Anatomy of a Video Game Part 3: Aesthetics

(Art Direction, Graphics, and Sound)

Most “AAA” titles of the past two decades have focused so intently on this factor that it has actually caused a schism in the industry: Big-budget studios (such as EA and Activision, and their many subsidiaries) see a direct correlation between dollars spent on making a game push the graphics envelope and dollars earned at retail.  This results in games such as the Gears of War, Fallout and Call of Duty franchises, who focus on rendering bleak war-torn environments in spectacular clarity, covered with a fine layer of dirt and (to paraphrase video game reviewer Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw) consisting of two colors: gunmetal gray and dirt brown. This becomes somewhat of a strange exercise, as the “how” of making graphics as crisp and clear as possible eclipses the “what” of what graphics are being depicted to the player.  Lower-budget independent studios (such as those who publish “smaller” games for digital download instead of retail purchase) and some lesser-known studios (such as Tri-Crescendo, creators of Eternal Sonata) focus more on the art direction of their games, creating visual displays that are spectacular uses of modest technology rather than modest uses of spectacular technology.  Jonathan Blow developed Braid almost entirely by himself, at a fraction of the cost of most “AAA” titles, yet the artwork on display in Braid uses artistic techniques far more effectively, and earned high praise from reviewers and players alike. In one soundbyte sentence: Great art is not always made by those with the best art supplies, and is often made by those with the worst.

While great attention is paid to graphics in the video game world, music has frequently been considered as only an afterthought. Games that concentrate on developing a strong sense of atmosphere through music are rare.  The only two composers of video games in the last ten years that I know by name are Nobuo Uematsu (composer for the Final Fantasy series and various additional games published by SquareEnix) and Bear McCreary (famed composer for the Battlestar Galactica television series whose fantastic score to Dark Void elevated that game’s quality from mediocre to very good.)  An honorable mention goes to chiptune band Anamanaguchi, whose music (a type of electronic rock that uses old video game consoles for instruments) has come full circle and formed the excellent score to Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game.  Rather than invest time, money and effort in composing a score, many game studios take advantage of modern games’ increased storage capacity and audio capability and focus instead on securing popular music to fill their soundtrack.  As a result, sports games are often filled with the latest tracks from popular rap, rock and rap-rock artists.  This approach can work well if the music fits the genre, such as the alternative music picked for the early Tony Hawk Pro Skater games or the classic jazz-age records in Fallout 3, but tends to fall flat and fail to impress players more often than not. Then again, in a marketplace where two of the three major consoles support the option for players to upload their own soundtrack from their music library, in-game music may be on its way out.



Fallout 3 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

Eternal Sonata (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

Flower (Playstation 3)

World of Goo (PC, Wii)

Braid (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

A Boy and His Blob (Wii)

Okami (Wii)

Anatomy of a Video Game Part 2: Design and Controls's satirical control design for "Starfire Saga V: Laserion"'s satirical control design for "Starfire Saga V: Laserion"

Designing a video game is rather like designing a movie and a car at the same time.  It has to entertain the player as an audience member and act as an extension of his/her body for purposes of interaction.  Designing is hardly an easy job, but that’s the nature of video games as a medium. The designer’s goal is to give the player a feeling of immersion, both emotionally (through the game’s narrative or premise) and physically (through interface and control design.) One of the reasons Angry Birds is so successful is its very well-designed user interface and control scheme.  Pulling back the slingshot and firing a cartoon bird is completely intuitive, and feels exactly the way we as players expect it to feel.  The reason I have never been able to enjoy a Grand Theft Auto game is because, at its core, GTA games are about driving around (using clunky driving controls that would disgust any racing game designer) and shooting people (using clunky shooting controls that would disgust any third-person shooter game designer.) Obviously controls are not universally adopted by every player the same way, but as a general rule (GTA notwithstanding) higher-quality games succeed in making players feel like their thoughts are being directly translated into the actions of their on-screen avatar.  Every time a player yells out “Stupid game, do what I’m telling you to do!” that player becomes more likely to turn off the game in frustration and never play it again.




Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

Halo: Reach (Xbox 360)

Devil May Cry 4 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

Super Meat Boy (Xbox 360, PC)

Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)

Minecraft (PC)

Anatomy of a Video Game Part 1: Premise and Story

PAX East 2011 has come and gone, and fun times were had by most.  Since it was a convention about videogaming (though it included most other types of gaming as well) it seems appropriate to preface my write-up with an explanation of what separates the wheat from the chaff of the video game crop.


