Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead



Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead. Starring Jake Hoffman, Devon Aoki, and "Karate Kid" Ralph Macchio. Because Hamlet is a play in which everyone dies. Or comes back as a vampire.

How did no one tell me this was coming? HOW?

2009 - The Year In Advance

Prince of Persia, Fable 2, GTA 4, Fallout 3 - how is 2009 possibly going to top the games of last year? Surely we've reached the pinnacled of gaming - what is there left to hope for?

To help y'all out, I've compiled a list of some stuff coming up in 2009 in the hopes of reawakening your lust to game.

Q1 2009

Mirror's Edge DLC - Originally slated for January, these abstract new time trial maps are now coming February. Me and the other guy who cares will have ourselves a quiet party, and all you haters can enjoy a very special one-fingered salute.

House of the Dead: Overkill - House of the Dead does grindhouse. I wasn't entirely sure what it would take to get me excited about House of the Dead again, but this is apparently it. Besides, there's only so far you can go wrong with rail shooters about blasting zombies.

F.E.A.R 2: Project Origin - I wasn't crazy about the original, but Monolith has a strong enough record that I'm willing to give them another try. Maybe this time the spooky and the shooty will happen at the same time, rather than taking awkwardly paced turns.

Mario & Luigi RPG 3 - I didn't like Partners In Time, but on their next adventure Mario and Luigi have gotten themselves swallowed by a giant-sized Bowser! You have to co-ordinate Bowser in the real world with the brothers' adventures through his intestines. That sounds like a joke, but I'm serious. What's not to love?

The Sims 3 - Functionally identical to The Sims 2 but using up more of your CPU power! What manner of monster can say no to that deal?

Dawn of War 2 - I never really played the original Dawn of War but I hear people loved it. Presumably they'll also love the sequel.

50 Cent: Blood On The Sand - Hip-hop star 50 Cent and the street-savvy crew of the G-unit take it to the war-torn streets of the Middle East in order to hunt down a valuable golden skull. For serious. Voted "Most Probably Hilarious Train Wreck of 2009" by The Dust Forms Words.

Halo Wars - The people who made Age of Empires bring Microsoft's golden goose to the world of console-based real-time strategy. I'm cautiously optimistic about both the control scheme and the game itself. Even if it's bollocks, you can bet it will be bigger than Jesus.

Q2 2009

Resident Evil 5 - Hands up if you are ready to shoot some undead black men right in the face. Capcom have correctly identified that what the zombie genre was missing was a sense of niggling fear that exterminating the undead caused you to be a gun-toting racist.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars - Rockstar has realised that the DS, the best-selling console of this generation, doesn't have a single Rockstar game in its library, and they're busily fixing that with some yawn-seen-it-all-before GTA action. If you've played a GTA game this decade, don't hold your breath. Otherwise, you're in for a treat!

MadWorld - Best described as Sin City meets The Running Man, stylised black-and-white schlockfest MadWorld has been getting a lot of interest, and in March we get to see if it lives up to the hype.

Hydrophobia - Flood-based disaster survival. I'm really behind the idea of disaster survival as a genre, I think it could be the next big thing, so I've quietly got my fingers crossed for Hydrophobia.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2: Fusion - Actually there's no release date on this yet but given where its press is up to and how it's looking in pre-release press I'd say Q2 2009 is a good bet.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game - Bill Murray should be an unlockable character in every game.

Blood Bowl - Can you believe someone's doing an adaptation of Games Workshop's fantasy football game Blood Bowl? Don't get too excited - it's by "creators of nothing you've ever heard of" Paris-based outfit Cyanide.

Batman: Arkham Asylum - Mark Hamill reprising his role as the Joker. There's a lot of quiet hope that this will be the definitive Batman videogame. I wait to be convinced.

Q3 2009

Brutal Legend - Jack Black, Tim Schaeffer and the eternal spirit of heavy metal combine to give us this totally extreme metal-themed brawler. It's been a battle for this thing to actually reach publication but it's in the home stretch now.

Halo: ODST - The stand-alone Halo 3 expansion is sure taking a bunch of time to come out. Frankly, I'm a bit Halo-saturated right now and it's a little difficult to get excited but maybe I'll change my mind by August.

I Am Alive - Another entry in the growing list of disaster-survival games. Again, I'm cautiously hopeful, but it's by one of Ubisoft's less accomplished studies so it's more likely to be shovelware.

Hitman 5 - Some of you out there will be excited about this. Yeah, you know who you are.

InFamous - Looks like a cross between Jumper and The Force Unleashed. Big, showy, destruction based super-powers are the go. Might be excellent.

The Conduit - It's a shooter, it's on the Wii, and it looks half decent. That's really all it needs to stand out as a unique and quirky title.

Q4 2009

Bioshock 2: Sea of Dreams - Stop getting excited, people! This is being developed by a different team to the first one, being California based 2K Marin, and that very rarely spells good news for a franchise.

Dante's Inferno - The team behind Dead Space adapt middle-ages Italian religious allegory into a survival horror title. I'm frankly amazed this doesn't happen more often.

Dragon Age - Bioware's business strategy has been to move away from reliance on other people's IP and develop their own unique franchises. In that light, you can see generic-but-probably-brilliant fantasty title Dragon Age as them doing Neverwinter Nights minus the D&D name.

God of War 3 - If you've played any of the previous two-and-a-half God of War games you've got a fair idea of what you're in store for with the new one. That's right - quick time events and horribly broken platforming! (And, I guess, some pretty awesome hacking-things-up-with-swords.)

Mass Effect 2 - Apparently we should hang onto our save files because all those universe shaping choices we made in the original are going to keep having consequences into the sequel. Now that's what I'm talking about.

Overlord 2 - I ended up liking the first Overlord game, and with the same team involved the sequel can only be an improvement, right?

Bayonetta - The guy who created Devil May Cry is doing Devil May Cry again, only with a chick. What's not to like?

This Year If We're Lucky

Aliens: Colonial Marines - Gearbox and Sega do their take on the classic film franchise. It's had a troubled development history but maybe 2009 is the year for it to finally reach store shelves.

Alan Wake - Developers Remedy (creators of Max Payne) had better damn well release this thing in 2009 or it's going to be declared vaporware. It's already two years overdue, and if it weren't such a bold idea I would have given up on it long ago.

Heavy Rain - Speaking of chronically overdue story-driven innovative platform exclusives, where the hell is Heavy Rain? Still no official release date from developer Quantic Dream, although a steady trickle of publicity images suggests it's still under construction.

Half-Life 2 Episode 3 - The conclusion to Valve's epic saga has been in the works since 2007; with no showing at E3 2008 and no announcement of a release date it's anyone's guess as to when we'll actually see the thing. I'm putting my money on it being bundled with Portal 2 or Left 4 Dead 2 in the same way that they released Episode 2 in The Orange Box.

Portal 2 - They cast voice actors in June last year, so the odds of a 2009 release are good. On the other hand, Valve has never come within spitting distance of releasing a game on time, so don't be surprised to see this delayed another year.

Rock Band: Beatles - Okay, it's not actually called Rock Band: Beatles, but it's a game using the Rock Band engine developed by the Rock Band guys that will showcase the Beatles. Harmonix have said no new Rock Band in 2009, but then this isn't a Rock Band title, is it?

Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days & Birth By Sleep - The new DS and PSP Kingdom Hearts games will almost certainly be out in Japan by year's end, but translation delays mean we'll only have them in English by Christmas if we're very, very lucky.

LA Noire - The title really says it all; it's by Rockstar, and it's due some time this year. Personally I'm betting on the thing being further delayed or vaporware, but I guess we'll find out.

Pikmin 3 - I love how with Nintendo games you don't really need to see anything more than the title to know what will be going on inside. It's Pikmin, people. Pikmin 3.

StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty - Look - it's got a subtitle! So that we won't get it confused with all those other StarCraft 2 games, I guess.

Parasite Eve: The 3rd Birthday - Actually we probably won't ever see this in the West, let alone this year, but I just love reminding everyone that Squeenix are making a new Parasite Eve game. In your face, everyone who never played the first two.

