Jul 182008
For those of you who have missed it, Greg Tannahill has a fun series of posts about great gaming music up at his blog, The Dust Forms Words. While I don’t agree with all his selections (I prefer “Hikari” to “Sanctuary”, for instance), and I think he ommitted some really good ones (more on that below), it’s a great series of posts. Greg, who will soon be standing for election in Canberra, brings back happy memories of some really good games with great music, but he also dug up some very interesting renditions, such as the one below the fold.

Yes, those are musical tesla coils, and yes, that is the Mario Level 1-1 theme.

One of my favorites among the games he’s mentioned is the opening theme to Katamari Damacy. You should follow that link and watch the clip, but be forewarned that hearing this music even one time will burn it permanently into that part of your brain that keeps songs in your head all day. I also think this is one of the best introductory sequences to a video game. Watching the intro doesn’t prepare you in any way for the gameplay or the story, but the wacky visuals and catchy music put you in the right mood.

As I said, Greg missed a couple of great soundtracks. Rather than leave a snarky comment on his blog, I thought I’d include put some of the omissions in my own post.

The most obvious of these is Kō Ōtani’s soundtrack to Shadow of the Colossus. You can find the whole soundtrack about eight times over on YouTube, but the following video will give you a good start.

One of the best parts about the sound design in Shadow of the Colossus is that it doesn’t make every battle an exercise in overwhelming horns and heavy, pounding rhythms. Several combat sequences feature calmer music that builds tension with sinister or mournful undertones. Shadow of the Colossus would probably make the shortlist for best game of all time even if the soundtrack consisted entirely of kids beating sticks together, but featuring some of the best music in the history of gaming certainly doesn’t hurt. “Revived Power” is one of my favorite heroic themes ever.

Second on my list of omissions is Christophe Heral’s soundtrack for Beyond Good and Evil, which is simply amazing. One of the recognized high points is “Home Sweet Home“, which plays over the credits and out on the water before you complete the Black Isle Mission. And my god, this piano arrangement of the main theme by Mythili Mahendran is fantastic:

The game that really cemented my love affair with computer RPGs was Betrayal at Krondor, and this was certainly helped by Jan Paul Moorhead’s excellent midi soundtrack. This is harder to get these days, but I remember coming across some .ogg files from it not too long ago. Amazingly, YouTube actually had a clip of the credits (German version) to this great game, with the main theme playing over them. I actually prefer the funkier “Jimmy the Hand”, which plays during this walkthrough, starting at about 0:18.

The PS2 had an amazingly vast library of RPGs to choose from, but perhaps the best, and certainly the most unique, was Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Playing fast and loose with history, it featured cameos from Roger Bacon, Anastasia, and Rasputin, blending its bizarre humor in with three convoluted and emotional love stories. And then there was the character who fights with a doll that can only gain new attacks if you give a particular tailor gay porn. The soundtrack was fairly diverse, ranging from creepy electronic themes like this one from the battle with Astaroth, to very placid piano and string pieces. Almost all of it was excellent, but I am inordinately fond of “Getsurenka”, which played over the closing credits. Yes, it’s almost hilariously overwrought, but after the “good” ending of Covenant a cathartic love song is precisely what you need:

There are certainly more that could go in here, but that’s enough embedding for one post. If you’re interested in more technical discussions of video game music, you should check out Cruise Elroy. Click his category link on the side to find the music posts.

Mar 022008
That last post was actually extremely difficult to write. I had the ideas for it quite a long time ago, and I think I did a pretty good job of explaining how the various aspects of the presentation and gameplay produced a gestalt related to the Prince’s maturation process. But when I wrote a draft of that post yesterday morning, it sucked. It may have been the worst thing I ever wrote. For one thing, it had a completely awful structure. Also, it was about three times as long as what I eventually published. I ended up excising a lot of points that I really liked because they didn’t add to the critique. I’m not going to print any of those here, but I want to make a few points about game critiques in general, and about games themselves. Your responses are of course welcome; indeed I eagerly request them.

