Friday, July 25, 2008

Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick - part 1

Music has always been an essential part of the gaming experience, from the monotonous Russian folk bleeps of Tetris or the catchy tunes of LucasArts’ Monkey Island series to the Wagneresque score of God of War. The musical elements of a game provide atmosphere and pace, much as they do in film, and while a certain piece of music might conjure up The Godfather or Lord of The Rings, in the same way a harp arpeggio or a few seconds of a Prodigy track can transport you back to when you played a certain game. No wonder the orchestral performances of videogame music put on by Videogames Live are sellouts.

Now music is increasingly showing up as the content of a game as well as its accompaniment. It makes a lot of sense if you’re a games company wanting to grow your market: whether you're a longtime gamer or not, you probably like music of some description. One branch of music game has you simulate music-making itself, mastering the intricacies of the plastic fretboard buttons or the drums – see part 2 for more on this. Then there’s the so-called rhythm genre, which in its simplest form asks you to hit the button, or tap with a stylus, in perfect time with the beat. When you’re playing well, you slide into a kind of breathless trance; at other times, it's tempting to throw down the controller and stomp on it to your own rhythm.

Here are three favourites past and present (from The Rough Guide to Videogames):

PS; NanaOn-Sha, Sony; 2000
Unreleased in the US (though rumoured to be coming to PlayStation Network), Vib-Ribbon is a uniquely lo-fi game. You control a scribble of a white rabbit as she jumps over a ribbon of obstacles on a black screen – blocks, squiggles and suchlike created by the music – and either evolves into a princess or dissolves into a frog, depending on how well you play. Ingeniously, the program runs from the system’s RAM, so the disc can be removed and replaced with your own CDs, which makes for a uniquely personalized experience.

PaRappa The Rapper
PS; Sony; 1997
Kickstarting an entirely new genre, PaRappa came as a breath of fresh air. The eponymous paper-thin dog undergoes seemingly mundane trials – learning to drive, cooking burgers – in a quest to be worthy of his dream flower girl, Sunny Funny. This involves following the instructions of a Master Rapper in each of six scenarios, copying and freestyling for a better rating. The re-release on PSP (2007) looks and sounds as cool as it ever did, but it’s also just as short as it was back then.

Elite Beat Agents
DS; iNiS, Nintendo; 2006
A Westernized remake of the acclaimed Japanese title Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! but with Cher, Madonna and the Village People providing the soundtrack. Like their forebears, the trio of men in black are called on for cheerleading support by various folks in trouble, whose stories appear like manga panels on the top screen. From the TV weatherwoman who predicts sunshine so as not to spoil her son’s picnic, to the treasure-hunting ship’s captain who can’t find any treasure, whether their problems are resolved depends on how accurately you tap decreasing circles in time to the music – not as easy as it sounds, but with enough practice you might eventually save the world.
If you’re more serious about your music, check out the next post.

My keynote at Edge Online

This morning I found out that the piece I’d written about writing The Rough Guide to Videogames had been posted at Edge Online. Bizarre as it may sound, this was almost as much of a thrill for me as seeing the first printed copy of the book itself – and not only because it’s the first publicity we’ve had so far. For years I’ve been a fan of the print magazine, though I gave up my subscription during a brief period when I went off games (more on that another time).

was to my knowledge the first magazine to treat games as cool*; it wasn’t trying to snare schoolboys with pictures of Lara Croft’s bottom (oh, wait, that shot’s in my book). It boasted cutting-edge design, it was literate and witty, with contributions from industry insiders and writers of the calibre of Steven Poole (author of Trigger Happy) producing thought-provoking articles. What’s more, it offered challenging, uncompromising reviews where you knew what the score meant and trusted it implicitly. Today, it still has that unique voice and you know that if Edge doesn’t rate a game, it’s not worth playing. So, to be a tiny part of Edge’s newly revamped website is a huge privilege for me.

You can read the article here.

edit: * As Theo commented at Edge Online, this isn't actually the case. All gaming magazines treated games as cool; what Edge did was write about them as a serious medium. What I should have said was that Edge made games feel cool to me; other magazines were mostly written in a more juvenile style and didn't treat the subject in a way that interested me. So back when magazines were the only place to read about games, I often felt sidelined and "uncool" about my gaming. Until I discovered Edge, that is.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Animal Crossing the generation gap

Rough Guides’ mission, it seems to me, is to illuminate specialist subjects for the non-specialist audience. Just as travel writers with years of experience in a country let the reader in on their favourite haunts, the Rough Guide to iPods offers a host of tips that even longtime iPod-owners might not discover on their own. When it comes to videogames, though, there’s a large specialist audience out there, and it’s at these knowledgeable gamers that much writing on videogames is aimed. With the Rough Guide to Videogames, we wanted to write a book that, without dumbing down or diminishing the subject, would be accessible to any intelligent reader, young or old, male or female, gamer or not. Naturally we cover some tough and uncompromising games that wouldn’t be first pick for the newbie gamer – Ninja Gaiden springs immediately to mind – but there are also plenty in there that don’t demand a longtime gamer’s skills or interests.

