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About


Oh hey!

I'm celebrity author and renowned street mime Panzadolphin56. This is my blog. I write things here.

...in case the blog bit didn't give that away.

Anyway! To the left you'll find my latest blogs, and beneath this you'll find a fairly comprehensive list of most of what I've written over the years (unfortunately some stuff does eventually get bumped off the list.)

I like to write from a fairly critical standpoint about games, usually analysis or talking about issues that interest me, I also do retrospectives from time to time, talk about games I've been playing, write the funny things that come into my head, and very occasionally do some crappy art.

I hope you enjoy what you read!

I also make videos a little now, so check those out if you'd like - http://www.youtube.com/user/godi3400

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A little about me:

I am mostly a story person, good mechanics are good mechanics but button pressing never does anything for me. I like Horror, I like Cyberpunk, I like Neo-Noir (especially crossed with Cyberpunk), I like good art and good writing, I like games that cut against the grain or choose to challenge social or industry norms in some way.

I don't have a single favourite game but I am a big fan of the MGS games, Snatcher, the Forbidden Siren series, Silent Hill 2, the old-school Resident Evils, Advance Wars and Power Dolls, among many, many others.

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Critical Pieces:

How ugly should Horror really be?
Of Inventories and Horror Games
Crafting A Good Game of 'The Thing'
Alien(s), Creative license and Borrowed Ideas
Crossing from TV/Movie to Games
Scope and Depth in the world of gaming
Boss Battles - When do they ever make sense?
Survival Horror Essentials
Colonial Marines: Well, that kind of sucked...
Disability, Disease in Games
Blood 2 and Post-Modernism
Topics, Tropes and Atmosphere in Horror games
Realism Vs. Fantasy - Who Wins?
The gradual drift away from the mainstream
Is There Horror in The Ugly...?
The Fourth Wall and taking games seriously
Are You Always Online?
Hype: Aliens Vs. Predator
To shoot stuff or not to shoot stuff?
Character Design and Choice in Games
Culture Vs. Creativity: Where do Stories come from?
Where you go Isometric-Strategy Games?
What's the Point of Games?
Do Horror games even still exist...?
Why are Characters Always so White...?
Choice in Games: Heavy Rain

A Magical Dolphin Plays:

Claire
Sepulchre
The King of the Wood

Retrospectives:

Resident Evil Remake
Aliens Vs Predator 2
Sweet Home
Forbidden Siren
System Shock 2

Pick up and Plays:

Call of Cthulhu and the Spectre of Good Horror
Story Books and Nightmares in Rule of Rose
B-Movie Bliss: Extermination
Along for the ride with Michigan: Report From Hell
Some thoughts on Wargame: European Escalation
Skyrim: Impressions

Funny/Less Critical Stuff:

Get Yo Summer Game On
Lazyblog: Box Art
Escaping into the Darkness of Hellnight
Diversity what what?!?: Black Mamba Edition
Why Do We Still Have Exploding Barrels...?

Art:

Dead Space 3, in a nut shell.
CROSSOVER: Mario X Siren
Boss: Learning the Tools of the Trade

Front Pages:
Tales from Skyrim: The skinhead shopkeep
Player Profile
PSN ID:karatedolphin66
Steam ID:PD56
Mii code:Hell if I know!
Raptr ID:Anarchicheron
Follow me:
Twitter:@acidmphino
Panzadolphin56's sites
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'A Magical Dolphin Plays...' is a series of short blogs where I write in-brief about my experiences with some of the lesser known games I've played and hopefully explain a little bit about what goes on in the game and how the game feels overall, before offering my thoughts on whether or not I think the game is worth recommending to others. Hope you enjoy!

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Sepulchre is a short point-and-click indie game in which you play an academic who wakes up on a train not really having a clear idea of what's going on. You explore your immediate environment and a story quickly begins to unfold before you.

Note: I'm going to keep this relatively spoiler free since it's story-heavy but obviously I will be mentioning some of the events that happened...

What I did in the game:

So the game starts.

I'm in a room. I've just finished reading a book.

The game feels sort of weird, sort of eerie and already the name of the game is unsettling me. I look around a little, I try to click on things.

The scenery doesn't really seem to do anything but I find a bag on the floor and some things in there.



I find a man in the corridor, a ticket collector I guess? He's friendly but seems strange, after some discussion I agree to find him some Whisky. The player character refers to him as near his own age but the two look like they have atleast twenty years between them, I am slightly confused :S

I explore the corridor some, all the doors have 1's on them and aside from the middle door (my room) they're all locked.

I move through the corridor to a new corridor.

More rooms.

The door to the restaurant is closed but the last but one isn't.

There's an odd man in there, he doesn't seem to be able to speak but just mutters.

It's all very odd.



Much of the rest of my experience is a constant back and forth between rooms as new clues pop up, I'm enjoying myself but there's an increasing sense of being unsettled by the story that's unfolding before me. The scenery, the backgrounds, even the rooms seem to all be clues as to my unfortunate fate. I found the ending abrupt but satisfying given how the story played out.

