Tuesday 10 December 2013

Tokyo Stories: Ozu and Pixar accepting the inevitable

Even before I ever watched Tokyo Story, I assumed the title Toy Story was referencing Yasujirō Ozu's 1953 film, though while writing this I could find no reference or allusion to it online. Having passed over such titles as To Infinity and Beyond and Toyz in the Hood, Pixar knocked two letters out of Ozu's classic familial study and had a winner. Toy Story is as much about the toy chest as Tokyo Story is the Japanese capital, and the films share much beyond a name; they both examine abandonment, disillusionment, loss and the changing dynamic of relationships.

Ozu's film follows an elderly couple who make a rare trip to Tokyo to visit their grown-up children who, busy with various mundanities, have little time for them. Only Noriko, their widowed daughter-in-law, makes an effort to entertain them, and the couple are forced to accept that their children have changed and that they cannot expect too much from them.

John Lasseter's 1995 Toy Story and its two sequels follow the relationship between Woody, a pullstring cowboy doll, and his owner, Andy. The toys' desires revolve around being loved and played with and the first film highlights the tension as Woody is supplanted in Andy's affections by Buzz Lightyear, a space-marine action figure. It explores themes of obsolescense, rejection and acceptance that carry into the following films and, arguably, define the trilogy. For the purposes of this piece, I will discuss the three films as one entity.

Both Ozu and Pixar's films share resolutely domestic settings. For all the hijinx of Woody and Buzz's capers, they take place primarily in Andy's house and neighbourhood. When they venture into the outside world they wind up at a day care centre, a petrol station forecourt and a toy store. It's through the eyes and diminutive stature of a toy that these places become prisons, jungles and Raiders of the Lost Ark­-esque warehouses. Ozu's camera shares this angle on the world. It famously remains static and low, observing impartially every character from the same point-of-view. The setting is similarly suburban, opening on a train passing through a sleepy neighbourhood with washing hanging on the lines. A nosey neighbour pops her head in the door and finds Shukichi and Tomi, the two elderly companions, preparing for a trip to the city to see their offspring. Unlike Woody and Buzz, they have watched their children grow and begin their own adventures, but both pairs have experienced rejection as their children need them less with the passing of time. On arriving in the city, the awkward smalltalk highlights the deterioration and redundancy of their relationship. The utility they once had has been lost and they now represent an inconvenience, taking up space and clashing with their childrens' routine and lifestyle. Their daughter, Shige, is embarrassed by their presence, lying to a client in her salon that they're "just friends from the country." Shukichi and Tomi still wish to please - they retire to bed readily at the suggestion they must be tired. They lie awake, but out of the way. Shukichi's genial grin mirrors those of Woody and Buzz when in the childrens' presence. Though rejected, he realises the importance of being there to support them, as does Woody ("What's important is that we're here for Andy when he needs us.") Relationships are outgrown and discarded, and loss of contact is a natural progression. Shukichi tells us of his surprise at how children change and that "a married daughter is like a stranger" but efforts to halt this change result only in heartbreak and loneliness.

Death has a lingering presence in these films. Old friends and toys are lost along the way. Few characters realise the importance of the time they have and value it accordingly, although they pay the notion lip service. Keizo, Shukichi and Tomi's youngest son, recites the advice "Be a good son while your parents are alive," but fails to heed it. He arrives too late to say goodbye to his dying mother and chooses baseball over keeping his grieving father company after the funeral. Only Noriko, Shukichi and Tomi's widowed daughter-in-law, dedicates time to them, perhaps viewing the opportunity as a chance to exercise her devotion to her dead husband. Though well-meaning, she has failed to move on in her own life, tied forever to his memory. Just as Woody resigns himself to a box in the attic, forever dedicated to a past relationship, Noriko has her tiny apartment and her dead love's photograph on the wall. She lies to Tomi, telling her "I'm happy," but Tomi worries that she "should have had a better life," urging her to move on. "You may be happy while you're still young," she says, "but as you become older you'll find it lonely." Noriko's effort to prevent the decay of relationship and memory is futile, as she admits when she tells Shukichi of her loneliness at the end.

The narrative crux of Toy Story is surmised in the second film with Jessie's flashback montage, the most explicit example of the breakup anxiety that permeates the trilogy, distilled to two and a half minutes. We witness her owner, Emily, inevitably grow up and away from her, then rediscover and discard her as an adult, leaving her in a box on the roadside. We see for the first time a painful and final ending, not merely the prolonged hiatus of a box in the attic. Jessie tells us "you never forget kids like Emily or Andy...but they forget you," and the whole trilogy hangs on the acceptance of this fact. Woody dearly wants to be involved in his kid's life and we see him clutching the telephone with Andy on the line, desperate to be noticed and relevant, but unable to communicate due to strict social rules. These rules are broken only with friends or in extreme circumstances (eg. to frighten Sid into 'playing nice'). Shukichi is similarly unable to speak with his children, only with his friends - his wife and the men he drinks with when he is turned out of his daughter's house. Neither protagonist is capable of expressing their feelings and are forced to watch their children grow distant. The parent/toy analogy is evident when Andy's mum sees his empty room and breaks down telling him "It's just I wish I could always be with you." Woody does eventually accept the inevitable, partly when he rejects 'immortality' (ironically a lifetime encased in glass in a Tokyo museum) and realises "life's only worth living if you're being loved by a kid," and, ultimately, when he himself faces the end of his relationship in the third film.

