We don’t celebrate our heroes. The people who make games, we don’t celebrate them. Not in the way that we should. Oh we celebrate the games well enough. You would be hard pressed to dredge up a human that doesn’t know who Mario is. Hum a few bars of Super Mario Bros. theme music among strangers, and someone will probably start humming along with you. At the very least you will have put that song in their head for the rest of the day. Games, at least those particular games, have permeated popular culture to that point. Now ask that same person who wrote that music, and they probably won’t know. Now ask the same person who Kurt Cobain is. Ask them who Paul McCartney is. Kurt Cobain wrote some good songs, but nothing that will stick with you like a Koji Kondo tune. Paul McCartney wrote some of the most instantly recognizable music from the last couple hundred years. The exact same can be said of Koji Kondo. The music from Legend of Zelda can evoke four emotions from you simultaneously while you gladly listen to it for six hours straight. Koji Kondo is an artist to celebrate, yet to the majority of the public, he is invisible.
There was an announcement of a new movie being manufactured based on Tetris. Tetris. Now before you say
“How can anyone make a movie about Tetris? How can this simple geometric puzzle game become a movie? It doesn’t even have a story!”
There is one, exactly one, tremendous movie to made about Tetris, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the game. It is the story of a humble, cherubic computer programmer working as a researcher in the Soviet Union during the late days of the cold war. It is the story of a dynamic Dutch-American polyglot game developer working deals in europe, Russia, North america, and Japan.The movie would be about Alexey Pajitnov and Henk Rogers.The Tetris movie would be a dozen other small human stories about the bizarre dealings of Soviet bureaucrats, dynastic Japanese family businesses, and the adolescence of a juggernaut industry. The actual game, Tetris, would be relegated to a plot device. As it Should be. The Tetris movie would be about people.
For an art form that used to redact the names of the creators as a standard practice, the video game industry has taken great strides in recognizing artistic and creative talent with awards shows and the like, but they tend to be a lot of preaching to the choir. The Audience that likes to know about the people who make games will watch those shows, and that’s about it. There is something to be said about formalizing the respect of peers, but it does little to legitimize games as an important part of culture. Respect requires recognition. Recognition of the people who create games, not recognition of the games themselves. Games, after all, are just products and they don’t really give a flying fart who likes them. People who create great works of popular culture deserve some recognition. We should celebrate our heroes.
Walk, fight, fail, repeat
That's all we ever do here
at garbage Hogwarts
I’ve been playing a lot of Dark Souls recently. Not the new one. No 2 or 3, just plain old Dark Souls. I could write about why I am really enjoying it, or why I think that other people should play it, but that would be just add to the cacophony of hyperbole and fanboy love for this game. Exactly the sort of stuff that makes people not want to play a game. The sort of stuff that made me avoid it for this long.
When Demon’s Souls came out, I didn’t have a PS3, and my second kid had just been born. Playing any game, let alone that game, for any length of time was just not happening. People raved about Demon’s Souls, but I had played some King’s Field, found it unbearably dull, and hearing that Demon’s Souls was the spiritual successor to King’s Field snuffed out any flicker of interest.
I have a harsh reflexive sense for when a game doesn’t respect my time. Walking for hours to hit a save point, or dealing with forced waves of enemies before you can advance to a new area have always seemed like really hack moves. Having kids has only strengthened this reflex. I’m not talking about long games. Games that take time, but build and move as you play them are some of the best experiences I have had playing games. As long as they let you drive the pace of the experience.
I have never been more frustrated with a game than when I was dealing with the save system in Resident Evil 4. Even if you know exactly where every enemy is and how to deal with them some of the stretches between areas in Resident Evil 4 can take more than half an hour. That’s not tension building.That’s garbage. It’s also worth noting that I really liked Resident Evil 4, but for all the good, it just does not respect the player.
I picked up Dark Souls a few years ago on one of the steep Steam sales. I tried it once, but didn’t really understand the save system and feared that I had just entered into a new Resident Evil 4 situation. I figured that, while other people might enjoy it, it probably isn’t for me.
The common rhetoric about the Souls games is that they are very difficult, but fair. What I have never heard is how much this game respects the player. The player drives the experience. Want to play for fifteen minutes, that’s fine. Want to play for seven hours, sure go ahead. Both experiences will move the game forward. Want to spend a long time in one area, not a problem. You can still make progress. There is never a time when you feel like the game is holding up your ability to play it.
I thought that this game was something that it is not. I might have said something stupid recently like “Dark Souls isn’t hard, it’s just one of the most videogame, videogames.” Which is to say, you play it. It might have been stupid, but I meant it.
So, if there is anyone else out there who is sick of hearing about how wonderful these games are, but are afraid of brutal time sinks, the majority of what you hear is not what this game is about. There might be deep mysterious lore, but that doesn’t matter. The setting and spectacle is stunning, but not core to the experience. The game might be difficult, but it doesn’t just throw any random luck based nonsense at you and the penalty for dying is mostly symbolic. You can play it for a long time, but you aren’t required to spend time playing it.
If there are any game design takeaways from Dark Souls, it should be how much it respects the player. It respects you to the point that it expects you to drive the experience. It expects you to play when you want and how you want. It is one of the most videogame, videogames.
When I started writing these best games bits, I said that I wouldn’t try to do any snarky takedowns of awful games. While being clever and humorous might be difficult, hating on things is easy and not interesting. Pretending to hate things to prove your ‘cred’ is one of the more terrible aspects of human nature, so I made a conscious effort to avoid doing that. That said, there is some value in defining the bounds of the scale. Sonic Shuffle is the worst game I have ever played.
