I'm currently looking for paid writing gigs, so if you might want anything written shoot me a message (craighats at hotmail dot com).
In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
If there's any sort of (reasonable) inquiry you'd like me to address, please don't hesitate to be in touch.
Below are a handful of recaps and other links (oldest listed first by section), in case you're interested - asterisks mark promoted articles.
As both a video gamer and a onetime student of the visual arts, I’ve never felt uncomfortable shining an occasional spotlight on the more “superficial” aspects of my favored pastime, snorts of “graphics whore” from certain unenlightened corners notwithstanding: scoff if you must, but once the “video” part has been unceremoniously nixed from the equation you’re no longer talking about the same medium that I am. I also like to keep in mind that not a single sprite, model, backdrop, or texture on that screen got there by itself: some real-life human being out there made it, spent time and effort designing and implementing it, and is in the end just as legitimate a contributor to the end product as the dialogue writer or control programmer or level layout constructor. Why, I ask, shouldn’t their share of the output be just as deserving of genuine, passionate attention and discussion as the rest, especially when it manages to distinguish itself to some degree? After all, if one person points out a flower in bloom and the other immediately starts spouting off about photosynthesis, nomenclature and biomes, one of these two, even if everything he says is factually correct, would be largely missing the point.
Of course, such rugged philosophical terrain is notoriously difficult to traverse (let alone map), thanks to everyone’s personal definitions of “artistic vision” and/or “artistic merit” differing (as well they should) to no end: for the sake of simplicity I tend to split the gaming community’s thoughts on the subject into two very rough (and frequently intermingled) “schools”. The first is what I call the “Technical” interpretation, wherein a game’s graphical quality is judged primarily in regard to how successfully its artists take advantage of the technology at their disposal, most often in pursuit of lifelike realism: I’d place most of today’s so-called “Triple-A” titles, like Uncharted and Gears of War, among many others, into this category. The visual achievements on display here are difficult to dispute from a purely “academic” standpoint, but since most competitors seek the same end goal (life-like imagery), it can sometimes be difficult to tell them apart at a glance, especially when they also happen to concern themselves with similar themes (modern military warfare, for instance).
Then there’s the second viewpoint, which I like to label the “Intuitive”. It’s both less attached to a single artistic “angle” and less reliant on the sheer “horsepower” of machines and their programmers, lending a central focus instead to the far less predictable whims of the draftsmen and doodlers dwelling within the earlier, looser stages of the creative process: as such, it’s even more difficult to judge objectively than its sibling. The best meager “definition” I can affix to an “Intuitively” appealing presentation is a visual style which is somehow almost impossible, even without prolonged study, to mistake for any other, to the point that it’s very frequently cited as a key component of a game’s overarching “identity”. Of course, there will never be anything remotely resembling a gamer-wide consensus on what “qualifies” or doesn’t, but at the same time every last one of us can say with the utmost confidence that we know an “Intuitive” masterpiece when we see it. In case you couldn’t tell, while I don’t consider this side of the equation innately “superior” to the other, it is the one I especially love indulging in, both alone and with fellow gamers.
However, I digress; whether or not you happen to see eye to eye with me on any of this is irrelevant…less so, in fact, with each passing second.
2011 has come and gone, and, from where I’m standing, has changed everything.
Though it has amassed some extraordinarily passionate fans over the years, the “Intuitive” approach to gamers’ prying eyes has always played second fiddle to the “Technical” one – not without reason, as publishers and developers alike are under constant pressure to appeal to the largest (paying) audience possible, and taking a graphical route too open to interpretation and vulnerable to personal taste is almost certain to alienate a sizable portion of both consumers and reviewers from the word “go”, rendering the likelihood of a profitable return a coin toss at best. This reality manifests itself most everywhere you care to look: the Mario and Kirby series, for example, have consistently sown success for years, which is precisely why visual departures from the norm like the crayon-textured Yoshi’s Island and the craft store-chic Epic Yarn (to say nothing of the endearingly angular likes of Psychonauts or the hand-claymated Skullmonkeys) only pop up from their ranks on rare occasions.
In like manner, the bold, jarring visual styles lent to ambitious, sprawling adventure pieces like Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Okami have frequently been reassigned to lower-budget portable projects after their initial (and financially disappointing) high-end debuts…and they’re the lucky ones. The storybook aesthetics of Little King’s Story and Valkyria Chronicles always seem to have trouble meeting even modest expectations in the face of Starcraft and Command and Conquer. The very quirkiest, most-beloved Mother entry is destined for obscurity next to anything with the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest logo on it. Killer 7 scraped together a single game: Kane and Lynch has two, so far. Even attempts to let uninitiated audiences down slowly by straddling the “Technical/Intuitive” line, a la Mirror’s Edge, routinely fail to make inroads…let’s not even get into Folklore.
