Archive | April, 2011

Domino Effect

26 Apr

My review of Valve’s new puzzle game Portal 2 is now online at Paste. I liked the game a whole lot, which is not a huge surprise given that it’s the sequel to one of my favorite games of all time and was made by probably my single favorite design studio in the world.

Everyone has had a lot to say about the game, so rather than get too nitty gritty with my criticism, I thought I’d try to illustrate how it felt to play. To do that, I headed down to Cliff’s Variety in the Castro, picked up a big box of dominoes, threw them onto our living room floor, and started taking pictures.

Let me tell you, dominoes do not make for very cooperative photo subjects. Many of the formations I made required a good deal of time to set up (read the review and you’ll see what I’m talking about), and a single mistake would send me back to square one. There are few things more frustrating than toppling a huge domino-heart for the fourth time while Stephen Merchant’s grinning face silently mocks you from the floor.

Interestingly enough, I actually learned a thing about design as I progressed. I was initially constructing the shapes from the beginning to the end, which meant that by the time I got twenty dominoes in, a single mistake could undo all the work that led up to it. In other words, I was unwittingly enforcing old-school game design upon myself, making a game with no checkpoints and a single life. Death resulted in starting all over again. It was stressful.

I quickly figured out that it would be smarter to leave a couple of empty spots in the row, thereby limiting my losses should an errant domino topple. This checkpointing system both of saved me time and helped me to relax, which in turn made me much more effective at laying the actual dominoes.

The moral of the story? Hooray checkpoints!

Anyhow. I had a lot of fun with the review, and even more fun playing the game itself. I still have quite a bit of the co-op campaign to play, as well as the full developer commentary on the single-player campaign. It’s really good.

I’ve noticed several people complaining about the single player campaign’s short length while others are saying that the pacing feels off, that the second and third acts feel bloated. I disagree.

I watched many friends online simply charge through this game, beating it in a single day. While I’m sure this would have been possible, I opted to take my time with it (ten hours for single-player), playing for an hour or two each night for a week. I’m glad I did.

I got stuck a couple of times, and rather than looking for an answer online, I turned off the machine and slept on it, returning the next day with fresh eyes. Personally speaking, I had no problem with Portal 2‘s pacing; with each new hour, I was simply happy to be playing more Portal. Sure, a few of the puzzles in the second act felt a touch too spacious and undirected, but that’s a fairly small complaint compared to the vast number of things the game does right.

There are so many great little touches, many of them musical—the way that lasers generate complimentary tones, the grooves generated by the electronic catapult-levers—as well as the seemingly endless amount of macho dialogue given to the malfunctioning turret bots and the scores of hidden jokes and references that I have yet to find. Valve’s Source engine might be showing its age in terms of its its ability to stream content and eliminate loading screens, but it remains clean and beautiful and is a joy to see in motion. And the big finale! While I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for anyone, suffice to say that I almost fell out of my chair due to the awesomeness.

Anyhow. You can get my official thoughts over at Paste, along with my dominotastic rendition of what it feels like to play Portal 2. Hope you dig it, and I hope you get a chance to play the game.

Read my Portal 2 Review at Paste



19 Apr

When it came down to it, back in the 90’s you were either Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat; there was no middle ground. The era had a lot of divisions going on—Coke/Pepsi, Nintendo/Sega,  Nike/Reebok—on the one hand  the refined classic, and on the other the edgy upstart. For whatever reason, the refined classic tended to be “red” while the upstart was “blue.”

There was never really much question which franchise I preferred; I was a Mortal Kombat guy through and through. From the first time I saw someone playing the game at Aladdin’s Castle in Bloomington’s College Mall, I was hooked. I remember witnessing:

  • Johnny Cage uppercutting someone onto the spikes in the pit
  • Kano ripping out Johnny Cage’s Heart
  • Sub-Zero tearing out someone’s spinal cord
  • Goro

That was pretty much all I needed. The digitized actors, the claymation, the gouts of ketchupy blood… who needed precision balancing and deep combo-sets when you had all that? I liked the comparative simplicity of the gameplay, like… I always liked the “uppercut” move. With a simple combination button press, I could launch my enemy across the screen and knock away a sizable chunk of health at the same time.

