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Kiamet's blog

9:55 PM on 08.30.2013

I made a puzzle game in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. You can play it right now!

The Game of Quille is a puzzle game that uses lamps and furniture from ACNL on an 8x8 grid. The goal of the game is to move from one item to another, alternating between REDand GREENitems of furniture, to reach the bowling pins at the end of the maze.

But that's not all - there are extra challenges, like turning on ALL the lights in the room (harder than it sounds, since lights also follow the Red/Green rule), or using a particular piece of furniture only ONCE. Achieving these challenges in the smallest number of moves possible is how you beat Quille.

Thanks to the "Dream Suite" feature in ACNL, anyone can play Quille simply by going to Dream Address7800-2606-8331 and entering the Mayor's house.

If you're interested in trying it out, I recommend taking a few minutes to read the BasicRulesand Game Types.If you can finish the room on the hardest mode, in the minimum amount of moves, you will be added to the Hall of Fame!

There will be a new puzzle every week - if you Follow the official blogyou'll know straight away when the game has been updated with a new puzzle.


So, come and play!There are also tools to help you make your own Quille room if you're so inclined.

- - - -
My goal with this project is to use the gameplay and online mechanics of ACNL to create my own "homebrew DLC". I'm also hoping to create a new way for people to enjoy the game, by creating and sharing their own puzzles.   read

7:59 AM on 11.20.2011

Zelda Week: Happy 25th Zelda, here's my musical tribute.

It's a performance of "Lon Lon Ranch", for solo piano!

YouTube: Lon Lon Ranch

Enjoy Skyward Sword, peoples.


7:06 AM on 11.09.2011

Storyteller Review - Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

To tell you a story, a person will usually write it down and then read it to you. With games, the story is written down, then given to the player to read. If the developer has given the player the right "tools", they can tell an amazing story through the game. Storyteller reviews look at this narrative partnership between developer and player, and assess how well the game succeeds as a storytelling engine.

Check out the previous storytelling review to see how the criteria works.

For today's review, it's the latest from Naughty Dog, who are bringing back the magic of classic Spielberg adventure with their Uncharted series.

Uncharted 3 takes you all over the world (like a classic adventure should), and the environments are incredibly immersive. I recommend checking out the featurettes on the detail and research they did for the game. You could take a screenshot at any angle or place, and it would always look like a real location, thanks to the detail in every corner. When exploring an area, I found myself moving the camera around Nate to get the best looking "shot". Experimenting with the camera was especially effective in one of the later chapters, where the hero is aimlessly wandering the desert. Thankfully, in the more action-heavy sequences, the game takes charge of the camera to heighten the drama, and to make sure you can focus on the character's movements without getting disoriented.

In the behind-the-scenes featurette, the developers explain how they use real actors as a reference for the animation, but don't use full on mo-cap and facial mapping. This approach has worked wonders for the animated sequences in the game - the characters interact realistically, and don't look like strange facsimiles of the actors bodies and faces. The characters also never "vacate" the story when it's time for the player to work out a puzzle, or face a dangerous situation - they are always offering advice, shouting in frustration or calling out to each other. This is a game that doesn't divide itself between gameplay and story sections - everything you do in the game is happening to Nate, Sully, Elena and the others as well.

image source

The game keeps information out of your face as much as possible, keeping the player focused on the scenes taking place. Hand-to-hand combat favours cinematic flair over challenge - I found it more fun to watch than the gunplay. Brawling allows for experimentation and creativity within the environment. Knocking an opponent out with a fish, for example, felt far more satisfying then firing a grenade into someone's face, for it only to knock their helmet off.

While exploring, the game helps you along as much as you'll let it, without breaking the immersion too much. Your travelling companions will hint at solutions, and there is an option to have the game simply tell you the solution if you are stuck long enough. The climbing sections are always surprising and creative, and comprise some of the most exciting moments in the game. Ledges you can jump to are designed to "stand out", which is handy for the player, but the "highlighting" of the correct path does hurt the game's immersion a little. Seeing the path laid out for you so conspicuously is a bit like being able to see the "X"'s taped to the floor of a movie set, where the actors need to stand.

Compared to other game genres, action/adventure has a much less complicated range of actions for the player to perform - shoot, jump, run, climb. There is no branching dialogue or moral decisions to muddle the character of Nathan Drake. Like the previous game, I found that the player's skill at gunplay does have an effect on their "portrayal" of Drake - if you're terrible at it like me, with Drake missing most of his shots, it feels like the player doesn't live up to the expectation that Drake can handle himself in a firefight.

