Tuesday, September 30, 2008

October Forecast

October is almost upon us all. In preparation of what will undoubtedly be an incredible month for gaming and gaming purchases (Guitar Hero 4 and LittleBig Planet with Vision Cam are to blame) I have decided to give everyone a glimpse into what I've been mulling over in the way of Critical-Gaming content.

I can't take a break now. 
The last time I did this was before I took my vacation earlier in the summer. I feel that posting the list gave some readers something to look forward to, which in turn kept me focused and on track. I did a lot of writing after then, but I unfortunately was unable to get to these topics.
  • Sonic 1,2,3, Rush, Rush Adventure review, repair, and re-imagining of Sonic next-gen gameplay .
  • Uncovering the design and depth in Pikmin's origami folded level design.
  • DS design series. Taking a look at the DS games that pull of various DS specific design elements most successfully.
If I write an article every day, I would still trail behind my ideas. Certainly this is not a complaint. I'm just letting you know what's going on on my side of the computer screen. So here's the update to the list.

  • Ikaruga and Everyday Shooter structural similarities: How linear levels on timers free the player and open up design possibilities. Pikmin as well.
  • The Function of Memory: A look at how memory can be used like a video game mechanic to significantly increase a range of one's abilities.
  • Gaming Schedule: A brief look at a possible balance between buying new games, buying old games, and playing one's games more completely. Also, the benefits of planning/mentally preparing for one's gaming time.
  • Designing a Better Violin Teaching Method: If designing a curriculum is like designing a game.
  • Knowing the Difference between Tactics and Strategy: A look at how many obscure the truth by hiding behind language that claims a game has strategy. Recognizing the difference and understanding how game design creates, encourages, and is benefited/deconstructed by strategy.
  • Be Careful... You Might Suck: Looking at how one's personal skill and experience with video games may affect their ability to assess/critique a game.
  • Is that a Challenge: A look at how video games entertain. How important goals and challenges are to a video game. How engagement and learning are essential.
  • The Construction of Comedy: A look at the mechanics of comedy from 3 cultural point of views.
  • Wow...That's Music: A look at Wii Music and why it may be far more unique and better than the gaming industry/world may currently give it credit for.
  • Designer's Workshop: A new series where I'll be constructing step by step guides detailing how to make the best user generated content for this year's best "content creatable" games. LBP. GH4. Bangai-o. Advance Wars Days of Ruin. It's all inside.
  • Bangai-O Review

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Genius of Slowdown

Slowdown is certainly a relic of our past when video games used to push their processors to their limit and beyond. When there were simply too many explosions and bullets streaking across the screen the frame rate dropped and the game began to play is slow motion.

Many would like to believe that we are now currently in an age that has moved beyond slow down. Though the frame rate in our modern releases may hiccup (GTA4), sputter (MGS4), or even drop to a cinematic 24 frames per second (Shadow of the Colossus), all of these performance slips are far better than back in the day when the games used to slow to a crawl. With the advent of widespread online gaming, many gamers now find it strange when latency issues are resolved by slowing down or even temporarily pausing the action for all players until the information flow can be reestablished.

My recent exploration of Bangai-O Spirits for the Nintendo DS has caused me to think about the possible design benefits of slowdown. Unlike bullet time, where the game time is slowed usually by the player to enhance reaction time and accuracy, slowdown happens as a result of an excess of onscreen elements that require graphics and collision processing. In Bangai-O's case, when the player launches a counter attack of 100 homing missiles, the game automatically slows down. The benefits for the slower gameplay are the same as with bullet time. When the game is slowed down, the player has additional time to process and analyze the game. But unlike bullet time, the amount of slowdown that occurs is directly proportional to the amount of in game "chaos" on screen. Like the smart slow-mo from Perfect Dark that activates when two players in a multiplayer match move within a certain proximity of each other, slowdown makes the game time relative to action and position.

It's like Where's Waldo, but different.

Slowdown might have addition design benefits that may not be as obvious to discern. As it turns out, Bangi-O Spirts features 4 player simultaneous gameplay. Designing a system that can communicate hundreds of packets of data between two systems can be extremely tricky even for two consoles using high speed connections. Geometry Wars is a perfect example of a game is so smooth with so many individual items on the screen each with their own behaviors and patterns that react off of the player's position and attacks as well as other elements in the level, that trying to get the game to work online would invariably slow down the game speed. In other words, because there's simply so much chaos in Geometry Wars the Geometry Wars that we know and love would be impossible to make work online with our current technology.

So what about Bangai-O Spirits for the DS? One might initially think that the the DS processors and wifi connections aren't better suited than an Xbox360 for the task for communicating the chaos of battle in a multiplayer mode. But slowdown, once again, plays a very key role in Bangai-O's case. The player should already be used to the contextually fluctuating game speed in the single player mode. So if the game slows down just a bit more to maintain communication with 3 other DSs, the player probably wouldn't notice. Because slowdown is an integrated part of the normal gameplay, using it as a sort of shield/buffer for multiplayer wireless communications is quite genius.

Just a few missiles

Bangai-O Spirits is a rare case indeed. Not only does it get away with massive slowdown that can drop as low as 1 frame per second, but in many ways the slow down works better for the gamepaly and multiplayer. In the moments when everything slows down, I have an opportunity to analyze the battle field, look at the map, check enemy health or any of the other stats before thinks kick back up in speed again. And for a game that accurately captures anime action in a video game, I'll take all the help I can get.

As modern games continue to push the technical limits of video games while maintaining relatively smooth gameplay and high frame rates, it's interesting to see that slowdown, which many consider to be a technical flaw, can be successfully embraced and incorporated into the core design of a game.

Stay tuned for my explosive review of Bangai-O Spirits.

And if you're worried about the future of slowdown and/or the potential in relative game speed and design, then look no further than Drebin #1 Asynchronous Time.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mega Man 9 Review & Repair

Mega Man 9 is my favorite Mega Man game along with Mega Man X. This is probably due to the fact that I've recently beat these two Mega Man games since developing my critical-eye. Regardless, there's a lot to be said for Mega Man 9, a game which just barely qualifies for the retro-evolved genre. The game looks old school and plays just like Mega Man did when I was a kid gathered around TV with all the neighborhood kids trying to come up with a strategy to defeat Gemini Man. Because MM9 is practically an NES, so much of the experience should already be quite familiar to us. For this reason, I only want to touch on a few points in bullet point essay style.


Many claim that Mega Man 9 is a very difficult game. I do not think it is for many reasons. Starting with a base made up of the default weapon, the M Buster, and a few lives, the difficulty in beating the game can be adjusted to a very fine degree. Players always have the option of...

  1. collecting lives before going into more difficult stages
  2. collecting energy tanks to refill one's health instantly
  3. using powers to more easily overcome enemies and tricky platforming sections
  4. using the powers that each boss is weak to
  5. spending bolts to buy additional lives, energy tanks, M tanks, and other power ups including Beat, Spike Shoes, and the 1/2 damage power up.
  6. farming enemy respawn points to refill health and weapon energy
Also, the more you play, die, and continue, the more bolts you'll accumulate. With more bolts, the player has more buying power to adjust the difficulty of their experience.


The levels in Mega Man 9 are masterfully crafted. They have the perfect balance of difficulty, enemies, length, original elements, simplicity, and organic unity.

