How Video Games Grew Up When I Wasn’t Looking

There was a time when I loved video games.  I subscribed to EGM and EGM2.  I trolled the nascent World Wide Web looking for video game news.  I read IGN religiously.  The most powerful systems out there were the Nintendo 64 and the Playstation.  Then I discovered girls and dropped the subscriptions.  Most of the video games of that time period were still very arcade-y in nature.  Or they were platformers like Mario or Tomb Raider that had the flimsiest excuse for a plot.  Yo, the princess got kidnapped again.  Run through a bunch of levels to get to her.  No exposition or reason for anything going on.  You just needed to complete these tasks to unlock the final boss fight.  Of course, games were starting to have cut scenes between levels to keep the narrative going.  And I remember the great FMV flame wars that caused.  Were you just working to unlock expository videos?  This was better than the Mario case, but there was still just a small correlation between what you were doing to get through the level and what was going on in the story.  The biggest exception was the movie tie-in game, but those tended to have gameplay elements that were full of suck.

I knew that real time strategy games, simulation games, and turn-based strategy games were fun, so I kept up with those, which were primarily played on the computer.  And I never got into the first person shooter genre, so I was living in a bubble.  When we got to college, I convinced the girlfriend (who became the wife) to get a gamecube so we could play Mario Kart Double Dash (after she’d gotten hooked on the N64 version via emulators).  And I tried out Mario Sunshine and hated it.  Then we got into what would eventually be called casual games – Mario Party, Harvest Moon, etc.  And, as far as I knew, Square’s Final Fantasy series was still the place to go for deep video games.  I bought a Playstation used and then got a Playstation 2 from my future brother-in-law.  And I bought all of the Final Fantasy games, although school kept me from playing most of them until graduation.

And even after graduation I continued to stick to the Civilization and Age of Empire series.  I bought a Wii when it came out and it appeared that video games still had not evolved.  Mario was still Mario.  And most games seemed to be casual games.  I didn’t see the point in having an Xbox or Playstation 3 unless I wanted to play Rock Band or Guitar Hero.  Then, something changed.

First, Dan gifted me Portal on this new thing called Steam. This game was a strange mashup of the puzzle games I enjoyed (I never tire of Tetris) and an FPS.  And it had a story, an incredible story.  Then, somehow – I can’t remember anymore, Dan got me to listen to the 1UP.com podcast.  For the first month or so of listening to it, I was wondering why I was doing this.  Just like when I used to subscribe to EGM, I couldn’t afford to buy all the games they mentioned nor did I care about them most of the time.  But one of the hosts was determined to make sure Little Big Planet was a hit game.  And so I bought a Playstation 3 simply to play Little Big Planet and Fat Princess, which I’d heard about from one of Danielle’s coworkers.  Little Big Planet is very innovative in bringing realistic physics to platformers, but it’s fundamentally not too different from the original Mario.  And Fat Princess only has a story as an excuse as to why you’re force-feeding some princesses and trying to kidnap them from each other.  But I bought my Playstation at Costco, so it came with another game: Uncharted.

On a whim (actually a LOT of “encouragement” from Dan), I decided to check out Uncharted.  The first thing I noticed was that video games had finally advanced to the point where FMVs were no longer needed.  Cut scenes used the game assets and often moved seamlessly in and out of gameplay.  This helped me not get pulled out of the game when it was time for exposition.  And the game actually had a story that evolved as the game went on.  And the levels didn’t feel like pointless platforming.  In other words, the world was real and consistent.  Bad guys didn’t just walk back and forth waiting randomly and every place I could jump to made sense.  There weren’t just floating sections of floor for me to walk on.  And the playing the game feels like it’s walking right on the line between movies and games.  Then I borrowed Arkham Assylum, which was perfect at doing one of the things video games are supposed to do (at least certain genres): make me feel that I was Batman.  And it wasn’t contrived like the games of the Super Nintendo age.  I swear our kids will think we were on crack when they see the types of games we played back them.

Then came the Assassin’s Creed series.  Again, I only checked this game out because a podcast kept talking it up.  This game is the pinnacle of current game evolution.  While there will always be a place for “gamey” games like Tetris, Mario, etc, sometimes I want a more complex experience.  Assassin’s Creed essentially does away with all the gamey elements of games.  In the old days, you have a series of bad guys to fight or step on as you make your way to the level “boss”.  In Assassin’s Creed, the world is, well, The World.  So most of the inhabitants don’t give a crap about you unless you mess around with them.  In fact, I often made it to the target without killing any guards or interacting with anyone else.  And, not only does it have great gameplay, but it also has a compelling story.  I want to know what happens to Mr Miles and what happened to his ancestors.