1. “Critique” versus “Review” posts

This was really the hardest thing to nail down. I had all sorts of points about the crispness of controls, character and enemy design, navigability, sound balance, and so on, and I ultimately excised almost all of them. Essentially technical items like these would have been really great to discuss in a review, but they didn’t belong in the piece I was writing, which I wanted to be something different. A review is just a piece of writing that tells you what it’s like to play the game, and that’s important. But what I was after was not technical aspects but rather an exploration of theme and meaning, and an analysis of how the various features of the game—from writing to presentation to mechanics—served that meaning. I felt this tension when writing the FFXII post too, and because I didn’t resolve it, that one didn’t turn out as well as I would have liked. It would be nifty to do both at the same time, but especially when handling a trilogy like the Prince of Persia games that produces a piece that’s simply too long, and it interferes with structure.

So I probably will never write anything that’s both a review and an artistic critique. My Persona 3, Phantom Hourglass, Revenant Wings, and Professor Layton posts fall in the former category, while the posts on Silent Hill 2, Final Fantasy XII, and Prince of Persia better fit the latter. And, I think, since there are a ton of game sites writing reviews, I’m probably not going to put any more straight reviews up here, though I will probably write a few on accessible games for Love Camel. What I put up here, though, I want to be focused on artistic criticism. So expect more posts like that last one and less that are like the Revenant Wings one.

2. “Stuff” versus “People” stories

One thought that occurred to me as I was writing the Prince of Persia post was that there are two main ways to think about stories, both of which showed up in that trilogy. The most common way to encounter a story in a video game is as a recounting of stuff that happens (this is the approach of Warrior Within). There are characters in the story, but very little about them matters to it, and seemingly little about it matters to them. The characters are just part of the stuff that’s happening. Alternately, the story can be viewed as people that happen. Stuff happens as well, but what the story is really about is not the stuff, but the way the characters interpret and respond to the stuff. Moreover, the people “happen” not just in that they are, but in that they become. The strength of Sands of Time and The Two Thrones is not just that the characters are fully realized and interact charmingly, but that the Prince changes and grows. I think that this sort of transition is a critical part of successful stories, especially in games where the player can be brought along for the change.

3. Expressive versus Narrative games

Thinking about games strictly as narratives is obviously too constricting. The approach I used in the critiques I’ve already written clearly relies on this mode of understanding, which may be an intrinsic limitation. One thing I think I need to try is to do one of these critiques for a purely (or nearly so) expressive game, that is, one that tries to induce an emotion rather than convey a story. I’m leaning towards trying a critique of Katamari Damacy, just to see if I can do it.

4. Art versus Entertainment

I made this point in my previous rant, too. There are games that really aren’t intended to mean anything, that exist purely to be entertainment. They are the potato chips of gaming: tasty, filling, and fun to consume, but without lasting nutrition for body or mind. And there are also games that have nutritional value, but aren’t expressive or narrative (i.e. Brain Age). I don’t think this is a problem for games as art: nobody denies that Citizen Kane is art on the basis that Predator and classroom film reels aren’t. I am, however, not certain of the value of trying, as film critics do, to interpret the pure entertainments in the same way as I do the meatier fare. I’m just one guy, after all, and the internet has plenty of sites that can tell you that dual-wielding is awesome.

Feb 292008
So, now that we’ve had a little fun with serious science, let’s have a little serious discussion about fun. Gamasutra has two excellent features up about the relationship between games and art, and I think both of them have merit. EA producer Jim Preston’s feature, “The Arty Party” prompted an impassioned response from E. Daniel Arey about “The Art of Games”. Jim Preston has a really good comment on Arey’s piece, and of course Arey’s is a really good response to some of the limitations of Preston’s article. Both pieces have merit, and I highly recommend reading both of them if you have the time.

