Friday, August 28, 2009

Shrink wrapped

I suck at games: Shrink wrapped photo

As I write this, I'm running on roughly four hours of sleep. Not because I was partying last night, and certainly not because I was gaming.

I was awakened at 4AM by my three-year-old daughter who was having difficulty breathing and could only describe it as "my mouth hurts" followed by gagging and wheezing. She's OK. It was a croupe, common in kids her age and exacerbated by the wildfire smoke that's been filling Santa Cruz for the past week. A few minutes in the cool night air cleared it up. Several days before, my five-year-old son had the same problem around 5 am.

These early awakenings aren't an uncommon occurrence though they're of course usually less scary. Just a kid wanting his/her cereal, or wanting to go potty, or complaining that his/her sheets are sandy. You name it. And in case you're wondering, no, you can't "order" a kid to go back to sleep, and try as they may, they cannot snuggle themselves back to sleep in your bed. At least mine can't, and that's alright. Warm fuzzy morning for the kids; kinda groggy morning for the adults. We can handle it; we have the coffee.

Where was I going with this? Sleep deprivation, yes. Often a sign that your time has become a precious commodity, and that you've been spending more of it than you can afford. This in itself is sometimes a sign of regret, of staying awake in some vain hope of regaining the time you took for granted as a 20-something. Trust me, it doesn't work.

I'm 36, a married father of two, and owner of entirely too many shrink wrapped videogames. They've remained unopened because, whether I admit it to myself or not, I barely have the time to actually play them. I've come to discover that, as I grow older, my game purchases (and book purchases for that matter) signify something more than my intent to play them.

When I'm buying a game, I seem to be buying the idea that I'll somehow have the time to play it. Games are the idealization of free time for me, a symbol that somehow, between the hours of 8 and 11 PM, I will escape the tyranny of the clock (and the onset of sleep). Or sometimes I'll think of it as an investment in future free time, when X game will no longer be available but I'll eventually have the bandwidth to enjoy it.

I've made my peace with this realization and have tempered my purchases somewhat, but I wish I could have seen it coming much earlier because I have left quite a few old games unopened in my earlier gaming years assuming I'd have the time to complete them after playing whatever hot game of the month had shoved it out of the spotlight. And these have accumulated, not into some sort of prized trophy collection as it would to some, but as an embarrassing sign that I made a fundamental mistake as a gamer: I took my damn hobby for granted.

So these pristine pieces of plastic sit there on the shelf, leering at me, and I've often walked up to a copy of say, Persona: Revelations, and thought about cracking it open and basking in the luxury of a JRPG time-sink. Then I look at the clock, put it back, and fire up some XBLA.

Recently, I've decided, both for the sake of my credibility as a gamer, and for the sake of my wallet, that I need to stop doing this.

So I've started a new habit of opening some of these shrink wrapped time capsules with my kids (maybe not the Shin Megami Tensei stuff, but you get the idea), and to them, at this age, the event is almost like opening a Christmas present.

As for me, sitting there with my kids, reading lines of slowly scrolling dialog aloud and listening to my son giving me advice on what spell to cast, I start to feel some of that coveted time coming back to me in an unexpectedly different form, a better form, and one that I certainly won't take for granted, ever.

Friday, August 21, 2009

This was a triumph: a freakin old review of Portal

To alleviate the somber tone of my latest gaming obsession, Fallout 3, I had recently decided to try out Portal. This decision was based largely on the ending song that I'd stumbled across when I googled some of the more bizarre lyrics someone had quoted from the tune. The cheerful morbidity of the AI seemed to hold the humor I was missing in Bethesda's post-nuclear opus.

Admittedly, I'm also a sucker for spatial puzzles.

Upon completing the game, my only regret is that I hadn't played this sooner and that I didn't pick up the rest of the Orange Box package. Any universe that can spawn a spinoff as clever and affecting as this one most certainly deserves a playthrough regardless of my aversion for most FPS games.

The synergy of Portal's presentation, narrative context, and central mechanic is rare enough in itself, but I've never experienced a game that complements such a level of design with a commensurately intelligent and layered level of humor. Much of this is effected through an AI named GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) who functions as the player's coach, tester, and warden, delivering a sadism that is as strikingly humorous as it is disturbing in its unassuming, antiseptic quality, spoken in warmly musical vocoder tones.

"Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an "unsatisfactory" mark on your official testing record, followed by death. Good luck!"

GLaDOS is absolutely inhumane, yet equally sincere.

This mirrors the functional detachment the player is made to feel in relation to their own character. The "protagonist" is a rather blank slate whose sole purpose is to wield the portal device and follow your input as you navigate her through each testing room. Our only actual glimpses of her occur in moments when the portals happen to create a recursive field of view that includes her body.

With one ambiguous exception (that I won't describe in detail, lest I spoil it; for those in the know, this does more to personalize GLaDOS than the object in question), one could go so far as to state that there is little to no emotional attachment to any figure or object in the game.

This oddly functions to enhance the player's immersion, directing it as a lightly narrative but mostly cerebral & playful exercise in physics and the pursuit of the next Aha-Erlebnis moment.

And these moments, to my honest surprise, were not nearly as serendipitous as I'd felt them to be. Upon completing the game, I returned to most of the exam rooms and listened to the commentary nodes out of idle curiosity, and I was stunned by the carefully orchestrated and play-tested nature of many of my "discoveries".

Architecturing the lure of these "aha" moments to be the primary driver of the game, and doing so successfully (I never once felt stuck), really shows expert restraint, in my opinion, by keeping the focus on the gameplay and shunning the "cinematic" tropes that many games would fall into in an effort to further immerse the player and drag them along the correct course.

Portal exemplifes the qualitative difference in game design between polishing and belabouring the narrative context. The studio could have easily piled on more visual clutter, more writing, more voicoever work, and possibly a coda at the end, but they obviously understood that this would have diminished the game.

Scattershot "epics" such as those devised by Hideo Kojima almost seem needlessly baroque in contrast to the lean devices here.

Granted the comparison is rather unfair due to the drastically different genres and intended effects, but Portal's style does make a strong argument for finding smarter, more efficient, and dare I say, mature ways to engage the player that don't necessarily use reams of dialogue, contrived plot twists, or hamfisted characterizations. Incidentally, I also believe that it's time for videogames to finally divorce themselves from the cinematic imperative and begin to stand on the strength of their own unique, and uniquely powerful, devices. But that rant's been done before.

In another clever, though somewhat foreseeable twist to the game, the player's progress is accompanied by an increasing sense of distrust in their own trajectory. As the requirements ramp up, so does the player's ability to perceive the possibilities of deviation afforded by the portal gun, and the increasing probability that these will be put to the test.

I'll leave the rest for the reader to experience. The final path one takes, and the obviously inevitable confrontation are too entertaining to spoil here. I can only describe it as something between HAL's demise in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the verbal abuse one might sustain if one managed to really... really piss off Laurie Anderson.

I can only hope that Valve, or at least their Source engine, will bring similarly clever games in the future. In the meantime, I have some catching up to do with the Half-Life universe.