26 October 2014

Skipping Rocks Along Puddles In The Rain

I'm taking a break from Deadly Premonition. I'm at a point (fairly early on in the game) when all I have to do is literally wait between 0700 and 1500 for the next part of the game to progress. My options in this time are: 1) sidequests, 2) explore the town, and 3) sleep. Given that, apart from sleeping and maybe some story segments, this game moves in real time. This is padding, plain and simple. There's no more discouraging feeling in a game than not knowing what to do or where to go next. It's one thing when you're stuck on a boss battle or a puzzle; you can work through those. However, simply killing time or not knowing how to move the story forward is downright insulting. I remember there was a Spider-Man game back in the day that literally gave you 24 hours for a time limit (years before the game based on 24) and thinking, "Dear God! Really?" instantly regretting my rental choice. It turns out the time limit is a bit flexible, but that didn't stop the game being ultimatey too challenging for my little 12 year-old brain to fully appreciate. I'm wondering now, though, what that version of me would have thought about newer games.
Anyway, by taking a break from Twin Peaks: The Game (and I mean that affectionately), I played Rain instead. Something I like about a lot of modern games is the way they break themselves up into chapters or individual missions (compared to MMOs and their hours-long dragfests). It gives me a good way to pace myself so I don't get burned out (I can't imagine what it's like for reviewers to basically pull all-nighters to meet deadlines). That did get me thinking, though, about somethinng I played a few days earlier. I think it was Bayonetta. I kept running out of time and dying on this early stage, and I think on the third time it gave me the option to skip.
I'm still not sure how I feel about that sort of thing.
I'm hardly the manliest man you'll ever meet, my most masculine traits down to the Greg Behrendt duology of being kinda big and loving women plus the added qualities that I love taking things apart and, here's the kicker, I hate asking for help. It's less to do with some idea about gender roles and more to do with being the youngest in my family on top of having to ironically fight tooth and nail to be given a chance to prove I can manage more on my own than otherwise expected. It's also one of those factors that helped feed my growing depression through college, but we're getting off topic.
Years ago, during a review of Rampart, I mentioned the gameplay mechanic in the PS2 version of Rygar wherein you unlocked easy mode by dying a certain number of times (Rampart worked in a similar fashion by offering you more cannons on your next try). I joked about it being condescending, and then I recalled all the flack the reboot of Alone in the Dark received for its chapter skip option not only being available, but practically encouraged in some of the marketing materials. I'm an old-school gamer; I like a challenge. SHMUPS are one of my favorite genres, known far and wide for their difficulty. I like Demon's Souls and endlesss runners. I like the YS series and gallery shooters. On the other hand, I like my challenges to be fair, and sometimes that's a tall order. Other times, I simply play for the story, turning the difficulty down, using the occasional cheat code, and even using a Game Shark once to watch all the cut scenes from Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero. In Deadly Premonition, for example, one of the DLC packages I got with my bundle was an outfit that triples your attack power; it's practically an "I Win" button, to say nothing of the infinite ammo machine gun the N64 version of Resident Evil 2 furnished you with. Sure, playing a game for the story, to crib a phrase from one of the DOOM devs, is like watching porn for the story, but then again, I've seen some pretty classy porn, and there's nothing wrong with loving a game entirely for its narrative, even if it means bypassing its core gameplay. My point is, when it's a more story-driven game, I don't think it's such a big deal to have various, for lack of a better term, handholding options. That said, if you're playing Bayonetta for the story, best of luck to you on that front. Finding the balance between story and gameplay is a game unto itself, one not many developers have really mastered, with gameplay usually nabbing the bigger piece of pie. In the case of the opposite, I think we need a kind of mutual understanding among gamers that sometimes bad gameplay is bad gameplay. In fact, the biggest reason for all the hullabaloo around the chapter skips in Alone in the Dark was that the driving mechanics were so amazingly broken as to make a normal play-through impossible. This led to the consensus of the chapter skip being more like a cop-out of better QA and testing than an optional way to enjoy the game. This is really unfair in the grand scheme of things. While it's usually a lost cause to compare games to other mediums of entertainment, Jim Sterling had the right idea when he quoted a friend of his: Imagine you're reading a book that suddenly changes its language halfway through. Some people might welcome the challange, while most will probably hunt down the author and beat them to death with their own hardcovers. The point is, gamers are a diverse bunch, and complex within ourselves to boot. We enjoy different games for different reasons and in different ways. I don't care that someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Halo universe has never picked up a controller; that's not what they like about it.
Games are supposed to be fun, and as long as the means by which you have that fun don't interfere with other gamers (cough, cough... gold farmers, cough), then there is no shame in using the walkthrough or reading the wiki or even using the good ol' thirty lives code.

