and those of other family members. And yet, to this day, he remains fascinated with the notion of holy suffering.

“I grew up with a picture of a bloody dying man who is suffering for everybody, a martyr, and it's the whole idea of self-sacrifice,” McMillen said in an interview with Eurogamer. “Your exalted God, your God, rips his body to shreds for the good of the world. Violence becomes holy.”

It's often said that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I suppose that's true to a point. There are some types of trauma that, I'm sure, just aren't good for anyone. Still, who's to say what good might emerge or danger be averted for other people down the line when we are honest about our personal experiences, when we confront those dark themes and expose them to the light of day? Maybe there is power in shared suffering. Maybe we need more avatars to absorb that abuse so we don't have to. Maybe one person's psychological damage is another person's spiritual enlightenment.

Isaac is not your typical exalted hero. He's the sacrificial lamb, and this is his body—bloodied, cross-dressed, and genetically mutated for you.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Gomez the traveler

Mario — right-running princess rescuer; Goomba-stomping good guy of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Link — free-roaming juvenile adventurer; sword-swinging protector of Hyrule.

These heroic 8-bit mascots, whose franchises formed the foundation on which generations of future games were constructed, had practically no personalities in and of themselves. Yes, Mario was an Italian plumber, but did you ever see him hunched over a broken toilet? Has Link spoken a single word in all his 26 years—his guttural huffs, screams, and “Hiya!” shouts notwithstanding (and, no, the animated TV show doesn't count exist)?

We don't relate to these characters the same way we do to characters in other—more detached—media, acting out in words and scenes. We know them through the limited actions we cause them to perform. We characterize them in relation to the visual spaces they—and we—inhabit on our television screens, through the intertwining of our triumphs and failures.

Fez hearkens back to these early games—pays them tribute even—while creating an aesthetic almost entirely its own. With its hero, a doughy bipedal creature named Gomez, the game introduces a familiar kind of mascot but sends him on a much different kind of journey.

Gomez is a traveler, and I want to make that clear. He's not an adventurer—that would signify danger or discomfort, the embodiment of a harrowing story in the making. To be perfectly honest, I don't think Gomez is ever in any real danger. His supposed death plummets are too painlessly and immediately reverted. (Granted, a lot of Mario's deaths look pretty painless as well, but then Gomez never has to contend with hammer-throwing turtle soldiers.) It's questionable, at least from the initial game ending, whether or not Gomez is even an actual hero. He hasn't really chosen his fate. He's a traveler. I really can't think of a more apt description.

The journey of Fez starts out like the best travel stories do—at home. Gomez wakes up in a one-room hovel, the kind we recognize from at least a half-dozen Japanese role-playing games. There's a bed on the left side of the screen, a drum kit on the other. On a table at the foot of the bed sits a white mug. Is it for coffee? Does Gomez drink coffee? There are books on a shelf and pictures taped to the wall. Best of all, Gomez has a red-tacked poster depicting a landscape many players will recognize—perhaps not right away—as the waterfall from the opening title screen of The Legend of Zelda. Already, Fez is priming our muscles of observation. It's also repurposing the familiar.

Even as Gomez makes his way to the top of his floating village, engaging in rather flat conversation with his unassuming neighbors along the way, the player most likely knows from prior knowledge about the game what's going to happen—that the world will spin on its undiscovered axis. Sure enough, a mysterious artifact descends from the heavens, followed quickly by the titular fez, granting Gomez the ability to shift his environmental perspective. This gives Gomez an unusual method of movement. While he remains a 2D character moving about on a 2D plane, his perspective-shifting mechanic gives him four distinct planes upon which to explore his environs.

I think the real journey of Fez begins a few minutes later, after Gomez's sidekick has explained how to collect the little yellow cube shards that open the door at the bottom of his island village. But before we go there, I want to emphasize the importance of the perspective-shifting mechanic as it relates to Gomez's home village.

Have you ever lived in a place for a long time, only to find yourself looking at a stretch of familiar territory from an unfamiliar vantage point—like looking at your town from the top of a ridge or in an airplane, or examining your backyard from the other side of a chain-link fence? Or have you ever had that strange sensation of entering a new space that you had only ever looked at from the outside? Maybe it was the first time you went to a neighbor's house, or the first time entering the basement or attic of a childhood home, and it made you really think about the strange things that must lurk—or simply exist—on the other side of a wall. That's sort of what discovering a new dimension is all about. It's about perceiving the things that were there all along—a treasure chest in a hidden room, the coils on the back of a refrigerator, etc.—and slowly realizing that what we see is only the tiniest fraction of reality.

