bone-out-from-boneville-big.jpg The comic series created by Jeff Smith started off as a quirky lighthearted adventure story and ventured into more complex territory, creating a comic hybrid of Tolkien and Lucas, including a creation myth, an evil archvillain and the restoration of balance to a force, here called the dreaming. While the background plotline may be derivative, the storytelling and character design wasn’t, and Bone was a delight to read. Now Telltale Games, consisting of game designers who left Lucasarts after the announced Sam and Max sequel was canned after a decade of development, has started to make the comic epic into a series of adventure games with a SCUMM like interface. Smith’s design and dialogue are completely preserved, so much so that one might object that the result is an animated comic strip rather than a true game. This is less true of the second installment (The Great Cow Race) however, and isn’t a big criticism anyway. Unfortunately, the third installment will be a while in the making, with a brand new Sam and Max game (yes) scheduled for release later this fall.

lotr - bme ii.jpg I readily confess that I am a sucker for real time simulation. I loved playing Warcraft and Starcraft, and I enjoyed this game, too, though it seemed to me that the gameplay in the campaigns is slightly unbalanced, with little freedom for strategy. In one mission in the evil campaign in particular, any straying from a predescribed path of action would lead to disaster, which is not very enjoyable. But since the main action presumably is supposed to lie in online gaming, I guess that’s quite all right.

An odd observation I made in myself though, while playing, was that I disapproved heartily of the freedoms the designers took with Tolkien’s story. I’m not sure directing Sauron’s forces to their final doom at the hand of a halfling would have been better, but having ransacked Rivendell I felt the same feeling of futility that counterfactual history often evokes in me: that’s not how it happened, yet it pretends to be more than fiction. Of course when the counterfactuality lies in changing some other fiction, that might seem like a completely hairbrained objection to make. And smashing Rivendell certainly beats smoking out an orc pit or slaying Shelob.

pcg_world_of_warcraft_elf.jpg I like the idea of multiplayer games, but this incarnation of it, with a rigid world full of unchanging story elements and a large number of people running around in it, doesn’t quite fulfill the promise. I’d like to see more interaction possibilities beyond the mere killing of monsters in a group, and some plasticity in the world makeup. As it is, the game is just a combination of chat and RPG. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing interesting about it, either.

The only reason this excellently designed and written killer game doesn’t get a top rating from me, is all the killing. I’m all in favor of frying Doom’s demons, hunting evil unreal aliens or shooting down robots in the Descent series, to name just a few of the blow’em’ups I’ve played over the years, but the stark realism of the environment do make a difference, I think. When you can just jog down a street, whip out the gun and shoot a few people in purple tees, just because they wear purple tees (and would soon start shooting at you, anyway, since you’re dressed in green), or jacking weapons from a National Guard depot is accomplished by shooting the protecting soldiers, it all feels a bit too much like real life for complete comfort. That said, the gameplay is terrific and the scenery breathtaking – and I’ve only seen the quarter or so of the game world that is modeled on Los Angeles so far. The only annoyance concerns saving games, which can only be done at the players home base, and only between missions. With some of the missions having tricky parts that you only get to after sometimes minutes of driving, having to repeatedly do all of one of them just to figure out the tricky bit can be a bit of a drag.

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006

Myst IV: Revelation (2)

The Myst game series has an odd quality about it. Some of the puzzles are frustratingly complex, and hardly make any sense within the stories, which in addition tend to abound with psychological cliches. But of course the strength of Myst lies in the design of the worlds, called Ages, in which it is set, and Revelation is no exception to these rules. The cliched story is accompanied here by some pretty horrific acting efforts, and the difficulty of at least one of the puzzles verges on the ridiculous, with another one being bad enough for a character within the game to suggest that if you get too frustrated, you should go away and try again later. But, oh, the Ages. Tomahna is a cluster of buildings in a sheltered cove that I wouldn’t hesitate to move into in an instant, Spire a marvellously desolate and forbidding hovering crystal tower, Haven a lush jungle full of strange creatures, and Serenia a cool looking mix of several stone masonry cultures. Just walking around in these environments would be a pleasure, and the occasional riddle adds to that a nice sense of involvement.

Monday, February 27th, 2006

XGen Studios – Stick Arena (2)

I’ve spent so much time on this thing in recent weeks, I should at least pretend that there is something meaningful that can be said about this timekiller. The concept is ingeniously simple: have a multiplayer shoot’em’up with low level technology, Flash in this case, so you can just play it in your browser. As usually, less fancy technology means purer gameplay. In the fights in Stick Arena, there is a lot of strategic movement, feinting, anticipation of opponents’ moves, and trying to be fresh and surprising on one’s own, and it all moves so fast, that it makes for quite pleasurable fights. Maybe it can even teach you a thing or two about fighting, but I fear I’m stretching my credibility a bit. And besides, I need to go back now, and sledge a few stick men.

Tuesday, December 20th, 2005

Abe’s Exoddus (1)

I just revisited the second installment in the Oddworld series of games, and the last I played – the third and fourth, sadly, are only available for the Xbox. If you like platform games at all, this quirky mix of ironic oddness, fascinating story and character design, tough puzzles and fast paced jump and run episodes will entertain your for many, many hours. And even if you don’t, you’ll have to appreciate some of the lovely, innocative ideas in game design.

Also pretty cool is the list of influences the game designers list on their website.

Monday, December 19th, 2005

Munching pills in darkened rooms

Cognitive Daily ? Video games: Are the myths true?

It’s a contentious issue – do computer games add to behavioral problems or are they a mere symptom. Every time I hear someone claim that violence is caused by games, I just want to whip out the rocket launcher and splash their brains on the pixelated wall; luckily I always remember the number one lesson playing the Doom series games taught me: don’t use a rocket launcher in a tight space. So I have to resort to reasoned arguments, like those presented by Dave Munger over at Cognitive Daily (link above). Doesn’t that prove somethingor other?

Worth mentioning in that context is the fabulous quote/joke “Computer games don’t affect kids; I mean if Pac-Man affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in darkened rooms, munching magic pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.” That quote is usually misattributed by non-factchecking geeks to some Nintendo CEO named Kristian Wilson. In fact, it’s been written by comedian Marcus Briggs, who is rightly proud of it.

Friday, December 16th, 2005

Amanita Design – Samorost (1)

This game is just brilliant in design, storyboard and execution. Very otherworldly level designs and a brilliantly surreal game logic, paired with cuteness – its only fault is that it is too short.

Samorost | Samorost 2

Wednesday, April 27th, 2005

Vremd und Fertraut

home on the grid

Die Anlage amerikanischer Städte lädt ein zu diesem Experiment. Die meisten Strassen folgen einem Gittermuster, zwei treffen sich an den Kreuzungen. Die Stadt und Strecken in ihr zerfallen in identische Blocks.

Oben zu sehen ist der Durchschnitt aus 50 Strassenabschnitten, je gesehen von der Kreuzung aus. Man erkennt Leitungen, Strassenmarkierungen und geparkte Autos als geisterhafte Schatten, die Vegetation verschmilzt im grünen Nebel, die Häuser zu einer dunklen Wand. Zeigt dieser Durchschnitt Essenz oder Verfremdung? Und wie weit ist jene von dieser entfernt? Einen Block?

(Der Titel dieses Posts ist der Titel eines bei Elefanten-Press erschienen Buches)