The one good thing about Shadow of the Colossus

September 13, 2010

It seems that a HD-port of both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus for PlayStation 3 is in the making. Whoever hasn´t played ICO, yet, should take this chance to experience one of the finest PS2-games. It successor isn´t that much of a “must play”, but there´s one thing about Shadow of the Colossus that was great and, oddly enough, has not yet been copied by dozens and hundreds of newer games. Of course, I´m talking about its climbing mechanic.

The player´s main goal in Shadow of the Colossus was to climb up on each and every monster´s back and stab it to death. However, the way this climbing was done was creative and immersive. Where in about every other video game you see a climbing spot and then simply push the analog stick upwards, maybe combined with pressing buttons to active an interactive spot within the environment, it is a much more believable and enjoyable thing to do in that PS2-game. Basically, by pressing one of the shoulder-buttons, your character holds onto the ledge in front of or near him. However, should you release the shoulder-button, your character would also release his grip and fall down. This is combined to an on-screen stamina-graphic that indicates the weakening grip of your ingame character. All the while you yourself feel pressured by having to keep pressing the shoulder-button. The mechanic greatly simulated climbing surfaces while immersing the player into doing kind of the same thing.

Additionally, the game featured very precise and varied options to climb walls and surfaces, which made it feel all the more interactive since you didn´t feel like having to follow a certain path (even if that´s what it came down to). More modern games that are known for their climbing-style gameplay would be Assassin´s Creed and Prince of Persia, but both these games featured very automated mechanics that didn´t keep the player involved at all. It is a pitty that this gameplay-element of Shadow of the Colossus hasn´t found its way into a lot of other games as it would be a great way to give the player a more advanced level of interaction with the game. But apparently, this interaction-focused style of gaming doesn´t get along well with the Hollywood-style games of today´s. And when climbing is hardly different from a QTE-sequence as can be “experienced” in Uncharted for PS3, or all these super-linear shooters, whe climbing doesn´t even exist anymore, it´s showing where this industry is going and what kind of games we´ll see more of.


Let’s talk about Team ICO

April 18, 2010

I´m eating grilled chicken and a small piece of bread at the moment, the sun is shining and tomorrow, a new semester at university will be beginning. I´m in good mood, so I thought: Let´s write about why I hate Shadow of the Colossus. So be prepared for one extremely subjective article (not that there´s any objective video game article anywhere in the world) that some might easily shrug off as a piece of mighty troll-art…well, it´s hard not to touch into the realms of trolling here, as it´s a highly emotionally loaded topic to me. Oh, I mentioned “emotions”, how fitting for this developer´s games, eh?

Being Zelda-fan and Team ICO-fan - It´s possible!

The Playstation 2 entered my room very late into the system´s life. I´ve never been a Sony-guy, just as I´ve never been a Sega-guy before (though I bought a Dreamcast for the zombie-time of Nintendo 64, leading up to the GameCube´s launch), and the one big reason I wanted a PS2 was Kingdom Hearts 1. Yeah, that sounds really silly now that I look back. But there was another game that I was once interested in, only read a bit about it in some magazine, a two-page article. Some game called “ICO”. Sounded really interesting. But I didn´t have a PS2, so, whatever. Then a friend, who wrote for a video game website back at that time, published his ICO-review. And there I was, almost being instant-hyped about this game that I never looked into that deeply. For what is worth, ICO became the one PS2-game that really stood out to me (again, not a Sony-guy, never interested in all these MGSs, DMCs, GTs or FFs) and turned me into a believer. A believer of Team ICO, who really managed to create a game that didn´t feel “gamey”. Except for the really annoying monsters, especially during times when you had to leave npc Yorda alone, the game was one unique, impressive 7-hour-game. Then, NICO was announced.

NICO, which we later found out would be called Shadow of the Colossus, got me hyped from its very first mentioning. I guess I really liked Team ICO´s choice of colors, polygonal design and animations. And it also helped that ICO was really interactive. You can imagine how thrilled I was when the first trailers about SotC were published. Gorgeous! That has to have happened sometime in 2004 or so, because both SotC and some other game hadn´t been released. It´s that other game and Sony-fans´ reactions that managed to make me a hater. Before I go on, let me tell you: I think that SotC is a nice video game, but it failed to be as special and unique as ICO. I don´t think it´s a “piece of sh**“, that´s what “they” got me to say thanks to “their” behavior.