On the other hand, if you're REALLY good at shooting, and play Drake as an efficient killer, it doesn't quite mesh with his lovable, underdog adventure hero attitude. Sometimes the combination of badass and charming action hero doesn't quie mesh. Even so, I can't fault Naughty Dog for trying to combine hero archetypes into something new.

image source

The story is ever-present in Uncharted 3. This series earns it's mantle of "cinematic" gameplay not only for it's high production values and mastery of genre conventions - it's also a game that makes the player feel like the director of the story, quite effortlessly. The developers put some distance between you and the main character, letting you direct the story around him in exciting ways. The effectiveness of the "scene" is paramount - in a barfight, the player doesn't have to worry about blocking - they can look at the whole scene, pick up a bottle, and discover that Nathan Drake isn't all charm - he can also fight dirty.

The game is linear, but at every stage, Naughty Dog lays out all the tools needed to create an exciting action sequence. Shooting a gas tank, pulling an unsuspecting guard over a cliff, or leaping onto truck from horseback - all of these moments and more have been designed with the player's understanding of action movies in mind. But for the most part it's up to the player to use these tools however they like.

The icing on the cake is that there is a real character acting out these decisions - the game feels less like old-school wish fulfillment (YOU are Nathan Drake!), and more like you are directing the scene yourself. True cinematic games don't just look cinematic - they let you play with cinematic ideas directly.

Uncharted 3 is an excellent storytelling engine for the action/adventure genre. It sits in a comfortable, well-worn part of the entertainment industry and celebrates what makes the genre great, not only through it's polished Hollywood presentation, but it's cinematic approach to gameplay.   read

11:11 AM on 10.23.2011

Vivi's Theme on Piano, and the Gallian Liberation Front!

Hey you! You like good games right? Then you should join the Gallian Liberation Front, who are always finding constructive ways to show SEGA that we would very much like to play Valkyria Chronicles 3. Pump yourself up with my tribute video of "Conferral of Honors" from the VC soundtrack!

OK! Now, settle down. We're going to a town called Alexandria where this little guy -

is on his way to see a show. It's "Vivi's Theme" from the classic Final Fantasy IX.

And that's all the content there is for today! More articles about storytelling in gaming are on the way. Read them, and find out why I prefer to update about my music!   read

10:45 PM on 09.24.2011

Oil on Water: Big Industry, Small Community (Response)

This is a response to Jim Sterling's article on Shadow of the Colossus.

Once, the gaming community revolved around brands and mascots - fanboys defending Nintendo, or Sonic, or whatever else. That phase is over now (I would hope), but gaming became intrinsic to our lives during our childhood through to adulthood. Gamers want to bring the medium with them as they get older - something that should be as simple as buying new games for themselves, that are tailored for adults.

Nowadays, the adult gamer knows what they like - just like they have their favourite TV shows, books, or films. The variety of genres in those mediums is massive, and each year the gaming medium is catching up to them by finding new ways to play, and new people to play them. The amount of sub-cultures in a more "established" medium like film is also huge: you have sci-fi fans, fans of rom-coms, fans of classic westerns, the list goes on. And for the most part, these groups leave each other alone. No single sub-culture can convince all the other film-goers that their genre is the best. There is no unified "movie-watching" community - it's just too big. After all, who do you know that has never watched a film? This is what a "medium" should be - too big for anyone to be right or wrong. My question is, will games ever get this big? And do you want it to?

For decades, games have been pushed around by sensationalist or dismissive media - branded a fad, a threat, and a waste of time. In these news stories, the violent games speak for the entire medium. The gaming world's response to that is, time and time again, to choose their own ambassador for gaming - a chosen game that will legitimise the medium as an art form, and not just a toy. Either way, the gaming community remains "small" - the news will call first-person shooters "gaming", and passionate gamers will call artistic games (like Shadow of the Colossus) "gaming". Isn't deciding the fate of an entire medium around one "champion" too simple a solution? When the controversial "Serbian Film" was released, no one had to bring up "Schindler's List" to defend the honour of film-making.

The community rallies around these "champions", and those who support these chosen games are considered "true gamers". To me it's nothing less than the adult mutation of fanboyism. Only now it's not Mario vs Sonic, it's the World vs Video Games. Of course, having a passionate and close community is a wonderful thing, too. But such a community will always remain small, unless we learn to leave each other alone. I don't have a solution to the way gaming is portrayed in mainstream media - I think it's a problem that will eventually solve itself, but for now we should just carry on playing what we will, and make our "small" community "bigger".

Games will "grow up" not after they've won an Oscar, but when someone who has never played a game is just as uncommon as someone who has never watched a movie.

