Archive for June, 2012
Despite the game industry’s fascination with big names, the influence a single designer, even one as prestigious as Jade Raymond, Sid Meier or Michel Ancel, has on a multi-million dollar title is minimal. The glossy triple A games of today are collaborative efforts of hundreds and hundreds of people, and while this has done wonders for the games’ polishing, their ability to express an individual, personal thought, idea or emotion has dropped in indirect proportion to the ever-growing size of development teams.
This expressive side of the industry is now often seen as the realm of the growing indie scene, smaller teams and bedroom developers that have given us wonderful games such as Audiosurf, Osmos or Limbo. Sipping moccacinos at some coffeeshop, Macbook in tow, these people spend their days carving art out of magical obsidian and their nights dreaming up new gameplay ideas to pursue, or at least that seems to be the rather romantic view the larger gaming audience has on the indie process. But what is it really like to conceive and create a game of your own, on your own? To make something this deeply personal and hold it up for public appraisal?
With the crowd-funded documentary Indie Game: The Movie, first time film-making duo Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky set about answering these questions with an in-depth look at the people behind the scenes of indie smash hits. By way of example, the film follows Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Team Meat through crunch time for Super Meat Boy and Phil Fish, as he presents his game Fez (at the time four years in the making and still in various stages of disarray) at PAX after a long public absence, while Jonathan Blow muses about his widely acclaimed mindbender Braid.
This trichotomy works well for the movie, as the three developers in question are not only stuck in different parts of the cycle, the outside interaction of promotion, media coverage and legal hassle, the deep-in-the-trenches coding and the “What now?” phase following success, but also add something through their varied personalities. McMillen and Refenes offer their own slightly weird and pessimistic, but ultimately grounded perspective. Fish, all nerves and need for appreciation, is more easily shaken by setbacks and he hides this vulnerable side behind a controversial facade. Blow, though calmer on the outside, is similarly sensitive when it comes to the reception of his work, which is shown through the amount of control he tries to exert over the creative discourse surrounding his game.
Indie Game: The Movie uses this wealth of footage to touch on more or less every problem and obstacle in the life of an indie developer: Financial troubles, karmic low blows, the frustration of shouting at the big, uncaring wall that is publishers, being so closely tied up in a project that it takes over your identity, being so closely associated with it that its eventual success or failure will be forever connected to your name, the fear of missing the forest for the trees, the nerve-racking realization that someone else is holding the legal kill-switch for your dreams. As McMillen, Refenes and Fish go through these hardships, we are presented with their raw, emotional, unfiltered feed.
We get to see them at their best, talking about design and art all starry-eyed, but we also get to see them at their psychotic worst: overworked, tired and stressed, facing a precarious future. In these moments, they make some rather crass statements, as artists are wont to do. People might take issue with some of the things that are said, but the film does well in presenting them. That is its job as a documentary, and while these moments never feel dishonest, it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes McMillen’s, Refenes’ and Fish’s words do not so much show their genuine opinions as they do serve to express a spur-of-the-moment sentiment. Hell, some of the most controversial lingo in the movie is just them using language as a coping mechanism.
Aside from some brouhaha over content, Indie Game: The Movie is almost without fault. Not only has it been blessed with rich source material, but it also makes clever use of the footage at hand, melding the experiences of three teams into a cohesive whole. Through some great structuring and editing, three personal tales have been cut to play right into each other, highlighting the transcendent message behind. Effect-driven sequences and the narrow cast of expert opinions provided can feel a bit underwhelming at times, but on the whole Indie Game: The Movie offers an insightful and heartfelt look into gaming’s auteur scene. Whether you’re into indie games or the creative process in general, this movie is well worth your time.
Games and music have always enjoyed a strong relationship. The driving 8-bit tunes of yore now live on in their own reverent, nostalgia-flavored musical genre, while memorable recent songs have managed to transcend their own products to be elevated to celebrated hallmarks of gaming culture. But as tightly woven as the connection between games and soundtracks might be, relations of power and dominance tend to be one-sided. With the possible exception of rhythm games, music in games only exists to heighten your enjoyment of the game itself: its mechanics, its set pieces, the act of play.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP goes a step further. Sword & Sworcery is less a game unto itself than it is a palate cleanser, a collection of puzzles and fights designed to heighten your enjoyment of the game’s music. Its cryptic narrative, the deliberate pauses and breaks, all is intended to get you into the right mindset to appreciate Sword & Sworcery‘s peculiar blend of rock, jazz and electronic beats.
To that end, Sword & Sworcery‘s adventure game content is broken up into four individual sessions to click, click, click your way through as you help The Scythian on her woeful errand to save the game’s forest idyll from the dark spirits of nearby Mingi Taw. Everything along the way, from fighting to puzzling to sworcery, the eponymous act of magical song, is controlled through a streamlined system of pointing, clicking and dragging, a testament to Sword & Sworcery‘s iOS origins.
Something has certainly been lost in translation to traditional mouse controls, as some of the tactile challenges of operating on a touchscreen with broad strokes have transformed into the kind of frantic clicking and hot-spot searching that adventure games are now generally reproached for. However, Sword & Sworcery‘s Steam release might also have benefitted from this transition, since the game works best in the kind of calm environment one is more likely to find in front of one’s computer screen than on the subway.
In either case, the real star of the show is not the puzzles or swordfights but the well-crafted soundtrack they are supposed to highlight. In terms of music, but also in terms of ambient sound and the use of pauses and breaks, Sword & Sworcery features stunning audio, and the structure of the game has been designed around this fact, though to varying success.
