Where Is My Mind?

Again with the vanishing act, I know, I know…

1. Just a short while ago I’d mentioned that I was feeling pressure to complete my self-imposed Goodreads challenge.  I’d go through my backlog and purposely pick shorter books, and read them a bit quicker than I’d prefer, just to stay ahead of the pace.  As it currently stands, though, I’ve finished 29 of 35, and so I think I’m in pretty good shape.  The last 5 books I’ve read since the last time I wrote this down:

  • A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin.  Some phenomenally good writing here tracing the generational lines of a tortured mathematical genius, though I must admit that this Goodreads comment is spot on:  “Deliver me from art about troubled men whose genius is used as an excuse for them to be assholes.”
  • The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith.  Very good prose, but the plot ran out of steam for me and I had trouble staying engaged with it.
  • The Fisherman, John Langan.  Picked this up (among several others) on the advice of Unwinnable’s EIC Stu Horvath, and I’m very glad I did; this is a really well-written bit of cosmic horror that I couldn’t put down.
  • The Fugitives, Christopher Sorrentino.  This is, according to my GoogleDoc, the second-least-enjoyable book I’ve finished this year.  (The least-enjoyable book that I finished would be China Mieville’s This Census Taker, which was short enough for me to finish but long enough for me to swear off his books for the rest of my life.  I also attempted to read Girl On The Train but gave up about a third of the way into it.)  Anyway, there’s some marvelous writing here, but there’s also a ton of bullshit, and the final third is so confusing and messy and aggravating that I found myself incredibly relieved when I finished it.
  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates.  I can’t believe it took me this long to get to this.  This ought to be essential reading for literally every person on the planet.

I’m currently reading Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, also from that Unwinnable list, and it’s certainly doing the same sorts of things to my brain that Stranger Things did, though I suspect this is going to not have as happy an ending.

2. I am very close to finishing Double Fine’s VHS homage to Metroidvania, Headlander, and I’m torn between really loving the hell out of it and also wanting to break my controller in half during some of the boss battles.  Double Fine games are a tough thing for me to objectively critique; my love for Tim Schafer’s early work blinds me a bit, and so I’m willing to overlook a lot of issues.  A lot of recent DF games are marvelously clever and beautiful and charming and whimsical, but they don’t necessarily play all that well?  Headlander, on the other hand, is possibly the most game-y game they’ve made since Psychonauts, where the emphasis is very much on the actual gameplay and less on the writing.  Of course, the writing remains very good, and the game’s audio/visual aesthetic is top-notch, as always; it’s just that this is (for the most part) actually, legitimately fun to play.  (Except for some of the boss battles, which… aaaaaaaaaaaaa)

3. So, yeah; I’m still in somewhat of a cocooning phase, though I’m starting to feel better.  It’s going to remain somewhat quiet around here, though, as the day job has installed some rather heavy-duty internet firewall stuff, and so I don’t really know how much I can get away with (and it’s a line that I’m not particularly willing to cross at this point in time).  I’ll do my best to keep a somewhat regular presence here, of course.

 

Snow Day

1.  Yesterday was my first snow day as a parent, which meant that, among other things:

  • my wife and I still had to wake up at 6:30 and be coherent and spatially aware enough to change a morning diaper;
  • all the candy and booze I’d stockpiled couldn’t actually be used during normal business hours; and
  • our usual snowday routine of movie and videogame marathons had to be put on hold.

Instead of getting drunk and watching every Wes Anderson movie in chronological order or what-have-you, we instead had to watch marathons of Team Umizoomi and Blue’s Clues and build forts under our kitchen table and such.  This is fun, in and of itself, and the kid is adorable, and we had a lot of fun.  BUT.  It made me realize that snow days will never be the same again.

2.  Yesterday was also the release of Grim Fandango Remastered, which (after much hair-pulling) I finally managed to get working after the kid went to sleep.  Grim is one of my favorite games of all time, and I hadn’t been able to play it in probably 15 years, and so I was very anxious to get my hands on it and see if the game still held its own against my murky memories of playing it.

After about an hour or so, I came to a few conclusions.

  • The game is still remarkably well-written.
  • The puzzles are still astoundingly obtuse, and I’m never going to finish it without a walkthrough.
  • I’m not sure that Tim Schafer – and I’ve played nearly everything he’s ever made – had ever made a truly great game.  His writing is always terrific, his characters are always interesting and relatable, his world-building is always unique, his situations are always engrossing.  But the part where you actually play the thing has never really been all that great.  Psychonauts is probably the closest he’s ever come to a complete package, and even then it wasn’t without some significant flaws (i.e., the Meat Circus).  Brutal Legend… well, I’ve talked at length about how sad I am about how that game turned out.  Broken Age is certainly promising, but it’s also (currently) half-finished, and it’s also not terribly innovative – it is, by definition, a call-back to these old-school point-and-click adventure games, which is what brings us back to Grim Fandango.