Final Fantasy XIII - Japan are probably getting it at Christmastime, which means the West will see it some time in, oh... 2013? Epic localisation delays are a constant source of frustration for these sort of things but if you have a modded PS3 and a fluency in Japanese you could beat the curve by importing, I guess. Hey, did you hear that Shiva is now a pair of sexy summonable sisters that transform into a motorcycle? And who says Final Fantasy doesn't innovate any more?

I've deliberately left the MMOs off the list; I don't expect many of them to actually make it onto shelves, and even fewer of those that do to survive six months. You'd have to be crazy developing a new MMO in this market. Anyway, what are you excited about for gaming in 2009?

House of the Dead: Overkill - New Trailer



House of the Dead: Overkill trailer. All new, all hilarious. Once again, there is no possible way that the game can be better than its marketing. Although this footage does look as if some of the ad campaign humour has made its way to the actual game, which is a good start.

No Zack & Wiki Sequel

It's come to my attention that Wii point-n-click title Zack & Wiki was totally unprofitable for publisher Capcom. In fact, according to the seldom-reliable VGChartz, it has to date sold just over half a million copies (0.54 million). That makes it the 84th best-selling game for the console, but still not a money-spinner according to Capcom marketing dude Colin Ferris in a recent interview.

To put that in perspective, it beat the pants off the combined sales of Okami across all platforms (0.34 million) and kicked No More Heroes right in the nuts (0.19 million) but when even the abominable Red Steel can muster an even million in sales and the reissue of House of the Dead 2 & 3 squeaks in at 0.95, you have to consider Zack & Wiki as something of a commercial failure. (Link's Crossbow Training - not even a real game - is listed at nearly three million units. I guess they just sold that many Wii Zappers, for some reason.)

Seriously - you idiots bought more copies of Guitar Hero Aerosmith than you did of Zack & Wiki? What kind of cretins are you?

The half million isn't impressive, but probably more important to Capcom was that it almost completely failed to shift units in the month following its release - four weeks after landing at retailers it still hadn't cracked 100,000. Also, it probably wasn't helped by a complete absence of press buzz and bizarre statements by producer Hironobu Takeshita that gamers who were having difficulty with the game's puzzles were just "not paying enough attention".

Anyway, the long and the short of it is, don't go expecting a sequel any time soon. Which is a sadness no real words can explain.

Hey, here's some silver lining - other games that haven't sold so well on the Wii include Alone in the Dark, SoulCalibur Legends and Pimp My Ride, so I guess there's some justice in the world.

NOTE: I am aware of the irony in this post, given that I gave an effusive although tongue-in-cheek review for the House of the Dead reprint while simultaneously savaging Zack & Wiki. It should be clear from this that you should not actually listen to me. You should buy every game I talk about, and then join me in hating on the ones that are actually quite loveable.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Some Of The Finer Points Of Lego Batman

There will be a full review of Lego Batman in time; the short version will be that it's better than Lego Indy without being actually good. Some of its high points:

* You can play as the Joker, you can get his costume from the cover of The Killing Joke, and you can shoot Barbara Gordon in the spine.

* You can play as Bane and break Batman's back across your knee. (There is an Achievement for this.)

* You can punch Dick Grayson in the face until his head falls off.

That's a good start, but I was disappointed to find that Jason Todd is not present to recreate his fateful encounter with the Joker, and neither Black Mask nor Spoiler are available to continue the theme. I would also have liked, for comic effect, Thomas and Martha Wayne - when Martha Wayne breaks into her lego pieces she should spill little pearl-coloured studs.

I guess some dreams are not meant to be.

Action Button Does Gears of War 2

I don't point out other people's reviews often, but Action Button has something great to say about Gears of War 2. It starts out with Penny Arcade-style hyperbole and ridiculousness, and then, without letting up the gonzo tone, segues smoothly into intelligent critique of the game design. I link it as evidence that, Zero Punctuation to the contrary, you can be funny, intelligent and positive at the same time.

Go check it out.

NOTE: You should be aware that these guys did not like most of the recent DS/GBA Castlevania games, so their judgement is suspect at best. Just saying, is all.

The World Ends With You - Dust Forms Words Game Of The Year 2008

The World Ends With You is the game that everyone should have played last year, and for what it's worth I'm giving it my Game of the Year.

I've already said a lot about TWEWY, so before I talk about why it gets the trophy, I'll say a little about why the other contenders don't.

Braid was a hell of a game. It was this year's undisputed poster-child for "games as art", and despite my unfortunate discovery of its misguided "alternate ending" it remains a very special and enduring experience. It excels musically, visually, narratively, and through its plethora of fascinating time-based mechanics. But it's limited in scope. Last year, when I described why I gave Mass Effect the thumbs up over Portal, I talked about ambition and how an "almost" on the grand scale could be greater than perfection in miniature. Without in any way criticising Braid, I'm passing it over simply because TWEWY does something bigger and more expansive.

Prince of Persia I haven't reviewed yet, but I have finished, and I am a huge fan. I love the punishment-free gameplay, I love the art style, I love the character interaction, and I love the controversial ending. This is how I want my games to be. And it's tempting to slam it for the epically misconceived coloured plate sections, which in the context of an otherwise perfect game are like drawing a penis on the Mona Lisa, but really I'm passing it over because it's not actually innovative. Everything in PoP is something we've seen before, and while there's an artistry in arranging the familiar to new and excellent effect, it's less an evolution of gaming than it is merely a refinement.

I loved Mirror's Edge, although the world seems to be against me on this, and I seriously considered it for Game of the Year. I think it's a deeper and more clever game than people have realised yet (although obviously not in its storytelling, which blows goats) and given time people are going to start coming back to this with new and more appreciative eyes. But, you know, it wasn't that good, and loud complaints about its combat, plotline, and uneven difficulty are not entirely without foundation.

Smash Bros Brawl and Rock Band were only 2008 releases because they took so damned long to get to Australia, and, while I enjoyed them both, neither was a revelation. Brawl was merely iterative upon the excellent Melee, and Rock Band let an uneven song selection and a host of peripheral and user interface issues stop it from being the definitive rhythmn game that it wanted to be.

No More Heroes got a golf clap and an A for effort. Keep doing what you're doing, Goichi Suda, I love that you're out there doing it, and feel free to wake me up when you get it right.

Left 4 Dead was a fantastic experience while it lasted but in the absence of more content it's not really in my Game of the Year contemplation.

You all apparently loved Fable 2; I hated it, as I do all Peter Molyneux's misbegotten works. Enough said on that topic.

Far Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, Saints Row 2, Dead Space, Metal Gear Solid 4, LittleBigPlanet and Fallout 3 are all contenders that I just didn't get around to playing this year. I had a brief experience with Dead Space that satisfies me it was unlikely to take the crown, and while I look forward to enjoying Saints Row 2 I'm pretty sure that a game that so happily wallows in its own juvenilia was probably not going to be my pick for the year. Likewise, my past apathy towards user content suggests that LittleBigPlanet was probably not going to change my world.

Far Cry 2 and GTA 4 are more problematic; both showed promise of being the open-world game "all growed up". Although experiences with the PSP Grand Theft Auto games left me feeling weary about the entire genre, there's every chance that one or both of these titles would have won me back. I can only say that one person simply can't play every top-shelf title released during the year, and if I'm doing these titles a disservice then I can at least be comfortable that they certainly haven't been overlooked or under-recognised by the world at large.

Metal Gear Solid 4 and Fallout 3 are the two missed titles that trouble me most. They are both new and epic iterations of franchises that I love, made by developers that I trust. It is highly likely either game could have found a place on my list of the greatest games of all time. But again, it's simply impossible to play games as fast as they're released, and both games have been adequately covered in other venues.

So that brings me back to The World Ends With You, which is, I feel, a title as underappreciated as it is wholeheartedly excellent. On its face it is a full-length JRPG, a genre famous for its staidness and adherence to formula, and yet it innovates in every single game mechanic. It's hard to find any aspect of the TWEWY experience which has been done before.

The game difficulty is not only fully customisable along multiple axes, but is also seamlessly integrated into the overall gameplay. Equippable items tie into a "fashion" system, which is influenced by player activity and deliberately underlines and supports the key themes of the story. The entire game operates simultaneously on a literal level and several metaphorical levels, from the "noise" enemies through to the player being invisible to the teeming crowds around him. The game accurately and interestingly uses the real-world location of Shibuya as its backdrop, to non-trivial narrative effect, and when you finally finish the main plotline the game offers significant replayability that goes above and beyond the traditional "new game plus" option.