Click to Enlarge
  • Each level is very linear and constructed like a sentence with a beginning, middle (mini boss), and end (boss). Each level/sentence represents a simple game idea. Look at Splash Woman's stage for example. The simple game idea is going down into the depths and come back out the other side. The traveling path makes a "u" shape.
  • To keep things moving forward there are few scrolling sections to each level. Also, the player is prevented from backtracking horizontally. Once you enter a section, there's nothing else to do but keep pressing forward
  • Enemies are generally fixed in specific locations within a level and have strict spawn design. Move just slightly off the screen, and a enemy you just destroyed will be waiting to take you on again. Many enemies function as a path blocker instead of chasing the player down. Having to shoot down such obstacles keeps the game focused on shooting instead of running/dodging. This design decision keeps the experience controlled, and uniform across play sessions.
  • The organic level design and organic art direction harmonize perfectly in MM9. In Splash Woman's stage (see above) everything is designed and arranged to communicate a functioning water treatment plant. The water in the beginning starts to flow downward, and water mines and octopus robots provide primary security protection (1-3). As the water descends, the spikes filter out unwanted content (5-8). The water the runs through pipe filters that generate air bubbles as waste. This air is expelled through holes in the pipe work (9-12). Next players hit a pocket of air in a pressurized zone where pipe runners run maintenance and security (12-16). Traveling up you encounter a computerized system mixing and filtering sections of water via sliding disks (14-16). And then you're practically at the boss, Splash Woman, who will battle in nothing less than the purest, most highly filtered water technology can provide. Sure it's a little imaginative, but the forms are all there.
  • By following through with this organic theme, the placements of the platforms and other level elements were guided. Like in Super Mario Brothers, bricks aren't placed willy nilly just so that Mario has things to break and platforms to jump on. The bricks in Mario are arranged to reflect functional structures; towers, bridges, stalagmites, etc. By following such organic guidelines, MM9 levels are as efficient, clean, and functionally focused as can be.
  • Aside from unique enemies, like in Super Mario Bros. 3/Super Mario Galaxy, new level elements are added to the MM9 levels as needed to further develop and define the governing game ideas for each stage. In Splash Woman's stage, the platformable water bubbles (9-12) and the disappearing water sliding sections (14-16) are specific to this stage and add unique gameplay to the level.


Fleshing out a quality game after starting with a limited core design is a skill that Capcom uses very well. By adding a balance of abstract mechanics, extra modes, and unique level/enemy elements, Capcom is able to develop rich game ideas instead of flopping in undynamic, static redundancy.

To understand how the core design of Mega Man 9 is limited, we need to first look at the core mechanics and compare them against Mario and even other versions of Mega Man.

Mega Man's Base Abilities

  • No RUN mechanic. Megaman moves at the same instant and constant speed whether he's on the ground or in the air. Because there is no accelerative motion forward, it's not jarring to the player that Mega Man doesn't skid to a stop. It's not unusual that Mega Man can instantly reverse his direction in mid air either. Where Mario uses the RUN mechanic to create momentum (physics wise and game design wise) and increase difficulty by reducing the reaction time window for the player, Mega Man marches on in a relatively simple fashion.
  • Mario must get a running start to achieve his maximum jump height and distance. Mega Man doesn't, which makes difficult jumps within a level less dependent on adequate running room. For this reason, Mega Man can create difficult platforming challenges in a very small space.
  • Mega Man can only shoot straight. To aim, he must JUMP and SHOOT. Because the JUMP mechanic is highly direct in degrees of vertical height, players have the ability to accurately SHOOT at just about anything within jumping range. Fortunately, pullets travel through walls. These properties create interesting aiming situations that mix anticipation, aiming through levels, and platforming in unique ways.
  • The core mechanics (MOVE, SHOOT, JUMP) aren't very dynamic. You can't jump on enemies. Enemies generally aren't stunned after being shot. Also, the momentum from leading one's shots is diminished somewhat when it relies on memorization or luck.
  • Unlike other 8-bit and 16-bit Mega Man iterations, MM9 Mega Man can't CHARGE, DASH, WALL KICK, SLIDE, or WALL SLIDE. The acceleration when SLIDING gives players the ability to dodge low flying attacks at the risk of falling off of platforms or running into enemies. As we know, the CHARGE mechanic does all kinds of wonders for gameplay. The WALL SLIDE/KICK mechanics give a lot of vertical definition to Mega Man's movement possibilities. Combining the DASH with the WALL KICK, gives players the ability to leap far off from walls. With these mechanics, enemies, bosses, and platforming sections have more versatility to mix things up. The DASH mechanic when combined with the JUMP mechanic, gives Mega Man the ability to quickly move about any environement. Like Mario's RUN mechanic, moving more quickly also comes with risks. Without these things, MM9 is clearly more limited in the enemy and platforming challenges it can put players through.
Ultimately, Mega Man must be able to defeat the vast majority of challenges with MOVE, JUMP, and SHOOT. After all, these mechanics make up the core/base of the game and are inexhaustible. When a game isn't very dynamic (mechanic dynamics, interplay, counterpoint), instead of emerging as a vehicle of expression, such games usually move in the opposite direction toward optimization. While this is true for MM9, the design of Mega Man's (mostly) optional acquired powers give the player a vehicle of expression while dynamically changing the paths and strategies available to the player. It is these powers that give MM9 design layers, dynamics, variation, and depth.

The Powers

Click to Enlarge

The limitations of Mega Man's moving and shooting abilities are apparent. But with every boss Mega Man defeats, he gains the use of one of their abilities. Each ability enhances some combination of Mega Man's moving, shooting, and defensive abilities filling up a unique design space. Starting at the top middle (12 o'clock) and going clockwise...
  • Plug Ball: Travels quickly along the ground, walls, and ceilings. In the air, this attack shoots straight down, which is unlike any other Mega Man attack.
  • Magma Bazooka: Shoots a triple spread attack. The fastest of two projectile attacks that can travel diagonally up or down. This attack can also be charged.
  • Hornet Chaser: Up to three can be fired at a time. They will slowly chase down any enemy on screen flying through walls to get to them. These hornets also have the ability to retrieve items from the field and bring them back to Mega Man.
  • Concrete Shot: A fast projectile that quickly arcs downward making it difficult to aim. This projectile also stops against walls, ceilings, and enemies. Once it hits something, it solidifies into a brick of concrete that players can use as a temporary platform.
  • Black Hole Bomb: A two stage attack that sends out a slow moving target and then activates forming a black hole that draws in enemy fire and enemies. Setting up this attack requires a little patience, knowledge of the level, and timing.
  • Laser Trident: This attack fires and travels very quickly in a straight line, and has the ability to cut through enemy defenses because nothing stops it. There are also special obstacles that can only be destroyed with the Laser Trident.
  • Jewel Satellite: Activating this power creates a shield of jewels that circle the player that reflect basic enemy attacks. These jewels can also completely eliminate weak enemies upon contact infinitely without any additional energy consumption. A collision with a stronger enemy will cancel the jewels. The ring of jewels can be launched as a projectile.
  • Tornado Blow: This handy attack sweeps all enemies and their attacks up and off the screen forever. The wind that sweeps away the enemies also floats Mega Man upward extending the height of his jump.
  • Rush Coil & Rush Jet (not depicted): These two abilities give Mega Man a super jump and the ability to fly a jet around for a limited time. Rush, the dog, can safely stand on spikes allowing players to access some areas safely. When Rush Jet collides with a platform or wall, he disappears leaving Mega Man behind to deal with situation.
On top of the platforming, offensive, and defensive changes these powers bring to Mega Man's basic abilities, they also have decay. Let's face it. The player is quite over powered with access to all of these abilities, but with every use the powers consume energy. Without energy for a specific power, Mega Man can't use it. Use powers haphazardly and excessively, and soon you won't have anything more than the basic abilities.