In Tokyo Story, this transience is captured with the image of Tomi walking on the hill as her grandson plays in the grass. The scene recalls the dance with Death from The Seventh Seal. Tomi, dressed in black, is silhouetted against the sky and we are shown the generation gap and the progress of time. She wonders if she'll still be there when the child grows up. Protagonists in both films know and even spout the 'life is short' truisms and clichés. Andy's mum reminds us "toys don't last forever". Woody's romanticism is countered by Potato Head's gruff cynicism and the pragmatism of Hamm ("Let's see how much we're going for on ebay.") Stinky Pete confronts Woody with reality when he asks "How long will it last, Woody? Do you really think Andy's going to take you to college, or on his honeymoon?" Even Buzz, having gone through his own journey of self-discovery in the first film ("You are a child's plaything!"), accepts the end is coming. Woody slowly learns that he can't delay the inevitable - he "can't stop Andy from growing up, but [he] wouldn't miss it for the world."

Woody consoles himself that "when it all ends, I'll still have ol' Buzz Lightyear to keep me company." Tokyo Story mirrors this buddy sentiment with Shukichi and Tomi, though Ozu takes their relationship to its inexorable human conclusion, a place where Pixar can't bear to go. Death splits the partnership and exposes Shukichi to a loneliness that Woody will never encounter. Though Pixar do explore the notion in the recycling plant scene when the toys face (and accept) a fiery end, even here they are together. Rejection is one thing, but beloved characters never face adversity alone. Even the troubled Lotso is consigned to his fate on a trucker's front grille with some comic relief for company. Pixar addresses themes of loneliness in several of their films but the overriding message is one of hope and salvation through friendship. Wall-E begins as a lone figure in a desolate landscape, but his is an initial state that is resolved by the end of the film. It is also our introduction to the character - we don't have a three-film emotional investment in him. Likewise, as affecting as Up's opening montage is, we're familiar with Carl for only a few minutes before he is widowed, and he soon finds himself with company, whether he likes it or not.

Noriko's final exchange with Kyoko, Shukichi and Tomi's youngest and unmarried daughter, shows romanticism giving way to wisdom and acceptance. Disgusted with her older siblings' behaviour, Kyoko complains about their selfishness. Noriko explains "they have to look after their own lives...children become like that, gradually." "Isn't life disappointing!" Kyoko exclaims. "Yes," comes the reply.

Ultimately, however, Woody's faith and devotion earns him a 'second' life with Bonnie. The final shots of Tokyo Story and Toy Story 3 both echo their respective beginnings and alude to life going on, with the train once again rolling through the suburbs, neighbours still calling by and the clouds hanging in the sky as they did on the wallpaper in the first Toy Story, but Shukichi experiences solitude and indifference where Woody goes forth to new adventures with the old gang. As Shukichi's neighbour and family insist on reminding him, "you will be lonely."

Friday 15 November 2013

Wish You Were Here... part 2

Having looked previously at Music and Cohesive Ecosystems, part 2 continues exploring ways digital environments are made to feel like intriguing, living spaces.

The illusion of life...ANIMATION
Imagine a static Green Hill Zone where the water didn’t fall and the rings didn’t spin and the TVs didn’t buzz. Sonic, however beautifully drawn, would be running through a dead space. The dancing sunflowers and endlessly cascading waterfalls on the horizon add weight and tie the world together convincingly. A simple looping animation gives the illusion of life just as it did in the intro shots of early cartoons. Animated backgrounds appeared on 8-bit hardware but they really flourished in the arcade and the 16-bit era. SNK Neo Geo beat-‘em-ups especially highlight how beautiful art and a few looping frames can make a location really pop.

And in order to sell that world, the characters must tally with it. IEpic Yarn Kirby is made from the same material as his surroundings and his animation couples with the base environment to make the simplest interactions satisfying: threads give under his weight as he lands; pulled cords draw platforms closer; patches rip off to reveal passages under the quilted façade, bulging as he walks beneath. The embroidered take on the familiar elemental settings is charming enough but the real joy comes from watching Kirby lurch and transform into a car with a double-tap or begin skating on ice, pirouetting to change direction. My moveset is minimal, but it doesn’t feel restrictive. I can’t affect or modify the world much but the animation makes it a satisfying place to inhabit nonetheless. Spaces mirroring real-world visuals and physics present a challenge to designers. Filling a room with destructible objects is all well and good but the bare space that remains once you’ve compulsively incinerated every last crate/barrel/panel is usually a hollow, uninviting one - a problem compounded in First Person Shooters when your protagonist isn’t onscreen to provide visual interest. Seeing the player character impacting the environment convincingly gives it a persuasive tangibility, and again, this becomes even more complicated when representing a 'realistic' character.