Any one of the points above would have made The World Ends With You a special and noteworthy release; finding them in combination is breathtaking. Add to that an art style which is unquestionably perfect for the subject matter and an urban-groove soundtrack that you can listen to all day long and you end up with a game that feels years ahead of its time.

There is more genius in The World Ends With You than in every other game I have played this year put together. I have no qualms about naming it the Dust Forms Words Game of the Year 2008, and if you haven't yet played it, grab your DS and find a copy immediately.

Michael Atkinson to Gamespot

South Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson, foremost Australian proponent of videogame censorship, has delivered an exclusive statement to Gamespot, which you can read here.

Before we get into ripping it to shreds, it should be acknowledged that this is progress. Atkinson has provided, for the first time, a detailed, reasoned statement on his position on censorship. He is still, of course, deeply wrong, but the first step in creating change is bringing the relevant parties to the debate.

Atkinson's position is founded on four fundamental misapprehensions, none of which are supported by research. The first is that there exist such a thing as "damaging images and messages". The second is that these images and messages are found in videogames to a greater extent than they are in government public service announcements and the nightly news. The third is that the interactive nature of video games makes content more inherently mature or threatening. And the fourth is that parents are unable or dangerously unwilling to monitor the media use of their children, to a greater extent than is true for DVD content.

It's also a bit worrying that the South Australian Attorney-General, in a statement presumably parsed by his advisors, is unable to get the name of our classification authority right. He refers to the Office of Film and Literature Classification, which has been officially known as the Classification Board for close to a year now.

Also, Atkinson's reference to his children suggests that this is his only direct experience of videogames. Surely we deserve better than a stance dictated largely by the man's relationship with his sons?

It's telling that Atkinson delivers a statement rather than an interview; it's suggestive that the fine detail comes not from Atkinson but from his advisors. It reveals that, even briefed in advance, the South Australian Attorney-General would not be able to intelligently discuss the key issues in the area he's legislating.

Anyway - check out the statement for yourself.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wii Game Shortage

If you're looking for some reading, Mitch Krpata has a great article up at Insult Swordfighting about where, exactly, all the games for the Wii might be. Apparently locked in Nintendo's safe, to ensure we won't buy them and thereby make their console unprofitable. If they'd just get around to keeping a bit more of the Ubisoft shovelware in that safe the Wii might be getting less of a reputation for bargain-bin gaming.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Eleven Foot Pole

Hey guys, heads up. I've realised I have a whole heap of things to say about D&D 4th Edition; there's some fascinating design going on in that thing. The level of detail I want to go into is considerably greater than I'd normally subject people to on The Dust Forms Words, so I'm putting that discussion off-site.

So if you don't care about RPG design or D&D 4th Edition, keep reading here and you won't notice a thing.

BUT if you would like to get into the nitty-gritty of what makes 4th Ed tick, I'm doing that on a blog suggestively entitled Eleven Foot Pole (http://elevenfootpole.blogspot.com). I make no promises to update or maintain this new project; follow at your own risk.

Trailers From Hell

Despite the logo, TFH haven't covered a single Godzilla film yet.  What's up with that?I haven't had time for a full post today, but I do have time to direct you to Trailers From Hell, which is very excellent.

The site is all about film industry notables providing spoken commentary on trailers for films both well-known and obscure. It's got a great mix of humour and genuine insight and almost every trailer makes for top-notch watching.

Those involved in the project include big-screen directors Eli Roth (Hostel), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and John Landis (The Blues Brothers), TV directors Jesus Trevino (Babylon 5), Alan Arkush (Heroes), and Michael Lehmann (The West Wing), and a smattering of scriptwriters such as Chris Wilkinson (Nixon) thrown in for good measure.

(Visit Trailers From Hell)

Credit goes to the incomparably sexy Dalekboy for pointing the site out to me.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Bit More On The IGF

Just quickly, because many of you don't follow the comment threads:

IGF Chairperson Simon Carless dropped by to rebut some of my comments about the selection of the 2009 Independent Games Festival finalists. He makes good points, and if you're interested in seeing what he has to say (and my response) you should have another look at that post (and add your own thoughts!).

Non-Stop

If games that slowed down below 40 mph blew up, we would have been blessedly saved from Final Fantasy XII.International Hobo (and more particularly Chris Bateman) have taken it upon themselves to put quick-time events (QTEs) on trial.

You've seen this mechanic, no doubt - normal gameplay gets interrupted, and you're asked to quickly press the buttons displayed on screen in order to do something awesome. Yahtzee Croshaw calls it "press X not to die", and that's fair to some extent (Prince of Persia), but it's just as commonly "press X to disembowel" (God of War) or "press X to become one with the Matrix" (Fahrenheit).

It's a terrible mechanic. It's crude, it's abstracted, and it's punitive towards casual and beginning players who may not be prepared to suddenly press X without warning.

I applaud it. More, please.

Because you have to take baby steps. To achieve something good you have to vomit up something bad. And while your average QTE is a crime against gamers everywhere, it's the first incarnation of something much better that we've been heading towards since the late 1970s.

Gaming should be non-stop. And I don't mean by this that gaming must be an epilepsy-inducing cavalcade of action, but rather that the player should never be shut out of the game. At each and every moment that the hardware is active, the gamer should have the option of contributing something relevant to the play.

Take some examples from board and card games. These games usually feature players having distinct "turns". In bad game design, when it is not your turn you have nothing to do. In good game design, what you do during other people's turns is just as important as what's going on during yours.

Magic: the Gathering uses "interrupts", which can cut into an opponent's turn and allow you to respond to their moves. This gives you a good reason to watch your opponent closely, and look for just the right moment to surprise them with your interrupt. Another example might be the popular Monopoly house rule which states that if you fail to claim rent you miss out, again giving players an incentive to watch each others' turns.

In these examples, even though a player is not actively making moves on the game board, they are engaged because they have the potential to influence the game.

Videogames have been plagued with interactivity problems since their inception. Non-interactive features have become staples of the medium, such as long cutscenes, lengthy dialogues, and scripted sequences. Players are regularly asked to wait until they can play again - and there is not even the rationale of it being "someone else's turn".

It's not good design. Gaming should be non-stop. And QTEs are an attempt to fix that.

QTEs are an attempt to add interactivity to what would otherwise be downtime. Yes, it's cool just to watch Kratos ripping off a minotaur's head, but it's significantly cooler to be engaged in it. Yes, it's great that the Prince doesn't die when he loses a fight, but the introduction of a QTE gives the illusion that he doesn't die because of something the player did. It's better than non-interactivity, and it's better than removing the feature altogether.

And yes, it's still pretty awful. It's a bad solution to a real problem, but it's better than no solution to the problem, and when iterated over a raft of games it creates a dialogue among developers about how do we do it better? It's a step on a stairway that's going to lead us to better gaming - a shaky step, but an important one all the same.

And sure, next time you see a game use QTEs in a really ham-fisted way, feel free to blast the developers, because they can find a better way. There is another road, and it's going to take us to some really excellent places.

But just remember that long before we got to walk that road, we had to start looking for it.

Independent Games Festival - The Rest

So I'll confess - I got bored of trawling through the 2009 Independent Games Festival finalists, and judging from my blog traffic reports I'm guessing you did too. Too many of the games just didn't have any public media to base a meaningful post around. I'd recommend to the IGF that they make the provision of a public-release trailer a condition of entry in future years, to help facilitate a meaningful discussion around the awards.

Anyway, for the sake of finishing things off, here are the finalists I didn't get around to doing a full post about:

Zeno Clash


A first-person brawler with a nice flavour to it, even if the sound effects are a bit Duke Nukem 3D. I love the look of the bone-sword, and also the speaking alien near the start of the trailer. Developers Ace Team have a very professional looking site, too. This looks like one of those games that you wouldn't know was an independent release unless someone told you.

