The Art of the Pure Video Game

Pac-Man Forever

Somewhere along the way Video Games started to miss the point. They veered away from the ‘true north’ of Video Gaming and became entrenched in a AAA Focus Tested mire. Dripping in consensus and banality. Driven by commercial viability and green-lit by passionless executive teams who haven’t played a game for 20 years. The suits decide which games you play. The suits don’t know about games, that much is clear.

The process, and associated costs, have led to feature creep, a need for iterative improvement, an endless pursuit of the ‘majority’. Most games have lost the essence of the game itself , and are little more that excessive semi-disguised corridors punctuated by fetch quests for non engaging NPCs. As games got bigger they have become less game-like and more cinematic/epic/engaging. All of these are simply band-aids over broken and tired game mechanics dressed up to pull in the audience. The publishers are pushing for a point of difference, and the developers are beholding to the whims of the committee.

Lost is the purity of the game-play experience, the game itself. It’s fading. The best games are built upon a core game mechanic, that can withstand innumerable replays. In fact these games get better the more you play them. The examples are countless: Trials Evolution, Pac Man Championship Edition DX and Minecraft are all textbook examples of games built around a single core premise. This premise is fun, logical, easy to learn and mastery elevates the game to new heights. These are the games built around core ‘arcade’ mechanics, that effectively tap into a compulsion loop to play one more time. The financial barrier to entry of the arcade has evaporated, meaning that restarts are free, potentially rendering the experience worthless. Not so, ‘pure’ video games drive a compulsion within the boundaries of the game paradigm. Minecraft’s mechanics and game world, present a world free of restriction, yet underpinned by simple core mechanics. This framework provides a playground for the gamer, leading to creations of immeasurable brilliance and scope.

Minecraft vs. Game Of Thrones

Minecraft vs. Game Of Thrones

The accolades for these games lie at the feet of the game designer and engineers, whose single-minded determination have created game experiences at once shallow, but with endless depths for those willing to endure with them. Trials Evolution has a brutal punitive game mechanic at its core that chastises and repeatedly bests those prepared to invest time to understand the underlying game logic.

In these cases, the game mechanic is clear. The shortcomings and failures are always attributable to the player. Never was the adage ‘A bad workman blames his tools’, more true. These games don’t need to hide behind smoke and mirrors, marketing, USPs and Bullshots. Their intentions are perfectly apparent, driven by inherent purity. The issue therefore, is, can a game concept actually sell games in 2013? Maybe you should ask Notch that question.

Who shot Kinect? … How ‘The Gunstringer’ went awry

‘The Gunstringer’ infuriates, dissapoints and charms all at the same time. A difficult feat to achieve.

As the poster boy for the only valid pure Kinect mature experience, ‘The Gunstringer’ is the mature breakout hit on the platform that wasn’t.  The fundamental issue for Twisted Pixel was outside of their control, Kinect. Kinect artificially restricts the freedom given to game designers by a control pad. Microsoft would claim this as an oxymoron, as freedom was a central pillar of the Kinect experience.

Ironically, giving freedom to gamers has tied the hands of game designers.

The best Kinect games take gesture based input, or control schemes based upon familiar actions. Finesse and accuracy aren’t fundamental to Kinect (yet); and as such a game based upon aiming and shooting was always going to struggle. Even so, in ‘The Gunstringer’  the reticule is astonishingly forgiving, a little like playing CoD with a bazooka where every enemy is the size of a barn. The most imprecise gesture summons a rewarding lock on. The main problem? It feels hollow and unrewarding. Leaning  from cover is a flick of the left wrist. Is this immersion? Nah. The basics of this game would have improved a thousandfold on a controller. Twisted Pixel nailed the 2D platformer (Ms Splosion Man) with precise, infuriating level design that was punative and rewarding all at once. At no point do you ever feel frustrated by the controller input, just your ability. At every point ‘The Gunstringer’ feels like shadow boxing the Stay-Puft man. However, it’s nowhere near as amazing as that sounds.

