Update on status, new layout, absence, future

It’s been quiet the last few days, I know. This wasn’t intended, but along with trying to work through System Shock 2, I’ve been tinkering with the layout, changing themes, and just overall messing around with how I want to move forward with this blog. What I’ve decided is this:

  • As of next week, posts are going to be done Mon-Wed-Fri. I’m going to try and make one of those a more exhaustive, longer piece and mix it up with slightly shorter ones.
  • I’ve got some words about System Shock 2 that’ll go up tomorrow. After that it’s going to be quiet until Monday when I get back from Seattle.
  • Holy shit, I’m going to PAX, which means next week’s writings are going to be mostly about that. Expect a lot of talk about the WiiU.
  • In a few more weeks, I’m going to look into digging into this a little further with the purchase of a domain and the ability to do some custom tinkering with the design.
  • I’m thinking about cross-posting a lot of this stuff to a blog on 1UP or something to try and get my writing out there a little better.

To my friends and family who read this stuff and offer comments or criticism, I appreciate all of it. Anyone else out there, thanks for reading. Things are gonna get a lot more interesting, I promise.

 

The Quest for System Shock 2, Part One

Everyone has that piece of media, interactive or otherwise, that has always eluded them. We all have that one thing that we’ve meant to get around to experiencing, but for some reason never have. Usually the issue is a matter of time. We only have so much of it to dedicate towards our leisurely activities, so most of it gets occupied elsewhere. Over time it all builds up to create a backlog, as we get further and further behind on wasting our time. Beyond this, the media we never get to always maintain this certain level of mysticism, all because we aren’t really sure what it is we’re missing out on. For all we know, that little experience we’re missing out on could be something absolutely amazing, just waiting for us to dedicate some time to it. Of course, sometimes the actual experience can’t possibly live up to the hype that surrounds it.

One of the major deterrents that is becoming more prevalent is that of availability, especially when it comes to video games. For the majority of consumers, a lot of the titles that anyone wants to play are still easily obtainable, via digital download services or re-releases. Titles that aren’t available digitally are likely easy to find on eBay, although that may also require the hardware that game was designed for. Your mileage may vary. Digital distribution has made it easy to play a good number of the games you may want to play. Because of this, it becomes incredibly unfortunate when problems like licensing or rights issues hold something up. I’m looking at you, System Shock 2.

Before Bioshock came out and made people think really hard about their story based first-person shooters, there was System Shock 2, which was co-developed by Looking Glass Studios and an early incarnation of Irrational Games. Development was headed by Ken Levine, who later on would head development on Bioshock, along with the forthcoming Bioshock Infinite. Instead of taking place under the sea or in a floating city, System Shock 2 takes place aboard a large starship. Something has gone horribly wrong, and the ship is overrun with the outbreak of some sort of genetic infection. You play the role of a lone soldier sent in to investigate and curb the infection. What could possibly go wrong?

System Shock 2 was released in 1999 for Windows PCs to massive critical acclaim. The problem is that due to disputes over the licensing, it cannot be re-released, nor can any further entries in the series be made. To make the situation worse, the game is innately incompatible with modern systems. It is essentially stuck in limbo. Thanks to a dedicated fan base, mods have been released to not only run the game on modern computers, but new textures and models have been created to polish some of the game’s jagged edges. The game still looks like it belongs in 1999, but thanks to these updates, it looks much better than it previously did.

I’ve never played System Shock 2. It has been that game that I’ve wanted to play for years, but for various reasons, have never been able to. I’ve wanted to play it ever since I first finished Bioshock, but the barrier of entry with the modding has always kept me at bay. It wasn’t that it was complicated, but with every other game I wanted to play, System Shock 2 got placed on the backburner. I know a lot about it, and the game maintains this level of mystery and wonder in my brain. At a certain point, it becomes too much and I’m finally at a point where I’m making time to play this game.

Thanks to the crazed fans, I’m not only able to play the game on my 64 bit installation of Windows 7, but someone has actually managed to create a wrapper of sorts that’ll let me run the game perfectly on my Macbook Pro in OSX. On top of that, the wrapper came pre-installed with widescreen and high resolution texture mods. The game now runs at 1280×800 resolution, and looks as good as a 13 year old PC game is going to look. Just seeing the game running properly is a wonderful feeling.

Of course, what could happen is that I could play a few hours of the game and totally hate it. In fact, I feel like a lot of people who attempt to play this game now go through just that. Some people can’t get beyond the way the game looks. It’s nowhere near as scary as it was in 1999, and some of the gameplay elements just don’t hold up. Being played from the mentality of it existing as a complicated, story based first-person shooter from 1999, it’s a true sight to behold.

