Ico – From Innocence to Adulthood

July 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Warning! Spoilers – Consider yourself warned
Warning! Pretentious – The following piece of writing was found way up my own arse.

Ico, by Team Ico, and released on the Playstation 2 in 2001, is a remarkable game for many reasons. You could cite the stunning visuals or the fluid, lifelike animation as proof of this, or perhaps you could point to the haunting beauty the whole game possess. But it’s not just through these means that the game is a masterpiece; it also manages to convey subtle metaphors to give it a much deeper level of meaning. For me the game not only tells the story of Ico’s quest to rescue Yorda, but also their loss of innocence throughout the game, culminating in their ascent into adulthood.

We can see quite clearly that Ico and Yorda are clear representations of youth. Ico himself is unsure on his feet, like a teenager going through puberty, and Yorda is likewise at that awkward stage in adolescence where she seems far too tall for herself. Their relationship seems to add to this image, the eagerness with which he pulls her along combined with her relative apathy is a dynamic anyone can see out in public, with small children energetically leading around older siblings and parents who seem more reluctant.

Yorda’s entire image suggests innocence. Her pale skin is narratively probably a result of her imprisonment, but this combined with her white dress creates a picture so often associated with the purity and innocence of a young girl. Ico’s character is likewise, escaping his initial prison he immediately sets about trying to escape from the castle, fearless and naive.

The game’s enemies contrast wholly with Yorda in particular. They are nameless, colourless and formless, which gives the feeling that they’re supposed to represent an idea or a notion rather than the physical threat they actually pose. The fact that they will only ever try and take Yorda, despite Ico being the more obvious threat, seems to suggest they represent adulthood, the threat of growing up. As discussed earlier Yorda seems much older than Ico, therefore it would follow that she is closer to adulthood, and thus it could be that the demons trying to take her away is a sign of her impending transition.

If the demons are to represent maturity then the Queen is clearly the epitamy of this. Her aim throughout the game is to use Yorda’s body to further her own life, but by introducing her adult mind into Yorda’s pre-pubescant body she would destroy Yorda’s innocence completely. Everything a woman slowly learns throughout her life would be introduced into Yorda’s mind in an instant.

Perhaps as in real life, ageing is inevitable though. On escaping the castle we see Yorda’s hair has turned much darker, which could signify a loss of innocence. Perhaps the act of fighting maturity in itself actually caused the pair to grow up and escape into the real world, where, like adulthood, far greater perils exist.

Ico is a fantastic game even without all this imagery, but with it it’s a masterpiece. If you haven’t played it yet I strongly urge you to, and if you have then I urge you to read further into it. There’s still much more in there to analyse, for example I can’t for the life of me work out the meaning of Ico’s horns beyond the narrative purpose it serves of getting him imprisoned in the first place.


The Game’s Collector

July 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

It’s been nagging him for years now. Thrown out in it’s prime, left to gather dust in someone else’s collection, under-appreciated and under-played. The guilt has intensified of late, brought on by its two younger and one older sibling, winking at him from the shelf. Eventually a day arrives where he simply needs to get out of the house, he needs to go and – as much as he hates himself for saying it – shop for the sake of shopping. His collection will be complete, and finally he can rest.

The first shop proves useless, assistants looking on slack-jawed, bemused that you’d ever mention a game released earlier than the beginning of last year. Their second hand section is almost as disorganised as themselves, row after row of Fifa and Tiger Wood’s yearly releases crowd up the shelves. Every couple of feet a spine catches his eye, only to send him away with subtitles such as ‘Sons of Liberty’ and ‘Digital Graphic Novel’.

With a sigh he leaves and walks to the next store. Here his answer is greeted with more warmth, a casual suggestion that he try the shelf behind his left shoulder. Fifa 06, Fifa 04, Pro Evolution Soccer 3 and Fifa 03 again crowd the shelves, behind them trapped the titles none have bothered to unearth. A sign catches his eye, and ten minutes later he’s back walking on the street, five games better off, and ten dollars lighter. Still he is without his prize, but at least now he has something to show for his trip.

