Ace Combat: Assault Horizon – Initial Impressions

I avoided playing the demo when it became available. Partly, because I knew I was going to pre-order the game and I didn’t want to spoil any of the magic that the trailer had started casting on me. Also, because the fan reactions to the demo weren’t very positive. A lot of static concerned alterations to the control scheme, which turned out to be default settings that could be changed. But a certain amount of (perhaps fanboy) vehemence was aimed at the forced use of the new dog fighting ‘feature’ of the game which allows you to engage in a (sometimes cinematic) on-rails type chase sequence that relies less on your piloting skill and more on your ability to keep your reticle on the bogey in front of you. Fans seemed to be afraid that the Ace Combat series had crossed the line and become too, in a word, ‘arcadey’. Last night, I rolled the game off the tarmac to see for myself.

I’ve not played any of the Call of Duty games, but my understanding is that this iteration in the Ace Combat series is definitely playing to that (substantial) fan base. I imagine that most of the changes in player interactivity can be found in the CoD games. First, the game is not the story of an unseen ace pilot. This time, the story seems to split between at least three pilots, one for each of the major aircraft types in the game. The first mission, the tutorial Miami Beach stage from the demo, is actually a dream sequence. Consequently, it borrows the rpg trope of starting the player with all the cool powers and equipment (F-22 in this case) and then taking it away when the real game gets started. As it is the tutorial mission, there are specific tasks the player must do to advance the mission (rudder left – check; rudder right – check; etc.) which is a touch annoying when replaying the mission. It also introduces the new dog fighting mode (DFM) which has to be used on the many enemy lead planes in the mission. The DFM is used to great cinematic effect, pulling your plane low through the Miami beachfront properties, the enemies spamming flares and otherwise unkillable until passing the scripted checkpoints. Partially on rails it may be, but I thought it was a lot of fun. The sense of speed and the tentatively bridled chaos of the ride is part of what I’ve enjoyed in the more recent Ace Combat games. Now, maybe this DFM thing will grow old by the end of the game, but there seems to be enough skill involved staying on your prey’s tail that it might actually improve the standard bank and chase tactic that was so prevalent in the older games.

The DFM also has a layer or two of complexity to it. It’s available against all planes, if you wish to engage at close distance, and seems to be required against enemy aces. And while it seems to make taking down your target easier, it’s not a sure thing. Once you are on an enemy’s six, it makes you more vulnerable should his wingman come to his aid, forcing you to break off your pursuit to evade missiles. The enemy is also able to perform an evasive maneuver if you close too tight, allowing them to reverse your roles. Of course, if you time it correctly, you can follow the maneuver, effectively countering it and painting massive damage on the enemy fuselage with your machine gun. Conversely, enemy aircraft can engage you in DFM, forcing you to shake them off or slow down enough to perform your own Crazy Ivan. Perhaps the game is stepping towards turning combat into a glorified quick time event, but so far, it just feels fun.

After the completion of the first mission, the game segues into the opening credits and has you ride gunner on a blackhawk, picking off rebels as the names of the design team appear around your periphery. Pretty cool, and again with the CoD vibe.

Between missions (so far) the game jumps right back to the story. While mostly in third person, the camera occasionally swings into the first person perspective of your pilot, often allowing you to look around your environment while walking through the barracks. Then, you are picking your craft for the next mission and trying to read the load screen tips. Perhaps it is just my tv, but this is one of those games that uses a font that is almost illegible on a standard definition television. I plan to fiddle some more with the contrast settings, because the text is crisp as it is fading away. But when in full display, it is really hard to read. The beloved pre-mission sitreps are gone. There’s just a list of the aircraft available for the next mission. A button press will take you to your hanger so you can gaze at the aircraft model, but so far no store. Granted, I think I’m still in the introduction levels (tutorial, title, jet, helicopter, gunship) so perhaps after I complete the gunship mission things will open up a bit.

Not sure about the helicopter stage yet. Mostly, because it’s new and I don’t have a good handle on the chopper controls. Not that they are difficult, but I need to invert my vertical axis on my gun sight, and maybe bump the sensitivity, if it will go higher. I do like the low altitude mission, and actually being able to use rocket canisters to great effect, but it did get a little repetitive, and it is definitely tricky trying to find human targets in the landscape. I expect that the level design will get more complex later in the game, and once I’ve attained a level of copter piloting skill on par with that of flying jets I’m hoping that the helicopter stages will be as fun.

