Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Indie Games Roundup

A lot of game players talk about the constant battle of working through their backlog of games. Devoid of the ample free time with which we desire to play video games, we end up accumulating at a faster rate than we can consume. Our shelves fill up with shrink-wrapped boxes. Our digital Steam accounts becomes giant lists of unplayed games—most, if not all, purchased at a special sale price that we just couldn't pass up. Let's not even mention the inevitable Humble Indie Bundle.

I have my own games backlog, but I also have another backlog on top of that one. These are the games that I've played but haven't blogged about. Obviously, there's no rule that says I have to write about every game I play. I actually don't think that's a very good way to approach writing. In the future I would love to take a more thematic approach to my posts. I'd love to be able to tackle games from a more intellectual standpoint, to treat games as cultural artifacts with rhetorical (not necessarily authorial) messages worth examining. I would love to do a close reading of a game, like this.

Unfortunately, most of my eight-hour-plus day job involves writing and editing. It's hard to put my remaining time and energy into more hobby writing and hope to achieve much analytical depth. But it's also hard not to feel I'm being derelict in my duty when my ratio of played games to blogged games becomes too unbalanced. So in this post I play a wee bit of catch-up. Similar posts may or may not follow, but for now here are a few quick thoughts regarding four indie games I've played through since starting this blog in late 2011.

Bastion (2011)
developer: Supergiant Games

There's a lot of style coursing through Bastion, especially in the soundtrack. But more than that it's got a lot of styles plural, which is also true for describing the soundtrack. (I like how The Gameological Society put it: “It sounds like Portishead scoring a Sergio Leone film.”) I'm just not sure how well all those jumbled styles work together.

Everyone knows Bastion as that game with the awesome gravely-voiced narrator who comments on everything in real-time. (“An old ferry barge sends the kid on his way,” “Now the kid sees something stranger still,” “The kid's ready to go, and his ticket out is right where he started,” etc.) This being the age of “Let's Play (insert game title here),” it's no wonder people ate it up. It seems the era of the sad lone gamer in the basement died quietly (and with dignity) a long time ago. Today's gaming consumers yearn for companionship, and they can have it—whether that be directly through a voice-chat headset or through more indirect (introverted) YouTube channel surfing. Bastion gets that. It offers a different kind of companionship.

It's also a new take on narrative, with that voice constantly explaining, constantly interpreting, constantly codifying the action on-screen. Is he a reliable narrator or is he full of hot air? Or is he like a sports commentator who gets paid to make sure there is never a dull moment during the broadcast?

Unfortunately, I happen to be a terrible auditory learner. I'm pretty sure everyone feels that way, but it's true in my case. There's a problem when every line gets treated in dramatic, hard-boiled fashion. It becomes its own version of monotone. I start to tune it out, and that being the case, I didn't quite follow the “story” of Bastion very well.

But more than that, the narration just felt like a gimmick to begin with. Whatever happened to show don't tell? Why was that narrator so expressive when I felt absolutely nothing as the player character? All those heavy thoughts and feelings the narrator was relating? I was too busy just rolling around trying to smash shit and kill things. It was sort of fun. The art direction was cute.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (2011)
developer: Fuel Cell Games

I'm a little surprised this game didn't make more of a splash, seeing as it released alongside Bastion as part of the same Xbox LIVE Summer of Arcade promotion in 2011. Maybe it wasn't hip enough. It didn't come pre-packaged with a cool indie soundtrack. It offered no commentary or companionship, except for in a separate multiplayer mode that probably no one played (I sure didn't). Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was a game that didn't talk to you. It didn't speak at all, and in that sense it was kind of like the WALL-E of video games, or a less demented Limbo. I actually enjoyed the game quite a bit.

In it the player controls a flying saucer investigating a mysterious alien planet. The game is structured like a Metroidvania—one giant level with different areas made accessible by obtaining different power-ups. As the player explores the world and solves environmental puzzles, the game adds on cool new features to the flying saucer—everything from a tractor beam to a missile launcher to a spinning saw blade attachment used to excavate through enemies and debris. Each of these can be custom mapped to the controller buttons, however, there are more attachments than buttons available—meaning proper selection at any given moment is important.

When I just said the game doesn't talk to you, that was only partially true. It's just that—opposite of Bastion—it doesn't use very many words in doing so. What it does use is mechanics and visual clues. The player's ship starts out with only one ability, a scanning device that analyzes various features in the alien environment and comes back with a pictographic description. These are the cues and clues that help you figure out how to play the game.

While the game doesn't necessarily push the boundaries set by its genre predecessors, it excels at everything it does do. The animations are superb. I love how the interior of the planet goes from organic—with black writhing tentacles for walls—to mechanical-industrial gears and conveyor systems. The sound design is even better. Every chirpy alien noise rings with subterranean echo and reverb. Most of the actual music is ambient and generally low volume. The prime instrument is the flying saucer as it quietly flits about like a Jetsons car.