Next shop, browsing shelves, Fifa, Pro Evo, Tiger, and YES! Here it has lain in wait for him. Never again will he abandon it for the easy money it can provide. He doesn’t care that the original manual’s been lost, doesn’t care that he misses his bus, he’s filled the gap between 2 and 4, and bought himself freedom. The DVD case slides easily between its long lost brothers, pushing the row of boxes ever closer to the shelf’s end.

He’ll play it later he tells himself, for now busying himself with the other five purchases. Bully, Sands of Time, Sky Odyssey, Project Snowblind and San Andreas. All would be played, but not right now. He returns to Firefox, happy that he’s completed himself.

At one in the morning his eyes still refuse to close. He thinks of San Andreas, sitting alone on the shelf, and remembers the copy of Vice City he traded in. He rememebers Vercetti, Vance, and Candy Suxxx. He remembers the beach, the pink HUD, the pixels as big as his fist. With a deep sigh he pushes it from his mind.

It’s been nagging him for years now. Thrown out in it’s prime, left to gather dust in someone else’s collection, under-appreciated and under-played. The guilt has intensified of late, brought on by its eldest sibling’s presence, winking at him from the shelf. Eventually a day arrives where he simply needs to get out of the house, needs to go and – as much as he hates himself for doing it – shop for the sake of shopping. His collection will be complete, and finally he can rest.

Would Half Life be a Sound Investment?

July 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

If anyone’s going to shake up the videogame industry it’ll be Gabe Newell. The co-founder of Valve, and the man behind Steam and the seminal Half Life series is no stranger to taking everyone’s conceptions of how videogames (and their surrounding industry) should work, and throwing them out the window. In 1998 Newell’s company rewrote the rulebook on how to make first person shooters with the original Half Life, and then in 2003 he topped this with Steam, the content delivery service that today has over 700 games for sale and 20 million registered users.

With all this under his (well technically Valve’s) belt, it seems Gabe’s at it again, with an idea of how games might/could/should be financed in the future. In an interview with Australian gamer show ‘Good Game’ Newell expressed a great interest in fans funding game development, as opposed to publishers. In the future he hopes that new game ideas will be pitched to the community, who can then decide whether to invest in the game. In return they’d get a copy of the game at the very least, as well as a share in the game’s profits if it’s successful.

The problems with this system however, are too great to ignore. A game running over-budget under such a system would prove disastrous. Currently if a game does this, there’s (nearly) always going to be a publisher there to inject more cash. Publishers, due to their enormous size, have the wealth to do such a thing, and as a result the game’s development can be salvaged. With community investment, the prospect of further cash injections is far less certain. How can you convince more customers to put money into a project that’s already gone over-budget?

Could such a system act as a roadblock to smaller, less mainstream, more ‘risky’ projects. As it stands it’s already hard enough to get consumers to pay for a game even when it’s done and has received glowing reviews. Look at game’s like Psychonauts and Killer 7. These game’s were lauded by the press as the amazing games that they were, and yet still failed to move off shelves. How much harder would it be to sell consumers on these games without any demos or reviews to back up their claims?

It’s all very well for the co-founder of Valve to be making these comments, he is after all the founder of one of the most adored developers in the world, who have not once put out a bad game. I would – like many others – be happy to invest in Valve, because I know I’m going to get a quality game out of it. With other developers I’d be less certain. Free Radical for instance, put out one of my favourite games of all time, Timesplitters 3. They then followed this up with Haze, which was quite possibly one of the worst shooters this generation. Likewise, Factor 5 made the sublime Rogue Squadron games before they made Lair.

Even reaching potential consumer/investors might prove troublesome. The reason something like Halo, Call of Duty 4, or Grand Theft Auto is such an amazing success is because it’s not just us gamers who buy it. How do you reach your average consumer who’s content to pick up the latest Halo, but not much else? How would you even begin to try and explain this new system to them?

But maybe I’m being a bit too pessimistic even by my surly-British standards. Fans would after all gut what they really want out of a game. We’ve seen the numerous petitions on the internet, trying to force Blizzard to rethink Diablo 3’s art style, and it’s likely that if it was the investors making these petitions, then the game would be changed drastically, and fast.