Say it with me now:

22 October 2014

Famous Last Words

I've been thinking about crowdfunding lately, and not merely because WayForward's new Shantae game is nearing a broader release beyond the 3DS. I started supporting a few people on Patreon, including an artist friend of mine, which kind of got me thinking about what I would do to become a Patreon "creator". Unfortunately, I can't think of anything I'd do regularly that would warrant a kind of subscription service like that.
As for something like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, I have had some amusing little thoughts from time to time over the past few years: what I would make, how I'd go about getting started, how much I'd ask for, what promises to make, how often to update, and what exactly the money would go towards. I could go on and on about those, and I could go on even longer about the various points of criticism people have brought against crowdfunding (I kind of did a few months ago, when someone criticized the practice as a form of "socialism"), but overall nothing reached much higher than a flight of fancy.
Now, I may start taking it a little more seriously.
About two years ago, I made a short film for Halloween, a disposable little tribute to John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness. It was shot on an old phone, had a silly voiceover, and wasn't very good (though it got a fairly decent response most places I posted it). I'd considered doing a follow up to it, something more tongue-in-cheek as the main gimmick of the short was about the "impending doom of 2012". A few weeks ago, a little idea popped into my head for somethinng different. It would be stylistically similar to last year's, with similar production methods, and probably work better as a kind of demo reel than a proper short film. I sketched up some storyboards and made some "to-do" lists like for props and maybe even locations. It was all coming together so well, I started thinking it may be worth going forward with. Unfortunately, it's been a few weeks, and I don't think I'd be able to finish it in time for Halloween.
Next Halloween, though...
Rather than bash out something unpolished and hurried, I take the opportunity of the time to try and turn it into something with slightly better production values. That's when I started thinking of Kickstarter. I don't want to say a whole lot about it because I could well wake up tomorrow and decide the entire thing's a boring mess that deserves to rot on the back burner until Heaven falls. What I will say, though, is this:

1. I'm not going to ask for a lot of money, and likely it would be for cutting the film together (I'd rather hire an editor than work at it myself, someone with better gear than me). That kind of "in the can" model seems to work out best for filmmakers, especially since it's a lot easier to be upfront about costs as there aren't usually as many setbacks in post as there can be in production.
2. Backers would get an early release of the film (I mean, we're talking about October 2015, here), as well as some incentives I've cooked up.
3. On the off-chance this becomes the next Potato Salad campaign, I do have some ideas about stretch goals, like other actors, a few more scenes, a big screening, a film festival submission, among other things.

So, as much as I don't like to talk about things I'm planning in the near future, let alone next year, I figure maybe I shoud throw this out there, get some feedback and advice as early as possible, gague just how plausible this whole thing may be.

04 October 2014

Pair of Plant Paintings

Zenbrush with Autodesk Sketchbook and Pixlr Express. 

02 October 2014

Velocity 2X Review (PSVita)

Velocity 2X
"Aw, Hell, yeah!"
What works
1. Everything is an improvement. 
The first Velocity game had a straightforward, NES-era sensibility to it, reminiscent of games like Metal Storm or Contra. The art direction and level design was simple, some might even say bland or samey, and enemy variety was a tad underwhelming, but it was cohesive and solid, everything fitting together perfectly. On top of that, it had very tight controls and unparalleled gameplay. It was almost perfect, hardly feeling like a Playstation mini
Velocity 2X might seem like it does very little to build on its predecessor, with many changes so subtle, they can be easily missed, and it's doubtful many will appreciate them. The artwork is still overall minimalistic with its textures and color palettes, but many levels have such fine details and subtle touches (like waterfalls that surprise you with a sense of height) that it's easy to get lost in the sheer beauty of certain spots.

