Sunday, 4 December 2011

A brief rant on games journalism

Let me take a moment to babble some more; the topic is game journalism (it would seem). GO!
     A few things have always bothered me about game reviews, most of which boil down to the fact that they’re notoriously objective. I’m fairly mathematical in the way I think- I assign accurate percentages to about 78% of my thoughts (oh god, I didn’t even do that on purpose), so I do fully approve of objective rating systems. A review’s purpose is, after all, to deliver information to the reader in order to allow the reader to decide whether to buy Game A or Game B, and if Game B scored 1/10th or 14% or whatever higher than Game A, that decision is made that bit easier. No, what I mean when I refer to objectivity, is all the outright redundant information reviewers feel they need to deliver. “MGS4 has a much wider range of weapons than it’s predecessors”. “Resi 4 has slightly sharper graphics on the Gamecube than the PS2 version”. And my personal favourite, said about many, many great games: “It loses points due to simply not being long enough”. Journalists: logic suggests that if you are marking a game down due it lacking in longevity, this means that you are disappointed because you wanted more of it, right? And if you wanted more of this game, that means you enjoyed it, right? Or am I missing something? Because lack of longevity is the worst reason I can think of to knock off points, and yet it’s one of the most frequent complaints that seems to completely destroy the reputation of some genuinely brilliant games.
     …Anyway, where was I. Ah yes. I was whining about people whining.
     Writers can complain about or sing praise for all these things a game can be lacking in or overcompensating with, but really: does it matter? How much does it affect the gameplay, and how much is it going to change your experience of the game? Graphics are important- they can turn an amazing game into a truly beautiful game. But can dated graphics actually ruin a decent game? And does it REALLY matter whether it’s in HD? (Actually, I suppose it does in some cases, where you’re expected to have either a HD TV or a microscope just to read the migraine-inducing bloody text…)
     Take Oblivion, of the Elder Scrolls series, for example. I played it a little once and yes, it’s a well-made game. It has a huge world with endless possibilities and some mighty fine graphics and animation (not so much on the people, but I could put up with that. I’ve seen worse). But I just…didn’t enjoy it. I’m not saying it’s a bad game, and it’s not not my thing, I should love it. But I couldn’t get into it. Contrast with the very little-known game Shadow of Memories, a game about a man who keeps getting murdered, and has to travel back in time to save his own life. Now there is some dodgy character modelling and awful animation, complete with truly cringeworthy voice acting. It’s just a horribly made game. But you know what? However poorly executed, it has a great story, and every chapter leads you from “what the hell am I supposed to do here…?” to the next part of the main story, and back to “aaaaah, I seeeee!” with elegance. It’s an amazing game that I finished with every ending, even the extra “New Game +” endings and the “Super-Awful-You-Just-Failed-At-This-Game-You-Complete-Berk” ending.
     What I’m trying to say is, yes, magazines can give us the solid information so we, The General Gaming Public, can decide our own opinion on a game, but that really doesn’t tell us anything about the game itself. What’s it like to step into the overworld for the first time? Will The Big Plot Twist make us go “WHOA.” or “I totally saw that coming” (without spoiling The Big Plot Twist, preferably)?

Saturday, 3 December 2011

How it all began...