So, what game could that Sony-fans chose to pick on, while making comparisons to SotC? Yeah, right, it was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Apparently, having a sword and horse and big boss-enemies convinced these “fans” that SotC would be, and it´s not me that created the following phrase, a “Zelda-killer“. Now, at that time we already knew quite a bit about SotC, most prominently that it would consist of only fighting boss-enemies, without any kind of dungeons or other overworld content. Nonetheless, fans all over the world, be it the “Other consoles”-section at some Nintendo-board, another, bigger German multi-console board, or the infamous NeoGAF-board. A “Zelda-killer” had been chosen. Looking back at it with today´s knowledge, I´d say that this was the birth of the modern Sony-fan, i.e. look at what happened prior to Killzone 2´s, MGS4´s, Heavy Rain´s or God of War 3´s release. Terrible.  So I got into arguments with some people I used to talk with a lot about SotC. Mainly about the fact that they claimed, SotC would trump Twilight Princess as an action-adventure. I then explained to these people how Zelda-games are all about the complete package, aka dungeons, overworld, sidequests, smaller enemies, big boss-enemies, npcs, combat, story, and so on. Whereas SotC limited its concept to a very compact offering, focusing on finding and beating 16 boss-enemies, within an empty world, nothing else to do than what you´re supposed to do. In the following quarrels, I lost two friends that I knew from discussion boards, as they couldn´t get it into their mind that someone rejected the idea of SotC being a “Zelda-killer“, because it didn´t have anything a Zelda-game has, except for boss-fights. And there´s another, specially funny detail that these people conveniently “forgot“: The whole “feeling bad for killing monsters” had been done before. In a Zelda-game! Remember Majora´s Mask? All fours boss-battles were not against evil monsters, but ancient guardians. I still remember the second boss, the taurus-like enemy, that was rather easy to defeat. But it took some time, and you really felt much more powerful during the fight than this ancient being, making you feel bad. All that while the taurus would make such horrible, agonizing sounds of suffering. And when you had done what had to be done, you´d see a very moody scene, once again strengthening the feeling of doing something very wrong. That was in 2000, Majora´s Mask. Which leads into the next phase of people making me hate SotC. Let´s call it the era of

SotC is art“. How sick I am of this statement. I wrote an article on video game art for FlyingFisch a long, long time ago, where I finely crafted a definition of what video game art actually is. I didn´t make up some definition that went to my advantage, but looked into what other media do, so people call them “art”. Basically, some piece of a certain medium becomes art when it achieves a really high quality of its medium´s strengths. Meaning, a painting becomes art when it looks really awesome, music becomes art when it sounds awesome, and movies become art when they show you something awesome. And what is it that makes video games its own medium? Interactivity. The possibility to directly interact with something by your own will. So, even though I´m sick of the whole “games as art”-discussion and think we should just enjoy them, seeing how art is not something irrevocably positive, IF we choose certain games as examples of art, whe should pick the right ones. And even though there are many self-proclaimed “hardcore gamers” that hate the company, Nintendo achieved to create lots of games that fit the video games´ definition of being art. Be it Zelda or Super Mario Galaxy, you´ll have a hard time finding more interactive games than those. But to mention a non-Nintendo-game, how about this: Just Cause 2 is closer to being video game-art than SotC.

And now we´re in the pre-release phase of The Last Guardian, Team ICO´s next game for Playstation 3. And to tell you the truth, I just don´t care about it anymore. Though, I sometimes have to shake my head in disbelief, but that´s something I cannot change. Let´s just say: For most Sony-fans, The Last Guardian is already Game of the Year of whatever year it´s released in. We know nothing about the game. We saw a trailer that could as well have been a movie-trailer. There´s a griffon, there´s a boy, and apparently you´ll make the griffon help you to proceed in the game. That´s it.  But oh the feelings! I´d say, at this point it´d be more refreshing of Team ICO to NOT include a tear-jerker scene, seeing how everyone expects that already. The griffon dying, the boy dying, or finding the dead parents of the boy and/or the griffon. Whatever, people expect that to happen.