The decay goes a bit further. When players die and respawn, the energy/ammo they consumed on the previous life doesn't reset. In this way, dying and poor playing isn't completely remedied by having lots of lives. If you use all of a power trying to defeat a boss and fail to finish him/her off, then when you go back to fight that boss, you'll have to battle without that power. This is most apparent in the final assault on Dr. Willy's fortress. Players have to fight through 4 large levels and 11 bosses before getting a chance to fight against Willy's 3 stages. If you mismanage your power at any point in this gauntlet, you'll have a hard time replenishing your supplies.

The way these powers are designed, it's no wonder that enemies drop refilling power pellets less often than energy pellets or screws. It's also no wonder that the shop only lets you by one M Tank which refills all of Mega Man's power supply and health.

The design in Mega Man 9 is so clean and apparent that we all can learn something about game design from it. The game is simple. The controls are tight. And the player can make it as hard as he/she wants. The first play through is long and filled with learning and the kind of refinement that requires a determined will and self discipline. Then each subsequent play through gets easier and easier. With convenient speed running options Mega Man 9 is more concentrated on its best qualities than the other 8-bit brethren.

"With these powers....I have the power... to do it better....to do it faster." ~me


Approaching a repair of Mega Man 9 is tricky. After all, the game was intentionally design to reflect the design of the Mega Man games from the NES era. Most of the suggestions I could make for the game would invariably counter its original aim and goals. As with any repair, upholding the spirit of the game is key. It is not the job of the repair man to make a new game, but make the game that already exists better, cleaner, and communicate its ideas more clearly.

With that said, these are just a few ideas that I have for Mega Man 9. Some are repairs. And though some are changes, I think they're interesting enough to post.

  • The ammo bars for Mega Man's powers should be quantified for the powers that consume lots of "pixels"/ pellets with a single use. Tornado Blow and Jewel Satellite are two examples of powers that take a chunk out of their ammo/power bar. Because of the way the power bar is divided into pellets, it's difficult to gauge how many more uses of a power are left. This is a simple fix to help player count their bullets so to speak.
  • Like Bionic Commando Rearmed, Mega Man 9 should contain a puzzle mode or challenges that are short levels focusing on the unique properties, nuances, and intricacies of Mega Man's powers.
  • Though the random drops from destroyed enemies has been in the Mega Man series since the beginning, considering the possibilities of taking this design element out of the game can lead to some refreshing design alternatives.
  • To balance not getting health drops from enemies, it would be interesting if Mega Man could get small health bonuses by destroying enemies with the M Buster at close range. When gunplay is at the core of a game, I always like design elements that define the space between a gun and the target in interesting ways.
  • To refill the ammo for powers, it would be interesting if Mega Man could interact with specific enemies and/or the environment. How about standing under a rushing waterfall to refill Splash Woman's power? Switch to Magma Man's power and draw in energy from lava pools or flame attacks. Having more unique interaction with the level would give players more reasons to travel back to old levels while preserving the conservation design of the powers that already exists in Mega Man 9.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

LittleBig Fears

LittleBig Planet is going to upgrade my creative abilities significantly. I plan on using the game as a teaching tool for level design, building a portfolio of levels, and communicating/releasing/showcasing unique content to the world. For these purposes, there is a slim chance that LBP will let me down. Check out these videos to see what I mean.


  • The loose and floaty physics: Everything in LBP seems to be physics based. Games like Boom Blox and mods on the Half Life 2 engine have demonstrated that a heavy use of physics interactions can add a lot of uncertainly within a game. Trying to finely adjust elements in Halo 3's Forge can quickly become very frustrating because everything acts according to physics even when you're trying to move things about. Instead of everything being quantified like in Mario or MegaMan, successfully landing on a platform in LBP is a matter of the physics calculations. This makes what would be successful jumps in Mario/MegaMan annoying slips in LBP. (at least, this is what I can gather from videos)
  • vision cam: It seems that this underutilized tool is required for snapping stickers and/or making custom textures in LBP. Since this is the biggest game I want for PS3 I don't really mind shelling out the extra cash for a cam. It still might be beneficial to have other ways of importing images. The PS3 is a media super hub after all.
  • Camera: A properly positioned camera is essentially for almost all games. After all, even 2D Mario needs to see where he's going before he jumps. Hopefully LBP will come with a variety of camera manipulation tools. So far the camera works looks automatic often cutting off vital elements off screen. I wonder if there will be tools for organizing a split screen camera or a camera that takes advantage of internet co-op.
  • The multplayer looks a bit goofy and strained: Everything from the respawn system, to the camera that either zooms out to try and keep all the players on the screen or only focuses on one player, to the faux cooperation looks a bit worrisome. Everything is more fun with friends in a way, but that doesn't mean the design doesn't suffer in the process. Of course, because you can do practically whatever you want in LBP, designing some true cooperative gameplay elements shouldn't be too hard.
  • Music: In order to dodge copyright issues, LBP is offering creative custom music solutions. I don't know how versatile these tools are. If we can record our voice in to the game what stops someone from recording MP3s as their voice?
  • The core mechanics seem to be JUMP, GRAB, PUNCH, SHIFT LANES, and MOVE. I'm not impressed with the JUMP mechanic or any of the other physics based interations in the game quit eyet. If the core mechanics aren't tight, then all the platforming gameplay suffers no matter how we build levels to compensate. I hope the gameplay side of LBP doesn't end up where players play around with the idea of playing a platformer. I can't stand pretending to play a good video game when playing a bad one.

Be afraid.

Good thing all PS3s have a hard drive. If anything goes wrong out the gate, there's always patches, updates, and DLC.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

GH:WT Music Studio Fears & Ideas

I can't help it. Every song I listen to gets me thinking in Guitar Hero. I ponder if a particular song was a level in Guitar Hero, would the individual parts be interesting enough for guitar, bass, keyboard/vocals, and drums? But the ruminating doesn't stop there. I already have a list of over 17 songs that I intend on creating using the Guitar Hero Music Studio. And as the list grows larger so do my crazy ideas. I'm investing a lot of energy into Guitar Hero. The more I invest the more I worry about the limitations of the song creator features.

  • Is there a song length limit? Hopefully I can make a song that's at least 5-6 minutes long. I've already spotted a limit to the number of drum beats available for a song. This worries me greatly.
  • Can the composer choose to double up the drums, keyboard, or vocals? Can we make a song featuring 4 guitars? This kind of flexibility is essential for some of my song ideas.
  • Though everyone has a limit to the amount of songs they can upload to GHTunes, will we still be able to trade songs with our friends? Can we even host the files on our own websites so we don't have to worry about hosting limitations? Also, is the maximum number of uploads determined by PS3 log in names/Xbox Live accounts? If so, what about the Wii? Could we just make new accounts to get more space? Will it be tied to each unique Wii?
  • The developers have said that the tools they are giving the players almost directly compare to the variety, versatility, and quality of the tools that they use to create the real Guitar Hero tracks. Hopefully this includes the new touch pad and slide notes. I also need the ability to create 3 note "power chords," and I would love the ability to create double handed arpeggios where one hand plays on the buttons while the other plays on the touch pad at the same time!
  • Can we balance the audio levels for individual tracks at different points in a song?
  • Can we alter the tempo levels midway though a song?
  • The album cover creator isn't open like LBP or even Mario Kart DS, which is very disapointing. It's more like Halo where players can pick and choose from a set of stickers/templates/stencils and mix up the colors. I hope I can create a specific logo or otherwise refer people to this blog for further information about each song.
  • Because all the skews of Guitar Hero across the 3 platforms have the same features, I though the songs when uploaded to GHTunes would all be compatible with each other. In other words I hope I will be able to download user created songs regardless of the platform they were created on.
  • Apparently, if you have a MIDI compatible PC you can hook up your PS3 to it and extend your song creating abilities. This is an interesting option that I hope the developers can extend in some fashion to the other platforms. Perhaps the Wii can get some DS connectivity for some touch screen editing. This leads me to...


