It was a dream come true; one of the most stimulating podcasts out there, Neil DeGrasse Tyson's startalk was going to discuss the science of video games. What's more, Will Wright was one of the guests!
I wasn't expecting to learn much from the show but I couldn't pass up an opportunity to hear the ideas that could emerge from a discussion between great minds such as Tyson and Wright.
I gleefully pushed the play button and noticed that they had a 'video game expert' on board to discuss the subject while Wright's interview was pre-recorded, served as audio excerpts sprinkled through the podcast's length.
When the podcast ended, I was swearing under my breath, angry at how video games discussion in mainstream media hasn't evolved at all since the early years of digital interaction.
Tyson is obviously not a big fan of videogames and I do not fault him for that as his questions are driven by an honest desire to understand and are a great display of his legendary infectious curiosity.
In my opinion, the answers he's received were devoid of depth and failed to elevate the conversation.
I have never heard of Jeff Ryan; I spend most of my waking hours following discussions about all aspect of video games, from industry news to essays on rarely discussed issues. Still, I had never heard of Jeff Ryan.
After Googling his name and credentials, I found that reviews for his book, "Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America" seemed to reflect my personal feelings : it feels as if his expertise comes from reading articles on wikipedia.
Tyson's questions were answered by Ryan with trivia; dates, baseless predictions and many ready-made sentences that lack any real meaning. While this entire article might be seen as nitpicking, it truly pains me to see that discussions about videogames are so easily trivialized and ultimately fail in their potential to push non-gamers to view games as something more than just a leisurely activity.
There are three items in the conversation which irritated me enough to write this blog post.
1 - In a few years, our games will look as good as Pixar movies
I have heard this prediction many, many times but the first time was in 1999. This statement is empty, it means nothing. What is really being discussed here? The graphical fidelity?
If that is the case, I would be forced to agree; Checking out the Samaritan demo makes me squeal in delight at the possibility of playing such a visually rich experience. I think, however, that the rendering quality is only one part of a much more complex equation; it will add new players to our ranks, it will sell HDTVs by the ton but it will never push the discussion of interactivity further, which is what I'm interested in.
A movie, as pretty as it is, is pre-rendered and linear, its shots are conceptually engineered to convey a certain emotion and to help the story move along. The animation of characters and the timing of the camera movements are all very precisely tweaked to produce a movie that is emotionally moving regardless of the fact that you are watching nothing but computer graphics. When the viewer is 100% engrossed in a movie, it doesn't matter what the graphics look like; the viewer's brain take over and pad the sensory experience with a shimmery layer of magic.
It's all about suspension of disbelief.
The problem is amplified by real-time applications as any unconvincing motion, special effect, animation or texture is enough to completely break the spell. As good as graphics can be, what ultimately matters is the underlying experience.
To me, argument #1 is thrown around to impress non-gamers; it doesn't say anything relevant about the medium.
2 - Red Dead Redemption is about choice and consequence
Mr. Ryan claimed that Red Dead Redemption was all about the player's choices and how the player learns about consequence through his actions. That might be what the marketing team at RockStar wants you to think but anyone who spent time with Red Dead Redemption knows that the story arc is incredibly linear and is by no means modified by the player's actions.
No matter what you do in RDR, the protagonist remains a polite, charitable gentleman. I can murder everyone in town and make their children watch while I do it but as soon as I choose to undertake a story-related mission, it's as if nothing happened.
I still enjoyed RDR a whole lot as it basically gives you a western-flavored playground to lose yourself in for a few hours. I found the story to be poignant regardless of its linearity and the lack of impact my choices made on the outcome.
My point is that most people who play this game don't do it for the moral choices it presents; they want to be a cowboy and this game enables them to do so.
The choices and their consequences are conveyed linearly through the story, making the player think about certain subjects and situations as he is told and shown how characters act towards each other.
A movie would have had the same impact on its viewer.
Arguably, Grand Theft Auto IV tried to tackle a choice vs. consequence mechanic. In several missions, you may choose to either execute a target or let them live. Choosing to kill a certain character ends his story, plain and simple.
How is one supposed to feel bad for executing a single character when the mission leading up to this moment had him slay a hundred police officers with fully automatic weapons?
