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Two racing games and a rotary engine

rotaryengineanimationI find that the start of any Civilization game is always the most exciting. It’s the excitement of anticipation, of mystery, knowing that there’s a whole  world out there to explore. There is still a palpable giddiness that comes with your first military unit, your first settlers unit, your first granary, and of course your first wonder of the world.  Finding your path – a unique path – through the “new world” is an exciting experience no matter how many times you’ve done it.  But no matter how dynamic and unique each play through of Sid Meier’s anthropological epic is I start every game exactly the same way, leaving my fledgling town, nay civilisation, undefended as I go in search of new frontiers for my nation.  It may be a habit, and in some cases a bad one that leads to crushing defeat within minutes, but it’s a habit that has come to define my relationship with the series.

While on face value it seems an entirely different proposition, I have a similar relationship with the Forza series, or perhaps more accurately console racing games of that scope generally.  Like Civilization, every first in Forza is the sort of moment you remember every time you boot the game up, from the first time you hope in your favourite Group B rally car to your first lap around de Barcelona-Catalunya in an open-wheeled monster, the first time you accelerate off of the grid is a moment to remember and cherish.  But regardless of which beasts I pilot throughout the course of the dozens upon dozens of hours I pour into these motorsport masterpieces, line-up permitting, I always start exactly the same way.

Ever since Gran Turismo found its way into my Playstation way back in the late 90’s, introducing me to the wonder of Japanese sports cars in the process, I’ve had an at times obsessive but always irrational love of Mazda’s RX-7.  Growing up Australia’s roads were always chock full of Australian built cars, from the Torana and the Commodore to the Kingswood and the Falcon.  Even when low priced and high quality Japanese cars not only hit but took hold of the market, it was the still the Aussie beasts that ruled the road.  We were so patriotic in fact, that when the Nissan Skyline “Godzilla” had an almost untouchable run in the Australian Touring Car Championship in the early 90’s, a regulation was changed to force them out of the competition.  You had to live in a cave not to know your GTR-XU1 from your SLR-5000 or your Dick Johnson from your Peter Brock.  It was the Australian way of life, and even those who had no reaction to that awfully sweet roar of an Aussie enlarged Ford inline 6 or a Holden straight six 202, at least had an appreciation of our unique car culture.

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But as soon as Gran Turismo hit – almost overnight – the roads were populated with the curvaceous beauty of the latest monster from the land of the rising sun.  Amongst them was Mazda’s long-lived sports car series, the rotary masterpiece that is the RX-7.   First built in 1978, the RX-7 went through three major design changes in its almost twenty five year history.  The first generation box look took the car through to the middle of the 1980’s, until the second generation of the RX-7 introducing a sleeker and more streamlined design the car became known for, which finally culminated in the ever-modern look of the third generation that was manufactured through to the discontinuation of the model in 2002.  While the continual evolution of the cars’ design undoubtedly made for a more aesthetically pleasing, not to mention more powerful and well-rounded sports car, each and every model of the car has something unique about it that makes it hard not to love.

I can remember the first time I saw a 1998 Mazda RX-7 Infiniti in real life, sitting regally on the floor of the Melbourne International Motor Show, glistening in an absolutely unreal way.  Being taters deep in Gran Turismo at the time, and a second-hand RX-7 being the first car I’d bought in the game, it was like seeing my wildest video game fantasies manifest themselves in the real world.  That was the moment I fell in love with the RX-7.  And there was something about the rotary engine that someone once described to me as a ‘triangle going spastic in a box‘ that really clicked with the mechanically curious part of my brain.  The RX-7 wasn’t just a car to me, it was my first, the first Japanese designed and built car that I really fell in love with.

Fast forward through almost 20 years of video games, and call it a habit or call it an attempt to evoke some sort of nostalgia of that first video game experience, but where I can I still make sure that the RX-7 is the first car I buy when I embark on the journey through an expertly curated and designed history of motorsport.  Sure the path through every Gran Turismo and every Forza is different, as I build my collection of cars and with it trophies, trying out new cars and new tuning settings, all in pursuit of shedding a couple of milliseconds here and there off of the lap time on any given track.  But every journey invariably begins with Mazda’s beautiful metallic beast with a heart of rotary gold.