Oh, and what do I think of Shadow of the Colossus? It doesn't matter.   read

11:14 PM on 09.10.2011

Storyteller Review: Deus Ex Human Revolution

What is a Storyteller Review?
This is a game review that focuses on how well a game performs as a Storytelling Engine. It's not an analysis of the game's story itself, but rather a study of the "tools" the developer has given the player, to tell that story. You will probably enjoy this review more if you have already played the game. The criteria for this kind of review comes from the questions that enter my mind when playing a game:

World Detail - How much effort has gone into making the game world feel tangible? This includes things like hidden notes/journals, or details in the game world like graffiti, posters and overheard conversations.

Character Detail - How much effort has gone into realistic character design and interaction? Are there varying body types, mannerisms, and voices?

Transparency - How does the developer balance immersion with information? For example, is the player's health quantified by a percentage, or does the screen get darker and bloodier when their health is low? Also, when the player makes a gameplay or dialogue choice, how clear are the specifics and/or consequences of that action?

Narrative Strength - How easy is it to 'break' the narrative you are creating through your gameplay choices, either accidentally or deliberately? And how tempting is it to break the integrity of the narrative to gain gameplay rewards? (For example - playing an 'upstanding' character, then killing an innocent person to get a good piece of equipment, despite it being a decision that an 'upstanding' character would never make).

Sacrificed Story vs. Elevated Story - What comes first, story or gameplay? Are there points in the game where a gameplay situation is 'forced' on the player, even if it goes against their understanding of the story and their character's motivations? Are there any gameplay design decisions that harm the integrity of the story? Or, are there any subversions of this, where story comes first and foremost - where gameplay sections can be approached differently or skipped altogether?

I decided that the first game to review in this style should be the acclaimed, genre-blending Deus Ex Human Revolution. NOTE: There's one spoiler, and it will be marked.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is set in the near future, where a section of humanity is on the brink of gaining total control over their own evolution. The protagonist Adam Jensen, who is forced to undergo extensive human augmentation, is the only playable character, and the story is told from a mixed first/third person perspective, and intermittent cutscenes.

The World - Our Future
A lot of care has gone into creating a world that frequently makes players stop and think about the kind of future they'd like to live in. There is plenty of reading to do in DX:HR, and the "lore" that can be found is pleasingly diverse. The developers "fill in" the gap between our present and the game's future through reports on technological breakthroughs and global shifts of power (although a civil war in Australia would likely be East vs West, not North vs South!).

For every exciting discovery (reflexes at the speed of thought!), there is a sobering report in the newspaper of an experiment gone wrong, or some tragic unforeseen circumstance in another part of the world. You can even read interpersonal exchanges on employee terminals - there's so much content to find. Much of this world's "presence" is generated by sparking the player's imagination through these logs, which is a very effective approach.

You'll also hear people discussing hot button topics in buildings and on the streets, and while these overheard conversations are welcome, they don't feel as naturally immersive as the logs and newspapers. The city hubs themselves are fantastically detailed, but unfortunately they feel more like "levels" than real world locations - crawling around and moving barrels is hardly how I imagined getting from place to place in the future.

The People - Mr. and Mrs. NPC
DE:HR loses points here. Adult man shape and adult woman shape is all you get. There's some variation in hair, clothes and even augmented body parts which is nice, but underneath it all is the same basic build. The 'mannequin'-like effect is compounded with recycled animations, awkward feet-shuffling and over-gesticulating. The conversations themselves flow easily enough, and the voice-acting is adequate, using the usual video game approach - important characters sound important, NPC's sound unimportant. Nothing too cringe-worthy, but there are a few exceptions.

However, when Eidos Montreal put the effort in, it really shows. The handful of first-person conversations, where you need to persuade a character to reveal information or to help you advance in a certain way, are excellent. To succeed in these segments you need to tell the person what they want to hear, but you are also free to use the conversations to reinforce the desired personality you want Adam Jensen to have. In one scenario, I directed Jensen to be very confrontational towards an old S.W.A.T buddy, and watched it backfire and force him to sheepishly admit his defeat to the higher-ups. I was denied access to the police morgue, but learned something about Jensen's past and his attitude towards the importance of duty.

Image from Softpedia

In regular conversations, Jensen stays fairly neutral, but you can "bend" him towards a slightly more friendly, or icy response. There is no outright Good Jensen or Evil Jensen - the player largely decides who Jensen is by how he approaches conflict during missions. There's a big difference between a protagonist that moves unseen through the shadows, and one that will clinically and painfully kill a man with his sword-elbows. It's how much Jensen values human life that determines what kind of leading man he is - and for the most part, that is up to you.