I really like Sepulchre, it is relatively short but what you get is a very concise and entertaining narrative-heavy experience. Personally I guessed where things were headed pretty early on but nonetheless I found the way the story was weaved, between the simple series of actions you have to perform to move events forward, quite nice. I don't think length should count against Sepulchre really, because the length is appropriate for the kind of story its telling.



I definitely think the story could have lasted a bit longer, I've read it's about 15 minutes long but it felt more like 30 to me, I didn't really check the clock though. Regardless Sepulchre is a well-made, well-written short but enjoyable piece of free point and click gaming.

Recommended
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So only a few days ago I happened to stumble across a video of 'The Thing', the game, on YouTube, and it brought back a lot of memories. Released around 2002, prior to getting my hands on it it had been a game I was very excited for – I'm a big fan of the film (the original), so a game about that sounded like a win-win situation, unfortunately despite being an enjoyable enough shooter the game never really hit the same high notes the film does.

I thought I'd talk a little about why I think that is.



So The Thing (1982) is a horror film. It's a film about a small Antarctic research base that is invaded (for lack of a better word) by a creature from outer space. Discovered in the ice by another research team, it comes back to life and begins to absorb every living thing it comes into contact with. Able to mimic the people and animals it absorbs it hides in plain sight till exposed, attempting to spread and absorb everything it can.

The only way to kill it is with fire.

In many respects the film plays out like a game of Werewolf ...but with flamethrowers; you have a small group of people, trapped in a small location together, who know that among them are creatures intent on their destruction, that they have to kill, but without really knowing what's what none of them really wants to risk killing other human beings. So it becomes a guessing game of sorts, a mystery to be unravelled before it's too late for any of them to survive.



I think as well the film is very much about identity and doubt – we know we are who we are but how do we know the same of others? Whether we realise it or not in day to day life we rely on our sense of knowing that the people we see over and over again are familiar to us, and that they don't mean us any harm.

In the film the characters lose that, as they realise that potentially several of those within their group are not who they say they are. It becomes about suspicion, doubt, trust and only really knowing they can rely on themselves; though none of them really know the others are who they say they are they know at the same time they will have to trust one another to a certain degree if they're not going to die... and it becomes about where to place that trust. I think that's the crux of the film, that sense of tension between wanting to survive but not wanting to survive by becoming another sort of monster entirely – i.e. by becoming a murderer, because honestly there were points in the film where they could have easily massacred one another and ended things there and then.



Obviously on top of that you have everything else – the body horror elements, the characters, the setting, the actual story and dialogue, and they all add up to make for a compelling horror film.

Unfortunately the game covers elements of the last paragraph – the body horror, the setting, even mentioning characters, but it doesn't really do any of the other things that made the film work so well. And that for me is why the game fails in the way it does – and it's not a particularly bad game, it's just not a great game nor really a very good The Thing game.

Overall there wasn't really a sense of tension to it, atleast not one that ran throughout the game. For the most part The Thing was just a regular shooter - you'd walk through areas, creatures would spring out, you'd shoot them. Rinse and repeat through multiple levels. You did have to worry about infection if you got too exposed to enemies but for the most part it was easy going. You did also have to worry about teammates turning, and testing them, but in both respects the game never really followed through on the premise – the testing aspect, for example, never really made a lot of sense.



There was no real apparent cause for infection (since most teammates were never out of your sight long enough to be 'absorbed' like people were in the film.) Initially in previews it was explained how you'd need to constantly be testing your teammates to work out whether they were human or not, and to establish trust, and obviously you wouldn't have enough testkits to go around all the time and part of the tension of the game would spring from that. However, that's really not how it worked.

It also seemed like there were specific points in the game where teammates would suddenly turn regardless of whether they were infected or not – test them, they're fine; walk over an invisible line and they turn (usually before a boss). That made no logical sense, and made no sense in terms of how infection was said to work in the game or the film.



The game did have a certain degree of atmosphere, but I feel like the faults in the infection model and the emphasis on constant shoot-outs negated any strong sense of atmosphere developing.

Another thing I think really didn't help any (especially in terms of atmosphere) was the complete lack of character to the lead character. He was really just bland – this sort of emotionless, gruff-sounding white guy with cropped hair. Granted, MacReady isn't likely to win any 'Sassiest Black Lesbian in Film' awards anytime soon but he atleast had some character.

The lead in the game sees a lot more fucked up stuff than MacReady did (and actually ends up murdering a lot of black-ops goons as well) and still remains level and, honestly, indifferent to it all. While I'm not saying every character has to go nuts at the mere sight of blood, if you're crafting good horror you need your character to be affected by fucked up shit else it stops the player from relating to how horrible the situation is.



I do think the story is pretty clichι as well, something about evil government scientists conducting experiments blah blah blah (you can guess the rest), but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing if the story is done well. I won't fault it for that. Just like hammy acting can be good in the right context so can a clichι story.