To conclude this text, I´d like to tell you that I really loved ICO. And that SotC was really lacking as a game. In this modern time, people seem to prioritize certain side-aspects of games higher than the actual game-part (and even then I don´t see where SotC had a great story…there was none). Emotions in games are great, which is the reason why I became a Zelda-fan after playing Link´s Awakening on the original GameBoy. But emotions alone are not enough for a video game to be great. It is the combination of many aspects, and I´d hope that people manage to understand that thought-process of mine. I guess I would´ve enjoyed SotC, had it not been for its “fans”, but that cannot be changed. Right now, I hope not to see fanboy-sh** like “The Last Guardian will obliterate Zelda Wii!” or, regarding potential PlaystationMOVE-inclusion,  “Well somebody has to teach the Zelda team how to use it“. Team ICO is capable of very fine, niche experiences that some people love, some people hate, and lots of people like but don´t think of them as something holy. Zelda Wii is my most anticipated game, and I´d love to look at The Last Guardian without always being reminded of its “fans“. Because I really don´t hate the game. I hate the player.


Unexplored emotions: Friendship in video games

November 28, 2009

Video games always try to tackle certain feelings, certain themes. There are well-explored themes like fear, fun or team-play. But there´s an array of totally untouched themes. One would be love. We´re seeing a rise of sex within popular games right now, but that´s only partly related to “love”. Games that actually attempted to show that feeling´s full scale are rare, one strong example being Final Fantasy 8 or, maybe even moreso, Final Fantasy 10. Unlike love, another big theme is even less explored. That is: Friendship.

Surely, video games are “just” games, but there can be no doubt that messing around with the player´s emotions is big part of modern gaming. And while love can, at least on the surface, be displayed by making use of sex, friendship doesn´t have such obvious features. You cannot have a NPC say “I´m your friend” and the player´s going to think “wow, what a great friend he is.” It´s not going to work. That is why I think that friendship is something that should be explored more in-depth in video games.

First of all, a definition of what friendship actually is should be worked out. To keep it simple, let´s just say: Friendship is something between people that like and honestly care about each other. There are definitely better definitions, but that one´ll work just fine.

It has to be made clear that this concept of friendship has to relate both to ingame-characters as well as to the player himself. There are many games that feature a duo that goes on an adventure together and gives funny comments all the time, but that´s hardly “exploring the theme of friendship”. It´s simple saturday-morning cartoon level of entertainment. To become friend with virtual characters, situations have to occur that make you feel for them. Going through hardships strengthens the bond between friends, so that´s a way. That´s not enough, though, when it comes to video games. Remember Starfox Adventures, a GameCube-action adventure that tried to mimic the Legend of Zelda-games and didn´t really succeed at that. What it did uniquly was the permanent second character, prince Tricky, the little Triceratops that followed you around. While attempting something like friendship, the chosen style of gameplay forbid to make players care for the two of them, Fox McCloud and Tricky. That was because Tricky was nothing but a mere tool to solve puzzles. He had no free will, he didn´t act like an independent character…because he wasn´t. He was there so that the player could proceed through the game. A friend may be many things, but not a tool.

A game did exceptionally well in creating feelings for another characters was ICO for Playstation 2. From the very beginning, you as a player wanted to help weak Yorda on their way out of the castle. It can be criticized, though, that Yorda wasn´t really a friend-character in the game, but rather someone you just had to rescue. So while the game made you care for the characters, it wasn´t the friendship between to equal characters, but rather the compassion for a very weak looking character.

The next example only works for parts, as the actual friendship isn´t really a focus of the game. I´m talking about Half Life 2 and its episodes. And no, I´m not going to talk about Gordon Freeman and Alyx, but rather, Freeman and Dog, the robot. Unlike Yorda in ICO, Dog wasn´t weak by any means. Throughout the game, Dog kept helping you in tough scenes. Not only did he help you, you/Alyx told him to stay back when things got to dangerous. His loyalty sometimes brought me to tears while playing, and even though he doesn´t have that many appearances throughout the game, Dog might be the best developed “friend” in any video games. He cares about you, you start caring about him. And that´s really what friendship should be about.

Friendship is such a strong emotion if done right. It often even surpasses love, which might be diluted by an unfitting sex drive. To give you the feeling of being able to depend on someone, to care about him and break loose should ever something happen to him…that is the potential of friendship in games. While tv-shows and movies have an easy time to portray such feelings, video games are far from that ability. Too often, so-called friends turn into tools or are only to be seen in cutscenes between gameplay-parts. To put a NPC into the game in way that makes him feel like he´s got his own mind, does things his way and doesn´t go the way of the tool, that is the challenge to video game developers. The few shining examples of games that show a glimpse of that are proof of the powerful impression a well-worked out friendship can leave to the player. But that´s also up to gamers themselves, if they want games like that. Or are you content with cinematic games on the one, and multiplayer-focused games on the other hand? I am not, and I could still cry whenever I think about Horror Kid´s story from Legend of Zelda: Majora´s Mask. It´s these emotions that decide between temporary blockbuster game, and timeless masterpiece.


