Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best and Worst of 2011 – Games Journalism Edition

Great games journalism pieces are not few and far between. If you look hard enough, if you read more than the standard press release rehashes, and if you dig a little deeper there are writers out there who are surpassing the quick news hits that lie on the surface of games journalism.

Here are the best and worst pieces of this year.


Level with me

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has been hosting a series of interviews conducted by game developer Robert “Radiator” Yang, and every one of them is brilliant. Just a few weeks ago they reached the climax of the interviews, a combined effort by all the interviewees to create a level in Portal 2. Having played it myself, I can see each of the interview subjects influences, particular method of game development, and signatures in each environment.

Who’s been interviewed? Dear Esther creator Dan Pinchbeck, Design Reboot’s Jack “Gauss” Monahan, former Grin Level Designer Magnar Jenssen, Blendo Games’ Brendon Chung, Stanley Parable creator Davey Wreden, Proteus creator Ed Key, and Kairo developer Richard Perrin. You don’t see this kind of active games journalism too often.

It has to do with scope.

Good games journalism is about interesting content and hearing voices from the community talk about games. Doing this kind of journalism is informative and it appeals to a base who wants to know what modern-day innovators are doing with game design. Furthering this each interviewee helped to design a level that showcases their talents and their ideas. Their interviews were virtually manifested into a video game, the very medium they are discussing. This is active, constructive, revolutionary games journalism. And they’re damn good reads.


Steal this look - I Got My Fashion Sense from Video Games (And You Can, Too!)

I really want to qualify 2011’s worst piece of gaming journalism before talking about it. The question that has stuck with me while reading Tim Roger’s article I Got My Fashion Sense from Video Games (And You Can, Too!) is whether or not he was writing tongue and cheek, you know, ironically. It could be said that it’s a deductive piece about living a video game flushed life, but it begs a serious question:

Are we supposed to take the article seriously?

That’s probably the most unnerving part of his article, you just don’t know where he’s coming from. Rogers is a video game journalist who’s written articles on topics like how he hated living in Japan and different aspects of game culture. His article is in no way poorly written – a few mistakes here or there, but it suffers from not really say anything. It’s one thing to write an article that comments on specific aspects of gaming culture like clothing, but to write something like this, perhaps ironically in order to get hits and comments, is just wrong.

A lot of bulk journalism is about getting hits, about getting the information out first even if it’s wrong or if it’s meant to instigate flame wars. It makes me wonder if Kotaku publishes Roger’s articles because they know it’ll get people commenting and passing it along to other readers. It’s at once a-sort-of interesting piece and it’s a hit grabber made to publicize something no one really cares about. It doesn’t say anything, and how can we take it seriously when it makes games journalism look like an exercise in editorial narcissism?

Am I wrong about this being the worst piece of games journalism of 2011. Probably yes, but it pales in comparison to the efforts made by Rock, Paper, Shotgun above.


That is it for the best and the worst games journalism of 2011. Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Radiator Yang did an amazing job of interviewing and involving level designers in their journalistic efforts. Tim Rogers did an amazing job of writing a damned long article that was actually pretty funny in some parts. And $35 dollar underwear is comfortable, but a luxury no one should be able to afford.

Oh, and take a look at this runner-up piece of crap example of games journalism for the lulz:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic the fastest growing Subscription-Based MMORPG ever

After opening their servers just this past Tuesday, Star Wars: The Old Republic has received over one million new subscriptions making it the fastest growing MMORPG in history.

According to a press release on the SWOTOR site there have been to date:

  • Over 60 million in-game hours – roughly equivalent to watching all six Star Wars movies over 4 million times
  • Over 850,000 Sith Warriors and over 810,000 Jedi Knights created
  • Over 260 million quests completed
  • Over 44 million PvP battles
  • Over 9 million space combat missions completed
  • Over 3 billion NPCs killed

With the purchase of the game comes 30 free days of access to the servers, but after that trial period is up it's going to cost you $14.99 per month, $41.99 per three months, and whopping $77.94 for six months. It's no different than other MMORPGs like World or War Craft (which SWOTOR stole the title of fastest growing MMORPG from) that charges about the same, but there might be a dip in the number of users after the 30 day trial is up.

It's a good sign for Bioware's latest game since the numbers have shown quite a significant increase since early release. But we can't forget that there have been some casualties in this event. Sony Entertainment Online's Star Wars Galaxies ran for over eight years opening their servers June of 2003 and closing their doors just two weeks ago.

The old vanguard of Star Wars Galaxies has lost a home, but perhaps they've found another in the Old Republic.

Community Trolling: Half-Life 3

The t-shirt you see here has been causing quite a stir online. According to Uber Entertainment game developer Chandana Ekanayake, he saw the shirt at a local game development event being worn by a Valve employee. No one can confirm if the shirt is real, where it was made, or if this is nothing more than a slightly elaborate case of trolling on Ekanayake or someone's part.

To put it simply, we are desperate enough for any information about Half-Life 3 that we'll believe, even for a split-second, anything at this point is a sign.

The entire gaming community, or at least a fairly large part, has been waiting for Valve to give us even the slightest hint at a new iteration of the series that we're looking to almost anything as proof of its existence. For instance, this website appeared only a few days ago sating some of the rumorlust we're all feeling. It's obviously a fake site run by someone out to troll people who want facts, who want an image, who want the slightest of confirmation that the game is in development.

Valve' s Chet Faliszek put an end to all the rumors saying, "This is the community trolling the community nothing more."

