Monthly Archives: May 2012

On Criticism of The Witcher 2’s Third Act

This generation particularly has been plagued by the frequent drawing of comparisons between film as a medium, and video games as a medium trying to replicate film.  This isn’t a problem in and of itself –  for example literature and film are often compared as a way to tease out the differences in the devices used by both mediums to convey symbolism,meaning or the development of characters from two dimensional protagonists who act out scenes, to those that have a back story, and with that, motivation.  So the comparison between media is an absolutely legitimate form of writing, criticism and academia.

Video games are no different in that they too have their own devices through which the developer (storyteller) chooses to tell their story.  Characters are given dimension through conversation and back story, symbolism is pervasive through visual imagery and deeper meanings or messages are often embedded into the set narrative or even the interactive decisions the player makes throughout the course of the game.  Whether the intention of the developer or not, all of the elements that make literature and film ripe for consideration and debate by academics across the world exist in their products – less obvious perhaps, but there nonetheless.

Unfortunately the comparisons that are usually drawn between film and videogames particularly tend to focus on the more obvious film like qualities that gaming has adopted.  Scripted action sequences, high quality voice acting and the use of professional cinematographers are often used as points of discussion by the games media and by enthusiasts more broadly when attempting to legitimise video gaming as an art form or legitimate story telling device.  While these are all important points of comparison they are a natural evolution of the medium through the improvement of technology and the increased level of investment that comes from the ‘mainstreaming’ and increased interest by people generally in the industry, and while these are all incredibly important when it comes to appealing to the mass market they in many cases are nothing more than aesthetic improvements to what developers have been achieving with video games for at least two hardware generations.

The Witcher 2 is an example of all of the above.  The game is full of cinematography that is fit for film, action sequences that are perfectly paced and characters and a world that are deeper than you would expect from a majority of films that are released into cinemas these days.   Add on to this the adult nature of some of the themes and narrative contained in the game and you’ve got something that is ripe for comparisons with other, more mainstream media.  And the game deserves it, what it does it does well, and when playing the game you can’t help but feel that this is a game that marks a turning point in what can be expected from a video game narrative and its characters.  In and of himself the main protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, is a complex and intriguing character who seems to understand what those around him don’t, that the ‘world’ is highly political and complicated game, and that there is no right and wrong or black and white.  This dynamic is one that is developed and played on throughout the course of the game and is one very well worth experiencing, if you haven’t already.  Put simply Geralt is one of the more interesting characters you will play in a video game.

But these aspects, the cinema like aesthetics and well-developed characters, are not the only points of comparison to film and literature.   Structure and pacing of a story are particularly important given what video games are trying to do with the introduction of complex narratives and worlds.  Video game enthusiasts have become accustomed to a narrative structure that has evolved organically from very simple and humble beginnings.  That is that video games, traditionally, were not out to tell a story but rather were to entertain through well considered and designed game mechanics and the rewards from perfecting those.  While this theorem behind game development has fundamentally shifted toward one that places near equal emphasis  on story telling to that of the mechanics that govern the player’s interaction, the structure of the story that enables the narrative to move forward has not evolved with it.  And this is just a function of the medium, in a situation whereby the storyteller doesn’t have complete control over the narrative experience by virtue of the fact that the player ultimately is in control of many of the factors that determine the way in which a story moves forward.  This is certainly a very stark contrast between film and video games when it comes to building up to a climax or resolution of a plot point, where control is taken away from the storyteller, the pace and sense of urgency can often suffer as a result.  Developers have begun to address this through instituting ‘points of no return’ in their games, where the story move forward arbitrarily and control is taken away from the player to ensure that plot points are conveyed in a meaningful way.  Essentially this is making sure the story that needs to be told is told in the way it was intended.

Which leads to my defence of the criticisms levelled at the abrupt conclusion to the game’s final act.  While Act 3 of the game is markedly shorter than those preceding it, the expectation that it will follow the structure and duration of the former Acts is a legacy expectation of when games weren’t attempting to hit those high emotional notes at the conclusion of the game, where levels were all created equal and where plot points were few and far between and usually conveyed through non-interactive cut-scenes.

In light of this, think about how the Witcher 2 tells its story.  If you turn the structure of the story that the developer CD Projekt Red is trying to tell upside down and consider the Third Act to be a resolution to the climax and revelations from the Act before, then it is absolutely imperative that the plot points are revealed in a deliberate and pre-determined manner.  By taking control of the pacing of the final act, the storyteller is ensuring that the sense of urgency that Geralt and those surrounding him arrived at the end of the Second Act is maintained, explained but more importantly resolved in a timely manner by the end of the Third, and final Act.

If you consider many of the greatest films ever made, the final scenes are used to provide sound narrative backing to the climax in the scenes before it.    In that way, the Witcher 2 is the closest a video game has come to matching the narrative tone, and cinematic qualities of a film to date, because not every story ends with a bang, or with everyone and everything meeting their maker in a hail of gun fire and explosions.

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The Modern Arcade Experience

My good friend Tom was visiting London at the weekend, and after we’d finished looking round the excellent but nausea-inducing Brains exhibition at the Wellcome Trust, Tom piped up with an absolutely capital idea:

“Why don’t we go to the arcade? I haven’t been for years!”