Preston’s article is primarily an indictment of arguments over whether games are art or not. He points out that often what defines art for people is context: the best violinist in the world playing the best violin music ever written may not be taken for an artist if he is pursuing this activity in a subway station. In this regard, the real criterion by which one can judge whether some object is art is whether people believe it is art. Consequently, Preston doesn’t believe that engaging people like Ebert in a debate over whether games are art is worthwhile. This speaks to my own prejudices; as I have mentioned before, I think the best way for enthusiasts to regard this question is to treat the debate as won and start talking about and judging games as works of art. The earnest and articulate belief in games as art will do more than toppling a dozen Eberts in what Preston terms “essentialist debates”.

Arey’s piece is a response to what he perceives as a sort of self-satisfaction in Preston’s article. He feels that Preston’s attitude reflects a willingness to let games stand still, as it were, with respect to their artistic form. Arey, on the other hand, thinks that developers and publishers should be actively pushing the artistic boundaries of the medium. I’m in agreement on this point as well. While Arey believes there should be some push on the supply side, I’ve already argued that there should be pull on the demand side as well. Arey believes that, regardless of context, the idea of art still matters, and that people in the bright centers of publishing should do all they can to encourage innovation and growth in the artform.

As Preston notes in his comment, these views aren’t really at odds with each other. Gamers ought to treat the debate as won, but both developers and gamers should want to win more, and win better. Talking past the essentialist debate is all well and good, but we shouldn’t be content with that. Even if we’ve won or avoided the fight over whether games are art, we should still strive to bring to market something that can show up an Ebert and expose the argument that games “can never be art” for the vacuous nonsense that it is.

In keeping with my own prescriptions (and Preston’s) I am going to try to finish some in-depth studies of games I’ve been meaning to post (similar to my post on Silent Hill 2). I hope I’ll be able to have the first of these up by Sunday evening. Others will have to wait for refresher play and by the same token, for loaned-out games to return to me.

Feb 222008
Yesterday Kotaku put up an article about Barack Obama’s line in which he says people “…are going to have to parent better, and turn off the television sets, and put the video games away, and instill a sense of excellence in our children…” The particular editor at Kotaku clearly overreacted by seeing this as Obama using games a metaphor for underachievment. That’s clearly not the point. But if it were, it would be a largely valid point, and more importantly a point with which most Americans would agree for mostly correct reasons. Anyone who has read this blog for more than a week knows I am not saying this because I believe games to be devoid of artistic content. Quite the opposite: I earnestly believe games have the power to convey stimulating stories and emotions in a uniquely powerful way. Unfortunately, most video games, and especially the video games that have the most impact on popular culture, fall far short of this ideal. True video gaming enthusiasts are not the only ones to blame for this problem. However, they are well-placed to do something about it.

The main features supporting Obama’s (and the larger public’s) view are pretty obvious. For the most part, games are not a physical activity, although the Wii is changing that to some extent. They generally do not convey enlightening or even interesting stories. Because they divorce themselves so totally from the science, history, or mythology on which they occasionally claim to be based, the vast majority of games are not even slightly educational. Indeed, in this regard they are usually so far off base they aren’t even wrong. It is at least possible, even likely, that shooters and gory games desensitize their players to violence (though not necessarily uniquely so), especially if those players are young. The majority of television and movies are at least as bad and probably worse. However, video games shouldn’t make a negative case versus competing media; they should try to stand positively on their own. This, at present, they cannot do, particularly not as they are perceived in the larger culture. Given what the average person knows, a parent promoting any alternative activity, be it reading books or playing with sticks, over video games would be acting reasonably. At least the sticks won’t make your kids dumber.

What makes this so upsetting to me is that it need not be so. Many games rely on critical thinking and problem solving skills. Games largely do not possess the “quick cuts” common in commercials and film that are suspected to adversely affect attention span and concentration. In fact, most games reward concentration and careful observation. And despite the generally grim situation, there are many games that include interesting and stimulating narratives. Even the first-person shooter genre, justifiably reviled for its generally awful writing, recently developed entries that featured a genuinely interesting story (BioShock) and an extremely clever and novel mechanic (Portal). Games like these, that favor inventiveness and storytelling over crystal-clear graphics of aliens’ heads getting blown to bits, are rare gems to be celebrated.