It doesn't help that so little information about Half-Life 3 has been revealed. Around this time last year Game Informer - bosom buddies with Valve - gave us a tidbit of information with this post. And again this year there was speculation that Wheatley's VGA's nomination speech had slight hints at Valve's new title. This year a host of websites and rumors have been plaguing news feeds with some saying that Co-founder of Valve Gabe Newell was overheard telling certain employees to start leaking information.

To this Newell had this to say to Gaming Bolt who messaged him after these new rumors arose: No.

More rumors are sure to arise over the next few months and speculation about Valve's new titles will keep us all on our toes. With all of the demand for a new Half-Life game being so out in the open, Valve is almost obligated to keep delaying until the very end to build us to the peak of suspense.

Let's just hope we get something soon, and not an announcement of a reboot of Ricochet, though that might be cool.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Last Guardian, Video Games Last Best Hope

Fumito Ueda was the last best hope for video games, and now that he's gone it feels like all is lost. Well he's still on contract with Sony and slated to complete his latest project, but it's still an ominous sign of things to come. In hindsight (two minutes worth of reading) that seemed like a kind of unqualified statement to make, but you have to look at the facts. Shadow of the Colossus, his creation, brought about the end of the previous age of consoles, and it brought in developments and a scale in video game design never seen before. The game introduced the idea of "flow" into video game design where all elements successfully mesh together to create a fluid experience. Ueda did so much to elevate where the video game medium stood as an art form. And now that the Last Guardian has been put in a limbo what could have brought about the next age of gaming is now in peril.

I know that a video game is not solely the creation of one person, but the influence Ueda has had on video game design can't be argued with. Ueda was born in Japan in 1970. In 1993, he graduated from Osaka University of the Arts and in 1995, he began to pursue a career in video game design. His first big title was Ico, a game where you play as a young boy who tries to save a princess. He had worked in the games industry before on projects including Enemy Zero where he worked as an animator. But it's when he started working with Sony his career took off. Ico is a kind of pure experience, a boy-meets-girl where the innocence of their relationship is highlighted by a simple tale and a difference in their ages. It created an experience highlighted by the communication between the two characters. The act of holding hands, slight gestures, small sounds between them created a relationship rarely seen in games.

It was something revolutionary and I encourage you to read Count to Ten in Kill Screen Magazine if you can get your hands on a copy, or at least I think that's the article. Regardless other people have articulated their thoughts about Ico, but were here to talk about an entirely different game.

In 2005, Sony released Shadow of the Colossus. I've struggled with one giant gaping aspect of this game. A lot of people talk about it, few people actually play the entire game. I'm one of those people. I cite the game for its story, for the technology it used, for ushering in the end of a console generation, for changing everything in video games without having a true understanding about what makes it such an amazing experience. It's something ultimately subjective, but it's a game that has such an impact on the community at large. There's a moment right at the start of the game - I played that much - where you begin to realize this isn't going to be a Zelda-like experience. There's something about the princess lying frozen on the altar, the feathers flowing in through the open temple, the giant monolithic statues standing in the back ominously resembling the bosses to come, and Agro being one of the most life-like creations you've ever seen.

There's a moment when you step out into the music-less field trying to reign in Agro from throwing you off that something clicks about the experience. "There is nothing like Shadow of the Colossus." It's a statement surely you've heard, one that's been said over and over from 2005 to 2011. And it's a true statement. No game has come even close to resembling the kind of experience you find in Shadow of the Colossus.


I could tell you stories about fighting the first bosses of the game. How it felt to see their lifeless, innocent bodies fall to the ground in a heap. I could tell you about how the story builds Wander - the protagonist - as a character through his slow decline into becoming one of the colossi by desiring to save a condemned maiden. How, like a gamer, his lust for a happy ending eventually leads to his own reincarnation as a child. Yet there's one aspect of the game I want to discuss more than anything else.

It has to do with trust.

We're going to deviate from Shadow of the Colossus just a little here. If you've ever played a Zelda title you know that in most dungeons, in most boss areas you receive a specific item that helps you progress forward. There's an inherent lack of trust in this kind of game design. It's meant to stymie your progression in the game to ensure you get the full experience. You can in Zelda 64 play the entire game without picking up a heart piece or heart container. It'll leave you at a serious disadvantage, but if you chose to play the game like that it'll punish you for it. Fill up your bottles with fairies if that's your choice, you've insulted the game mechanics and you'll be punished for it. Don't expect an easy time. That aside aside, what each new item allows you beat the boss. Each new item allows you access the next area. It's a good form of game design as it keeps you in the experience ever moving forward, but it's not one that trusts you as a player.

In Shadow of the Colossus they give you a bow, your horse, a sword, and the ability to climb. They trust you enough to use the items given to you to beat each boss that comes your way. We have to qualify what trust really means in this context. When you were younger, did your parents ever let you stay at home by yourself? Being 20 years old means that only 4 years ago that could have been considered a kind of legal offence (psh, Canada) if they left me unattended for that amount of time, and they did. They trusted me to keep myself safe inside of a house full of dangers. They understood that I was mature enough, responsible enough, apt enough to consider all of my options before opening a can of soup with a chainsaw. It's almost, but not quite, the same thing with Shadow of the Colossus. What it gives the players is the agency to explore the game's mechanics without having your hand held. This also gives way to the natural flow of the experience.

When the second Colossi swoops down at you what is your first reaction? It's to jump and hold onto its wing. What a marvelous feeling. My brother and I yelped when we first accomplished this feat in the game. It felt like such a natural next step in mounting him. And it's more than just seeing his wing coming towards you and figuring out that you have to grab onto it. Before you fight the second colossi, you're introduced to the concept by the slow, sluggish first boss. Compared to the rest of the game, it is probably the easiest level to face. The game gives you a small tutorial on how to climb by making you scale the wall that leads to its domain. When you reach the boss and you see that there are structure all around its body, your brain automatically tells you that you have to climb to defeat it. There is a little hand holding by the game when it tells you to aim for the highlighted spot on its body, but on the whole you're left to your own devices to succeed or fail.