With all of this in mind, I’m actually pretty excited to dive into this game. I’ve played a small slice of it, and have loved what I’ve experienced so far. The atmosphere is decidedly creepy and a little unnerving. I’m really interested to see what direction this is going to head in. We shall see how I feel after finishing it, something I hope to accomplish before I leave for Washington next week.

Here we go!

Sounding off on Sound Shapes

Do you ever have that one moment in a video game where you realize you are playing something special? That one moment that makes you understand that what you’re playing actually transcends being just a video game, and becomes an experience? I find these experiences to be rare and hard to come by, but when they happen, they hit like a ton of bricks.

Sound Shapes is a musical platformer designed for the Playstation Vita, but was also released on the Playstation 3. It was developed as a Vita launch title, but countless delays led to its release a little over a week ago. The basic idea is that you are a nameless, sticky blob traversing through platforming stages, collecting discs that add notes and noises to the soundtrack while you play. Since everything makes a sound, you are essentially remixing the music as you go, and no playthrough will be quite the same as the previous. Along with music made by the developers, the game features sets of stages and music designed by Deadmau5, Beck, and Jim Guthrie. I say “designed”, because the way this game works, it really feels like the the music was developed. This isn’t to say that the music feels phoned in or added as some sort of afterthought, because that isn’t the case at all. This is music designed in a similar way to the Super Mario Bros theme, built from the ground up to mesh with the in-game world.

In the world of Sound Shapes, there is no story to be had. There’s no princess needing to be saved, nor is there some evil creature hell bent on destroying the universe. It’s just you, the music, and a myriad of little platforming challenges between you and the sound discs. Basically, there’s no filler. This is a pure, unfiltered experience.

While I enjoyed the time I was spending with it, it wasn’t until I reached the Beck designed levels where I realized what was going on. I was existing in this bizarre little world where vocal harmonies existed as platforms for traversing dangerous terrain. I was running through a bombed out city, avoiding missiles and explosions, all for the sake of collecting these discs to help flesh out the music. Every little disc, every nuance added something. Even where I thought my actions would sound out of place, they didn’t. Everything had fallen into place in a way I didn’t yet understand.

After finishing these levels, I went back to earlier “albums”, and I got the same experience. I was no longer meandering through a regular platformer. I felt like I was giving shape and substance to a world that needed my help to find its voice. This is exactly what I was doing, and when I took to that mentality, it became something magical to both my eyes and my ears.

My imagination went wild with the visuals and sounds as I was creating this world in my brain. Nothing was explained or elaborated upon. I just existed, and it was my task to create some sort of tangible narrative between these sets of wildly different stages. How in the hell does this little blob end up in these situations? Why do these little red creatures want me dead? What real purpose did the discs serve other than the build the soundtrack? None of it really mattered, but I didn’t care. No one else playing the game would have the exact same experience. It was mine and mine alone. No one could take that feeling from me. I was living in this world, and I was doing all I could to give it life.

As a gamer I treasure both the tried and true methods of video game logic, along with the experimental approach that usually comes with offering something different. I feel like this game really nails both sides of this equation, doing a more than adequate job of catering to both the typical gamer and the gamer that gets really into “pretentious, art house platformers.” The primary campaign can be completed in a couple hours or so, but upon completing it, a wholly different beast is unlocked. Enter Death Mode, the setting designed for the platforming masochists who love games like Super Meat Boy and I Wanna Be the Guy.

Unlike the regular campaign, Death Mode is built around single screen challenges to collect discs in a short period of time. The location of the discs is randomized, making some runs absolutely impossible. While most would find this frustrating, I actually found it kind of endearing. Forcing me to take on the stages using my gut instincts made the victories that much sweeter, and each one yielded satisfaction along with a sigh of relief. By the time I reached the Deadmau5 stages, I had to quit for a little while to calm down. I was getting intensely frustrated at the difficulty, something I hadn’t really experienced since playing Super Meat Boy. Of course, this was optional content, but by the time I got to Death Mode I was committed to completing every little ounce of this game. I wanted to conquer it, and I did.

I finally managed to complete Death Mode after a couple days of trudging through it. I got the platinum trophy for the game, something I never set out to do. I’m not a huge fan of achievements of trophies or any sort of Skinner box reward system, but I wanted to wear that platinum trophy as a badge of honor, so that’s exactly what I did.