Deus Ex - an Augmented Reality Game
DE:HR gracefully sidesteps the problems of an intrusive HUD by making the HUD itself a point of immersion. The information about your character's condition and surroundings is exactly what Jensen sees through his visual augmentations. It allows gameplay features that would normally be distracting (such as the Track and Mark system, which keeps tabs on your enemies), to become almost tactile in their execution. I winced the first time Jensen was hit by an EMP mine - his senses were scrambled and his entire brain had to reboot. That can't be pleasant.

One of the issues the game tackles is controlled evolution - something I myself participated in while playing the game, although I didn't realise it at the time. When choosing how to develop Jensen's abilities, I would save up my Praxis Points (see below), and only spend them when I needed to adapt my playstyle to survive the next situation. The room is flooding with hostile guards? About time this little vent-dwelling lizard learned how to become invisible.

One thing that wasn't completely clear was which missions required urgency, and which ones didn't. I loved the 'real-time' aspect of the first mission (if you wait too long to start the rescue operation, hostages will die), but it hardly seemed fair. In such a dense game, most players expect the leisure to explore and familiarise themselves first, and a story that can wait. I was also surprised when Pritchard the tech expert chided me for entering the women's bathroom (totally by accident). From the first hour it seemed like this would be a game that was very aware of it's narrative integrity, and the consequences of breaking that integrity. A hero doesn't eavesdrop in a toilet!

However I didn't encounter any more "time limit" moments in the game; I did try to complete main missions that seemed particularly urgent before starting any sidequests, just in case. Nor did I meet any consequences for my less honest gaming habits - for example, I was able to take whatever I wanted from the desks of the officers at the police station, right from under their noses. However, this is all just anecdotal evidence - I hope that others have found more examples of the game taking offense to their thieving and snooping.

More bloodshed if you're so inclined.

In my opinion, Jensen's capacity for violence comes close to breaking the narrative, but it depends on how you play. I get that some players want to play him as a badass killer. The lethal takedowns are gratuitous and flashy, like the developers are showing off, but I can understand the player using them to create a Jensen that shatters his enemies' morale before he shatters everything else. Not that I ever heard any cries of "Oh JESUS, he stabbed him right in the GROIN!" (rather, the enemies just started shooting). To me, at least, the lethal takedowns were hard to justify, when the non-lethal takedown achieved the same end, without the violent death (and the noise).

Happily, the game makes player decisions very clear and easy to execute (you won't accidentally stab someone with your sword-elbows). The dialogue topics are brief - "NON-LETHAL, HOSTAGES, HIT-MAN", etc - but I greatly appreciated having a preview of what my character would say, below the topic. Just in case it didn't sound quite like what my character would say, be it too cold, too "bad-ass", or even too flippant. There were no moments where I was surprised or disappointed with what Jensen said.

"You are Adam Jensen, except when we are Adam Jensen."
So what wins out in the end, story or gameplay? Ideally, they shouldn't be mutually exclusive, but a perfect balance between the two is a rare thing. Deus Ex Human Revolution achieves a nice balance, but still stumbles in many of it's climactic moments. Adam Jensen is the core of the story, and for the most part he is in your control - but when the game takes over the results are frustrating to say the least.

Imagine you're a kid, and that Adam Jensen is your favourite action figure that can do everything. Your best friend, Eidos, lent it to you and told you to play with it however you want. The more you play, the more you enjoy it, and the better you are at playing with it. Then one day, Eidos comes over and says "okay, that's enough, now I want to play with it again".

"But, I'm in the middle of a gam -"
"No, trust me, my game will be just as fun. So Adam walks into this room..."
"Adam wouldn't just walk into the room without making sure it's safe, first."
"Quiet! I made this toy, I know how it works. He walks into a room, and then suddenly BAM!" Eidos pulls out another big action figure with a gun for an arm. "This guy attacks from out of nowhere!"

"Okay, then you use the big guy, and I can use Adam Jensen, and we can play together-"
"NO!" Eidos screams. "We're playing it MY way now! We're playing it my way and I'm not leaving until we do! I've locked all the doors in your house, so we're playing!"
"... Fine. Adam stuns the bad guy with his stun-gun, then knocks him unconscious."
"Nuh-uh! His armour is too strong! He throws bombs at him!"
"But - "

Eidos continues to smash the two action figures together until you both get sick of it, and then his mum Squeenix comes to pick him up. He gives the Adam Jensen toy back, but unfortunately also arranges to have two more playdates in the future.

