Sunday, August 23, 2009

Standing up for my Bros.

There is an outspoken assumption that seems to be shared by many "hardcore" gamers (read: people who have been playing video games for more than twenty years), and it goes something like this: you don't mess with Super Mario Bros. 3, King of 2-D Platformers. Admittedly, it is "It" that introduced such concepts as the "world map" and "hidden secrets" to a genre not especially known for depth and latitude, and perfected platform physics to a stupendous degree of immediacy. But still, that kind of information is hard to process for someone who has grown up on Super Mario World. As expansive and ambitious as its predecessor may have been, the gorgeous and sprawling SNES game seemed to have it all at the time, whether or not we may still be able to enjoy it to its fullest (as Chris Lepine briefly discusses here). For me, the war between the epitomes of Mario games is one that never ended, and one that I needed to tackle head-on in this later age.

I had been meaning to dive back into Super Mario Bros. 3 for some time, but it is Tim Rogers' dense and rambling, wildly entertaining review of the game that finally convinced me to give it a shot. And yet, for all its passion, quirky insights and odd fixation with terms such as "friction" and "common sense", the review fails to explore one aspect of SMB3 that for some reason seems to be neglected by enthusiasts everywhere ; namely, the multiplayer. "Why is it", I asked myself in puzzlement, "that we tend to dismiss the adventures of the Super Mario Brothers as those of Mario alone?". Why is it, although there might be solid arguments to support that position, that we automatically associate every "canonical" Mario game with a single-player experience? And so it is with these questions in mind that I prudently approached SMB3 once again, with a couple of friends in tow. Little did I know that I would soon find myself in complete fascination with the game's subtleties.

In short, what I found is that, apart from its obvious achievements in level design and character handling, Super Mario Bros. 3 may well contain one of the most ambiguous multiplayer components of any video game to date. This "ambiguity" that I speak of is never explicitly stated and may have not even been intended, but it is present nonetheless, at every step of any game session. Consider these elements that enrich SMB3's gameplay, but that we have come to accept without much thought: the mushroom huts that contain helpful articles, the gates that crash once a mini-boss has been defeated, the pipes laden to zip throughout the map, and so on. Now, consider how these additions affect gameplay with another person ; without diving too much in the details, let's just say that they play a large part in the strange mix of competition and collaboration that naturally emerges from the game's design.

Plainly, the first thing that one might do at the outset of a two-player session of Super Mario Bros. 3 is pressing the B button to initiate a "battle" stage. The reasons for this are left to the players: do they duke it out as a way of determining who "deserves" to go first? Or simply as a way to warm up? There is little concrete motivation for doing this, but some might be tempted anyway. After that initial phase, the game informally takes the shape of a race to the first hut or slot machine, with more opportunities to engage into battle, and a certain incentive for the players to smartly manage what they do with their respective turns. Each is responsible for his or her own stock of lives, items, and level-end "cards", and a defeated player might benefit from a pipe or pathway unlocked by the other. And so, gradually, the innovative nature of Super Mario Bros. 3 might come into view ; while the addition of a world map may have proven compelling for a single adventurer of the time, its combination with a pair of fairly competent players turns into an entirely new form of board game, one that is tightly dependent on the electronic nature of video gaming, and devoid of strict rules concerning the unfolding of the session.

While I may not have made my point entirely clear, compare this mode with that of the original Super Mario Bros., or even of the more sophisticated Super Mario World: two players, alternating turns, working towards the end of the current level. While the latter may at least have the players share a consistent map (and thus general progression through the world), the fact is that these games are simply not set up to allow any interesting interplay to occur between the participants. Given the lack of reason to mind their individual avatar, a pair of players is much more likely to fire up a solo game and to pass the controller, whereas the rarefied "special spots" on Super Mario Bros. 3's world map act as anything but idle distractions ; they are milestones to look forward to, to anticipate and orient one's play in the immediate, and represent much more than a way of accumulating extra lives and puffing up one's arsenal (as they are in the flawed, conflicted New Super Mario Bros. for the DS). Branching paths call forth a choice, usually between levels of differing challenge, and the mobile "Hammer Bros." constitute the dynamic element that keeps the playfield lively. In other words, every turn in Super Mario Bros. 3 represents a gamble towards tangible and fluctuating stakes, while every other Mario consists of a steady climb, with only minor bumps along the way.