It may sound trite, or perhaps even overly and unjustly romantic, but my little ritual is a chance to relive that ‘first love’ over and over again, the chance to get behind the wheel of a car that I’ve harboured such adoration for for such a long time, and the chance to show what the car’s got when the rubber meets the road.  But it’s more than that, it’s about celebrating one of the ways that video games have enriched my life, and introduced me to a whole new world of motorsport.  And like much like Civilization, I have a ritual that I stick to, and one that has come to define a significant part of my enjoyment of these games.  So when Forza 6 presented me with the ability to choose my first car the choice was obvious.

And so there it sits in my garage where it will remain until forever and a day, my beautiful Series 1 RX-7.

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by | 15 October 2015 · 5:39 pm

On deaf ears: how smart visual design can make games more hearing-impaired accessible

XIIIPS2Video game designers have taught us, through intricately designed HUDs throwing all manner of information at the player every second, to pay attention to our surroundings.  Visual cues are more often than not integral to success, and much research and effort has gone into cramming as much vital information on screen in the most efficient way possible, to ensure that players have all the visual tools they need to stay alive.

But what about sound?   If you’ve ever tried to play a game with the sound muted you’ll know just how strange of an experience it is.  And subtitles can only go so far, because while they capture the spoken scripted tracks, it often entirely misses the ambient sound of the world around the player.  If you try it for yourself you’ll realise it’s not a trivial thing and that every genre –  from the sound of car engines roaring up behind in Forza or the ruffling of enemies in Bloodborne in a room head – immerses the player in the world and conveys amazing amounts of information through sound.

In a lot of ways XIII was a thoroughly average Playstation 2 game.  It was, like many other games at the time, piggybacking on both the enormous popularity of shooters and the rather infectious fascination with cell-shaded graphics.  But I liked its take on the European graphic novels I grew up with and at the time it was quite the looker.  It may not have been the best shooter, but it was certainly unique, and in an era where the carbon copy was king that was enough to hold my interest.

But what stood out to me – even at the time – was how its reliance on onomatopoeia could have potentially made it incredibly friendly to people with hearing impairments.  At times it just captured what was quite obviously happening on screen, with a BAM! here or a KABOOM! there, accompanying the sound effects pouring out of the speakers but also the action on-screen.  And this is a great way to convey the visceral nature of a game’s sound effects.  Games are a sensory experience – both visual and aural – and anything that can be done to capture or enhance the atmosphere of a game should be done.

But it was what happened in the quieter moments that really caught my attention.  Amongst the bazooka and assault rifle fuelled action that comprised most of the game, XIII was punctuated with some simple stealth sequences, that had you sneaking rather than shooting.  Gameplay wise it was nothing special, serving more to break up the action, while playing to the game’s espionage themes more than anything else.  But where it did revolutionise things was in how it used visual cues to convey the sound of nearby enemies, which if you’ve played a stealth game, you’ll know is key to experience.  SEEING the footsteps of an enemy is a nearby room get bigger as he draws nearer, as the words Tap Tap Tap move with him, is quite the experience even for someone who can hear.  While it may have been stylistic more than functional, it was an excellent way to visually convey sound, but an even more brilliant way to make the game’s stealth mechanics accessible to everyone.  And there is no reason this model couldn’t be adopted and adapted for every genre and every aesthetic – but perhaps more importantly no reason it shouldn’t be.

And while we always looks for new and innovative ways to give equal opportunity to people playing games, the hundreds year old answer may be staring the  interface and accessibility designers right in the face, without them knowing it.  Comic books and graphic novels may be just visual experiences, but because of this, they’ve had to find ways to visually represent .  Subtitles are the natural extension of this, but if games adopted the onomatopoeia used to convey sound where there is none, we’d improve the experience of video games for those who can’t hear them by ten fold.  It’s not just a style choice, it’s a matter of accessibility and equality of experience, and I’m all for that.

I would love to be in a world where everyone can enjoy the atmosphere created by video games regardless of any impairments.  And the great thing is it’s not a pipe dream.  But we just need designers to find more creative ways to improve the accessibility of their games.  I’d personally love to see VROOOOM! pop up at the bottom of the screen in Forza 6 as an opponent screams toward me, so I can only imagine the difference it would make to someone with a hearing disability.

I’d love to hear the game playing experiences of people with hearing impairments or other disabilities, so if this is you, or you know someone else please share your experiences in the comments below.

