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4:14 AM on 12.03.2011

Something Incredible Has Happened

Something amazing has happened. A long, slow paced, intricately crafted single player game with no online or offline multiplayer mode has released and found mainstream success. And it has done so without compromising on any of its core game making ideals or principles. As an RPG, every single intricacy and option that one might expect as a player are to be found within this game.

What's better is that this game hasn't just found it's niche to be successful in, like Assassin's Creed, that is clearly successful every year, selling over 10 million copies, but existing outside of the main market of FPS's fueled primarily by Call of Duty- no, this is a game that was released squarely three days after the uber hyped Modern Warfare 3, and upon its release, not only did it manage to steal all the thunder from Modern Warfare 3 by grabbing the mindshare of dedicated and mainstream media alike, but also enthralled the mainstream casual gamer, otherwise accustomed to the relative shallowness of the yearly Call of Duty and EA Sports games, with a massive, immersive world that was at the same time fully accessible and openly inviting.

The numbers do not lie- The Elder Scrolls V is a roaring success, a bigger success that probably anyone, even the fine folks at Bethesda, could have anticipated. Shipping 7 million copies, and selling more than half of them in its firth three days on the market; becoming the third most played game on Xbox Live, in spite of the game being a single player only game. Becoming the game with the most concurrent players online on Steam ever in history, and managing to maintain that record breaking stranglehold on the top position with an iron grip. People aren't just buying Skyrim, they're playing it. And they're not just playing it. They're enjoying it.

Anecdotally, I can say that my Reditt and Digg streams are flooded with Skyrim articles. My Facebook feed was flooded with Skyrim the day of its release, and immediately after that, I saw status messages about people who normally play nothing but shooters totally addicted to Skyrim. My roommate, according to whom a game is either a shooter or a bad game, is totally hooked, having sunk more than thirty hours into the game so far. Everybody on my college campus is talking about Skyrim. Hell, my girlfriend, who plays only Wii Sports, Super Smash Bros. or Mario Kart- in other words, a person who would otherwise find herself in the expanded Nintendo audience- started playing, and is totally hooked. There is something about Skyrim that has people playing it, enjoying it, and talking about it. It is the hot game this season, one that everyone is discussing. Modern Warfare 3 is dead in that regard. As far as mindshare of the market is concerned, Call of Duty has been finally defeated, and by the unlikeliest game of all.

The single player RPG epic has returned.

The amazing success of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is even more impressive when one considers the short attention spans of the modern gaming generation. Brought up on multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty on Xbox Live, if a game does not consistently deliver on thrills, then it is worthless, to be traded in immediately. If it does not have a multiplayer mode, then it has no lasting value, and isn't worth the price of admission, since the single player mode is a a four hour short training grounds for the real meat of the game, the multiplayer, anyway. In such a context, what success would a slow paced, open world, five hundred hour long game with almost overwhelmingly intimidating mechanics have? How could a game that does not involve people shooting each other, but is rather set in the much more unacceptable setting (as far as the mainstream is concerned) of a medieval fantasy world hope to permeate the fabled 'core' market?

The fact is that Skyrim did it. And this makes me very happy. The success of Skyrim symbolizes to me the end of the FPS era, where every game on the market was either an FPS, or, if it belonged to a different genre, was being heavily influenced by FPS's (short, linear campaigns fueled by setpieces with a heavy multiplayer focus) and the return of the RPG. Skyrim's mainstream popularity might cause other publishers to start exploring the RPG genre as something that is commercially viable, and the absolute glut of FPS's infesting the market might finally be coming to an end. Maybe game developers will realize that they do not need to dumb down a perfect formula to appeal to an elusive mainstream audience *cough* Bioware *cough*- it can be done even with the most complex game as long as it is accessible.

Of course, if you haven't already played Skyrim yet, and find yourself sick of all the endless discussion and adoration that this game is getting (I mean, can one game ever really seriously be deserving of that much praise?), you might wonder, is the Skyrim hype fueled by Skyrim hype itself? As in, is it the hype around the game that is causing its 'legend' to grow? Does the game itself actually deserve these insane accolades?