  • What if Guitar Hero: World Tour pulled a Spore and released the Music Studio for purchase for the PC. This would allow players to create and edit their music using a mouse and keyboard instead of having to fiddle with the in game interface. If the developers could figure out a way to make the PC Music Studio free and run in browser, the amount of content on GHTunes would skyrocket just like the creatures in the Spore universe. Doing this would also even out the advantage the PS3 has over the other systems by giving PC functionality to all.
Little Big Planet is having a very similar effect on me as well. More on that later.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What It Means To Be A Gamer

I do not speak for all gamers. And I certainly can't speak for most of us because the impressions playing video games leaves on us is as multitudinous and as variegated as the games we play. I can only speak for myself in hopes that you can relate as a gamer so we all can grow to understand what it means to be a gamer and how the potential thereof.

Growing up I didn't know how different I was from non-gamers; people who don't play video games or games of other sorts. Video gaming started with me at the early age of 3 when I first received NES with Super Mario Bros. 3. Thus began one of the most important pillars of education in my life. Before I entered the public education system, before I learned to play the piano or violin, before I learned how to play soccer, before I learned to love English, before I learned to write, read, before it all I played video games and learned how to learn.

As a child, my mental process while playing a video game went like this: Take in data through the senses (mostly sight). Recognize and organize concepts applying knowledge and categorizing data as necessary. Formulate a plan of action. Send the appropriate signals to the hands to manipulate the controller. Observe results. Repeat process. This method is how we learned as children, and by continuing to play games, I never lost this natural ability to learn.

Video games are interactive. The screen tells me information about the game, and the game in turn communicates and reflects me. Just like how my mental and emotional state is evident in the music I play, video games reflect the internal dialog that exists between the game world and my mind. So by playing video games over the years, I've been an audience to my own mental development, which has shaped my perspective on life.

So we're looking at how playing video games can shape one's perspective. The best way to understand what a video game "does" or how it functions is to not think of it as a game in the first place. While the older generation will look at us gamers and think we're rotting our brains away, we, gamers, know that video games have great potential not only as sources of entertainment but as an art form and teachers as well. Think of a video game as a self contained interactive learning environment where an individual can learn the intricacies of a functioning system through hands on interactions and experimentation in a world if infinite attempts and resources.

Playing a video game is essentially a personally powered, self motivated experience involving exposure, experimentation, practice, and testing. When I was a kid, I was never taught to separate all things video games from any thing else in the world. Video games weren't some new thing unlike the other mediums that have come before it, a dangerous evil destined to be regulated and restricted, or "just an entertainment device." To me, video games were just like everything else. And everything else was just like a game. School was a "game" to me where I learned how to filter and organize information that was useful to me while meeting challenges set by the teacher. The rules of the household weren't oppressive or restrictive boundaries, but challenges/obstacles to be worked around. Comparatively, school and household chores were much easier than defeating Bowser.

And when I took my first piano lesson at around the age of 7, I saw the piano as the largest controller I had ever seen. Each key played only a single note (individual). All the keys were arranged in half steps with the low notes at the bottom and the high notes at the top (intuitive). The sound only played as long as I held a key down (direct). I could hit a key with varying degrees of force to play louder or softer notes (dynamic). From the start I breezed through learning the names of the keys, reading sheet music, and playing through the first few levels of the beginners repertoire. After all, playing beginner piano was simple compared to internalizing the algorithms of Tetris of memorizing the world of Metroid 2.

By gaining more experience in different gaming genres, I picked up the skills of a master organizer. Being able to categorize the world around you exercises a critical skill in pattern recognition. We start by recognizing patterns within a single game. We figure out that we must use the same set of mechanics over and over in a variety of situations and combinations. We group the game elements that can hurt us as enemies. And we learn to recognize levels and stages and repeating challenges.

Then we recognize patterns within and between genres. Mario, Sonic, Kirby, and Samus all jump. Samus and Link explore. Link solves block puzzles like in Tetris. Tetris has a gradually increasing game speed like Space invaders. As we gain more experience in life and with video games, we begin to recognize patters that are much more subtle and complex than repeated mechanics, genres, matching colors, shapes, rhythms, or even note values.

I can recognize patterns in everything from body language, facial expressions, speech mannerisms, diction, emotional states, function, action, and other abstractions. Breaking down one element into its very essence (what it does and how it functions) to find similarities between it and seemingly unrelated elements is a skill that playing video games helps develop.

But it's not the repetitions, nor the hours of practice that the gamer puts into video games that generates this ability to organize. This unique ability stems from the most unique qualities of video games; interactivity and function. These are the elements that sit at the very core of the medium.

Video games teach us to see and think in functions. Enemies are designed to challenge one's path to a goal. Enemies function as obstacles that must be overcome to achieve success. Goomba aren't living creatures in Super Mario Bros. They're just elements that force me to jump on, jump over, or be hurt. In Mario's world, that's all a Goomba is. It's contrary motion. The intent of one function set against another. In a similar fashion, pit falls are not decorative. They're dangerous. Throw a 1up mushroom into the equation and perhaps it's worth risking one's life for. In a given situation, gamers can calculate any number of relevant factors to make an informed decision on approaching the goal. Collecting coins earns extra lives. If they only awarded the player with points, then the function of the coins wouldn't have much of a point and wouldn't impact gameplay the way the currently do. Who plays Super Mario Bros. for points? Points have no function in helping the player rescue the princess.

In the same way that Zelda highlights key words indicating specific objects or locations the player must seek, words pop out at me in lectures, when receiving instruction, or reading for school. I would have found it much more difficult to read Strachey's Narrative or Paradise Lost without setting a filter/goal for the information I needed. The methodology I have just described is surprisingly similar to the work of Paul Scheele at the Learning Strategies Corporation.

One of Scheele's programs teaches people who to read with their whole mind to maximize their time and retention of material. Some of the steps in the program involves recognizing how a text is organized, surveying the material lightly, forming questions, setting goals, and then going over the text. The functional similarities between playing video games and reading with one's whole mind is not coincidental. Honing in on specific words that contain the most purpose for achieving one's goal is a way of looking at the world through function. This view is focused, purposeful, and goal oriented and is something that gamers naturally use.

Gamers see winning and losing differently than non-gamers. We've walked a million miles, thrown a thousand punches, and conquered hundreds of Koopa. Yet on the road to victory we've lost so many more lives, ammunition rounds, vehicles, and friends (Yoshi). By playing video games gamers know that to understand the world (even a virtual gaming world), one must experiment and practice. Losing is a natural process of learning, but for the gamer failing is never a permanent part of the equation.