I peaked at the multiplayer setup, and the game has an experience system that unlocks various skills that can be set to your aircraft for various missions (coop) and battles. I noticed that the third paint schemes for a given aircraft are unlocked by earning a certain number of points while flying it in multiplayer. Not sure how much I like that, since my gold membership expires at the end of this month. What I am hoping for, however, is that the tweaks they’ve made to the online system are founded on the lessons learned from other games to provide a robust and engaging experience that attracts and maintains a solid player base. That way when I do get to pop on during free live weekends there are still plenty of furrballs to dive into.

In short, so far, while it is different, it is still Ace Combat, and it is still fun. I’m looking forward to my next sortie.

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Netflix: The Qwikening

So there’s been some hubbub about Netflix recently. Something about how the short-sighted movie studios seem to not be willing to share potential profits, not realizing that by not sharing they may actually be eliminating income streams that they can’t replicate themselves. The result is that Netflix will be splitting into two entities: Netflix will focus solely on streaming content; and Qwikster, which, with its horrible moniker, will take over the dvd distribution (and add games to their massive catalog). The result of that is that our subscription has now doubled in price as it is, in effect, two subscriptions. The result of that is that we will be ending our dvd subscription at the end of this billing cycle.

The result of all of that is that we have been trying to cram as many dvds into the last few weeks as possible. While that may sound grand, we still really don’t have a whole lot of time for such exploits, so the following list is actually pretty modest.

Andrei Rublev – Tarkovsky’s masterpiece doesn’t really count for this post, as I watched and returned it before Netflix made their historic announcement. But I had the dvd for over a year before I found the opportunity to watch it, and I think I may have dallied in sending it back until the rate increase announcement was sent out. I was most impressed that this movie came out of communist Russia. Granted, the original version suffered some to government censors, but it still amazes me. It’s the type of movie that almost requires one to watch it multiple times in order to understand it, needing at least one trip around just to comprehend its language. Bobby Maddex has a wonderful little discussion about it as part of his Orthodox Moviegoer podcast.

District 9 – I had wanted to see this movie in the theaters. And have been anxious to see it since it became available on dvd. Despite the wait, I thought the movie was excellent. Possibly one of the best movies that I never want to see again. The science fiction story that it tells of a alien race stranded on Earth, trying to get home, is given a dark twist. Shot in a documentary style, the movie depicts how the aliens turned refugees are forced to survive the slum-like conditions of their camp, and how the humans have come to despise their presence, often treating them inhumanely. The movie shows, quite convincingly, the dark monsters that we humans can be. It is not really a feel-good movie. There is a segment that seems perhaps over the top, where the ‘evil corporation’ is discussing harvesting the main character’s body parts, in his presence. But real world analogs can be found easily enough, such as Nazi medical experiments. All it takes is for a person to view another as less than human, and suddenly that gives the one license to do whatever to the other. This human characteristic is indicative of most of our social problems. What makes this movie even more amazing in my eyes is how it got made. The crew was originally assembled to make the HALO movie. When that fell through, the director pitched this idea that had been bouncing around in his head for years. Despite, or perhaps because of, their small operating budget, they were able to assemble the masterpiece that is District 9.

Zombieland – Rule #32: Enjoy the little things. Zombieland is a fun movie that takes a slightly different angle on the pervasive zombie trope. It’s not quite Shawn of the Dead, a little more gore substituting for a little bit of farce. I guess I don’t have too much to say about it other than that I enjoyed it. It has a couple of brilliant moments in the middle concerning a certain cameo. And it left me yearning for Twinkies…

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – I’ve not read the graphic novels. I even managed not to play River City Ransom, which was a major inspiration for the work. But I still really enjoyed the film. Naturally, I enjoyed the way video game tropes/elements were used to help tell the story. I especially enjoyed the integration of the special effects with the live action. The icing on that was the lower resolution rendering of Gideon’s sword. A gleeful romp that ends with Scott not being quite the dick he starts out as.

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Warrior Dash 2011 (I Survived!)

Today I changed the item in my daily to-do list from ‘TRAIN, MAGGOT!’ back to ‘exercise’.