The “remastering” isn’t a top-to-bottom remake, like what happened with Oddworld: New & Tasty.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I kinda like that it’s still a little fuzzy around the edges.  The art style is still bold and vivid even if it’s not in crystal-clear 1080p; the music apparently has been re-recorded, however, and it’s as wonderful now as it was then.  The control scheme has been modified, which is much appreciated – even if it’s still wonky at times.

No, the problem is the puzzles, which are as mind-clutchingly obtuse as they ever were.  I managed to make it up to the point where our hero, Manny Calavera, meets his femme fatale, Mercedes Colomar, and that’s only because I happened to remember how certain puzzles were solved after all these years; and even then, I only vaguely remembered what it was that I was supposed to be doing at any given time.  For example – I remembered that I needed to put one of Manny’s playing cards in the secretary’s hole puncher, but I couldn’t remember why; I also had a vague recollection that I needed some empty balloons and that I needed to screw up the pneumatic tube system, but it took me a while to remember how that worked, and even now I can’t recall why I needed to do that.  The game doesn’t really ever tell you what it is you need to do next, which is why I’m sure I’ll need a walkthrough before too long.  (Fortunately, it would appear that the same walkthroughs I used all those years ago are still useful today.)

3.  On a related note, ye gods, PSN still drives me up the goddamned wall.  It turns out that anyone who pre-ordered and pre-loaded Grim Fandango for their PS4 wouldn’t actually be able to play Grim Fandango because of a technical SNAFU that wasn’t ever adequately explained.  I was eventually able to get it working (which involved deleting it from my PS4 hard drive, then re-downloading it from a certain queue in the PSN web store on my computer), and it should be noted that because I was playing with my kid all day I wouldn’t have been able to play it until the evening hours anyway, even if it had been working the way it was supposed to.  It’s a minor annoyance in the grand scheme of things, but had I been devoid of parental duties and spousal company and thus free to finally replay one of my favorite games in almost 20 years, only to find that my pre-ordered copy didn’t work, I would’ve lost my mind.

Broken Age, Part 1: the reconsideration

In my last post, I’d said that I’d been struggling to stay engaged with Broken Age, the long-awaited, Kickstarter’d 2D point-and-click adventure game by Tim Schafer and Double Fine.  And I went off into some tangents about my personal feelings towards the Kickstarter process, and whether or not I was still interested in adventure games in general.  (That discussion, unfortunately, did not quite get to the point where I could find a way to include a link to Old Man Murray’s immortal classic “Death of Adventure Games”, so I’m including it here simply because I can’t not include a link to it if I’m talking about adventure games.)

I’d mentioned that I’d reached a point in both stories where the path was no longer linear – I’ll try to avoid spoilers here the best I can, but basically in Vella’s story I’d reached the 2nd (“cloud”) town and wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, and in Shay’s story I had been given a set of three urgent tasks but no real idea how I should tackle them.  I found myself feeling a little intimidated, I suppose, and when I get intimidated I sometimes tend to shut down, as opposed to persevering.

Well, it turns out that all I really needed was 24 hours to clear my head and come at these things with fresh eyes, and I ended up finishing both stories (Shay first, then Vella – which, now that I think about it, is probably the best way to do it) shortly thereafter.

Broken Age’s puzzles (such as they are) aren’t necessarily difficult or obtuse; your inventory is relatively small, and most of the time your objects interact with other objects in ways that make sense.  (As much as I dearly love Grim Fandango, there were a number of puzzles that simply broke my brain in half – I’m remembering a puzzle in the first act involving bread crumbs and an inflatable balloon.)  I suppose I was intimidated simply because when it comes to classic adventure games, I like to get things right, and I keep forgetting that there’s no real way to achieve a fail state.  At the end of the day, there was really only one puzzle that I couldn’t figure out without the help of the internet (i.e., using the crochet needle to trick the Weaver into going to a forbidden destination – I knew the crochet needle was involved, but I couldn’t figure out the solution – and in fact I still can’t, because the walkthrough I used didn’t actually explain why it worked).  Everything else was, for the most part, relatively straightforward.

What I really want to talk about, of course, is the cliffhanger at the end.  I won’t, of course, unless we take this into the comment section below.  Suffice it to say, I think it’s a pretty neat trick – and when I think back on certain elements of Shay’s story, there’s quite a lot of telegraphing – and now I absolutely cannot wait for Part 2.