Sound Shapes is a truly unique experience, and with the inclusion of a level editor, users are building their own worlds using the in-game assets, so it can continue indefinitely. This is a game designed for a community to run wild with it, forging out their own path to share with the world. I’ve only started to tinker with this a little bit, but I’m really excited to see what I come up with. Some of the levels I’ve seen the fans make are astounding, and incredibly well thought out, something that doesn’t always happen with in-game level creation. I feel like this community really has the potential to grow and develop some truly excellent content for an already great game.

Basement Skating and Bad Religion: A Story About Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2

Skateboarding is a sport built around falling on your ass, followed by getting back up and figuring out why you fell on your ass, and then almost immediately falling on your ass all over again. Some people can do this and get pretty good at it. Some even get to do it professionally, and have corporate sponsors that help pay for them to fall on their ass. Others, well, they just fall on their ass. I fall into the latter category, and during my skateboarding peak, I was an expert at falling on my ass. This is largely the fault of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.

The game came out in September of 2000, which is right around when I started high school. Of course I had dropped plenty of hours into its predecessor, but it was nothing compared to the sequel. I started skateboarding a little bit before I started the ninth grade, but it was just a hobby. I was never very good at it, and my balance left a lot to be desired. Falling on my ass became a regular pastime. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 came out, and at the time it was a big deal. The game featured amazing new levels, a few more playable characters, and even a level creator. This game was going to be something really special.

Since I had yet to own a Playstation, I wasn’t able to play the game on a regular basis until the Nintendo 64 version came out the next year. Of course, that version was gimped due to cartridge space limitations, but by the time it had come out, the game was already burned in my brain. Friends and neighbors owned, and it quickly took over a lot of the time we spent together.

The reward for finishing the game with each character was a skate video set to one of the pieces of licensed music from its soundtrack. Each one featured clips of the playable skaters showing off their moves. Even the hidden characters had videos, so unlocking everything became a real treat. My friends and I worked at it to unlock a specific video, and it was at this moment that everything changed.

Within those 45 seconds, something happened. Rodney Mullen quickly became my favorite skateboarder of all time, and a whole new world of majestic flatland trickery was opened to me. As a skater, I never got into riding ramps or jumping off of insane ledges. Not only was I afraid of getting seriously hurt, but it just never appealed to me. I quickly learned that most of these crazy tricks and maneuvers Rodney Mullen did were actually invented by him. As insane as the skateboarding was within the game, Rodney Mullen was chaining it all together in real life. He was the real deal.

Because of that, I got a lot more into the sport. It consumed my life as I started trying to imitate and recreate some of the unbelievable things I watched this man do. I knew how to perform a kickflip, but that wasn’t enough. I had to learn new variations. I had to do whatever it took to try and chain these maneuvers together the way that Rodney did. It was truly inspirational. The way he did it made it into a creative art, one I hoped I could somehow replicate.

My friends and I really took to learning some of these crazy tricks, and for a while we built our own ramps and grind rails to play with. Sure it was dangerous, but it didn’t matter. We just wanted to skate. One time in particular, we stole a couple shipping crate bases from a grocery store and used those to build a box. We ended up connecting it with a ramp and we could chain together our own runs. It was much better than going to the junior high school and getting kicked out by the cops, something which happened every time I went there.

Another time we were stuck indoors due to a foot of snow on the ground. School ended up getting cancelled for a couple days because of it, and we came up with a plan. One of us had an unfinished basement that was fairly large. His parents were at work for the day and wouldn’t be back until later that evening. With this in mind, we set our plan in motion.

We managed to move all of our ramps and boxes down the stairs and into this basement. I don’t remember the layout of the house, but I remember that the entrance to the garage was close to the basement stairwell. Suburbia was kind to us in this regard. The basement itself was mostly empty as is, and it made for an excellent, impromptu skate park. It had a hard concrete floor, and for a basement, the ceilings were unusually high. It was perfect to set up our own little skate course. The rest of the day was spent skating around this makeshift basement skate park and listening to terrible CKY records. I remember the excitement that came when we started jumping between the boxes as we grew comfortable with our basement haven. Tony Hawk had put all kinds of crazy ideas in our heads, and we were out to live the dream.

It wasn’t just the skateboarding. It was also the music. The Tony Hawk games were known for their licensed soundtracks, which by the time Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 came out, featured a mix of punk rock, hip hop and a smattering of metal. I was mildly aware of punk rock at this time. I had listened to Green Day and the Offspring and I’d heard a couple of Blink 182 albums. Tony Hawk 2 helped introduce me to the real thing, with songs from bands like Bad Religion, Lagwagon, and Millencolin. I grew to love them all.