After 15 varied and melodious minutes, Sword & Sworcery‘s first session ends on a high note by taking you out of the experience and suggesting to let some time pass before you resume play to prevent oversaturation. Unfortunately, this dedication to taut structuring doesn’t continue into the game’s second act, which sends you on two virtually identical fetch quests. The progression of these two is tied to the passage of time outside of the game, and while there is a way to speed up the process if you don’t want to wait, completing the session will require some running back and forth, whether in the digital world or the real world.
As interesting as this connection to the actual physical world may be, it was unwise for Sword & Sworcery to let go of the player’s hand for such a long time, for in games as in music, timing is key. Your mileage going through this section of the game may vary considerably. Not everyone is going to see fault, or experience the amount of frustrated wandering I did, but the fact that its structure even allows for mindless backtracking is a problem for a game that thrives on novelty and variety. Not a big problem, but a problem nonetheless.
However, my complaints about Sword & Sworcery‘s less than optimal structure are easily balanced by the simple fact that its songs, in a way the game’s real content, are really, really good. There is a brief bit at the end of the first section, in which the Scythian and her companion Logfella walk back to Logfella’s hut after the first bout of adventure. As they are walking home, they start to sing and we get to hear the instrumental cover of that moment.
That moment, in a nutshell, is Sword & Sworcery. Mechanically sparse and a little coarse, but nice to listen to. The song in question is called The Prettiest Weed. If you like it, you’re probably going to like Sword & Sworcery too.
It’s been a while since my last personal update here, presumably a sign that I don’t know how to run a blog, but today I’m going to break with tradition and bore you with details of my life, personal plans and worries. Why? It’s my birthday.
I’m 21 now. Just old enough to start drinking, in some parts of the world. Funny how that turned out huh? But while I do mean to repeat last years celebratory drunken retro-gaming get-together, festivities will have to be postponed until the end of exam season. I’ve going through this semester a bit lackadaisically, ignoring most reading and assignments until the last second. Well, now is that second. While I’m not enjoying this kind of crunch time, especially in the sweltering summer heat, the workload still looks manageable, even if I might have to skip some exams now in favor of the second sitting. These kind of delays are something I could probably avoid given a little more effort, but I am trying to keep a few other projects running as well.
I ran one of these updates last year, and much has changed since then. I used to think things we’re a little weird, now I see that they’re utterly bizarre, and glorious. Case in point, the amateur critic group contest type thing I was thinking about starting has now been running for a year. Instead of getting something for myself this year, I’m orchestrating a big giveaway to celebrate the anniversary, with a prize pool of no less than 16 games provided by me and a few other generous souls. I’m going a little overboard with this, certainly, but I enjoyed the idea of my own birthday roughly coinciding with the birthday of my little pet project, and using this fact to give it a ridiculously overblown send-off. Following this indulgent internet party, I’ll leave the group in the hands of one of the many, many competent people who have been kind enough to work with me for a while. I’ve taken it about as far as it will go, and I’ll keep it in good memory as the most gratuitous thing I ever created.
That’s not to say the experience has been entirely vapid for me though, I’ve certainly learned a few things about management, how to keep a band of strangers working and most importantly I’ve met plenty of new people, some of which now ‘work’ for me. This ought to prove helpful soon.
About half a year ago, my friend Maet decided to try he could create a gaming publication using just his experience writing for a college newspaper and the group of weirdos he had met online. The result looked very promising, but work on a second issue was slow. Maet’s schedule doesn’t leave him much time to get in his contributors’ hair, and unfortunately tasks on the internet tend to be left incomplete without constant bugging. I was sad to hear of its demise, but creating something like the Guardian Force is an uphill battle and I can understand why Maet can’t put in that kind of effort. He simply doesn’t have the time. I might.
On paper, it sounds like the perfect fit. The infrastructure is already in place. Maet has kindly agreed to keep on doing layout and design if I take care of, well, pretty much everything else. I’m in regular contact with most previous contributors anyway, and I know plenty of upstarts who might like to try their hands at this. Technically, being in charge of a big amateur publication is not all that different from being in charge of a small amateur publication and still, I feel that I’m in no way qualified to run either. When Maet left the project in my hands temporarily, or when people congratulate me on the constancy of the Showcase (as they do, occasionally), I can’t help but note that people now sometimes see me as a leader, worse, a skilled leader at that, and I don’t see myself that way at all. How does this have anything to do with leadership? All I do is talk to people.
But while I still believe I’m entirely clueless and have no idea what I’m doing here, the fact hasn’t held me back in the past and it’ll be interesting to see if I can figure things out as I go. I’ve compiled a tentative plan and schedule and have started contacting some people to see if I can find regular columnists before I throw myself into the fray. If all goes as planned, I’ll be ‘officially’ announcing the ‘new’ ‘magazine’ July 1st, so keep an eye out for that.
Of course, this project might well still crash and burn, as it did in the hands of someone much more capable than I. Especially since I might be starting a regular column for a local games site soon, because one new project isn’t daring enough apparently. I’ve met the guy in charge during a Subotron talk/meetup, and while initial contact was nothing more than his passing mention that they’re looking for writers and my ludicrous claim that I was a writer, we’ve been talking a bit since and it seems that we see eye to eye on a lot of things: the indie market, the role of reviews vs. retrospectives/opinions, recent interesting developments. I said I wouldn’t mind if they told me what to write about, but it seems they’re lenient enough to let me more or less do my thing. In German, too, which I’m sure one or two of you will be glad to hear. Again, there will be nothing before the end of exam season, but after that you should be able to catch me on Ingame.
These are the things that keep me up at night, while pretending to be a serious student.