Beyond that, the game is an absolute joy.  Marvelous voice acting with a very charming and witty script, outstanding art direction, a beautiful and evocative orchestral score.  This is, in fact, what I was hoping for when I backed this thing in the first place; I’m glad I finally came around to appreciate it.

kickstart the jams

I’ve got things I want to say about Final Fantasy XIII-2, and also Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning, and a few more words on Skyrim and the 1.4 patch.

But first I’ve gotta talk about Double Fine’s Kickstarter campaign, wherein Tim Schafer & Co. asked the community to help fund an old-school point-and-click adventure game.  That it’s raised its initial ask amount of $400,000 in 8 hours is amazing.  That it’s now almost a million dollars over its initial ask amount – in less than 3 days – is nothing short of extraordinary (indeed, it might break $1,400,000 by the time I finish this post – it’s a little over $50,000 away as of 12:34pm EST, 2/10/12).   I contributed $40, and I will play it on every platform it arrives on (especially since, with all this extra money, it appears likely that it’ll head to iOS devices), and I will devour the accompanying documentary.

I’d like to think that this experiment would radically change the current development system, which every small developer has repeatedly described as “fundamentally broken.”  Double Fine owns this project outright, and since they’re distributing it over Steam (and presumably other download services), they don’t have to pay retail costs – and consequently, they don’t really need a publisher, either.  It’s pure profit after they recoup their expenses, they retain complete creative control, and they’ll deliver a product that lots and lots of people apparently want.  Why can’t this work for other game developers?

Well, the answer to that question is very complicated, and I’m not going to pretend that I can answer it.  From my limited vantage point, the only real thing I can compare it to is Radiohead’s “pay-what-you-want” release of “In Rainbows”, which they released without a label behind them.  (Similarly, one could also bring up Louis CK’s recent “pay-what-you-want” release of a filmed comedy special.)

The worlds of game development, music and stand-up comedy are so different that to compare them is almost meaningless, but in this particular case these three entities (Double Fine, Radiohead, Louis CK) do share one rather important thing in common – they are adored by their fans, and they have many, many fans, and those fans very much want what these artists are providing.

This is important, I think.  These three entities are in unique positions within their respective industries – i.e., they are near-universally loved from both without and within – and they have a certain amount of clout that allows them to pull stuff like this off.  Tim Schafer’s past work has made him an adored cult figure, and yet none of his games have really sold in huge numbers.  They’ve sold well enough to make back their costs, and he’s retained an adoring fanbase, but he’s not pushing GTA or Call of Duty off the bestseller charts.  That he’s going back to his roots to make the sort of game that made him famous is, for many people (myself included), a dream come true.  That he knew that no publisher was ever going to give him the money to make this sort of game is, sadly, a reality of today’s marketplace.  New IP is very, very risky, and new IP in the shape of a point-and-click adventure title is basically asking to set your money on fire.

I’m not sure Tim Schafer expected this kind of success this quickly, though; I’m not sure anybody did.  And let’s also be clear here – at this point, he’s only raised the money; we haven’t actually seen the game yet.  The game could very well be terrible.  (Unlikely, but hey – Brutal Legend wasn’t nearly as good as I wanted it to be, either.)

Are there any other developers that could pull something like this off?  I’m not sure.  Rock Paper Shotgun is reporting that Obsidian is considering it.   You could see Jonathan Blow (of Braid) working in this way in the future, perhaps.  (My personal dream would be for Erik Wolpaw to break off from Valve to develop his own game.)  You’d need a developer with vision, is the thing.

The great irony to this whole thing is that not 48 hours before Double Fine’s Kickstarter kicked off, Minecraft’s “Notch” was offering to fund Psychonauts 2.   Tim Schafer’s said, though, that such a project would cost between $20-40M, and that kind of money isn’t going to come through Kickstarter, and I can’t imagine that Notch has that much money to kick around.

Anyway, this is a very exciting time, and it will be very interesting to see what happens next.  If Radiohead is any example, though, this sort of thing might not end up catching on beyond artists who are big enough to support such an endeavor in the first place; considering the prohibitive costs of game development, I have my doubts that lightning can strike twice.  Still, we can always hope.