The risk involved with developing a new IP would disappear completely. You’d have guaranteed revenue from the game before you even started production, and if you were unfortunate and didn’t get the investment you needed for a title, then you’re loss is going to be minute compared with what you’d have lost developing a full game. Why not try and pitch something completely off the wall? You’ve got nothing to lose after all.

If anyone can pull off such a radical shack up of the games industry it’s Valve. They have the audacity, the money, and above all the sheer talent to attempt this crazy idea, and succeed.. I’ll be waiting for a development in this story with baited breath, not least because the group who’ll benefit most from this should be the gamers, who’ll finally have a way to make money off of all their knowledge of game developers and companies.

Aren’t You A Little Old to be Playing Video Games? (and 4 other questions)

July 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

We’ve all been there, lulled into a false sense of security with a group of people you’d almost call friends, before the inevitable question comes up, “Aren’t you a little old to be playing those children’s games?” As much as we know this is as valid a form of entertainment as any other, there’s still this fog surrounding games and those that play them. Hardly anyone knows about them, but more importantly no one WANTS to know anything more than they already do. How could thousands of games exist without their knowledge? How could an entire sub-culture be completely unknown to them?

It’s not their fault of course. Companies outside of Nintendo do little to advertise their games to anyone other than their core demographic, and the Indie scene, where the truly interesting titles exist, is buried so deep down this rabbit hole that even if a non-gamer were open to these new experiences it would be nigh-on impossible for them to find them.

So people are a little ignorant, but thankfully you can educate them, eradicate their prejudices, and maybe even get them having a little game time of their own. Here are some ideas I had of how to answer the most common criticisms.

But aren’t videogames just made for kids?

Yes, I will concede that a lot of young kids (boys specifically) play video games, they’re one of the most lucrative markets for game makers, and so many games are released with them as a target audience. Game classification should, at any rate, be an indication of who exactly is playing games, with the amount of 18 and 15 ratings issued to titles. These games unfortunately do often find their ways into the hands of youngsters, but this was not the intention of the game maker, they are in every sense of the word ‘adult entertainment.’ After all, there are some young boys who get their hands on pornographic movies, but that doesn’t mean the films are made for kids now does it?

However, there are some very good games that at a glance appear to have been made solely for the enjoyment of children. Games such as Super Mario Brothers and Little Big Planet, appear to be aimed at young children, but are so well made that people of all ages can enjoy them. ‘The Incredible’ did the same thing for film, and there are a few Beatles songs (Octopus’s Garden, Maxwell Silver Hammer) that have a childlike sound to them, but still have the musical depth to be enjoyed by adults.

Why would you spend your time playing such violent pieces of media though?

Again I’ll admit that a majority of games are violent in nature (though this proportion seems to be decreasing over time), but this is again because of which games sell better, and thus receive the most attention. Video games are an example of something I like to call the ‘Iceberg Effect’, as most titles exist out of sight of the general public, much like how only a small percentage of an iceberg is visible above water.

If you dig a little deeper you’ll find there are hundreds of games that are completely non-violent. Racing games are an obvious example of this, as are sports games. Adventure games can contain violence, but many don’t, and platforming games are a genre mainly concerned with having the player traverse complex environments, violence in these releases is common, but not a necessity.

It’s just all such a waste of time though isn’t it?

If anything I’d say that the amount of television the average person watches is a waste of time rather than games. A typical american will watch around 4 hours of tv a day (http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html), which is quite a bit more than the amount of time I personally spend playing video games. The reason games seem to have this time stigma surrounding them is twofold. Firstly, many games have a run-time of 6 – 15 hours, which makes them seem like quite a large investment of time. On the other hand, how long is a series of your favourite television show? Given the option how much of that television show would you watch in one sitting? Secondly, games are often associated with pre-adolescent teenagers who tend to have a lot of time on their hands anyway, and thus if they have games as one of their hobbies, they can sink a large amount of their time into them.