The fastest time on my day was just under 22 minutes, which is amazing. Only 66 people finished under 30 minutes, including the top female competitor. I finished at 3951 of 9319 (9292 with posted times) with a time of about 51 minutes. 413 of 782 (777 posting times) in the 35-39 age group.

But perhaps I get ahead of myself. Back in January I signed up for this ‘race‘, a 5-km obstacle course. On a mountain. Warrior Dashes have been happening all around the country, and I have been pleased to see many friends and acquaintances on Facebook take part in the races in their areas. Most, however, are not on mountains. I’m not sure those should count, at least not with the same weight. Oh sure, it was hot as hell in some places, while the weather for my race was actually quite comfortable, but was theirs on a freaking ski slope?

I was initially reticent about committing to the race. Not because of the mountain, but because I knew how hard it was going to be for me to find time to train. Fast forward to June and I still hadn’t started training. Oh, I’d thought about it a lot, and was beginning to panic, because of the mountain, but had not yet coaxed myself into my running shoes for their intended purpose. I had heard about the Couch-to-5k program earlier in the year, but it wasn’t until about this time that I learned that there were iPhone apps for that. Of course there were. I used Get Running, which is billed as ‘The Human Running Coach’. It really is; the recorded voice prompts are very encouraging and seemed to be timed to play at difficult points in a given interval. I had eight weeks left, just enough time to be able to survive a 5-km run.

But maybe not one set on the side of a mountain.

Warrior Dash is an awesome experience. It does not take itself very seriously, and therefore encourages people of every age and ability level, who are just a bit crazy and not afraid to get dirty or a little burnt, to participate. So I lined up in the starting chute that Saturday afternoon, with two friends and a company of soon-to-be-grizzled warriors, feeling mostly comfortable that I would survive in good company.

Naturally, the start of the race was at the bottom of the slope. The first mile, which started as a jog, quickly became a hike up the steep, rocky face of the mountain. There was a point where I wasn’t sure I would make it. But then there was the water station, and I have never experienced such refreshment from a paper cup before. After that, though exhausted from the climb, the real fun began. I could write about it more, but instead I’ll let you experience the run yourself…

Warrior Dash 2011 (Team Blood) from Alexander Turoff on Vimeo.

The one thing missing from Turoff’s most excellent video is the view from the top. There was a section of the race that crossed a run near the highest point of the course. It would have been easy to miss the view, delirious from the ascent and concentrating on the uneven and slippery terrain, but for some reason I was curious enough in this open section to turn my head and regard the glorious vista beneath me. I was tempted to stop and take it in, but I figured that was just my wracked body trying to goad me into a rest, so I continued on. But that view was as refreshing mentally as that precious cup of water had been physically.

I was separated from my friends early on in the ascent, but I cheered for them when they crossed the finish line. In front of me, as I crossed the line, a guy dropped down to one knee. At first I thought he was just exhausted from the ordeal, but then I saw that he held, in his mud plastered hands, a box with a diamond ring in it. I’m not sure how he managed the race with that concealed on his person, but his girlfriend said yes. I imagine they will be back next year…

As will I. And my little brother. Which means that while the mountain may be the great equalizer, I still need to change ‘exercise’ on my to-do list back to ‘TRAIN MAGGOT!’

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A Final Handheld Fantasy

A few years ago I was given a Nintendo DS Lite for Christmas. The first game I played on it was Final Fantasy III, the last remaining game in the series to be localized for North America. FF3 illustrated for me how well strategic and role-playing games fit on handheld systems. I could play in small doses wherever I happened to be. I could still play games if the television was in use, denying me access to a game console. And I could snap the lid closed to put the system to sleep whenever I needed to run off to aid a crying child. It didn’t take long before the DS had become my gaming companion of choice, slotted with two games whenever possible, and always in my pocket, its green LED flickering in ready anticipation.

This spring I serendipitously fell into possession of a second generation iTouch. At first it only replaced my iPod nano, serving podcasts, audio books, and the remaining soundtrack for my lengthy commute. At home it became a portal for email, Facebook, and Twitter. And since it was now always in my pocket, I also kept a few random free games on it. Honestly, having Facebook and Twitter constantly at my fingertips ate up more of my general gaming time than Angry Birds, but regardless of which app I was tapping, the device I was touching only had one screen.

