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.

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