Fus Roh Dah!

And the answer to that is yes. Skyrim is a masterpiece of gamemaking, a breathtaking title that mixes the tradition of the Elder Scrolls series- its heavily complicated and arcane RPG mechanics- with simple accessibility, so that to the RPG player, the game is everything that they have been looking for in the last decade (and missing, especially since Bioware went rogue), while to the mainstream gamer who normally wouldn't approach such a game with a ten foot pole, it is a title that eases them in and introduces them to the extensiveness and intricacies of the world without overwhelming them. The world design is wonderful, the combat is great (although it can still be improved) the graphics are breathtakingly beautiful, the music and sound effects are top tier, the plotline and story are immensely involving and thrilling, and even the level design is greatly improved from Oblivion's copy and paste dungeons. Everything that was wrong about Oblivion has ben eliminated. Everything that was right has been perfected. After the disappointment of their last two titles, Skyrim is Bethesda's return to form ala Morrowind, nearly a decade ago.

Yes, the game has its flaws. There are bugs and glitches, and sometimes, they get serious enough to break the immersion. But if one encounters such a glitch twice in over fifty hours of play time, then I am assuming it is something that is easily forgivable, especially given the sheer scope and expanse of this game world. The combat might not be as dep as expected, but in trying to juggle at least three different styIes of combat (in addition to further sub-cIasses), I truly believe Bethesda have done the best job that they could have done. And maybe some quests are nothing more than glorified fetch quests. But again, in a game with literally over a thousand quests, does it matter if a few dozen are fetch quests?

Ultimately, Skyrim is a beautiful, beautiful game, and one that is definitely one of the greatest titles ever crafted. If you haven't played it already, I urge you to play it. If there are some pre-conceived notions or prejudices against the game's genre or developer that are holding you back, I still advise you strongly to give it a try. This is a game that will win you over no matter where you come from in these regards. As a game, Skyrim has my highest recommendation. This is basically the game that prevented me from opening or even starting my bought on day one copy of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. As far as I am concerned, a game has to be bloody good to take precedence for me over Zelda. Skyrim did it.

Really, this game is something else. It's a landmark title, that's for sure.   read

5:06 PM on 11.29.2010

Are Video Games Art?

There is no such thing as art. A bold statement to begin with, I'm sure, but hear me out, and I'm sure you'll agree with what I have to say- or at the very least, with the essence of my arguments.

Before we proceed, I believe we must define exactly what we can construe to be art. This is a difficult task, as one cannot have a specific definition- that would be missing the point-, and anything too broad would be useless for our purposes. We must therefore turn to Wikipedia, which defines art as anything that resonates with a person, and elicits a conscious or subconscious emotional response from him or her. This, then, means that the object in question- this object that is evoking a passionate response from its audience- has to communicate with a person beyond the superfluous, sensory level, and be able to bypass the conscious and rational parts of the thinking process, which would probably interpret the work too literally, analyze it by breaking it down into its constituent components, and thus destroy its cohesive beauty. In other words, a 'work of art' should be able to reach out directly to our inner, emotional being, and be able to evoke some kind of reaction there.

The above definition- elegant in its particulars and broad enough that it can be applied across a wide range of objects- seems to adequately cover all the fundamentals of what would ordinarily be understood to be a work of art. It also enables me to return to my opening statement, and prove its validity. You see, it follows from the above definition that if art is defined only by qualitative emotional responses, and not as a set of tangible, quantifiable parameters, then it exists on no level but that of the subconscious. That is, art is very clearly an illusion, a construct of our own mind, a figment of our imagination that exists only as intangible emotional responses that exist nowhere but in our minds. Art exists only for the specific person who believes it to be art. There is nothing in the world that can be universally appealing, nothing that can appeal to the aesthetics or tastes of everybody.

That in turn raises another pressing question: if there is no such thing as 'universal art,' then why are there famous works like Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, or Michelangelo's stunning Sistine Chapel, which are widely held to be 'works of art?' Surely this defies my earlier assertion that there can be nothing that universally appeals to everybody, and hence, nothing such as 'tangible' art?

