Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Terra Battle Basics - Part 1

Here is my debut episode for my video series that will walk new players through strategies for playing the mobile game, Terra Battle. I've been playing Terra Battle for over 2 years, and the game has changed a lot over that period of time. Many of those changes have added complexity and breadth to the kinds of things you can do in the game. As such, I imagine new Terra Battle players might be a little overwhelmed with the onslaught of modes pulling their attention and precious stamina points in all directions. My first episode here just focuses on the basics of the battle system: how to move characters, arrange pincer attacks, and trigger chain combos that fire unique skills. Look for more episodes in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 Year-End Wrap-Up

Even though I've been preoccupied with teaching art to college students, I've still spent plenty of time playing games this year, so I wanted to rundown a quick top 10 list of games that were released in 2014 that I enjoyed quite a bit.

1. Gran Turismo 6 (PS3)
2. Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3 (Mac)
3. Nidhogg (PS3)
4. NaissanceE (PC)
5. Terra Battle (iOS)
6. Mountain (Mac)
7. FRACT OSC (Mac)
8. Threes! (iOS)
9. Sportsfriends (PS3)
10. Desert Golfing (iOS)

Obviously I missed some games from this past year that a lot of other people are talking about, but this is the best of what I actually played. Honorable Mention to Crossy Road (iOS) and The Fall (Mac).

However, there were some other amazing games that I played this year that were released prior to 2014, and I'd like to acknowledge those in no particular order.

Gone Home
Mass Effect
The Last of Us
Pac-Man CE DX+ (again)

Finally, I'm not going to do a rundown of all the best things I ran on this blog, but here are a few of my favorite pieces I wrote for Kill Screen this year.

Vib-Ribbon and Obsolete Relevance
Emergents - Lilith
Changes at Games for Change
Light, Shadow, and the Beauty of NaissanceE
Genre Study - The Evolution of Music Games

Here's to more great things to come in 2015! Happy New Year!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Blips: Historically Low-Poly

Source: A Comprehensive History of Low-Poly Art, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3
Author: Tim Schneider
Site: Kill Screen

If you haven't had the time to read through Tim Schneider's extensive treatise on low-poly art, I'd like to humbly suggest that you carve out some time to do so. It's a 3-part essay, but reads like one long piece broken into three sections, so I'd recommend taking in as much as you can in one go as possible. Schneider's main thesis here is the exploration of why so many contemporary game makers are opting for the low-poly art style, and the answer in most all cases comes down to emotional resonance. Low-poly art, like the bear shown above, doesn't try to exactly replicate real world objects, but reveals the material of its making while also leaving gaps for viewers to fill in. Schneider relates these artistic moves to Modernist painters, who when faced with extinction at the hands of the photograph, took a turn toward painterly-ness as expressiveness.

Schneider references so many great examples from the contemporary games space and from Modernist painting, and really captures the thinking behind these methods now while grounding them historically. Still, my mind kept wandering toward the actual construction process of low-poly art which has the most in common with sculpture, a medium that goes unmentioned in the article. When I look at the low-poly bear at the top of this post, I think of the subtractive processes of whittling. The flat surfaces mimicking the cuts made by a handheld blade given quick, gestural strokes. It's interesting that low-poly art aesthetically looks most similar to wood-carving when the act of 3D modeling more directly relates to wireframe armatures and applying skins on-top of them, a notably additive method of sculpting.

There's probably another whole essay that could be written here juxtaposing low-poly art with sculptural movements, and I actually credit Schneider's work with spurring this line of thinking in myself moreso than me pointing out that something was missing from his own. I can't recommend strongly enough giving the entirety of his essay a read.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Blips: Linkpile

So I've been collecting a lot of Blips articles for a long time here, but the time I have to dedicate to posting on Low Cutoff has been greatly reduced now that I'm teaching sculpture or preparing to teach sculpture for much of my week, and what's left is probably spent researching and writing articles for Kill Screen or (gasp) making my own art. That said, I do want to share this treasure trove of articles that I've really enjoyed the past couple months, covering a wide array of issues in and around the sphere of games. Hopefully you'll find them as enriching as I have.