The original Banjo-Kazooie is my most replayed game. Nuts & Bolts boasted a fantastic
vehicle building system but was let down by dull missions and the weight of expectation.
Nutty Acres was so beautiful you were almost content just cruising around testing your
toy box creations. Almost. Nintendo Land uses a similar patchwork art style to great effect.
Good character animation makes you invest in a scene. I could watch Banjo’s backpack for hours, bouncing with each plod through the field grass, and it makes me forgive/forget that this grass is actually one large textured plane with collision toggled off. Conversely, watching my character ‘skate’ through Albion’s beautiful grasslands in Fable II was alienating and it took time for me to accept that ‘quirk’. This is one reason MMOs remain unattractive to me – the fidelity of the world is too often negated by simplistic animation and character behaviour. NPCs run into walls and get stuck on scenery. They cast spells repeatedly and repeat lines and say things entirely out of context. In time I’m sure I could appreciate Skyrim for what it does well and celebrate the meme-friendly incongruity, but accepting those limitations seems at odds with the beauty and potential of the world at a macro level. Being drawn deep into an MMORPG is a frightening prospect knowing how engrossing they can be and how obsessed I can get. Exploring a living, populated world that evolves irrevocably over time would be fascinating but I dare not enter. One does not simply walk away from WoW.

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for blue sky in games and perhaps it’s unfair to condemn areas designed to elicit discomfort or oppression. If Ravenholm were an idyllic haven, it would conflict with the narrative drive to get-the-hell-outta-Dodge. Valve’s uninviting environments are still engaging and the bleakness of City 17’s concrete makes the escape to the mountains in the following episodes all the more striking. Resident Evil 4 was full of stunning locales that delivered a nail-biting and varied experience but, fun as it was, I’m not rushing to revisit Salazar’s Castle. It served its purpose beautifully. Now point me at the blue sky…

Valve don't want me rolling out the picnic blanket in Ravenholm. Check out Electric Blue Skies
for some great virtual photography from Half-Life 2 and many others
But pretty sunsets and mountain ranges alone don’t make me want to visit a place. I spent a few hours on Crysis’ tropical island marvelling at the foliage and the water (and I royally shat myself when the shark began circling). As a playground for emergent gameplay it was interesting, but I got lonely and bored. Give me a bear and bird bounding around Treasure Trove Cove any day. Give me Mickey Mouse marching through the Enchanted Forest on the Mega Drive or the 64-bit mist over Lake Hylia before sunrise (something the 3DS remake couldn’t quite recapture). That mist made me feel the crispness of the morning, the possibilities of a new day.

Impossible is everything...MEANINGFUL INTERACTION
Beauty alone can’t make a space compelling – it needs to be mechanically motivating. Non-interactive set dressing looks great but ultimately disappoints. Perfunctory backdrop detail is easily (and often unavoidably) exposed when the player is forced to search for the interactive component. Fumbling around to discover which of the cupboards actually opens ironically tests my suspension of disbelief in a way that highlighting said element does not. Watching Tom & Jerry cartoons from the ‘40s, the viewer can quickly identify objects in the environment that the characters will interact with in any shot. The background plates have a washed-out painterly appearance under the outlined animated elements. Rather than take you out of the scene, it’s actually rewarding to recognise that the poker by the fireside is about to become significant – it fosters anticipation of what’s coming next. As with video games, it’s vital that the viewer quickly understands what’s important. Making the background façade indistinguishable from interactive elements exposes the unreality of the scene because players are unable to perform the simplest of tasks. A door! Oh, it’s just a texture on the wall. An apple hanging from a tree! Maybe I can…no, just set dressing. A poker by the fire!? Wow, that’d be fun.

What to do, what to do...
Now I don’t expect fully functioning PCs in the shady corporate office I’m infiltrating but I want my character to be able to do something with them, even if it’s touching the mouse to get rid of the screensaver. The glowing mission critical object was born to guide players through all the non-interactive shit, but one has to ask if said shit is really needed. Are those banks of inactive PCs contributing enough tonally to outweigh the frustration of non-interactivity? The glowing object and breadcrumb trail are fudge solutions and rarely have any narrative context. Navi, annoying as she was, was a clever answer to multiple design challenges. Targeting enemies and highlighting POIs in a 3D space were handled by one system in the guise of a contextually relevant character. In a full library she could locate the one book you needed and it would make sense. Without her you’re left to look for clues in camera angles (borrowing a filmic device) or to follow the glowing breadcrumbs or shiny object. Fine, but why not just put the book on a table and stop pretending?