Perhaps the best thing about the game, however, is the kinetic feeling of the ship itself. Its movement, controlled with the left thumbstick, is so swift and responsive. There's no fighting for control! And the way this movement integrates with the control of the ship's weapons and accessories—via the right thumbstick—is seamless (parts of the game play out like a twin-stick shooter). One of the earliest ship attachments that the player picks up is a mechanical arm, which is used to pick up and move lose debris, such as small boulders. If driving any piece of industrial equipment felt this natural and fun, we would all be lining up for jobs in construction and civil engineering projects.

Ms. Splosion Man (2011)
developer: Twisted Pixel

I enjoy a good platformer, and I trudged through the entire single-player campaign of Ms. Splosion Man about a year ago. I even searched out and found all the hidden collectible shoes (without using a guide). It's not a bad game, but I can't really say it's a shining example of the genre.

First of all, the visual style is playful but too cluttered. Yes, the game has “splosion” in the name, but all the a'splody things and their shiny particle effects sometimes add up to create an incoherent playing experience, visually speaking. This is problematic for a game built around quick timing and precision. Miss one of your marks as you're running or flying along and it's usually instant death—back to the last checkpoint.

At its heart, I think the playing experience is one of timing and memorization. To get through some of the harder levels, the player will be forced to repeat the same sequences over and over again until essentially there are no timing mistakes. I don't generally mind repeating platforming sequences in other games as long as I feel there's a good reason for it. If I'm actually getting better at the game, if I feel that I'm getting more comfortable in the skin of my little on-screen avatar, and if the game eliminates the annoying delay between failing and starting again, I probably won't mind the punishment.

Unfortunately, there is almost no room for expression in Ms. Splosion Man. There's no variable running speed. There's no figuring out better, quicker, or more interesting ways to get through the levels. There is one way to get through, and you either get the timing and spatial placement right or you don't.

That said, the multiplayer levels can actually be pretty cool. All of the same aspects of the single-player mode apply, but the challenge becomes one of teamwork and communication. While the visual incoherence persists with multiple players on screen, it actually sort of makes everything ironically enjoyable. It exacerbates the frustration of trying to cooperate to the point it becomes funny. Not that the humor lasts forever. Before long, the cooperative game becomes damn near impossible. Kudos to anyone who has managed to finish it.

By the way, dear reader, you might want to turn the sound off for this game, or at least Ms. Splosion Man's voice. It's extremely annoying.

Bit.Trip Runner (2010)
developer: Gaijin Games

Speaking of games that make you repeat failed sequences ... there's this game. Bit.Trip Runner looks like a platformer, but it's really a rhythm game. It still has a bit in common with Ms. Splosion Man, but in this game the running is automatic. The player's job is simply to jump, slide, spring, kick, and block at each of the right moments. Each level is basically a song. All of the obstacles are timed in accordance with the beat and tempo of the music; successfully performing an action triggers a tone or musical note that contributes to the soundtrack.

On the one hand, Bit.Trip Runner can be a very Zen kind of game. It's a beautiful experience just running along and becoming one with the game, falling into its rhythm and cadence. But that's only if you're good at the game.

Here's where it gets interesting. Each level lasts anywhere from about one to two minutes. If the player misses a mark and runs into an obstacle, the game goes all the way to the start of the level. Granted, there's no delay—no game over screen. The game cycles through a pattern of (1.) restart level, (2.) attempt level, (3.) fail level, (4.) restart level, etc., on an infinite loop until successfully completed. It doesn't matter how near or far the player was from finishing the level. Each failure is a restart.

Why so demanding? Why not let the player make a couple mistakes on a given run, perhaps include some kind of recovery animation that puts the player back on track after the first mistake in a given attempt? Why not make it more like the Guitar Hero games, whereby the player can advance to the next level if they hit a certain percentage of the marks? Why not include some mid-level checkpoints? I'm not saying Gaijin Games was wrong in the decisions they made. But these are fair things to consider.

What sort of effect does the actual design have on the playing experience? For me, it engenders a type of harsh discipline. If the apex of the playing experience is a state of Zen, then it only makes sense that such a state can be achieved only through constant practice and meditation—and also by being some kind of superhuman. The game becomes an interesting exercise in concentration. If I get hung up on failure, it's a distraction. If I find my brain becoming numb (which is hardly avoidable) after my umpteenth level attempt, I have to apprehend that numbness and force myself to try and refocus. There's a psychological element to it.

Playing Bit.Trip Runner could also be likened to learning a musical instrument. Instead of a solitary monk striving to subjugate the self, the player becomes a pupil under the watchful command of a strict and exacting pedagogue—one with a controversial teaching style. The player is forced to learn a song only by playing it in real-time to a steady metronome, and without making any mistakes. (The optional gold items, by the way, are the musical flourishes. For those not satisfied with merely getting the basic notes right, collecting these pieces is a surefire way to impress the teacher even more.) How will I be prepared to play the music if I don't know where it's going? The teacher (game) will gladly flip the pages of sheet music while you play. You just need to be quick on your fingers.

Regardless of whichever model I choose to frame my 8-bit adventure, I arrive at the same nagging question. At what point do I excuse myself from this punishing regiment? How much do I endure? Either I finish the game or I don't. But what is the value of enduring all those failures if I can't manage to finish the game? What's the payoff if I do?

I know I should give up, but I probably won't.

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