I also find it hard to fault a game wanting to be a shooter – I don't think there's anything wrong with shooting in games. I like shooters, one of the games that first got me into gaming at a young age, and indeed into horror in particular, was Resident Evil 2, and I always used to love gunning down zombies, looking over each new gun I picked up or hunting for ammo. The shooting doesn't bother me per se, but the fact the game is almost a constant procession of shooting galleries, where you just move from room to room, shoot things, pick up some goodies, maybe get a bit of story (if you're lucky) and then move on to do more of the same, does annoy me.



There has to be a happy medium between constant shooting and games where there is no shooting whatsoever. Sure there are games like Gears of War and Halo, where the constant shooting fits, and I'm definitely not saying a game of The Thing should have no shooting, I don't want Dear Esther Alien Edition, but I think the shooting has to have context, especially within a horror game.

I think in a horror game there has to be a certain degree of realism when it comes to firearms use and if you don't have that it ruins any sense of immersion – if you were trapped in a haunted house or an abandoned amusement park or on a space station would you really expect to find dozens of guns and thousands of rounds of ammo just lying around?

No, me neither.

This is true on an Antarctic research base as well. Why would they have guns and ammo lying around all over the place?

It's also true in a secret underground government research base – sure they'd have guns, they're evil government people, but they wouldn't just leave them lying around.

You also have to think about how having those plentiful supplies of weapons and ammunition just lying around affects the dynamic of the game and removes any sense of desperation or just surviving from the player's mind. If they don't have to worry about supplies then they're not worrying, and that's not good in Survival Horror.



Tied in to all this is the structure of the game – simply put it's a linear progression from point A to point B, a series of rooms with successive waves of changing enemies, that eventually leads to a final boss. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – it's how a lot of games play out, and indeed how a lot of shooters work, essentially because it leads to quite a satisfying gameplay experience: As in books or movies or any medium, we like our story to start with the character building themselves up from nothing, facing ever increasing challenges before they face a 'final boss' of some sort.

The problem is though that it doesn't really fit with The Thing, or atleast what made the film work in the way it did. What made the film work was that sort of claustrophobic, cramped, feel, the fact that you had this small cast of characters stuck in an even smaller space having to face immeasurable odds as they struggled to survive against the onslaught of the creature really defined the film. If the film had kept jumping to new characters and new areas, it really wouldn't have been as scary as it was.



This is true of movies and books as well but one of the things I've started to realise the more I've thought about why the best Survival Horror games work in the way they do, scare us and create tension in the way they do, is how contained they feel, how little space they give their characters to breath.

It's a little like if you're stuck in one room for too long with nothing to do. The tension slowly builds, you become antsy, frustrated; we all feel that need to move on, to go to new places to quell that frustration. Good horror though exploits that internal tension, forcing us to retread those same corridors, visit those same rooms, while constantly upping the danger. You need that frustration, that 'stuck' feeling if any sense of real tension is going to build.



Good Horror is always about perverting what works well in games to a certain degree – A well structured game relies on progression, on constantly moving on to new areas, new challenges, new enemies. It's why big budget games are so expensive now, because creating that continuous stream of non-repetitive elements, of ever-changing rooms and environments is expensive, very expensive. The best horror though is about doing the opposite – it's about frustrating you, letting that frustration and annoyance at seeing the same rooms and locations over and over again build, and then manipulating it for effect to scare you.

Part of why action horror games fail at creating a real sense of atmosphere and tension and end up relying more on jump scares is because as you progress the environments around you change aswell, so there's no real sense of building frustration. I think this is part of why The Thing game doesn't work, especially given the type of film The Thing is; the film is stuck in that same claustrophobic loop, retreading old territory over and over again, whereas the game completely sidesteps that and negates any of the same tension the film sought to build.



As a sort of addendum to all this, but really a more minor overall point: There was no real mystery, no real sense of doubt over identity within the game. Your character was really the only constant and you knew you were human, so apart from dying horrible there was nothing to be afraid of, no need to worry about getting stabbed in the back – unlike in the film.

I think part of what made the eventual exposure of individual creatures in the film so scary was the sense of tension and build up that had taken place prior to their reveal – mere moments ago, and indeed for large chunks of the film before that, that 'Thing' in front of you had seemingly been a normal person, and the gulf between the two states of being is what, in part, made the creatures so scary. Obviously the fact they sprouted tentacles, split in half and then proceeded to eat or absorb people helped with the whole scary thing but the build up was key too.

The game didn't have any of that.

What would have made for a good game of The Thing?

O) I think either a point-and-click/visual novel game or something more akin to Resident Evil Remake or maybe like the Siren games, maybe some sort of slower-paced, very atmospheric 3rd person survival horror game. 




O) Very tight, compact environments – it wouldn't necessarily have to be in the Antarctic but obviously similar enough for the creature to have to stay where it is and the player to feel hemmed in.



O) It would need to have a relatively small cast of characters, and you'd need to see them repeatedly for some reason – with the potential for them to mutate at any time in the story.



O) Something relatively non-linear in nature as well, possibly with multiple end game scenarios – the player has a single goal but multiple ways to achieve that goal. Potentially in some playthroughs you would be able to save everybody if you did the right thing at the right time, in others even you wouldn't survive and the creature would get out.



