Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Level Complete: 2009

Video games, whatever they may mean to you, are now a part of our shared heritage. At Press Pause to Reflect, we have strived to explore their value as such and come to a fuller understanding of our own, often confusing, culture. Bringing this blog to you for the past year has been a fantastic experience and 2010 looks even brighter. We couldn’t have done it without you, dear readers. Your comments and attention have kept us moving. We’d also like to thank the developers who took the time to talk with us about their experiences breaking ground in the medium. Keep up the good work, we will be watching with great expectation. And a big thanks to the welcoming world of video game bloggers. You’ve all been very friendly, helpful, and we’re grateful for every word and link. Please accept our warmest holiday wishes and best hopes for the new year.

Before we go on vacation, we’ve put together a little compilation of our favorite pieces from our first year as a blog. We hope you’ll look around, and that we’ll see you again in 2010.

Our Purpose

Playing with Art, by Daniel Bullard-Bates, and Josh Raisher’s follow-up serve as something like a thesis statement for Press Pause to Reflect, discussing the special merits of the video game medium.


C.T. Hutt did some lovely pieces on the death of the arcade, difficulty levels in older video games, and just how much video game swordplay means to him.


Daniel offered some guidelines on how to extend game play without ruining the game and proposed an idea for a permanent-death horror game.


Josh bemoaned the lack of permanence in video game death, C.T. complained about how abysmal the writing was in Gears of War, and Daniel whined that games are too in love with realism.


C.T. lauded environmental design in video games, Daniel got excited about writers doing a better job of injecting humor into games, and Josh exhibited an unhealthy obsession with Chrono Trigger.


Tale of Tales, Jonathan Blow, and Jason Rohrer were all kind enough to answer our questions.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The 2009 Select [Button]: Game of the Year

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Game of the Year: Flower

In a year riddled with sequels and familiar, derivative material, Flower stands apart. This is a game that is more meditative than action-packed, and one that rewards a slow, patient approach. Instead of a space marine or a wise-cracking adventurer, the player takes the part of the wind, blowing petals from place to place. Besides originality in concept, Flower accomplishes something few games even attempt: it contains relevant social and political themes. Flower is presented with confidence and gravitas, delivering a message of change without a single word of dialogue. Remarkably, this message has the power to affect both the video game industry and the advancement of alternative energy.

Even the tone of the game speaks volumes for its creativity. It is at times exciting, but there is a quiet revolution here as well: the majority of the game is soothing. There are moments of adversity and triumph, but mostly there is just the peaceful exploration and transformation of wide expanses of land. In Flower, the world becomes more beautiful as you progress. Instead of leaving corpses in your wake, you leave blooming flowers and bright swathes of color.

Beyond Flower’s groundbreaking originality, it is spectacularly well-executed. The visuals are gorgeous, presenting one of the most colorful and dramatic landscapes of any game this year. The physics of the wind, carrying the many-colored petals and parting the grass beneath, help to deliver a sense of reality and immediacy to the game play. The world of Flower is transformed by the player, using the simple, proficient tilting of the controller, into a canvas of color and life. This is painting as performed by nature itself, placed in the palms of your hands.

Somehow, thatgamecompany has managed to create something fresh, beautiful and unique and get it right on their first try. There is not a single moment or mechanic out of place, the game never becomes dull or laborious, and the result is sublime. Other games accomplished a great deal this year: Uncharted 2, for example, took an idea that has been tried a hundred times and refined it until it shone. But what makes Flower the best game of the year is that it took an idea that was completely new, delivered on every possibility, and created something beautiful, simple, socially-relevant, and engaging. Flower is interactive art. And it feels so good.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The 2009 Select [Button]: Idea/Execution

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Best Idea without Execution: Scribblenauts

Scribblenauts is great for the first couple of hours. You can type in almost anything you can imagine, and a representation of that object will appear on the screen for you to interact with. The number of words that the in-game dictionary recognizes is stunning. Unfortunately, playing around with the dictionary may be the only really fun part of the game. Past the first few levels, the seams begin to show and then quickly unravel. The movement of your avatar is tied to the Nintendo DS stylus, causing him to throw himself into spikes just as often as selecting a usable item. This gets frustrating quickly, and could have easily been solved by using the DS buttons for movement.