The whole library is faked to create atmosphere. Developers are intent on making visually credible worlds but rarely have time and resources to create non-critical content. Therefore the player is presented a plastic feast, nailed down to maintain the mood. In the ‘90s the shock of seeing environments realised so beautifully muted the issue. Resident Evil's prerendered backdrops created and preserved tension successfully as dioramas but their limitations were evident once the novelty wore off. The fully 3D environments of following instalments have created new problems. Blundering into the scenery (gun drawn), blindly tapping and testing the surroundings for goodies you know are hidden in random locations kills the mood the developers have crafted and tests players’ patience. In Revelations, a Metroid-style scanner (the contextually legitimate sibling to the glowing object) does its best to maintain a sense of player accomplishment that the glow might strip away but risks making the whole shebang feel like work. Making every cupboard in an environment interactive is within the scope of the current gen but time and resources are required to fill them. And is the equivalent of searching for lost car keys off the critical path worth recreating? Overlook a lockpick in Bioshock Infinite and maybe you’ll miss an audio tape, losing out on a fascinating narrative nugget. I played that game for the story, so it had me obsessively hoovering resources from desks and cupboards. It became a real chore. It made me nostalgic for Rapture. When does fidelity stop adding to the environment and detract from the core experience? (And on the subject of fidelity, why can’t my mutha-fuckin’ RPG obliterate that puny lock!?)

[F] Search. [F] Search. [F]-[F]-[F]-[F]-[F]...
I don’t need a meaningful system behind every object but I want something to justify its existence in the world. Deus Ex let me login to PCs and access emails, and I could uncover more of the story myself. The audiotapes in the original Bioshock were a beautiful contrivance but how long can these techniques continue to convey narrative before they pall? Who’s dropping these personal logs conveniently in my path to stumble upon? And in chronological order too! The Navi-like companion/guide became a cliché almost immediately.

Is it even fair to call these ‘devices’ problems? Art needs direction. I’m not irritated when a director uses his lens to highlight a dress hanging in a protagonist’s wardrobe or when an author has a character improbably reveal vital plot points. Concise storytelling demands framing and coincidence. The issue lies with the fact that I’m being presented possibilities in a video game. The illusion of choice is advertised and I feel short-changed when I discover my options are severely limited. Of course Batman is The World's Greatest Detective - my nan would be if she had Detective Mode in her specs! The cowl tech provides context for the glowing item, but really? Sherlock doesn't need any of that shit. The very best narrative games are quickly forgiven because the story engages you so well you ignore inadequacies in the peripheral environment. Unfortunately video games aren’t renowned for the quality of their writing and picking the world apart is all too easy when you’re bored and looking for something to do.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Wish You Were Here... part 1

I don’t replay many games. Considering the time investment, it puzzles me how people play the same thing repeatedly. Revisiting cherished favourites every few years makes more sense but then only for a specific reason. Not to beat the bad guy again or for a shot at the high score. I’m a sucker for a good story but that isn’t enough to make me return, nor are specific mechanics or controls (though they must be intuitive and satisfying).

What brings me back is a sense of place. I return to certain worlds for the same reason I revisit real world places I love – I want to be there. There’s something joyous in the fabric of the best game spaces. It’s exhilarating to trot around Outset Island with seagulls screeching overhead. Bemoaned by some, you can really smell the sea breeze while sailing The Wind Waker’s ocean overworld. Watching the water turn an autumn orange at sunset, or swirl into a grey tempestuous mass when a storm broke was stirring and I welcomed the five-minute voyages between islands as time to relax and take stock. For brief periods the tick-box nature of questing gave way to blessed peace, and (save for the occasional Octo-wotsit battle) I could mull over my own life and box-ticking while gazing into my ship’s wake. Or I could have a cup of tea. Conducting the wind was cumbersome (I would have mapped the baton to the C-stick for breezy navigation) but sailing away on the high sea evoked the same self-reflection I experience on long journeys in the real world. How exactly is this feeling achieved in a digital space? Why do I go back to certain game worlds and not others?

Let’s take a critically acclaimed game: say, Gears of War. I enjoyed the campaign. I fought through the hordes in co-op and was satisfied with the chunky reloads and chunkier character models. The locales were beautifully detailed. But Gears is a game about progression. With the area cleared you move on along the path, through the newly opened door, over the bridge, into the sewers, etc. You do this unthinkingly – you’re driven onward, not only by the narrative but also by lack of anything to recommend the area you’ve just liberated. Try investigating your surroundings and you quickly discover that there’s very little worth saving in this world. Likewise Modern Warfare, Half-Life 2, even Bioshock.
If Jules Verne built the Sea Life Centre...

Rapture may be a joy to explore, digesting the sunken art deco decay and the vivid sound design, but it’s constructed to be experienced on-the-fly. These are games as novels, pulp or otherwise. They are divided into chapters, levels designed for progress, punctuated by set-piece spectacle. When you interrupt that flow you’re directed back to the narrative by way of bottleneck design, impassable debris or sheer boredom. Pleasure comes from working towards a clear goal and engaging in that process. I rarely replay these games. Once the puzzle is solved the world itself becomes the only draw and, though often attractive, they’re typically dull places to be.