And I recently started Mass Effect.  It’s too early for me to assess exactly how well this game performs, but I can already tell there’s a rich fiction for the universe the game inhabits.  The Codex is full of “historical” data that fills in in the background and it’s clear this universe is as real as the Star Wars or Star Trek Extended Universes.  And I suddenly found myself overwhelmed by just how far games had come.  They’d gone from mindless entertainment where you didn’t care about the characters to works of fiction just as engaging as any novel or movie; where I cared about characters and felt happiness, sadness, and anger over how they were treated in the game.  At this point it’s clear to me that anyone who doesn’t see individual video games as capable of being art on the same level as other works of fiction is either: a) trolling or b) An old guy who wants this newfangled art off his lawn.  (In the same way that artists of the time refused to acknowledge photography as art when it was first introduced)

A Review of New Super Mario Brothers Wii

This is a game I have been waiting for ever since I played New Super Mario Brothers on my borrowed Nintendo DS.  This is the purity of Mario.  Screw all this 3D stuff.  Yeah, it rocks to have a 3D space to run around in, but that’s not Mario.  Mario is a side scroller and its charm comes out best that way.  Or maybe I’m just an old codger nostalgic for what I grew up with.  It’s probably the latter given that the Mario theme in New Super Mario Brothers Wii (NSMBW henceforth), a modified version of the original with a little “ah” a capella thrown in, excites me in ways I cannot express. Apparently it also excites the goombas and turtles because they do a little dance move during the a capella parts.

The genius of NSMBW is in its four player mode.  This is a frenetic manifestation of what Mario could and should always have been.  I played with the wife and my brother and it was a chaotic mess and it was beautiful.  We had to replay a level over five times because we kept killing each other.  And what’s so genius about this mode is the fact that it doesn’t always have to be intentional.  Many a time we killed each other while jumping and accidentally jumping on each other.  Or in a level with moving platforms it’s easy to get caught up in the fast pace and leave the others behind and once they get off the screen they die.

What can I say of the joy of going into a pipe and forcing my team mates to go along.  This happens any time anyone goes into a pipe.  If someone’s taking too long to do something, just go in the pipe.  Picking someone up and walking around with their character over your head is also great.  What a violation of that person’s right to play the game unmolested!  And you can throw them off cliffs or into other creatures.  This is brilliant.  It’s a million times better than Bomberman because in Bomberman the others are clearly your opponents.  But in NSMBW you could simply decide to antagonize a player and they’d never see it coming.  And they can get you back when you least expect it.  And your teammates are also at your whim once they die.  You have to touch their little bubble before they can rejoin the game.

The game is also fun in one player mode, and this is where the developers have succeeded.  The game works just as well in either mode.  One thing disturbs me and that is that I am collecting these large coins as in New Super Mario Brothers for the DS, but unlike the DS game, they appear to have no purpose.  In the DS game you use it to get to the Toad Houses.  Here, I seem to be collecting them without reason.  (I have learned from Dan that they serve a purpose later in the game)

I think the developers have succeeded in distilling everything I have ever loved about a Mario game and putting it together in one game.  It only saddens me that this game is coming out when I’m an adult.  No doubt if this game had come out when I was a kid, I would have already beaten the whole thing.  As it is, I haven’t even finished the first world in my single player game.  (We got to about world 4 in our multiplayer game)  Work, household responsibilities, and other hobbies have gotten in the way of sitting and playing Mario through until I have to get to bed.  If you have a Wii and you ever enjoyed playing a Mario game in your life (especially Mario 3), you must pick up this game.  And if you want to have the most fun, invite three other people to join you.  Just make sure everyone’s cool with being thrown around and won’t quit the game out of frustration.

The End of Braid Part 2 of ?