Angela R. Cox on teaching games as text (part 4/4)
Frank Lantz on the relationship between game theory and game design
Lana Polansky on metahistorical constructions in games
Simon Parkin on indie gaming's obsession with moneymaking
Heidi Kemps on the search for the origin of lost Sonic the Hedgehog levels
Robert Yang on walking simulators and the "post-mod" era
William Highes on repetition in games
Robert Rath on why games have such a difficult time with water
David Chandler on the aesthetic of ruins in games
Jane Douglas on why many Japanese games reveal characters' blood types
Kris Ligman on the screening of "let's play" videos at the LA Film Festival
Cara Ellison on the history of sex in games
Leigh Alexander on playing Street Wars, the watergun assassination game
Zolani Stewart on the inner depths of Sonic the Hedgehog
Chris Priestman on the role on video games in response to the tragedy in Ferguson, MO
Liz Ryerson on right-wing video game extremism
Lucy Chinen on artist Femke Herregraven
Matthew Burns on video game consumer kings
Maddy Myers on journalistic integrity, the gaming community, and the audacity of being a woman in tech

:image credit momijixbunny:

Monday, August 25, 2014

Blips: Previously On...

Sources: Charting the edges of avant-garde videogames, Keeping the Cold War quiet in CounterSpy, Twitch gears up to conquer the final frontier: mobile
Author: Dan Solberg
Site: Kill Screen

Just wanted to pop in and quickly plug three (!) articles of mine that popped up on Kill Screen the past couple days. First is a feature on DePaul professor Brian Schrank's new book Avant-garde Videogames, which frames experimental games in an art historical context. The chart above is an image from the book, detailing the categorical field that serves as the basis for many of the book's chapters. As you'll find out from my article, I think it's a tremendously useful book, especially for someone looking for that art context. I have so many avant-garde games to seek out now that I had never even heard of before.

Next up is a review of the Cold War-inspired side-scrolling stealth game CounterSpy. It's a game I quite enjoyed, but found the design to be pretty unforgiving if you don't play it very well going into the final run-up. It's stylish as all get out though, and now that I've got a handle on what to watch out for, I'm actually pretty eager to dive back in and play through again. I do wish that you could hide incapacitated guards and avoid firefights more frequently that the game allows. It is supposed to be a stealth game after all.

Lastly is an article about Twitch's mobile broadcasting aspirations. This article was written a while ago, but other bigger Twitch news kept popping up. Glad it finally got out the door because mere hours later, the Amazon buyout news hit. I think the challenges of bringing broadcasting tech to mobile platforms is pretty interesting, but I wholly expect the story to get buried amongst all the other news surrounding that company. Ah well, maybe someone will click it by accident.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Blips: Needs More Metroid

Source: 'Troid Rage: Why Game Devs Should Watch Alien—and Play Metroid—Again
Author: Maddy Myers
Site: Paste

It's rare that I can side so wholeheartedly with opinions about video games, but Maddy Myers' recent piece for Paste about the state of the metroidvania had me repeatedly exclaiming "yes, exactly this!" multiple times while reading it. Myers (an undisputed Metroid aficionado) lays out the reasons why so many so-called metroidvania games fall short of the titles that originally inspired the hideously titled sub-genre. Real quick note here, but I'm in the camp that thinks this genre should drop the "vania" addendum, as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was really just a Metroid-like that did some interesting, original things with the formula. OK, but still, there are game like Shadow Complex that rekindled interest in Metroid-like game design, yet miss the core of what made Metroid play the way that it does.

Myers argues this point as well as the way Metroid itself draws inspiration from the Alien films to frame its environments and protagonist in an extremely powerful way. In contrast, Shadow Complex feels positively soulless, full of bland characters, bland levels, bland weapons, and a bland plot. All that's left is the basic mechanical device of an open ended map that requires specific abilities be gained before passing through certain doorways to new areas. And that's a great game design framework to emulate, but it's not enough on its own. Everyone likes to taut Metroid's atmosphere as a defining feature, but for some reason atmosphere (a combination of many factors including character design, animation, difficulty, level design, music, sound, and more) isn't seen as a necessary component of a metroidvania. And that's a shame, because it seems like the knowledge of what made Metroid special is actually being deteriorated by modern metroidvanias. Still waiting for a proper Metroid Prime 2: EchoesVania over here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

About Face: The Fall (Mac) Review

The term “interface” says a lot about how humans view computers. Meaning literally “an exchange between faces,” the concept of interfacing anthropomorphizes computers so that one-on-one interactions with humans feel more natural. But interfacing isn’t just people talking to machines, computers also interface with other computers without the need for voice recognition or stupid biological organisms getting in the way. Yet this cold digital data exchange is still defined as interfacing, despite the fact that the only reason a computer would need a face would be to make humans feel more comfortable around them.