Alternatively, choosing to let your potential victim live will pay off later on as this character will return later on to give you additional missions, allowing you to get more money, bonuses and so on.
While the effort in attempting to tackle these issues is definitely appreciated, the choice itself has no impact, it boils down to : Do you want more opportunities to make money later on? Yes or No.
This has nothing to do with morality and the consequences of difficult choices.
3 - On the physics of balls and mouse traps
The demo mentioned for bringing 'perfect' physics to games is from an original Xbox tech demo video back in 2001. A single room, no A.I, instanced meshes...nothing really spectacular or usable.
In real-life applications, we still face absurd physics issues; Car games, characters dropping through floors, clipping through walls, etc. The 'real' physics in today's games are approximations, tweaked and authored to provide a satisfying 'feel'.
Taking a quick look at the Cheese Wheels of Skyrim videos, I can't say that I am really impressed. Sure, it's a cool trick but it means diddly squat for games or gaming in general. Think of Portal; while it didn't push the boundaries of physics engines in terms of quantity of objects, it brought physics-based mechanics that were interesting to play with and which sparked the imagination of thousands (millions?) of gamers.
On Dust's mechanics and physics are another example of what modern physics implementation can do for video games.
With the help of PhysX processors on certain graphics cards, we are rapidly approaching the reality of 'real' physics, simulating smoke and fluid dynamics without burdening the CPU with the calculations. It means nothing if those simulations are merely aesthetic decorations.
Thus I will conclude that discussions about video games should try to present video games as more than just a list of technical achievements; the discussion should bring non-gamers to think about the possibilities of the medium.
We need more evangelists, more passionate people to talk on the behalf of our favorite activity with actual knowledge of its inner workings; we don't need videogame hipsters to cash in on nostalgia.
Once upon a time, starting up a game was a simple task; you placed the cartridge into the machine, pressed Power and pushed a button on the controller to get started.
That's all there was to it.
I have a Wii, which I barely touch and to this day I cannot find a reason to get a PS3 as its exclusive games simply do not appeal to me.
I'll focus on the Xbox 360 for this example; It is my main video game console, yet it manages to exemplify everything that I hate about the modern era.
Let's say I feel like playing a few rounds of Pac-Man.
First, boot up the console. Wait for Xbox Live to register.
Now navigate ad-ridden menus until you get to 'my games'. Sort the list of XBLA titles to find Pac-Man.
Click it. Oh...a 4 MB update is needed. Okay, sure...it's probably critical...
Wait for the game to restart, Choose a device between your hard drive or cloud saving.
AH Here we are! Pac-man!
Unfortunately, this sort of abuse quickly became routine and I barely notice it anymore. They know they can get away with it, so they do it, which brings me to my next point!
I was dumb enough to even buy a Kinect. I hate myself for it but couldn't resist the promise of this peripheral.
In my mind, the Kinect could have brought us back to the years of 'Push Start', finally bridging the gap between my old-school gaming memories and the modern era!
In my utopian dream, I can simply walk in front of the Xbox, shout out a cordial 'Yo' to turn it on, have it
recognize me and allow me to enter a world of symbiosis with my console. Since even the most obscure games are updated every few weeks, SURELY they would release compatibility updates to add some Kinect functionality, right? No.
Again, you boot up the whole thing, hoping to experience a controller-free play session when suddenly, the Kinect ceases to register certain moves. The room's lighting is the same, everything in the room is in the same place it was last time but the Kinect simply decides that you should recalibrate it. And of course, to recalibrate it properly, you need to end your play session and grab a controller.
The Kinect doesn't liberate the player, it adds yet another burden to an already cluttered system.
I really thought it would be like having Jarvis from the Iron Man movies...
The only promise I can think of from a new Xbox is even more obstacles between me and the games I want to play and more ways to monetize pointless gimmicks.
Consoles used to be easy to use; sit on the couch, start it up and play till your eyes bleed.
As the Jimquisition pointed out, gaming on a PC is now simpler and arguably cheaper than console gaming, and that's all kinds of messed up.