Gamers have access to infinite lives, which means unlimited tries especially now that gaming has moved away from the arcades. We will lose, die, and try again until we are victorious. The game never gets tired or takes a break, and it's always there when you're ready. In this way, all efforts eventually converge on victory. Losing is just a funny way to win. At least, this is a probable attitude that video games instill in gamers.

So gamers see the world through function and goals, which makes us always up for a challenge. We won't just make a game out of things, we'll make a war out it. We'll fight against each other in our favorite multiplayer games. We'll fight on forums over our favorite games. And we'll even fight in the market over our favorite consoles. If you're reading this, then chances are you are no stranger to the raging console wars that exist where the NPDs proclamations detail the skirmishes of this global war. Our vehemence shrouded in animosity prowling the alleyways of the internet in a world where the illuminating rays of reciprocity have set long ago, has some people (gamers and non-gamers alike) worried.

Some wonder why the people of gaming forums are so brash and pugnacious with their comments and the way they deal with each other. Some wonder why we care so much about our games, the consoles they're published on, and upcoming titles. By now it should be clear why gamers exhibit such behavior. In some part, we've all been raised by our video games. It's not difficult by any stretch of the imagination to see that gamers draw a functional connection between their lives, and the games they play.

Being a gamer means a lot of different things to a lot of people. Only by understanding how a game functions and how a player responds or fits into that function, will we understand that being a gamer is like being a kid where learning, playing, and self expression are an inseparable full time job.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Why Gamers Should Embrace Critical-Material

I have noticed the reactions from gamers and non-gamers alike when I utter the words "critique," "essay," "analysis," or any such term. Among the range of disinterested, repulsed, and condescending reactions, few becomes excited at the idea of reading an essay about any form of entertainment or art.

We've all written essays and book reports throughout our time in school, and perhaps we have grown to hate them over time. Some falsely associate reading a critical essay, which is very different from a review, with work, time consumption, and even flowery, filigree without any real substance. We are people who value our time and invest in our entertainment. So reading a thousand words of meretricious persiflage shouldn't excite us.

But a proper critical essay is not any of these things. A proper essay is clear, concise, and cogent in delivering its message and/or ideas. The reader who takes up such an essay has nothing to lose. With every turn of the page comes a deeper understanding. The writers of such material aren't masked magicians seeking to pull the curtains and reveal the secret inner workings of the world's favorite magic tricks. Such writers don't intend to break the illusion of a trick, but rather uncover a deeper truth in a work.

I've come across many people who squirm, fidget, and practically throw tantrums at the idea of thinking deeply about their favorite TV shows, movies, and video games; especially video games. It's as if all of a sudden, these individuals are transported from the comfort of their living rooms to the ridged, plastic, unyielding prisons of a desk in a dimly lit high school class room. But thinking deeply and obtaining a better understanding is not what they fear. Many times, it's explanation that such individuals seek.

To prove it, just look at any one of these examples: Death Note, Ocean's 11, or The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Each of these works feature an excellent blend of up front information, charismatic characters, and mystery that entices the viewers/readers to try and piece the solution together for themselves. Toward the end of each of these works, what actually happened behind the scenes is revealed and explained thoroughly. Some say "I knew it." Other might say, "I didn't see that coming." But all would rather know than be left in the dark having only a piece of their potential enjoyment.

To draw the analogy, everything preceding the explanation these works is analogous to any form of entertainment or art. The detail explanation that walks through all the steps and piecing together exactly how the elements come together is analogous to a critical essay. Knowing more about a work and how it works doesn't ruin the story/show/film/video game. Not only does it increase one's enjoyment of the work, but afterward it's hard to imagine being without it. Ask anyone who has read/seen Death Note, Ocean's 11, or The Murders in the Rue Morgue if they would rather have had the explanation removed from their experience.

The Sixth Sense is not popular because of the twist at the end. It's popular because when the twist is revealed it creates an "ah ha!" moment giving the viewer a unique opportunity to revisit the film in their mind with a new lens of understanding. Even when watching the film again, the viewer remembers their impressions from when they didn't know the twist in addition to developing a new set of impressions from the informed perspective. In this way, it's like watching two films!

Knowledge is power, and the more lenses one has to view a work of art the more interesting and entertaining it becomes. This is how it is for me at least.

So if you're the type of person who is warming up to the idea of reading critical-essays on your favorite video games, then the Critical-Gaming blog is the right place for you. I pour hours of work and research into each essay so that you don't have to. I know personally, I wouldn't like The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass as much as I do if I didn't write a few essays on it. It's no coincidence that it's my second favorite Zelda next to Majora's Mask.

If video games are the newest and most engaging/interactive art form, a gamer might never understand why unless they start asking questions, thinking more deeply, and tapping into the discourse of their favorite video games. Why wouldn't we want to get extra value from our games?

Platformers DS: Doubleganger Siblings

When the DS first launched, Nintendo decided to port Super Mario 64 over to the handheld. This game is mostly the same except for a few mini games, a multiplayer mode, and some new playable characters. Over all, the port was a good one with the biggest downside being the adapted controls. It's difficult to configure analog controls with digital buttons.

In the next few years Nintendo released 3 "doubleganger siblings" or 3 platformers that have strong roots in the design of previous Nintendo Masterpieces. For these games the DS touch screen is mostly used for navigating menus and displaying large buttons. New Super Mario Brothers, Yoshi's Island DS, and Super Princess Peach are the doubleganger siblings that all fall short of their predecessor.

New Super Mario Brothers (NSMB) takes after Super Mario Brothers for the NES. Yoshi's Island DS (YIDS) is analogous to Super Mario World: Yoshi's Island for the SNES. And Super Princess Peach (SPP) is modeled after both of theses games. Understanding exactly how these games work compared to the console counterparts is more compliated than it seems. Handhelds are different devices than consoles and requires different design techniques and approaches. The reducsed screen size and aspect ratio is always an issue. Many were quick to judge some of these games as not having innovated, but there are sublte ways to innovate on a theme. Uncovering the structures for these games requires that we look at their structures starting with the core and moving outward.

NSMB starts off with the core of Super Mario Brothers: JUMP, DUCK, MOVE, RUN. Then additional abilities were added: WALL KICK, TRIPLE JUMP, GROUND POUND giving Mario then ability to platform/climb vertically in all new ways as well as destruct the level beneath him. From these expanded core abilities, the levels in NSMB were free to be designed in any direction. Consequently the developers felt free to take bits and pieces of level design from SMB, SMB3, and SMW. The flat level layouts belong to SMB. Some of the bosses and left & right scrolling levels hearken back to SMB3. The world map, chain fences, bosses, and ghost houses can be traced back to SMW.

After drawing from these 3 excellent games, you would think that NSMB would be the most "Mario" Mario game. When I first played it, I enjoyed the game but wasn't very impressed. Now, after studying SMB, SMB3, and SMW more closely, I can appreciate the blend that is NSMB more.

