Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Vernal Eternal

The vernal equinox was a couple of weeks back, marking the end of winter and beginning of spring. You can imagine what a big fan of the season I am, from the content of my latest little monthly story here. But it is what it is - much like everything else I write. A goofy slice of seasonal change - or seasonal lack of change.

Yes, I do in fact need to write here more often. I know.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dreaming in Split Realities: Zen-like Difference Games

Casual computer gaming has come a long way in the past decade. Back in the early 2000s, there wasn't a whole lot to note. Most browser games were simple little distractions that you'd load up and play once, and Flash-based gaming wasn't much different. In a lot of ways, the Brothers Chaps' old Homestar Runner games represent a creative variety of the types of Flash games you'd see on sites like Newgrounds - which is still a huge place to go for the latest in Flash animated movies and games, its offerings running the gambit from many of the best to worst out there on the internet.

Gaming has transformed significantly over the past several decades. We've gone from Pong and Space Invaders with Atari and Coleco to Mario and Sonic with Nintendo and Sega, and then to Sony and Microsoft pushing shooting, conceptual gameplay rehashes, and design pretension to ridiculous levels while trying hard to appeal to the testosterone-driven crowd that would've pushed previous generations of nerdy gamers into lockers high school. Shallow, image-driven game concepts and marketing became popular - though Sega did beat Sony and Microsoft to the punch on that, but their rivalry with Nintendo was frankly friendly compared to the smug hubris regularly displayed by Sony and Microsoft's executives and the worst of their audience - much to gaming's detriment. Normal people don't care about video games making you look "cool," and they don't care about hyperkinetic violence or running around online "fragging" and "pwning" each other while shouting epithets at each other on headset voice chat.

This is where a new significant transformation for gaming has come to light: comfortable, casual pick-up-and-play gaming that anyone can understand, get into, and have a tremendous amount of fun with. Nintendo made their explosive comeback by creating platforms designed to be accessible and to appeal equally to both the usual gaming demographics and entirely new ones - particularly women and actual adults, as opposed to the insecure teenagers and mental-teenagers that Sony and Microsoft have chosen to drive their video game lines into the ground over. We got motion controls - gaming like we'd imagined in futuristic, science fiction settings at last! - and games like Wii Sports, as well as lifestyle software for daily physical and mental health-related use like Wii Fit, Brain Age, Big Brain Academy, EA Sports Fitness, Walk It Out, and more. Exercise and video gaming joined at last, and edutainment aimed at adults. Fantastic ideas, bringing all sorts of outside daily life concepts together with gaming software in ways that we'd never seen - or at least never seen done well - before, evolving video game software as a concept and taking that next step forward as a medium. All this in stark contrast to Sony and Microsoft's focus on graphics, online shooters, and trying to turn games into "movies" without any of the writing or directorial talent that draws us to film as a complete separate medium in the first place. On top of this evolution of how we look at video games as a concept, Nintendo also provided platforms in the Wii and DS where any kind of game from previous - and current - generations could be made, but also made better through the addition of motion controls. And all kinds of gameplay that most people found inaccessible due to the confounding complexity of standard video game controllers suddenly became much more appealing and accessible, the Wii's basic controller undergoing an ambitious redesign to transform how we view standard gaming controls into something much more familiar - a remote control - and comfortable. Even the DS's controls are right at home for most, acting as a SNES controller with an touchscreen screen.