Solving puzzles using all the items available to you should lead to a lot of eureka moments, but the objects interact in very limited ways. In one puzzle, when I was trying to move a cow so some cars could get by, I had the brilliant idea of using a shrink ray to shrink the cow, and then hiding it in a briefcase so that a nearby butcher wouldn’t see him. Unfortunately, the tiny cow wouldn’t go in the briefcase. (What? That was a reasonable solution.) Most puzzles ended up boiling down to just attaching something to a rope and a helicopter and moving it somewhere else. It’s disappointing that a game with one great mechanic failed to deliver a great game to surround it.

Best Execution without Ideas: Borderlands

Borderlands comes from the Voltron school of game design: take several winning ideas from other games and properties, combine them into one unstoppable game/robot, and then publish. It is essentially the setting of Firefly or Mad Max with the regenerating shield of Halo, the shooting mechanics of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and the leveling and random loot system of Diablo 2 and World of Warcraft. The only thing that sets the game apart is that no one has ever made a combination quite like that before. Despite the lack of originality, those elements combine to make a fun, addictive experience that we can’t seem to shut up about.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The 2009 Select [Button]: Single-Player/Multi-Player

by C.T. Hutt

Most Engrossing Single-Player: Dragon Age: Origins

Despite a plethora of high quality single-player experiences that have come out this year, Dragon Age: Origins reigns supreme. Single-player RPGs are designed to create the optimum mano-a-computer gaming experience, often without an online play aspect or offline cooperative modes, so it’s really no surprise that a title which has been crowned by many sources as the best RPG of the year also makes for the most engrossing single-player experience.

Stunning graphics, complex, strategic game play, and the engaging storyline offered by Dragon Age: Origins combine to keep any gamer with a taste for tactical combat and fantasy glued to their office chair for days. An outstanding single-player experience is not without its dangers of course. Side effects of Dragon Age: Origins may include: vitamin D deficiency, reduced social interaction, loss of sleep, carpel tunnel, poor diet, and delusions of being a Grey Warden. Other than those minor problems, we recommend Dragon Age: Origins to any gamer out there who wants to fly solo.

Honorable Mention: Batman: Arkham Asylum afforded gamers with an experience they have been anticipating for a very long time: a great game based on a comic book character. In some places Batman: Arkham Asylum went a little overboard (i.e.: chemical mega-joker), but it was still a fantastic title.

Most Engrossing Multi-Player: Left 4 Dead 2

Zombies. They stink, they try to kill you, and they drag down property value in a major way. As a responsible citizen and home owner it is your duty and your pleasure to shoot them in the head. But many hands make for light work, so while you are busy clearing the zombie infested streets of New Orleans from the undead, make sure to bring a buddy along. Left 4 Dead 2 brings home the awesomeness of a great horror/ survival FPS and an excellent co-operative game play experience. Nothing says “we are having some fun now” more than pounding your buddy on the back yelling “Shoot the the jockey! Shoot the jockey!” before you get pulled into a puddle of acidic spitter mucus. Toss in some excellent environments and a dash of poignant social commentary and you’ve got a title we will be playing for months to come.

Honorable Mention: Borderlands. Wait, what? Didn’t you just say you hated that game? Not entirely. The setting, storyline, repetitive missions, character balance, and soundtrack of Borderlands all leave a lot to be desired, but the co-operative play is really quite good. Borderlands is proof positive that almost anything can be fun if you bring some friends along for the ride.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The 2009 Select [Button]: Ambiance

by C.T. Hutt

Best Ambiance: The Path

Tale of Tales has been the little game developer that could this year. They have turned the collective heads of the gaming community with their original titles and unique approach to the gaming medium. I haven’t had a chance to play Fatale, but if their past performance is any indicator of quality I am sure it will be a knock out.

The Path, released last March, is not what many gamers have come to expect from an exploration game. There are no traditional puzzles to solve in this game and no enemies to fight, but The Path manages to establish genuine emotional resonance with the player utilizing graphics tricks many would consider outdated. Ambiance in The Path is created by changes in camera angle, well-placed music and sound effects, and alterations in lighting.