What's important is this: during the intervening period of fighting the first boss and travelling to the second, the player becomes so entwined with the experience that a natural evolution in the understanding of the game's mechanics occurs. You get better at the game. The player has gone from being an intermediately skilled player to flying on the wing of a giant colossi. This is the "flow" of the experience. It's one of the reasons why Shadow of the Colossus is such a successful game. The learning curve is basically non-existent. What you are given is a literal boss in a level that you have to defeat, and you do it through intuition, through skill, and through an understanding of the game's core mechanics.

It might be easy to say that this kind of progression comes naturally to all games. In general, perhaps that's right. If we look at something like Tetris the more we play the deeper our relationship to the tetrominoes becomes, and thus we learn how they all fit together until we're like this. Well maybe not like that, but you get the point. There's a natural progression of the skill to difficulty ratio that exists in Shadow of the Colossus. The game isn't above making things difficult for you, but you are expected to solve the puzzles given to you using one set of items. There are times when the bosses can be frustrating. For instance, it took about 30 minutes to figure out you had to shoot Turtle Colossi in the foot to get it to fall over. The game doesn't hold you hand by placing a weapon that you can use to defeat the boss. It makes you think. This isn't something that is seem in a lot of games today. Tutorial levels are the main instigators of hardcore gaming's ire, and there's a lot of anger about their overuse.

Trust in a video game - like in how you can trust Agro never to run away - comes from a natural understanding of the relationship between the player and the game. It comes from a design that does not cater to the player, but expects them to master its mechanics. This is something that makes Shadow of the Colossus unique. There are limitations imposed onto the player, but never conscious of this he or she will attempt to use their equipment and intuition to defeat each colossi.

There's something mystical about the game that no player can really put their finger on. The story in the game is a take on the classic Hero's Journey. It starts in media res knowing that Wander has already committed himself to the quest by taking the sword and the princess. His supernatural aid allows guides him to the colossi who stand as the perils he must face to save the girl. And when Wander becomes the massive, black colossi he becomes the master of the two words entering into a transcendental state where he's more than a being with a sword, a bow, and a horse, and becomes part of the game's structure itself. You become a colossi, and when you are eventually defeated you are reborn as a child. This final act of purification along with the return of the princess leaves Wander in a state of neither anticipating the future or fearing for his past sins. He's placed on a clean slate and given a chance to start anew.

This monomyth can be traced throughout video games. Mario, for instance, is a clear example of how the hero's journey can be found in the medium. He enters into the Mushroom Kingdom looking for Princess Peach because she'e been kidnapped by Bowser, an evil force beyond Mario's control. He uses special items like fire flowers, star men, and mushrooms to aid in his journey across countless worlds until he saves the princess and leaves with her. It's a classic story found in countless games, yet the story in Shadow of the Colossus sticks with us because of its brevity, because of its sparse nature. There was such an opportunity in Shadow of the Colossus to include a massive, complex story that it seems almost cruel to impose such a rigid narrative structure on the player. It almost feels like the monomyth is detrimental to the game.


Simple narrative design can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing. A game like Dark Souls, for example, begs so many questions with its sparse narrative. We don't have any real impetus to begin our quest other than a weird feeling that we're supposed to be doing something. There's nothing really to fight for. In Shadow of the Colossus, we are given a few minutes of expository video and we're shown the personal connection Wander has with the girl. If you've played Ico, the player is given an added awareness of the importance Ueda places on relationships in his games. As we progress through the story, as we kill the colossi one by one, Wander becomes more and more corrupted, yet we push him on to complete the game. In a way, we become the driving force looking for an ending to the story. In Dark Souls, we play the same role pushing our character forward death after death, but we're fighting only to his or her end. This is the downside of a simple narrative. Without the proper impetus, without that few minutes of personality in your character the player forgets to invest him or herself into them.

This is a criticism you could make about Shadow of the Colossus. What does the story really say other than being an interpretation of the hero myth? Wander's character represents the idea of the hero within video game narratives. He's brave enough to try to save the princess, but he's doing so in a way meant to bring about something unnatural. It's his desire to see her brought back to life that ultimately makes him sacrifice his own. He's punished being put back into the body of a child under the care of someone else. Here you could make a commentary about what the monomyth really entails. Joseph Campbell's interpretation tells the tale of the altruistic hero saving a girl from a horrible fate. Shadow of the Colossus, without the context of the monomyth, could portray Wander as a kind of vagrant stealing away the girl while trying to redeem himself. In this way you can't really know what his motivation as a character really is. Did he want to be corrupted to kill the pursuing priests? Was the relationship between him and Agro meant to evoke empathy from the player for a anti-hero?

Wander mercilessly cuts down the colossi without questioning the mystic voice that speaks to him. Without even attempting to save her by any other means, he sets himself up as a heroic/reckless hero. Some would argue that Shadow of the Colossus has a minimalist story. That it's meant to stay out of the way of the game's mechanics to help expose the inner beauty of the experience itself. While it's true that Ueda's game are kept deliberately simple, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus having fairly sparse narratives, this lack of complexity is detrimental to the overall experience. There's an argument that if an overly complex story had been added to the game it would have ruined the experience. Zelda 64 is the game that it is, being called perfect by some, because of the story. It's because of the hero's quest as presented by the game that is succeeded as a video game. Shadow of the Colossus was kept deliberately, maybe as a commentary on the hero myth, but it's never quite clear why.