  • Blue Shell, tiny mushroom, big mushroom are the new powerups. The blue shell is genius taking the form of the turtle shell that we all know and understand by now and putting a Mario inside. All the interplay desinged into the shell is now under the player's control.
  • Levels can be designed to flow up, down, left, and right. The respawning enemies sort of created folded level movements when Mario travels backwards.
  • The camera zooms in an out appropriately. When the player needs to see more of what's ahead, the camera pulls back perfectly and smoothly. If Mario can't look before he leaps, then the game just wouldn't quite be Mario.
  • The camera also scrolls positioning Mario further left/back on the small DS screen than when on a TV screen like in SMB. Because in NSMB mario is 1/12th the size of the screen instead of 1/16, in order to see enough of the level coming, the screen had to pull back to compensate.
  • Some levels are truly inspired (7-3 & 7-5). They not quite like SMB, SMB3, or SMW making them distinctly NSMB.
  • Excellent multiplayer modes. Aside from the 4 player Mario Party type mini games, the 2 player side scrolling "battle mode" takes all of the gameplay from the single player in NSMB and pits two players against each other in a looping stage. Who knew all the interplay, mechanics, and folded design would come together so nicely in a multiplayer mode. It's examples like these that show that strong core design goes a long way for any type of game.
  • Pits and other level hazards are undermined with WALL KICKs. All pits are almost harmless because Mario can simply wall kick out of them. I found my self taunting the pits by intentionally jumping into them and seeing how low I could go while still being able to safely WALL KICK out. Fortunately, many levels have lava, poison water, and large pits so this strategies . On the plus side, being able to WALL KICK like this helps to minimize the reduced viability problem that all handheld platformers face.
  • Too many power ups/power ups in the bank. Because small pits are less of a problem, dying doesn't really happen. To make things worse, there are too many powerups in every level. Unlike in SMB, Mario can take 3 hits before dying from the fire flower powerup state. This extra cushion makes things easier for the player. But then, the player can to store a power up on the bottom screen and use it at any time. Powerups in previous Mario platformers used to be just rare enough so that players would charrish them. Now they're practically given away at every street corner.
  • Confused Difficulty Structure: In SMB, players had one clear shot from start to finish to try and beat the game. There were no save options. In SMB3, players had a bit of a cushion. If they lost all of their lives, they would simply start back at the beginng of the world not the game. This design gave the developers the leeway to make the levels trickier and harder. In both of htese games, the player couldn't go back and replay conquered levels. In SMW, players could save after ghost houses, bosses, and big switches dividing the save zones into even smaller sections. NSMB tries to have a linear overward like SMB, tricks to progression like SMB3, and save options similar to SMW. Compounded with the excess of powerups, NSMB difficulty doesn't come from progressing through the levels/game. Instead NSMB positions 3 coins per stage for the player to find and collect to increase the challenge.
  • Awkward saving. The limited number of saves in NSMB is awkard like Resident Evil. At some point, I found myself traveling to other world just so I could use a save station because I had run out of saves on the world I was previously in. The save system design has been opened up from the designs of Mario's previous games. There's no need to limit saves like this.
  • Some of the new enemies look terribly uninspired and un-Mario. ie. the hanging spiders, running punching ghost thing, the crows, and the pumpkins.

Yoshi's Island DS began with the Yoshi's Island core. MOVE, DUCK, JUMP, FLUTTER, MAKE EGGS, THROW EGGS, GROUND POUND, TONGUE, SPIT, rolling rocks, Piranha flowers, shy guys, flowers, and red coins. For the DS sequel, the developers looked at the character abilities, and decided to add character abilities via the babies riding on Yoshi's back. With the help of these infantile friends the player can now RUN, PARASOL GLIDE, SPIT FIRE BALL, CLIMB ON VINES, and MAGNET objects not to mention collect special character coins. More is better right? With such a solid core how can this game go wrong? It's all in the execution. You can't have a best core design with the worst level design. These two elements of a game depend on each other.

  • Reducing the running speed of Yoshi (except with Mario's special ability) was smart because Yoshi takes up 1/35th of the space on a single DS screen instead of 1/48th like on the SNES. Moving more slowly gives the player more time to react to the upcoming level.
  • Compensating for the DS screen gap creates a searching/adventure mechanic to the game. Yoshi can adjust the screen up or down by a distance equal to the gap between the DS screens by holding up or down. By hitting X and up/down, the player can shift the main screen of play to the top or bottom screen. This can reveal secrets and parts of the layout to the player.
  • Flutter is a genius way to make a downward "JUMP" mechanic, and to show how the different babies have different weights.
  • The level design can be quite terrible. The green falling blob level comes to mind. It seems like the developers just threw enemies and platforms together without play testing or tuning the elements to create a solid game idea.
  • Creating secret/specific paths that require a specific baby adds unnecessary back tracking the way the baby switching is set up. The unique baby abilities are fine, but the elements that require a specific baby ultimately results in having to memorize areas of the stage for the next pass through or backtrack to get the right baby.
  • The levels don't have large governing game ideas. They seem to be in service of the secrets and even those seem forced and artificially placed in the level.
  • The new enemies/character look like they were designed/drawn by a child.

Super Princess Peach starts with core mechanics from NSMB and YIDS (MOVE/RUN, JUMP, DUCK, WALK, POUNDBRELLA) with some of the more unique mechanics being functionally analogous (TONGUE = PICK UP, MAKE EGGS = EAT, FLUTTER = FLOATBRELLA). The enemies and level elements are also very similar: Goomba, Paratroopers, Pirahna Flowers, warp pipes, springs, and informative-talking help blocks. SPP even encourages players to collect toads scattered throughout each level like the flowers from Yoshi's Island.

  • Primary Function: Understanding and using one's emotions. Each emotional state (Joy, Gloom, Rage, and Calm) have various effects on Peach and/or the environment. Understanding theses effects and using them to progress is the core gimmick of SPP. What's also interesting is that the image of Peach on the bottom screen displays Peaches emotional states and Peach's "woman's intuition." By paying attention to Peach's expression, the player can tune into Peaches more subtle emotions.
  • Emotions is the lens through which the whole game is filtered. Not only must the player understand Peach's emotional states, but the emotions of the enemies as well. Like Peach's 5 emotional states (including neutral state) the enemies can also exhibit emotional states. With each state, the enemy's behavior changes. Mad enemies are more aggressive. Calm enemies sleep giving Peach the chance to sneak up on them. Glad enemies walk around with their eyes closed and a song in their hearts and will occasionally jump for joy to throw off the player's timing.
  • Nice adjustable difficulty by purchasing upgrades with coins. Just like in Mario Galaxy, there's a balance in how one kills an enemy and the rewards one gains. Jumping on an enemy versus using the homing stomp is harder and rewards the player with life restoring coins. In SPP, killing the enemies with umbrella attacks is riskier and rewards the player with coins. To balance this, player forfeits the opportunity to PICK UP and EAT the enemies to restore their vibe (emotion) meter.
  • Due to the similarities with the core Mario design, SPP features the same basic counterpoint that Mario does.
  • The broken, piecemeal level design is often very circular and very confusing. By taking too many warp pipes from one section to another the organic, cohesive design of the level is demolished.
  • The touch screen mini game levels that precede each boss are neat enough the first time, but become annoying when they're repeated.
  • The emotion states are simply not dynamic enough. There are several obstacles throughout each level that obviously require the use of a specific emotion to overcome, but other than these areas SPP doesn't use or layer the emotion mechanics at all. The water from the Gloom state and the fire from the Rage state should have much more dynamic effects on the environment/enemies.
  • The level design didn't focus on the Mario mechanics, and couldn't focus on the emotion mechanics because of their lack of dynamics. SPP sits in a state in between familiar greatness and great potential, and falls short of both.
  • SPP should have been designed as more of a puzzle/platformer focusing on the emotion mechanics instead of an action/platformer.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"It's Time We Have The Talk" ~Jonathan Blow

These are sad times for the video game industry (at least for some developers). These are sad times because someone like Jonathan Blow felt compelled to present a talk attempting to explain/teach developers that they should look carefully at their games as they build them and push themselves to be more creative. While listening to this talk I couldn't help but think nearly everything that Blow said was common sense and/or instinctual for the good developers. But because there are so many bad games made by bad, supposedly clueless developers Blow had to adress these issues. It's times like this that make me feel like the video games industry is still in a period of nonage, and insightful individuals like Blow have to father us by telling us to brush our teeth and to use soap. The gaming industry has sprung up all of a sudden it seems. We're all relatively new to the medium that we're defining as we go along, and it doesn't help that we anre't well supported by academia.

