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8:11 PM on 07.26.2011

Motion Control: Gaming's Garnish

Today I'll be working with food metaphors, because I'm hungry and I don't want to think about anything else.

Pizza. Okay.

Just as certain foods are complemented by drinks—beer and wine—or other foods—barbecue sauce, always—so different game mechanics work well when paired together. Third-person shooters, these days, almost always have a cover system. MMORPGs tend to provide a faction or reputation system to build favor with various groups.

These pairings evolve and change over time; new mechanics are introduced, and old ones are phased out. How many shooters have a non-regenerating health bar anymore? It's the same with food. We no longer serve lobster to prisoners—barring a last meal before the lightning chair—the same as we aren't required to write down 34-digit passwords to retrieve our progress in games.

Sometimes, developers will experiment with these arrangements as a chef will attempt exotic food combinations to attract customers. In Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, the developers took a third-person action game and blenderized it with a card-based, deck management combat system. More recently, Bastion's creators took a Diablo-style dungeon crawler, stripped out the loot and class systems, and added a dynamic narrator and user-controlled risk/reward balance. Combinations don't always work (Hawaiian Pizza?! Keep your fruit away from my goddamn pizza. Filthy hippies), but I'll usually pay attention to a game that tries new things.

Motion control isn't necessarily a new mechanic, as noted by Shadowstew in this article, but in recent years it's become the focus of whole consoles as opposed to a one-off gimmick implemented by only a few games. It's gone from rice in "American" food—used occasionally—to its status as a staple food in many Asian countries. We've seen mixed results.

I don't have many complaints to levy against motion control; I like to try new games almost as much as I like to try different beers. But we are in a phase of transition and experimentation. Developers aren't certain how to implement motion control effectively, so we end up with duds as often as hits. The more I think about the Wii, the Kinect, and the Move, the more I think motion controls are cheese.

Cheese is awesome, but it is also better in certain contexts and depending on how hungry you are. If you're eating either just cheese, or some cheese-based crackers (Cheese Nips, Cheesy Ritz), it's a good snack, but it usually won't be your full meal. This represents games with motion control as their core mechanic, and little else besides. I would place games like Wii Sports or Kinect Adventures into this category. Relatively simple and great for a party—just like little cubes of cheese or crackers (it's almost lunch, it's almost lunch)!

Other recipes use cheese as an integral ingredient, like the aforementioned pizza. Without cheese you've got a lame-ass pizza, and without the dough, tomato sauce, or ingredients, you're just eating a giant disc of cheese (actually...). The separate mechanics work together to provide a complete, delicious experience. These are games like Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess or Child of Eden. They might work without motion controls, sure, but you lose something essential to the experience. The developers have taken the time to study motion controls and implement them effectively, much like a chef gains mastery of a kitchen full of spices and condiments.

Unfortunately, there are terrible chefs out there. They hate you, and they don't give a shit about cheese. You might even like cheese sometimes, but now they're drying it out, they're putting it on fruit, they're taking your filet mignon and slathering it with Velveeta that's been out in the sun for six months. Sometimes motion controls just don't work, they're unnecessary, and you end up with games like Far Cry: Vengeance or the upcoming Star Wars Kinect. These are situations where the developers (chefs) realize that people are going apeshit for motion control (cheese) and want to cash in without putting the work into it. This is sad—and, thankfully, less common than a few years ago—but it still happens.

Cheese is good. You might be lactose intolerant (or just hate it, I guess, you mouthbreather), but you live in a world where cheese is everywhere. Maybe you'll never like motion control, and that's fine, but my hope is that this period of transition will pass into one of easy, fluid integration. Our industry has birthing pains more than any other; we devour new mechanics, tire of them, and quickly demand more. This shift is bigger than most, with tons of potential. But it takes time to get it right.

I look at games like Mass Effect 3—touching lightly on motion control, but taking more advantage of the voice commands—and I can't wait to eat more cheese.

And now I'm going to lunch.   read

6:01 PM on 07.18.2011

Downloadables: Everybody Loves Donuts, I Know I Do-oo-oooo

I rarely play multiplayer games anymore.

I used to, sure—from MMORPGS to shooters and everything in-between. But over the last few years gaming has become more of a retreat from my social life than anything else. It's my downtime.

Only one game in recent memory has made me love playing with other people again.

When it first came out, my roommates and I launched into co-op without even glancing at the single-player offering, which still stands on its own as an incredibly fun game. But it can't match the thrill of sitting in front of our 55" screen, screaming up each other's ass to avoid the rising water levels, frantically splodin' off barrels and hurling ourselves against one another.

Splosion Man is a game of FRENZY. At its best, it forces you to think quickly to solve puzzles that never get too frustrating—I mean, your only available action is to SPLODE. The mechanics aren't too complicated. With its frantic pace, the co-op mode plays out so much better sitting in a room with friends than playing online and chattering through headsets. There's more immediacy when you're all in the same physical space (meaning it's easier to slap someone upside the head when they jack up your group-splode).

Split-screen, the only downside to playing in in the same room as your teammates, doesn't even rear its ugly, segmented head. By forcing all the player's to stay in range of each other, requiring cooperation to get past every obstacle, Splosion Man reinforces the sense of camaraderie. Other co-op games can get old if progression is more independent, if one player leads the way and another drags behind, but we don't have that problem here.

I think that's why—even when we were failing again and again to get past one stupid stage—we never really got too frustrated with one another. Sure, some people dropped the ball more than others, but the amount of cooperation required forces players to pick up skills at the same rate, to stay together. You're not gonna learn any new techniques or face new mechanics until everyone is ready for them. And when we could finally pull off that four-man feat of obscene, napalm-fueled gymnastics... it felt damn good.

For me, the comedy inherent in all of Twisted Pixel's game is also more enjoyable in a group setting. I'd feel like a jackass singing the donut song to myself, but you get four guys all singing along and it's a blast. I'd rather see a funny movie with a few friends, have a few drinks at a comedy club with a group than by myself. The catchy songs and inane, high-pitched pop culture references your characters rattle off a-mile-a-minute also make perfect quote fodder to sling back and forth.

The fact that this game was a cheap, downloadable title only sweetens the pot. It's easily been my favorite Summer of Arcade title in years past, and I've gotten more fun out of it than most of the $60 titles I've picked up.

Splosion Man is the downloadable title I've loved the most, bringing awesome co-op gameplay to a puzzle-platformer with zany, high-speed charm. It made multiplayer gaming fun for me again, and for that alone I picked up Ms. Splosion Man day one. I don't have the same roommates as I did for the first, but three new ones with whom I can crack a few beers and blast some barrels.

Let the splodin' commence!   read

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