‘The Gunstringer’ shines in terms of characterisation;  the premise of  a demented marionette hellbent on revenge is impossible to resist. Sadly, the gameworld is inconsistent. In a world based on the bizarre, its still a mish mash with some levels looking like they were ripped straight out of Little Big Planet, some created from a splash of Monty Python, and then within the game universe itself;  a lack of internal consistency, that manifests in oversized kitchen cutlery and water made from hand-sewn blankets. Its not odd or eclectic … it just feels half baked. Breaking the fourth wall is, simultaneously, the games greatest achievement and folly.

The game feels as though its been stretched to justify a packaged release. Originally slated as an XBLA title the game morphed into a packaged title, its painfully apparent in sections such as a steamboat ride where only the left hand is utilised, or the endless waves of paper enemies who explode into confetti in a dark cardboard environment. The latter feeling so sparse on content that it felt like the scenery would fall over at any moment to reveal the developers sniggering in the background drinking tea. Publisher pressure feels like it influenced the game design for the worse. The reason is simple, ‘mainstream’ Kinect games don’t buy XBLA titles, to broaden the games reach it had to be on a disc. This is incongruous as all of Twisted Pixel’s previous titles had been digital only.

As a digital developer at the vanguard, a packaged release felt like betrayal.

‘The Gunstringer’ feels like the kernel of the right game, botched and rerubbbed then released on the wrong platform for the wrong motives. And that’s a real shame.

Quote: Shigeru Miyamoto on the Internet

We don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the Internet until people have played the game – then we pay a lot of attention to whether people liked it. We read through it and see it, but we don’t take it into consideration. … [The Internet] is not going to dictate the direction of where the game goes

Creating Moral Panic: Bulletstorm in a Teacup

Conversations about Bulletstorm usually start with a criticism about the banality and puerile nature of the subject matter. A friend discounted the game as the product of a 10 year olds over active imagination. EA were #winning. EA had been happily fanning the flames of moral panic for close to a year in order to give Bulletstorm a USP. The panic had started at E3 2010 when EA distributed burgers outside allegedly made from human flesh. A cheap shot that wouldn’t  be the last.

CNN described the core game mechanic (skill kills) as ‘grisly’ and Fox described it as ‘The Worst Videogame In The World’. Carole Lieberman inferred a direct relationship between Video Game violence and rape. She attributed it to sexually explicit scenes in Video Games. It is a this point that one has to wonder if she had even played the game, or even knew how to turn on the X360. Lieberman has made a point of criticising video games over the years and that supported by the all too readily available, highly polished PR shot seem to infer she’s ready at the drop of a shotgun cartridge to denounce the games industry. An agenda was clearly at play on behalf of both Lieberman and Fox.Courted, encouraged and solicited by Epic and EA.

Cliffy B took great pleasure in proclaiming “I made a video game where you can blow out a mans ass-hole”. This was frat-boy marketing 101. The Bulletstorm circus created instantaneous folk devils. The Parody-Generator had gone into overdrive, lines were becoming blurred, and the media and publisher we creating exactly what they wanted moral panic. If sex sells, so does controversy. PT Barnum would have been proud.

This followed the all too familiar path that Stanley Cohen had set out in the early 1970s. The Mods and Rockers had created panic, Dungeon and Dragons has been a lightning rod on many occasions and yet again the games industry had deliberately created a panic for column inches. Hard to believe these sensationalist Smoke and Mirror tricks could still be so effective in 2011. The speed, velocity and communication of the panic was web-based and would evaporate quicker that you could say “Yesterdays news is tomorrows fish and chip paper”. The panic had been so quickly and deftly executed, it was a shock and awe case study. By the time the consumer was at the counter cash in hand it was forgotten.

So, was it right to drag games reputation through the mire again for the sake of one game? In an industry built on Groundhog Day thinking it’s expected. Inevitable to happen again … oh wait … Dead Island trailer anyone? Its time for fresh thinking, this shit is just getting old.