2. Gunning and running. 
When I first saw the screenshots of the "on foot" segments, I was a little bit worried. It seemed like the step the folks at FuturLab took off the ship was a timid, cautious one that played it safe and checked with its neighbor. Frankly, it looked like an endless runner. Don't get me wrong, that would have made sense, and I love many of those games like Jetpack Joyride and Canabalt, but it would have felt like a token gesture toward expanding on the original concept. Luckily, I was so very wrong and I couldn't be happier about it. It is, in fact, a fully-realized sidescrolling platforming shooter with puzzles and exploration. There's even some combat and physics thrown in for good measure. It reminded me of Major Havoc with a touch of Metroid, all with the slick polish of WayForward's Bloodrayne: Betrayal. Kai Tana has extremely fluid and graceful animations, whether it's leaping across a disintegration field or firing her palm blaster (which makes me think of Vanessa Z. Schneider from P.N.03, a stylistically similar title I also happen to love) or even waiting for an elevator.

3. That certain... I don't know what. 
Actually, I do, but it's a little hard to describe. The short, crude version of it is: it makes you feel like a badass. Word is that the development team had to insist on a female lead even as far back as the first game, when we never left the ship. I, for one, am glad they stuck to their guns and delivered an awesome character who manages to be dead sexy, and does so on her own terms. When you're standing in a chamber of crystal deposits firing that hand cannon in a circle, shards of glass and debris falling all around you, it's hard not to let a smiling, "Aw, Hell yeah!" escape your lips. Before long, you're taking down Vokh patrols like it's second nature. You'll be flinging bombs at switches and turrets like you can see the future. You'll have distributing telepods down like a science. All, this, and you'll know it's you doing it, not some contextual action script set to Quick Time Events or button-mashing. That's a hard feeling to achieve, and this game nails it.

What doesn't work 
1. The side scrolling stages have room for improvement. 
It was often difficult to use the teledash while jumping or falling, and it would be nice if I could simply tap the screen rather than aiming exclusively with the controls. It would also be nice if your telepod inventory was separate from those you have for the Quarpjet (there's a notable size difference). I actually managed to just about break the game because I didn't realize I'd used up all my telepods back on the ship and got myself stuck. Of course, I could probably have backtracked to the ship, but since I didn't realize the inventory was shared, I thought it was a glitch. On that note, while the idea of the telepods to get through narrow hazards is great, it felt like I was having my hand held for far too long. At various points in the levels, there are these pads you're meant to stand on and aim your telepod at. I could understand these in the level wherein you're introduced to the mechanic, but having them throughout the game feels like there's no strategy to it.

2. Speaking of telepods... 
While micromanagement of telepods is vastly improved, namely the fact that you can retrieve spent pods through the map screen, the "shortcut" of hopping over to the last pod dropped by double-tapping the triangle button is a surefire way to get innards smeared across a bulkhead. At least two out of three tries caused me to drop two more pods where I stood. That double tap has to be just perfect, and I could never do it on command. The sidescrolling stages didn't have this problem, which makes me wonder if this could possibly be a runtime issue. 

3. Speed Pads Are Worthless. 
Velocity is a thinking man's shooter. In a game that already invigorates its genre by favoring pre-planning and exploration over twitch reflexes, having parts that railroad the player onto a fast track feels tacky. What's the point to the thrill of the added speed if you've got to be that much more alert with your teleporting? It's not even as though they're placed in strategic locations that would give you the best of both worlds if you were quick thinking enough to hit each one in rapid succession. To be fair, toward the end, one mission had them placed so close to upcoming walls that I had to resort to the old control method of teleporting, which was admittedly a nice touch. Still, I'd rather speed pads have been part of the DLC or bonus missions.

4. Mission 42 became the bane of my existence and nearly led to a ragequit. 
As great as touch controls are for teleporting across the map, it's not half as precise as it could be. I was convinced I'd found a bug because no amount of tapping could get me into a space after deactivating its force field. I restarted the level twice before I found out, practically on accident that the actual "'portable" area in the space is so small that even aiming the cursor with the analog stick felt like threading a needle on the roof of a speeding train.