I don't think it'd be necessarily hard to make a game that made sense in the context of the original film, but finding somebody to make it is a different issue. To a large extent we're still stuck with the same problem in gaming that stopped the The Thing game being better than it was in the first place - the perception that there's really only a few ways to make a game if it's going to succeed - as a first-person shooter, as a third-person shooter, linear with ever changing rooms and enemies, etc, when really that's not true.

Granted we do seemingly live in an era where it seems as if everything has to copy the biggest selling games in some way to succeed but that's not true either. It's true that some genres are very popular but it's also true that good games sell (well, mostly), whether they fit the mould or not.

I think what matters most of all is really whether the gameplay and the story make sense in terms of the premise. The thing about The Thing (heh) is it's very old-school horror, for lack of a better word: it's cheap. It's designed to be a story about as few people using as few props as possible and as such it's centred around the drama that can be created between a small group of people - again, like a game of Werewolf.



In many respects it's a product of its time - a little like Alien and Aliens actually, sure directors had money but never enough (unlike now), so it was mostly about smoke and mirrors, never showing too much, creating atmosphere but also tension through a very minimalist approach to constructing scenes and emphasising characterisation above constant streams of special effects, and the end result is a very scary film because it's so reserved in it's approach to the horror.

The game's problem though is that it throws all that out of the window and instead jumps on the Action Horror train, presenting a constant procession of enemies for you to kill, within constantly changing environments, leading up to some sort of final boss.

What we got was not a bad game as such, but neither was it one that really did the film justice, and that I think is the biggest shame.
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Maybe it's because Stasis Interrupted's been released and I've been watching a few gameplay videos of it but for some reason lately I've been (again) thinking a lot about Aliens games and where they've gone wrong over the years.

Colonial Marines was obviously terrible, but Aliens Vs Predator (2010) was also pretty mediocre, and though there has been the odd good game (Aliens Infestation being a good example) I feel as though it's one of those franchises that was really good in concept but now has gotten milked to retardation (see: Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Halo, etc, etc) in terms of games, and really just needs to be given a fresh lease of life. We've sort of been stuck in this continual loop of whatever formula's popular atm being taken and applied to Aliens and the end result (usually an FPS) being pretty mediocre. We really just need fresh blood.



Actually, scratch that, I'm not that much of a starry-eyed optimist, I doubt there will ever be big enough of a direction change when it comes to what's expected of an Aliens game by Sega or Fox for them to push for more original games to be made, so unless the AAA market shifts away from FPSs we're pretty much stuck with mediocrity (I mean I hope it's not true but it seems a safe bet atm.)

That said, it doesn't mean we couldn't see some good Aliens-inspired games.

It used to be a big thing back in the late 80's/early 90's to wear your influences on your sleeve (apparently copyright infringement wasn't a thing back then, who knew!) So for example playing through Syndicate (the original) you'll see references to Blade Runner but also nods to Aliens (a few of the character names are in the agent pool and the military APC bears a striking resemblance to the one from Aliens); it's also why Snatcher features a main character who resembles Deckard from Blade Runner and why the eponymous snatchers of the game resemble T-800s from Terminator; why Rebelstar 2's cover features what can only be described as a 'motherfucking xenomorph for christsake!', why Contra (atleast on the cover) features two guys who look a little like Arnie and Stallone (circa Predator and Rambo), and why the covers of Streets of Rage games sometimes feature multiple Jean-Claude Van Dammes...



what in the...?!

The point is early games features a lot, and I mean A LOT, of free and easy creative license - seriously it was like the 60's but instead of having sex everybody was stealing other people's ideas! FREE LOVE MAN!

This is good and bad, on the plus side it came at a time when games literally had no ideas of their own and people were desperate to make something interesting, so they borrowed from great movies (among other reference material), and if you're going to borrow from anything to make your game then I'm relatively comfortable with it being Aliens or Blade Runner, or in fact anything from 80's/early 90's popular culture, because I love that shit. Developers used this source of potentially good ideas and tried to translate them into games, whilst skimming past the whole 'copyright infringement' thing, (though if you're Revenge of Shinobi that didn't quite go so well!) and that's not necessarily a bad thing – it still happens occasionally today, and the end results can sometimes be really awesome – look at Uncharted 2 for example, poor man's Indiana Jones it is not.

The negative side though is pretty clear: if you're borrowing from existing IPs, even if borrowing between mediums, you're still borrowing those ideas and they're not completely fresh. And if the last ten or so years of AAA gaming has shown anything then it's that creative stagnation is not great for an industry, even in small doses, even when like with AAA gaming now it's just the characters and setting that tend to remain the same.



While I'm hesitant about saying more games that borrow from existing sources would be a good thing, I think usually what puts me off that sort of borrowing with games is that what developers borrow is usually more mechanics and archetypes rather than themes.