>Quick Thoughts on Brutal Legend / Uncharted 2

>I won’t write about Brutal Legend just yet. It’s clearly a labor of love by Tim Schafer and his DoubleFine team, and it wouldn’t be fair to talk about it before I’ve finished it. The reason why I haven’t finished it, though, is that the RTS-lite stage battles make me miserable, and every time I fire the game up I do everything I can to avoid having to do them. As a result, I’ve explored about as much of the world as I can, and I’ve found a whole bunch of the secret collectible stuff, and so now the game exists in two distinct halves for me; there’s the half where the world is awesome and the artistic vision really shines through and everything is hilarious and fun, and then there’s the half where I take the game out of the tray and wait for my rental copy of Borderlands to arrive.
Wait, didn’t I say I wasn’t going to write about Brutal Legend just yet? Shit.

I will write about Uncharted 2, though, and I’ll do my best to speak coherently about it; it’s been a few days since I finished it, and hopefully I’ve flushed most of the excess hyperbole out of my system.

Because I’m not as great a writer as I like to think I am, I’m not entirely sure I made the point I wanted to make when I got all pissy about Adam Sessler calling U2 the best game he’d ever played. (After all, something’s got to be the best game you’ve ever played, and now that I’ve played it, U2 is as good a choice as any.) The point really should’ve been that there are better, more responsible ways for a critic to speak about something s/he is reviewing; otherwise, you’re basically writing pull quotes for the box art, and it makes me suspicious.

And the truth of the matter is that U2 is fucking fantastic. For all that it might lack in innovation, it is exceedingly ambitious; Naughty Dog strove to make the best action adventure game ever made, and to that end, they succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation. They have set the bar immeasurably high. U2 is at the very least the finest PS3 game of this generation and will probably keep that distinction for the rest of the PS3’s lifespan, and if something even better somehow comes along, we will all be the better for it.

It is perfectly, relentlessly paced; exploration glides into action and back again, within the most beautifully constructed locales ever seen in digital form. Perhaps you’ve heard of the train sequence; it’s easy to talk about and it occurs early enough in the game that you can talk about it without really giving anything away. Other games have featured action set-pieces on moving trains – one of the Splinter Cell sequels immediately comes to mind – but here, the train isn’t just moving along a straight line, in the dark, past the same few lightposts over and over again. You’re in the jungle, in broad daylight, and the train’s course is constantly undulating back and forth, which means you have to compensate and anticipate the train’s movements when you’re trading gunfire and tossing grenades; not only are you fighting enemies but you’re also trying to move to the front car, which means you’re also climbing all over the train and dodging signposts and traffic signals; oh and there’s also a helicopter shooting rockets at you. It’s all you can do to remind yourself to blink and exhale.

I haven’t tried the multiplayer or the co-op yet, but even so – the single-player campaign is a staggering achievement in interactive entertainment, and is absolutely deserving of all the accolades it has received.

>Brutal Legend Update!

>EA is publishing Brutal Legend; will be released Fall 2009.

I’ve given EA a lot of shit over the years, but they turned it around in 2008; they worked with a lot of great developers and put out a ton of new, interesting and unique IP. (Of course, they’re getting killed financially as a result, because consumers are stupid.) And EA is well aware that they’re taking a bit of a risk here; Tim Schafer’s games, as we all know, have been critically lauded and have incredibly devoted fans, but almost none of them have ever been breakout hits.

Still – this is great news for Schafer fans, and now I can start setting up the template for the 2009 GOTYs.

>Fable 2 / Saints Row 2 / A brief meditation on Tim Schaffer

>If I were forced by some unseen, uncaring editorial hand to describe my initial impressions of Fable 2 in only one word, I think that word would be: sluggish. But I would also have to then try to say that it feels a bit unfinished, specifically in terms of the audio, which constantly feels like it’s going in and out and is either too quiet or is flailing about trying to catch up to the on-screen action. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the graphics aren’t really that impressive; the art direction is superb, as always, but it doesn’t necessarily feel all that removed from last-gen’s Fable I. And yet, here’s the thing; I ended up playing it until WAY past my bedtime last night, and I had non-stop Fable-y dreams right up until my alarm clock went off this morning.

But back to the sluggish thing. This is kind of a big deal, and it may end up being a deal-breaker if the game’s story doesn’t end up being all that interesting. Your hero character’s default walking speed is just a bit too slow, which means you have to press A to run everywhere, which feels unnecessary and cumbersome. Engaging in dialogues with NPCs is tricky, too – it takes the game a while to catch up to what’s happening on screen. The dynamic “objective trail” is especially laggy at random intervals, which means it’s distracting instead of helpful.

And yet, as I said above: I was still strangely captivated by it all, and I’m eager to get back into it. I’m playing as a good guy (as I pretty much always do during my first go-round in one of these morality-based RPGs), and I’m sure I’ll want to play it again as a bastard when I’m done.