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The Bright side of the Moon – the upside to the Game Boy’s monochromatic screen

It doesn’t take long to get me ranting and raving about how bloody fantastic the film Moon is. In addition to being a thoughtful science fiction film, spearheaded by an amazing performance by the always excellent Sam Rockwell, it is also a beautifully shot film with a colour palette that does a shitload with very little. Space is one hell of an isolated place, and the incredibly utilitarian look of the Sarang combined with the sparseness and contrast of the moon’s surface against the blackness of space, is incredibly effective not to mention visually striking.  In my books it’s nigh on being the perfect theoretical depiction of life in space.  And that’s high praise for a medium that has the equivalent of a rip-roaring erection for the extra-terrestrial.

Video games, like film, too have a fascination with the great expanse above our atmosphere. While utilitarian by virtue of its technical constraints, Super Mario Land 2 for mine captures that same sparseness one would expect from the moon.  As undoubtedly one of the prettiest games on the Game Boy, it may seem a bit strange to talk about the least graphically impressive part of the game, but there’s just something about the Space Zone that hits all of my lo-fi space-loving buttons.  The (incredibly) limited colour palette works to create one mighty desolate lunar world, while at the same time capturing the beauty of the ‘universe’ that has had humanity gazing up at the stars probably since the moment we evolved to have eyes.  It is entirely accidental, of course, but the monochromatic constraints of the Game Boy delivered the same amazing minimalist vision of space that Duncan Jones’ film so beautifully captured.

Although snot green wasn’t necessarily the most flattering of base colours, the high contrast on screen was enough for the mind’s eye to fill in the blanks, at least that was until the Game Boy Color with all its fancy palette swapping madness perfected the picture.  It was finally the picture of black and white perfection I’d pictured all along.  While the Pumpkin Zone levels had the same effect, with the way the various shades of grey – not quite 50 – are used to give the sensation of light peering in through windows or the gradual fading of light from wall-mounted torches, it isn’t quite as special as the graphical contrast between the moon’s surface and the star-spangled vacuum that is beautiful nothingness.

(It’s starting to sound a bit like I have a rip-roaring erection for the moon, isn’t it?)

In many ways all of humanity’s views of what it’s like to be on the surface of the moon come from that still pretty bloody amazing 1969 footage of the first man to set foot on our great celestial sidekick.  But it’s an incredibly strong visual image that, until we have our own visual reference, is going to form the basis of any attempts to recreate it.   It’s a beautiful image, really, and one that captures humanity’s imagination almost like no other.  But while more modern games may do a better job of it – Gran Turismo 6’s bizarre but unbelievably striking journey to the moon comes to mind – I’ll always have an unrivalled fondness for Nintendo’s constrained but artistically beautiful vision of a man walking on the moon.  Low-gravity and all.

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On Far Cry 4: How the plight of Kyrat’s people taught me the importance of protection of religious freedom

FarCry4The following may contain mild spoilers of Far Cry 4’s plot.  For the hypersensitive, consider yourself warned.

I grew up in a very unreligious household.  There was no anti-religious sentiment – after all I was only a generation removed from the anglo-christian upbringing of my grandparents in Europe – but there was certainly a dearth of religious text and learnings in the house.  In fact that’s pretty commonplace in Australia, a country where I know more people that have never been to church than those who have, and where religion isn’t something that defines us for a society.  It’s an upbringing that I’m proud of in some respects, but one that in other ways, has left me with a significant hole in understanding of the world around me.  Religion is derided in many corners of the modern world, but it would be remiss of anyone to admit to its importance as a building block toward the modern freedom and civil obedience we en masse enjoy in the western.  And in some parts of the world it’s still an enormous part of their culture and identity.

In the current global climate it’s a difficult thing to understand, and as someone who has no point of reference, I find it slightly unnerving the unwavering devotion of one’s self to religious idealism and beliefs.  When manifested in its physical form, as a proponent of the protection of human history, I understand the outrage at the irreversible destruction of ancient religious artefacts and places.  But protection of these very same places as the destruction of spiritually relevant landmarks with personal and intrinsic value is not something I can understand. Australian society may place significant value on the intrinsic (and monetary) value of places, but we lack the sort of spiritual connection to land and places that many societies have, including the strong inbuilt connection our own indigenous people have to this country.  We may sympathise but I’m not sure we’ll ever empathise.  It’s just the nature of modern western society.