At first glance the problem appears to be one of linearity but this isn’t the case. The classic 2D platformers run from left to right only but offer spaces I return to time and again. Perhaps, rather, it’s a constraint of narrative-focused games. The story plays second fiddle in nearly all the games I revisit. Mario is all about jumping on platforms and goombas. Zelda is about exploration and the thrill of that item-get sound. The stories, affecting as they can be, are secondary. Often they’re just pish. Save the princess. Save the world. Yadda yadda.

But a game that creates a world worth saving, a world worth being in – now that’s a mark of greatness. A place I think about while walking to work, or whistle the tune to while peeling potatoes. That’s what makes me fire up Sonic 2 again. Emerald Hill is a wonderful place to be. It has waterfalls and intrigue and an incredibly melodious feel. Trouncing Robotnik is incidental; I return to visit the place. Sometimes it summons memories of when I first visited. Emerald Hill, Chemical Plant and Aquatic Ruin Zone are Christmas morning ’92. The floating fairy debris and notes of Kokiri Forest are Christmas ’98.

*angry face* He's just pissed that I always take
the shortcut on the last corner.
And here the dreaded spectre nostalgia appears. This is a powerful ancillary factor because it has the ability to overpower all else. We spend long periods with video games and they form part of our routines over time, like meeting friends in the pub after work or reading the paper on a Sunday morning. A game can evoke memories not just of the digital space but also old living rooms, dorms and people from the past. When I blast through the cannon on DK Mountain in Mario Kart Wii, I’m not really thinking about the greenery and the angry buck-toothed volcano (cute as he is) but of epic nights spent at university tripping over Gamecube cables and slurping lager from the can between rounds with housemates. There’s a whole social and historical aspect to the game world which takes place entirely outside of it. That track reminds me of good times and I’m eager to return to it when I play now, though not because the circuit is intrinsically appealing. Conversely, my Wild World village is one place I can never return to. I feel ashamed for abandoning it and now it would be full of weeds and strangers and memories. But there’s a part of me desperate to go back, to see if I remember the geography and to discover how it has changed in my absence. Nostalgia is tricksy. It can persuade you a game has universal merits when only you experience them. It can get you just like old songs. Which brings us to my first integral component of great game places…

That takes me back… MUSIC
Back in the 8-bit days hardware simply wasn’t up to rendering extraneous visual detail. You had your character, your enemies, your platforms and your background. By the 16-bit era animated backgrounds (more of which later) helped to enliven the environments a little but developers relied on sound to create atmosphere. Mute the volume while playing Mega Man or Super Mario Bros. and you realise just how much the audio is contributing. It was the music that made Famicom-era Hyrule epic.

Gamer Print's Hyrulean Travel and Karting
Classics posters evoke the tone of pre-war
railway posters, advertising the 
as holiday destinations with cheerful slogans.
16-bit machines brought more texture to environments. The sprites and sound effects remained but became more ambitious and animated and specific synth instruments and genres began to emerge. Masato Nakamuro’s work on the first two Sonics took electro-funk beats and juxtaposed them with melody that the series lost with the try-hard rock of the Dreamcast era. Yuzo Koshiro’s Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack pushed towards the club with house/techno/trance tracks, a precursor to the electronica of Wipeout and the Playstation generation. I remember Axel rocking on his feet under flashing neon signs after clearing the street of Galsias and Donovans. I started punching along to the beat, moving left and right, cycling through my repertoire before rounding off with a grand upparrrr. Essentially I was ‘dancing’, finishing with a Travolta-esque signature move. These were grimy hoodlum-filled streets, but I wanted to stay there, throwing shapes with my fists.

As environments turned polygonal, increasing data storage also allowed for different approaches to audio. Mario 64's Bob-omb Battlefield still invited you to play with an infectious system-powered tune but the space on a CD-ROM allowed for high-fidelity sound effects and speech. Composers were able to use sweeping orchestral scores and licensed tracks. The online furore last year over the Tony Hawk HD tracklist (altered due to licensing issues) highlights just how effectively music can evoke a time and place. Warehouse or Hangar without Goldfinger? Unthinkable.

The areas are conveyed as much by their colour
palettes as the iconography of the landscape.
The greatest video game music evokes smells and sensations in environments that simply cannot exist in the code. EAD may build the boat and fill the ocean but Koji Kondo provides the salt in the sea air. His work on the Zelda series especially demonstrates an acute understanding of the soundtrack’s role, whether creating an overt accompanying theme (like the breezy panpipe melody of Dragon Roost Island), something more ambient (the mysterious abandoned tone of Forest Temple) or simply understanding when silence is golden. I have a vivid memory of being transported to the moon in Majora’s Mask. After chasing Skullkid up the Clock Tower I expected the final showdown, and the ominous score indicated as much, echoing the struggle against Ganon in the previous game’s finale. Without warning, I was whisked to a faraway glade with a single tree atop a hill at the centre. What? It was disorientating after the kaleidoscopic world of Termina – where every field had its own refrain – to be standing in a dreamscape that had no melody. I ran towards the tree. Masked children were playing around it. I had no idea where I was or what was happening. The familiar and comforting sound of music had gone AWOL but this hill was definitely alive. I was speechless. That juxtaposition showed an understanding of the space and the power silence can have in a world of sound.