Maybe you enjoyed the boss fights that came fresh from 1994. But to me, they felt like the developers were wrenching away the super-fun toy and forcing me to play how they wanted. And for what? So they could show me a "cool thing" I care nothing about? I try to avoid acting like an entitled gamer that tells entire companies how to run their business. Actually, it may already be too late for that, but I'll say this anyway:

Developers, fuck your boss fights. If a character can only be described as a "boss", then they aren't a character at all. An equivalent example in film would be the henchman Jaws in the old James Bond movies. At first, I liked the idea of being hopelessly outmatched against Barrett (the toy with the gun-arm). In any other medium, the hero would have needed to find some other way to best him. But in this case what ensued was an unheroic, almost comical mess. I tried the stun-gun on him, which sort of worked. While he was briefly incapacitated I attempted the tried-and-true shotgun to the head - and that still didn't do it. This wasn't going to be Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman. Crickets chirped, the man went "ergh" and somewhere in the code a health bar dropped a little bit. How visceral.

At this point, I was pretty frustrated. Not just because I was unprepared for this gameplay challenge - I was also forced out of the character I'd "made". I had to forget about Jensen's personal code when it came to combat, abandon the grace and cunning of stealth and - god help me - run around shooting explosive barrels when the boss got close to them. Entitled whining may not change a developer's mind, but I hope there are other gamers out there who expect more, a lot more from a story written in 2011, even if it is 'only in a video game'. Until that time, gamers, keep shooting those explosive barrels. They're red, that's how you know.

But enough negativity. Those boss fights are the few crap episodes you skip on the DVD of your favourite series. And, there are some wonderful moments in the game of playstyle positively affecting the story too. If you haven't played up to the second visit to Hengsha, don't read the next four paragraphs because there are SPOILERS.

Upon returning to China, you and your pilot Faridah Malik are forced to crash land, and are then ambushed by mercenaries. Adam Jensen jumps to safety nearby, but the crashed plane is taking heavy fire with Malik still in it. You can then try to save her.

Trouble was, all I had on me was my non-lethal equipment. I didn't have the firepower to stop the mercenaries before the plane exploded and Malik was killed. This was probably one of my favourite moments in the game - Jensen had to leave her behind because fighting would mean throwing his life away, and SOMEONE had to survive to find the truth, dammit!

Or rather, I liked that turn in the story, and that I made that call as a player-director, rather than from a personal standpoint, ie: "what would I do if it was my friend in a burning gunship?" This isn't the story of Casey Ormond the augmented supersoldier, it's the story of Adam Jensen, a character I direct. We aren't the same person, and don't make the same decisions. The actions of Adam Jensen are not for wish fulfillment, they're to serve the story.

Truthfully, I probably could have saved Malik - it would have taken a great deal of effort and time, but it would have been just as rewarding for me, and for the story (NO MAN LEFT BEHIND and all that). But in the end, I chose the death of Faridah Malik - it was the classic tragic event before the third act of the film, when things start to get really serious.


Final Thoughts and Score

As a game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is fantastic and fun to play. However, its storytelling potential is a mixed bag. It pulls you into its world with a detailed history and setting, but fails to match that detail in its character designs. It allows the player to define Adam Jensen through his words and actions, but repeatedly snatches that character away from you when a crisis befalls him. Overall, it's an enjoyable journey that is quite immersive, and always thought-provoking.

How was your experience with Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Did it's storytelling grab you, or repel you? Share your thoughts below.   read

6:50 AM on 08.11.2011

Valkyria Chronicles Piano Pieces - Liner Notes (and a new video!)

The Valkyria Chronicles Piano Pieces have been out for over a month now and it's been received pretty well! There is a great review of it over at Original Sound Version - and remember you can listen to some samples on the iTunes music page. Also, don't torrent it please? I need to eat.

With that out of the way, I thought I'd share some info for those who have heard the CD - the booklet is in Japanese, but I wrote some liner notes for each track: I've copied the original english here and added some extra thoughts too.

1. VC3 Main Theme "The tone of this piece is very solemn, regal, and intense. I decided a baroque piano style would fit it best."

The VC3 pieces were interesting to arrange, since I hadn't played the game at all - usually the context of the game gives me some idea as to how the piece should sound. The original version of this gave me the gist of it though - it's a bit less militaristic, and more passionate, with latin guitar played throughout. I found that the 'baroque' style captured the same feeling, but in a different way.

2. Desperate Fight "This is an iconic battle theme from the VC series. With the arrangement, I wanted to keep the exciting pace and buoyant rhythms of the original."

Masashi Hamauzu's piano style was a big influence here! The FFX Piano Collections in particular - I listened to almost nothing else the year it came out :)

3. Theme of Valkyria "This theme represents the unstoppable power of the Valkyria. I rearranged into a tango style so that it would sound dramatic, but personal. In this way, the song focuses more on the burden of power, than the power itself."