Two weeks ago Nintendo announced they would be significantly reducing the price of the 3DS. After twenty years of market domination, Nintendo’s handheld legacy appears to be fading. A week later, Sony pushed back the release of their next portable entry in an attempt to launch with a greater impact and a larger, captivating catalog of games. This weekend I wiped a layer of ashen dust from the black case of my DS. Just tidying up my dresser.

Last week Square-Enix released Final Fantasy Tactics for the iPhone (the iPad version is slated for later this fall). It’s basically the port of the recent PSP port of the original PlayStation game released in 1998. FFT is, in my opinion, a beautiful game full of wonderful sounds, detailed 2d sprites, an epic story, and lots of the sparkly particle effects that I am so partial to. It’s also a really strong turn-based strategy rpg. Admittedly, it’s also about the only srpg I have played except for the Front Mission series, but I’ve been looking for its equal, in gameplay if not also composition, ever since. Now I can have it in my pocket.

Final Fantasy (iOS)To ‘celebrate’ the release of FFT, Square-Enix reduced the prices of many of their other games, including the iOS version of the original Final Fantasy which was released on the NES in 1990. Cornelia CastleThe iOS version is not a straight port; the graphics have been given an overhaul to SNES levels, and as a result I am constantly getting confused in the overworld thinking I’m playing FFIV or FFV. Prepare to AttackIn addition, the music has been rescored, and a couple of new dungeons have been added. They also changed the magic system, using a contemporary MP system instead of the D&D style charges of the original (e.g., you may cast four first level spells and one second level spell before resting). I’m not sure I like that yet, as it does seem to make the game easier, but it definitely makes the magic users more viable, especially early in the game – which is where I am, only having just revived the elf prince.

Sliding Number PuzzleI am pleased how the map ‘spell’ is handled with the new control interface and that Matoya’s broom still shares the secret of casting it. I am also tickled that the hidden number-pushing game is still available when looking to pass some time on the ship. The game even tracks your best times and rewards your efforts.

This past Christmas I got Etrian Odyssey III for the DS. I’ve been excited to play it, especially after the amount of joy I had playing Shiren the Wanderer. But I’m going to be spending another twenty hours or so taking my party (Fighter, Monk, Red Mage, White Mage) through their quest to restore the crystals and destroy Chaos. And then I’ll probably play through again, because I never finished the last dungeon playing with a party of all Black Mages.

And after that: I downloaded the GemCraft app…







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additional faqs

Just want to point to the faq page where I’ve compiled the faqs I’ve written for Blaster Master: Blasting Again, Jak II, and Front Mission.

And while I’m tagging things, I restructured the Front Mission page, adding separate pages for each game’s wanzer maker – and screenshots!

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Kongregate Korner – Defend Thyself!

April and May saw the release of major installments in three of the more popular tower defense (TD) games at Kongregate: GemCraft, Protector, and Cursed Treasure. These three games share fantasy styling, (mostly) fixed enemy paths, and hours of soul stealing gameplay in a medium trying to shake off the image of five-minute throw-away game experiences.

GemCraft: LabyrinthGemCraft: Labyrinth
by: GameInABottle
The original GemCraft was perhaps the first TD game I played to completion. Captivated by the subtle finesse of the user interface, the particle effects, and the learnable game system. The level mechanics build in added challenges for high level play, adding layers of replay value. Labyrinth is the third incarnation in the series, tuning the elements from the previous iterations and adding a couple of new features. Labyrinth is big, having 169 discreet stages including five boss stages that constitute the bulk of the accompanying story. Some levels incorporate maze building or optional bonus features like crypts that can be destroyed releasing a flood of high powered monsters. Twenty levels have additional challenges for devoted players that grant access to four secret stages. However, the biggest difference about Labyrinth and its predecessors, is that Labyrinth offers premium content, which limits some of the advanced play options for those who play the free version. The game can still be played to completion, but not all of the skills, bonus maps, and challenges can be attained. The game continues to be pretty, but it is also incredibly long (currently over two million plays, but only slightly more than eight thousand completions), a trait inherited from its immediate predecessor GemCraft: Chapter 0. In my opinion, the length of the original version was more ideal, but for a game that one plans on going back to time and time again, Labyrinth may well be worth the investment of soul (and possibly even $5). There is also a GemCraft version available for the iPhone. I’ve only played the demo, but it seems to hold true enough to the original experience, though with cuter graphics.