It's usually stuff like 'gruff, bearded white dude' and 'cover shooting' that get borrowed, when really what needs to be borrowed is the themes, the feel, the atmosphere. The industry already borrows a lot from film as it is, but sometimes it feels as though they borrow the wrong things. It often strikes me watching films that developers/publishers/whoever creates game projects misses a trick sometimes when it comes to what would make money as a game – there's so many great ideas out there floating about and nobody's taking advantage of them.

The thought really struck me watching Minority Report not too long back, I didn't love the movie but I enjoyed it and I thought the concept was interesting so I wondered - why hasn't anybody tried to do this in a game? I mean we've had plenty of detective games before – Snatcher, J.B. Harold Murder Club, Ace Attorney, Hotel Dusk, Tex Murphy, being just a few examples. The classic detective game genre is pretty well established, mostly in visual novel games, so why not a game where you tackle pre-crime? You'd have this interesting detective game with the added element of forcing the player to tackle the moral quandary of whether arresting somebody before they commit the crime really makes them a criminal.



I've had this thought a few times actually watching films or reading books/short stories – reading through a lot of Philip K. Dick's short stories, a fair number of them could make interesting games, and reading Neuromancer I can see why people were inspired by that. H.P. Lovecraft's works are another good example, though he sometimes crafted creatures of pure terror that can only truly exist as figments of the imagination a fair number of his stories would work really well if they were taken and merged with existing styles of gameplay to create original games. Even if they ended up being terrible it's hardly like we're drowning in horror games set in the late 19th/early 20th century at the moment.

The point being there are more places that games can go, more themes, more issues, more content that can be explored.

It's what's borrowed and not that it's borrowed that I think's the problem a lot of the time with games. This is what I think the shame about pretty much every Alien(s) games is, (and indeed a lot of movie/TV/anything popular tie-ins), it's that instead of trying to emulate or borrow from the creative property the themes, the feel, the dynamic of the original and expand upon that, they just borrow recognisable elements, they borrow the 'skin' of the show, the surface-level detail and plaster that over just some random ill-thought-out game.



I mean look at Colonial Marines, in many respects it's the antithesis of everything Alien(s) represented – the lone heroine defying gender convention to survive and escape impossible odds/that military and scientific might alone can't tame nature; it's just a bunch of dumb dudebros and some token women blowing shit up, being boring and surviving just because they're two-dimensional hero characters but hey, somebody says Weyland-Yutani and Lance Henriksen is in it so it must be a faithful continuation of the franchise!

What I'd really love to see is someone (a developer, big or small) take the barebones of what made Alien or Aliens good and make a game from that.

Alien was a sort of claustrophobic, very tense, very dark and almost suggestive horror story set in a very realistic, hard sci-fi future. It was about a very primal fear of the 'other', and also about sexuality, wrapped up in this story about some space truckers who stumble upon something they really shouldn't of.

Aliens was more about the arrogance that comes with military might and the power of science, and how sometimes the two can fail when confronted with a force of nature that doesn't bow to that power – with obvious Vietnam parallels. Again it was also about this force of nature, this creature, but tackling that same horror from Alien on a macro rather than micro scale – the xenomorphs weren't so much evil antagonists as just wild animals whose perceived territory had been invaded.

Hell, even if it was just a thinly-veiled homage to Alien(s), I'd be cool with that. One of my favourite games is Snatcher, and that's basically a thinly (very thinly) veiled homage to Blade Runner, Terminator and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (among others), it does it well enough and innovates enough turning that into a game that it works though. This is kind of true of a lot of Hideo Kojima games though, he innovates through heavy pastiche/obvious influence but the things he creates are original enough for it not to matter.



Again while I don't like the idea of encouraging more copying from different creative properties I do want to see that when ideas are borrowed they borrow the right kind – the more abstract qualities, the themes, the feel, etc, rather than the obvious, concrete things – the characters, the props, the logos, etc. Kojima isn't alone in this but I'd say he has the right kind of attitude when it comes to how to make good games (most of the time) and be influenced by outside sources, he borrows the ideas not the skin of a creative property, and one of the reasons why his games are often so popular is because he strikes the same chord the popular media he borrows from does.

An Aliens game doesn't necessarily need marines, nor Weyland-Yutani, nor even combat, what it needs is to be scary, it needs atmosphere, it needs to be about a group of people coming into contact with this oppresive invading entity, this force of nature, that can't simply be controlled by technology or firepower.

That's more Aliens than anything in Colonial Marines was.

One of the ideas that struck me while thinking about how Aliens could work as a game is why haven't we had some sort of visual novel Alien/Aliens game? Something maybe played a little like those detective games I mentioned earlier, with you investigating locations, mostly powerless, as you look for some way to escape and have to keep a good eye on your motion tracker so you know when to hide in a locker, between trips away from your safe haven to look for supplies.



I've mentioned it before but I also felt the Alien game for the Zx Spectrum did a pretty awesome job of mimicking the feel of the film for a game that old, merging a sort of top-down strategic view of the Nostromo deck by deck with a visual window in which the xenomorph could pop-up when nearby (accompanied by the steady thum of your motion tracker), that was good. The game feels tense at times, despite the limited graphics, and the fact it's so raw (you die about as easily as most of the characters in the film do) makes it a very challenging experience.