Also, tangos are cool.

4. Summer in Lanseal "Since the Military Academy of Lanseal was at the heart of the events of VC2, I chose to arrange one of the four seasonal themes. Summer seemed the best choice it was very hot in Perth when I was writing it, and it perfectly captured the lively campus atmosphere of Lanseal."

This one doesn't stray too far from the original's feel. But that's fine - it's a simple, malleable and lovely theme that sounds best when it can breathe and dance. Usually when Sakimoto is mentioned, war and battle music is the first thing people think of - but he really knows how to write a sweet, catchy melody too.

5. Days With Classmates "This piece has a bright melody, which I arranged into a more relaxed and tender version. VC2 contained personal missions and scenes for everyone in Class G, so I wanted this song to be a reflection on all those varied stories."

There were a lot of creative ups and downs over the course of writing these arrangements - this was one of the ups. I wrote it pretty quickly, and it was a bit of a self-morale boost, since I still had so many more songs to arrange at the time.

6. Nameless Heroes "This is a recurring theme in the VC3 soundtrack. I wanted to write something more contemporary, and I experimented with this melody in many different ways. I settled on a country ballad style, since it was a nice change of pace from the intensity of the rest of the album."

Took me a while to work out what to do with this. Again, I had no context for it, except that it was probably an important melody, since it cropped up so much in the VC3 OST. The deadline was only a few weeks away and I needed to do something interesting with it. The answer I needed was actually in the chords - I was playing around with them and changed the meter to something more like this. The melody then changed easily, into something pleasantly unexpected.

7. OPEN FIRE! - "When arranging music for VC3, I had less context for what events the music represented in-game, so I was drawn to pieces that appealed to me musically. OPEN FIRE! was suggested to me, and the guitar accompaniment inspired me to write a latin jazz version of the song."

If you've seen my arrangement of "Powell" from Seiken Densetsu 3 you'll know, or soon know, that I love latin piano. As for game context, it seemed pretty obvious from the title. So I got busy writing a chart I could barely play (I tend to write above my actual skill level). I got there in the end, miraculously without any RSI.

8. VC2 Main Theme "When writing Main Themes, Sakimoto always creates a grand atmosphere, and an iconic melody. This piece is especially rich and bombastic, so I tried not to stray too much from the original feel."

This was the first one to be finished, and what kickstarted the project into a reality. Like OPEN FIRE! it's pretty challenging to play, but in a satisfying, bombastic kind of way.

9. VC1 Main Theme "This piece was the main inspiration for arranging Sakimoto's music, even before the project began. The arrangement explores the Main Theme through many different moods, which conveys the emotional ups and downs of the game's events. It also represents the journey of self-improvement that working on this project has afforded me."

The big one, the flagship theme for the series. It had to be very epic and varied - which is why it's the longest song on the CD. I wrote so many ideas for it, and ended up cutting very little of it out. The 'journey of self-improvement' refers to the experience of having to be consistently creative, for a major project, on a deadline. When a fire like that is lit under you, it's pretty effective.

10. Those Who Succeeded "A lot of time and thought went into this piece, since it features in a major plot point in the original Valkyria Chronicles. It also had to stand apart from the existing piano version. I reduced the piece to just the melody, then built around it with my own musical influences. The result was a piece that feels unique, and it has become my favourite piece on the album."

I figured that the best approach would be to understate the emotional impact of the song (in context of when it appears in the game) and leave a lot of space. Then, the first harmonic climax at 1:24 - 1:32 can really hit the listener hard. It's nicely placed on the album too, like an 'epilogue' section - this was my producer's idea.


So, I hope you enjoyed reading all of that. And if that still isn't enough video game piano for you, here is a link to my new arrangement from Chrono Trigger:

"Guardia Millennial Fair" - Chrono Trigger


12:49 AM on 08.09.2011

Let's Make A Story: The Director's Tools

A game with a good graphics engine looks better. A game with a good combat engine is more fun. So what about a game that tells a good story...?

A Storytelling Engine

When it comes to enjoying a good story, playing a game is not as straightforward as reading a book, or watching a movie. For most mediums, the quality of both story and storytelling is dependent on the skill of the author. The reader's only 'responsibility' is to be able to understand the language, context and conventions of that story's genre. A book or film is a very efficient way to tell a story.

Games, however, are very different. The 'author' of a game may plan out certain scenes and a narrative structure, but the integrity of their story is entirely at the player's mercy. This isn't limited to games with moral choices or branching narratives - literally every action the player takes can help or hinder a story.