As the difficulty ramps up (and it does start to ramp up really fast), the competitive mindset of reaching the next milestone or simply getting more playtime than one's partner may begin to fade in the background. Naturally, through increased danger and level complexity, the incentive of getting through the present world becomes of prime importance, and Super Mario Bros. 3 delicately turns into the kind of collaborative experience that its brethren proposed without applying much thought to it. The elements of interplay, however, are never exactly suppressed, and logically meld themselves into the structure of the game in ways that can be taken advantage of. From this point on, the process of surviving the ordeals of ever-greater magnitude can become rather involved: one player might work through a difficult portion to open a bonus stage for the other to refill his stock of lives, while his partner may try to obtain an item equally helpful to breezy progression. At all times, it is important that one player doesn't go and clear every stage, because his expiration would entail the resetting of said levels. And still, unlike games such as Donkey Kong Country (which effortlessly and quite brilliantly integrated collaboration in the core of its design), this strange, unspoken sort of co-op gameplay manages to work despite the avatars almost never sharing the action. At the end of the day, every player remains responsible for his or her performance, and in this regard the game may not appear so different from other Mario installments ; but in the sense that every mistake is an opportunity for learning the nuances of the game and to flex some oblique teamwork skills, to share the experience makes it that much more rewarding.

For motives undoubtedly pertaining to their large scale and completionist nature ("kleptomaniac", as Tim Rogers would put it), the Mario games have been traditionnally associated with single-player enjoyment. The excellent Yoshi's Island would be a solitary affair through and through, as would Super Mario 64 and the rest of its 3-D progeny. They have been turned explicitly into a "virtual board game" by way of the abysmal Mario Party series ; one that nearly reduces playing to being a spectator, occasionally stirs the pot with afterthoughts disguised as "mini-games", and fills the blanks with cringe-inducing bells and whistles. And yet, even while granting multiple users the occasion to "share the screen" at several points, it doesn't really seem to allow them to "share the game" in any way that doesn't imply greed and otherwise selfish dispositions. Super Mario Bros. 3, on the other hand, subtly walks the line between being an individual and a shared experience, with shifting, elliptical goals that don't interfere with the main act of clearing the levels. As such, by assigning a series of general destinations without imposing on the proceedings, it frees the players to experiment with the game, together, in whatever crazy manner they want, and fully embraces the playful "wiggle room" that the best video games allow. Surely that must deserve a little approving nudge, right?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Garden in Review

From the get-go, everything aligned to get the hype kicking around IGF victor Blueberry Garden: the early, enigmatic trailer, Erik Svedäng's crazy hairdo, the unveiling of a launch date on Steam, and of course the agonizing last-minute delays. Some people responded to this sequence of events with heightened expectations, ready to lash out ; others, like Destructoid's Anthony Burch (he of the excellent but hard-to-browse Indie Nation column), took it as a genuine "happening" of indie gaming, and seized the opportunity to fully engage with the piece, albeit not as critically as might have been the case with a lesser title. It was an odd, confusing encounter, but one that ended up yielding a peculiar sense of reward for the right people. Not since the release of Tale of Tales' The Path back in March had the community seemed so divided.

Declaring my time with Blueberry Garden some of the most pleasurable I ever spent in front of a personal computer would come off a little naive, so let's just say it delivered one of the best gaming experiences I had this year. It was very interesting for me, then, to witness the game's public bashing on GameSpot, courtesy of Kevin VanOrd's review (assorted with a rather aggravating score of 5.0). Interesting because, as defensive as I was of the game, I found myself mostly agreeing with the writer's main points, especially regarding technical issues. I would even go so far as insisting on the game's very spotty collision detection, which can lead to some awkward situations. What I didn't share, however, was VanOrd's apparent bafflement at what he refers to as a general "shallowness".