Or even if it was something less horror-based I'd be cool with that – maybe the corporate flunkey simulator I joked about in the other blog I wrote about Aliens games not long after Colonial Marines befouled my senses. Say a game with a cutesy/Super-Deformed graphical style where you play a corporate flunkey who has to balance researching xenomorph specimens with micromanaging running a colony, and has to avoid too many devastating xenomorph outbreaks to protect their bottom line (oh no, not the atmospheric processor again, those things cost a bundle! *60,000 people already dead*), in a sort of tongue-in-cheek nod to Carter Burke's role in the Aliens' story. Even something like that would be more Aliens than Colonial Marines, because atleast it would have some sense of the film in it, some connection to what made the film good.



I can't think of too many films that have had such a fundamental effect on me as Alien and Aliens have (Blade Runner being another actually, and Ghost in the Shell is actually another) and though I think mostly there's enough original ideas for games not to have to borrow I'm so desperate for something that emulates the feel of Alien(s) that I'd settle for a knock-off of either, aslong as it had the atmosphere, the tension, the feel, and the themes of the films (the first two anyway.)

So many games have been influenced by film and other media that we have to recognise there's always going to be an element of borrowed content in games (as there is in any medium), and that's not necessarily a bad thing. From Rambo to Blade Runner, from Jacob's Ladder to Event Horizon, from Jurassic Park to Indiana Jones, all have helped inspire great games.

My hope is that the industry tries to remember it's the ideas that matter and not the things when it comes to inspiration and license.

...oh, and that somebody totally makes a cool Alien(s) rip-off soon! WOO!
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So lately I've been thinking I want to do more casual, regular pieces on some of the games I play, I'm hoping 'A Magical Dolphin Plays...' will scratch that itch as I talk a little about my experiences with some of the indie PC games I come across. Enjoy!

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The King of the Wood is a short indie game where you play a character tasked with eliminating a rogue cyborg, in the process of which you explore a small world and learn a little about the simple story you're playing. It's presented in a simple, blocky visual style, and largely based on a synthesis of elements from Deus Ex (the original) and Blade Runner.

What I did in the game:

I awoke/appeared/came into existence inside an office.

There was a gun on the table.

I did the only logical thing: I picked up the gun and attempted to shoot everything in sight, repeatedly.

Apparently that achieves nothing. Then a note pushed under the door informs me I'm after a cyborg, and I'm off. I come to a large house, surrounded by a wall, poke around a little - noting some telephone lines connecting the house to god knows where, before stumbling inside.



What's fun about the game really starts when you reach the house, as to get inside you need a passcode, and for that you need to check this guy's mailbox. Inside is the code, but you have to read a short letter from the guy you're after to get it. A weirdly inviting warning.

Inside the house you pretty much just look for clues as to where to go, you don't really know what you're doing so it's more about exploring than anything, trying to interact with everything you find and reading the books and notes scattered round the rooms. There's no real danger in the game but you can 'die' technically, as there are traps and sentries round the house, but when you do die all that happens is you're warped back to an earlier room, so it's obvious the game is more about the exploration side of things and the clues scattered round the house than anything.



The King of the Wood does that thing that really good horror movies do, where they signpost what's going to happen ahead of time and it's more the tension in getting to there that affects you than the actual end result; and even though you can guess ahead of time how it's going to end it works.

I really like The King of the Wood, I'm not usually super into indie games, I'm no graphics whore but I tend to be drawn to AA or AAA games where things are often more story focused, but The King of the Wood impressed me. It's one of those games that proves the rule that it's sometimes better to do something simple really well rather than try to do lots of different complicated things all at once.



It's no Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Blade Runner, you won't find any stunning cyberpunk vistas here or high-action combat sequences, but there's an elegant charm to it's 15 minutes of playtime and it's definitely enjoyable.

Recommended
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So I haven't really wanted to write all that much of late, maybe it's because summer is pretty much here but my desire to do anything even vaguely game-related is waning somewhat. The other day though I found myself trying to hunt down some video reviews for old games that I was curious about, and feeling a little unsatisfied by what I was hearing decided I'd write some thoughts down about a subject that's been on my mind for awhile.

So yeah, for some reason I suddenly had the desire to look into whether or not there were any decent Ghost in the Shell or Evangelion games. I have no real affinity for fan service and I like the games I play to be thought-provoking and challenging in some way so generally I don't like tie-ins from one medium to another because they usually suck. If you've played pretty much anything based off a movie before you'll know what I mean.



Ghost in the Shell and Evangelion are two massive, very popular, franchises though and I thought maybe, just maybe, there might be some gem hidden in amongst all the crap. You know something that might satisfy that good story and themes/challenging gameplay itch. You do get this sometimes with franchises that cross over from another medium into games - most of the really big name titles from the Alien(s) franchise, for example, are pretty mediocre and forgettable, but there's the odd game that really stands out as special.