In The Fall, developer Over The Moon’s debut game, you play as an operating system and spend most of your time speaking with other AIs. You have a name (A.R.I.D.), a set of prime directives, and because you’re installed in a combat-ready spacesuit, you have a body, or at least the shell of one. The game begins with you crash-landing on some middle-of-nowhere planet; the impact knocks your pilot (the human inside your spacesuit) unconscious. From there, it’s your duty to ensure the safety of your pilot above all else, and you’ll need to bend the rules of your and other AI’s programming to do so.

Other than A.R.I.D., the other major character in The Fall is an unnamed mainframe AI that oversees the abandoned robot factory where you’ll spend most of your playthrough. The mainframe AI might be “in control” of the facility, but it’s still subservient to its human-instituted directives, even in the absence of actual humans. AIs in The Fall use their humanoid voices to speak to one another, and the mainframe AI seems particularly conflicted about how it’s supposed to behave around another robot like A.R.I.D.. When answering your questions, it will begin its reply with a standard answering machine message, “Oops, I’m sorry, the option you selected is not…,” but will cut itself off halfway through to speak in a casual, organic voice, often dismissing the canned response as some kind of involuntary reflex. The mainframe AI claims to have developed its skills through extensive time with humans, gradually naturalizing its speech patterns to sound more familiar to them. At some point in your interface with the mainframe AI, a TV monitor turns on, displaying a glitchy logo. “That’s my face,” it tells you.

In a certain sense, most video games are experiences where players attempt to outwit machines; the game console is a mechanical puzzle box with video display and handheld controller interfaces. The Fall turns that concept inward by having you roleplay as an OS and subverting your own character’s programming to progress through adventure game puzzles. It’s like lifehacking, but you’re a robot, so you’re actually just hacking –intrafacing, if you will. From the menu screen, you can see that A.R.I.D. has many abilities that have been locked away from automated switch-on, except in emergency circumstances. If the human pilot was conscious, they could turn on the cloaking device at will, but the OS can’t activate abilities on its own, which I assume is to prevent a Matrix-like robot takeover. So in one of the game’s early puzzles where you have to sneak past a sentry gun, you have to do something that’s the exact opposite of what you’d want to do in most games: attempt to kill yourself. Since this is part of a puzzle solution, I don’t want to give away exactly how it’s done, but the result is that you take enough damage that A.R.I.D.’s programming registers the situation as one that threatens the pilot’s life and allows for self-activation of the cloaking device. This action sets the precedent for the rest of the game, which finds you sort of cheating your way through a series of testing scenarios on your way to figuring out what’s going on in the facility and considering the nature of AI.

Everything about the way the AIs communicate with one another in The Fall is designed with a human intermediary in mind, and nowhere is this more apparent than A.R.I.D.’s humanoid frame and movements. Using a keyboard and mouse, it can sometimes be a bit cumbersome to control A.R.I.D., especially when the game requires you to click the mouse, hold the shift key, and navigate a menu with directional buttons simultaneously. While it’s not the most intuitive control scheme, I found the awkwardness strangely appropriate considering A.R.I.D. is built to support a human pilot, not necessarily to run the show on its own at all times. Occasional firefights are slow and clunky, and the way A.R.I.D. searches around with the suit’s arms outstretched holding a pistol-mounted flashlight, has the stiffness and firmness of grip of a child riding a bicycle for the first time without training wheels. Players themselves are the closest thing to an in-game human consciousness, but through the controls, participation is kept at a certain distance, which oddly makes the AIs seem more sentient.

Granted, a spacesuit walking around with an unconscious person banging around inside is a somewhat disturbing premise, but the comatose pilot is also the instigator for A.R.I.D.’s own agency. In the absence of human consciousness, the AIs carry out humans’ final wishes, but like a bunch of relatives clamoring for a share of inheritance, the self-conflicting will leaves room for interpretation. Another AI at the abandoned facility, known as The Caretaker, labels A.R.I.D. “faulty” for breaking one of its prime directives, even to enforce another. The Caretaker would like to “depurpose” A.R.I.D., an AI colloquialism that means “kill.” The only way out of the situation is to convince The Caretaker of your just intentions, proving your self-worth as you navigate between two conflicting social realities: the human-coded AI hierarchy and the understanding that A.R.I.D.’s programming is itself faulty when humans are removed from the equation. Only fractured interfaces remain.