Imagination – A lost feature

November 22, 2009

It is hard to start writing about this topic; that is because of several reasons, though one dominates the others: The current video game industry has faded away from imaginative games that much that it is hard no to lose any direction about how to go on. So let me start by simply introducing what said imagination is.

To me, 3D is where everyone´s imagination ran wild. Be it developers, that created these games, or consumers, that gladly bought them. Imagination in terms of video games is not about using a lot of colors or quirky gameplay-features. It is true that my biggest complain about modern, popular video games is that they´re all dark, “cool” shooters or otherwise violent games, with a lot of nice-to-watch cutscenes. These games are missing any kind of imagination, but adding colors isn´t a solution.

Imaginative game design is about creating games that succeed to feature gameplay, level-design, characters and stories that can hold up by themselves. Games that don´t need, or rather, don´t care about popular existing concepts. Other media, like movies or anime, are much better at being imaginative. I´d recommend for you to look into Dennou Coil, Haibane Renmei or Fantastic Children. These anime-shows are that rich of unique, fresh imagination that it´s painful once it´s over. One really great example of such a game was and is the Pokemon-series. Surely, it´s become beyond popular, but when it was released in 1998 (European release), it didn´t care about any other media. There were no movies, books, or games that featured the same spirit as the Pokemon-games. Catch uniquely designed monsters that you have to train to become the best trainer in that peaceful world. Another example would be ICO, that didn´t give a damn about popular design choices. Explore a forsaken castle, help a mysterious girl and fight creepy shadow-monsters. Without a HUD or inventory or mission goals. And then we have my personal pinnacle of imagination that is the Zelda-series. No other popular series continues to shrug off popular design choices like the Zelda-games. These games don´t try to be cool or angsty, they´re not about hardcore-challenge and they´re featuring the weirdest atmosphere in any video games. Exception is Twilight Princess, which unfortunately took design choices of the Lord of the Rings, which may be one reason for why many felt that entry lacked…something.

There are many, many other imaginative games, be it Spyro, Gex: Enter the Gecko or Banjo-Kazooie, but the bottom line is: There was a time in gaming when games dared to be imaginative. Be different. Be themselves. Now, you can hardly find such games, and most of them are smallish download-games that don´t feature the high quality of a big budget game. There are a lot of reasons about why the gaming industry is the way it is today, but at the end it is us, the gamers, that lost something precious. And I have a hard time thinking of something games-related that´s more important than imagination. This industry is headed towards a Hollywood 2.0, and it is both the fault of developers that want to be directors, and gamers that only buy into these huge, massively hyped cinematic games, that things are the way they are. When this years Game of the Year-awards are over, you´ll see them filled with Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2 and other titles along these lines. It is the masses that want such a world, but I can but shed an invisible tear about what has become of the world of video games.


Emphasis on animations

November 7, 2009

Most games´ focus in terms of visuals lies on the pure impression of the picture you get at a certain point while playing the game. Focus is the ability to present the game as well as possible to the media masses. One aspect that cannot be shown on a picture or not even in videos are games´ animations.

There is no doubt that video games animation have come a long way, and while we´re not yet on Pixar-level, video games are capable of outputting gorgeous animations. Games look fluid, smooth and natural. Still, if you actually play those games you come to realize that it´s not as great as you thought it looked to be. Obvious examples of video games that don´t give a thing about believable, natural feeling animations are first person shooters. It´s simply not something to sweat about when you´ll never see your character anyway. And who cares about perfect animation in a game like Unreal Tournament 3, where all that matters is to shoot the enemy.