Nice one Tom! So off we trooped to Namco Station on the South Bank, threading our way past the undulating queues for the London Eye and the hordes of tourists watching second-rate street entertainers. Well, most of them were second-rate anyway, but respect must go out to the guy playing the flaming tuba. I can picture the scene that must have occurred in flamin’ tuba guy’s flat several years previously: he’s just finished tuba practice for the day and puts the instrument down to make a cup of tea, but as he steams back into the room, a light bulb pops on above his head. He regards the tuba with a thoughtful eye, and thinks: “You know what would make this better? If it was on fire.”

From that day forth, flamin’ tuba guy’s life changed beyond all recognition.

Anyway, I digress.

It’s been many years since I last set foot on the hallowed ground of the arcade, so I was curious as to what I should expect. The first cabinet we came across was Guitar Hero Arcade , which sent out a clear message that the once traditional route from arcade to home conversion has well and truly been turned on its head. In fact, a good percentage of the games on show had their roots on home consoles, including Silent Hill Arcade, which incidentally looked dreadful. To be fair, we didn’t actually play on it, but we certainly weren’t enticed into spending our money on it by what we saw.

Guitar Hero Arcade: pointless.

I suppose the major thing the arcade had going for it in the eighties and nineties was that it allowed you to play cutting edge games that you just didn’t have access to at home – or if you did, the home conversions were usually inferior to the arcade originals. Now that home consoles can easily keep up with the technology available in the arcade, there really seems to be little point in going there except for that ‘arcade experience’ – which is the exact reason why we visited Namco Station on Sunday. But given this, converting home console games to the arcade seems a ludicrous idea: who on earth would go out and spend money on an arcade version of a game that they already own at home? If anything, converting home console games to the arcade just makes the entire concept of an arcade look outdated and pointless.

The rest of the games on offer were a mixed bag in terms of quality, but they all had one thing in common: they were all driving or shooting games (with the sole exception of a forlorn and permanently vacant Tekken 6 cabinet). It’s sad that there’s such a lack of imagination in the arcade industry these days that a game basically doesn’t get made unless it involves driving or shooting (or preferably both). It’s fair to say that driving and shooting games have always been popular, but not at the exclusion of all other genres: after half an hour of shooting, followed by driving, followed by shooting again, I was pretty damn ready for a change. I even briefly contemplated giving Guitar Hero Arcade a go, but then I remembered I had it at home and didn’t want to waste my money.

Like Time Crisis, but with massive robots.

That’s not to say we didn’t have fun – in particular, Razing Storm was excellent. It’s the second spin-off of Namco’s Time Crisis series after Crisis Zone, and although it’s available on the PS3, it has something the home conversions don’t have – great big vibrating machine guns that make your hands go numb. Now THIS is what the arcade’s all about. Also, it has giant robots in it, so you’ve got two massive pluses there already.

The other big highlight was OutRun2 SP, which was simply a joy to play. It sticks closely to the OutRun formula of blue skies and branching tracks, but now with a selection of Ferraris to choose from and even more great songs  (although I was pleased that there’s still the option to play Magical Sound Shower). OutRun was one of my favourite games as a kid, so it was great to play a sequel to it that improved on the original in every way.

OutRun2 SP: fantastic sequel to a fantastic game.

Apart from these two gems though, the games on offer were pretty disappointing. One of the worst we played was Rambo – we should have known something was up when the attract sequence didn’t show any actual gameplay, just videos of the Rambo films. Upon sacrificing our pound coins, we quickly discovered the actual ‘game’ was basically an inferior version of Operation Wolf, but even less fun. The designers may just as well have replaced the ‘gameplay’ with digitised pictures of themselves mooning the player and shouting “SUCKERZ!!!”

The Rambo arcade game: like a slap in the face.

Almost as bad was Need for Speed Carbon, which is another pointless home console to arcade conversion, except this time the arcade version of the game is considerably worse than the home version. Somehow, the designers have managed to make illegal midnight street racing incredibly dull – there’s no sensation of speed and it’s almost impossible to crash, so it’s just a case of keeping your foot to the floor and waiting for the finish flag. The machine we played on was actually faulty and had become stuck on free play, but after one go we’d had enough: it was that bad.

So the games were a decidedly mixed bag, but what was worse was the general air of decline. Several of the machines had burnt out screens, and most of the cabinets were several years old, although this is probably more a reflection of the dwindling output of the arcade industry as a whole rather than the specific arcade. More telling though was the lack of people – you’d expect an arcade in the centre of London to be heaving on a weekend afternoon, but we pretty much had the run of the place, and we certainly didn’t have to queue to get on any machines.

It strikes me that the modern arcade doesn’t have very long for this world, strangled as it is by the twin terrors of unimaginative games and fierce competition from home consoles. If the arcade is to survive, it needs to radically reinvent itself as an ‘experience’ rather than a dingy place to play expensive games you’ve already got at home. We need a new generation of arcade games that focus on the strengths of the experience – the social aspect and the outrageous one-off thrill rides that only the arcade can provide. Come on arcade developers, use some imagination! What about a game where you go over Niagara Falls in a force-feedback barrel? A space shoot-em up where you fly on the back of an animatronic octopus? An augmented reality game where you shoot down invisible attacking monsters that only you can see? Just churning out endless driving games is nothing short of laziness. And what about catering for the old farts like me with a retro section? I’d be back in Namco Station like a shot if I knew they had an original Defender cab.

The arcade needs saving… but who’s going to save it?


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The Return of Mean Machines Magazine?

Is Mean Machines Magazine returning in some form?  If a tweet from video game publication luminary, Julian “Jaz” Rignall is to be believed, it may be in the works.

Mean Machines magazine was a video game magazine published in the United Kingdom and distributed globally as far stretching as Australia.  The magazine was a lynchpin of console coverage in many parts of the world throughout the nineties, and while nowhere near certain, a return in any form would be welcomed by fans of the fun and honest coverage that the magazine was known for.   Even after the end of Mean Machines, Rignall remained prominent in the industry heading up both the successful expansion of IGN and GamePro until its final issue in late 2011.

Rignall now maintains an incredibly insightful blog that is well worth checking out, and anyone interested in the magazine, an archive (of sorts) for the magazine Mean Machines Magazine is also maintaned online.

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GORF on the VIC-20 was a GORF-ing good time.

GORF on the Vic-20 is one of the most derivative games I ever played as a very, very young lad.  But what wasn’t at the time, right?  In the 1970’s and 80’s ripping stuff off was just a bi-product of an industry that was well and truly in its infancy; so much so that even the major players in the arcade ‘game’ were emulating the success of their competitors.

GORF by arcade-savvy Midway lifted the mechanics from the ever popular Space Invaders, Galaga and Galaxian and compiled them successfully into an arcade game that proved that the West was just as capable as the East when it came to arcade shooters.  But what set GORF apart from its eastern predecessors was its distinct mission structure.  The game itself was seperated into five seperate and distinctive missions, each with a different look and feel from one another.  This isn’t to say this differentiates GORF entirely from its peers – upon completing those five missions the player continues to cycle through those levels – but it allowed it to be different enough to single-level wave based games to stand out from the crowd.

GORF, 1981 (arcade)

It is important to note however that GORF  wasn’t the only game at the time to employ a multi-level structure.   The same year that GORF was released to (maybe) millions of screaming fans the first entry Nintendo’s diverse and thinly spread  Donkey Kong series was also released which famously incorporated an infinitely looping set of four levels.  But GORF was relatively unique in that it brought this increasingly important level structure to a genre that, until then, largely did not deviate beyond enemy pattern changes and increasing speed and difficulty.

The game also sported an incredible look that, even today, can be appreciated relative to the time it was released, with vibrant colours, cool explosions and interesting enemy designs that definitely continue to leave an impression.

GORF obviously resonated with people enough to be slavishly ported directly to a number of platforms – including Commodore’s VIC 20 (almost all of my experience with the game is with the VIC-20 version). And what a port that version was.  Although it sported only four of the five levels contained in the arcade original the game itself was a fantastic home version of a refreshingly fun arcade game, which was a rarity at the time given the number of horrendous home computer versions of arcade classics.  The VIC-20 was not the most powerful of computers, but it more did more than justice to what was at the time an incredibly advanced arcade game.  Sure it didn’t look as good and some concessions had to be made to adapt the game to the far less powerful home computer, as witnessed by the more cramped stages (or compact, if you’re more kind), but the GORF gameplay experience remained in tact and as fun as ever.  It could even be said that in light of the admirable attempts to mimic some of the (then) advanced graphical techniques used, particularly the explosions and the incredibly impressive emulation of the vector-style 3D in the Space Warp level, GORF was better on the VIC-20 than it ever could’ve been in the arcade just by virtue of what it did do, rather than what it didn’t as the case may have been with the arcade cabinet.  And there were some amazing mighty large sprites that to this day still ooze character.


GORF, 1982 (Commodore VIC-20)

One noteworthy improvement over the arcade version of the game surprisingly came in the audio department.  Games of this vintage are not usually pulled up for being decent representations of anything, obviously only having very primitive capabilities when it comes to producing sound.  While the arcade version rarely extended beyond the standard ‘blips’ found in games of that era such as Defender (aside from some token speech samples), the VIC-20 game was filled to the brim with ear piercingly – squeals as you fire at the enemies, and incessant hums as the aliens descend down the screen.  Of course I’m sure these are the result of the limitations of the hardware rather than purposeful improvements, but for me these sound effects are what makes the VIC-20 version so memorable.

In an era where home computer versions of arcade games were, at best, a representation of what the original would be if your dog got the opportunity to port it, Midway did us a bit of a solid by releasing something that while not perfect at least did the original some justice.  It certainly wasn’t perfect and the fast paced arcade game play was in some ways compromised in order to bring it to Commodore’s home computer but given the hardware limitations GORF is as much an impressive an example of 8-bit computing as it is a nostalgia trip to the roots of video gaming.

[penned by Sir Gaulian]


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