Hardly. While I would agree that paintings such as the Mona Lisa, frescoes such as Creation of Adam, architecture such as the Sistine Chapel, music such as The Dark Side of the Moon, and movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey are largely considered to be the pinnacles of their respective mediums, I would also like to point out that not one of them is universally appealing. You will find detractors of Michelangelo's style of architecture. There are many who find the Mona Lisa distasteful. The Dark Side of the Moon is considered simply too 'emo' by many today. The modern generation (and dare I say, some guys from the older ones as well) finds 2001 to have a plodding pace.

2001: A Space Odyssey, is widely regarded as a great work of art, and one of the greatest films ever created. Today, it is also regarded to be a great bore.

Clearly, then, it is impossible for any single work to achieve the status of universal art. Since art does not really exist, per se, we are forced to work with a working definition, a compromise- something that fulfills the particulars of the above definition with a good majority of its audience can be labeled as 'art,' since it is as close to universal art as we will ever get.

However, we have widely acknowledged works of 'art' in every medium of storytelling and every outlet for human creativity. Rarely would one actually see, or even consider, the possibility of an entire medium of storytelling to achieve such a status simply dismissed, without giving it as much as a second thought.

I am talking, of course, about video games. In the past twenty five years, which have seen video games rise meteorically from poorly programmed 8 bit pixel based screens to being immersive, persistent worlds, with well-developed back stories and distinctly defined characters, storytelling in video games has come a long way. What earlier used to be a simple affair of grabbing the controller, and saving the kidnaped princess has now become a sprawling, elaborate plot, involving betrayals and shifting alliances, characters that all seem to have some kind of ulterior motives, and some morally dubious choices to be made and lush scenery to be traversed, which requires a lot of monetary, time-based and emotional investment from the player.

That last is of course most pertinent to the matter at hand. Clearly, if there is something that requires an emotional investment from its audience, then chances are that it is also potentially capable of arousing specific emotions from them, right? Clearly, then, it can be argued that modern video games can potentially be cIassified as art. At least, that would be the implication that would logically follow.

The problem is, generally when you play a video game (and I'm not referring to multiplayer party games, here, which are, after all, meant just for quick pick up and play sessions), you invest a lot in it. And therefore, you are bound to get yourself emotionally involved in the game you are playing (assuming, of course, that the game is a good one), which, in turn, would imply that all storied video games are works of art, an assertion that is nothing but absurd.

Video games clearly represent a special case- when you watch a movie, you commit yourself for a maximum of three hours. That's a hundred and eighty minutes, which are (usually) gone before you know it. And while you may choose to gaze at a painting for as long as you want to, I'm assuming that, in general, no one really spends beyond a maximum of fifteen to twenty minutes looking at one single painting.

Other methods of communication clearly do not require that investment of time that video games demand. If you are spending dozens of hour on one game, then you will inevitably be attached to the said game.

Therefore, with video games, we are required to look past the simple wording of the definition of art, and consider its meaning and its implication. Again, art, as defined by Wikipedia, is simply a work that can evoke an emotional response from its audience. Fair enough, but this definition merits the question: what kind of emotional response are we looking at here? If it's a simple, basic emotion like aesthetic pleasure derived from seeing a particularly pleasing painting, or excitement generated by a momentous event in a movie, then again, we would be forced to categorize almost everything as art. We are therefore forced to narrow down our definition just a little- something that elicits a complex emotional response from its audience is what we may cIassify as a work of art. What can be defined as a complex emotional response? Why, anything that might make the audience think. You see, your excitement upon a twist in a movie is short lived, generally limited to that particular scene alone. However, a movie that forces you to stop and think, and consider what just happened, or what the movie is trying to say, is clearly a movie that is 'art.' Similar definitions can be constructed for paintings, music, books, sculpture and architecture as well.

This new definition works well with video games. I mean, no doubt we'll be immensely excited when we find out that our brother, who was supposed to have died in the first level, was in act only feigning his death, and has been helping us all along, and we'll maybe more than overjoyed and extremely pleased once we complete a sixty hour long game, but none of those emotional responses will truly stick with us. They're just temporary, fleeting, they make no visible impact.