Don’t worry, this blog isn’t about to become some weird fan tribute blog to Braid.  It’s more of a case of trying to make sense of the game I’ve just played.  There’s really no reason to make sense of The Beatles Rockband.  You are one of The Beatles playing music.  There’s nothing to “get”.  But finishing Braid has left me with more questions than answers.  Braid has the potential to leave you frustrated in the same way you may end up frustrated at a particularly dense painting where you see that there is a table of objects, but can’t figure out the significance of the objects.  It just looks like a cluttered table until the docent explains that the book with a skull on it represents that man will never understand his world until he dies.

After a bit of sleep, I’ve had some time to consider some more of the thoughts Braid has provoked in my mind.  First off, though, I have to mention one other hint Mr Blow drops to point to the possible interpretation of Braid as being about the atomic bomb.  The epilogue mentions walking onto the streets of Manhattan.  And, of course, the US project to develop the atomic bomb was known as The Manhattan Project.

This game has also made me reconsider the need for character death in video games.  It was a very useful mechanic back in the arcade days.  If the player never died, he could monopolize the machine with just a quarter or two.  But these days when you’re on a console on your own, what is the point of penalizing your inability to time a virtual jump by making you restart a level?  Or go back to your last save point – whenever that was.  Especially when, as the author complains in ZeroPunctuation’s review of Tomb Raider, depending on where the camera happens to be pointing then you jump, it may be impossible to gauge how well you will do.  You may retort that there’s little realism in being able to rewind time and what about consequences of mistakes.  But I reply that the ability to turn back time is no more an artificial concept of “lives”.  After all, what analogue does real life have to collecting some item (or number of items) that will bring you back to life when you die?  As I recently read, if you stop and think about most parts of video games for too long they fall apart.  Why should touching a goomba have the same consequences as being hit by a fireball?

And many games have been tackling this for the past ten years or so.  (Although it’s still not very common)  Super Mario 64, Mario Sunshine, and Mario Galaxy, for example, make it pretty darned hard to die.  For the most part, you can get hit around six times before anything dire happens, your life is easy to replenish, and there are 1UPs everywhere.  In Mario Galaxy, for example, the hub world has a few 1UP mushrooms that appear every time you come back.  And so I quickly racked up 99 lives.  And once you get to that kind of cheapness, you start to wonder what’s the point of having lives?  If you get them handed out like oxygen, there’s no longer any peril.  It’s not a commodity and what’s the point of being careful.  At that point, Miyamoto and Co. should have realized that if they’re going to make it so that the only people who fail at Mario Galaxy are those who actively try to fail, they should just do away with lives altogether and come up with a different penalty.  I’ve got an easy one – if your health meter runs to 0 you are returned to the hub world.  You regain your meter and now have to start that level over.  At least that gives a purpose to the meter.

But Braid dispenses with all that crap.  Get rid of the meter, just let the user rewind time.  And you have to go back far enough that you won’t get hit yet again.  Or a new game could keep the meter and then let the gamer decide how far back they want to rewind.  But once you can rewind and get back that last point and keep going – you lose all need for the meter.  And so it all comes to what type of game you are making.  If you want people to explore the world, then just do like Braid.  What do you have to gain by frustrating the user by killing him or her?  If you want people to have to avoid obstacles and so forth, then I guess dying would be a good incentive, but I don’t see why they can’t just make a mistake, realize what they did and then rewind time and try it again.

Even World of Goo does away with the situation I would find myself with in Lemmings where I was one guy short.  By using the time reversal bugs, you can rewind to the point where you think you made the key mistake and try again.  Why force you to have to redo the whole level?  I remember tons of times where I made a mistake in the middle of a long lemmings level and thought, “SONNOVA —!  Now I have to do all these steps AGAIN!”

We’ve had video games for so long now, that it’s about time we had a game based on the deconstruction of video games.  And by pointing out all these little things to us, we realize that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Just because Nintendo saved the video game industry after the Atari/ET debacle, it doesn’t mean we have to remain true to paradigms from the 1980s.

One more thing, although this is amongst the least important of things that can be said about Braid.  Braid’s Steam achievements are earned for achieving things.  I know it’s a crazy concept.  But there are games now that, according to the podcasts I listen to, give achievements for turning on the game, for playing a multiplayer match or picking up a gun that everyone else will pick up.  I think achievements begin to lose their meaning if they are not gained from accomplishing something.  The minimal achievement anyone should get is an achievement for completing a level.  And, frankly, I prefer when games reserve achievements for wacky, unexpected or difficult tasks.  So it’s neat that Portal has an achievement for killing a turret with another or for falling 30,000 feet.  Those cover the wacky and unexpected.  Also acceptable would be an achievement for playing a certain level 1000 times.  Braid gives achievements for completing levels and solving puzzles.  (You don’t need to to both to finish a level, so that’s not redundant)  There are speed runs in the game so I would imagine that they have achievements for that as well.  These are the types of achievements that make it fun on sites like raptr to compare yourself against other players.  And good on Braid for not giving patronizingly dumb achievements.