But why? Why is BioShock the revelation, instead of being the status quo? Why is Shadow of the Colossus the exception rather than the rule? The reason is that the low (intellectual) quality muzzle-flash-and-gore spectacles sell. They sell spectacularly, and the simple fact is that companies have not just a desire, but an obligation (to their shareholders) to maximize their profits. If cow manure sold like candy bars, you’d never see another Snickers vending machine. The reason gamers don’t get candy is that they’re willing to buy crap.

Why are there great artistic movies, despite the triumphant profits of summer blockbuster pablum? Because there are people that believe in movies as an art form, who support artistic movies, who tell their friends about the emotionally moving films they see and encourage those people to support them. Some of these buffs also enjoy the occasional schlock film, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with schlock films or watching them, as long as you don’t confuse Transformers with Citizen Kane. Look, Halo isn’t art. It’s got art—perhaps even really good art—in it, but hey, Face/Off had some great cinematography and set design. That doesn’t mean Face/Off isn’t schlock—nobody in film confused dual-wielding Nic Cage with Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Halo is great fun, but the perception of the broader culture is that we see Halo and Gears of War as the pinnacle of the gaming artform, while I think the genuine perception of gamers is that these are the easily-discarded summer blockbusters.

Game publishers appear to be content to let the public perception stand. Thus, it falls to the enthusiasts to help elevate the form. We can do that in many ways. The most obvious, and the one most likely to directly impact the choices made by publishers, is to shift our purchasing habits. When you come across a game that makes an artistic statement, buy it; when you want to play a game that doesn’t, rent (or ignore) instead. Stop pre-ordering games—require publishers to demonstrate quality and artistry before you buy. When it becomes favorable to a company’s bottom line to push artistry over flash, they will do so. Why? Because they love money.

In that same vein, reward reviewers (with your traffic) if they focus their greatest attention on the artistic merits of games. I know the initial reaction to this is to say that reviewers should review games for “what they’re trying to be” rather than focusing on the artistic aspects. That’s a bunch of crap. Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin, and that funny-looking guy from the Today show could all pan the hell out of the next entry in the “Michael Bay Blows Up” series (Michael Bay Blows Up Alcatraz, Michael Bay Blows Up Asteroids, Michael Bay Blows Up Your Childhood, etc.), and it will still make hundreds of millions of dollars. Game publishers and designers, as well as the purchasing public, need to develop a similar attitude towards bad reviews of schlock games, instead of insisting that review scores reflect popularity or ultimate sales. If Halo is bad art, give it an F, even if it’s a good time. There’s nothing wrong with doing that as long as the audience is aware of your angle, as they are with Ebert.

The final thing to do is for enthusiasts ourselves to talk about games as art, and to focus on artistic games when gaming comes up in casual conversation. Enthusiasts must get in the habit of talking (or writing) about games as art, rather than purely entertainment. The earnest, well-articulated, public attitude that games are art will do a great deal to promote this view in others, even if they have no direct experience of artistic games.

Obama was right to say what he did, and the next politician to say it will be right, and the next one after that, up to the day you lose your teeth and your mind. Games will always be a juvenile, inferior medium unappreciated by the public at large unless those who love them most put real pressure on developers, publishers, and reviewers to transform the motivations and attitudes that inform game creation and media response. If dollars support the best art instead of the best gloss, better art will be made and supported by the industry, and if the public at large gets used to seeing games discussed as art, criticized as art, and publicized as art, they will get used to thinking of them as art.

Jan 312008
It’s time to start with a decision-making process. I’m not definitely in the market yet for one of the three next-gen consoles, but I will be, perhaps within the next year. This is an open post that I’ll probably keep updating for a while. Keep in mind that my must-have games may not be the same as yours, though I’ll welcome your suggestions.