Ueda's style as a game developer/storyteller is to keep his projects mired in vagaries. There's never a time when you can say, "This is what's happening because 100 years ago this happened, and here's an entire history that explains everything." That's simply not his style, nor would fans of the game want something like that. The ambiguities left in the game give it an esoteric feel like there's something deeper going on outside of the game world. It's as if Ueda has kept us in the dark to keep us guessing about Wander's story.

In the few paragraphs above it feels like I've attacked this kind of storytelling in video games. In some instances it can be an interesting choice to use this archetypal narrative design. For instance, No More Heroes' semi-protagonist Travis Touchdown follows the monomyth, but deviates continually from the path. A character like Mario never stops to use the washroom right in the middle of the quest. Travis does. There are other, more interesting aspects on how Travis comments on the nature of storytelling in games like how he addresses the player, has inner monologues, doubts his quest, and leaves us with an anti-climax.

Shadow of the Colossus with its aesthetic beauty and complex game design leaves out a message, a commentary from its story. It's something that a lot of people leave out of their analyses of the game. Video games should always attempt to say something even if it is something simple or a small commentary about the nature of story telling. The vagaries surrounding the world of Colossi are beautifully maintained in and of themselves, but they don't lend themselves well to complex storytelling. Storytelling, in general, is still something video games need to work on. The simplicity of Shadow of Colossus' story is what people really enjoy. It's a boy-meets-girl-meets-colossi-meets-best-game-of-the-decade, but it could benefit from development. Going against the archetypal grain, saying something about how the monomyth is overused in video game narratives, and saying something is an important way The Last Guardian could help save gaming.

And now we're at the focus of the article and in about 3,000 words, oh god. The Last Guardian or Hitokui no ĹŚwashi Trico as its known in Japan first appeared at TGS 2009 in this trailer. It left me feeling all jittery when I first watched anticipating the innovations to come. At E3 2009 this trailer, showing a more completed version of the game, appeared. The game, like the characters in the trailer, had gone through a significant evolution showing that development of The Last Guardian was still being developed. Take a look at this (third link sorry) interview conducted at TGS that year. This quote is what's important to the development of his latest project, "I think it’s possible to make it even more artistic. But because it’s a video game, those possibilities have been subdued somewhat — it’s a game." I shudder to bring the video games as art argument into this article, but here we go.

What is it exactly that makes Shadow of the Colossus a work of art? The environments. Expansive in their scale and deliberate in their design, the world created around Wander is inspired by traditional video game design and the real world's natural beauty. We enter into the Forbidden Land with a sense of awe about the size of the temple, the breadth of the land we have to travel over, and the minute details hidden away for us to find. The hub world design, as well, is a hallmark design of games and one that's seemlessly intergrated into Shadow of the Colossus. Agro. Literally the most realistic animal in all of video games, Wander's horse Agro is absolutely fluid in his design, in the way he moves, and how he acts as a agent within the game. Art, in some definitions, is about imitating life. Even the colossi, virtual strangers to the real world, have a system of movements that make them so lifelike that melancholy overwhelms you when their lifeless bodies slump to the ground. Inspiration. I've written more about Shadow of the Colossus, referenced it as a work of art, and as an example of good video game design more times than I can count. Articles upon articles have been written about the game describing how it changed the way modern game developers look at animation and design.

All these reasons, are they legitimate enough to say Shadow of the Colossus can be considered art? Ueda considers a work of art to be something that inspires a person, something that evokes thought. If we go by this definition of art then all video games could be considered works of art as each could elicit even the faintest hint of this feeling. Duke Nukem Forever is not art, but by the Ueda's account it could be categorized in the same way as his game. Even in the interview linked above, he's flattered that some writers even consider his game a work or art and inquires what parts about the game they consider to be artful. This in no way means Ueda considers his game anything but a work or art, but what's the difference when he says "Arty" and "Art"?

Video games, as a whole, have been kept under the foot of people scared of what a medium "designed for children" can express. It's this feeling that kept Six Days in Fallujah from being made. It's this feeling that put video games before the United States Congress during the summer, a battle we won, calling out the medium's "violent nature". It's this feeling that made a news channel I won't even bother naming make Mass Effect sound like a hardcore, pornographic video game. There is fear in public at large that if video games start to say something, if they start to have messages in them like installation art, like film, television, or theater that their children will be targeted. It's this feeling that keeps video game developers from taking risks. Name the last time a triple A budget video game has challenged your way of thinking about the world? I can name possibly one game in the past five years that has been released outside of the indie game scene that has made me think. It's simply the truth that the video game medium is not like film. We don't get commercial works that break the surface like Inception or Drive that really make us think. It's because there's a fear on part of the developer that the 13-year-old demographic they target won't get the experience and thus won't buy the console.

Yet it's more than just having a well-funded avant-garde of video game developer it's about changing the connection we share with our games. This is something that The Last Guardian could potentially help alleviate. Over the past decade video games have progressed to the point where the technical capacity of game development studios finally rival all other commercial art forms. Developments like mega textures (RAGE), real time lighting (Crysis), daring cinematography in games (Kane and Lynch: Dog Days), complex narrative structures (Deadly Premonition), and budgeting (L.A. Noire) mean that we have a base structure for creating the form of art within games. There's one last development that video games have to undergo before they can truly be considered a unique art form. They need to be able to create life.