My time in Far Cry 4’s Kyrat, a place steeped in religious connection to the land and to the people, opened my eyes to spiritual devotion.  It’s no secret that I think Far Cry 4 offers an interesting insight into other cultures, but that vein of rich world building runs deeper than it appears, arguably overshadowing the amazing action experience the game delivers.  Kyrat is a world of political oppression, of dictatorship, but more importantly one of religious persecution.  It’s not uncommon for tyrannical leaders to use religion as a tool to indoctrinate or persecute populations, and the charismatic Pagan Min is no different.  He holds onto power by outlawing religion, by disempowering the population, and through military might through those that oppose him.  For a man that has so little air time in the game itself, Pagan Min is one of the most defined video game characters in recent memory, mostly due to the brilliant ambient and environmental storytelling.  Everything from the notes found around the world, to the Government sanctioned ramblings of religious prohibition permeating the airwaves, Kyrat is an oppressed society and its people have lost part of their spirit.

And conversations with Golden Path leaders Amita and Sabal reveal a people that are fighting not only against a maniacal dictator, but are fighting to protect their own religious identities and their own spiritual connection with Kyrat.  And it’s the missions that revolve around the latter that really hit the fact home that religion is intrinsic to the social fabric of Kyrat.  Nothing hit that home like watching the destruction of age-old religious icons, the sleeping saints, at the hands of Pagan Min’s military, as they watch with glee at crumbling statues.  Or desperately repelling the attack on the Chal Jama monastery against waves of heavily armed men intent on destroying the home of the nation’s polytheistic religion.  The plight of the people Kyrat already provided the motivation to fight for freedom, but nothing compared to the desperation protecting the nation’s religious identity and spirituality evoked, or the sense of satisfaction at succeeding to do so.  It wasn’t just fighting for a thousand year old statue, or an ancient place of worship, but rather it was protecting the spirit of the people and their connection to the life they live.

And it was at that moment I understood, perhaps not empathised, but at least understood the plight of societies where religion is intrinsic to their identity.   It gave the fight meaning, it gave the fight context, but most of all it gave the world a level humanity I’ve seldom experienced in a video game.  I’m not a religious person, and in all likelihood will never be, but it’s amazing that a game that prides itself on being a shooter above all else could give me a greater insight into the importance of religion in the fabric of some societies.  I’ll always remember the charismatic Pagan Min and his sprawling battle with the Golden Path rebellion. But for me Far Cry 4 will always be about fighting to protect the freedom of the people of Kyrat and the importance of protecting religious freedom, both in the game, and in real life.

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The Secret Society of the Starship Titanic

My article on the Starship Titanic employee forum has just gone live on Kotaku UK: http://www.kotaku.co.uk/2015/01/23/secret-douglas-adams-rpg-people-playing-15-years.

This was a fascinating article to write – big thanks to Yoz Grahame, Carolyn Wilborn and Tony Marks for their help. It’s all about the game Starship Titanic, which was the brainchild of the late, great Douglas Adams. Yoz set up a secret Starship Titanic ’employee forum’ back in 1998 to promote the launch of the game, but it evolved into something far beyond his imagination…

Starship Titanic box art

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Crimson Shroud is Veil-ey Good

Crimson-Shroud-title-screenCrimson Shroud snuck out for release on the Nintendo eShop around Christmas 2012, and it quickly became one of my favourite 3DS games. It was created by Yasumi Matsuno, director of Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics among others, and it’s easily the highlight of the Guild01 series developed by Level-5.

In modern RPGs there’s been a trend towards hiding the mechanics – the virtual dice rolls that determine whether you hit your opponent and how much damage you cause. It all goes back to the roots of the RPG in Dungeons & Dragons, where the dice rolls are actual and the characters are nothing more than hunks of metal brought to life with a little imagination. Modern games like Mass Effect all but do away with the numbers game, and on the surface they look just like first-person shooters – but somewhere under the flashy graphics, the game is still throwing those virtual dice, it’s just hiding the numbers from you.

Stat heaven.

Stat heaven.

In a wonderful conceit, Crimson Shroud flips this trend on its head – here you’re actually asked to roll those virtual dice with a flick of the stylus, and the characters are all static models on dinky little stands. But rather than being set on a living room table with a cardboard playing field, the backgrounds change markedly as you venture further into the dungeon. It’s a great idea, and the dice rolling feels very natural – you can even knock dice off the virtual table if you roll them too hard.