This table looks really screwed up and I don’t know why. I have no idea why all these break tags appeared in this post. Sorry for the megascroll. All fixed now. See what effort I go through to bring you my bullshit?

Positives Negatives Must-Have Games
  1. motion control = activity
  2. backwards compatible with my GC library
  3. awesome downloadable retro games selection
  4. system and games more affordable
  5. robust controller
  6. many WiiWare titles are totally awesome
  1. motion control = activity
  2. limited RPG selection (?)
  3. shovelware
  4. limited original downloadable content
  5. DS is enough for casual gaming
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
No More Heroes
Super Mario Galaxy
Super Smash Bros. Brawl
XBox 360
  1. robust online service (friends)
  2. robust original downloadable games listing
  3. great HD graphics
  4. very durable controller
  1. robust online service (John Gabriel’s GIFT)
  2. red ring of doom
  3. I don’t have an HDTV
Assassin’s Creed
Blue Dragon
Eternal Sonata
Mass Effect
Playstation 3
  1. comes with blu-ray player
  2. greater HD graphics
  3. Fumito Ueda
  1. expensive…
  2. …or not backwards compatible with my huge PS2 library
  3. I don’t have an HDTV
  4. will cheaper blu-ray cause buyer’s remorse?
  5. may melt my apartment
  6. flimsy controller
Assassin’s Creed
Final Fantasy XIII
Metal Gear Solid 4
Ratchet & Clank Future
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
Valkyria Chronicles

Issues to consider:

Where will the RPG market land? Right now the Xbox seems to be leading on the quirky RPG front. Unless the install base widens significantly, it doesn’t seem terribly likely that the PS3 will be as successful in that regard as the PS2 was. However, the PS3 is a likely landing place for the main Final Fantasy titles and the Tales series. The low development costs of Wii games may end up turning the 2-D RPG and strategy RPG markets to that console, even though the Gamecube was notoriously weak in the genre. Thus, the Wii may end up catching the narrow-market RPGs I often adore.

Can the HD consoles attract classic adventure games? It can’t be a secret that I really like adventure games in the Zelda mold. Assuming that the X360 and PS3 split the RPG market, the clincher for either of these consoles will be success in attracting this generally ignored genre. Games like Beyond Good & Evil suggest that this genre can grow beyond the Zelda clones to include experiences of great emotional depth. Will the HD market go this way, or will the genre languish once again, save for the loving devotion of Nintendo?

Which console will generate the most interesting artistic innovations? I think the knee-jerk response here is the Wii, but it seems to me that developers have so far done much less with motion control than they could have. Instead, the Wii seems to have become a grand repository of casual-gaming shovelware, with a few truly innovative titles here and there. Despite its potential, the Wii has yet to see a game that achieves the true gestalt of emotional communication and interactivity that marks games as an artform. Does No More Heroes fill that void? And Sony Computer Entertainment cannot be ignored in this regard—Ueda’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were some of the best art made for the last generation of consoles. Also, as the PS3 and Wii have been getting up to speed, Bioware and Irrational have started to take interesting steps on the X360. This is currently an open question, but for me it’s a significant one.

And, to track my position by date:
1/30/08 – leaning towards Wii first, HD console (much) later.
2/13/08 – If the PS3 lacks backwards compatibility that is a major minus in my book. Baroque will come out on PS2, so it’s no longer in the Wii column. The more I hear about Lost Odyssey the more ambivalent I feel. On the one hand I like the idea that short stories are built into the game, on the other hand I hate games that string cutscenes together using lame gameplay, not to mention that I hate hate hate amnesia as a plot device.
2/15/08 – Okami hops into the Wii category. I was underwhelmed by the gameplay on the PS2, but this is a game that would really benefit from the motion controller.
2/24/08 – Added Insult Swordfighting’s controller reviews.
2/25/08 – Valkyria Chronicle looks really interesting. Into the PS3 pro column it goes.