The way I currently see things, if a developer of a bad game didn't know to monitor the level of "conveyance" between the game and the player throughout development and he/she didn't bother to "push" their ideas past their initial conception, then such a developer needs to go back to game design school (if there is a school that teaches such important skills). Making good games is no harder than making interesting movies or writing captivating books. Each medium has their limitations and their core method of effective communication/conveyance. Understanding these things, for most people, requires study and discipline. And beyond understanding the intricacies of a medium, being creative and expressive are two skills that are difficult to teach.

Video games are inherently complicated. Rules, mechanics, and half-real game worlds are some of the newest and most dynamic qualities in any artform. What's interesting about understanding game design is that it's nearly identical to the design found in everything that already exits. Paintings. Music. Architecture. Scholastic systems. Movies. Literature. Actions. Toothbrushes. Anything. Drawing inspiration from life for the development of a video game requires a certain understanding of how the world "works" or how it functions. And it is to this end that I plan on redesigning the critical-casts.

Previously, the critical-casts served as a supplementary production that was centered around responding to popular industry podcasts, in house indie development, and setting up design challenges. While all of this content had a purpose, it took too much time to organize and plan. Though I still want to cover these topics when they come up, I'd rather focus on discussing the design of things that aren't video games. If the Critical-Gaming blog covers video games in detail articles, then Critical-Casts should cover my critique and commentary on the rest of life so that a bridge can be established between the two.

Another problem with the old critical-casts formatt, is that I was restricted to recording on my desktop PC. This was a problem because all of the natural, free flowing conversations I have with the B.E.S team happen everywhere but near my PC. So I'm looking into getting one of these. Hopefully, this will allow me the freedom to capture the content straight out of the spontineatiy of life.

Don't expect the new cast too soon. I'm still bogged down in articles I need to write. But keep the channels and your mind open.

Glad to have had this talk, son.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Geometry Wars Evolutionary Design

Geometry Wars. The game that I have described as being a "Fourth of July in your eyes!" I've played every console/handheld version, and though spawn deaths are still an issue, Geometry Wars2 is the best in the series. It may not have the best features (in bold) or the most levels, but the innovations in design makes it a clear winner. Once again, I've made a chart cross comparing games in series. It's not like I don't owe something to this game series.


GW: Retro EvolvedGW: GalaxiesGW: Galaxies DSGeometry Wars2


visual cluttermoderateminimal-lots depending on level & dronevery minimal - moderate depending on level and dronemoderate - much


controls aiming/ shootinganalog stickwiimote pointerDS touch Screenanalog stick


controls movinganalog stickanalog stickD-padanalog stick


varietyonemany levels/drones that can be leveled upsame as wii version6 modes/sequence


enemy design
enemy types
same as wii version
enemy types


fire powerlots of fire powerToo much firepower with some dronessame as wii versionreduced firepower


graphics2D2D2D3D graphics/brighter-tastier colors


weapon upgradesautomaticautomatic. drones level up outside of matchsame as wii versionminimal fire power upgrades


combo systemdon't die and shoot enemies to build multiplierdon't die and collect geoms from fallen enemies to build multiplier up to 150x. same as wii versioncollect as many geoms as you can from fallen enemeis. dying doesn't reset multiplier.


multiplayernone2 player with camera issues2 player with interesting modes4 players with bigger camera issues


static spacemove away and shoot behind youless static space when the level mixes things up and player must seek geoms to build up the multiplyer. Only up to 150x then game reverts somewhat. same as wii versionlittle to no static space because of the new intersecting enemy motions and the unlimited geom multiplier.


disection of spacesnakes/pink/repulsor force the player to maneuver differently. Other enemies move in a straight path to the player. Also the gravity well bends the space all around it absorbing enemy/player alike. New level shapes with obstacles and other elements that change the possible paths the player can take. This along with new enemies like the dart/meteor cut the space in unique ways. same as wii versionRockets, gates, and ducks, are a few examples of new enemies that ignore the player which make interesting spatial dissections. Also, with reduced fire power, aiming is more important/difficult. Furthermore, pacifism, waves, and king force the player to move and strategize in dramatically new ways.


collsion detectionprecise = 60fps/clean spritesprecise = 60fps/clean spritesless precise = ~30fps/lower rez spritesprecise = 60fps/clean 3d modes.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Braid Review weiveR diarB

*This review contains some spoilers*

I remember when my dad mentioned Braid about a month ago. Thanks to NPR's occasional video games coverage, my dad can surprise me every now and then with gaming news of some sort. This time, he had heard of a video game that "is supposed to be about life and choices" as he put it. I quickly explained that that Braid wasn't "about life" and that actuality, it was just a puzzle game that has ignited the untrained and ill-equipped artsy/pretentious video game writers to make claims that the game is some bold new step in game design doing things that other games haven't quite done before. I smoothly transitioned the conversation about the art of design and mechanics and how all games can be read making them seem to be about almost anything. Using Tetris, Super Mario Brothers, and Wii Sports (games my father has experience with) I debunked the notion. Then my father asked me if I had played Braid yet. I hadn't.

At that point, I had researched the game only briefly, which I felt was enough to make the comments I did. I wasn't talking about Braid so much as the misguided reception and the state of the video games industry's more scholarly pursuits that restlessly fidget in a state of arrested development. Sill, I hadn't played Braid, a fact I then made a point of correcting. Regardless of what others have said about the game, being a fan of puzzle games, I wanted to experience Braid for myself and maybe even write something about it.

The interesting part of Braid, one might say, is that the game gives the player the mechanic of REWIND TIME without much restraint. All mistakes can be reversed, and all starting points can be revisited. This ability gives the player a certain freedom to experiment freely and in every direction into the world of Braid. Such a mechanic when viewed from the player's perspective as he/she collects memories of their experience playing the game is similar to the "many-worlds interpretation" of quantum mechanics. The "you" that you think of yourself as, like the Mario in the video, will stretch out like fingers touching the world and gaining knowledge only to come back to where you started.

Putting the question of what Braid is "about" to the side, it's easy to understand what Braid "does." Being a member of the puzzle genre, Braid equips the player with a handful of mechanics and sets up stages or areas that challenge the player to use these mechanics in specific ways. Though many have folded at solving some of Braid's more difficult puzzles, I found the game to be short with a deliciously sweet balance of content. Every puzzle requires a unique use and combination of player mechanics. Better yet, because the vast majority of challenges are so well designed, they are all the easier to solve. The reason for this is because the challenges in a puzzle game designed around the specific use of a mechanic or combination of mechanics, the number of possible ways to solve such a puzzle is reduced to a few solutions. By reverse engineering the end of the puzzle, and being aware of all the ways you can't approach solving the puzzle from the start, the solutions then become obvious, at least for a seasoned puzzle veteran. All in all, the tighter a puzzle game is designed, the easier it is to solve.