Entire kingdoms can now be rendered and streamed down to the tree. Stirring overworld themes have arguably become superfluous in a landscape where the boundaries are unseen and unknown. Shadow of the Colossus’ Forbidden Land is traversed without orchestral accompaniment and the space feels all the more profound with only the wind and Agro’s hooves punctuating the stillness of the kingdom. Maybe we have Nintendo’s unhurriedly iterative approach to the Zelda template to thank for the dozens of golden themes Kondo has written for its compartmentalised, contained spaces. While tech has evolved and it looks better than ever before, Hyrule is still a walled garden – it’s still the music that makes it feel epic.

Location, Location, Location...COHESIVE ECOSYSTEMS
Hyrule offers a range of terrains and vistas. If the heat and frustration of Death Mountain becomes stifling, you can go cool off at the lake or visit Saria in the Lost Woods. Narrative or genre limitations can narrow the breadth of environments available (Dead Space's Isaac Clarke is unlikely to take a restorative jaunt to the seaside, for example). However, games and characters that aren’t restricted by genre can equally succumb to locale fatigue. The elemental grass/ice/fire/water worlds are old tropes and reinvigorating them has become increasingly challenging since the jump to three dimensions. Diverse as it is, Hyrule is always made up of the same component regions – you start in the leafy forest, then journey through the fire, ice/water and sand areas. The Mushroom Kingdom suffers similarly. Where else could Nintendo take Mario but ‘the final frontier’ in Galaxy? The blank canvas of the cosmos, a setting for the first video games, was now the plumber’s last resort. And once there he was still shooting between playground planetoids based on the traditional elements. Following the innovations of Super Mario Bros. 3 proved difficult and in the early ‘90s Sega were arguably more successful at creating arresting, convincing settings without resorting to the same old rhetoric. Beyond the introductory grassland zones, it wasn’t until Sonic 3 that the hedgehog visited anything as predictable as a ‘snow’ world. The levels contained the familiar vocabulary but it was sewn into environments without becoming the explicit, monotonous theme. Marble Zone had lava but it was just a facet of the ruins and seemed entirely coherent in that context. Labyrinth Zone had water as a natural (and terrifying) feature of the maze. While Mario waddled through deserts and jumped from one block to another, Sonic was spinning through mystic caverns, inside chemical plants and over oil oceans. Casino Night Zone built on the blueprint of Spring Yard blending it with a flashing pinball/fruit machine aesthetic. It produced something that felt original and suitably zany, but utterly cohesive and believable as an environment.

Reconfiguration and distribution of familiar elements stopped
levels becoming stale in the early 
Sonic games. Lava, water and
grass flesh out the zones rather than become the overriding theme.
That isn’t to say that Nintendo suffer from a dearth of inspiration – their level design, mechanics and art direction have been consistently outstanding for decades – but the Mario and Zelda series’ in particular have borne thematic repetition that threatens stagnation. It’s telling that the Van Gogh-esque impressionist backdrop to Painted Swampland in New Super Mario Bros. U was so well received. The series is starved of innovative environments to explore and it was a welcome variant in a roster of beautiful-yet-forgettable worlds.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Getting Along With George - My Special Relationship in Civilization V

"The people of the United States of America welcome you. I trust you are a friend to liberty?"

Mr Washington greeted me with these words. They rang disarmingly true and I immediately liked him. We would get on rather well.

One day I noticed Americans settling close to my northern border. The city of Atlanta was soon founded and I wondered if Mr Washington was testing me. I let him build his city and we maintained good relations.

I let him build his city and we
maintained good relations.

With America to my North-West, Persia in the East and Rome creeping towards city-states Venice and Rio over the barren Northern lands, I was content to build my infrastructure and work the profitable fishing bays of London on the Southern coast with only York to the West, and Hastings and Canterbury founded on atolls across the bay. Soon I noticed Washington founding several other cities – New York, Boston, Philadelphia. Watching his army deployed at strategic points along my border (and inside, thanks to our treaty) made me nervous. Should his benevolence falter, I would be driven into the ocean and the British Empire, such as it was, would cease to be. I was troubled but outright war seemed costly and foolish.

So I looked across the ocean to the South. An island consisting of the city-states Singapore on the Northern coast and Warsaw to the South offered an excellent way to expand my empire without warring with the superpowers. I began assembling troops in the unoccupied middle ground of the island. I had learned the hard way the difficulty of besieging a city and I could not afford to fight on two fronts. So I hatched a plan to buy off Singapore with gifts of gold while I attacked Warsaw. They weren’t on the best of terms anyway.