There were few action-oriented components to The Path, which made the title a non-starter for many gamers. It was a game that focused on one central mechanic, our feelings about a given scenario, and didn’t let up. In many titles, ambiance and setting are obstacles developers work to overcome so they can get back into the action. In The Path, Tale of Tales made ambiance the whole point, and it worked.

Honorable Mentions: Flower and the Hard Rain level in Left 4 Dead 2 both had stirring ambiance. Whether eliciting an imprecise, but radiant sense of hope or simply evoking animal terror these titles used environment, sound, and music effects to their utmost.

Worst Ambiance: Borderlands

Following a compass needle through a vast junkyard in the middle of a desert, this is the Borderlands experience. I don’t have much to say about this title that hasn’t already been said. The action mechanics were spot on, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to feel anything but mild amusement from this game. They didn’t even get the feeling of desolation to ring through; in a game called Borderlands that seems like a necessity.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The 2009 Select [Button]: Improvement

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Most Improved: Assassin’s Creed 2

Assassin’s Creed had a lot going for it: a conflict set in the middle east during the crusades, beautiful graphics and exciting assassination missions, but the game was bogged down by repetition and strange design choices. Fortunately, the developers at Ubisoft took almost every piece of criticism from the first game and worked it into the sequel. The mission structure became more varied, the settings became even more colorful, the main character learned how to swim, the player’s skills increased along with the character’s, and so on. Basically, everything Assassin’s Creed did, Assassin’s Creed 2 did better. The sequel still had a few problems (the free running system doesn’t always perform as desired and some of the mission types are still a drag), but the Assassin’s Creed series went from being a decently fun game with an interesting historical setting to a unique, exciting franchise in just a few years.

Honorable Mentions: Left 4 Dead 2 and Uncharted 2 both improved substantially when compared to their predecessors, but the first games in each series were already solid, so the change was not nearly so dramatic.

Least Improved: Overlord 2

Seeing the progress made between Overlord and Overlord 2 was exciting at first. They improved the camera, gave the player more comprehensive control over their minions, and changed the morality system so that it encompassed two different kinds of evil, while the first one had a black and white morality. In the first game, I chose between giving the villagers food and keeping the food for myself. In the second, my options were killing all the villagers or bending their wills to my service. They even maintained the dark sense of humor from the original, which is a large part of what makes the series fun. Unfortunately, for every problem they fixed a new one popped up (just like playing whack-a-minion). While control of the minions was improved, the minions themselves seemed more idiotic and less likely to notice and interact with objects and enemies. The camera and the control mechanism were tied together, which resulted in the main character never looking where he needed to, resulting in irritating deaths and confusion. The morality system required the player to hunt down hundreds of individuals with no way to track them, which quickly became too cumbersome to be worth it, and the magic system was drastically over-complicated. I have a soft spot for both games, but Overlord 2 managed to make a mess just as often as it cleaned one up, resulting in a mediocre sequel to a mediocre game.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The 2009 Select [Button]

Well, dear readers, 2009 is drawing to a close. Like every other blog on the net, we at Press Pause to Reflect can’t resist the siren call of posting about the best games of the past year. Granted, we don’t assign games a numerical score, color code, pass/fail rating, percentage, or grading metric of any kind, but we know what we like. Starting Monday, every day we will be sharing our picks in various categories for the most interesting or significant games of the year.

Don’t agree with our assessments? Tell us all about it in the discussion section.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Left 4 Dead 2: Left Deader

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

When Valve announced that Left 4 Dead 2 was coming within a year of the release of Left 4 Dead, I felt cheated and confused. Not only is that a quick turnaround time for any franchise, this is Valve we’re talking about: these are the same people who decided to do episodic content to make their Half-Life 2 releases come more quickly, and we’re still waiting for Episode 3, over two years after the last release in the series. This is a company known for taking their time to make sure the quality is up to their incredibly high reputation. Many people complained that Left 4 Dead 2 should be an expansion pack, and not a standalone game. But Left 4 Dead 2 doesn’t seem like an expansion pack at all. In fact, it makes the original look like a beta test.