I wasn’t allowed to have any set-top consoles growing up, so the only way I got to play the game was either over at one of my friends’ houses or, eventually, on my Sega Game Gear (I was allowed to have portable systems). I remember when the Game Gear port was finally released. I had pre-ordered, so I went to the Software Etc. (also in College Mall), picked up the tiny box, plugged it in and played and played.

I’m still surprised at how great the portable version was; surprisingly little was lost in the translation. And the Fatalities, oh, man. That was the whole reason you played, just to get to that final moment when you could frantically press buttons in hopes of pulling off a particularly gross finishing move.

My sweet collector’s edition of the game just arrived, and I’ll be doing a review for Paste soon. In the meantime, some fellow Kill Screen writers and I wrote up a bunch of half-serious “reviews”of the new fatalities, based on videos we watched. I got to do some really good ones, though my favorite was Mileena’s:

She sensually saunters over, laying her hands upon his cheeks and gently turning him to face her. It’s a quiet, intimate moment, almost shocking in its immediacy. Conquered and conqueror, their eyes nearly meeting—in another lifetime, in an entirely different kind of game, this could melt into a romantic embrace. But … no. Mileena tears his head from his body, stepping into the spotlight and removing her mask. With her true visage revealed, she lowers her horrid maw and feasts upon the severed face of her foe, throwing the remains to the ground and moaning in blood-soaked ecstasy.

Also I use the phrase “cursed with the fang-laden mouth of a Lovecraftian fish-monster.” The whole thing is pretty funny and gross; go give it a read.

With the intense amount of great games I’ve got to play, I’m beginning to wonder about how I’ll get through them all. When it rains, it pours. Sometimes it pours blood.

This Train We On

13 Apr

The Final Fantasy VII Letters continue over at Paste with Part Six last week and just today, Part Seven. That’s right, Leigh and I have officially written as many letters about FFVII as there had been games in the series up to that point. Maybe we’ll stop at fourteen. Or better, we’ll do what Square-Enix should’ve done and stop at ten.


Part Six dealt with the ever-opening world map, and how exploration in this game feels so markedly different than in western open-world games. Here’s Leigh:

The constraints of your travel were always really clearly delineated, and you’d see all these “what’s that over there?”-type intriguing zones that you would really patiently aim to ensure there was actually no way you could reach, enduring enemies and battles as, rather than move on to the next town or whatnot, you traced circles around some unreachable platform or walked a sprawling line you hoped would allow you to defy the bounds of nature and reach an inaccessible cave.

And in Part Seven, we talk a bit about the way we have come to know these characters gradually over the course of the story, and I delve a bit into my thoughts on the music:

My theory is that a strong melody occupies the same mental/conceptual space as spoken words do, and that it is therefore difficult to listen to both at once. You’ll notice that in most games these days (and films, for that matter), the big melodic themes only move to the foreground during action scenes; when it comes time for the characters to do some talking, big single-line motifs are replaced with wider, less intrusive chords and textures.

Therefore the composer for any text-only game has the luxury of space—with no words getting in the way, Uematsu was free to write whatever music he wanted. He really went for it, and the resultant themes and melodies do more talking than those iconic little blue dialogue boxes could hope to.

For any of you who have yet to start, Part One is here (oh how long ago that feels!) and an index of all letters is here.

Thanks again to everyone for reading and for your incredible enthusiasm and support. We’ve both been overwhelmed by the response, and are having a blast.

The Spring Concert

13 Apr

Last week was the Urban School’s spring concert at Herbst Theatre. We always have a great time at these shows, but this year’s felt somehow special. My kids played their asses off, as did the other student groups. And there was this certain vibe, a joyfulness to the proceedings that was tough to describe but impossible to miss.