Starting with a basic set of platforming mechanics (JUMP, CLIMB, MOVE) Tim (the main character in Braid) can move through the 2D world. All the puzzles in world 2 are designed to get the player accustomed to these mechanics. With each subsequent world, a new mechanic is either added or required for solving the puzzles thus organizing each world by theme. This approach to level variability is similar to Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario Galaxy where each world has a theme with new elements introduced into the levels as needed to accentuate the themes. While this approach worked great for Mario, in some ways, it limited the range of design for Braid's puzzles.

Though Blow has expressed that he intentionally designed each world in Braid to be distinct and separate both in the narrative shorts that precede each world as well as the themes and required mechanics, I was somewhat disappointed that the final stage didn't combine all of the game's previous mechanics and concepts into one final super puzzle. Instead, powers are sort of stripped away covertly between worlds. Fortunately, the last stage is quite genius. Though it's not very challenging compared to some of the game's more difficult puzzles and it's not quite folded level design, time and perspective are used most effectively here. The shocking twist not only takes way Tim's ability to correct mistakes by reversing time, but it also shows how Tim's desire may have clouded his perspective on things.

Examples of the "worst" puzzles in Braid.
  • World 2. manipulating the painting (skip to 8:00). The mechanic of manipulating the painting in the puzzle-piece-assembly mode so that it interacts with the normal game world is unprecedented and functionally hidden. The thought process needed realize this mechanic naturally (without being explicitly told) requires a case where the puzzle pieces exhibit physical properties on the elements in the game world. Also, indicating that the bridge like section on the puzzle piece interacts differently than the other forms/objects depicted in the puzzle pieces would require another case. Furthermore, the issues of this puzzle are made worse due to the obfuscation of the fine details that visually links the bridge puzzle piece to the game world platform on SDTVs. Lastly, this puzzle requires the player to reenter the game world to solve after running through the world and collecting the necessary puzzle pieces.
  • World.3 the last puzzle. (skip to 9:18) To solve this puzzle, players have to leave the "puzzle area" and continue moving into the next area. Doing this reveals the missing element needed to solve the puzzle that was previously hidden off screen. Obscuring important information required for solving the puzzle off screen in this way is functionally like hiding a key in your pocket and telling your friend to keep looking around the room for it. Basically the player must "give up" or resolve that they don't have the ability to solve the puzzle to move on. Ultimately, the criticism raised against this puzzle isn't even that bad, which speaks to the quality design of the rest of the game's puzzles.
Looking at the other side of things, at their finest, the best Braid puzzles (basically every puzzle in world 4,5, and 6) represent a high level of design creating layered challenges through simple mechanics that come together elegantly like a Bach Fugue (skip to 1:30) or Bach Invention. It's counterpoint. It's classical game design. It's wonderful, and I simply can't get enough of it. If you'll listen to either of the classical pieces I linked to, you'll hear that the melody is started in one hand and then repeated with the next. The layering of the same relatively simple melody creates a layered sense of time that is always chasing after and running from itself. Like echoes through time, listening to these pieces carefully reveals moments where the layers comment on each other when heard simultaneously. Some bits of this conversation sound odd. Some out of place. Some pleasant. While others exist in a mood so difficult to place that to hear it merely feels like a transition between the familiar. This quality exists in many Classical piano pieces, and many Classically designed video games, like Braid.

In Braid, like in Super Mario Brothers, contrary motion exist between Tim, the player character, moving through a level ultimately to the right, the enemies generally attacking Tim/moving to the left, and the level with which acts on them both by pulling everything down and occasionally into hazards. But unlike in Super Mario Brothers, the goal in a given Braid level is to solve the challenges and collect the puzzle pieces. Because the challenges are mostly created by manipulating space-time in some way, Tim's contrary motion to the right is almost entirely diminished. Instead, space-time becomes a direction of motion in itself.

Though the enemies don't have much interplay and the platforming isn't much, everything yields to the affects of time. Everything, that is, except those elements in the game that aren't affected by the REWIND TIME mechanic. Functionally, elements that aren't affected by rewinding time are still affected by it through relative motion. In other words, if everything in the world moves to the left but a single platform, then relatively speaking, it's like the platform simply moved to the right. Also functionally speaking, whenever there's an element in a level that isn't affected by time in this way, the REWIND TIME mechanic sort of transforms into a mechanic that manipulates space and not time. I'll just leave that thought at that.

Trying to articulate in words what Braid is about is more complicated than it may seem. It's not because the game is complex or difficult. Puzzles games are naturally focused on mechanics and smoothly guiding the player into understanding how these mechanics layer together. One of the reasons why, I think, we struggle within the video gaming industry to express what a game is about is because our public education system has taught us through writing book reports and the like that coming up with what we think a work is "about" means looking for "hidden meanings." Unfortunately, many of still don't realize that the true meaning in a work isn't really hidden at all. The evidence is right there on the screen, in the film, on the canvas, in the text, and in Braid's case in the mechanics and the form of the game.

Braid is a puzzle game with platforming elements. Alongside the gameplay, Blow has very carefully implemented visual art that resembles classical paintings, music that does the same, and a series of colorful text based vignettes that thematically seek to match the gameplay of each world on a conceptual level. The text, which I feel is a misuse of the video game medium, was part of Blow's original conception of Braid. Though I don't care for the writing style in these texts, and the "next-gen text" was almost too small and blurry for me to read on my SDTV (like in Bionic Commando Rearmed), I found the conceptual parallels enchanting.

Blow wanted these two mediums to sit side by side so that they have the opportunity to mingle in the player's mind, and he succeeded in his attempt (at least for this critical-gamer). But I can't forgive the text. Perhaps Blow should have made each block shorter. Miyamoto has be very careful when designing the text section in the Zelda series. He understands the importance of interactivity in a video game and ensures that each text bock is short so that the action of pressing a button to advance through the text keeps the player somewhat engaged. Better yet for Braid, I feel that the text should have been delivered via a narrative voice that plays as the player moves through each world. This approach would give Braid more of a storybook and keep the player engaged in the core interactive gaming experience while making it easy for the player to experience the information in the text without misusing the medium.

Such is Braid. The discourse that has sprung up around this game reminds me of the Discourse of BioShock. So many people have attempted to say something intelligent and meaningful about the game. So many people have tried to talk art and make defenses for one thing or another using Braid. And I've found that most of these people have missed the mark. The real art that's true to the video game medium is in the gameplay and counterpoint design of Braid. The internal dialog that the player has when solving a puzzle is what the game is about. What may be even more profound is how the concepts of manipulating time and space can so easily related to our everyday lives. Those gamers who look up how to solve a puzzle in Braid are only cheating them selves. Such is the drawback of puzzle games. Once you're told how to solve a puzzle, the internal dialog is stilted, stunted, even truncated. This is one aspect of the game that the REWIND TIME mechanic can't fix.

In my conversation with my father, I couldn't get into specifics about Braid's content. Now that I've played the game, if I could go back to that conversation, I don't think I would change a thing. It's perhaps too difficult and too personal to try and communicate my internal dialog from playing Braid to those who haven't experienced it for themselves. It turns out, like for Tim, there are some things that time can't touch.