The End of Braid Part 1 of ?

warning:  The following contains many spoilers about Braid.  I, personally, feel that your enjoyment of the game will be greatly reduced by reading this ahead of time.  You have been warned!

I finished Braid last night.  I did cheat a little.  Of the 60 possible puzzle pieces, I used a walkthrough to get about 10 of them.  Each of the ones that I used the walkthrough for (and I did not do this until I had spent a good chunk of time trying everything I had learned up to that point and even afterwards (since you could revisit worlds) were puzzles I would have NEVER solved.  For example, the puzzle piece that is accessed by moving around the giant replica of the puzzle in the level would never, ever have occurred to me.  Someone of a certain type of mind would surely have realized that the puzzles would not exist in the world if they did not have a purpose, but I could not figure this one out.  And the fact that most of the puzzles are one-offs means that you never do this again.

Since I never expected to play Braid I had read very revealing reviews about it and the podcasts I listened to also gave quite a few spoilers.  For example, the often touted “Braid is a metaphor for the atomic bomb.”  I don’t know if this is the case, but if it is, then creator Jonathan Blow is one heckuva story telling genius.  Let me take a quick break to tell you that this game has affected me so much that instead of hitting backspace when I make mistakes on this blog post, I’m reaching for the shift key to reverse time.  This game has certainly touched my mind in ways I have yet to fully understand.  Returning to the “Braid is a metaphor for the atomic bomb” sentiment, I think Mr Blow certainly is far more clever than that.  In fact, other than a quote in the epilogue and the fact that you seem to be chased by an atomic-bomb like fire in World 1, it’s dubious whether this is true.  I think that Mr Blow put this in to totally mindf*ck with us, the players.  And what a trip that is.  I think it may even be a red herring.  And if this paragraph doesn’t make as much sense as it should, that’s because I just finished playing the game and my mind is still trying to get back to the real world.

Braid rewards our expectations by having the final level be World 1.  Just as I asked why Star Wars was starting with episode 4 when I first saw it, I wondered why I was in World 2 at the start.  Now every level is running in reverse.  This presents new and interesting puzzles, but I found these to be the easiest levels.  At least until I got all the way to the final level in world 1.  There I was stuck for about 5 or 10 minutes repeating the same fifteen seconds of gameplay trying to get past a little part that I knew was so close to the end.  In the top, where the princess was running I could see a mailbox.  Surely we were almost home.  I had almost found the princess!

Then I finally make it to the end and suddenly I can only do one thing – hold shift and reverse time.  And suddenly a very different picture emerges.  When you enter this level, it appears that the princess is running away from an evil knight.  And you help each other get through a series of obstacles by hitting levers for each other.  Watching the level in reverse – except now it’s going the right way since all of World 1 was going backwards, you see that she’s pulling levers to try and impede your progress.  And she’s running into the arms of this knight.  You did something.  Perhaps the action mentioned in World 2 that caused her Braid to hit your face.

And then comes the epilogue.  And there are tons of green books that don’t convey any knowledge.  I know there were some stars to get, but since I wouldn’t have known about those if I hadn’t used the walkthroughs, I made a decision to play without getting them as I would have done if I hadn’t consulted the walkthrough.  And then after a few screens I end up at the final door.  And this door takes me to an area just left of the opening credits.  And there I am, my mind is thoroughly blown.  It all makes sense now.  That was World 1 and it’s why you were standing in the shadows just before entering World 2.  This fact delights me in ways I can’t explain.  And I return to the house.

I reread each of the green books in each room and I had a slightly greater understanding.  But, like a piece of classical music or a painting, I’m left feeling that I don’t quite understand it all.  I don’t completely get it.  And I want someone to tell me what it means.  What does it mean that at the end of the game, chronologically, in World 6 you still haven’t found the princess?  And I can’t remember what that damn dinosaur said when I got there.  And I want to know the meaning of the puzzles I constructed.  They somewhat go together with the narrative of the green books, but perhaps they mean something even more.  Or maybe none of this is the case and Jonathan Blow knew we would analyze it to death if he just make the writing obtuse enough.