The majority of today´s games DOES have good animations, though. At least well-looking animations. That´s where the next split between good and bad (oh well, “not so good”) happens. Dead Rising looks great, but its animations are completely capped. As are Monster Hunter 3´s. You have these stunning moving monsters, but if you keep watching them you realize that it´s one set of animations over and over again. And no matter how you hit them with your weapon, they always react the same.

ico_15

There is a small minority of games, though, that is doing it perfectly right. For one, there is ICO for Playstation 2. Key-difference to most other games is that animations aren´t just pretty, they also feel great. Or to be more precise, they are combined with gameplay-related physics. When you run on a path and it has small obstacles, you can feel those obstacles and you can see your ingame-character moving accordingly. Another even older example would be Super Mario 64. That is in stark contrast to Super Mario Galaxy, where animations became actually less responsive to the gameplay. In the Nintendo 64-Mario, you have to gain momentum, you have to plan your next move or it´s game over. In Galaxy, you can heavily change the course of your jump even when already in midair. The 64-Mario moves, jumps and stops and you can feel and see it. That´s what made this 3D-introducing title the popular game it is even today.

I believe that there is an important connection between responsive animations and a “good feeling”, which in turns leads to higher levels of immersion. The following may be one hundred percent subjective, but I can still play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time today, and enjoy it, even enjoy its visuals. In contrast, I don´t have that much fun with re-playing Twilight Princess, where animations have become less responsive, where Link jumps in such a weird, stiff way. A detailed blockbuster-game may be nice to look at, but I strongly think that animations are a key-element in the world of video games, that is the connection between visuals and gameplay.


New Team ICO-game revealed: Bracat

May 21, 2009

Sony “leaked” a one year old trailer of Project Trico, Team ICO´s next game after ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. From what you can see they´re returning to the roots and give a more ICO-related experience: You´re controlling yet again a little boy who travels within ruins, only this time you are helped by a little giant monster-thingy. Well, it looks like a mixture of a cat, rat and bird, thus let´s call it the Bracat.

trivo

Personally, i still can´t forgive silly Sony-fans for having ignored ICO back when it was released and only first paying attention once they forced SotC into a so-called “Zelda-killer”. I´m looking forward to Project Trico, but it would be easier without an army of stupid fanboys hyping a little adventure-game into some epic legend.

Oh, and because we´re so close to E³, here´s paranoia-time: Sony intentionally leaked the trailer because they got hold of some info of the new Zelda being revealed at E³, that coincidentially features a similiar element as Project Trico; thus Sony tried to come in first. Not that it´s highly likely, just wanted to get a little paranoia-speculation out there.


Fragile reaches surface yet again

June 27, 2008

Every now and then there are games that have a certain feel to them. That makes you look forward to them. Bandai Namco´s Fragile is one of those.

The girl Set is looking for

You overtake the role of Set, survivor within a postapocalyptic world. The world looks barren, empty. Visiting varying locations you´ll realize that there´s hardly anybody left. What you will find, though, are graffitis, pictures, on certain places. This graffitis tell the player all the little stories of the former people. Not only that, all the little pieces of information thus gathered will help Set with his very own goal: To find Ren, an innocent looking, white haired girl, wearing next to nothing.

Equipped with only a flashlight in the beginning, Set travels from place to place to uncover new hints. His journey won´t be an easy one, as there are mysterious ghost-like enemies. Fragile is an action-rpg, giving you control over Set while in battle. Said battles start seamlessly, so no load-screen and random encounters. To battle you can use anything you find. One of the first weapons is a simple knob. Depending on the enemy you might want to change your weapon.

This isn´t ICO 2, is it?!

The focus of Fragile so far, however, seems to be on exploration. Which is a good thing i might add. Too many games lose their unique feel because of forced battles, resulting in one of oh so many games we already played before. Fragile makes the impression to approach its grinding-system rather like a Zelda-game, only instead of collecting heart pieces and and achieving weapons, you gain that stuff by fighting a few, but important battles and finding items on the go.

The main reason why Fragile looks so promising is the incredible atmosphere shown in the screenshots seen so far. Empty buildings, forsaken underground-tunnels, but then again bright, moody places, with no people around. This atmosphere is strengthened by clever use of the wiimote. When you approach above mentioned graffitis, you can hear them whispering about what happened at that place through the wiimote-speaker. However forsaken the world of Fragile is, though, there are others that Set will meet. Besides his target, Ren, there is Sai, a girl you´ll meet up within the game. Then there is Crow, another explorer like yourself, who´s looking for a certain piece of information.

If someone asked me right now what game i´m looking forward to the most, Fragile would be on my mind. It is an action-rpg, but from all the information and screenshots we have, it rather looks like a mixture of Zelda and ICO. Such a combination cannot result in something bad, so consider me being hyped about Fragile.

More screenshots at OnlinePlayer and don´t miss the trailer. You can also listen to some great tune at the Official Website.