Animation is still a major issue in traversing the uncanny valley in video games. For instance, creating characters with eyes that follow you instead of staying in one static position is a minute detail that most games get entirely wrong. Half-Life 2 was able to pull it off with characters like Alyx Vance looking at you, and not staring into your soul like the characters of Skyrim. Life is about instilling energy into the characters around you. If we look at Ueda's canon of games so far we see two major developments. In Ico, he introduced the concept of holding hands through a dynamic connection between the two characters. The further Ico gets away the faster the girl runs to catch up with him. This created an actual, physical relationship between the two character within the experience. It seems like a small development, but you have to look at how flexible the mechanic had to be to successfully emulate the feeling of holding hand with someone. In Shadow of the Colossus, he introduced not only a climbing mechanic, which is the most robust aspect of the game, he also introduced an animation system that help gave the colossi a sense of scale.

When you mount the first colossi, Wander can easily be thrown off or knocked off by the force it exerts. The player enters into his domain and quickly realizes that even though the colossi is a giant opponent it is extremely agile because of its scale. This is one aspect of the game design that only Shadow of the Colossus has ever achieved. For instance, God of War has big bosses that rival the colossi in scale, but there's something about them that fail to achieve the same size. It has to do with the protagonist's relationship to the boss. Wander is feeble, yet with the power of the sword he's able to attack the colossi's weak spots to eventually defeat them. Though you have this mystical aid, you never quite feel that you're in control of the situation. The first boss in the game, if you stay on long enough, will begin to shake its body violently to get you off. It's like when you have an ant crawling up your arm and your first instinct is to wipe it off. In God of War, angry guy runs up the arm of the boss, does a quick time event he has complete control over, and plunges a weapon into the brain of his opponent. Not for one moment is he out of control of the situation or fighting an enemy that is unpredictable.

Unpredictability. In a world of games built around rigid systems seeing a character who can surprise you with their actions is a rare thing to see. Shadow of the Colossus was an interesting example of a game that used scale as a means of creating this feeling of unpredictability. Players are too used to fighting linear battles, or fighting enemies with strict patterns. Wander's diminutive size automatically puts you at a disadvantage even when facing off against the smallest of the colossi, but the intuition in their design you gain by surmounting each boss gives you an unspoken advantage. You learn that even though you are smaller than them you can use their massive scale, their slow movements to your advantage. This part of the game's design is highlighted in the last part of the game when Wander transforms into a colossi. The little guys attacking you are the hardest enemies in the game, and you're lucky to hit even one of them with your giant fists. It gives you the sense of scale that each colossi projected from a first-person perspective. As well, it serves as a kind of emphatic device to show how frustrating the deaths of the colossi must have been. Size matters in games, and this was one of the ways Shadow of the Colossus was able to bring to life characters of massive proportions well.

In the trailer for The Last Guardian, we're introduced to two characters: the boy and the beast. Both characters show a level of dynamism on their own. The boy is able to pick up barrels to hit soldiers, he's able to jump and climb like Wander, he has a beautifully crafted system of animation, and he represents the same level of scale players were meant to feel in Shadow of the Colossus. He's a little kid in a adult's world, and a world that's probably full of monsters. Along with him is the beast. If you've ever owned a pet then you might know what it's like to lose them. Almost unavoidably, the beast shown protecting to the boy will die and your heartstrings will be pulled so hard they might snap. This feeling a lot of the community has echoed speaks to the expectations of the relationship that is going to be created in the game. In an interview, Ueda said that the game is anything but a pet simulator, which is a relief. There's nothing worse than having to constantly cater to a character in a video game. This also means that the connection created between you and the beast will be done through story, through building a relationship through trials seen through together. The bond between the two characters is shown when the boy (I honestly hate having to refer to him this way, but he doesn't have a name yet) fall off the cliff and the beast (same thing here I wish he or she had a name) picks him up. Already we see that there's a relationship created between the two and that they're dependent on one another to survive.

They are protecting each other because they have a meaningful connection as characters. We can gain all of this insight into who they are from three trailers. It's insane what can be packed into a short demo of the game and the speculation is can create. There are some important things we have to look at from them. The beast needs to be fed. He has to be sustained or his health needs to be maintained like any pet. The beast has to rest. What person, animal, or omnipotent, spaghetti-like being doesn't need to rest only a daily basis? It seems like a small way to instill life within the characters, but the need for sleep is something that is rarely expressed well in games. I can tell you personally that my character in Skyrim has been going for almost 150 hours without any rest. A person would die if they even came close to that kind of deprivation. They protect one another. There are moments within the trailer where the boy's running on his own through small dungeons protecting himself. This shows that there is going to be a system of scaling structures (Shadow of the Colossus) and going through dungeons alone. If we look at traditional video game design, I guess we can assume that at the end of every dungeon the boy will find something needed to unravel the game's story. As he exists, he'll be confronted by the area's boss and you'll get to be in control of the beast to fend it off. It's this which creates not only a sense of scale, but a sense of dependency for the characters. While the beast can fight other giant creatures it cannot feed itself, nor can it reach what, perhaps, it needs in every dungeon. There's a dynamic relationship between them.

Ok, now what does this all mean for creating life in games? It sounds like The Last Guardian is simply going to be a hybrid of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and that's possible. We just don't have enough information about the game to make a clear predictions about what exactly it's going to do. What I can say it this, The Last Guardian is going to create a deeper relationship between the player and the emotion associated with relationships. Already having a deep sense of who the characters are helps make this point even clearer and Ueda's portfolio of games shows a growing sense of how game mechanics, character animation systems, and design factor into creating a true-to-life story for the player. It's all speculative, but this is where Ueda's last project with Sony could take us.