This allows us to exclude just about every video game ever created from the 'art' category. Video gaming, as a medium, is still in its infancy, and while the remarkably swift evolution of storytelling in games has to be lauded, it still has a long way to go. Very few games truly exist that really touch us on any level, and there are almost none that stick with us the way our contemplations about whether the world is real that followed our first viewing of The Matrix does.

Of course, 'very few' and 'almost none' does not imply there being not a single one. And indeed, there are some exceptions to the generalization that, while not evolved enough themselves yet, prove that video games do indeed have the potential to be cIassified as art one day.

Let's have a look at a game called Shadow of the Colossus. Without giving away much, I'd like to explain what the game is about. Essentially, it is the story of one man, who has entered a 'forbidden land-' we don't really know where this land is, and why it's forbidden- to reach out to some supernatural entity who can restore the dead. The man has come to ask the entity to restore life to the body of a girl he has brought with him.

We aren't told who the girl is, and why she means so much to this man. The entity agrees to do so, but only after charging the boy with taking down sixteen massive colossi that roam the forbidden land.

Shadow of the Colossus is one of those rare games that truly can qualify as art.

Shadow of the Colossus is a visual tour de force. It features stunning vistas, and rolling landscapes, all uniquely cel shaded to make the entire world look like an expertly drawn painting. Throughout the game, the one thing that perhaps strikes the player the most is the sheer desolation of the world. This fertile land that you are in is empty, with there being nothing there but plant life, the colossi, and you. This is a dead world- why? What happened here? Why is this land forbidden?

And why has this entity agreed to help you? Its motives are clearly sinister- the game certainly hints at that- but they are never quite revealed fully. What does this entity truly want? Why does it keep its end of the promise? And above all, what does the heart wrenching ending of this game mean?

Shadow of the Colossus cannot be described in words, as they simply cannot do it justice. We are talking about a game that needs to be experienced. Everything- from the sparse, ambiguous plot that leaves everything open to interpretation, to the lush but bleak world, from the brooding sound score to the expertly mapped controls, which, perhaps more than anything else, immerse you totally into the game, and make you feel its weight on your shoulders, contributes towards the final intent of making you stop and think: just what is going on here? In what is increasingly rare for a video game, you want to know more than what is being told, you want to dig deeper into the game's world, you want to stop and marvel at the world's glorious vistas, and you definitely want to listen to the game's epic music. Clearly, this is a very powerful emotional response- more so than what many movies and books manage to provoke.

There is one thing that works in video games' favor, which really could, potentially, make them the most powerful method of storytelling one day. That one thing is a video game's interactivity. Since you are at least apparently directly controlling the game, interacting with its world and characters, a game can make you feel directly responsible for what happens in the game world. If, in a video game, a main character dies because of a choice you made, then you feel the weight of your decision, and certainly stop to wonder if the character would have died had your decision been different. This absolutely involves you in the storytelling, and it makes you potentially more susceptible to an emotional response than other, non-interactive methods of storytelling.

There are, of course, other advantages that video games theoretically have- apart from the core storyline, video games can also function as art on a visual and aural level, since there are so many components to a video game. Since a game not only involves the basic story and interactivity, but also involves a graphical representation of the story with some kind of aural interpretation to interpret that, one could say that a video game represents the ultimate culmination of all forms of storytelling, with its core narrative representing a book, its visual component a movie, its audio component the music.

As many advantages as this brings, there are also several problems that having so many constituents presents- all components of a video game must work together in perfect symphony. If there is even the slightest mistuning amongst these components, then the entire effect is broken. A great video game can only be a work of art if it has a thought provoking story, along with aesthetically appealing visuals, a moving sound score, and accessible interactivity i.e., functional game controls. None of these should go wrong.

As it stands now, video games have all of that covered, except for the core narrative. Very few games actually have stories that stop to make you think. There are a few, of course- Shadow of the Colossus is one, and there is Metroid Prime. Others include The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Okami. And yet, while all of these are significantly more capable of eliciting an emotional response from their audience, none of them, barring maybe Shadow of the Colossus and Majora's Mask, is truly there yet. All of them have something critical that holds them back.