I remember spending the entirety of 1992's Christmas eve staring at a black box labeled 'Ultima VII : The Black Gate'
Upon unwrapping this gift, I found myself completely ignoring the other party guests, entranced by this mysterious artifact. I opened up the box to find a cloth map featuring annotations in a mysterious runic language, an 'instruction booklet' that was written by one of the game's main characters, as well as a small triangular medallion, engraved with what I would come to know as the symbol of The Fellowship.
A week later, after installation and configuration nightmares, which Origin games were notorious for back in the day, I finally managed to boot up the game properly.
A peaceful pastoral scene appeared before my eyes as a butterfly quietly fluttered across the game title when...
Static filled the screen. Had the game frozen? Was this yet another installation-related issue?
After a few seconds, the static coalesced into a mysterious sea of color-shifting patterns.
From this hypnotizing surface emerged a red-skinned, angular face.
The creature opened its yellow eyes, its gaze locking with my own as it began to speak in a booming voice which commanded attention.
'Avatar...', it began.
The tone of the entity's voice was both reassuring and menacing at the same time.
This land was called Britannia and my character was known as the Avatar, champion of the Virtues. Upon arrival, I was tasked with the investigation of a pair of grisly murders, which led me to travel the land, gathering clues to discover the identity of the murderer or murderers and eventually bringing them to justice.
The Virtues were the basis of a belief system which had been the main religion Britannia since its creation: By adhering to these Virtues and meditating at their dedicated shrines, the Avatar ultimately gained access to the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom and became the enlightened embodiment of these Virtues, a selfless example for all to follow.
That was over 200 years ago however, and the Virtues as well as their respective shrines were outright abandoned by the majority of the populace in favor of a new order, calling itself the Fellowship.
If one listened to the land's inhabitants, the Fellowship appeared as a benevolent organization, helping communities flourish and individuals overcome their limitations. Even the Gargoyles, a bloodthirsty and violent enemy race in previous games, were now civilized and had embraced the Fellowship's philosophy to guide their lives.
The basic tenets of the fellowship's Triad of Inner Strength are as follows : Strive for Unity, Worthiness precedes Reward and Trust thy brother. These simple rules have immediately appreciable positive effects on the lives of its followers.
When these spiritual guidelines become law is when the true nature of the Fellowship rears its ugly head.
The Guardian's hand
As the investigation progressed, it became clear that Batlin, the Fellowship's leader, had been a puppet for the Guardian all along. Upon closer scrutiny, the Fellowship's tenets and values had more in common with mind control than with spiritual enlightenment, allowing the Guardian and the Fellowship's highest-ranking members to prepare an invasion without raising suspicion.
The Guardian's plan was simple : To have its followers build a Gate made out of Blackrock (The titular Black Gate) so that the god-like entity could step through from his own dimension and invade the land. The takeover would occur without major bloodshed as most of the population had already been converted to the Fellowship's ways and would welcome their new master without question.
The Guardian had commanded Batlin to create this Fellowship, building a docile army for his eventual conquest of Britannia. Through the use of magical generators, the weak-minded were brainwashed, the magic users rendered insane, thus unable to retaliate or perform magic and the Moongates, dimensional portals which allowed for fast travel across the land, became unstable, sometimes even lethal to its users.
With clear, positive results in the lives of the converted, all individuals clinging to the 'old' virtues would be eventually cast out and ridiculed.
If successful, it ultimately made the Avatar, hero of the ancient ways, obsolete.
The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilance
To me, this is the most devious villain in gaming history, one that turns ordinary people into unquestioning followers, all while making them believe that this disguised servitude is making their lives better. Such evil goes beyond simple invasion, as it effectively destroys the very fabric of society.
Progress can never be stopped and the status quo in any civilization is invariably destined to be questioned and ultimately overthrown; however, one must always remain vigilant when these events transpire as hidden motives often guide the winds of change.
This game forced me to question many things and taught me to never take anything at face value. It brought perspective to how religion, spirituality and to a certain extent, consumer culture mess with our minds and our hearts. Anything that is worth something requires effort and sacrifice to obtain, there is no such thing as a free meal.