It was a little heartbreaking to hear the news that Fumito Ueda was leaving Sony. It was even a little more heartbreaking to see that he's staying on as per his contract to finish The Last Guardian. It means that this could possibly be his last game of this scale, this polish we'll see in a long, long time. The growth as a developer he has shown between games was phenomenal. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are two of the most critically acclaimed video games because of the amount of detail that went into their minute aspects. Holding hands and holding on are two simple mechanics that made the games memorable as a whole, not only as standalone experiences from two different generations of game development. The Last Guardian will usher in the end of the current generation of consoles. Right now as it sits in limbo, a slight chill runs through everyone who cares about the medium being moved forward as an artistic form. What happens if the game never comes out? What happens if The Last Guardian never sees the light of day? These questions keep me awake at night.

Video games will still be there even if Ueda's last project is never released. He's done so much to help elevate video games from being simple diversions into deep experiences that explore the deepest connections we have as human beings. Maybe that's what video games should do as a medium. They should provide us with perspectives, with roles, with shoes to fill. There's so much they can do with through interactivity that if The Last Guardian can instill life into its character, players could feel a real sense of responsibility for his or her experience. The death of a character will not only evoke your emotions, but your memories, your thoughts, your guilt, and your identity as an active participant within the experience. That's something video games are able to accomplish that no other medium can. They give us a window not only to look through, but a window we can open or break depending on what kind of person we are.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Character Profile: Travis Touchdown

"Everyone deals with grief differently. Some people fuck at funerals... I cut off heads." - Travis Touchdown

It's hard to analyze Travis Touchdown, the legendary assassin king of Santa Destroy. In true fourth-wall-breaking form his past and the events that led up to No More Heroes are shrouded in mystery. What we know about Travis can be surmised through the first game's intro: he's an otaku assassin, a punk paradox. He's usually out for blood to satisfy a spur of the moment urge for violence, yet it's an urge that has reason. Travis signals the end of Suda 51's series of "Kill the Past" games. A few writers have called out No More Heroes's story as a parody of video game narratives. Players saw a shift away from the abstract, intertwined plots of games like Killer 7 and Flower, Sun and Rain to a self-aware meta-narrative. That's where Travis Touchdown exists. He's a character trapped within a mature story created by a writer who continually circumvents it. Travis is constantly at odds with the author-god of his game, and it's a desperate struggle to escape.

Travis Touchdown from NMH and NMH 2 are going to be treated as separate entities. They share common character traits, but the narrative that surround the two Travis' are wildly different. While NMH's focus was on themes of "Killing the past" and memory, NMH 2's focus was shifted towards the ramification of violence and themes of revenge. I'll try my best to keep the two of them separate throughout the article and when something in common comes up I'll be sure to make note of it. Travis has shown quite a bit of character development since his debut. By all rights his character from No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle should be the one profiled, but his former self is still punk and unlike any other "protagonist" around.

Travis is constantly at odds with his sexual nature. In both games, he fights because of a promise made to him by Sylvia Christel, a United Assassins Association representative. A full course meal of sex for killing hundreds of people. Sounds like a good deal. This is the central impetus of No More Heroes, but there's another reason shrouded because of a hangover. In the first game, Travis meets Sylvia in a bar and she tells him - after he bought her a few drinks - that she can help him get the revenge he seeks. She lets him into the association, which might or might not exist, and helps him climb up the ranks. While Travis is in it for the sex, he's subconsciously seeking revenge for his parent's death. It's never said when or at what age his parents were killed. What we know is that someone scarred a young Travis, a girl not unlike Sylvia.

It's hard to say why sex is so important to Travis. It serves as a loose justification/impetus for him to reach the top of the rankings. Sex as a theme is never developed enough in No More Heroes. He's continually manipulated by Sylvia who uses her sexuality to lure him into killing, at least in the first game. What we have to look at are the base reasons why Travis fights, why he kills.

Travis in No More Heroes is green. Up until this point in his life he's never killed anyone, or at least no one that we've heard of. At the beginning of the game we get a taste of why he bought his beam katana from an online auction and why he wants to be the best.

Here’s Travis’s monologue from his tenth rank fight with Death metal:

This count, I feel as though I’m looking at my future self. Making bucks, big ass house, fast cars, dining is style with a world-class chef and a trusty nutritionist counting every calorie. A team of hot yoga instructors to keep me in shape, nurses to attend to my body, maids and loyal servants at my every beck and call. On the weekends, tan babes knocking at my door every two hours. Everyday full of excitement and luxury. That’d be the life.

Everything in its right place. It’s the perfect life. It’s the life of winners. That’ll be my life. I thirst for selflessness, hypocrites lusting for their own desire to get killed by young rookies like me. This is how it goes down, and for the old killers they’ll croak anyways.

I guess you could call this a comedy. I realize there’s nothing really here for me. But what else can I do but keep going? Maybe I should have been a little more careful before I jumped in. Gotta find the exit. Gotta find that exit to paradise. But I can’t see it. I can’t see anything. There’s this sense of doom running down my spine like it’s trying to suck the life out of me. I need to get rid of it before I bail. Something deeper… deeper than my instincts taunting me. Can’t find the exit… can’t find the exit… can’t find the exit… can’t find the exit.

Money, yoga instructors and a purpose in his comedic jaunt into the violent life of an assassin that's what Travis Touchdown wants most. All Travis can do is kill. He’s a merchant of death who has suffered due his sole purpose in life. Does he like his job? Does he enjoy his role in life? Is this just some huge prank being pulled on an otherwise redeemable character? What Sylvia offers to him - other than sex - is a way to channel his purpose within the video game experience. No More Heroes is an extremely self-aware video game. I wrote an entire article on how it breaks the fourth wall here and part 2 here, so I won't go over it in too much detail. What I will say is this, Travis Touchdown's desires begin to deteriorate as the game progresses and he lets you know that it's happening.