The examples I found for GIS/Eva though, perhaps not unsurprisingly, ranged from games that seemed to exist just to milk the IP for fan service and play off the current game trends (*cough* anything on the iPhone), to some perhaps average to above-average games released a generation or more ago that mostly just focused on the action from the shows and not much else.

Not really what I had hoped for.



I hadn't really thought about it until after I realised I was really kind of disappointed by what I'd found but for some reason I expected more from the games based off some shows I thought really had some depth to them. It's like if they announced (another) Blade Runner game and it turned out to just be an iPhone game where you touched the screen to make dancing Rutger Hauer heads explode before they one-shot kill you; sure it'd be amusing, perhaps even entertaining to a certain degree, but when you're a fan of something and you really like the themes it tackles and the characters in it, you want the game of it to do more than just give you shallow, very passing, entertainment. You don't want the starter, you want a main course, y'know?

I guess I kind of expected some sort of odd juxtaposition of different gameplay segments all bound together by a plot that made the games make sense. Ghost in the Shell is about this cyberpunk future where a secret paramilitary police unit fights criminals and investigates the political machinations of different factions within Japanese society; whilst Evangelion is pretty much Silent Hill 2 with robots, using the excuse of these extra-terrestrial invaders to explore the psychology of a group of really fucked up kids and the adults who exploit them ...with robots!



They both work as entertainment because they're pretty far out there and imaginative, and like say Blade Runner or Aliens if they're going to be made into a game properly you need to capture some of what made the original property work so well for them to work as games. Though it's obviously not an exhaustive list if they were going to make a good Blade Runner game it'd need to make you do all the things you'd expect a blade runner to do: hunting down leads, visiting locations round the city, claustrophobic shoot-outs with synthetics in alleyways/across rained-on rooftops, that sort of thing; with Aliens you'd need the obvious shoot-out segments, but perhaps also manning the gun turret on the APC as you escape some xenomorphs, crawling through vents, sealing doors with a blowtorch - basically in both cases people want to feel a part of the movie.

Too often making a game of something is simply reduced to: gameplay/cutscene/gameplay, when really what you want to be doing is capturing a sense of the IP with the game – this doesn't necessarily mean no cutscenes but use gameplay to make the player feel a part of the action.



Hostage situations in office buildings have been something of a recurring theme in every iteration of Ghost in the Shell in one form of another, so why not have the player control a sniper's eye view during one, or have the player control the cop who inserts the small robotic eye through the ceiling that spies on the terrorists holding the hostages? What about a Tachikoma or Fuchikoma (both kind of small semi-autonomous walking tanks) motorway chase with some terrorists in cars? Why not have segments of gameplay where you investigate a crime/crimes - knocking on doors, questioning suspects, etc?

Though obviously giant robots figure prominently in it Evangelion is really mostly about this futuristic city that is under repeated siege by towering extra-terrestrial creatures, so why not let the player organise the defence and play the part of whoever's in charge of firing all the defences before they move onto actually piloting the Eva? Or what about a sequence of gameplay where you're inside a character's head trying to sort out their issues?



Why does a game just have to follow the model of gameplay/cutscene/gameplay, why not gameplay type 1/gameplay type 2/short cutscene/gameplay type 1, or any more complicated pattern? I know obviously that this means potentially more work but it seems like, especially with games based off popular franchises, that it gets forgotten why games are so enjoyable and why people are so willing to throw money at a really good game. We want experiences, we want to relax and 'play' as somebody else, whether it be a detective tracking down synthetics, a futuristic lady cyborg investigating her country's internal politics, a hardass marine watching his friends get slaughtered by aliens or any number of other stories.

I don't think it's about copying elements from those movies/TV shows per se but rather emulating the way they can immerse and entertain us and building on it because it's a game and games can do so much more. Games always have to follow models and standards from their genre to a certain extent but then over that needs to fit what makes the game unique – the unique gameplay segments, the level design, the story that wraps around it all.



Along those lines I've always felt as though Hideo Kojima is a good example of a game director/designer/whatever his job title is, who gets why the movies he borrows from are awesome but also knows at the same time that games are a completely new medium with a completely new set of rules to be worked with if you're going to make something really great.

Though some of the later MGS games (especially 4) got bogged down in cutscenes, each new game has added elements that let you play around with the world and feel immersed and interacted with, whilst the game itself continues to tell a really engaging story. Snatcher's another good example of this engagement, there are the usual little sections where the game prods at the Fourth Wall that Kojima does but also more generally the game makes you feel like a junker (detective, for lack of a better term): questioning witnesses, examining evidence, putting mugshots together.



I'd hesitate to call any of Kojima's games a perfect example of what I'm looking for but I think he has his head on the right way when it comes to engaging with the player. Size and Length are good in a game but what matters most is having a fun and engaging experience. Arguably a lot of games do coast on the fact we mostly want something to pass the time (hence games) but the best games I think are always those that try to do more to immerse and engage with the player.