…And now I suppose all that’s left is my own history of how I got into games. Yeah, it’s one of those ‘origins’ episodes, I suppose.
     The first time I played a video game was when I was 4- this was 1996, smack bang in the peak of the 90’s, back when TV was (j)awesome and we all wore jelly shoes (which got lost in the sea. You didn’t even need to be near the sea, they would get lost in the sea. One day science will grant us the technology to brave tonnes of water pressure in order to find out more about our ocean, and what will we find? Jelly shoes. Gugles of them.). My neighbours handed down Ye Olde Commodore 64 along with a bigass crate of games, about 5 of which worked (and even those were dodgy, I remember the crash screen well…). And so the first game I played was Space Invaders, probably starting my trend of playing games years after they were popular (I started playing Disgaea recently), closely followed by Paper Boy, Battleships and some Scooby Doo game (TV spin-off games sucked then, too, I recall). And that was my only gaming experience for a few years, until IT came along.
     I think me and my friends talked about nothing but Pokemon for at least 2 years. Most people didn’t even play it, just watched the godawfully awesome anime (but we who did play the games were the total bosses). Ironically, as I type this out in Microsoft Word and see that little red line under the word ‘Pokemon’, I think pretty much the exact same thing I thought when I saw that red line 12 years ago; “Why the fork is Pokemon STILL not in the bloody dictionary!?” So this was 1999, when the Pokemans were just getting popular over here; the late 90’s, the age of Nickelodeon, Sunny D (with all the E numbers), SMTV Live and the word ‘wicked’. It was around this time that I spent a lot of time at my friend’s house playing copious amounts of Crash Bandicoot. So copious that my parents offered to get me a home console of my own; it was a choice between a PS1 (“the one that Beth has”) or a Nintendo 64 (“the one with Pokemon”). My answer was something like “POKEMOOOOOOONNNNNNN”.
     And oy vey, did I make the right choice. Pokemon games aside, nothing on the PS1 could ever even HOPE to match up to some of possibly The Best Games Of All Time. The Banjo-Kazooie games, for example. Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie were just MADE of pure British humour, and the fact that most of it went right over your head when you were 7 or 8 only makes it more genius when you play it years later. Only Rare would think of the name “W. Anchor”. And then there’s the menu (“Seaman's surprise"...?) in the bar owned by the Token Obviously Gay Character and his transvestite barmaid. Oh, and this was back when games were hard, too; not false difficulty, but honestly, genuinely difficult.
     And then there was Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. I don’t care if Ocarina of Time came with gold bars and chocolate, Majora’s Mask is the best Zelda, hands down. There is really nothing like those last few minutes of the three-day cycle, when the saddest, most epic music begins to play, and the clock in the bottom of the screen turns to a countdown. Majora’s Mask was so different to the rest of the Zelda series, and so much darker.
     Anyway, the mid-naughties were when I discovered other JRPGs than Pokemon, with Final Fantasy X (the last decent Final Fantasy game to be made), later followed by the Shin Megami Tensei series (the best of which being Digital Devil Saga, which has some really amazing character design and the most epic of soundtracks) and Phantom Brave (and eventually it’s predecessors, Disgaea and La Pucelle. See what I mean about playing games years after they’re popular?). And so that makes up the bulk of my gaming taste; RPGs and old-school platformers (…and the odd point-and-click).

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Gaming History: The Next Generation (see what I did there)

The 2000’s saw the reign of Nintendo , Sony and Sega’s next instalments in the console wars; the Nintendo Gamecube (released in 2001), the Playstation 2 (2000), and the Sega Dreamcast (actually released in 1998, but close enough). This was also the debut of Microsoft in the gaming scene, with the Xbox (2001).
     By this point, the gaming industry had changed radically from what it was 10 years ago; the average game was once programmed by one person, and cost about $100,000 to develop. These days, games are made by a team of over a hundred at least, and cost millions to develop. This means that there is a lot more pressure to create games that are guaranteed to make money to cover the costs. Arguably, this has led to a decrease in the standard of quality in modern games. Companies churn out sequel after sequel, each more mainstream and less innovative than the last, and if it’s not sequels, it’s ‘My Fashion Pony Adventure 3: Housewife Edition’, in an attempt to expand “gaming” to “a wider audience” (if I could paint sarcastic rainbows and stars around those words, I would). Real classics are becoming rare- even the Final Fantasy series has descended from its pedestal to simply recreating the same settings over and over, with less and less original/likeable characters (notice how in 12 and 13, Square seems to have decided that everyone has to be ‘doable’). In other words, developers seem to think that there’s little room for creativity anymore; it’s just too risky. An excellent example of a victim of this would be Psychonauts for PS2; Tim Schaffer’s idea for Psychonauts was rejected by Lucas Arts in favour of making more (and more and more and more) Star Wars games. Granted that unfortunately, when he took his ideas to Double Fine Productions instead, the game didn’t sell well on release, but became the very definition of ‘cult classic’. However, had it been published by Lucas Arts, known for the Monkey Island series, perhaps it would have gotten a little more recognition from the start as one of the best games of all time.
     …Anyway, I seem to have veered off on a tangent. Trigonometry aside, the next generation (the current generation) arose, beginning with the handhelds. Nintendo began it’s Era of Alternative Gaming with the Nintendo DS in 2004, featuring the innovative touch screen technology. It wasn’t long after this that Sony finally made its debut on the handheld scene with the PSP in 2005 (2004 in Japan). Following this came the current generation of home consoles, with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 (released in 2005), Sony’s Playstation 3 (2006), and Nintendo’s Wii (2006). This is the point where Nintendo casually slid into publishing mostly casual games and party games; less Mario, less Zelda, less Starfox (what I would give for a Starfox game on the Wii…), more Wii Sports, Wii Fit, Wii Dancey-Dancey Excersize Party Games For Housewives. Let us take a moment to shake our heads at Nintendo (at no point did I state that this blog would be impartial, welcome to the Bias Zone).