Most games would probably feature the Guardian as a final boss, loaded with thousands of hit points and devastating party-crushing attacks; in Ultima, it is a villain that is never fought directly. This is what makes the Guardian so memorable to me; knowing that I cannot simply 'level up' and strike it down, knowing that it is constantly watching across dimensions, manipulating everything and forcing me to choose what I want to believe.
I fear and respect the Guardian as the lessons I have learned while thwarting his schemes will follow me through my entire life; The Black Gate is one of the games that has had a profound impact on my evolution as a human being, forcing myself to challenge my views on good and evil, violence and racism.
That's what it cost me to obtain The Binding of Isaac as well as its excellent soundtrack in digital format via the Steam download service. In this day of 99 cents apps and 69 dollars blockbusters, the 5 bucks it cost me seems to be a perfect price point for Edmund McMillen's latest offering
Team Meat co-founder's style is a favorite of mine and manages to add a quirky 'something' to all of the projects he's had a hand in : Gish and Super Meat Boy have been personal favorites of mine and The Binding of Isaac is rapidly ascending to join its brothers as an all-time classic.
Even though the game has its roots firmly planted in the old-school sensibilities of the original The Legend of Zelda, The Binding of Isaac manages to be a thoroughly refreshing experience largely due to its twisted art style and indie-flavored design choices.
Isaac's quest takes place in the procedurally-generated levels of his basement, filled with spikes, enemies and secret rooms, much like the afore-mentioned Legend of Zelda. Each iteration of the game features 5 levels, each one ending with a boss fight. While this might seem to make for a short game, the difficulty and variety of content will warrant at least a few dozen playthroughs; this game was meant to be played and replayed countless times.
I've always thought that randomized dungeon layouts would be the next step for the debatably stale Zelda series and this game allows me to get a delicious taste of what could be.
The player's main weapons are his tears, which can be fired (or cried) in all 4 cardinal directions. Strafe as you shoot and your tears will fly out at an angle. This mechanic is deceptively simple and accounts for 75% of the gameplay yet its expertly handled implementation makes it fun, even after hours of basement-crawling and turd melting (In this game, Zelda's iconic vases have been replaced with steaming piles of feces which can be washed away by crying at them.).
Rounding out the player's arsenal are bombs (Think Bomberman meets Zelda) and items which will either affect the player's stats, upgrade his weapons or grant him ridiculous powers which keep throwing new twists in the gameplay, making each experience that much more unique.
Permeating this journey are the overarching themes of Christian mythology and family issues. For instance, powerup items that increase Isaac's speed are represented by a belt and a wooden spoon; two mundane items which bring forth images of child beating. It is a dark fiction, as refreshing as it is sickening.
I cannot avoid mentioning Spelunky, another wonderful indie game which preaches 'learning by doing' in a similar manner as The Binding of Isaac. Obtaining an unknown item is always a thrill as its effects can only be guessed at; the only way to learn what an item does is by using it. As with Spelunky, the effects range from amusing to lethal and force the player to pace himself and use his items strategically in order to survive.
As the game progresses and the player fulfills certain secret conditions, new items and monsters are injected in the mazes of subsequent playthroughs. Judging by the 'collection' list in the game, I still have tons of new toys to discover and play with.
On the weak side, the game features no out-of-the-box joystick support, referring the player to google 'Joy2Key' in order to use a gamepad. I have also encountered weird bugs, one of which pushed me outside of the level boundaries, forcing me to restart the game. It must be said that while double-checking the name of the Joystick application in the game, I 'accidentally' managed to squeeze in a few runs, delaying this blog's publication even further. It is this addictive quality which makes all of the products' flaws forgivable.
I also could not find an official site for the game or a place to read more about the developers. For an indie game, especially one of this caliber, I find it disappointing. I would have loved to know more about Florian Himsl's input in this project. Even though the game's credits state that he was the programmer on the project, you can see on his personal site (komix-games.com) that he is also a capable artist and prolific game maker. His site features several games from him and even some other collaborations with McMillen. Most of it seems exploratory in nature, yet every game on there brings a nice perspective on the evolution of their craft, leading to their Steam debut.
If you are a fan of indie games and are looking for a way to completely destroy your free time, give this one a spin, its quirky nature and simple gameplay are sure to BIND you.