Infantry, archers, horsemen and catapults in place, the bombardment commenced. It worked beautifully and soon Warsaw was burning, but mine. Singapore were over the moon and the British could finally lay claim to an empire. However, relations with Washington quickly soured. Trades were cancelled, treaties revoked. He withdrew his troops from my territories, which only increased their number along the border. Although relatively weak infantry troops, their presence was intimidating.

I had never once attacked him directly, our research agreement was still in place and after checking Singapore’s ally status, I was confident he would respect my nation-building. It was nothing more than he was doing with the Romans, founding Seattle on their doorstep, ruffling their legion helmet feathers. What’s a little annexing here or there between friends?

On the morning of the attack against Singapore I received the following communiqué:
"Your wanton aggression leaves me no choice. Prepare for war!"

I had no quarrel with George; I simply wanted a piece of the pie. His territory was increasing each turn, every new city supplying him with more, more, more. I prepared defensive troops in London, and once Singapore had fallen I returned to the mainland and destroyed his infantry along my border.

What’s a little annexing here
or there between friends?

But that wasn't enough. He had angered me. The initial twinge of doubt when he first founded Atlanta along my border centuries before coupled with my irritation made the decision to take the city from him, though churlish, natural. It would teach him a lesson.

Atlanta was taken and transformed into a defensive stronghold. He soon came crawling for peace and, satisfied the message had been understood, I accepted.

Centuries passed. Treaties were signed and signed again. He built walls. I built roads.

As Alexander and Ramkhamhaeng quarrelled over the New World, Caesar was busy expanding. He had taken Seattle and marched on Rio. If Rio fell, he would have clear sight of London. I had never trusted Caesar. Every word sounded calculated and inauthentic. I devised to defend Rio from the Romans and then take advantage of its weakened state by annexing it myself and setting up a defensive post similar to Atlanta. George would be thankful for an ally against the Romans, no?

I plied him with gifts and generous trade agreements just in case.
I vanquished the Romans.
I lay siege to Rio.
America declared war.

And that was it. Washington possessed numbers, but I had the technology. I sent tanks against him. His musketmen were obliterated. I chased his general down and watched him fall before taking Boston and Philly. An armada levelled New York. A brief respite from war was broken by simple geography when I couldn’t move troops to N.Y. without entering his territory. And so George lost Washington.

As I trundled towards Chicago, his last remaining coastal outpost, he visited me. "We must not let war define who we are," he said, "The time has come to make peace." Sorry George. I drove him off the map and his civilization was gone.
"The time has come to make peace."
Sorry George.
I drove him off the map and his civilization was gone.

I had tried to play 'nice', to be 'good'. I liberated Venice from the Romans, and they were grateful for a time, but while I was busy with the Persians in the East they got themselves conquered again. So I returned, defeated Caesar once more and annexed the city. They couldn't be trusted to defend themselves and I was forced to play colonialist. Caesar and Darius were capricious and impossible to get along with. God, if only Honest George were here!

In fact, he was. The tiny island of Los Angeles still existed in the middle of the ocean. For several years it went unnoticed until Washington popped up once more asking for peace. And I refused. Why? He would only end up causing problems and, as irrational and stunting as it is, there’s nothing like a good grudge.

Friday 6 September 2013

Down and Out in Liberty City

My Animal Crossing: New Leaf village is more fun than GTA IV’s Liberty City. Here’s why...

Animal Crossing has changed little since its Japanese debut on the N64. You answer a few questions to determine your identity before arriving friendless in a tiny village. There are no relatives to help you find your feet in Bell Air or Dibly or Camelot (you can name your town what you like, though an irritating 8 character limit prohibits the likes of Hill Valley or Crinkly Bottom). From Day One you’re in debt to miserly raccoon Tom Nook and forced to live alone in a dank house while clawing your way up the property ladder.

a talking blue wolf or multicoloured sheep in
clown face is bound to stick in the mind longer
than Bit Part Mobster #39

GTA IV sets you up similarly as a recent arrival in a new town. Besides Roman (the irritating cousin you can’t kill) I have forgotten most of the characters. Dimitri was the main guy I was chasing but the rest of the cast escape me. Perhaps comparison is unfair - a talking blue wolf or multicoloured sheep in clown face is bound to stick in the mind longer than Bit Part Mobster #39. But beyond generic characters there is a bigger issue, an inherent frustration, at the core of GTA. I’m talking specifically about IV, although I’ve played San Andreas and a little of III and it’s the same story. Liberty City’s problem is not escalating crime, it’s boredom. The number of interactive systems hasn’t grown at the same rate as the environment. Player agency is restricted to the same handful of interactions we’ve had for years - the sandbox expands, but you only have your old bucket and spade to play with.

GTA does some things very well. The city is a technical triumph, the cars feel fun and the radio stations hit a perfect satirical sweet spot. Cruising the highway with an 80s classic on the radio feels great. I have two main issues with the game: 1) I’m given nothing compelling to do outside of the tired fetch/deliver/whack-a-guy missions; and 2) the gunplay is lumpen and doesn’t match the quality of the driving. In GTA cars and combat are your core mechanics – your bucket and spade – and there’s something wrong if one is unsatisfying after this many iterations. GTA IV fails to make combat, a fundamental component, enjoyable.