Prtector IV.VProtector IV.V
by: undefined
The Protector series is slow, not very pretty, and has a steep learning curve, but it creates some interesting challenges that require planning and a solid understanding of the game’s system. Protector IV added a more complex overworld system with heroes and factions and quests, which was a departure from the series’s more linear level structure. The focus of the game spreads to encompass party and inventory management reminiscent of Might & Magic. I’m not sure that it really adds too much to the experience, especially at the beginning of the game, other than another layer of complexity, but it offers the suggestion of customization later in the game to augment personal play style or to strategize for specific challenges. PIV.V is essentially an expansion using the same engine as IV, but with bug fixes. It’s a solid offering, but the introduction of the additional overworld mechanics in the vIV.x iterations did not resonate with me.

Cursed Treasure: Level PackCursed Treasure: Level Pack
by: IriySoft
For some reason, I didn’t take to the original Cursed Treasure right away. The basic system is simple; towers are divided into three different classes, with each class having an upgrade branch at mid-level into one of two options. The class I wanted to emphasize required support initially from the other classes in order to manage the levels. Not properly respecting the balance of the system (which is a bit unbalanced in favor of one of the other classes) I was making the game needlessly difficult for myself. But I came back and learned the system and found that I really enjoyed the pacing and the challenge of perfecting the levels. Also, since technically the player controls the forces of evil (protecting their gems from thieves), it is quite satisfying to max out the towers and watch them mow through the waves. Level Pack is just that, an expansion of the first game with a few minor tweaks and a good number of maps to keep one occupied for a while. Of the three games discussed, I think CT:LP has the best balance of gameplay, pacing, and duration. It’s also slightly more fun, its challenge not relying so much on endurance, though perhaps less strategic than the other offerings.

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Boneshaker – Reaction

Boneshaker - Cherie PriestLet me begin by stating that I thoroughly enjoyed Boneshaker. I didn’t know much about it before purchasing it other than it was steampunk and it kept getting mentioned in the various places I tend to lurk on the internet. I suppose I succumbed to peer pressure, but it was worth it.

Aside from my unfamiliarity with author Cherie Priest‘s work, I was a bit apprehensive about the novel because it is billed as steampunk. I like the idea of steampunk, but have not really engaged in any media that the core fans would consider steampunk. Boneshaker is a character driven science fiction story set in an alternate Civil War era Seattle. Don’t be scared away by the mention of steampunk, and likewise, don’t let your definition of steampunk prejudice you against the story Priest is telling.

Set mostly in the walled confines of Seattle, fortified to contain the mysterious zombie-inducing blight gas, Boneshaker is about Zeke, a boy trying to vindicate his father’s name, and thereby exonerate his mother and himself. And about that boy’s mother, Briar, who has lost everything except her son, and her determined search to save him from his hazardous quest inside the walls to find the truth she has withheld from him.

The heart of Seattle, thought by most to be dead to the blight and the ‘rotters’, is actually a complex ecosystem of human survivors living within the poisoned air. The city is painted as a main character in the story, but the only one that isn’t really developed. I had a hard time visualizing the extent of the city enclosed by the walls and the level of development of the architecture for a frontier port at the turn of the century. The initial description left me with the impression of a much smaller, less advanced city center than what I kept encountering during the story. I’m not sure how much of this is a deficiency in Priest’s delivery versus my own lack of attention or knowledge of Seattle and the archetypes I summoned into being based on her description. But that is really my only negative comment.

Priest builds her story based on the relationships of her characters and the precarious alliances needed to stand against the poison blight and the zombies it creates. And all of the characters have something to hide – even the boy Zeke, though he starts the story innocent enough. Priest expertly plays on these hidden motivations which shade the choices her characters make. The result is that the reader shares in the protagonists’ anxiety, as one can never be sure one knows how another character will react to a situation. Not all of the good have been redeemed, and some of the bad refuse to be. But the reader is always allowed to hope.

The climax of the story is tied to the true identity of the mad scientist that controls the city. He may or may not be Zeke’s father, Briar’s husband, and the reason for the infestation of the blight. Priest succeeds in presenting the story, through the points of view of two different characters, in a way that leaves the reader unsure as to the truth until the reveal. Zeke is in search of the truth, but his age and impassioned bias may permit him to be deceived. Briar professes to know the truth, but there is no proof that her statements aren’t a coping mechanism of self-delusion.