Whilst the same could be said for any other form of media, which games you choose to play will dramatically affect your perception of whether you believe yourself to be wasting your time. Many games exist – admittedly outside of the public spotlight – which carry a large amount of artistic weight behind them. ‘Ico’ is a critically acclaimed game about the innocence and fragility of youth, and the Metal Gear Solid series of games takes on many issues, such as the financial benefit to arms dealers of war, and the conflict between loyalty to your own ideals and those of your country.

Unlike sculpture or painting games are first and foremost an entertainment medium like music. If you think music is a waste of time, then I’m not going to be able to convince you otherwise about games.

Finally, studies have shown that games can help to improve the players spatial awareness and problem solving abilities. Needless to say these skills are far more useful than anything you’d gain watching your average sitcom or drama.

But look at the terrible incidents that have been linked to games, how can they be a good thing if these are the events they are associated with?

Note: This is a touchy subject, so know that I mean to offend no one with my answer. I don’t think anything I’m about to say will, but I thought it wise to include this note nevertheless.

Yes some individuals who have been the cause of these atrocities have later been identified as gamers, but for each of them there are a million other people who play games who have never harmed anyone in their life. These people have always (to my knowledge) had psychological issues which are far more likely to have been the cause of their violence. It is also probable that it was their violent psyche that lead them to play games, not the other way round.

Video games are desensitising our children to violence.

Your children shouldn’t be playing anything that would desensitise them to violence, it is the parent’s responsibility that their child plays what is suitable for them. Studies have shown that it is far easier for a child to buy a restricted movie than a video game, so perhaps your fears are misguided.

As I said before there are many video games that don’t contain any violence, it’s just a matter of finding the right ones to play.

Yes, as a whole it is my personal opinion that too many video games are violent, but then I also believe the same about movies. It’s hardly a problem specific to the gaming medium.

Are there any other questions I’ve missed?

Little King’s Story – An Impression of the First Five Hours

July 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

Little King’s story is an RTS for the Wii, where you play as a (the?) ‘Little King’, tasked with “World Domination” oddly enough. I personally didn’t get very far into the game – only about five hours as you can see from this post’s title – and so I’m hardly in a position to write a proper review of the release, however if the game’s middle and end continue in the same way as its beginning, then my experience should be a pretty good representation of the rest of the game.

It’s Really Really Cute – But Not in a Good Way

From the children’s book illustration filter placed over the cutscenes to the adorable gibberish the dialogue is made up of, Little King’s story prides itself on being as cute as it can be. This not only adds to the game’s charm, but also ensures that the game’s simple visuals always look crisp and clear on the hardware they have to run on.

This style does get in the way on a practical level with the way in which the game chooses to present tutorials to you. If you wish to hear information from one of the NPCs about a new unit type you’ve just gained access to, you’re presented with a series of chalk drawings on a board, illustrating how to use that particular unit. It’s cute the first couple of times you sit through it, but the system trips up when you try to look something up quickly and then have to sit through what is essentially a medium length cutscene. Browsing a paragraph of text would have been a much simpler way of doing this. Worse still, the game does a poor job of explaining its controls to you, I only knew that you could rearrange your troops (an essential feature to use in battle) after it was pointed out by a friend who had had a similar experience.

That said, overall the art style adds to the game, especially when it makes what would be cheesy dialogue in a more serious game (lines refering to the King’s desires for “World Domination” for example) amusing in a very sincere way.

This Game Could Have Been on Any Other Platform

Almost it seems in reaction to the calls by reviewers for an end to pointless Wiimote-waggling, the motion controls of the console lie completely untouched by Little King’s Story. You move your character with the analogue stick located on the Nunchuk, and use the Wiimote for its buttons, nothing more.

In many other games I’d personally welcome this approach, obviously not every game is going to benefit from the Wii’s unique controller, but in LKS there are times that I found myself wishing that the game had taken advantage of it. In order to send you’re followers to undergo tasks in the game, you simply face whatever it is you want them to interact with and press the ‘A’ button to send them on their way. There are many problems with this, the foremost being that it’s impossible to aim whilst on the run, perhaps from a boss creature. In such situations you have to stop and turn around before you can send your minions to attack, which leaves you open to the enemies advances, and never feels like a very intuitive way of going about things.