Take, for example, Animal Crossing, the first of the Canon entries. Here’s an excerpt:
Weeds have taken over your carefully planted garden; cockroaches scuttle across your birch flooring; there’s a stack of mail you haven’t opened; you’ve missed countless neighbours’ birthdays – in fact you’ve not seen another soul for weeks. No, you haven’t been spending too much time playing videogames, but too little in Animal Crossing: Wild World. Because when you’re not tending to this weird, offbeat version of village life, it carries on without you. This is not seriously strategic sim material. For a start, the other inhabitants are talking animals, and you spend much of your time interacting with them: stopping for a chat, visiting their homes, sending and receiving mail, sharing gossip and exchanging advice. And each of your neighbours has his or her own little phrases and in-jokes, even a special nickname just for you. All of which sounds too twee for words, so it’s just as well that most conversations are funny, absurd and usually both, even turning snappy if someone’s in a bad mood.
It’s the epitome of cuteness, there’s no doubt. And while this can be offputting to some (and in a fine case of gender stereotyping, it was me who wrote about it, just as my co-author wrote another canon entry, Gears of War), look past it and you’ll discover an engaging gameplay experience. One that you can enjoy for literally years, spending as much or as little time on it as you like (there’s nothing to win or lose). It’s also a game that effortlessly bridges the generation gap.

This theory proved itself last New Year’s Eve, when I visited friends for the usual excess of drinking and eating, interrupted only by the chimes of Big Ben. I’d promised to take my DS and Animal Crossing, a game my friends’ daughters Lucy (8) and Hannah (6) also owned, because thanks to the DS’s local network facility (or WiFi, if you’re not in the same place), the game allows your character to visit another player’s town. I hadn’t expected to be playing myself, but nonetheless ended up spending a chunk of the evening meeting Lucy’s animal friends, who were just as quirky as mine. After a while, I handed the DS over to Hannah and retreated to the grownups – and the vodka.

Perhaps they enjoyed the experience on a different level to me – they had certainly spent a lot more time getting to know their animal neighbours – but however you approach it, Animal Crossing (soon to come out on the Wii, too) has appeal for both older and younger players. In my case, the village had been somewhat neglected in the previous months, but thanks to Hannah and Lucy, the next time I turned on my DS I found that the weeds had been cleared and my house even sported some nice new furniture. Outsourcing indeed.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Games that shouldn't have been made

Most of the games covered in the Rough Guide to Videogames are games we love, or at least like a lot. No surprise there. Of course there are far more games we’ve played over the years that we’ve disliked, plenty we’ve been indifferent to, and some we just plain hate. But there are some games that go beyond our (very good) personal taste. These games don’t just offend the moral majority (we actually like a lot of these ones), but also the liberal-thinking public, just about anyone with a conscience, in fact. They might contain violent sexual content, elements of racism, or be simply tasteless in the extreme. What’s so astonishing is not so much that someone took the time to create them, but money was spent producing them and setting them loose among the game-buying public.

Here’s a few we think should have been filed in the trash at the brainstorming stage:

BMXXX (2002) – get a high enough score transporting prostitutes around on your bike and you get a blurry strip movie clip as a reward. No wonder Dave Mirra wanted out of this one.

Custer’s Revenge (1983) – thank goodness for pixelation, which prevented us from seeing how keen Custer was on his appalling “revenge”.

Postal 2 (2003) – a sequel to one of the dullest shooters ever, with the unwelcome addition of STDs and homophobia.

Hooligans: Storm over Europe (2002) – had enough of the UEFA cup? Try the other side of football in this tedious soccer-themed bloodbath.

JFK Reloaded (2002) – adding insult to injury, this tasteless shooter launched on the anniversary of the assassination.

We shouldn’t forget either the games that may have been inoffensive, games that were bought in their thousands, but proved to be a waste of perfectly good time and effort. Such as E.T., the game that phoned in its performance.

Basing a game on the Spielberg megahit seemed like such a no-brainer that in 1982 Atari was willing to pay out a reputed twenty-odd million dollars for rights to produce E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Only big sales could recoup the outlay, so it was vital that the game hit the shelves in time for Christmas. Unfortunately for developer Howard Scott Warshaw, the rights negotiations had lasted so long there were just six weeks left to achieve this. It’s often cited as the worst game of all time for its excruciating dullness: E.T. floats down into a hole to retrieve a telephone component; E.T. floats up and along to the next hole. Ad infinitum. Except for an occasional glitch that sees E.T. get stuck in aforesaid holes.
What happened next – the secret dumping of four million unsold games in a landfill site – is probably apocryphal, but true or not, it’s infinitely more interesting than the game itself.

Next: What’s that in your pocket?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Retro reassessed: games and nostalgia

Writing a book about videogames from their earliest incarnation to the latest blockbuster is an exercise in restraint. Tempted as we were to write with gushing abandon about all the games we played and loved from the 70s, 80s and 90s, we had to take a step back and consider the Rough Guide to Videogames as a whole. Of course, looking back is the only way to achieve the long view I talked about in my first post, but it’s easy to take it too far and in doing so lose sight of the bigger picture we were aiming for.