John Hefti, the father of one of my pianists, took some fantastic photos of the show. You can see them all here, but I thought I’d post a few of my favorites as well.

And my personal favorite, of our drummer Xander taking his ripping DS solo at the start of our closing number:

Suparnians Unite

8 Apr

Perhaps you have heard about Suparna Galaxy. If you are friends with me on any of the social media outlets I frequent, I’m all but sure that you have. (Though it may have looked like: #Suparnagalaxy.)

The answer to the question, “What is Suparna Galaxy?” is a bit like the Louis Armstrong’s response to the question, “What is jazz?”

“If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

Now, that isn’t exactly fair. It is still possible to understand Suparna Galaxy even if you have arrived late to the party. Suparna Galaxy, essentially, is crowdsourced improv satire; it’s an imaginary “in-development” videogame that both mocks and pays weird tribute to many of the conventions of modern role-playing games.

Hey, that was actually pretty easy to explain.

It all started when games writing and FFVII buddy Leigh Alexander expressed her distaste for a certain popular spacefaring roleplaying series on Twitter. She did so by imagining a fake game called “Suparna Galaxy.” I egged her on, some other folks jumped in, a wiki got created, and through the power of “yes, and” Suparna Galaxy became A Thing. Co-creator Denis Farr was kind enough to document that initial Twitter exchange for posterity.

I highly recommend listening to the latest Big Red Potion Podcast, which features both me and Leigh in our respective roles as Suparna Galaxy Executive Producer and Creative Director. We managed to keep a straight face for almost 30 minutes, though I’ll admit that I was biting my tongue off-mic on a pretty regular basis. And past those 30 minutes, it’s actually just a good listen; the two of us (as well as our gracious hosts Sinan Kubba and Jeffrey Matulef) talk about what, if anything, we all are “saying” with Suparna Galaxy, as well as thoughts on FFVII, role-playing games, Dragon Age 2, Deadly Premonition, and a whole bunch of other stuff. So yeah, do check it out.

Among other things, the podcast marks the world premiere of the Suparna Galaxy developer diary montage, which I edited together from recordings made by Suparna contributors Nels Anderson, Dan Bruno, Denis Farr, John Peter Grant, Sarah Elmaleh, and Ben Abraham.

You can also listen to the dev diary on our new Developers Page on the wiki. And just today, I uploaded the full diaries from John, Denis, Dan, Ben and Sarah, each of which was so good that it seemed a shame to leave them on the cutting-room floor. “The Cutting Room Floor,” after all, is somewhat antithetical to Suparna Galaxy. Give them a listen.

The last thing you should check out is Sarah’s most recent voiceover outtake. It’s a death scene: she takes on the role of K’lara Loshachtii just before she is enfolded back into the mothersource. You can find it at the bottom of the Dialogue_System page, and it is spectacular. The music is really what takes it over the top… John’s ethereal score elevates her performance from humorously bizarre to genuinely moving.

There I go again, talking about Suparna Galaxy like it’s a real game. I guess that in the end, reality is what you make it.

One Black Angel’s Death Song

4 Apr

Well, that was the subtitle I submitted for my Joystiq review of the new XBLA Slash-em-up The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile. Unfortunately, it was too long for their format so they went with “Fangs a lot,” which is cool too.

Regardless, the game itself is ridiculously cool, and I made no bones about that in my review.

It’s a bloodbath, all right. The young girl swings and stabs, ripping her blade through flesh, metal and bone, eviscerating foe after foe until the room is covered in a thick, rich coat of red. Your eye can barely track her movements as she flits from corner to corner, vanishing in a puff of crimson smoke only to reappear, strike, and then vanish again.

Perhaps that dramatic opening has your intrest piqued? Then go read the whole review! And hey, if you’ve got an XBox 360, you could sure come up with worse ways to spend your money when the game launches this week.

Read The Diswasher: Vampire Smile Review at Joystiq

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