Other problems exist, such as how difficult it is to select between a couple of close together interactable items, which considering this is your core activity within the game, makes it a much more frustrating experience than it need otherwise be. It seems odd that considering this is a Wii title the developers chose not to allow you to even point at the screen to select items, when this is something that would have really improved the game.

Without speculating on the reason why (though covering up a poor draw-distance brought on by the Wii’s hardware seems likely) you’re vantage point is always fixed at an angle very close to a top down view. Needless to say this makes switching on the intrusive full-screen map a necessary evil a lot of the time, and made me pine for a more accomplished mini-map.

Simplicity is Not the Be All and End All

To be fair, by this point I’d twigged that I wasn’t in the game’s target audience. The sound, visual, and writing style all pointed to gamers much younger than myself, so I wasn’t to surprised that when I actually got to some combat it fell wildly below my expectations.

The combat consists of two commands, attack and fall back, controlled with the ‘A’ and ‘B’ buttons respectively. You send your soldiers to attack an enemy, and then when said enemy’s animation shows that they’re about to attack you, you withdraw your men to take them out of harms way. This simple system could work if there was any way of aiming whilst moving, but in this particular story you’re forced to retreat, stop, and then turn around to face your enemy before you can send your men to attack again, by which time the enemy will usually already be taking steps to attack once more.

In Conclusion

From what I played of Little King’s Story, it seemed to have all the right intentions but with none of the good sense to pull them off correctly. The central style and feel of the game, as well as the exploration paired with the strategy seems good in theory, but because of the game’s control problems I found it hard to enjoy my time with the game. A younger player might find the game more fun though, as its tasks are rarely too taxing, and the game’s style – as previously mentioned – is clearly designed to appeal to a younger audience.

You Can’t Play Your Favourate Game Ever

July 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

I doubt many of you have heard of Sky Odyssey. This PS2 flight sim game, clearly made on a shoe-string budget does little to wow you when it boots up for the first time, and if the comments on its You Tube gameplay videos are to be believed the vast majority of people continue to not be wowed long after. It’s a hard sell to the closed minded, not imbued with the smooth edges of the current generation, or even the art style to make up for it, and thus it’s not surprising that this game would be hard to find on most gamer’s shelves.

But it’s good, really really good, and if you approach it with an open mind you’ll have a lot of fun with it. With such a game though, it takes time for word of mouth to circulate, people to write blogs about what an under appreciated gem the game is, to get people to give the game a fair shot. Such a method of marketing however is almost completely incompatible with the hardware cycle.

When every new generation comes out, it’s predecessor throws in the towel, and with it an entire generation of games become inaccessible to an audience not prepared to keep their old consoles hooked up to their televisions. Luckily my PS2 sits faithfully connected, ready to serve any fits of nostalgia that take my fancy, but without it I’d be deprived of the hundreds of PS2 games that passed me by the first time around.

Some of the best books of all time didn’t become popular at all until after their author’s death. These books, often regarded as masterpieces by modern critics were simply too progressive for their original audiences, and it took time for them to become acceptable. Are console manufacturers denying games that same right by not allowing them to run on the most up to date hardware? Has the best game ever slipped under the radar already, and then been denied entrance into the modern gamer’s library because of hardware limitations?

As it stands, if I want to play an under appreciated game released on the SNES, I have to go the route of the morally ambiguous emulator, unless the game is one of the small number to be released on modern consoles as a retro-game. I could of course go out and purchase a second-hand SNES, and then hunt eBay for the game in question, but at the end of the day the developer won’t benefit at all from my purchase, I’m just filling the pockets of the store in question.

Why don’t developers embrace the emulation scene, put a little promotion behind these old games no one would otherwise play, and maybe try and make a little money in the process. They could put out an ‘official’ emulator and charge a small amount for ROMS. It’s going to reach a fraction of the audience of a full-blown retail release, but surely it’s better than having your game fall into oblivion after just six years?

Hold on to your old cables, your old controllers and power leads. Keep your vents clear and your disk tray dusted, your leads untangled and systems ventilated. Some of the best games out there are just waiting to be discovered. Finding them should be the hardest part, not getting them to run.

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