Choosing which games made up our top 75 canon and which were to be covered in brief accounts dotted through the text was sometimes obvious, other times less so. Three of the games I struggled with were Tetris, Myst and Wolfenstein 3D. None of them should be left out of the book. But how well did these games stand up to the present? Would we be writing about games that made us feel warm and fuzzy, but which we didn’t really recommend anyone play today? Would Wolfenstein 3D sit comfortably alongside, say, Half-Life?

The first question we asked was: is it fun to play here and now, without the rosy-tinted spectacles of yesteryear? In other words, has it been superseded or is it somehow timeless? The second, even more subjective question was: what do we want to say about it? Is it the kind of game that can be dealt with in a hundred words or so, or does it need substantially more space? Every game in the book underwent this evaluation; of course, more recent games had to match other criteria, too, but that’s another story. This is how we dealt with the three games in question.

Tetris is an unmatched classic, proliferating in literally dozens of forms over the years. It’s also been documented thoroughly, the subject of TV programmes and books; you could either say a whole lot, or very little, and the latter was the choice I made.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Tetris helped determine the nature of videogames. The hypnotic falling of seven differently shaped tetragonal blocks down a screen – accompanied often as not by the unmistakable bleeps of a Russian folk song – was originally designed by Alexei Pajitnov in 1985, while working at the Academy of Science in Moscow, and was therefore owned by the Soviet government. Ported to the PC by Vadim Gerasimov, it wasn’t long before Tetris (a combination of Tetramino and tennis) had spread beyond Moscow to rapidly become the most popular game of all time. In one form or another it’s appeared on pretty much every platform, most significantly on Nintendo’s Game Boy in 1989; in this format it sold 33 million copies and came to represent gaming to the world at large, with people reporting seeing falling blocks in front of their eyes and mentally rotating real-life objects to get them to fit together. It’s not just the game itself that has distinguished Tetris, though, but a history of legal tangles over rights, trademarks and copyrights, one that’s been covered by books, TV documentaries and websites.

What about Myst, one of the bestselling games of all time? It held a special place in my heart, being the first game I played on my first Apple Mac computer in 1996. My boyfriend and I had spent hours poring over the maps, experimenting with the puzzles, enraptured by its chillingly empty beauty. But as can be seen by its recent port to the Nintendo DS, it’s simply not as awe-inspiring today as it was then. It gets a brief writeup, too.

Wolfenstein 3D, the progenitor of Doom, was a classic of a different cloth: atmospheric, exciting and tongue-in-cheek, not to mention inventive. But was there any more to say about it than that? Was it, in fact, worth mentioning at all? Well, yes, it’s a landmark game. I still have it on my Mac today; the thing is, there have been so many fantastic games over the past fifteen or so years since that I haven’t felt the urge to play it.

Next: some of the worst games ever made.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Backstory: Space Invaders

A comprehensive book on videogames wouldn’t be complete without a history of our favourite form of entertainment, and so the Rough Guide to Videogames kicks off with The Backstory.

Want to know how old you were when Pong came out? Which game caused a national coin shortage in Japan? Why we played Pac-Man not Puck-Man? How Sega lost the console war? And what’s this Red Ring of Death all about anyway?

The answers to these and many more questions can be found in a wide-ranging history that takes you from the earliest of mainframes to the Wii revolution. It’s roughly chronological (duh), but diverges enough to trace themes such as the birth of various game genres, and is packed with illustrations. Even better, it’s loaded with pithy writeups of all those games that deserve more than just a mention. Including probably the most famous game ever, the one that gave us the icon now used to symbolize videogaming (and not coincidentally, this blog):


Arcade; developed by Taito, published by Midway; 1978

Designer Tomokado Nishikado had initially envisioned his space invaders as airplanes, but found that would be too technically difficult, and so reached to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds for inspiration – giving us the iconic, hallucinogenic flying jellyfish-cum-octopuses. Appearing first in Japan and licensed to Midway in the US, the invaders’ inexorable, malevolent descent from the sky towards humanity’s sole defender, sliding for cover beneath just three, disintegrating shields, set players’ hearts racing and caused many a sweaty palm to slip on the joystick. The game was alarmingly addictive, with Japan suffering coin shortages and US truancy rates sky-rocketing. Indeed, when no less a figure than Shigeru Miyamoto was asked in a 2007 Time magazine interview which single game had revolutionized the industry, he was unequivocal: Space Invaders, because it alone had made him want to design games.

Space Invaders
was many people’s first experience of games, but it wasn’t mine. Back in the 1970s my father was into gadgets, and each birthday he’d receive a new, cutting-edge toy. Believe it or not, a pocket calculator had been the most exciting so far. Until, that is, he got a TV tennis game. Being the youngest child, I was forbidden to play it unless supervised. But over the following months, if not years, long after my dad had tired of it, the joy of tennis, soccer and squash (all essentially the same game with slight variations in number and size of blocks onscreen), and especially shooting targets with a gun peripheral, never entirely subsided.

Next time: resisting the pull of nostalgia in choosing our top games.