Disclaimer: The following analysis of video games is INCONTROVERTIBLE OBJECTIVE FACT, and anyone who believes otherwise is WRONG.  It is in no way influenced by my personal opinions, and you should feel ashamed for even suggesting that it could be. Continue reading

VIDEO GAMES: Toast Reviews “LIMBO” by Playdead Studios on XBox Live Arcade

Guest review time!  Faithful readers, please give a warm welcome to the latest WITWAR guest writer, Toast!  She very graciously decided to take time away from working  on her own site, A Girl and Her Blog, to review an XBox Live Arcade game for all of you.  So please, enjoy this glimpse into the mind of an enthusiastic and dedicated gamer, and be sure to check out her other posts at A Girl and Her Blog!   [click the jump-link to read on]

Continue reading

VIDEO GAMES: John Reviews “Hydro Thunder Hurricane” by Microsoft Studios on Xbox Live Arcade

If you’ve stopped at a highway rest stop anytime within the last eleven years, you’ve probably seen an arcade cabinet version of Hydro Thunder, Midway’s insanely popular and outlandish speedboat racing game.  Seriously, this game is everywhere when it comes to rest stops, even today!  But now, thanks to Microsoft Game Studios and Xbox Live Arcade, you can bring the fun of crazy speedboat racing home with Hydro Thunder Hurricane.  The original was a truly great arcade experience, and HT:H lives up to its pedigree. Continue reading

VIDEO GAMES: John Reviews “Castlevania: Harmony of Despair” by Konami for XBox Live Arcade

Ahh, Castlevania.  One of the only two areas of popular culture where it’s cool for a guy to wield a whip (the other, of course,  being Indiana Jones.) When I downloaded Castlevania: Harmony of Despair as part of Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade promotion, I was expecting a game experience something like the genre’s most popular entry, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.  While the graphics and core play controls are roughly the same as that 1997 classic, and Alucard is still one of the main characters, C:HD is an extremely different game from SotN. Gone is the story-driven, nonlinear, exploration-based single-player structure of the old days.  Instead, C:HD is an interesting mash-up of the last five big 2-D Castlevania games, and combines gameplay elements from all of them plus Gauntlet, Diablo, and (I shudder to even say its name) World of Warcraft. Do all of those elements work together? 18 hours of gameplay later, I can say that it’s certainly interesting enough to dig its hooks into me and keep me from playing several other of my recent downloads.  How do they do it? Read on! Continue reading

MOVIES: John Reviews “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” Directed by Edgar Wright

Fresh from the finale of his award-winning graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim is taking the world by storm in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, directed by Shaun of the Dead and  Hot Fuzz‘s Edgar Wright.  But can Bryan Lee O’Malley’s vision of a world where romance and drama are inextricably linked to video games and over-the-top action work on the silver screen as well as it does in the pages of a comic?

The short answer is: Yes!

The long answer is: Yes, but it’s a fairly different experience (as almost any adaptation is.) Continue reading

COMICS: John Reviews “Scott Pilgrim Vol. 6: Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour” by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Time to switch things up!  Since this is the final installment of the excellent six-part slice-of-life-romantic-comedy/over-the-top-video-game-action (holy-crap-that’s-a-lot-of-hyphens) graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim, much of the usual introductory fare is unnecessary.  Instead of structuring my reviews as I normally do, I will invert the pyramid and start with my final summary:

  • For those who have been reading and enjoying the Scott Pilgrim series up to this point, rest assured: Volume 6 brings the story to an action-packed, emotionally satisfying conclusion.
  • For those who have been reading the Scott Pilgrim series and aren’t sure they like where the later volumes were heading, there’s a very good chance that Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour has brought back everything you loved about the early volumes and will make you a fan again.
  • For those who haven’t been reading the Scott Pilgrim series at all, it should be rather obvious that the last volume is hardly the place to start.  Go out and pick up Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, resting comfortably in the knowledge that the whole story is a well-crafted arc and the big ending doesn’t fall flat.