Living room D&D succeeds or fails on the strength of the story being told by the Dungeon Master, and in Crimson Shroud the story is a real highlight. The text is sumptuously written, and although there’s a lot of it, it’s always a pleasure to read. Similarly, the battles are tense and exciting, forcing you to constantly weigh up your opponents’ weaknesses and decide on whether to save dice for a devastating attack or concentrate on using magic to strengthen your defence. It gets very tactical towards the end, but even though I have no experience of playing D&D, I picked it up very quickly.

The downside is that often you’ll need to grind to get the best weapons, and there’s a particularly bad part in the second chapter where progress comes down to fighting a gang of skeletons again and again until one of them drops a key. Get past this bit though and the game opens up a lot more in terms of variety, and waiting for that sweet sweet loot to drop at the end of a battle becomes addictive.

I actually enjoyed this game so much that I started a second playthrough on the Game+ mode, which is something I never do. Usually once I’ve finished a game I won’t go back to it, but I just couldn’t get enough of Crimson Shroud. If you’re at all interested in RPGs and own a 3DS, it’s well worth dropping a few pounds on this little gem. Here’s hoping Matsuno-san is working on a sequel.

Aw, look at their little pedestals.

Aw, look at their little pedestals.

[As penned by +4 Mage Lucius Merriweather.]

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Trine 2: Calamitous Cooperation

Trine 2: Director’s Cut was an impulse purchase on the weekend I received my Wii U, and it quickly turned into a surprise hit with my two sisters. Since then I’ve been playing through the game with my friend Mark at intervals of a few months, and last week we finally finished it, over a year after I bought the game.

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I’d never even heard of Trine 2 when I first saw it on the Nintendo eShop, but the demo video looked great and, flush with the excitement of owning a new console, I decided to buy the game on the spot – a rare occasion of buying without reading the reviews first. Thankfully it turned out to be brilliant, and it’s one of those few and far between games that’s just as much fun to watch as it is to play. The gameplay centres around swapping between three characters – a knight, a wizard and a thief – and using their different abilities to solve puzzles and defeat goblins. The wizard is probably the most entertaining of the bunch, as he can produce mechanical boxes and planks out of thin air, as well as manipulate various bits of scenery with a wave of his hand. The knight, by contrast, has the sword-swinging abilities you’d expect, and the thief can grapple onto bits of scenery and fire arrows at enemies and targets. It all reminded me a bit of The Lost Vikings on the SNES, which featured three hairy dudes with pointy hats that had similarly varied abilities, but I’m surprised the mechanic hasn’t been used more often since the 16-bit days, as it works very well.

Probably the chief reason that I enjoyed Trine 2 so much was the unintentional hilarity of cooperating with Mark. Often this would involve one of us playing the wizard and building some sort of rickety tower in an attempt to reach the next section; meanwhile the other player would attempt to climb the tower, only for the wizard to unintentionally/deliberately cause some element of the death-trap tower to disappear, causing the knight/thief to plunge to their doom. With hilarious results.

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Honestly, I’ve never laughed so hard at my own ineptitude as I did during the fun-filled hours playing this game. I made a point of only playing it in co-op, as it’s easily twice as much fun when you’re attempting to bodge together some unorthodox solution with a friend compared with playing solo. And speaking of unorthodox solutions, I’m certain that some of the methods we came up with weren’t the ones that the designers intended, but the game has a wonderfully flexible system when it comes to puzzle solving, and it really encourages experimentation.

It’s not all great though. In particular, the controls feel a bit floaty, and the plot is hardly anything to write home about: frankly, neither of us gave two hoots about the princess we were trying to save. The game also provoked the occasional prolonged bout of swearing and controller abuse on my part, although this was usually down to my own incompetence or frustration at watching Mark try and fail to jump onto a platform for the nineteenth time. On occasion I may, may, have uttered the words “Look just give it here and let me do it”, like some sort of pushy dad. For this, I am ashamed.

But overall the fun far outweighed the frustration, and to top it all off the game looks stunning. Seriously, it even puts Rayman Legends to shame when it comes to beautiful 2D side scrollers, and apparently there’s an even more gorgeous PS4 version on the way. Overall it comes highly recommended, especially if you have a friend or two to play it with.

[Calamitously penned by Lucius Merriweather.]

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