Just to get it out of the way, I really enjoyed Braid.  I didn’t mind that it was over so fast.  I think raptr logged eight hours of playtime, but that’s not accurate.  I left it on while I was watching TV with the wife.  I’d say that the true number is perhaps closer to five.  And I did cheat on those ten puzzle pieces.  So perhaps it would end up being about eight hours all told.  Definitely find for $5 and even a great deal at $15.  You don’t play a game like Braid because of how long it’ll take.  You play it to blow your mind wide open.

Finally, I get to the title of the blog post; at the end, fittingly for a game such as this one.  The ending was so deep and trippy and mind-blowing that I might end up having a completely different or deeper understanding of the ending when I wake up or I might gain insight talking to other players.  Or maybe I’ll never know more than I do now.  So I’m leaving it open while acknowledging that I might never return to this topic again.  One important thing – BUY THIS GAME!

warning:  The above text contains many spoilers about Braid.  I, personally, feel that your enjoyment of the game will be greatly reduced by reading this ahead of time.  You have been warned!

First Look Review: Braid

That a game like Braid can exist is a statement on where video games are as an art form with a well-established history and canon.  To make a parallel in the paint world:  without a long canon of traditional paintings of tables with fruit and bread, people wouldn’t have really understood the “parody” or “remix” of a Cubist rendition of such a painting.  In the same way, Braid is most enjoyable to those of us who have been playing video games for the past 20 years, growing up with Super Mario Bros. as our first video game experience.  In fact, Braid does indeed make a few callbacks to this classic game which has almost become a scripture to us.  Any game that allows users to design levels (eg Little Big Planet) cannot exist for more than a femptosecond before at least four people have recreated Super Mario Bros. World 1-1.  Braid does nothing so brash and that’s where the game design genius begins to show.  The game designer does not ape Mario, but hints at it here and there.  One can almost see the developer giving you a knowing look and a nudge in the ribs.  “Look here, I’ve made this or that subtle reference.”  I don’t want to ruin it by speaking of it even though this game has been out for ~ a year already.  It would ruin the delight of experiencing it.

Again, Braid stands on the shoulders of games that came before it.  Game mechanics that made no sense (to adults, anyway) in the 80s are now taken for granted.  The fact that if an enemy appears, it can be dispatched by stepping on it is a no-brainer for anyone who has been playing video games since the 1980s.  Even though Braid does tell you that you can stomp on an enemy by way of a graphic printed on the floor of the level, it was the first thing I would have tried.  Braid also has a time-reversal mechanic which is not by itself new to video games.  While no Mario platformer (that I know of) allowed one to reverse time, gamers will have been exposed to it in the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and a few other games.  But don’t get the wrong idea here – Braid isn’t Mario with the ability to undo your death.  It is much more.

I take a break here to discuss how I came to play, and ultimately buy, Braid.  I had heard about it for the past year on the video game podcast 1UP, introduced to me by my brother.  At the time I was in need of more podcast material to listen to as I jogged.  I remember them constantly talking about how amazing Braid was as well as discussing the fact that the game had a very grand feeling to it.  It was debated a few times on the show whether the developer was a bit pretentious in his game design, his description of the game, and the game’s ending.  I have not yet finished the game, so I cannot comment on the ending.  This stuck with me, as it often does in podcasts when the hosts continuously return to a subject.  For the most part this only happens if the subject is truly worth a look.  Time is a commodity and so even though podcasts are free, the hosts are not free to jabber on about the same thing over and over.  Generally anything mentioned more than once is worth at least a cursory look.  (This was also the case with Peggle, but that is a subject for another blog post)

I don’t remember if Braid was originally only available for download for the Playstation 3 or Xbox, but I did not attempt to play the game at that time.  However, this weekend I decided to see if Peggle (I guess we will talk about it a little more on this podcast) had a demo available.  It was another game mentioned as addictive on the podcast, so I had been itching to try it out.  But the name and website didn’t really help me understand what it was about, so I wanted to play a demo.  While looking on Steam, I noticed they were having a 66% off deal on Braid.  On its own this wouldn’t have been enough, but a demo was offered and so I gave it a shot.  As soon as I reached the furthest I could reach in the demo I grabbed my credit card and bought the game.  It had inserted itself into my grey matter like a neural parasite and I couldn’t let myself continue existing without playing the game.  With 20 minutes left until the sale ended, the game was mine.  I then proceeded to play for another thirty minutes.