Contrast this with Burch's early appreciation of the game, obviously written in a spur of sudden admiration. Quickly, the writer notes the "focus" of the game's design and layout, as well as the solidity of the exploration mechanics that "make the blueberry garden an enjoyable place to explore on a purely mechanical level". Soon, it becomes clear that Burch took great pleasure in the piece's "big reveal", which completely changed his approach to the game on subsequent tries. And this, I believe, is the defining morsel of these impressions: whereas the aforementioned review criticized the game as a whole package, after the fact, Mr. Burch writes of his interest in the process of discovery, of his personal feelings while piecing the game's admittedly modest "enigma", but also of his encounter with the game's world and dynamics. Is this an aspect that Mr. VanOrd failed to appreciate? Is this factor even relevant at all?

Intrigued, I took this conflict of opinion with a site I have always held in high respect as an opportunity to risk a look at Gamespot's reviewing policy. What I found there was quite illuminating, not so much concerning Blueberry Garden's harsh treatment, but about the outfit's approach to criticism as a whole. Apart from the expected statements regarding the all-important money and time of the player (surprisingly, the term "value" is not insisted on), one criteria that stood out from the rest was that of the "rising standards" of game reception. Bluntly put, this means that "each time an excellent game is released, it becomes incrementally more difficult for another game to be as good in the grand scheme of things." While pretty consistent with my knowledge of Gamespot's activities over the years, I couldn't help but be slightly shocked by these words ; I suddenly pictured a gaming press that will never, ever be satisfied, and whose sole nods of approval will only ever mean: "Good job... for now". And while a severely critical attitude will never do any "harm" in a strict sense, it will remain the prime rival of one of art's most important abilities: to delight and fascinate.

Gamespot claims to cater to the "discriminating player", which seems reasonable enough, albeit still a little vague. And yet, as "discriminating" as I consider myself to be, I couldn't help but be absolutely taken by the Blueberry Garden's pacing and presentation, and spent an inordinate amount of time toying around with the widely-claimed but seemingly underappreciated "ecosystem" thought up by Svedäng. Fraser McMillan of Resolution Magazine also wrote of this peculiar pleasure, comparing the game to Takahashi's Noby Noby Boy ; despite the game's rather limited expanse, there simply isn't anything quite like attempting to keep the garden lively and well-spread, totally disregarding the completion of the game. And it is precisely this kind of personal enjoyment, this kind of autonomous goal-setting, that formal reviews of any game will fail to acknowledge. Especially in a medium where "meaning" isn't as esteemed a factor as in film or poetry, reviews are bound to hit a wall ; there is only so much words that one can apply to the technicalities of what essentially amounts to a toolset, and from then on it's up to the player to make up his own mind. Such are the limits of traditional game criticism, and the reasons why we need more personalized, oriented writing on the subject.

As a surprise ending to this story, I was thrilled to find that Gamespot had finally gone ahead and published a highly-favorable review of The Path just a few days ago (complete with 8.0 rating) ; a game that is sure to cause a great divide among the readers who choose to follow the reviewer's advice. Especially worth noting is that the man behind this risky text is none other than Kevin VanOrd, who goes on to examine the game's unusual merits in clear, literate language. To me, this makes one thing clear above all else: that Mr. VanOrd is an opinionated, open-minded critic capable of nuance and bold partiality. After all, one doesn't go championing Assassin's Creed and Metal Gear Solid 4 on the same terms as Flower and Everyday Shooter without some sense of purpose (or at least of passion), and I believe such virtues are valuable to the growth of the art form as a whole. At the same time, this just goes to show that one's opinion remains just that, and that a critical mind will take it to heart to scan various sources before making a stand of its own.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Playing Catch-up

From what I have posted thus far, you may have gathered that I have spent a fair bit of the summer "catching up" with some of the most acclaimed and/or discussed video games of the last few years. It's a funny thing, arriving at the party late and having a go at the left-overs ; a bit like waiting for a movie to come out on DVD, once everything has already been said. At the same time, playing from such a Critical Distance can prove a wonderful occasion to sift once again through the discourse surrounding the games and to tackle the origins of some current trends in game design hands-on ; in short, to experience the works in a way that was perhaps not intended, but that can still shed light on certain overlooked aspects.