It's something that we as gamers don't think about, or rather, have conditioned ourselves not to think about. I'm talking about all the cliches we've come to accept - invisible walls, NPC's with only one stock phrase, or all those times you run around a room like an idiot trying to find the key item you need. In any other medium these would be awkward, if not bizarre interruptions to a game's story - which is why we've learned to 'filter out' these moments.

Gamers don't only improve their spatial thinking and reflexes - they also learn how to navigate the genre: "When people are talking, that's the story part of the game. When I can control my character, that's the game part of the game", or, the time when you have to use your skills to 'earn' some more of the story. And so, Story and Gameplay gradually become opposed to each other. And now, we are a community that finds nothing wrong with numbers telling us how good we are in a gunfight:

It's easy to forget how strange game logic can be. The 'filters' can come off momentarily when a non-gamer watches you play, and suggests a logical Occam's Razor solution. For a moment you think, "Yeah, why do I need a key for this flimsy door when I have a rocket launcher? If I was a character in a movie, that's what the character would do." But the rules of the game are paramount - and the story is told through the rule structure... for better or for worse.

So I got to thinking... what if I took off the 'genre filters', and instead of playing as a single character in a story, I played the game as the director of the story? What if I decided who my character is from the start, based on the world they live in or the backstory the developers have given them, and made sure their actions are always consistent? What if I consciously tried to avoid these small, strange moments that erode the integrity of the narrative, and try to be just as responsible as the author in how well the story is told? And would the gameplay be less, or more fulfilling?

Any tabletop roleplayer will tell you that's easy, and that your only limit is your creativity. But in a video game, with a less flexible structure, it can be more of a challenge. Overcoming this challenge requires some thought not only from the player, but the developer as well. And I believe some developers have indeed started thinking about it. With this in mind, I looked at some different games and judged how well I could serve the story with my in-game actions.

The Director's Tools

For each of these games, I'm looking at 'tools' the developers have given me to enhance and guide the narrative. This doesn't necessarily mean that 'more freedom is better', like in open-world games - in fact, those kinds of games can be very difficult to direct. I'm not trying to tell 'my own story', I'm looking at how well a game let's me pick up the pieces, and direct a consistent story. Here's some positive examples of steps developers have taken to create effective 'Storytelling Engines'.

Red Dead Redemption
Rockstar give you a huge world to explore and inhabit, plus the opportunity to be an upstanding gunslinger, or a terrible outlaw. The character you are directing however, John Marston, already has his own story laid out for him, despite what you want him to do. He is not an evil man, yet the opportunity for evil deeds is available to the player at all times. Thankfully though, it's quite easy to avoid the outlaw's path. In other Rockstar games, there is a lot of 'chaos' to deal with - it's easy to accidentally run someone over, for example - but in RDR there is a lot of space, and you won't find yourself stumbling into actions you don't want to take.

Another plus to RDR is that John Marston himself is never too cocky about his combat abilities, so even if you are struggling in a gunfight you don't feel like you're 'betraying' the badassness of the character. It never feels good to have a character that is a Superman in all the cutscenes, and utter rubbish when you're in charge of controlling him.

The game is also full of small details and actions that expand the world, like playing horseshoes, drinking at the bar, and hunting wild animals. These are good examples of gameplay enhancing the narrative rather than eroding it. When I'm 'directing' John Marston, I feel it benefits the story to have him perform honorable deeds, to be adept at surviving in the harsh wilderness, or to have a whiskey after a particularly arduous mission. These are all optional things, and some of my choices will mean I'll miss out on other aspects of the gameplay (like tying a nun to a railroad track), but they are all effective 'director's tools' that keep me in control of who I believe John Marston is.

Heavy Rain
While I was disappointed with the game's closing moments, there are a lot of interesting tools given to the player, to direct the narrative. The developer's intention, after all, was to make a cinematic type of game. In this game, it's the small things that count.

What I liked about Heavy Rain's approach to some scenes is that it asked the player to search their own understanding of film genres to 'perform' a scene in the way they wanted. And yes, most of these by themselves were tedious actions like brushing your teeth or sitting in a chair. But if you know where all of these 'actions' are triggered in the game world, and what they do, then you can choreograph some scenes in interesting ways.

For example, at the psychiatrist's office you can pace around, nervously switch chairs, and lean on things. Or, you can sit unmoving in one place. Both are valid approaches for that scene. The trouble is, on your first playthrough, you spend most of your time 'searching' the environment for the things you can interact with. You could even think of your first playthrough as a 'rehearsal' - on your second playthrough, could you make things more cinematic?