Retro/Grade


A very cute concept is on display in Retro/Grade - it's a Gradius-style shoot-em-up, played in reverse. Time runs backwards, and you have to catch your incoming laser shots while dodging the enemy's lasers. Mistakes "damage the space-time continuum". I love the concept, although I think in practice it might end up being functionally identical to your regular sort of shoot-em-up. Also, there's not exactly a lot of variety on display in the demo above. The official site has another teaser video, if you want more.

Between
This game, by Jason Rohrer, is available in full for free, which is awesome. There's a couple of catches though. One is that the game is, for some reason, only available at the moment through the online version of Esquire Magazine, so if you object to visiting digital men's magazines you're out of luck. (If not, though, you can grab it here.) Secondly, it requires two players, two networked computers, and a server. What's it about? I have no idea, other than that it explores "consciousness and isolation". Sounds fascinating.

Cortex Command
I'm completely out of enthusiasm for describing these games, which is a shame because the last one is Cortex Command, which I have been hearing through the buzz is "frikkin' awesome". You should, apparently, check it out. I understand it to be a little like Worms, only with butt-kicking robots, or somesuch. You can download a pretty extensive demo through the official site, or alternatively shell out for the fully-featured final release. If you play it, tell me whether you liked it.

I'd finish up by saying that while there are some excellent games in the full set of IGF finalists, there are also a lot of games that are conspicuous by their absence. You Have To Burn The Rope, for instance, is cute, but it's the shallowest shore of an ocean of games from the last year that have been exploring similar themes, and it's disappointing to see it featured when titles like Shift 3, which have actual gameplay, are missing. The Maw, already enjoying a well-publicised retail release, hardly seems to need the leg up, while Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble has been struggling for just this kind of love from day one. The inclusion of Musaic Box is a joke in bad taste, especially when Dark Room Sex Game and I Wish I Were The Moon were completely ignored.

It's really not clear what agenda the IGF is trying to promote through its selections, and I think that weakens the value of the awards as a whole.

Coil developer Edmund McMillen, who was nice enough to stop by after I was less than kind to his game, has been saying something similar over on his development blog, although less politely, and I'll direct you to his comments.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Overlord

I bought a copy of Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill today, which has nothing to do with Overlord but is still awesome.Review of Overlord for those who have played Pikmin:
Overlord is basically a re-skin of Pikmin. It's not quite as good as Pikmin but it's better than Pikmin 2.

Review of Overlord for everyone else:
Overlord is a game about terrorising a fantasy realm using a squad of goblin-like "minions". Despite the title, the game never really makes you feel like an all-devouring titan of evil, but the core game mechanics are solid enough that it's a lot of fun anyway.

You play as the helmeted guy on the cover of the box, who's experienced a long "sleep" after a titanic final battle between good and evil. Brought back to life by devoted minions, you're told to get busy about rebuilding your dark domain of evil.

Your chief tools for evildoing are the aforesaid minions, who are the real stars of the show here. These guys come in an unruly mob, initially comprising only five of the little buggers but eventually snowballing out to an even fifty. You control your character with the left analogue stick (at least, on the XBox 360 you do), and you can use the right stick to "sweep" your minions ahead of you. Minions making contact with vases and crates will smash them and loot whatever's inside; minions who come across an enemy will get stabby with it until it is dead. Large items can be lifted, if you have enough minions, and carried back to your tower.

Minions can automatically equip themselves with whatever they find in the environment, including ancient weapons, the skulls of fallen enemies, or, in a pinch, hollowed out pumpkins. Each minion is rendered separately and it's great to see the little guys levelling themselves up. Their voice work is also quite excellent, and their cries of "For me?" and "Mine!"when they loot new gear never get old.

Minions come in four flavours. Your basic browns are the grunts of the game, good for combat and lifting. Reds are fragile but can extinguish fires and have a ranged attack. Greens are immune to poison and have a "backstab" ability in combat, whereas blues can swim and are the only ones who can damage magical enemies.

Early in the game the focus is on rebuilding your dark tower and tracking down the missing minion colours, which requires a fair amount of exploration and puzzle-solving, but towards the end there's a shift towards killing "heroes", who are effectively the boss monsters of the game.

I say "monsters" because although you're supposed to be evil, there's really little opportunity to be villainous. Much against your will, you'll find yourself pressed into helping out whingy villagers, rescuing princesses, and beating the crap out of all manner of abomination (carnivorous unicorns are a personal favourite). The "heroes" themselves have been corrupted until they're really villains, such as a fat cannibal halfling and a dwarf with a pornographic love of gold.

Still, the core gameplay is solid and remains reasonably entertaining through to the end, which is 20 or so hours of play. There are some uneven spots, and some areas that clearly weren't thoroughly playtested, but if you struggle through the rough patches you'll be rewarded with more fun afterwards.

One thing that particularly wasn't fun was the grinding. To upgrade your character's armour and weapons you'll need to sacrifice minions in epic quantities. Gaining the necessary minion lifeforce requires killing enemies of a certain type. To get the necessary amounts through normal play requires re-visiting levels many, many times. It wasn't until I was three quarters of the way through the game that I discovered you can grind much faster fighting against common beetles in the tower's "arena" area, which lets you re-fight any opponent you've encountered previously. Although faster, this was still a grind, and pretty bady broke the pace of the game.

The ending of the game is great. It turned out that the story was a little more thought-out than I had assumed, and the final sequences were a fitting conclusion to what had gone before. My appreciation of the ending is as much to do with my low expectations as it is to do with the ending's inherent excellence, but it still left quite an impression.

If the basic game isn't enough to keep you busy, there are several multiplayer modes, which can be played online, or via local splitscreen if you download a free patch. There's also a downloadable expansion for about $15 AUD but I wasn't quite enthusiastic enough to try that out.

Overlord didn't exactly shake the world when it came out, but I think it's a better game than it was given credit for at release. Now, a couple of years later, you've got a great opportunity to try this out at second-hand prices, and it's well worth a look.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Closing The Book

This particular closed book was by Ian Irvine.  You need to treat those things like the Necronomicon - don't even open one, no matter how much the shiny cover tempts you.It's a child's response, isn't it?

Sensing that the story is not going to have a happy ending, you close the book. The resolution remains unread, the story remains unfinished, and the tragic conclusion is indefinitely postponed.

The mature reader does not close the book. The mature reader turns the last page, experiences the ending for better or for worse, and then draws a conclusion as to whether it was a well-told story.

I'm really talking here, of course, about the new Prince of Persia, which has... an ending. Just the one. There is no alternate ending; if you play the game to its conclusion, there is only one manner in which things can be resolved. This ending is not to everyone's tastes.

The thing is, the game starts to roll the credits a good five to ten minutes before the actual ending, but then stops. Judging from the blogosphere, a good many people, sensing what is coming next, choose to take that as the end of the game and stop there. Not because they've stopped enjoying the gameplay, but because they want to pretend that what comes next njever happened. They feel it's a better story if they stop there.

Another example is Shadow of the Colossus. Throughout that game, the player is given the sense that what they are doing is wrong, and that with each colossus defeated they are making things palpably worse for everyone concerned, including their own character. Some people choose to stop playing before finishing the quest - again, not through dissatisfaction with the gameplay, but because of a desire to avert the otherwise inescapable tragic conclusion.

That's wrong, isn't it? It's like making an alternate ending to Death of a Salesman where nobody dies and everybody rediscovers their lost love of life. The point is the tragedy. The point is the experience.

I say this, but then I look at Braid. That is a fantastically deep and moving game, right through the main story and concluding with the final level. And that's what I thought for six months or so, until I found out about the bonus stars. Suddenly it was revealed I hadn't finished the game, and the new ending turned everything into a contrived mess about nuclear physics.

I am quite happy to say there are no bonus stars. I am quite happy to take the ending which I liked, and ignore everything that came afterwards. It is an exponentially better game this way. I see this as no different to loving the original Dune novels and ignoring the Kevin J. Anderson / Brian Herbert rubbish which has come out recently.

How do I reconcile this? On the one hand, finishing a story early is deliberately refusing to engage with the authorial vision, and denies you the right to claim to have genuinely experienced the work. On the other hand, a little wilfull blindness can allow you to perceive art and quality where otherwise there may only have been mediocrity.

Thoughts, anyone?

NB: No spoilers please!