But my absolute biggest gripe...
5. The calculator is not scientific. 

I mean, come on, guys. You know the Vita can handle it. Hell, the PSP could have done it (though the lack of a touchscreen would make things a bit tricky). I'm not looking for graphing capabilities or currency conversion or reverse Polish notation, I just want to know the spirit of the great warrior shaman SoCaToah is watching over me wherever I take my Vita.

What I'd like to see next. 
By favoring exploration, Velocity solves the problem of the Vita being widescreen. In typical SHMUPS, the gameplay favors verticality, with many arcade cabinets having their monitors mounted sideways. Velocity, meanwhile, started on the PSP, and therefore added a more pronounced X-axis to the movement repertoire. That said, I would love to see a version of Velocity that favors a vertical screen, namely a smartphone. Between Playstation Mobile and Playstation Now, I'd really love to see what Futurlab can do with more visual real estate.

Cooperative play may not be any sort of a game changer, but it may be a fun idea to explore. As a fan of The Last Starfighter (which, given some of your alien companion Ralan's lines, I think the developers are, too), it would be a great exercise in teamwork to relegate flying to one pilot with weapons and teleporting to a co-pilot.

01 October 2014

Add-ups and Follow-backs: an open letter

There's nothing wrong with wanting attention, getting people to listen to you, have a discussion, seek feedback and criticism, or anything else along those lines. We're individuals, but we're not individuals in a vacuum. Interaction is how we grow as people, our encounters and experiences shaping us for better or worse.
I don't begrudge anybody for their efforts in these endeavors. I'm no better on a lot of levels. However, I like to think I seek attention responsibly, treating others as individuals, taking a rational approach to earning respect, trading value for value, and only dispensing charity and favors on my terms.
What I do take issue with, what absolutely torques me rusted beyond a mere pet peeve are the people who think they're being fair about seeking attention, but could not be more vapid and hollow about the whole thing.
I'm going to describe a profile for you, and I want you to guess what kind of person I'm describing.
The profile picture is of Ted from the Seth MacFarlane comedy. The username is simply: I FOLLOW BACK 100%.
Popular image people can identify right away. Check.
Complete absence of a real identity. Check.
Transparent statement of agenda. Check.
On YouTube, this was called "Sub4sub" and it's essentially a form of spam. If you suddenly find yourself outraged by that statement and/or readying a defense of the tactic, then congratulations are in order because you have been successfully identified as part of the problem.
You're an even bigger part of the problem if you go so far as to leech off the success of others to push your agenda, which is nothing more than seeing a meaningless number get bigger. Over on Google+, I've come across a rash of spam comments from people simply asking for people to add them. The most recent one even set a goal of 300 by midnight, and directly asked none other than Taylor Swift herself (or at least whoever represents her on G+) to add her as she was only ten adds away from her goal.
Going to this person's page revealed little more than a handful of rather uninteresting selfies, a few complaints about living with her parents, and an assortment of trophies atop a dresser. That last detail really crystallizes the whole situation. It's so goal-oriented that it doesn't' merely marginalize the process of reaching the goal, it negates it. 
The worst part is there is simply no redeeming talent.
The last "add-up" I came across that I dared confront about their empty goal insisted that he was worth following because of all the art and videos he posted. Trouble was, it had been months since he'd posted anything of the sort and most of it was shared from elsewhere. In other words, he was desperate, in denial about being desperate, and was oblivious to his own begging strategy.
If all you can promise me in return for my adding you to a contact list is the same gesture in kind, what have either of us honestly achieved? How long do you think it will be before you're off those lists on account of you being boring and uninteresting? What happens if that number you're so strangely proud of drops?
More begging? More spam? More denial of what you're doing being either of those things?
Are you so desperate for self-validation that you don't even care why people are interested in you? Don't you want your accomplishment to mean something, something that a rational, thinking person can understand and relate to, or at least not feel completely sickened by? Don't you want to build a network and audience on something more than a token gesture with no meaning behind it?
Let's put this line of questioning in a different context, one that, at the rate you're going so far in your life, you're practically destined to encounter:
Do you want a job or do you want a handout?
Goodnight, and good luck.