Concentrating on those big, "important" games, however, has led me to neglect the freeware brewings of the independents for some time, which upset me a tiny bit. Part of the reason for this was that the last "big" indie, IGF winner Blueberry Garden (on which I will have more to say), had satisfied me so completely. Another part of it was that, although I seemed able to keep track of which efforts were garnering buzz at the moment, I simply couldn't get into the wholly different mindset that these little games require from the player. Still, the best part about following indie gaming is that a few months or even weeks of absence is likely to spin as many single interesting titles as a few years in the mainstream market ; games of much smaller scope, obviously, but definitely not lacking as far as design or creative chops are concerned.

Here are the links to a few games I have caught up with in the last couple of weeks, each followed by the reason that I think you should play them for.

Alabaster - Led by interactive fiction guru Emily Short, this fascinating take on a familiar tale features acute and suspenseful writing, impeccably managed by a smooth interface. Multiple plays recommended.

Aubergine Sky - Confident and carefully written, this promising "true story" from Jonathan Whiting follows in the wake of Daniel Benmergui, attaining intimacy through simple design and elegant mechanics.

The Beggar - Dropping from out of nowhere, this microscopic webgame slightly reminiscent of Passage turns out to be one of the most eloquent and smartly-conceived "gamey" works of the year. All the best for developer Scott Brodie.

Heed - As close to theater as a video game could get without selling its soul, this short AGS effort touches on themes of esoteric spirituality through appropriately austere puzzles and art design. Hypnotic work from Ben Chandler.

MoneySeize - Probably the less "arty" title of this bunch, Matt Thorson's latest is one of the most inspired exercises in pure, infuriating platforming since... Matt Thorson's own FLail. Excellent layouts and sense of flow throughout.

Rosemary - This short student project from MIT, as flawed as it is gorgeous, almost fulfills the potential of a truly novel mechanic in gaming. Polished and expanded upon, one could see the concept taking on tremendous dimensions.

Tanaka's Friendly Adventure - Too small for a Game Boy cartridge, more expansive than a virtual pet, this portable-style "game" turns mindless navigation, compulsive collecting and instant characterization into a strangely compelling experience. Would be sickening if it didn't look so sincere in the first place.

Upgrade Complete - Time will tell if the so-called "meta" games, turning the conventions of gaming into one big joke (see Jesse Venbrux's mind-bending Karoshi 2.0), manage to make the slightest dent in our habits. In any case, Armor Games' second take on the trend (following the lighter Achievement Unlocked), takes no prisoners, deconstructing the dynamics of cheap reward-driven gameplay with pin-point accuracy.

Use Boxmen - Every once in a while, a charming puzzler turns up and toys around a fresh concept with such style and effortless grace that you wonder why it hasn't been done before. Greg Sergeant's latest is one such aimless endeavor, and pays you back with merry humor and irresistible music.

When Pigs Fly - Last but not least, this expertly-crafted lesson in physics and level design from Anna Anthropy/Dessgeega/Auntie Pixelante is bound to keep you glued to your keyboard, pondering the meaning of life for minutes on end (or not).

Many other indie games of 2009, especially from the first third of the year, would be absolutely deserving of any gaming enthusiast's attention. And even though my personal favorite and top priority for a write-up would be the unbearably fine Glum Buster, I hope to start featuring the sparkling "class of 2009" on a regular basis.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Now "Open for Traffic"

Today is the day that I start publicly sharing links to this blog, and I must confess to being a little nervous. I have worked hard over the last week to polish these first thousands of words and make them into a good read, and I hope that you enjoy what you find. I will now take a few days to collect my thoughts, and I hope to continue posting regularly, although perhaps not as often (or in shorter form). Feel free to let me know what you think!