“Intuitive” projects are not singularly doomed to failure, of course: the borderline-goofy minimalist veneers of Katamari Damacy and Minecraft have managed to carve out surprisingly robust niches for themselves, and fighting gamers were recently given the enviable choice between the heavy, inky Street Fighter IV, the anime-SFX-infused Blazblue, and the old-school spritework of King of Fighters. While we’re on the subject, Skullgirls’ gonzo “cheesecake with a dollop of macabre on top” take on things is currently waiting in the wings; the blossoming indie scene, not surprisingly, has been making countless artistic contributions of its own, from Limbo to Journey to Bastion to Sword and Sworcery EP to the Lotte Reiniger-esqueOutland. An unbiased observer of the industry’s current state might very well come away with the impression that the “Intuitive” style is, at long last, making some real headway into the mainstream consciousness, and that even bigger, bolder, and higher-profile forays await just over the horizon.
Like you said, BM, 2011 changed everything, right?
Indeed it did. Unfortunately, what I see spread out before Intuitive gamers today is not an era of growth and expansion, but of heretofore-unseen retreat and regression, uncomfortable silences, the dead and dying carted off en masse, the planned victory parade “postponed” again and again and again.
Mind you, I took more than my fair share of trips to the local video game store this past year, but each time I left the house I could feel both my excitement and my nervousness spike, as if I had to beat the proverbial vultures to the door; I couldn’t shake the sense that, despite the undeniable slew of exciting releases that awaited me, I was somehow bearing witness to a hopeless, losing battle, and that the tide was about to turn decisively for the worse once and for all. A veritable army of my favorite developers, bless their hearts, were mounting not a glorious march to victory for my beloved Intuitive style, but the digital equivalent of the Charge of the Light Brigade – a brave but ill-conceived offensive maneuver which would end up costing them, and their supporters, very dearly in the end. As the year draws to a close it would appear that many of my fears in this area have come to pass with a terrible vengeance.
Three, in particular; you may have even heard of them.
If you were like me at the time, when you first glimpsed a screenshot or two of Rez you probably wondered what the heck was going on amidst all the seemingly random lines and lights: once you actually got your hands on the game, however, you were somewhat taken aback (perhaps even disappointed) at how simple and traditional it was in terms of core gameplay concept. This was no accident: brought to bear by Tetsuya Mizuguchi (of Lumines and Space Channel 5 fame) and drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as Wassily Kandinsky and Underworld, Rez was primarily conceived not as a revolution in terms of mechanics but as a tentative video game foray into synaesthesia (further evidenced by its infamous “Trance Vibrator” peripheral). While developer United Game Artists was quietly dissolved a few years later, they’d gained enough notoriety to ensure that Rez, in time, would earn itself not only a re-release in HD on the 360 but admission into a Smithsonian art exhibition.
Now, take the combined pedigree of everything mentioned up above, transfer the assets to a new Mizuguchi-headed company, advance the technology by a decade, deepen the mechanics (including a bona fide rhythm component, which ties players even more directly into the audiovisual experience), and then back it all up with the marketing muscle of publisher Ubisoft and a high-profile Gamestop “Epic Rewards” contest, not to mention bonus hype as the first “killer app” for the selling-like-hotcakes Kinect peripheral, a load of E3 awards, and positive critical reception upon release. The result? Child of Eden, which first popped up in our neck of the woods this past June: its bold, often abstract visual approach, as the record shows, hit at exactly the right time. Finally accomplishing what Rez never could, Child of Eden elicited mass acceptance from eager gamers of all sorts, who rewarded it with impressive sales numbers. The industry at large was finally forced to sit up and take note.
To be fair, the optimists among us might venture, perhaps we should approach this from a different angle: maybe, instead of being too bold, Child of Eden wasn’t bold enough. As a “spiritual sequel” to an existing title, albeit a visually distinctive one, the odds were against it doing something truly unexpected and reaching its full potential – maybe a completely new idea was what the doctor ordered. Enter Takeyasu Sawaki, a Capcom alumnus whose previous design credits include the stylish Devil May Cry and Okami, and pair him up with producer Masato Kimura, whose industry expertise reaches all the way back to some of the SNES’s biggest hits – then, in an unprecedented move, undo the chains and let them run totally free. Come this past August, the fruit of their labors, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, at last descended to Earth.