And now, the specifics! Continue reading

A Serious Diskinect

Microsoft Kinect: Wave of the future, or anti-Controller propaganda? I didn’t even know there was an anti-controller movement until now!  It seems like the “convenience” of motion controls is limited solely to not having to interact with a physical device.  The actual actions themselves require far more work than they would on a traditional remote or controller, and for those of us who don’t want our media platforms to be a cleverly disguised instrument of mandatory exercise, the whole thing is entirely unwelcome.
This will be the first console generation where entire GENRES of games are rendered incompatible with current technology.  While I’d love to see a resurgence of the point-and-click adventure, nobody is going to want to play a brawler or platformer (or God of War-style adventure that combines the two) when they have to perform EVERY ACTION using gesture controls.  (Oh no! What will this do to my favorite beleaguered mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog?!  NOBODY will have enough energy to play as Sonic for any substantial length of time!)  And how will 2-D games play?  Will we see any of the insultingly counter-intuitive hardware virtualization so prevalent on the iPod/Phone/Pad, where controller buttons are mapped permanently onto portions of an already small touchscreen?  People knock the Wii (and simultaneously credit it as the salvation of our obese children) but it understood something that Microsoft doesnt: Having a couple of buttons saves a game from being downright EXASPERATING to play.  Example: Gamers groaned at the fact that The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess required players to waggle the wiimote fiercely for every sword slash, and that was only ONE function mapped to gestures.  Games like Metroid Prime 3 would be unplayable without the Nunchuck’s analog stick controlling movement while the wiimote controlled the camera.  Microsoft, however, seems to be loudly proclaiming that “gamers are lazy.  Let’s FORCE them to choose between lazy and being gamers!  Then we can turn all the not-lazy people INTO gamers, and flip every convention of the culture on its head and make BILLIONS!”  In the process, they will destroy several different categories of games, and they will tear down all of the elgant usability and Human/Computer Interaction work that went into controller technology.  Games like Guilty Gear, Ikaruga, Mega Man (or I Wanna Be The Guy) or Ninja Gaiden are just too nuanced and precise for flail controls (Flail.  It’s the new waggle!)  and the range of activities you’ll want your avatar to engage in will shrink to what you feel like aping in the real world.
Another factor that limits Kinect’s potential is its vast space requirements. Anyone who has a small room (and a relatively small TV) is SOL when it comes to Kinect, since the camera needs to be able to detect you standing up and flailing and jumping.  Plus, you can’t make any unrelated gestures while playing, which would have been easy in the days when you could pause the controller.  Notice how awkward the demonstrator looked at E3 when his hands were constantly at his sides, waiting for a chance to move and engage the controller.  And presumably you can’t ever say the word “Xbox” near the device, for fear that you’ll activate some voice-sensitive command.  You’ll have to spell out X-B-O-X as though you were trying not to wind up an excitable dog (though I hear that some dogs have learned how to spell 😛 ).

I’m glad to read that I’m not the only one with this opinion on the second motion control revolution (outside of fan boards, of course, but there are haters of every concept known to man on those).  So don’t just take my word for it, take a look at what Warren Spector (designer of many award-winning games) and Tim Buckley (creator of webcomic Ctrl-Alt-Del) have to say!  [Cue Reading Rainbow music.]

From Joystiq’s interview with Warren Spector:  “There are a lot of people looking at gestural control as the future of games, and I think what we need to do is say, is gestural control appropriate for this game or not. If you’re playing tennis, good lord, if you don’t use it, if you don’t do this, you’re crazy. But there are plenty of other games where it’s just better to [press buttons]. And we have to be brave as developers and publishers and retailers to just accept that some games are just going to be better like this. We’ve got twenty years of experience doing this, and gamers have twenty years of mastering it. Most kids today have thumbs that are more dexterous than — than me, that’s for sure. So why should we throw that away?”

From Ctr-Alt-Del’s Tim Buckley: The real kick in the balls came when further footage of the Star Wars Kinect game suggests that it is an on-rails Jedi slasher game. Yes. Because when I think of being a Jedi, I think of standing in one place, flailing my lightsaber hoping that I either reflect blaster bolts or some dumb shit walks into my melee range, and then dashing a few feet forward and doing the same thing. Maybe it’ll be a blast, I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s not what gamers were hoping for. Beyond just hoping for a really cool sword/lightsaber fighting game (because deep down we all want to be Jedi) I think we’re also looking for confirmation that motion controls can provide more, daresay, “hardcore” gamers with a legitimate experience. That it’s not going to all be Kinectimals.

Why I Quit Facebook

Because YOU demanded it! All the hackle-raising reasons why I decided that I had had enough of Facebook and committed social network suicide on May 31st.  While my statement may not have made waves, it was an important moment for me.  Here’s the breakdown: