Archive for November, 2011

Shadow of the Colossus: The Price You Pay

Posted in Game Analysis with tags , , on November 30, 2011 by pixeltheater

2005’s Shadow of the Colossus for the PS2 is, if you’ll remember, one of the games being honored by the Smithsonian as a work of art, and with good reason.

Yes, its minimalist design may make for an odd elevator pitch; for one thing, the game consists of 16 boss fights. That’s it. No dungeons. No lesser enemies. No items to collect or equipment to… um, equip. Just you, a horse, and 16 colossi to slay.

"I'm gonna need a bigger horse."

On paper, that might seem like a flimsy excuse for a game, especially in a gaming world filled with content-rich titles like the recent Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. However, anyone who’s played Shadow of the Colossus knows that it’s an amazing experience and proof that quality trumps quantity.

The graphics are gorgeous (granted, it came out in 2005, but I think even today they still hold up) and the plot, like in Braid, provides another example of how in modern games, protagonists are becoming more nuanced and morally complex. It’s getting increasingly difficuly to tell who’s “good” and who’s “evil.”

Although sometimes it's still pretty clear.

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Braid: “Saving” the Princess

Posted in Game Analysis with tags , , on November 26, 2011 by pixeltheater

It used to be that when you were playing a game, you could be fairly certain that your avatar’s quest was a noble one. You were the “good guy” out to vanguish the “bad guys,” which of course you did and then everyone high-fived and watched the credits roll.

In the modern era of gaming, however, developers are increasingly moving away from such simplistic plots. Protagonists can be flawed or misguided (and if you’re playing a choice-driven game like Fable or Mass Effect, they can be baby seal-clubbingly evil, too). Narratives are becoming more complex, so naturally protagonists are following suit.

Braid is an independent downloadable game first released on XBox Live Arcade in 2008. In many ways, it’s an homage to the 2D platformers of the 8- and 16-bit eras, in particular the first Super Mario Brothers for the NES, the game that created the platformer as we know it.

Oh, I see what you did there.

But once you reach Braid’s final level, you realize it’s also a modern deconstruction of video game tropes.

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Chrono Trigger: Saving Lara

Posted in Game Analysis with tags on November 17, 2011 by pixeltheater

Putting the “pixel” back in “Pixel Theater,” today I’ll look at the Super Nintendo RPG Chrono Trigger, released in 1995. I played this game as a kid back then, and it holds a special place in my heart. Of course, I’m not the only one. With its memorable plot, fantastic musical score, solid gameplay, and impressive (for the time) graphics, Chrono Trigger’s popularity remains even two decades later.

Setting the Stage:

Chrono Trigger, as you could probably guess, revolves around time travel. Usually that’s a recipe for a confusing, muddled narrative, but in this case it works. The game centers around Crono (I still don’t know whether this misspelling was intentional or simply a result of the game only allowing five characters for names).

Along with his companions, including childhood friends Marle and Lucca as well as an anthropomorphic frog (actually a knight under a curse), a robot, and a cavewoman, Crono adventures through time and space to prevent a giant parasitic creature named Lavos from destroying the planet.

Why the destroyer of worlds looks like some sort of crustacean, I don’t know.

The extensive plot is remarkably written and contains countless dramatic moments, including when Crono and friends first travel to the future. There they find a dystopian ruin where what little population remains is dying off and food (as well as hope) is scarce. This, they discover, is what will happen if they don’t put a stop to Lavos in earlier eras.

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Bioshock: “Would You Kindly?”

Posted in Game Analysis with tags on November 16, 2011 by pixeltheater

Since I briefly mentioned it in my last post, I figure I might as well look at the 2007 game Bioshock and its most memorable moment. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

Setting the Stage:

Bioshock takes place in 1960. The protagonist, Jack, is on a plane that goes down in the Atlantic, but survives and discovers an underwater city called Rapture. Built by wealthy industrialist Andrew Ryan in 1946, Rapture was meant to be a self-contained society based on the ideals of Objectivism, a philosophy created by Ayn Rand, an author best known for Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

No, I won’t try to summarize Objectivism here, since it would take too long and I’d probably screw it up anyways. Suffice to say, Rapture is populated by the self-described “elite” who wish to escape the restraints that they believe society places upon them.

As you might expect, it didn’t exactly work out.

Building these probably wasn't such a great idea, either.

By the time you get there, Rapture is a blood-stained art deco ruin populated mostly by monsters created when science is left unchecked by morality.

Oh, and this. Man, the TSA is out of control.

As Jack, you are constantly in touch via radio with a man named Atlas (in case the Ayn Rand connection was too subtle otherwise), who tells you that you must find and eliminate Ryan.

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Games without gaming?

Posted in General on November 10, 2011 by pixeltheater

In regards to the Smithsonian video game exhibit I referenced in my first post, reading about it makes me wonder if there isn’t a fatal flaw in the idea of presenting games in such a way. As the curators themselves explain:

Video games use images, actions, and player participation to tell stories and engage their audiences. In the same way as film, animation, and performance, they can be considered a compelling and influential form of narrative art. New technologies have allowed designers to create increasingly interactive and sophisticated game environments while staying grounded in traditional game types.

Clearly, they understand that the interactivity is a crucial component to what makes games a unique artistic medium. However, in an interview in the July 2011 issue of OXM, they noted that they couldn’t logistically have visitors playing through all of the featured games. (Unfortunately, I can’t find a link online to that article – curse you, print media!)

So they settled on this:

The exhibition will feature eighty games through still images and video footage. Five games will be available for visitors to play for a few minutes, to gain some feel for the interactivity—Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. In addition, the galleries will include video interviews with developers and artists, large prints of in-game screen shots, and historic game consoles.

Which begs the question: is that experience analogous to actually playing the game? Do game clips and images still hold the same meaning out of context? If you haven’t played through a game’s (often lengthy) quest, would viewing a late-game scene still hold the same resonance? I hope so, for the sake of this blog if nothing else.

Paintings in a museum are displayed as the artist painted them, and music, novels, plays, etc. are all experienced as written (generally speaking). So while the audiences’ interpretations may differ, the medium itself is not distorted in the act of presenting it, unlike with video games.

It’s an intriguing dilemma, and I admit that while the Smithsonian’s solution may not be perfect, it’s the best we’ve got. A brief snippet of a fifty-hour RPG may not encapsulate the entire piece, and maybe the “Would you kindly?” reveal in Bioshock isn’t the same if you haven’t ventured through the ruins of Rapture. But for non-gamers to be able to view the arts of games, I guess it’s all we can do, and it’s certainly better than nothing.

Press Start

Posted in General on November 10, 2011 by pixeltheater

I’ll be honest: “Pixel Theater” was not my first choice for a blog name, but it was the only one I could think of that wasn’t already taken. (It turns out I’m not the first gaming nerd to start a blog – who knew?) That said, I think it fits what I plan to do here: to present and discuss games as narratives.

Too often, I feel like games are dismissed as kids’ toys, or pointless time-wasters with no artistic value (Angry Birds, I’m looking in your direction). My intent is not to convert non-gamers into gamers or anything like that, but merely to show that games can have a lot more going on than just shootin’ stuff.

Although there’s that, too.

Like all forms of entertainment, video games can be a lot of things. Sure, they can be mindless fun, but they can also be thought-provoking. Melding audio and visual components with interactive technology creates a medium that engages the audience in ways that others can’t. At the same time, they can deliver carefully-crafted stories on par with any film, TV show, novel, etc.

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