Of course, it doesn't matter. As I said, video games are still nascent as a medium of storytelling. That they have made as many strides as they have in the past quarter of a century is nothing short of remarkable. Certainly, the evolution of video gaming as a medium has been more rapid than the evolution of movies. But, when all is said and done, as of now, no video game is truly a work of art. Many are close, maybe. But none of them has gained that widespread acceptance that a work of art truly requires. Like I said, something critical is surely missing.

But that doesn't matter. I never set out to prove video games are art- I only ever said that video games can be. And as I have amply demonstrated, there is loads of potential here. Sure, right now, video games are maybe perceived as maybe juvenile by the mainstream. But we can't have our prejudices come in our way. As I have shown, there is potential for video games to truly come into their own, and become powerful methods of storytelling. There is potential for them to be recognized among mankind's greatest works of art. And we don't want to be eating our words, if that ever happens, do we? Let's all keep an open mind here. Because, really, dismissing an entire medium of storytelling simply because of some pre-conceived notion is incredibly narrow minded.   read

12:59 AM on 02.18.2010

Ode to Innovation- Five Years of the Nintendo DS

The Nintendo DS turned five years old recently. Five years since the ubiquitous handheld launched, five years since the industry wide scepticism turned into astonishment at first, and gleeful delight later, five years since Nintendo paved the way for their stunning comeback from the brink of death.

Today, the DS is en route to becoming the highest selling system of all time. With 113 million units sold, spread evenly across three iterations, and a gaming library the scope of which covers literally every genre conceived by mankind, the DS is also a haven for all gamers alike. At a time when the three home consoles are still struggling to find their footing and deliver meaningful experiences that truly stand out, the DS quietly delivers one hit upon another, week after week.

But it really is worth stepping back a bit, and retrospecting: how did it ever come to this? How is it that the handheld that was written off by everybody as a machine destined to fail, the underpowered gadget that was going up against the might of the juggernaut Sony, managed to emerge victorious, while the PSP was left behind, biting the dust?

How is it that five years later, the DS has delivered on every single promise that it had made before its launch?

How is it that the DS has become the largest third party supported console in Nintendo's history?

The Nintendo DS was first announced at E3 2003 as a new game format that Nintendo was working on. Little specifics were revealed at that time, except for a couple that managed to leak through to the public. Initial impressions were not in the least encouraging: all that Nintendo had been able to state was that it was a handheld with two screens to provide multiple perspectives of gameplay to the player. That's it. Compare this to the PSP's debut, where it was introduced as a 'console in the pocket,' a full fledged multimedia device that would bridge the chasm that separated handheld and console gaming, and it won't be hard to understand why everybody's sympathies were with the PSP at the time.

[size=7]The original E3 Nintendo DS prototype. And you thought the DS Phat looked bad.

Nintendo unveiled a prototype DS the next year. While the hardware itself looked flimsy and horrendous, its capabilities impressed quite a few of the observers. The demo for Metroid Prime Hunters for instance, demonstrated the 3D capabilities of the hardware pretty nicely. This unveiling was coupled with an announcement of the complete set of features for the DS, which included a touch screen, a microphone, two dated processors and Wi Fi, this unholy Frankenstein of a system, this mash of seemingly incompatible technologies, seemed to confirm everybody's initial suspicions: Nintendo had panicked. In the face of competition from the impending PSP, they had probably decide to throw in everything including the kitchen sink, and mix up this contraption that would likely never work.

One needs to understand how things stood at that time, because the impending battle between the DS and the PSP mirrored the epic contest between the N64 and the Playstation eerily. At that time, Nintendo was on the very brink of extinction, and their handhelds had been their only source of revenue for many years now, ever since their home console market had been taken from them. In their own words, Nintendo had given the DS their all: if it succeeded, they would 'rise to heaven,' but if it failed, they would 'sink to hell.'

Unfortunately, the DS, for all appearances, seemed destined to fail.