Another digression here.  Much can be said against digital distribution as represented by Valve’s Steam.  For one thing, it locks games to one’s account.  In the olden days of CD or floppy disk games, one could lend a game to a friend.  Sure, this was against the letter of the law.  Each person should buy their own copy of a game.  But before the internet was widespread enough to offer demos, this was often the only way to sample a game and determine whether to part with one’s money.  So, while some portion of borrowed games never translated into a sale for the game’s publisher, some other portion would never have bought the game without sampling it first.  Of course, this is why demos were one of the most important things embraced by game publishers on the web.  I have purchased quite a few games after playing a demo.

Another change in a digital distribution-based economy is the inability to resell games.  This one fact alone is why I cannot fathom why all video games are not distributed via Steam.  The only answer I can come up with is that they hate that Valve controls the flow of information.  (Blizzard is, for example, coming up with their own Steam alternative)  After all, video games companies have only hated rental companies as much as they hate resale.  Because once you have played a game, you are likely to get rid of it.  This is why games are now chock-filled with achievements.  They are trying to keep you playing so you don’t resell the game.  This can sometimes end up in quite the mediocre gameplay experience when the user must earn his ability to play the game to full functionality (I’m looking at you Warioware for Wii!) in an attempt to keep the gamer in possession of the game.  But with digital distribution, one is no longer able to transfer ownership of a game to another.  And I think this may, in the long run, result in fewer games purchased.  One can spend $60 on a game one is unsure of if certain to be able to recoup at least $30 on resell.

But digital distribution does have its advantages.  For example, since Valve does not have store shelves to stock, they can offer every game for sale for which they have a license to do so.  Also, since there are no physical discs, boxes, or manuals, once the costs of game creation have been recouped, Steam can put games on sale and still make money for the publisher and themselves as distributor.  After all, the losses are the same whether they sell a game at $14, $5, or $1.  It is essentially $0 – just costs for some hard disk space on their servers and some bandwidth to sell you the game.  All that changes is how much profit they can make.  And if they can maximize that by having a weekend sale, they will do that.  The other key advantage (and I’ve heard others speak of this on various video game podcasts) is that digital distribution is better tailored for impulse buys.  If, last night, after playing the Braid demo, I would have had to go to Best Buy to get the game, I would not own it.  For one thing, Best Buy was closed when I was playing the demo.  For another, I’m pretty busy during the week and wouldn’t have gone to Best Buy all week.  I wouldn’t be constantly playing the demo because I had finished it.  So it would be possible that the game would have slipped out of my mind and I would never have bought it.  But combine a deep discount, putting the game at $5, and the immediacy of digital distribution and you have a customer.

And now I return to where I was six paragraphs ago:  the idea that Braid is not just Mario and Ctrl-Z, it is something special.  Braid breaks video gaming convention right from the beginning.  I did not realize at first that I could begin playing.  The title screen had the title of the game and a silhouetted bridge.  The game informed me I could access the menu by pressing escape.  I did so.  A menu item titled “Start a new game” caught my eye.  I selected it and hit enter.  I was back at the same screen.  What had I done wrong?  Once again the game was informing me that I could hit “esc” to access the menu.  I was missing something here.  I blinked and there, I saw a bit of my avatar’s head in the shadows.  I hit the right arrow and he began to walk and so the game began.  Except I suddenly found myself in a house and wondering what kind of game this was.

I entered a door by going to it an pressing up.  As I write this, I don’t remember if something on the screen told me I could go into the door by pressing up.  I just knew.  Mario had been doing this since at least Super Mario World as had countless other games.  I found myself in a room with a series of books which presented the story and gave away the reason for the game’s title.  (Or at least the first meaning if there’s a deeper one later)  The writing was poetic and philosophical.  I’d never seen anything like it in a video game.  I entered a door on the right.  Another subversion, I start in level 2.  Was level one when I entered the house?