Personally, I don’t imagine I’ll go back to the original Left 4 Dead after playing the sequel. Some of these additions are so obvious that they feel like they should have been in the first title: after the first time you run out of ammunition and switch to your samurai sword or fireman’s axe to fend off the zombie hordes, you’ll always want to have a melee weapon in hand. In Left 4 Dead, you would have been stuck with a pistol. The new massive zombie attack events that require you to run through an area to reach a goal are considerably more frantic and exciting than the numerous stand-in-place sections of the original. The AI director, which determines how many zombies attack and what types (and now even how parts of the levels are laid out), has been improved to the point that every safe house feels like it was hard won. This is surviving a zombie apocalypse done right. They even included an option called “Realism” mode, which removes some of the less immersive qualities of the game, like the outlines that appear to draw your attention to guns, ammunition, and your allies if they aren’t in your line of sight.

There are very few things to complain about. There is this incredibly irritating beeping noise which occurs whenever the game has some information it wishes to relay to you. I couldn’t find a way to shut this off on the Xbox 360 version. The only other concern I have is one of tone.

The first three levels of the game take place in very campy horror situations. The first is based around a mall, the second an amusement park, and the third a swamp. This makes for some fantastic set pieces and level design, but it feels out of sync with the last two scenarios, which both focus on much more relevant, socially significant settings. In “Hard Rain,” the players are in a rural town near New Orleans, walking through ruined streets and scavenging the contents of broken down homes. As the level progresses, the torrential rain becomes just as much an obstacle to progress as the zombies themselves. The streets become flooded, often blocking the means of escape. This leads directly into the final level, “The Parish,” where the survivors make it to New Orleans itself, where in the wake of devastating tragedy, a governmental organization (“CEDA”) is bombing the streets instead of working to rescue survivors. The early levels of Left 4 Dead 2 are a lot of fun, but “Hard Rain” and “The Parish” manage something considerably more impressive: they imbue a frantic action game with social relevance. They have something to say.

I wrote some time ago about how unrealistic and un-modern Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was, but this lack of social significance has not stopped the sequel from becoming the highest grossing entertainment launch of all time. It’s a strange day indeed when a zombie survival game brings more realism and relevance to the table than a series about supposedly realistic war.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Cutting Room Floor

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

With the advent of the DVD, it has become common practice to include deleted scenes with a movie. It is usually easy to determine why they were cut, whether it was due to the dialogue falling flat, problems with pacing, or simply because it was unnecessary to the plot or character development of the movie. Though it can be painful to amputate a scene that took a lot of hard work, the best directors know when to leave something on the cutting room floor.

It seems to be much more difficult for game designers to let go. Very few video games have no unnecessary sections, missions, or side quests. As Mitch Krpata points out in this post on Uncharted 2, part of what makes that game so fantastic is that there is so little fluff. But Uncharted 2 is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to game design.

Role-playing games provide some of the most blatant examples of unnecessary and unwarranted material. Often this superfluous content comes in the form of time-absorbing side quests. I understand the mentality that might bring a designer to include a few dull side quests: they’re entirely optional, so only the completionist will actively pursue all of them. I was once a completionist when it came to role-playing games, but pointless, hollow side quests have driven me to be considerably less thorough. Just because someone wants to experience everything a game has to offer does not mean that process should be completely mind-numbing.

There is one side quest in Dragon Age: Origins that asked me to collect twenty of a specific kind of mushroom. Here I am, trying to save the country and perhaps the world from an encroaching army of pure evil, and someone wants me to take some time off to practice amateur mycology. Even if this sounded like a fun pastime for my character, giving these mushrooms away for gold is completely counterintuitive to my character’s goals. These same mushrooms can be used to make useful potions to help in my battles against that evil army I mentioned. In other words, the task is boring and the goal is stupid. You get experience points for it, but how do I justify that to my party members? “I’m sorry you’re dying horribly because I traded in all those supplies, but I really wanted that next level up.” Most of the quests in Dragon Age can be completed on the way to more significant tasks or offer more substantial incentives for their completion, but a few should have been cut. Optional or not, boring gameplay is boring gameplay. I’m reminded of the uncharted worlds in Mass Effect.