As one progresses through the game’s levels an astounding selection of vibrant art styles rear their heads, each one more memorable than the last: stained-glass silhouettes, stark blacks speckled with only faint glimmers of light and movement, flowing watercolor pastiches, sunnily surreal cartoon playscapes, and myriad others that simply defy description (Sawaki has stated that even things he saw in his personal dreams served as influences throughout development, though he still wishes he could have implemented more variety), all of it translated onscreen with dazzling graphical panache (by the much-maligned Gamebryo engine, no less). Combat, the central focus play-wise, utilizes only a handful of button inputs, relying more on timing and crowd control strategies, hitting all the right marks for the “easy to learn, tough to master” bullet point on the back of the box; a smattering of side-scrolling platform segments serve as a different but equally-inviting canvas upon which to show off the creators’ collective vision.
Spot-weld the whole thing onto an out-of-left-field story loosely based on a non-canonical Biblical work and you’ve got a product difficult for anyone remotely “gaming-friendly” to ignore outright: in Japan, in fact, El Shaddai actually whipped up enough pre-release froth to inspire not only figurines but its own branded designer jeans, and even a full-fledged internet meme. Publisher Ignition was so encouraged by this early success that it was already throwing around additional ideas for the brand before the game ever saw daylight; even in the West, where the push to market wasn’t nearly so bottom-up in nature, critics were generally impressed, and even the less-enthralled ones couldn’t help but praise El Shaddai as a breath of fresh air amidst an increasingly murky sea of angrybrown.
So how’d it do?...well, you can feel free to look around for exact sales figures if you like, though it might be enough to know that the most recent of issue of Game Informer (for whatever it’s worth) referred to El Shaddai as a “notorious poor seller” right alongside Shadows of the Damned, and that its asking price has plummeted even faster than Child of Eden’s has. Oh, and Ignition has also shuttered its US dev branch, no longer develops games internally, and is staring down a buyout by Disney.
Hmm…ah, that’s right, we’ve been forgetting something important all this time, silly us. Japanese game development is in stark decline, everyone knows that - thus, Sawaki’s determination to “embrace Japanese conventions” with El Shaddai was probably an unavoidable dead end from the outset. Now is the West’s time to shine, and wouldn’t you know it, longtime (and non-Japanese, just to clarify!) industry figure Michel Ancel steps up to the plate with none other than a brand new entry in the Rayman series, which, conveniently enough, first distinguished itself back in the 90’s largely thanks to memorably kooky art direction, and has managed to remain, against all odds, a viable license to this day (though of late its “Rabbids” spinoffs have been getting most of the attention). Could there be a more perfect setup for a dramatic eleventh-hour Intuitive turnaround?
Origins, which just graced shelves a mere month or two ago, rescues Rayman and company from the minigame-compilation wasteland and plops them back precisely where they belong: 2-D side-scrolling platform worlds stuffed to the gills with inspired, colorful nonsense. First conceived as a series of small-scale baby-step projects limited to digital distribution channels, as development went on and the potent possibilities behind the newly-minted “UbiArt” toolset (which allowed the game’s artists to more easily realize their visual concepts onscreen in playable form) manifested themselves in earnest, Ubisoft’s head honchos, still smarting from the fiscal wounds left by Child of Eden’s underperformance, eventually became convinced that going the full-fledged physical release route was once again warranted (just to be safe, though, they decided to give out some free stuff to encourage pre-orders).
Reviewers wholeheartedly agreed with this chosen path, and were almost without exception smitten with the game’s come-hither combination of, once again, simple pick-up-and-play controls (though later areas and challenges can challenge even grizzled old-schoolers), four-player simultaneous co-op, and gorgeous hi-res artwork. “Meet the New Crazy”, invited the ad campaign, and it wasn’t kidding – where else, within the span of a single level, can one emerge through a watermelon-rind gateway onto a city-sized glacier populated by chattering silverware and ice-skating lizard butlers, then swing through a hellish mariachi-accompanied adobe kitchen via lava-bathing chili peppers and bouncy sausages (not a euphemism!), and finish the whole mess off with a disco-ukulele flourish (that is, if you’ve scored highly enough)?