Likewise, where Nintendo's new boom began, we continued to see the mainstream emergence of a previously largely niche - and still mostly niche even now - independent computer game design scene, which I myself was in and out of for a good part of my adolescence, and am I only just returning to this year with an iPhone/iPod Touch game I'm working on with my older brother. Companies like PopCap saw a lot of success with PC games like Bejeweled and Peggle, online digital download stores like Steam began to pop up, the Homestar Runner guys started making even more ambitious games with a taste for the retro (Nostalgia has become a driving and wonderful force with many independent game designers, recalling all the kinds of ideas that made older PC and console video games so much fun in the '90s and '80s that have been lost in modern gaming's fixation on pushing graphical horsepower and ditching gameplay to make godawful CGI movies that take themselves too seriously and fail to understand why video games and movies are entirely separate mediums.), and major search engine homepages like Microsoft's and Yahoo's began hosting a variety of simple Flash games with social elements to entertain people. And, of course, I would be remiss to discuss the current explosion of simple, accessible social titles with their own depth on major social networks like Facebook over the past year. Virtually everybody knows at least one person - if not many - hooked on addictive social games like Farmville or Mafia Wars these days. Now sites like Facebook are being looked at as platforms for serious game development by many companies, hoping to turn a profit off easy accessible titles that are free to play, and thus very inviting. Flash gaming portal Kongregate is a personal favorite time-killer in this vein, a Flash gaming-centric social networking site where you can submit titles and play hundreds to thousands of games of all sorts, catalogued in a way to make it easy to sift out the undesirable titles, with contests to enter and all sorts of little collectibles to get hooked on picking up for your profile, such as little achievement-style badges for numerous games. And on the most eccentric side of things, we have The Kingdom of Loathing, an easily accessible point and click stickman art and comedy writing based browser role-playing game - one of the deepest and funniest games on the internet, which anyone can get into easily, and like Flash gaming and the freeware put out by the indie gaming scene, it too is free to play. There's no shortage of wonderful and worthwhile options for people looking for games to play without spending a cent.

These days, you'd be hard pressed to find mainstream video gaming websites and blogs that aren't centered on the question of whether or not video games are art. And on both the mainstream and niche sides of the industry, you'll find developers - whether teams or a single person - determined to produce meaningful art games. On one hand, you get smaller names like Jason Rohrer, whose games tend to receive a fairly mixed reception and are hard to frame as something "fun" to play. For many art games, the gap between something meaningful by design and an actual entertaining experience is difficult to bridge. On the ultra-mainstream site of the spectrum, we have Sony's Heavy Rain, recently released on the Playstation 3 last week to a ridiculous amount of raving despite its severe deficiencies as a game. The title is literally little more than walking from place to place, watching FMV cutscenes (The game's design focus was centered on producing and pushing some of the most expensive graphics a video game has ever seen. Not exactly a focus that has a history of yielding anything resembling fun gameplay.) and occasionally pushing a random button on the controller for a quicktime event. The game proposes to be a thrilling (minimally) "interactive" film noir, written by people who aren't professional writers or filmmakers, and then raved about by a media largely comprised of people unfamiliar with good literature or filmmaking. Glaring problems with the largely offensive charge into "cinematic" gaming that Sony has been trying to lead with their Playstation brand for over a decade now - pushing focus on graphics and serious narratives (The more seriously a game takes itself, the worse it is, pretty much as a rule.) while pushing further and further away from the very thing that makes gaming what it is: the gameplay. Unfortunately, growing sentiment at Sony and amongst the worst of their fans is that games need to "evolve" out of existence and merge with the film industry - except that it should also be judged separately, and as superior, because these are movies being made by programmers, not screenwriters, directors, or anybody who frankly has any business attempting to make movies, let alone serious ones.

As for whether games are art, it's all a matter of individual perception. For what video games are as a medium, it doesn't matter if they're art or not - that's not the point. They're meant to be interactive entertainment - something you play, not watch. Something you have fun with, not something set on making you cry. An active experience, as opposed to the passive experience that experiencing art is in itself - whether cinema, other forms of visual art, or music. And many types of cinema and television are by no means art in any way worth recognizing as such.

I wanted to do this particular blog post to look at four games in particular, which you can read about and find links to after the jump. All four are Flash games hosted on Kongregate that work well as both artsy titles that draw you in through beautiful, mesmerizing visual design and music, but also as entertaining titles, engaging you through their central gameplay experience: observation. We all grew up playing all sorts of little games in kids' coloring books and the like, from word searches to simple crossword puzzles and more. These particular titles - difference games - are an artsy Flash gaming evolution of those simple children's puzzles where you'd look at two side-by-side images on a page and attempt to pick out or circle the differences between each. In its accessible simplicity and childhood nostalgia, the two developers behind these four games have shown how much can be done with that concept from a more intellectual perspective without losing their fun. So after this long, rambling introduction and discussion of gaming and its movement into the lifestyle, social, and casual arenas for everybody, check out the rest for links to and discussions of the games you're here to see.