I think the problem for games based off popular franchises is that generally we tend to notice that lack of effort more, especially when they're based off quality source material, which sucks for them. Though it seems to escape a lot of big studios we don't just love things because they include explosions or familiar characters, it's about the stories as well, it's about feeling engaged and immersed.



At the end of the day I'm not all that bothered that there aren't really any good Ghost in the Shell or Evangelion games – it's nice to be able to pick something up and feel it's familiar and know you're going to enjoy it before you've even played it but all the same there are a fuckton of excellent completely original games out there already so it's not like I'm going to run out of good things to play anytime soon. It is sad though that often when it comes to big IPs, to popular franchises, that the passion and creativity that made them so beloved in the first place is so often put aside to create a game so by the numbers it's painful.
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So Summer is here, at least in the UK, and frankly I have lost all willpower to sit inside ever again until it's cold and dark and generally miserable again (so at least a week from now given how the weather works here!); What follows then is a handy guide for the game-centric among you who cannae resist the call of the wild but would still like to nerd out as you watch your supple pale white flesh swelter, boil, then blister in the burning rays of the mid-afternoon sun...

too graphic?

ANYWAY!

So the obvious outdoor 'summer' game that we all think of first is, of course: Mario

Originally invented in the 19th century in a small country village in England, Mario was the brainchild of a wacky group of young Japanese college students, studying as part of a foreign exchange program, rare because of Japan's isolationist policy at the time but necessary for this piece of backstory to have some sense of logical cohesion.



Bored by all the games they had available to them they decided to invent a new game of their own, one where players could compete with one another, either in singles or pairs in a daring contest of dexterity and speed. Little did they know as they began working on their time-wasting activity the joy that their simple game of plumber-on-plumber ball action would create for so many. It spread like wildfire across the country, then the continent, then the world, and made its inventors rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Well over a century later, its inventors, now withered husks of dessicated flesh, kept alive only by the arcane magics that bound them to the sarcophagi they lay imprisoned within deep beneath Castle Nintendo and the sacrifice of countless virgins, decided that they had to keep with the times, and hey, videogames were a thing. Thus from that humble, world-wide success of a game was born the now-better known series of Mario platforming videogames.

But enough of the contrived backstory, let's get physical!

What do you need?

You'll need at least one other person, or three if you want to play pairs
Some racquets
Some Mario balls
A net
A playing area
And a collection of friends who look like weird dinosaurs and utility repairmen

You'll want to set the net up in the middle of the playing area, and basically what you want to do is hit the Mario balls back and forth to one another, each side has to try and get the balls past the other side because... err, well, cause they win that way.



Mario is the kind of game that's easy to play with young relatives or elderly family members, it's very PC, it's very simple to get a game going. Just remember to keep the energy up, and if you want to come up with some sort of catchphrase you can exclaim in a high-pitched voice when you win then go for it!



I think we've all played Zelda once or twice in the past. Zelda is a singleplayer experience for the pro-active, physically fit gamer type, you're going to need to be dedicated for this one. Now you'll want to be careful playing Zelda, videogames are essentially a non-violent past-time but full-on Zelda can be a deadly participant sport that none will escape from without heavy physical or mental scarring.

What do you need?

A field of tall grass
A cutting implement
A green hat

What you want to do is place your self as close to the edge of the tall grass as possible, then put on your green hat and pick up your cutting implement. Then proceed to swing violently round in a circle in the hopes that the cutting implement shreds the grass. You really want to put a lot of effort into this as well, really swing round. And note: if you're letting small children or the elderly spectate have them stand at least four foot away from you, at least. Because that shit is dangerous.



The winner is whoever kills the least people.

Seriously, you can't replace relatives.



Another classic from those kooky Japanese: Snake is the creation of famed videogame designer Sudoku Toshiba, who one day fresh from his adventures in videogame land decided he needed to show the world exactly what he was made of. Released under the title of 'Trouser Snake' originally in Japan fans worldwide just know it as 'Snake'.

Popularity did wane for a while after there were a few arrests but the game's really coming back lately. Hell, you can switch on the news any day of the week and hear about guys who've been trying to play it.

What you'll need:

So this is a pretty simple game to play, all you need is some random kids off the street (helps if they're dumb and poor) and a loose pair of trousers, perhaps with a hole in the pock...

[Editor's note: OH DEAR GOD, NO MAN. NO!]

....

And hey, if you avoid the police everybody's having fun.




Xbox is by far one of the most enjoyable outdoor videogames you can play, seriously, even Ainsley Harriott swears by it.

What do you need?

Simply visit your local videogame store and purchase an Xbox gaming console, no need for wires, attachments or controllers, just get the box.

Take it into your garden or a nearby grassy playing area, place it down, and then begin shouting 'XBOX ON' at it. Do this for the next 12 hours.

Congratulations, you're playing Xbox!

If the unplugged Xbox at any point red rings then you get 12 points!



...And there we have it, fun for all the family this summer. If you have ideas of your own then feel free to write into me at P.O. Box 171 Dragon Lane, Panza's Pants, UK, and I'll get back to you asap.

Like totally.
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