Having recently gotten a broadband internet connection, I got on Napster and started downloading all I could find. It really led me to a musical renaissance. Throughout high school I got more and more into ska and punk rock, and even started playing guitar. By the end of my high school career, my tastes were starting to drift more towards indie rock, but punk and ska were still close to my heart. I grew out of a lot of it for a while, thinking it to be juvenile noise, but in the last few years I’ve really fallen in love again. It makes up a big part of who I am and it helped open me up to a whole other world outside of the radio’s brand of corporate butt rock. It isn’t unusual for video games to have licensed soundtracks, but I feel like it is rare for one to fit the setting as well as the early Tony Hawk games did.

I don’t actually skateboard anymore. I’m 26 and I’m kind of afraid to get back on the board. I do still have the last skateboard I bought, though if I ever decide to get back on it, I may as well just replace everything. The wheels are worn, the bearings are shot. The deck itself is a bit tore up, and I’m not sure how sturdy it still is. I’m worried to ever go back to it because of the amazing experiences I had when I was younger, and I’ll admit, I am terrified of seriously injuring myself. I also don’t know if skateboarding at 26 will give me that same excitement. Rodney Mullen is 45 and still pulls it off, so maybe I’m just over-thinking it.

The game just set a real fire under me. I’ve been playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 again lately, trying to discern if it really was as fun as I remember. Not only do I have most of the game committed to muscle memory, but it is just as good as it was over ten years ago. Few games can ever pull that off, and for everything it did for me, I’m proud that this one made the cut.

The Legend of Zelda, and Why I Write About Video Games

A few days ago I got an e-mail from my 82 year old grandfather proclaiming that with my background in History, I should write something related to that and get away from writing about games, saying that it could really help my writing. I haven’t replied to him, but it got me thinking about why I’m writing about video games. I never really have declared a mission statement for why I waste my time writing about them.

I think about the episodes of 1UP’s Retronauts podcast where Jenn Frank, the former community manager of the site, would come on and enlighten the gang with anecdotes about her family and the way she associated her memories of video games as a child with her father, who passed away when she was ten years old. One of the specific stories was about how she grew up not knowing if she imagined a specific memory she associated with a game that might not even exist. A friend of hers gave her a pile of Atari 2600 games to try and help her find the game, which turned out to be Haunted House. Her memories weren’t deceiving her, and her memories of her father were true.

That story really struck a chord with me the first time I heard it. I have plenty of memories of my childhood, some of which I’m not completely sure actually happened. I hate the possibility that some memories of my own life might not even be real. I’ve found myself using video games as a way to verify that some of these moments really happened, and that my childhood was how I remember it. I have various associations of specific video games that I attribute to certain moments in my own life.

I’m writing to remember, and I’m writing to keep my own thoughts straight.

My friends know I’m not the happiest person all the time. To be quite honest, I’m actually pretty upset on a regular basis. I have mild freakouts from time to time, but I don’t know if I’d go as far as calling them panic attacks. I get really uncomfortable around new people and I generally don’t sleep well. To put it lightly, I’m a mess. I grew up playing video games and now I find myself using them not only as a way to authenticate my own memories, but as a form of escapism to keep me from completely falling apart.

Though I had been playing video games for a little while, my first real memory of it that I remember was playing The Legend of Zelda with my dad when I was about seven years old. It was the last time I remember him getting really into a video game. I mostly just sat there and watched him play over the course of a few weeks as we tried to navigate the game’s dungeons and puzzles in hope of saving Princess Zelda and retrieving the rest of the Triforce. This was before the mass proliferation of the internet, so when there were problems, we just had to go by trial and error, or find someone who know what we were supposed to do. One of the members of the family was also playing the game, so we were able to talk to them and solve a few puzzles. In retrospect it was interesting to see that level of schoolyard puzzle solving portrayed through adults.

We had taken to extremes to figure out this game. My dad actually graphed out maps on paper, noting every false wall, boss room, and treasure to be found. No stone was being left unturned. Every little riddle from every crazy old man in a cave was written down and deciphered. We were thoroughly tearing the game apart.

Finally, the eight dungeons had been defeated, and we had found the entrance to the final, ninth dungeon. It took a few days to actually get through it. Like the earlier ones, this dungeon was mapped, and everything about it was written down. After a while of pushing through it, we made it. We had found Ganon. It was time to save Hyrule and Princess Zelda from his terrible rule. Nothing was going to stop us.

And then we were slaughtered.