Kotaku Sells Out

As I write this, Kotaku Australia is running some horrible full-page branding for the movie Valkyrie. It looks terrible, it's not on-topic for the site, and it actually interferes with reading the articles.

Add to that their interminable off-topic blogvertisements for TV show The Phone, which are presented in exactly the same fashion as their regular posts but marked with the word "advertisement" in small print above the post title, and you'd be right to be suspicious of exactly how much of what's on Kotaku these days is a genuine attempt at enthusiast journalism.

This is exactly the sort of sell-out crap that started up on Gamespot before they took their big plunge into the mediocrity pool; here's hoping Kotaku makes an about-face before it's too late.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Disturbance at Lars Homestead

Sure you can gun them down from a distance.  I use to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home, they're not much bigger than two metres.This is a real product, which I saw on store shelves at Toys 'R' Us Saturday. Comes with action figures of Owen and Beru Lars, Stormtrooper, Lars Homestead Building, and a Womp Rat mini. Now you can finally recreate Luke Skywalker's aunt and uncle being gunned down by Imperial troops! Tasteful!

Friday, January 16, 2009

PoupeeGirl - Made Of Meat

Meet OuchMyFace.  She lived all of about six hours.  We'll miss you, spunky lady.
If you're lucky, you've not heard of PoupeeGirl, the strange Japanese community founded on vicious consumerism and virtual paper dolls. It's like Facebook, except everyone's a 14-year-old Japanese girl or a 20-something-otaku.

The goal of PoupeeGirl is simple - show off your expensive-label fashion collection via unique photos, and thereby win the internet. Posting photos, and commenting on photos of others, gets you the game's virtual currency, which can be spent on questionable clothing for your virtual avatar.

The discussion here isn't very deep - comment threads can run to 10+ pages of "Cute!!!" and "Super-cute!!!" - which might have something to do with the gestapo-like thought police who rule this virtual nation from on high.

Led by authoritarian community manager Katharine, the jackbooted minions of PoupeeGirl's management will be quick to strip you of your photographs, your clothes, and your virtual currency for the slightest infraction of the PoupeeGirl rules. Such infractions include posting a non-unique photograph, depicting someone's face in a photograph, or mislabelling a scarf as a stole.

Spurred on by a certain PoupeeGirl player of my acquaintance (who shall not be named for fear of reprisals), I today entered this community for the purpose of what are commonly referred to as "the lolz". Soon my blonde-banged avatar "OuchMyFace" was installed in a brand new Poupee Room and ready to get fashionable.

The Meatbag is a popular fashion accessory in Rwanda.  Apparently.
I've always believed it's important to get ahead of the trend, and if you've been around the traps you'll probably be aware that the next wave in fashion is meat. Lots and lots of meat. So I quickly uploaded some "choice cuts" from my closet for the approval of the masses. Above you'll see my "meatbag". Other selections included a range of "phone dangles" that looked surprisingly like shavings of roast beef, a "hat" that bore a certain resemblance to a decapitated pig's head, and the home-made costume I wore to Halloween last year where I went dressed as an entire pork roast still on the spit.

Step two was to make some friends. I got busy! I whipped up a collection of effervescent teen-girl-style compliments, added a reference to meat to each one, and then parsed them through Google Translator into Japanese and back. Instant teenspeak! The garbled grammar made up for my suspicious insistence on capital letters and punctuation.

For perfume:
It captures the essence of meat in a brave waft of madness. Don't you think it is an INFUSION? A pork infusion. The smell of cooking meat makes me think of eternity. I rate you two pigs out of a possible three.

For Hello Kitty earrings:
Hello Kitty's cute - she is made of raw meat cat! This is all her life! It is the best - and now you can hang from her ears! Babe!

For pyjama pants:
Since wearing the pants, it is important today. Practically anyone, do not have the pants are fine and eating a hamburger meat. And both my feet, please refer to the trend of the development potential and the lamb chops! Fashion victory!

I was an instant success, garnering friends, comments, accolades, and attention on the LiveJournal Community.

Agent Katharine and cohort.  They can taste your stink, and every time they do, they fear that they've somehow been infected by it.
But all good things must come to an end, and less than six hours after I created her, OuchMyFace discovered that her ability to post images had been revoked. The fuzz had found her, and now she was going down Rodney King-style. It seems that the bleeding edge of tomorrow's fashion was just a little too bloody for the powers that be at PoupeeGirl, and the humourless killbots that inhabit those dreary domains had begun spamming the "exile" button.

The account still technically exists - feel free to friend it and examine such meaty offerings as it still has attached to it. But the fire has gone out of OuchMyFace's meaty heart, and she will post her pork-clothes no more.

Rest in peace, OuchMyFace. We'll miss you.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Irish Evil

I pause briefly in the cavalcade of Independent Games Festival banality to direct your attention to this:

http://www.qwantz.com/archive/000816.html

And THEN, to this:

http://www.wooopedia.com/wooo/Irish_Evil

Mostly because I can.

Snapshot

I'm so tired of this IGF thing, I can't even think of some funny alt text.So, who played I Wish I Were The Moon and thought, man, that would make an awesome 2D platformer?

Clearly these guys did. In Snapshot you can take "photos" of parts of the level, move the photos to new locations, and hey presto, the contents of the photos have been moved also. It's a fancy way of letting you translocate ledges and monsters into more head-stomp convenient configurations.

It's an Independent Games Festival 2009 finalist, the official website is here, there isn't a playable version yet, and the finished product will be released for PC.

FEIST



Only a few of these to go. FEIST is another 2009 Independent Games Festival finalist. Like many of the others, it's not out yet, but when it is it will be available for Windows, Mac, and not much else.

Go check out the official site, which has this and this alone to say:

A journey over mountains and through deep forests lies ahead. The trail isn't told to be an easy one. Mad foes and unsafe dirt tracks are on its way. Only with cunningness and by risking to eat dodgy food one might find the power to reach the end of the journey.
Chilling stuff.

CarneyVale: Showtime



Blogger appears to be having steadily increasing difficulty in embedding YouTube, and I'm having steadily increasing difficulty in getting excited about these Independent Games Festival finalists, but I'm in the home stretch now and I intend to see it through.

CarneyVale: Showtime is an XNA Community Games title for XBox Live Arcade, and therefore like all the XNA stuff it's not available in Australia. I'm not particularly worried, as the trailer fails to get me interested, but if you're in one of the regions where these things can actually be bought and you've tried CarneyVale out, feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Brainpipe

Windows Media Visualiser: The GameBrainpipe - playfully dubbed "The Game That Should Not Be!" by its creators at Digital Eel - seems less like a game made in 2008 than it does a relic of the early 90s Amiga demo scene.

The priority here is the experience - hallucinatory colours, trance inducing music, and an always-growing sense of speed. The player rushes down a brightly lit tunnel, dodging obstacles and collecting tokens while continually accelerating.

This is one of those games that should be all about "the zone" - reaching a transcendental state of hyper-acuity where you're instinctively executing gameplay you would be incapable of doing consciously - but a host of small issues get in the way (at least for me).

One is that the game doesn't seem to enforce local mouse sensitivity, or if it does, it does it wrong. The game requires tiny precision movements to stay on track, but I found myself needing to do some wild swinging of the mouse just to get from one side of the tunnel to the other. There's no in-game option as far as I can tell to adjust this, either.

Also, there's no tutorial or explanatory in-game text, there's little sense of accomplishment attached to progress, and the menus (proudly featuring "creepy eyeball buttons") are like a prop from a lecture on how not to design an interface.

All those gripes aside, Brainpipe does nail its three key themes - sound, light, and motion - and that's part of the explantion of it being a 2009 Independent Games Fetival finalist. There's a free demo available through the Shrapnel Games website, which is worth a look, and if you like it more than I did you can get the full version for $15 US.

The Maw



I had a joke here about The Maw, but Blogger's just eaten my post three times in a row so I'm giving up on that. It's apparently the Comedy That Was Not Meant To Be.

So instead, check out the trailer for this game, which is a soon-to-be-released title for XBox Live Arcade. It's also a 2009 Independent Games Festival finalist. As YouTube commentor "knob115" puts it:

This is going to be the tits when it is released. Seriously, it will be so badass that it will melt the skin off your face and then make you swallow your own melted face goo.
So I guess if you were wondering if The Maw was going to be good, and if you like both tits and face goo, then your questions have been answered.

IncrediBots

IncrediBots is something of an odd product.

It is an amazing technical achievement. A community-content game with the depth and features of LittleBigPlanet shoehorned into an in-your-browser Flash application - there can be little question as to why it's a 2009 Independent Games Festival finalist for the Technical Excellence award.

In IncrediBots you use a simple yet deep suite of tools to build robots, which you can then control using the keyboard. With a little creativity, your robots can do pretty much anything, from scooping up debris through to animating home movies.

Everything is based around a robust physics engine, and you'll quickly realise that what the toolset lets you do is, as the name implies, incredible. Like any good community-content game, you can save, load, and share your work at the push of a button.

I was just blown away by IncrediBots' potential, but entirely unmotivated to use any of it. Given the ability to build realistic cars that actually move I was no more excited about making one than I am about assembling automobiles in real life. I can claim to be a huge fan of early contraption-based games like The Incredible Machine, but unfortunately I just couldn't get IncrediBots to enthuse me.

Possibly some of it is in a lack of structure. The sandboxy stuff is just a little too sandboxy - the open canvas can prompt you to ask "where do I start?". It would be great to access pre-fabricated templates for cars, tanks, walkers and suchlike to give you a leg up. Also, there are challenge levels that task you with hauling random junk around, and suchlike. They score you on speed, and while I could pretty easily complete the task, the implicit goal of doing it cleverly and quickly daunted me out of even trying.

Anyway, investigate for yourself. The genius of the game may well dwarf whatever brainpower you invest personally, but you can play IncrediBots over at Kongregate, or hit up the developers, Grubby Games, via their website.

The Graveyard



This isn't a trailer for The Graveyard - it's the full game, played to completion for your edification in seven minutes and thirty nine seconds. It's not a speedrun, either - that's the maximum length of the game. Nor is it only one of several possible playthroughs. This is the experience you have every time. The only player input is in directing the old lady to walk up the path.

Which raises some questions as to whether The Graveyard deserves to be called a game. It is an excellent piece of semi-interactive art. It is intriguing and I am glad it exists. But when your total interaction amounts to the equivalent of a DVD's play and pause buttons, it may not exactly qualify as gaming, as such.

Anyway, it's by Tale of Tales, it's a 2009 Independent Games Festival finalist, and you can download it for free from their website. If you like it, feel free to drop the developers $5, and by way of thanks they'll give you the "full" version, wherein there is the ever-present possibility of sudden and unforeshadowed death.

As a side note, I also direct you to Wired Magazine's article on this game, which is well worth anyone's reading time.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

PixelJunk Eden



PixelJunk Eden is available now on the PlayStation Network; not yet being a PS3 guy, that puts it outside the ambit of games that I can sample.

So instead, for the purposes of giving it as fair a hearing as I can, can I direct your attention to the trailer above, and encourage anyone who's had some time with it to talk about their experiences in the comments section of this post?

PixelJunk Eden is a 2009 Independent Games Festival finalist in two categories, and I have to hand it to PixelJunk, putting the developer's name right there in the title is a great way to build brand recognition.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Osmos

Award-nominated game, or photograph of the inside of my fridge?  You decide!Osmos is being put out by Hemisphere Games, and there are far worse things you could do with an hour than trying out its free demo.

You play as a little glob of matter, possibly some kind of microbial lifeform. You can crash into blobs that are smaller than you to absorb them, and grow in size, but contacting a blob which is bigger than you will result in you getting eaten.

You move by firing off some of your mass in the opposite direction; losing mass in this way makes you smaller, but can put you on a trajectory to absorb other blobs. When you're smaller, you're faster and more manoueverable, but when you're larger you're in less danger of getting eaten.

The demo's quite short - you can blow through it in about 30 minutes - but it sells the concept well enough. The controls are simple, the ambient music is relaxing, and the gameplay is compelling. Like all the games I've been talking about over the last few days, it's a 2009 Independent Games Festival finalist, and it appears to be one of the better ones, so go get your hands on it and form an opinion for yourself.

Night Game

Windmills at night are, I have to admit, pretty spooky.Here is another 2009 Independent Games Festival finalist that may, for all I know, exist entirely in the fevered imagination of its creators.

Night Game is being put out by Nicalis, the folks behind the upcoming WiiWare title Cave Story, and like Cave Story it's to be released for WiiWare as well as the PC. The IGF page describes it thusly:

Designed by Nicklas Nygren, Night Game is an action-puzzle game that focuses on providing players with an ambient gameplay experience, challenging the mind with increasingly challenging picturesque worlds. Each level is broken into different areas in which the player must maneuver a ball and using realistic physics to advance through each level. There are no enemies, per se, and no violence in Night Game.
It's a good thing we've got that snippet of text because that's pretty much the only thing that has ever been said about the game in the history of the internet, so far as I can tell. Try to picture it, I guess, you might find it exciting.

Machinarium



Machinarium is another 2009 Independent Games Festival finalist that isn't actually out yet. It's a point and click adventure, not so much in the way that LucasArts popularised them as it is similar to those that you'll find at Flash game portals.

The visuals are just excellent. Check out the trailer above, and then pop over to Amanita Design to see some high definition screenshots. If you'd like an idea of what the finished game might be like, you can also try Samorost and Samorost 2, which are two (shorter) play-in-your-browser games from the same team.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Musaic Box

Playing this game is like getting your kneecaps shot out by a shotgun full of rusty syringes, only worse.I love the concept of Musaic Box but I hate the implementation so much that I want to travel back in time and murder its mother to ensure it will never be born.

That this game is a 2009 Independent Games Festival finalist twice over is an affront to every other game in that privileged family.

Musaic Box stars off by welding together two disparate types of gameplay - because that's always a good idea. You'll start off in a traditional hidden object game, where you have to locate small scraps of music hidden in the background. Mousing over objects gives you some clues but it's faster and more satisfying to just go clicking everywhere like a maniac. I say more satisfying, because if you wait for even a second the game will start giving you "helpful hints" - like showing you your target before you've even had a chance to try for yourself.

Once you've found a few pieces of music, you'll be taken to the musaic box. Musaic is a portmanteau of "music" and "mosaic", which someone probably thought was a charming piece of wordplay, but you'll soon come to associate it only with the deeper levels of pain.

The musaic box is the core of the game, and here you're challenged to put together eight bars of well-known music by arranging some Tetris-shaped tiles. The tiles have coloured symbols on them, representing firstly which instruments the tile will cause to play, and secondly giving you a graphical hint as to what notes might be played by that instrument.

This is the idea I love. A puzzle game about arranging instrumental tracks to create quality music is gold to the core; done well, it could be the next Guitar Hero.

Musaic Box doesn't so much fumble that ball as it does chop off its own hands to prevent any possibility of competence. It's terrible. First up, the musical arrangements are abhorrent. I would rather gargle nails than listen to another piece of what it chooses to call music. Relatively inoffensive tracks like "Yankee Doodle" are butchered beyond belief, and classic music such as "Blue Danube" is wrung dry of all grace and soul. Once the puzzles start getting tricky you'll be listening to these atonal monstrosities multiple times, and it's like a kind of torture you'd previously never imagined the laws of space/time would allow.

Partly because of these misguided musical manglings, the puzzles get unnecessarily weaselly. Early outings give you a "guide track" so you can hear what the song should sound like, but later they dispense with this. The theory behind throwing away the guide is that certain puzzle layouts only permit one correct solution, and you can therefore solve the puzzle without needing to listen. The problem is that that just isn't true - "When The Saints Go Marching In", for example, has a dozen or so legal tile configurations, and knowing the song won't help you because you're listening not for how the song normally goes, but how it goes in this game, which bears little to no relationship to anything you might have previously heard.

Musaic Box really takes the cake. Not only is it the worst hidden object game I've played this year (and I've played a half-dozen or so), but it's also the worst music-based game and the worst puzzle game. That's a very special trifecta, but it's not one deserving of commendation.

If you don't believe that an Independent Games Festival finalist can be so appalling, please feel free to head over to Big Fish Games, install their repulsive download client, and try it out for yourself. It's about 70 MB and you get an hour of play for free before they'll try and extort money for the full version.

I don't think any amount of showering can make me clean again.

Cletus Clay

Reckon that looks like claymation.  Ayup. Dear 2009 Independent Games Festival: when your finalists are games that have not been released, do not have a demo, and do not even have a trailer, it makes it very hard to debate the merits or otherwise of your selection.

Cletus Clay apparently explores the age-old conflict between hillbillies and aliens, in the form of some kind of 2D platforming game. Says creator and lead artist Anthony Flack: "If you're looking for the kind of game where you get to throw a pig at a flying saucer, then this is exactly that sort of game."

The whole thing is done in claymation - actual claymation, not that CGI-which-looks-like-claymation rubbish - and it gives off a vibe a little something like Contra meets Earthworm Jim. It's to be released on XBox Live Arcade and PC once done, doubtless to rounds of hearty applause.

... I'm really reaching here. Flack and his buddies at TunaSnax seem like a swell bunch of dudes but as far as actual content that I can meaningfully access it may as well be Duke Nukem Forever. I'm sure it'll be great and all, but for now you'll just have to accept that any game which makes it into the IGF 2009 Finalists must be pretty darned okay.

UPDATE: I've been pointed to some YouTube footage of the game in action - y'all should check it out..

Blueberry Garden



I'm not aware of any way of actually playing Erik Svedäng's new game Blueberry Garden, as it's still very much in development. Judges at the 2009 Independent Games Festival have presumably had a peek behind the curtain, though, as they've made it a finalist for their Grand Prize, and I'm therefore drawing its existence to your attention in the way that I have a habit of doing.

So feast your eyes. I predict that the above trailer will totally blow your mind - maybe even in a good way - and if you want more details you can possibly find them at Svedäng's blog. May I say, I am totally up for a wider range of games about stacking oversized household objects and making munchkins smooch.

You Have To Burn The Rope

Is this guy about to burn him some rope?  You bet.  Shit just got *real*.I like to assume everyone has already played You Have To Burn The Rope. Assuming this lets me make those who haven't done so feel like they have failed as human beings. Good times.

In any case, YHTBTR has somehow made it through to being a 2009 Independent Games Festival finalist, so I'm highlighting it here now to give you all a second chance at living meaningful lives.

The game's short, running at about 45 seconds in length not counting the closing credits, or three minutes including the credits. It's packed full of action and thrills and I don't think I'm spoiling anything if I tell you that it involves a requirement to burn a certain rope.

This is three minutes of your life well spent. If you've not already felt the love, go hit the game up at Kongregate and get ready for some excellence. (Alternatively, I suppose you could visit the developer's actual site but then I'd miss out on Kongregate points that I'd otherwise be accruing.)

Game of the Year - Still Coming

Oh, hey, I haven't forgotten about declaring a 2008 Game of the Year, by the way.

I've delayed it slightly to give Prince of Persia a fair shake. For the first five hours of that game it looked like it had a pretty decent chance of taking the title, but then I unlocked the yellow plates and discovered that the ability to do the levels in whatever order I pleased had allowed me to see most of the best levels near the start and leave the dregs until the end.

It's still a pretty awesome game and I want to see the ending before I pass judgement, is all.

Dyson

Seriously.  Trees that grow metal space-wasps.  This is why I don't garden. Dyson is the most fun I've had with a downloadable PC game in, oh, weeks.

Developed by Rudolf Kremers and Alex May, in essence it's a real-time strategy game made simple. There's only one type of unit, two types of building, no explicit resource management, and the units select targets for themselves.

In theory, Dyson is about mining robots who are colonising an asteroid field, but the art is abstract enough to let you believe whatever you want about the totally absent storyline. Units grow on trees, and fly around their home asteroid in quick orbits. You can sacrifice 15 units to plant a new tree, up to whatever the level-designated maximum is for trees per planet. To progress you'll need to conquer nearby asteroids and clear out infestations of other mining-robot tribes.

The art style is clean and attractive, and the simple visuals allow for swarms of thousands of units to appear on-screen without any noticeable slowdown. The ambient music neither distinguishes itself nor detracts from the experience.

I love Dyson to bits, but the current version is still a working prototype and there's a lot of work still to be done. The simplicity of the game means that, as far as I can tell, the same basic strategy will carry you to victory on every map, although that doesn't make using it any less satisfying. Only five scenarios are included with the game, which are all much like each other. The specific level layouts are procedurally (and randomly) generated, which means there's considerable replayability to be had, but it also means that some configurations can be significantly easier than others.

Dyson is a small download, clocking in at about 17 MB, and is available for free through the developers' website. It's a finalist in the 2009 Independent Games Festival and if tactical gameplay or procedurally generated content are your type of thing you should definitely give it a shot.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Coil

Pregnancy and survival horror - together at last? Coil is a game about pregnancy, violation, and horrible user interfaces. It's from Edmund McMillen, the controversial creator of Gish, Aether and C*nt, among others.

Coil tells its story in much the same way as Braid. The game is broken down into a handful of short stages, each of which is preceded by a snippet of emotive prose. Every stage has different gameplay and is themed around an aspect of pregnancy, from the fertilisation of an egg through to the growth of a foetus. A dark and horrific tone is applied to the proceedings throughout, and you're warned that some readers may find the game offensive or disturbing.

The chief innovation is that the game is controlled entirely through the movement of the mouse. You don't need to hit keys or click buttons - simple mouse movements are all you need to progress. Although the movements are very graceful once you've worked them out, deciphering them in the first place can be a nun-punchingly frustrating task. The user interface is, to put it bluntly, horrid.

As an example, the bits of text presented between levels look a lot like what we've been conditioned to see as a loading screen. It can take a lot of waiting to realise that the only way to progress is to move the mouse cursor in wide circles. You can do this by accident, allowing you to get past a couple of these transitions without realising it was your own agency that prompted the change.

To be fair, this appears to be a deliberate design decision. Coil bills itself as "a game without instruction or clear direction", which to me was initially interesting but upon reflection is probably as bad an idea as it sounds.

Like most of McMillen's games, Coil looks gorgeous. The subdued colours and elegant animations present a soothing contrast to the unsettling themes. And if the gameplay is, on the whole, a bit rubbish, you can at least be thankful that the experience is short and focused.

Coil is a finalist in the 2009 Independent Games Festival and is worth seeing whether you like it or loathe it. It's available through Armor Games and Kongregate and I urge you to go check it out now.

Mightier

Giant space laser?  What's not to love?Sometimes people come up with a really original game that is just too damn much work to actually play. Mightier is such a game, and I'm going to admit that the thought of actually interacting with the thing in a meaningful way leaves me so exhausted I can't even summon the strength to start downloading it.

You might be more enthusiastic though, and if you are you'll have to tell me how it goes.

You'll find the game via its developer, Ratloop (link). Mightier is a puzzle 3D platformer that involves jumping around and collecting "datagons". The catch is that you'll be designing the levels yourself, to an extent. On each level you can print out the level elements - through your actual real-life printer - and then get busy with a dark pen on the page thus printed. You scribble down some lines, scan the page back into your computer, and hey presto, a giant space laser carves your artwork into the face of the level, thus creating new platforms to allow you to reach new datagons.

Seriously? Print every level, and then scan it back in? The awesomeness is matched only by the unfeasibility. Not only do I have to have two fairly bulky peripherals plugged into my computer to play this game, but I'll have to wait for their epochal print and scan cycles to complete for each and every level.

There's apparently the ability to circumvent all that technowhatsitry by drawing in-game with your mouse. I'm not sure why that's not the default option; possibly if someone plays the thing they can enlighten me. Or you can press your webcam into service as a half-arsed scanner and hold your pictures up in front of it, although that will apparently required your printer to be one of the colour variety.

As a neat side note, you can also create your own avatar using your drawing skillz, much like Drawn to Life, except that in Mightier your creation will animate in three dimensions.

I strongly advise someone to go do my legwork and play this beastie. Remember, printers are just like a C64 joystick only with more buttons. Submit your results in the comments section.

Once again, you can obtain Mightier via the official Ratloop site. It's a free download for the PC, and it's a finalist in this year's Independent Games Festival.

Independent Games Festival Finalists

If only Edmund McMillen's games were as fun to play as they are to look at.What the hell is going on? In previous years, the Independent Games Festival (IGF) would announce their finalists, and I'd be quite happy to realise that I'd neither played nor heard of a single name on the list. That's how you knew they were independent, and it was exactly the way the world is supposed to work.

This year I'm on first-name terms with half the list and I've played a sizeable chunk of it. Am I just getting more widely-read, or is the IGF getting more mainstream?

Seumas McNally Grand Prize
* Blueberry Garden
* CarneyVale Showtime
* Dyson
* Night Game
* Osmos

Excellence in Visual Art
* Cletus Clay
* FEIST
* Machinarium
* PixelJunk Eden
* Zeno Clash

Excellence in Audio
* Blueberry Garden
* BrainPipe
* Musaic Box
* PixelJunk Eden
* Retro/Grade

Excellence in Design
* Musaic Box
* Night Game
* Osmos
* Retro/Grade
* Snapshot

Innovation Award
* Between
* Coil
* The Graveyard
* Mightier
* You Have To Burn The Rope

Technical Excellence
* Cortex Command
* IncrediBots
* The Maw
* Osmos
* PixelJunk Eden

I might highlight some of the games over the next couple of days but in the mean time you can get the full announcement and game descriptions at the IGF site (link). And, in all fairness, my attention was drawn to the announcement by Kotaku (link).

EDIT: I think possibly the difference is that this year most of the games involved are finished games. In previous years the IGF has been happy to acccept prototypes or games still in development; for example, Braid picked up an award in 2006, a good two years before it came out, while Castle Crashers scored one in '07.

Sixty Thousand

Last night the hit counter rolled over to 60,000. That's sixty thousand unique hits since 26 July 2006. More importantly, it's 30,000 since July 2008. It's still relatively small traffic, but it's an improvement.

What doesn't show up in that number is the people reading via the LiveJournal feed and the people who read via RSS. There's 20-odd LJ people, and I have no idea how many more on RSS. If you're reading, why don't you leave a comment on this post to let me know you're out there?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

On Pre-Painted Miniatures

Oni smash!
I've been putting finishes on my own gaming pieces for years, but I have to say that when you can get eight pre-painted miniatures of this quality in a box at a cost somewhere between $1.25 and $2.75 AUD a figure it's really hard to see why I'd ever go back to unpainted metal.

The Oni above is courtesy of D&D Miniatures, which is pretty lacklustre as wargames go but is an excellent way of stocking up accessories for a tabletop 4th Edition game. Sadly the packs are randomised to enhance "collectability" so if you're looking to quickly make up a squad of kobolds you'll need to go trawling the internet for speciality dealers. I can't for the life of me understand why Wizards of the Coast aren't selling "goblin warband" boxed sets and suchlike.

New Magna Carta for 360

Compare and contrast.  On the PS2 this was the game to play after you finished the couple of hundred good JRPGs on the system.  Released for the 360, it would probably be jockeying for top spot in its genre.For the benefit of the only person I know who has played or, indeed, heard of the PS2 RPG Magna Carta, I alert you that Destructoid are reporting a new iteration of that franchise heading for the 360 at some point in the future.

Yay?

The New Retro

Ye Olde Pac-Gentleman.  Somehow less clunky than the original game.Space Invaders T-shirts don't cut it any more. The wave of 70s gaming nostalgia has passed and we've all realised that actually the original Donkey Kong was a bit shit. There's only so many times we can tell people that the princess is in another castle before we notice that no-one's laughing, and I can tell you that that happened some time last March.

We need the New Retro. We need a fresh way of reminding everyone that we were there when Al Gore invented the internet, handing him a screwdriver. Our geek cred is in the balance and as cool as it is to remix the Metroid theme out of the mewls of dying cats it's just not the pinnacle of our culture any more.

So here it is: the New Retro, with a helpful timeline of when, exactly, it will become cool. So as to let you beat the trend.

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1) Dial-up modems - 12 months from now

Doesn't it already seem quaint? The idea of pushing data down a telephonic connection through the intermediary of an acoustically coupled modulator-demodulator? It's practically like making difference engines communicate with two cans and a piece of string. People back in those prehistoric times had their own quaint lingo. Try saying it: baud. Baud. It's like another world.

2) BASIC - 12 months from now

GOTO jokes never get old. The Beginnner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code is a source of do-it-yourself comedy that never runs dry, much like a geeky Horn of Plenty. (Geekier?) The number of situations that can be made funnier with a well-structured IF/THEN pun is so high as to be greater than the maximum valid length of A$. I dare you to prove me wrong.

3) Obsolete download protocols - 18 months from now

Start casually dropping references now to reap big social dividends later. For example, make it clear that you are on first name terms with Archie, a system which is not only obsolete but which allows you to search for content which is obsolete. Also, you should absolutely mention that this flash-in-a-pan "world wide web" has yet to catch up to where Gopher was in 1993.

4) The X-Files - 18 months from now

I will bet you small sums of cash that there are, in Hollywood right now, people shopping around the idea of an X-Files reboot. They have been there since approximately when the latest movie went into development and they are using words like reimagining and cross-generational appeal and Zac Efron as Mulder. Right now they are finding little traction but in in about 18 months we'll all have stopped remembering how crap The X-Files was and started remembering how awesome The X-Files was.

5) Space flight sims - two years from now

We've had our romance with the side-scrolling platformer, with the shmup, and with the point-n-click adventure. Now space flight sims get their turn in the sun. Bone up on the original Wing Commander and you will be a guaranteed hit with the ladies. How many missiles does it take to destroy a Dralthi? 1.4, motherfuckers. Compare that to seven direct laser hits on the same vessel.

6) The Dewey Decimal System - two years from now

This is the next big meme. It may have taken approximately 134 years to catch on but suddenly people are going to be dropping this baby everywhere. Geeks should get T-shirts reading "004-006", and being fired will be referred to as "getting filed under 040". It will be cool to know that phrenology gets a whole classification to itself under 139 and uncool to not understand cat macros annotated with "599.003 is 003".

7) Old webcomics - two years from now

We all stopped quoting Sluggy Freelance for comic effect about seven years ago. Now things have come full circle and it's time to begin quoting Sluggy Freelance for ironic effect. (I am about a year off from the joke being topical - but finally in the right direction.) Dropping references to PvP will no longer be tired but will instead be a subtle kind of wit reserved only for the best and most discerning of veteran webcrawlers. Unlikely, I know, but nevertheless scarily true.

8) Japanese dating sims - three years from now

Playing a hentai / ecchi title? Kind of embarassing. Knowing the history of the hentai / ecchi genre in meticulous detail, down to the minutiae of translation artefacts? Possibly even more embarassing - but not in three years! Mark my words, in 2012 being able to reference True Love 95 will make you "quite the hit" at social gatherings. Start getting your Three Sisters quotes onto cheap T-shirts now to reap the coming financial whirlwind.

9) Reboot - three years from now

The problem with the younger generation is that they grow up and then they think that the pop culture of their childhood is somehow as important and valid as the pop culture of your childhood. This is a scientifically verifiable lie but that's not going to stop those early 90s babies stomping all over the internet with their particular afternoon cartoon fandoms. Just when we're blessedly forgetting the likes of Kim Possible and SpongeBob Squarepants, every crappy 90s cartoon and its dog is going to get the retro treatment. One of the few bright sparks in this stygian sky will be a re-enthusiasm for the CGI trailblazer Reboot, so if you have relevant merchandising you should probably hang on to it with a scarily earnest death-grip.

10) Snakes On A Plane - four years from now

Snakes on a Plane. You may have taken this movie as a joke at the time, but its cult following will only grow in size and momentum. I predict that by 2012 New Line Cinema will finally cave in and allow director David Ellis to make the second and third movies in his planned epic trilogy, bringing the mythic arc of the first film full circle and delivering the closure that the cinema-going public deserve. Because, really, have any of us actually had enough of these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane? I know I haven't!
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So there you have it - the New Retro. As with all my posts, you should probably pay to get this one graven in bronze and installed in a prominent place in your town square. I accept thanks by way of cash, goods, and the adulation of the masses. Feel free to tell me if you think there's some upcoming retro that I've somehow missed, too.