It launched amidst much fanfare later that year, and its hardware launch was surprisingly successful. However, it was missing one key component: games. You see, the DS's launch lineup was surprisingly poor, and the only worthwhile games gamers got to play on the system at that time were Super Mario 64 DS, which was a clumsy port of the N64 hit, and Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt, a demo for an upcoming DS Metroid game that had come bundled with the system. That was it.

Unfortunately, things did not improve. The PSP launched a few months later, and it had a lineup to put several consoles' to shame. Third party support for the DS seemed negligible, and all the system seemed to be getting were hastily put together shallow minigame compilations or crappy GBA ports. The PSP, on the other hand, was moving from strength to strength, as it lived up to its initial promise of providing the gamers with a 'console in the pocket.'

Third parties seemed to have no idea what to do with the DS. How could they possibly make a touch screen, a microphone, two processors and wireless connectivity work together, in their favour, in a single game? The DS, it seemed, was just the Sega Saturn all over again, chock full of useless technologies, and too complex for its own good.

Enter Nintendogs.

[size=7]Yeah, that's Nintendogs. The game that single handedly changed the fate of the DS, and as a result, the entire gaming industry.

The pet simulator was a surprise hit for everybody, but it was also the first game to truly showcase how things should be done on this odd new handheld. With Nintendogs, Nintendo properly demonstrated the use of every single feature under the DS's hood for the first time, and the effect was simply marvellous, as Nintendogs turned into an unforgettable experience for all who played it. It was not a game, strictly speaking, but it definitely was a gem of human ingenuity.

Something changed after that. The wild success of Nintendogs was followed by the launch of the Nintendo DS Lite, a hardware redesign that transformed the ugly duckling into a beautiful swan- the DS became indisputably Nintendo's best looking piece of hardware with the DS Lite. Third parties suddenly woke up to the reality of the system, and the quality of games began improving, slowly at first, but it was an improvement nevertheless. At ay rate, third party support for the system improved. This was perhaps marked by Final fantasy III, a title that had never before released in the west, and was now being developed, and subsequently released, exclusively for the DS.

Nintendo, meanwhile, continued to show the way. After Nintendogs, they released, in quick succession, Advance Wars Dual Strike, Metroid Prime Hunters, Mario Kart DS, New Super Mario Bros, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon and The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, one after the other, and all titles shot up the critics' list as some of the finest available on the market.

Third parties, on the other hand, took the cue from Nintendo, and slowly, we began getting games that outdid even Nintendo's finest efforts on the system. When games like Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword, Final Fantasy IV, Dragon Quest V, The World Ends With You, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Dementium: The Ward, Scribblenauts and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars began to appear on the system, and sold in massive numbers, the DS began to be the safest bet- for everybody.

All this while, the PSP was slowing down, as what had earlier been its strength began to now became its albatross. It provided gamers with console experiences in their pockets, but then, all PSP gamers ever got were downsized PS2 ports. Neither hardware sales, nor software sales, were stellar for the platform, and the PSP gradually tapered off into the background. it emerged from its solitude every now and then, with the release of either a new hardware iteration, or some high profile games like Monster Hunter, God of War or Crisis Core , but by and large, the system began to die a slow death. Third party support dwindled, the inflow of games reduced to a minimum, and the PSP joined the growing list of unsuccessful contenders who had challenged Nintendo's handheld throne.

The DS turned five on 21st November, and its been a hell of a ride, these past few years. But the juggernaut shows no sign of stopping. It's had a successful year in 2009, with the release of its third hardware iteration, and several successful games. Nintendo has announced yet another batch of upcoming first party efforts that will surely blaze through again.

Meanwhile, the legacy of the DS has left an indelible mark on the industry- it led to the resurgence of Nintendo, and the fall of Sony. It led to the Wii, which has arguably, for good or for bad, changed the face of gaming forever. It is also the only system so far to demonstrate how casual and hardcore gaming can co-exist, without one, in any way possible cannibalizing the other.

Happy birthday, Nintendo DS. You and your legacy, both live on.

And today, you're well on your way to becoming the greatest system ever created. For a handheld that was relegated to failure status even before it launched, that's a pretty impressive achievement.

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