Compared to the breathtaking scale and fidelity of Liberty City, Bell Air is far less imposing. I could run the perimeter in a minute and there are only a handful of houses dotted around the place. But from the moment I arrived it offered me something Liberty City didn’t - variety. I could pick fruit, plant trees, go fishing, collect fossils, hunt bugs and chat with people. I could enter all the houses. Animal Crossing isn’t tethered by a strict narrative. There’s no real story, no ending besides paying off your mortgage. After that it’s just something you do. UK:Resistance put it best:
It's like keeping a diary, or remembering to have breakfast. Animal Crossing is just asimple little thing you have and do every day… It's simple, but you'd be fucked without it.

Sea shanties!                                                                     Catchphrases!                                                                          Innuendo!

Superficially my village offers far less than the sprawling L.C., but writing a comparative list of activities on offer reveals New Leaf as the clear winner in terms of variety (skip to the end for a quick, non-exhaustive comparison). What can I do on a Saturday night in Liberty? Well, I could plough through some missions, but the janky combat controls make that too much like work. So what else is on offer? How about some polygonal sex with a prostitute before running her over to get my money back? Hmm, that got pretty old the second time. So let’s head to the, ahem, 'gentlemen’s' club! To its credit, the game does a fabulous job of recreating that why the fuck am I here? feeling of a real strip joint. But, hey, it’s cheaper.

Afterwards I can catch Ricky Gervais at the comedy club. Hope he’s not repeating last night’s three-minute show. After a hot dog I’m running out of things to do. And fuck hot dogs - what if I want to buy an apple? Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I plant a tree or build something or go inside the building next to my house? I found myself genuinely wondering why I was playing at all when I could just put down the pad and go outside, take a drive into town, window down, radio on, and grab a coffee or something. Maybe even an apple.

I wanted things to do besides trudge through the dreary, monotonous narrative but the mayhem simulation that most other players revelled in left me cold. Rockstar presented unprecedented scope and freedom of movement but nothing meaningful or satisfying to do with it. I liked the pigeon shooting best.

Beyond the basics, filling the world with engaging systems should be the main developmental drive next gen. Creating a traversable photo-realistic cityscape is achievable, almost a given, but there’s little point expanding the playground if you’re only going to fill it with the same old swings and roundabouts. It’s a colossal undertaking to add hundreds of disparate mechanics to satisfy my every fruit-eating, tree-planting whim, but simply expanding the world area is not the answer. In terms of diverse and satisfying experiences in a coherent world, the tiny village on my 3DS cartridge offers more choice and more opportunity for self-expression. Bell Air’s a playground on a much smaller scale, but with a focus The Big Apple lacks. Every season brings new festivals and accessories and visitors. I can shoot balloons out of the sky and go beachcombing and send letters and buy wallpaper and breed rare flowers and design clothes and make Jay say S’up Holmes? when we meet and visit other towns to trade fruit and make a killing on the turnip market to get that swine Nook off my back. Village chores and mundanities trump the car chases and schoolboy titillation of the metropolis by sheer breadth. You’ve got to water your flowers and complete your gyroid collection and call on KK Slider every Saturday night. The explicit reason you do so becomes vague amongst the day-to-day of it, like visiting your family. You’re not really just dropping off a card or watering the plants or having a cup of coffee; you’re keeping in contact – checking your favourite residents aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon.

In terms of diverse and satisfying experiences in a coherent world,
the tiny village on my 3DS cartridge offers more choice and more
opportunity for self-expression.

It will be interesting to see how Rockstar deal with further increased scale in GTA V. I’m sure Los Santos will be as technically impressive as ever, and they’re opening up the seabed for exploration. Will I be able to collect shells and urchins from the ocean floor? Will I be able to fish? Or will it be merely a vast setting for a couple of coke shipment fetch quests and a James Bond tied-and-dragged-behind-the-boat homage? I hope not. Otherwise they should just revisit Liberty City and let me buy my damn apple this time.

                    Things to do in Bell Air                                               Things to do in Liberty City
                    Shoot balloons/UFOs                                                        Shoot people/pigeons
                    Plant trees                                                                          Steal and drive vehicles
                    Pick fruit                                                                             Engage in high-speed chases
                    Go fishing                                                                           Listen to the radio.
                    Collect fossils                                                                      Visit a comedy club
                    Hunt bugs                                                                           Visit a nightclub/strip joint/prostitute
                    Accessorise!                                                                        Eat a hotdog
                    Go on a boat trip to an island retreat                                                            
                    Give people catchphrases                                                            
                    Visit a nightclub                                                            
                    Work/drink in the café                                                            
                    Breed flowers                                                            
                    Go diving                    
                    Decorate my house                                                            
                    Play the turnip market                                                            
                    Design clothes/signs                                                            
                    Build public buildings/projects                                                            
                    Name your town Bell Air or Tauntown or Bumjuice