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Some more history: gather round, children...

Some more history! Make yourself comfortable.
     The 80’s saw the birth of some truly unmemorable home consoles. So many that they actually crashed the entire gaming market with samey home consoles with the same few games. Nintendo and Sega stood as the last remaining competitors after every other company backed off from the gaming market, causing a power shift in the gaming industry from America to Japan. More on those two later, anyway.
     One of the few consoles from this era of any real note was the Commodore 64, released in 1982; the cartridges were cassette tapes, and instead of any kind of handheld controller, the games were controlled using a Qwerty PC keyboard. ’83 saw the birth of the Famicom, known to the rest of the world as the NES; the Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES ‘deluxe set’ came bundled with R.O.B., the Robotic Operating Buddy; literally, a robot, which was compatible with only 2 games. Nintendo has also released the handheld Game & Watch series by this point, in ’81; each G&W consisted of one game (with two modes; Game B was either a harder version of Game A, or the same game with a gimmick), many of which have practically become templates for minigames-within-games used even today (if you find yourself moving left and right to catch things falling from the sky, it’s a descendant of Parachute. If you’re moving left and right to dodge things, it’s Helmet. The list goes on). Sega also made their debut with the Sega Master System in ’85, rising to rival Nintendo (who won that war in 2001, when Sega became a third-party software publisher) in the ‘console wars’.
     The 80’s also introduced some titles that pretty much shaped gaming as it is today. There were many text-based adventure games, such as the classic series, Zork (can’t be bothered to download? Here is an accurate representation). Text Adventures are literally entirely made up of text; time is frozen while the player does nothing, and with no actual visuals, the situation is simply described to the player (“You stand facing a house. The door is locked, and there is a postbox. To the East is a forest”). Actions are performed by inputting the command; the basic commands were usually “Look”, “Examine”, “Take”, “Drop”, and the likes. The player moves by inputting “East”, “North”, “West”, “South”, “Up”, or “Down”; advancing through the game relies on solving puzzles using whatever items were at hand. Should the player encounter a monster of any kind, it would either be an indestructible obstacle meant only to be avoided (such as ‘Grue’s), or result in a battle. Any fights would rely on either more puzzle-solving (such as the ogre in Zork, defeated by shouting ‘Ulysses’, which frightens it off), or whether you picked up a certain item earlier (if you picked up an axe instead of a sword and end up fighting a fast enemy, you’ll be too slow to hit it, and die. If you picked up the sword and end up fighting a heavily armoured enemy, you won’t be strong enough to cause any damage, and you’ll die, guide dang it.)
     Then there was 3D Monster Maze, released in ’81 for the Sinclair ZX81 (not a gaming console, but a home computer). 3D Monster Maze was not only essentially the first true survival horror but had the first 3D engine. The actual graphics were 2D (the opening sequence featured a man not even made up of pixels, but of ASCII characters), but the game took place in a maze navigated in first person with complete 3D movement. The game itself was simple; there is one exit from the maze, and one T-Rex loitering around. The game would alert the player to the T-Rex’s current position in relation to the player’s with a line of text along the bottom of the screen. When the player drew closer to ‘Rex, the text would change from “REX LIES IN WAIT” (the default status, and the closest thing to being safe) to “HE IS HUNTING FOR YOU”. When Rex is directly adjacent to the player, the message “RUN HE IS BEHIND YOU” or “RUN HE IS BESIDE YOU” appears (unless he’s directly in front of you, in which case you’ve probably already flailed desperately in panic for a moment before running like HELL).
     The first 3D, fully-textured graphics appeared in the PC game Ultima Underworld, in 1992. But 3D graphics didn’t really kick off until ’93, with the release of Starfox (Starwing outside of Japan) for the SNES. Of course, this started the huge transition to 3D; famous series’ such as Nintendo’s Super Mario and Legend of Zelda series made the transition on the Nintendo 64 flawlessly with Super Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time respectively, along with Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy series with the 7th instalment (the game that brought Final Fantasy into the mainstream) on the Playstation.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A Brief History of Video Games...PART ONE. No, PART...THE FIRST.