When I write one of these, I usually track down the game I am writing about and give it a quick once over. I’ll play it again for a few minutes, refresh my memory with some research, and collect my own thoughts on the game while trying to avoid other reviews and perspectives. Not this time. I could go and fetch the disc from the plastic bin it calls home, and I could either hook up one of the two dreamcasts in there with it, or attempt to run it on an emulator. I could search youtube for a commentary free playthrough of Sonic Shuffle. I could search out a review from the time that the game came out. I just couldn’t muster the interest. I couldn’t bring myself to devote more time than it takes to write this post. Sonic Shuffle hasn’t earned that.
There are a lot of games that are terrible. Some are broken messes. Some control poorly. Some are just plain boring. I guarantee you this, no matter how boring you think a game is, it is a goddamn rollercoaster compared to Sonic Shuffle. Zork is a rock concert shooting fireworks over a monster truck rodeo compared to Sonic Shuffle. If there was a game development flow chart where every branching path had an option to take more time and do less with it, Sonic Shuffle followed every single one of those. I have had more fun creating an Excel spreadsheet than with this example of entertainment software. That’s not a joke. That’s literally true.
Sonic Shuffle purports to be a party game, so maybe I would have had more fun with it if I had played it with a group of friends. That won’t happen. I like my friends, and watching them slide off a couch into a pile of disinterested disgust doesn’t appeal to me.
You might notice that I haven’t really gone into the card based mechanics of the game or the variety of minigames. The overarching mechanic is Nim as a multiplayer game. If the game succeeds anywhere, it is proving that Nim doesn’t work with more than 2 players. Go look it up yourself if you are interested. I won’t. I’m already bored from typing that sentence.
There you go. Now you know where the bottom of the scale lies. If I play a game that I don’t really like, I can always think “is it worse than Sonic Shuffle”. I can honestly say that nothing in the 40 plus year history of videogames is.
Sonic Shuffle is the worst game. Probably ever.
My favorite superhero is Spider-Man. It may have been the late 60s cartoon series or the late 70s comic books, but either way, I was very young when I was first introduced to Spider-Man. Something about the character has always appealed to me. It took me a very long time put my finger on exactly what.
Spider-Man is one of the most famous superheroes. Right up there with Batman, but very different from the usual superhero archetype. Spider-Man is powerful, fast, idealistic, cocky, smart, witty, and pure of heart. All the things you want in your heroes. He is also contemplative, unsure of himself, clumsy, intimidated, awkward, shy, and frightened. When Peter Parker puts on the Spider-Man costume, he is attempting to hide not only his face, but all of the things he is feeling. In the hands of the best writers, Spider-Man becomes the analogue of the messy internal turmoil that storms in everyone. His human frailties, more often than not, creep into his superhero persona. Both Peter Parker and Spider-Man’s struggles are more internal than external. More so than Mysterio and Vulture, Spider-Man’s villains are self doubt, and fear of failure. I sum it up this way. Spider-Man represents everything that you are, and everything that you want to be.
We recently took a family trip to DisneyLand. My kids feel like they are getting a little too old to participate in the Jedi Academy show that they put on in the Tomorrowland area, but we had a little time the one day, so I headed over to watch. Either I never got too old, or I rounded the corner and no longer have any bearing on what I am too old for.
If you haven’t seen it, the setup is this. About 30 kids sign up to participate in each performance as Jedi Padawan. The previous show had the kids go through a quick training instruction delivered by the Jedi masters before they battled back Star Wars villains using their new lightsaber skills. Darth Vader would stomp around the stage and act menacing, the kids would fight him, win, and everyone had a good time.
The show now, is a bit different. 30 or so children are marched in wearing Jedi robes accompanied by swelling John Williams music and led by charismatic performers playing the Jedi masters. That much is the same. This time though, they have created a simple story to explain the proceedings. All of the remaining Jedi are on the run from nefarious forces and they have come across the refuge of an ancient Jedi temple. To enter the temple they will have to face the manifestation of their fears. Spectres of evil Star Wars characters will emerge and they will use the same lightsaber fencing moves as in previous versions of the show to defeat them.
If that was all that was changed, I wouldn’t have really had any response to the show. It would be a simple pantomime set in the Star Wars mythos for young kids to enjoy. They have added one very important twist to the production. There is now a running commentary between the level headed Jedi master and his adept but excitable apprentice. The master keeps telling the kids that they are facing off against their fears and that it is their bravery, not their lightsaber skills that will get them through this trial. The apprentice, of course, struggles with this. During the final minutes of the show, the apprentice, an adult who has led these 30 children through their drills of blocking, dodging, and striking, lets her fear get the better of her. Her fears are portrayed by a legitimately intimidating Kylo Ren. It comes as no surprise to all the adults present, that with the help of all the children she overcomes her fear and succeeds by not fighting at all. The conflict was, after all, an internal one.
This is standard moralistic fare. The type of stories we have all become accustomed to. It would be very easy to dismiss this simple play as children's entertainment, devoid of complexity and maturity.
Simple or not, when I watched as thirty small hands reached forward to force push away the legitimately frightening menace on the stage, it made me well up a little. What would have been simply a fun half hour activity at a theme park, may shape some kids world view, if even in a small way. The same small ways that myths and stories have shaped us since people have been telling them. Out of thirty kids, comprised roughly half girls and half boys, I hope that at least one in that group found their Spider-Man.