Like Garcian Smith Aka Emir Parkreiner in Killer 7, Travis Touchdown suffers from a multiplicity in his character. Each time he defeats a boss, Travis is given a tidbit of information, a story or a lesson that teaches him about the life he is about to enter. His dream of being at the top begins to fracture as the memories of his past return. At the climax of the game when he fights his sister Jeane, Travis recalls the events of his father's death. Though his relationship to Jeane is more a poor B-movie parody, it still serves to break his character further. The more he fights, the bloodthirstier he becomes and the more he kills, the more Travis becomes like Jeane and the "old hypocrites" he refers to in his monologue.

Maybe these lessons carried over into his three-year disappearance from Santa Destroy. The issue now is that in No More Heroes 2, Travis is confronted by the mistakes of his past and is
forced into confrontation by powers greater than the UAA.

What separates Travis from No More Heroes 2 from Travis in No More Heroes is his age, maturity and cynicism, yet you could never tell that his character changed. This is what made Desperate Struggle such a let down. Travis returns to Santa Destroy to find out that Skelter Helter, the 11th ranked assassin from the last game's brother, has killed Bishop Shidux. He's the guy who owned Beefhead video and Travis' only true friend. In a fit of rage, Travis calls up Sylvia setting up the next fight and begins a "motherfucking" war to kill whoever called out the hit on his friend. It's almost the same setup as before. There's no escape for Santa Destroy's former assassin king and he's forced into a confrontation for no reason. I guess the question is: why is Travis so affected by Bishop's death?

Throughout the first game, Travis is subjected to escalating examples of death and insanity. Thunder Ryu, his mentor, is killed. Bad Girl shows Travis how violence can lead to a life of maniac excess. Holly Summers showed him that all assassins live by a code dictated by victory and defeat. Each boss of No More Heroes foreshadows what Travis could become. Bishop's death is the unintentional result of his life as an assassin. Maybe it was the sudden nature of his demise. Maybe they had a longer relationship than other characters from his past. There are a lot of unexplained reasons why Travis feels so intensely about the death of his friend when hundred of people around him have died including his sister by his own hand. His death felt like the final straw. It's one thing to be attacked personally, but it's an entirely different thing to have your life outside of the game attacked.

The remorse Travis feels for Bishop's death is what ultimately propels him forward in No More Heroes 2. There's always the sexual impetus, which includes Shinobu Jacobs, a character I'll be talking a bit about, but it plays a smaller role in the game's narrative. The theme of revenge, the cycle of killing and death becomes the story's central focus. It's surprising that it would come into focus as Travis knows that revenge only begets more revenge. It's a lesson Travis learnt from the first game, and he's living proof of it. Near to the end of the game, Travis remembers that the main reason he became an assassin was to get revenge on his sister/childhood love Jeane for killing his parents. After fighting, maiming and killing 10 other professional assassins, he gets his vengeance and is ultimately left with nothing. What did Travis get by killing his sister? There's no emotional catharsis, he didn't win a prize, he didn't get laid, so is it any surprise that he'd try to run away? In No More Heroes 2, he's pulled back into the conflict and forced to confront, again, the cycle of violence he created by accepting Sylvia's offer.

In No More Heroes 2, Travis is confronted by another set of assassins propped up by an organization. In the new Santa Destroy, the Pizza Bat corporation has taken advantage of the bloody conflict that happened three years ago a la Mad World. They've made being an assassin more than a profession, they've made it into a sport. The new assassins that go after Travis aren't really up to par with the ones from the first game. In a small sequence before each fight, Sylvia, now working in a brothel, tells a mystery listener - it's Travis by the way - about the assassin's past. Alice Twilight, the second last boss, shows quite a bit of depth in her character. She recognizes the sick game that has been created by Pizza Bat and all she wants is to stop the cycle of violence. She embodies everything that could go wrong with being an assassin. Unlike Travis, Alice has analyzed her life and seen that it has been an endless cycle of violence, and yet she idolizes Travis.

Alice instill a new maxim in Travis. She helps him understand that whether you're an assassin, a murderer or anything in between humans bleed, they die and they suffer. Humans or even representations of humans in video games, literature and film are never worthless, and nor should they be played with like toys. It's a realization that gives Travis the most dramatic character development in the sequel. Although he has already learnt this from his first rise to the top, the fight with Alice and the subsequent lesson in humanity he receives is the most explicit message he's ever given. It is the one time Travis admits that what he is doing is wrong. And at the end of the fight, Travis vows to shut down the United Assassins Association.

What happened? Isn't that the end? Travis realized that he's wrong? Pizza Bat and the other ranked assassin organizations should be destroyed, he said it himself. Alice Twilight's last wish was that Travis would remember her. Who else said that in the series: Holly Summers from No More Heroes. Like Holly, Alice is an assassin, one that has lived a life of death by rank. Holly tells Travis that when an assassin loses they must die. For a moment, Travis matures, he learns the weight of his actions and he gains insight into the mentality of an assassin. After a brief cutscene, she kills herself leaving Travis neck-deep in regret. In a melancholic sequence after the fight, Travis carries her body to a sandpit where she is buried. What Holly said resonated with Travis and it was further emphasized by Alice's speech. These are two characters he remembers, unlike Helter Skelter. There's a convergence of themes seen here from the two games. Memory and revenge are seemingly interlocked with one another. Travis is the "No More Hero" the assassin king who walked away from the throne. After killing his sister Jeane he learns the true impact of vengeance. It creates a cycle of death. He doesn't gain anything, nor does he when he killed Holly or Alice. All he does by killing is bury himself further in a pit of sand, one he can't escape from.