     Ok, let me start with a brief history of video games. Wayyyy before Pong, the first commercially available video game, was ‘Tennis for Two’; created by William Higginbotham in 1958, ‘Tennis for Two’ was made from an analogue computer linked up to an oscilloscope (pretty much the closest thing to a proper screen at the time). It had two controllers (it’s a good £20 for a poxy third-party controller these days. These bad boys were wireless, too) which had one button to hit the ball and a dial to alter the angle and trajectory in which they hit the ball. In addition, the view of the ‘tennis court’ was from a horizontal viewpoint, rather than the birds-eye view we get from the players side of the pitch in modern tennis games. The ball even had bounce physics, programmed to change direction appropriately when it hit the floor or the net. Think about it; the first physics engine was invented 16 years before video games became acknowledged at all.
     A little later in ’61, Spacewar! was invented by Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Witaenem, students of the MIT. They had received a DEC PDP-1 computer, and conceived the idea while playing around to see what the console could, and found that it had some amazing graphical capabilities. In Steve Russell’s own words, “We decided that probably you could make a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships."
     The actual concept, however, of games played on a television was thought up by Ralph Baer in ’51. His idea was rejected at the time by the TV company he worked for, and it wasn’t until years later in 1966 that he developed “The Brown Box”; battery-powered and incapable of sound, the Brown Box was the first ever home games console, and the prototype for the Magnavox Odyssey. The Odyssey had 28 games and supported up to two light-guns which registered the light from the TV screen. And any other light; pointing the gun at a lightbulb or another nearby light source had the effect.

Saturday, 15 October 2011


     Ah, it’s the start of a year, and the start of a blog. Insert epic /ominous music here. I’m thinking Ride of the Valkyries.
     I’m Sophia Gibson and I’m studying Game Art at DeMontfort University right now,  because I’ve grown up wanting nothing but to make video games. I don’t remember wanting to do anything else; I’ve wanted to be a game artist since I was 9, and before that I wanted to be a game designer. A game is, to me, the absolute purest and most complete art form (incoming rant). You can create a fictional environment or a character with a pencil on paper, and you can compose the most epic piece of music, and you can write the most heart-rending story, but to actually walk through that world with all the emotion and experience of someone else is just something else entirely. And if it’s all for the sake of making money and not in the least bit for the sake of art? That’s fine. People will pick up a controller and experience it all the same.
     In short: Games are great.
     Over-the-top rant over! I grew up in Biggleswade, in Bedfordshire (or “The Shire”. Everywhere has Hobbit names. Biggleswade, Sandy, Broom, etc). Or as many know it, “A Bit Near London”. My absolute dream is to be a Character Designer, as my strong points have always been life drawing and portraits, and I enjoy working with a team…But I’d be happy with pretty much any position in game art, and to get there I want to develop my skills in other areas (such as landscapes and architecture).
     What else. I also like reading webcomics (LOTS OF THEM) and watching anime (especially ONE PIECE ONE PIECE ONE PIECE). And I love music. LOTS OF MUSIC.