As I listened to the celtic-sounding soundtrack, I became aware of yet another subversion of the platformer genre – my character.  He was dressed like an english school boy.  He is wearing a blue blazer, red tie, and school-boy shorts.  He didn’t look like any hero I had ever seen.  To top it off was the contradiction that he was an extraordinary character by virtue of the fact that he was such an ordinary character.  He isn’t an invented character like Earthworm Jim that only works within the fiction of the game.  He isn’t an imaginary creature like Kirby.  He’s just a regular guy.  It’s not the absolutely first time the main character has been an ordinary Joe, but it’s certainly rare.

One of the best things about this game is that by being a platformer, the game doesn’t need to have a tutorial level.  It doesn’t need to interrupt the game to tell you what to do.  You know to jump and walk and go to the right to get to the end.  (At least in the levels I’ve played thus far)  And it just gives you an easy hint about what to do.  The first time my character “died”, the words “shift” appeared.  I held the shift key and rewound my death.  Not far enough and I was hit once again. And so began my mental joy at this game.  Because it is easy to end up in a situation where you need to rewind a lot further than you thought and that’s mind-blowing because you learn the consequences of your actions.  As an example, in one level I bounced off of one bad guy and right into another.  And so I rewound and found that I could not avoid crashing into the second enemy if I jumped on this enemy here.  But I could not find anywhere else to jump without rewinding even further and not ending up cornered that way.  And continuing on subtleties, each level gives you a small graphic (similar to the shorthand in Portal) that gives you a clue about what you need to do to accomplish to finish the level.

If this was all there was to the game, it would have been a coin toss as to whether I would have bought it.  What sold it for me was when I came across a later level that introduced the fact that anything glowing green is immune to time reversal.  The first puzzle I solved with this game mechanic gave me a mind orgasm.  Again, I don’t want to spoil anything for you so I cannot go into this any further.  Suffice it to say that it requires bending your mind in ways it has never bent before.  Long time readers of my blog will know that I am a spiritual person and that I attended church through all of my formative years and through most of college.  For a student of Judeo-Christian theology, one of the most difficult concepts to attempt to understand is canon that God has always existed.  God never came into being, He simply was.  Lots of people nod and accept this without much effort.  But for a mind such as mine to try and understand this or the concept that the “saved” will be in Heaven for all eternity, is an attempt to get the brain to work in a mode it is not meant to work in.  From the smallest cycle of the day to the larger cycle of a life – all things begin and end.  To fathom something without beginning or end is a tough thing.  Again, this is from a Western upbringing.  Doubtless, believers of certain Eastern religions would not have such a problem, having been exposed to such beliefs from a young age.  At any rate, this new mode of gameplay in braid is like trying to get your mind wrapped around infinity.  Only it’s not quite as impossible.  It’s an intense pleasure.  It’s like stretching your muscles before and after a good workout.  Putting the mind through the workout of these puzzles is such an endorphin-producing event.

And that is why I bought Braid.  Left-brain-wise, I bought it for the same reason I got into Sudoku and play games like Tetris and Crack Attack!  Right-brain-wise, I bought it because it is more than a game.  It is an art form.  It calls back to all these prior experiences I grew up with.  Older people who never played these games or didn’t play them with as much regularity are simply left out of enjoying the game at that level.  Even gamers much younger than I who have been exposed to a dozen ironic tributes to Mario and other early platformers won’t get as much out of this.  This game was made for me, or so it feels.  But it was certainly made by someone with a certain games history for someone with a certain games history.  The same way that Dali cannot shock us like he did those who lived through his artwork, so can the new players not truly experience Braid.

I am not that far through the game.  I am about to enter World 4 and there are probably 8 or 10 worlds.  There may yet be more to gush about.  But right now I cannot wait to play the game.  (I am writing this during my lunch hour – although it will be published to the blog tomorrow at midnight)  Don’t let the above paragraph keep you from playing Braid if you don’t fit my description.  Although we do not interpret art in the same way as those who saw it originally, that does not mean we cannot appreciate it and come away with new interpretations.  If you like games that get into your brain and make you think and solve puzzles, you should buy it or at least try the demo.  Speaking of puzzle pieces.  I have been collecting puzzle pieces as I play each level.  I come across areas in which to assemble the pieces, but I do not yet know what effect this will have on the game.  Just know that Braid has affected me deeply for a video game and so much so that I ended up typing what would be a four page review without any images or screenshots.  It is the kind of review that can only take place on the web for a game that can only exist because the of the web and its ability to foster indie development.