The brightest aspect of Priest’s work is the authenticity of her characters’ reactions. The reader does not simply empathize with the characters, but shares in their experiences. Zeke’s reaction to the Chinaman’s death. Briar’s reaction to revealing the truth to Zeke of his father. The tension of Swakhammer’s injuries. Very strong. Not being in Zeke’s head after he learns the truth, perhaps less satisfying in hindsight, but it was not distracting at the time. Perhaps Zeke learned enough during his time in the city that his reaction didn’t require any more deliberation.

I listened to the audio book through Audible, and the reading is split between Kate Reading and Wil Wheaton, alternating chapters as the point of view switches between Briar and Zeke. I thought both narrators performed very well, and I enjoyed the varied voices. The point where the two storylines intersect and some characters are suddenly voiced by a different narrator may be jarring or confusing at first. But I think that speaks to the quality of the reading, that the characters are presented in such an identifiable manner by their readers that the listener relies on that voice more than the dialogue tags.

Unfortunately, the next story in the series, Clementine, is a shorter piece and I will probably have to pick it up in print. This means that, realistically, it will be a while before I get to read it and then continue with the audiobooks.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest; 2009 Tor Books.

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Gaming in 2010

My year-end retrospectives are slipping later and later. I’ve limited this post to console games, hoping to write more in subsequent posts about the many browser games that occupied my lunch hours. Perhaps if I wrote about the games as I played them I wouldn’t spend so much time trying to cram everything into one entry. A goal for 2011, perhaps…

Rock Band 2

There were new entries to the Rock Band / Guitar Hero franchises this year, but I didn’t get any (until Christmas, but that lies outside the purview of this summary). And while I didn’t play RB2 as much this past year as the year prior when it was new to me, I kept going back to it. At the time of this writing, I can say that I have about 582 songs on the various RB/GH games that I own. I have a spreadsheet. I can print out a booklet, like for Karaoke, sort it by artist or title… I really like music. It is a part of me, and I enjoy being a part of it. But I am not talented enough with any instrument to play music the way I feel it. It occurred to me, only recently, that that is why people dance. To be a part of the music without making it. Rock Band is dancing for those of us who can’t dance. I did get to play in a band with two of my siblings this year, and it really does improve the experience exponentially. I’m looking forward to writing about my experiences playing RB3 with my children…

Continue reading

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Kongregate Korner – Unity Results

Kongregate recently announced the results of their Unity game design contest. One of the reasons I like Kongregate so much is the effort they take to promote game development and encourage people to become involved in game design. Everyone wins. With their popularity and sophistication, smart devices have become a large platform for gaming. Similarly, browser games continue to grow in complexity and sophistication. My hope is that Unity and similar development platforms will lead to universal access to browser based content regardless of operating system (see Apple v. Adobe).

The contest winners range from physics based puzzler to network multiplayer FPS. Granted, a few are ads for complete versions that can be played on the iPhone or that are currently in development, but I’m still impressed with the technical achievement of these games that I’m playing in my web browser. Following is a reprint of the results with a thought or two based on my reaction to the games. Give them a try yourself!

Play Antimatiere1st place: Antimatiere by Chronodrax
The first couple of rooms may seem a little off-putting, but things open up quite quickly. I haven’t spent enough time with this game yet, but it seems to be a quite interesting experience.

Play Sarah's Run (preview)2nd place: Sarah’s Run (preview) by SophieHoulden
It feels like Mirror’s Edge with a twist of Portal. The clean aesthetic and smooth animation really stood out to me. It’s a fast and fluid 3d platformer.

Play Aurora3rd place: Aurora by limbo_cow
I love particle effects. I’m not sure I played enough to fully understand the ‘game’, but I did enjoy growing my planet before it bashed into another orbiting mass and collapsed into the sun. I also enjoyed all of the pretty lights.

4th – 10th place (alphabetical order)
Bullseye (Interstellar Marines) by ZeroPointSoft – On one hand, it’s just a shooting gallery. On the other, it’s a really nice FPS shooting gallery in your web browser. I plan to write more about this later…

Drillboid by capnbubs – A little bit puzzler, a lot platformer, with a hint of Super Metroid.

QBCube by CatStatic – There are a few quirks in the animation, but this three-dimensional block puzzle seems to have some well designed levels. The isometric viewpoint really challenges ones ability to think spatially.