To the casual player, Fez makes for a neat little sightseeing romp through a pixelated wonderland. It's a game of movement, collecting, and maybe some light puzzle solving. The game's creator, Phil Fish, describes it in the documentary Indie Game: The Movie as a stop-and-smell-the-flowers kind of experience, and as a player I would agree. But I wouldn't want to undersell the rich blend of figurative aromas the world of Fez exudes through its varied locales. Yes, there are the quaint seascape portions of the game and the magical forests, but there is also the dark, gothic cemetery realm. While the joy of discovery courses throughout, it's very often a joy tinged with foreboding. There's never any telling what kind of scenery awaits on the other side of a door. The great thing about Fez is that it doesn't have to conform to any rules—aside from its incredibly strict square-equals-cube rule.

But there are some things that remain consistent. For example, although every area evokes meaning, nothing in the world of Fez is explicit. One area of the game, all dark and monochromatic green, gives off the visual impression of a classic Game Boy adventure. It also plays like a sewer level, and the player arrives there by going down something that looks like a green Mario pipe-shaped well. These subterranean levels involve the dreaded valves that must be turned to raise and lower water levels, one of the gaming medium's most tedious pastimes. Is this the septic chamber of nostalgia, an abandoned era that nevertheless remains in our collective memory space?

There's also the sense that these are either relic or presently lived-in spaces. Every discovery within the world of Fez is in fact a rediscovery of an intelligent presence, some culture or entity that created, guided, and connected all the spaces. We see walls, signs, graffiti, and other structures that bear an indecipherable coded language. Everything evokes a riddle just begging to be cracked. What does it all mean?

And yet the casual player need never come close to figuring it all out. To travel and find the path of (Gomez's) physical progress and then complete the game, according to its creators, is sufficient.

But to those that yearn to know more, the game invites a deeper kind of play, one that requires much more than just figuring out how to jump from platform A to platform B. It's a game of slow, intense, sometimes maddening observation. The player will begin to look for clues, often in all the wrong places. It becomes a very mystical kind of journey, something well described by Stu Horvath over at Unwinnable as he notes the game's many kabbalistic undertones. The traveling experience becomes a transcendent one, almost a pilgrimage, as the player seeks out a more spiritual, metaphysical resolution to the game than a mere credits screen.

This feeling is much different from other so-called puzzle games I've played. Portal never felt like much more than a means to an end—the player as a lab rat fighting its way out of the maze. Even Braid, while satisfying as an experiment in time-based platforming mechanics, proved futile when attempting to coax satisfiable meaning from its vaguely personal text portions—at least for me. (I doubt anyone will be able to offer a better interpretation than the one Terry Clark pitches to Jonathan Blow in this piece from The Atlantic.)

I can appreciate those who criticized the game, such as Ben Hornsby at Action Button Dot Net. He offers a great line when he suggests, “Fez's deep therapist's couch problem is that it has fetishized the wrong stuff; it has fetishized an already-misguided fetishization.” Part of what he means by this is how developer Polytron has tried to build a game almost completely centered around the kind of quirky secret fetish that used to be something of an enjoyable side phenomenon in games like the original Super Mario Bros. trilogy (until it became something formalized in the likes of Super Mario World, with things like transparent colored blocks signifying, “Hey, look, there's a secret path here!”). Fez seems almost too obsessed with its enigmatic identity. Is there even enough of a game here? I think there is, although it was a little disappointing to discover that when I had solved one particular puzzle I had sometimes solved a whole suite of related puzzles. It dampened some of the overall mystery.

I think it's also relevant to point out that Fez—which, as of now, is still an Xbox 360 exclusive—is a buggy game. I myself walked into a temporarily game-breaking glitch that I thankfully was able to solve by deleting and then re-installing the game's slightly corrupted patch. But there are multiple other instances in which the game either crashed or got all hiccuped during screen transitions. As almost pure conjecture, I wonder if the game's technical challenges are simply the result of its dubious architecture. After all, we know that the universe does not mathematically function like the world of Fez, which is constantly proposing arbitrary solutions for where and how the little Gomez avatar is positioned or depicted in relation to its 3D-turned-2D surroundings.

It would be a cop-out (or sacrilegious) to say that the buggy nature of Fez makes it a better game. It doesn't, and I wouldn't be surprised if Phil Fish was still a little tormented. Nevertheless, this idea of an unstable, collapsing universe is at the core of Fez's threadbare plot. So maybe it's just ironic. Maybe Fish unconsciously designed his own thematic scapegoat.

But it also helps to place the game in its modern context. Now more than ever, the video game—especially the independent game—is indelibly linked to its real-life author and developer. It's not the same as in 1986, when playing a Mario or Zelda game was like establishing first contact with an alien civilization. We're more aware of the fact that games are indeed made by human beings, which is why we can have both grace and contempt for these people when their products don't turn out perfectly.

We're also simply much more literate in our playing experiences. The games of the past have become the lexicon for how we relate to and think about the games of present. Fez, in all its Tetris-piece glory, is an acknowledgement of this—a celebration of what came before. Gomez may not dwell in the pantheon of gaming's greatest mascots, but maybe he's not intended to. He's a traveler. And his journey is our pilgrimage.