iPod Shuffle

For years I had been saying that I would not buy an iPod product.  After all, they sell music in the iTunes music store with DRM on it.  All of my music on my Linux computer is in the OGG format and it can’t be played with iPods.  However, when it came time to buy an audio player I did a bit of research.  It had to be something I could buy at the local Best Buy because I had a coupon and gift card.  Of the players sold at Best Buy, the players which supported OGG were, ironically, not well supported on Linux.  In fact, the best supported and integrated player in Linux was the iPod.  That’s important to me since I use my Linux computer for serving my main audio needs.   All of my podcasts come in through Rhythmbox.  The second requirement I had is that it had to be of the same form factor as the 2nd Generation iPod Shuffle so that it could use it at the gym clipped onto my shirt or shorts and not weigh me down at all.  I used to work out with an iPaq in my pocket and it was not very comfortable at all. 

First I installed gtkpod onto my computer.  Then I plugged the Shuffle into Mario, my main Linux computer, and Rhythmbox promptly crashed.  I tried a few different combinations such as plugging in the iPod first or starting Rhythmbox first.  Then I ran gtkpod and realized that something was not setup correctly on the file system of the Shuffle.  So I plugged it into my Windows computer and ran iTunes and the first little setup wizard.  I named it 1UPMUSHROOM to go along with my Mario theme. 

After that everything worked perfectly.  So even though everyone was scared that with the latest updates, iPods wouldn’t work with Linux, the gtkpod people got it working – at least it worked for me with an iPod I just bought from the store.  I’ve been enjoying it for the past week or so and am able to listen to my podcasts at the gym instead of those stupid radio programs they usually play.

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Mario Galaxy

I received Super Mario Galaxy for Christmas and I must say that I’m quite happy with the gift.  This is the most talked about Wii game for the end of 2007 and not without reason.  Everyone who’s into gaming kept mentioning that Mario Galaxy is the true successor to Super Mario 64 on the Gamecube.  Pretty much everyone, myself included, thinks that Mario Sunshine was a piece of sod that should never have been made.  Mario Galaxy, on the other hand, has a lot of the same charm that made SM64 so much fun to play.  My only complaint, and this is a very tiny one, is that the puzzles are a bit easier than Mario 64.  I remember racking my brain with my brother trying to figure out how to get the each of the stars for SM64.  With Mario Galaxy, I feel that most of the stars are a lot easier to get.  However, as I write this blog post I realize that I played Super Mario 64 approximately 10 years ago, so it’s possible that the puzzles that were so hard for me back then would not be quite as hard now.  That said, I beat the game in two days with about 20 hours of gameplay.  That is, I beat the final Bowser, but was only about half way through collecting all of the stars.

The second thing I wanted to address was the second player mode on Mario Galaxy.  Some people have decried this as merely a gimmick.  I’m here to tell you this is not so!  Yeah, the primary thing for the second player to do is acquire star bits for you, but that can be immensely helpful.  There are some really tough levels where the floor is shifting below you and it can cause you some lives to be worrying about whether you’re getting all of the star bits.  Also, I tend to get star bits in a circular pattern which causes Mario to spin around.  If you’re holding a turtle shell this will send the shell flying away – very annoying.  Finally, the second player can stop certain bad guys from moving, allowing you to progress through the levels much more quickly.  They can also cause Mario to jump if they want to be annoying little wankers. 

The ending is decent, but nothing special.  Then again, when has any Mario game ever had a good ending?  Suffice it to say that my sister-in-law’s boyfriend lost a significant portion of his motivation to play the game. 

Finally, the graphics are pretty awesome.  Just look to Mario Sunshine and it looks 10-100 times better.  And the final FMV sequence has a very beautiful HD-ish quality to it.  I’d have to say that this game proves that the Wii is capable of beautiful games. 

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Mario is dead, long live Mario!

This week is National Engineering Week and we’ve been doing some pretty interesting things here at Cornell. For example, whoever could name the most digits to Pi would win a pie. We had a social contraceptive contest to see who could come up with the worst pickup line. But nothing we have done, or will do, here at Cornell, stacks up to what engineers did at this school!. They took a whole bunch of Post-It© notes and created a mural to Mario. I will post some of the pictures here in case their page goes down or is slash-dotted. By the way, if you go to their website you’ll see the reasons for the title of my post.

Mario 1

Mario 2

Mario 3