Sanctioned Renegades by Sanctioned – Multiplayer FPS in your web browser.

Save Toshi by uvmarko – This version is only a forty level demo of their iPhone application, and it is very silly. But I enjoyed solving the puzzles. It definitely borrows some from Boom Blox, but has somehow managed to marry the escort mission with the physics puzzle – and made it fun.

Sentinels: First Wave by RElam99 – I really like what this tower defense game is doing. It has fancy graphics and those nifty particle effects I enjoy so much. But it also allows the player to enter the defense grid and man special turrets in first-person, to mop up the dross or focus strategic fire on a boss. The balance may be off though, as the levels that I played did not seem to allow proper use of the first-person feature – too many other elements to manage during quickly moving swarms.

Zombie Minesweeper by Frogtoss – The title says it all, really. Minesweeper. With zombies. I’ll have more to write about this later…

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Entertainment Factor

GDC is both invigorating and frustrating for me. It’s invigorating because it brings a lot of really intelligent people together to talk about creating in a field that I have a lot of interest. It’s frustrating because, at best, I don’t even qualify as an amateur game designer. Nor am I a game design theorist, or scholar, or anything but a player and wanna-be. The conversation stimulates and excites me, but my level of expertise probably doesn’t even qualify me to eavesdrop at the window. And really, it’s only because of Michael Abbott’s coverage of the conference through his podcast and blog that I even know what GDC is and who some of these people are and what they have to say.

I love stories. And I’m fascinated about how stories can be told in video games. My genre of preference has always been the rpg, in no small part because of its emphasis on story, but also the strategy, exploration, and player agency to shape or participate in the story. I’m not equipped to compose a treatise on story in games, and I’m sure that this ground has been well-trod by many, but Abbott’s posts about storytelling started me thinking yesterday about how it might be useful to chart the narrative continuum in games.

The idea is to plot a continuum for how narrative is used in games that rely on story, in an effort to try to better understand how games tell stories. At one end of the spectrum would be games with a fixed narrative that are watched more like a movie, and at the other are games without a scripted story where the narrative is completely developed through playing the game.

I’ve been thinking that emergent gameplay has become a buzzword, and it probably is, but it may also be the best descriptor of how games differ in how they tell stories from other media. The first movies, not yet knowing what else to be, were like filmed stage shows (I don’t particularly like them because of it). Now, movies have matured into their own – diverse – story telling medium. Games where narrative is important, often try to tell their stories primarily in ways that are familiar, both for ease in understanding and designing. But games intrinsically have a built-in narrative aspect that mediums such as books or movies or theatre (to a lesser degree) generally lack – the agency of the player. While this agency may be separated from the story, the act of playing the game creates an experience for the player that is its own story. (Is this what is referred to as the ‘ludic narrative’?) That combined with the scripted narrative form the whole story of the game.

The ludic experience is closer to the way one experiences music or purely visual art, where the work evokes a feeling from the viewer and that response is the emergent story of the work for that individual. Movies, books, etc. can have a similarly profound impact on their audience, and perhaps that is the intangible ‘art factor’ that separates the cream from the rest of the commercial drudge. I think the effect is more focused in paintings where there isn’t the same intrinsic entertainment value. Which leads me to wonder if entertainment needs to be filtered out when evaluating commercial art…

This morning I read Nels Anderson’s post about meaning in games, and he too brings up a point about the entertainment value of games and music and other consumed art forms – namely that it isn’t necessary that games all have ‘meaning’ other than being just for fun. In art criticism, it is important to judge a work by the appropriate set of rules – you don’t analyze a cubist painting from the perspective of an impressionist, or at least you can’t determine whether or not the cubist painting is successful at being a cubist painting using impressionist criteria. Perhaps ‘Fun’ games becomes its own genre, akin to the ‘popcorn’ flick. Maybe we can coopt ‘Monsters and Mullets’.

What a game means, the story that it’s trying to tell, and the experience that the player has are all intertwined. What I’m most interested in exploring is the telling of a scripted story that is experienced through the agency of the player, where the role the player assumes affects the relationships within the environment and the story. A dynamic equilibrium of both ends of the continuum. And still be entertaining. What examples exist already and how successful were they at achieving their aim? How does one improve the storytelling in the next iteration, or have we reached the limit that “proscriptive monolithic narrative” can be integrated meaningfully with gameplay?

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