Nowhere, I think it’s pretty safe to say – and, based on the sales figures observed so far, we probably won’t be privy to such antics again. If you’ve still got the stomach to keep track, this game’s post-launch price drop, despite depressingly stiff competition, stands as the most rapid of the three (and yes, the decision to launch at the same time as the latest Call of Duty probably didn’t help, but seeing as Child of Eden was utterly trounced by the critically-pannedDuke Nukem Forever I’m willing to call into question just how much of a difference it really would have made). In case you needed one last kick in the teeth, Ancel has apparently determined to use said sales as a way out the next time anybody asks how Beyond Good and Evil 2 is coming along.
Three well-realized, visually striking games, all seemingly custom-tailored for long-overdue mass-audience integration. Three well-established visionary development heads at the helm. Three relatively modest budgets backed by three well-heeled ad campaigns. Three sets of glowing professional praise to finally spirit them above and beyond the high hopes that had been laid upon their shoulders.
Three icy, unambiguous rejections by the gaming populace at large. Three crippling, stinging failures.
In retrospect, one really can almost envision the makers of these three titles, half-exhausted by ever-louder demands to go big or go home, finally getting together and deciding that, within the confines of a six-month span, they would mount one last-ditch, all-or-nothing charge to arms in the name of the Intuitive art style – an even nerdier (if such a thing is possible) take on the climax of the Battle of the Hornburg from The Two Towers. If you’ll recall that famous scene, however, Tolkien’s desperate riders luck out, saved by the timely arrival of a powerful ally: unfortunately, I very much doubt that such an event is in the cards for Intuitive gamers, especially as recession-wary publishers grow ever more dismissive of any proposal that might not be a completely “sure thing” - something Intuitive titles, by definition, can never be.
With outside-the-box studios like Clover and Blue Tongue being eaten up alive and smaller, less risk-averse publishers like Atlus and Nippon Ichi faring little better (the recent acquisition of Atelier studio Gust by Koei Tecmo, entailing a new focus on social games, hit me particularly hard…and feel free to cue Team Ico, while we’re at it), I’m not holding my breath for that resplendent white horse to suddenly appear over the hill. The best the movement has to give, in terms of both quality and market-readiness, has already been given, and it was not nearly enough to succeed.
To be perfectly clear, I’m not afraid that the Intuitive approach is in danger of disappearing altogether: there will always be someone out there willing to invoke and nurture the outwardly “unsafe”. I DO predict, however, that fewer and fewer of these erstwhile gardeners will be able to bring their creations to life anywhere beyond the bounds of the indie or freeware realms: the shelves of brick-and-mortar stores and major digital retailers alike are destined to calcify into an even more focus-grouped, homogenous mass than they already are, and any gamers who remain determined to hunt down the few succulently Intuitive morsels still floating around out there will be forced to resort to ever more obscure (and in some cases shady) channels. Those unwilling or unable to take up residence in gaming’s back alleys will simply be left out in the cold.
2011 truly has changed everything…everything, that is, except me, and what I continue to look for and value in a video game.
To be fair, a few spots of interest do remain on the commercial horizon today: Vanillaware, creators of the painterly Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade, have already gotten their next two titles, Grand Knights History and Dragon’s Crown, picked up for localization, and a couple of portable offerings in the pipeline (Gravity Daze and Sumioni for the Vita, in particular) certainly have an Intuitive spirit about them. Will any of these succeed? I don’t know. Will they get as much support from above as their 2011 predecessors did? I very much doubt it. After such a disastrous series of high-profile burns, I don’t consider it outlandish to suggest that gamers won’t witness many more full-tilt charges at their ranks by teams that dare to buck visual trends – I anticipate a nigh-permanent return to extremely low print runs (if physical copies are in the cards at all), increasingly limited and obscure distribution channels, and a snowball’s chance of any real market penetration. The magnificent, hard-charging horses we marveled at this past year are being put out to pasture in favor of high walls and half-filled water balloons to occasionally lob over their edges.
It’s sad to think that this may well be the only recourse that both creators and consumers of Intuitive games can lean upon in this day and age –. I, for my part, can only tell you what my intuition tells me. It is good and right, I say, to admire the fearless Intuitive cavalry of 2011, to praise the flourishes of brilliant imagination that they’ve shared with us; amidst all the shimmering sabers and blaring trumpets, however, it behooves us all to remember that something important, something irreplaceable, has been trampled unceremoniously underfoot.
The gaming landscape has forever changed, but my resolution going forward, for better or worse, remains the same as every year before.
To offer, whenever I can, a small, earnest token of appreciation and support to those still acting in the behalf of gamers like myself…and to place fresh flowers in memory of the growing multitude no longer with us.