Borderlands is a refreshingly straightforward game, in that it makes no effort to delude the player into thinking that there is some higher purpose to their actions. The goals are to find more loot and reach the next level, but this dull premise is redeemed by addictive gameplay and a fun co-operative element. This makes it easier to justify embarking on inane optional missions, since there’s no looming threat to make one hurry. Even so, some of the missions presented in the game are ridiculous even for a lowly mercenary. Shooting fecal matter off of a giant turbine does not make me feel cool. Collecting used smut magazines out of dumpsters is not an enjoyable way to spend my time. I don’t begrudge a game the opportunity to have a laugh, but joke missions should be brief so the joke doesn’t overstay its welcome. By the time I’ve trekked halfway across the map to find my third porn dumpster, I am no longer laughing. I am wondering why this made it into the game.

These are minor sins, since they can be safely ignored without detracting from the game experience. What’s even worse is when a game has required sections that are dull or counterintuitive to the game’s goals. In Assassin’s Creed 2, at several points the player is asked to tail someone, keeping an eye on them from a distance while they lead the player to a specific place. Get too close, and they will notice you, lag too far behind and you will lose track of them. This would be simply boring if they didn’t throw in multiple obstacles to your success. Guards along your path might recognize you, requiring you to blend with crowds or hire groups to distract them. This means that you spend large sections of gameplay just walking along watching someone else walk along, and if you don’t do just the right thing, you are noticed, which causes you to fail and start over. Suddenly they’re not just boring, they’re boring and irritating.

Sometimes, important plot information is being relayed by the people you are following. I appreciate the fact that these sections could be seen as a break from the running and jumping and killing, and it’s even a clever way to relay plot information without taking control from the player. But if those are the goals, why not remove some of the complications? Be more lax about the distances; remove the unnecessary barriers to completion. These are not difficult missions, so let them just be breaks from the action. I find it hard to believe that no play tester for Assassin’s Creed 2 turned to a designer and said, “This part is not fun.”

There are lessons to be learned from the cinema. If something isn’t working or doesn’t help a movie, a good director will cut it or edit it until it works. Most video games, even excellent ones, have sections that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Maybe they just need harsher editors.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tick Tock

By C.T. Hutt

Bowser, King of the Koopas, likes to think that he is the most dangerous thing in the entire mushroom kingdom. He controls legions of baddies, reigns over the land in a castle of darkness and fire, and can kidnap a princess with the wave of a claw. But for all his bluster, Bowser is a lightweight in comparison to the deadliest device Mario ever faced: the ticking clock.

I remember the very first time I played Super Mario Brothers I was so enchanted by being able to control my little avatar on the screen that I didn’t pay attention to the time. After my 399 seconds had elapsed, Mario suddenly died. When I asked my mother why, she calmly informed me that after the time ran out the bad guy used evil magic to suck all the oxygen out of the air causing Mario to suffocate. This made just about as much sense as everything else in Super Mario Brothers, so I simply accepted it and moved on. It was only recently that I gave the ticking clock a second thought.

Super Mario Brothers was hardly the only title to feature this fiendish device. In most cases the clock’s presence required no explanation; finish before the time runs out or you die. For example, the developers of the infamous Contra included one; presumably they felt that their game was too easy without one. In some cases players were furnished with at least a thin rationale for the ticking clock’s presence. In the original Prince of Persia, the evil Vizier Jaffar gives the princess one hour to marry him or be killed, thus giving players an incentive to haul ass.

For the most part an actual clock counting away the seconds between life and death has disappeared from games. Occasionally one will show up letting you know how long you have to escape the collapsing tower or save the hostages or whatever else, but only rarely. The ticking clock’s time has run out, we no longer need it to encourage us to progress forward. The new ticking clock is danger. If you decide to rest on your laurels while playing Left 4 Dead 2, it won’t take long until an army of irate zombies shows up to encourage you to move on. If you hesitate before jumping off of a burning truck in Uncharted 2, it goes careening over a cliff and you end up like Wile E. Coyote.

As we move closer to the brass ring of realism with improvements in graphics and game play, I imagine we will see more and more peripheral data like the ticking clock, the life bar, the ammunition counter, and eventually all start screens and menus disappear. Such evolutions require less and less imagination and justification on the part of the gamer (no more anti-oxygen spells etc.) and improve our overall immersion in the gaming experience. There is a lot that modern developers can learn by looking back at video games of yore, but there are some shortcuts that early developers had to use which are no longer necessary for the gaming experience. The ticking clock is a thing of the past, and it’s only a matter of time until all the other peripheral distractions fade away and nothing stands between us and our adventures.