Just the other day, I was reading this Kotaku thing where Peter Molyneux compared Fable 2 to Oblivion:

Well, Oblivion was a fantastic achievement. But for me, that was a true ‘blood and guts’ RPG. There was an initial dungeon that you went through that was fantastic — but then you came out into that open world, and I just thought: “What the hell do you do now? Where do you go? Who am I? What do I stand for? Who am I against?” And there was this huge, vast rolling story. And to finish Oblivion would take sixty or seventy hours.

…So in Fable 2, the story lasts thirteen to fourteen hours and by the end of that story what you are like, what you look like and how the world treats you is completely up to you. If you want to be evil or good or kind or cruel, then that’s totally up to you. With Oblivion it was basically all about me killing things.

…In Oblivion you were just a hero. You couldn’t do anything else, other than be a hero. In Fable 2 if you want to be a gigolo and go out and chat up everybody in the world, and have three wives (or ‘one in every port’) and have sex all over the place, then fine! Of course, you will have consequences to that. You might pick up a social disease.

Interesting points, all. But I’ll also say this: it’s certainly true that you can do all those things in Fable 2, but they’re not necessarily fun, and the truth of the matter is that Fable 2’s user interface is incredibly clunky and, as mentioned before, sluggish. The social interaction thingy takes just enough time to load when you hit RB to be somewhat annoying, so instead of farting or showing off or giving a thumbs-up, I kinda just want to go to the next objective. What I found so captivating about Oblivion is that I really could do whatever I want, and the gameworld itself was incredibly immersive. Fable 2, on the other hand, is constantly reminding you of all the things you can do in it; it’s telling you pretty much incessantly that you’re playing a game, which absolutely suspends your disbelief.

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Meanwhile, I’m also in the middle of enjoying Saints Row 2, which also suffers a bit from a lack of polish but is still fun as hell. It too reminds you that you’re playing a game, but this is actually kinda refreshing. Where GTA4 was serious as all hell, SR2 is completely insane.

Here’s the main thing about SR2 that I love. In GTA4 – as with all GTA games – I feel a sense of pressure to play the game correctly. It’s true that you can do all sorts of crazy things, but when I’m going through the single-player campaign I feel obligated to not get too ahead of myself; I stick to the story, and I don’t really do all the side missions until I’ve finished the story. In SR2, on the other hand, the penalties for dying and fucking up are much less severe, and you can save at any point, which means there’s considerably less pressure to do something wrong. I’ve hardly touched the main story in SR2; I’m instead doing lots of the side stuff and the activities. The city of Stillwater is still somewhat related to the one in the first game, geographically speaking; every once in a while I’ll turn a corner and realize that I sorta know where I am, which is actually kinda cool.

Still, though, it is a bit rough around the edges. Not nearly as bad as Mercs 2 in that regard, but it’s still noticeable. The driving model is a bit stiff; the graphics are a bit ugly; the “Insurance Fraud” minigame, which was one of my favorite bits in the first game, feels broken somehow in this one, or maybe I’m just not doing it right (which doesn’t make sense) – I seem to be only making money when I launch myself out of a car, and when I hurl myself in front of oncoming traffic, nothing happens.

I’m not sure how I’m going to playing either SR2 or Fable 2 when the juggernaut that is Fallout 3 hits next week (alongside a newly delayed Little Big Planet). And I also downloaded the Portal thing on XBLA this morning, even though I’ve already beaten it on 2 different platforms. AND I’ve got Dead Space on loan from Gamefly (quick impressions: Bioshock, but more startling and less interesting).

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My brief meditation on Tim Schaffer is not even really a meditation, but more of a comparison. I was thinking this morning about the developmental hell that Brutal Legend is apparently in, again, at least in terms of securing a publisher, and I remembered reading a quote from someone at EA about how Tim Schaffer’s games constitute “creative risk”, and while creative risk isn’t inherently a bad thing, it’s still risky, and a lot of publishers are not interested in taking on risk. And it occured to me that what’s happening to Tim Schaffer is very, very, almost eerily similar to what Terry Gilliam’s career has been like. Both are incredibly talented, visionary pioneers in their field; both experienced great success early in their careers as part of a larger creative ensemble; both struck out on their own and made critically lauded works of art that failed to resonate with consumers beyond a core group of diehard fans. And, as we see today, both have a very difficult time getting their work out to the public these days – Gilliam has trouble securing funding, Schaffer has trouble securing publishing – and as a result, both of these geniuses have had a limited creative output as a result. It’s maddening and frustrating; I’m a huge fan of both of these guys, and I’m powerless to help them.