After his fight with Alice Twilight, Travis has sex with Sylvia. He gets laid. It's awesome and everything that he's no longer the No More Virgin, but what's really the point? After fighting someone who made him reflect upon all of his actions as an assassin, essentially bringing back the regret he felt in killing Holly Summers, he has sex with the person who has facilitated all of the evil things he's done. This is one place where Travis' character has faltered slightly. Like the paragraph way back up there, Travis is constantly at odds with his sexual nature. After he's done, he triumphantly runs out of his apartment and yells "Downward Dog" to the whole of the city. Is it catharsis? Is it him finally being rewarded for becoming a killer? Was it all worth it? Why is that the only cutscene where we don't see him his sunglasses on? While themes of revenge and violence are most prevalent in No More Heroes 2, sex always makes it way back into the series.

Shinobu Jacobs returns in No More Heroes 2 as Travis' semi-servant. After the events of the first game, she traveled the world eventually conquering assassin tournaments in Asia. What happened between her vowing revenge on Travis and her becoming his faithful servant is never revealed, and we're left asking why she's so devoted to him. Call it a film cliche. We've seen it before when a sworn foe returns in a sequel only to become an ally. The difference with Shinobu is that she was spared by Travis. This condemned her as an assassin. As Holly Summers explained, if an assassin is defeated they have to die. To repay Travis, she devotes her life to him in a weird, unwanted sort of way. At one point she even offers her self to him because he is her "master." Why did he refuse? He said it was because it made him feel, "like that pervy teacher in a porn." There's more to it than that.

Throughout No More Heroes, Travis is confronted by hyper-sexualized male and female assassins. Every other fight he's taking on bosses getting off on giant-phallic brain vibrations - see Dr. Lentz Shake - and insane acid spitting vixens covered in bondage gear. Killing and sexuality become intertwined as thematic devices. Every time Travis returns to his apartment in the first game, someone from Beef Head video calls him up to return a number of different pornographic films. His beam katanas are basically giant, killer penis extensions that he has to jack to recharge. The overt sexual nature of No More Heroes symbols is never hidden from the player, it's pronounced. Yet when confronted by a woman's sexuality, Travis doesn't know how to react. Holly Summers, for example, calls him a pathetic example of a man because he wasn't able to kill her. Through her explanation, she de-sexualizes her character and her profession. This shows Travis that she's more than her appearance. She's a human being. Shinobu is a hyper-sexualized character, and in the second game when she comes onto Travis he relents being unable to go through with anything. Travis is sexually repressed. Why then is he able to have sex with Sylvia and not Shinobu?

What Travis showed when confronted by Shinobu was guilt. He felt that taking advantage of his "servant" made him into a perverted individual, which he has already shown to be a main character trait. Travis parades his sexuality around Sylvia continually pursuing her for the purpose of sex. He talks a big game, but when confronted by someone who has the same strong sexual desires he's affronted, scared even. Shinobu, like many of the other characters in the game, is a reflection of Travis. The master-slave relationship they have is no different than the dependence Travis shows for Sylvia. The guilt he feels when confronted by Shinobu is informed one: by his innate inadequacies in understanding his sexuality and two: by the guilt he associates his relationship with Sylvia Christel. On the promise of sex, Travis killed hundred of people. On the supposed promise of a relationship, Shinobu killed for her "master". It's complicated.

What we can take away from Travis Touchdown is this: appearances are deceiving. While he remains a big talking, macho beam saber wielding maniac deep down Travis is a disturbed and guilt ridden individual. The loose justifications he used to kill others, seeking vengeance only to create another cycle of violence and his want to escape an author created narrative make Travis one of the more complicated "protagonists" in video games today. People often look at No More Heroes' story as as kind of watered down Suda 51 experience. It isn't. No More Heroes and No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle are some of the deepest games available to international video game audiences. If you dig into the characters you can find as much depth in them as Emir Parkreiner in Killer 7 or Sumio Mondo in Flower, Sun and Rain.

No More Heroes is a series that is at the pinnacle of the self-aware video game narrative. It's an experience that knows it's a parody, but tries to circumvent whatever label is attached to it. As a "protagonist" Travis represent a video game character that has reached a kind of sentience. Throughout the series, he is confronted by characters who have already lived the game he is playing. They are just as guilt ridden as he is, and some of them want to be killed. Through Travis, the game preaches non-violence even when showing some of the most gruesome examples in video games. Like Travis himself, No More Heroes is a paradoxical entity. At once it feels like an immature series about killing, violence and assassins. It feels like a B-movie made into a video game, yet there's a depth to the experience that pulls it out of being a experience. No More Heroes is a game about the worst hero that has ever existed, and one that's one of video game's most human.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Been a while

Thought I'd give this blogging thing another shot. It's been more than a year since the last character profile went up, and I have a few new characters that require attention. To be profiled: Travis Touchdown, Commander Shepard [female], Cole Phelps, Strelok, Alyssa Ashcroft and Vincent Brookes just to name a few. I'll be trying to get as many done as I can quickly as I can!

Man it's been long since an update. I managed to create my own site, for at least a year until the subscription ran out and I'm too lazy to renew it. You can find it here, though it's pretty barren: It looks a lot nicer than Liftbot, but it's really hard to update without having access to a web publishing software used on blogs like these. I'll probably renew the URL after I get a few more profiles online!

Here's to more character profiles and articles on video game journalism. I've been interning at a magazine for the past 2 months and writing has been a constant. A serious case of carpal tunnel syndrome - nah, mostly procrastination - saw me looking to other sources to help get more writing done. Writing for a few different sites and sources gave me a bit of experience in the video game journalism beat. I'm still green, but everyone has to start somewhere with their criticism and observations.

We'll see how this thing turns out and if I have the stamina to do as much writing as promised!