Nearly every action in this game is a director's tool, but all too often the player has no idea what an instruction will do, even in critical moments. I certainly didn't intend for Shelby to smash his way out of a sinking car to leave Lauren Winter to drown. That's kind of a massive narrative decision to assign to a wobbly little Sixaxis icon. Part II will talk more about this - the importance of 'Transparency' in player decisions.

The Last Express
The Last Express is beautifully crafted, and has some of the most effective storytelling I've seen in a game. There are good and bad endings to the game, but the prime goal is for the player is to unravel it's story. Every character on the train has a history, motives, and their own set of secrets to discover. Not all of these details are necessary to win the game, but they enrich the story immensely.

This is a game where you can sit in the smoking car and pretend to read a newspaper while you're waiting for a passenger to leave their room, so you can sneak in and investigate it. While you're waiting, you might end up eavesdropping on a small argument between Sophie Bretheuil and Rebecca Norton, two women who are eloping together. You could play through the entire game and miss their whole subplot, so it pays to move about the train to see and hear as much as you can.

The animation of the characters is very expressive. It's full of small, refreshing details - like violinist Anna Wolff forcing a smile at charmless tycoon August Schmidt's jokes. The game's characters are amazingly real for a game made in 1997.

It's also very hard to undermine the actions of the protagonist, Robert Cath. Even if you make a choice that leads to your death, or a premature ending, these moments feel like real conclusions to the story. Like in Heavy Rain, the game gives you some directorial options - if you'd rather not just stand in the hallway doing nothing while eavesdropping, you could light a cigarette to perhaps look a little less suspicious, for example.

This is the game that got me thinking about how in most games, players are asked to inhabit a character rather than direct a story. The game made me think about not how to solve the next puzzle, but to consider the consequences of my next action. Not only for the protagonist, but for the other characters on the train. In the mid-way point of the game, there is a small concert where all the important passengers are gathered - a perfect opportunity to do some snooping. Whenever I was stumped as to what to do next, I would sit down at the concert, listen to the music, and look over at all the other faces - guessing at their motives and planning my next move. I would look at the stoic bodyguard Kahina and think of a way to get to the Firebird treasure before she could, all without betraying the trust of the girl who was safe-keeping it.

I wasn't pondering which path to take in a fork in the narrative (kick puppy/save puppy?), I was actually thinking what I believed Robert Cath to be thinking. The 'correct' path (yeah, I had to use a walkthrough) was actually something I didn't expect Cath to do - which was a problem since I had started to think of the protagonist as myself (as years of gaming had told me to do). Once I stopped thinking "Oh, I wouldn't have done that", and instead thought "That's an interesting turn for the story to take", I stopped feeling 'disappointed' by Cath's actions being different from what I expected.

Go check out The Last Express immediately if you haven't already!

In Part II, I'll be looking at some of the ways developers can hinder their storytelling, through the choices they give the player, and strange design decisions (lookin' at you, Bioware!). I'll also talk more about how multiple playthroughs can be like 'rehearsals', which I discovered when playing Fallout: New Vegas.

Do you have any comments about the games mentioned, or some examples of 'director's tools' and good/bad 'storytelling engines'? Leave a comment below!   read

10:45 PM on 06.21.2011

Valkyria Chronicles Piano Pieces - Promotional Trailer

A whole lot of new information has been released today about the "Valkyria Chronicles Piano Pieces" album. There's a video you can watch on YouTube, which talks about how I met Sakimoto and got the project started, plus some insight into the pieces I arranged.

You can also listen to previews of some tracks on Basiscape's store page. The CD comes out in Japan on the 30th, and you can also get it off iTunes on the 29th!

Still have to pinch myself sometimes when I think how lucky I was to have this opportunity. If you like VGM piano music, or you're a fan of the VC series, or just piano in general, you should check it out!


6:40 PM on 01.01.2011

Minecraft - Anniversary (Video)

What if the minecrafter wasn't always alone in their world?


I wrote this piano arrangement and used my singleplayer world for the "set". Hope you like it!   read

7:45 PM on 12.09.2010

Let's thwack Rabites to latin piano music!

Specifically, a latin piano duet that I wrote, of Hiroki Kikuta's "Powell" from the Secret of Mana 2 OST.

Secret of Mana 2 - "Powell"

Merry Christmas!

(NOTE: Thwacking rabites is not a euphemism. This is a family blog, and I will not abide filth).   read

1:06 AM on 09.05.2010

Little Big Planet Theme - Piano

So I don't burn out on writing Sakimoto stuff (still well underway), I thought I'd sit down and make a piano version of one of the Happiest Songs of All Time:

Little Big Planet Theme - "Get It Together" by The Go! Team

Enjoy!   read

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