We could never figure out exactly how to defeat Ganon. No matter what we did, we never stumbled upon using the silver arrow to make him vulnerable. We just walked in every time and were killed almost immediately. One summer afternoon, my dad had come home early, and picked me up from my grandparents house. It was going to be a day full of Zelda. Today we were going to finish what we had started. I go to load up the game, and all of our save data is gone.

All of the save files had been wiped out. It wasn’t uncommon. It could happen to anyone. NES cartridges weren’t exactly the most durable video game medium when it came to battery backups. For a split second, I’m sure he blamed me, but he quickly got over that and realized that it just happened. I hadn’t touched it. Because of this, our Zelda adventure was over. I tried to start my own, but it wasn’t the same. Aside from a couple of games here and there, my dad never really tried to seriously play a video game ever again.

I know I’ve told part of this story before, but I felt the whole thing warranted telling. Him and I have never been very close, and the older I get, the more him and I change. I’m not an outdoors-y sort of person, while both of my parents have become such. I still get blamed from time to time if there are computer or internet troubles at home. Of course, over the years we both tried to find some sort of common interest. I myself remember trying to get him to play Link to the Past, though he never took to it.

I know that the only reason I still remember these moments is because of the video game attachment to them. Most of what I remember about the Legend of Zelda is from when I was just a little kid, even though I’ve played the game numerous times since then. I wish I still had some of those original maps that my dad made. They were actually pretty impressive, and I love that long gone age of having to figure things out without the internet to save the day.

That game is what got me into the Legend of Zelda series, and it was one of the only times my dad and I ever really did anything together. Any time I think about it, that’s what my brain goes to, and no Zelda game since then gives me the same feeling that the original gave me, all because of these memory associations. I’m not upset that my dad and I aren’t that close. We just aren’t. We’re different people, and it definitely shows. We just don’t have that sort of connection, and I understand it.

This is why I write about video games, and this is why they mean so much to me. I want to share these feelings with people, and I want to tell these stories in hopes that they’ll help keep my own memory straight. The power of context with memories is truly magical, and it is what keeps me writing.

Some Thoughts On Cinematic Narratives and Linearity

As I have previously said, I never had a Sony console until I bought a Playstation 2, but the first game I bought with it was the now classic Final Fantasy VII. I have mixed feelings on it now, but at the time I was in love. When I was first playing the game, I was immune to the polygon puppet people and the horrible localization. I wasn’t bothered by how easy it was to break the system during the endgame. I was having fun, and that’s all that mattered.

Within the first few hours of the game, your characters are captured and locked up in the holding cells of the Shinra Corporation building. When I wake up, the cell doors are all unlocked, and there’s a trail of blood leading down the corridor and up the stairs. All of the guards are dead. What in the hell happened here?

At the time, this was a huge moment to me. I distinctly remember running to my Livejournal and writing about this. I realized I was a few years late to the Final Fantasy VII party, but I didn’t care. This was an amazing, cinematic moment in gaming to me. This was also one of the first moments where I really thought of gaming as something more than just the stereotypical bleeps and bloops.

I don’t hold Final Fantasy VII in the highest regard, but I’ll always remember this scene because it helped sell me on a post Final Fantasy VI RPG, but it also gave me a real indication of what games could become within the next few years.

That was exactly what happened.

In the last few years, video games have become much more of a cinematic experience and are much less restricted to the limitations of the video game medium. Unfortunately, a side effect of this has been that games have become much more linear. Final Fantasy XIII was greatly criticized for being a series of corridors with a bunch of battles thrown in. I myself contributed to that criticism. It was a big part of what I didn’t like about the game. The majority of shooters have also followed this trend, becoming linear shootfests.

I don’t find anything wrong with games like Gears of War or Halo. I’ve put time into both series, and while they aren’t what I like to spend my time playing, I had a level of enjoyment with them. I don’t necessarily like how linear they are, but I understand that in games like that, that sense of linearity is a proper way to tell a story.

I really worry about gaming becoming more cinematic over time, because at some point I feel like it ceases to be a video game. I love interesting takes on narrative and storytelling, and to be able to do it within the constraints of video game logic is surely a great challenge. Games like Bastion do a great job of telling a story without forcing it upon you by way of a narrator that watches over you as you play and actually narrates what is going on on screen. Other games like To the Moon, which can barely be considered a “video game” in the true sense of the term uses the style of a 16-bit SNES game to visualize a strong, sorrow filled narrative.

This really is a hard topic to get into in a blog format, so I’m going to keep it at this: I love narrative in games, I love seeing interesting ideas involving said narratives. I don’t like it when the narrative itself forces me into a rigid, linear progression because of game design choices.

Let video games stay video games.