Why Videogames Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
15Jan/160

Professor Layton and the Curious Village (2008)

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

The duoWelcome back!  Seth's family obligations over the holidays and my wedding in October combined with a low spot of health put our Why Video Games series on a temporary hiatus.  With health restored and things quieting back down we're ready to tackle 2016 with fresh insight.

That's why I'm pleased as punch we're going to be talking about a strong front-runner for my favorite video game - Professor Layton and the Curious Village.  For the longest time I didn't associate charming European villages with video games.  The only kind of village was the sort I'd pick up equipment upgrades and maybe new party members in whatever RPG I happened to be playing.

But The Curious Village lured me in with its Hergé-styled art and character designs.  Everyone is soft and welcoming but distinct, something we see immediately with Layton's top hat, button eyes, and smile contrasted with Luke's suspenders, cap, and slightly confused enthusiasm.  As you solve the first puzzle and like an elegant old movie the credits roll with that wonderful theme.

I'm focusing a lot on aesthetics now and less the gameplay because I want to emphasize just how thoroughly charmed I was before tapping my way through the village of St. Mystere.  Did you get sucked into St. Mystere, or did something make you keep your distance?Mysterious enemyI think it's both, for me. My experience of the aesthetic and the gameplay were rather divided on this one. St. Mystere was, as you say, absolutely charming. The animation and character designs are lovely. There is whimsy throughout. You mention the theme, which to me recalls the unforgettable opening to Agatha Christie's Poirot television series, a personal favorite among television mystery shows. There is a touch of the Sherlock archetype in Professor Layton's design and speech, but he's considerably softened, without any known vices, and a champion of chivalry. "One must always put a lady's needs first. That's what a gentleman does." On these points, I'm all in, charmed, and engaged when a new cut scene plays to set up the next chapter of play. When I ask myself what experience this game is presenting and approximating, I really don't think we have to dig too deep on this one. I believe it's intending to present the same flowing, slow-drip of information we get in an engaging mystery story (of any medium), and in a surprising twist it's crafted in an interactive package accessible to a wide range of ages.

In the context of St. Mystere the adults act according to the culture of the place. So nothing is dumbed down for children to be able to play it. They've chosen a setting and style that'll work without the necessity of specifically adult themes or situations (at least the hot-button capital-A Adult issues). There are still dark family secrets, disappearances and suspicion of murder. But the focus of our protagonists is on observation and reason, which keeps the tone very calm. I think that's pretty impressive. I will also admit here that I never really considered playing the Professor Layton series games. And even though it has a lot to offer me, I had mentally written it off as a kids game. I expected it to talk down to me as a player. But it did not. That's noteworthy in any genre these days.

31Jul/150

Why Video Games: Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season One and Two

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

The threatI was wondering when we would get to Telltale's take on the media juggernaut that is The Walking Dead.  It was one of the series I wrote about glowingly in our first article, and considering the way adventure games have found a breath of new life in this current generation of Steam and touch pads it seems necessary to examine just what it is that made The Walking Dead so special for me.  But, more importantly, I'm curious about what design and storytelling observations you made during your first run through of the game, as you suggested this after we finished up Octodad.  Not only was it a game series you had not yet touched, but also in a fictional universe you'd not partaken of in other forms of media.

In preparation for this piece, we played both Season 1, the 100 Days side-story that bookends Season 1, and Season 2.  It makes sense for us to speak of these things as a whole, but to do so I'm going to have to deal with my emotional ties to Season 1, the curiosity generated by the chopped up storytelling of 100 Days, and then the immense dislike bordering on hatred of Season 2.  For this first time, we're going to be dealing with something in our thoughtful fashion that I did not enjoy, for reasons I want to share and hopefully elaborate with you over the course of this conversation.

As a long-time adventure gamer weaned in the Sierra mold, the player / avatar framework which drives the two Seasons was incredible.  So as much as I do strongly dislike Season 2, there's still a freshness to adventure gaming which I haven't felt since they died a temporary death at the birth of 3D gaming.  Telltale's Walking Dead games are a stirring example of how far we've come, but still how far we can go, and potential regressions to avoid along the way.  Since this was your first walk among the dead, how did you react?Brief warmthHaving played two seasons worth of The Walking Dead, there are a number of fascinations about this experience I hope will unfold as we go, but there is one thing at the top of my list as an obstacle and an open question for us and the gaming world. It's something I began asking myself from the beginning of my play through, and only stopped asking myself to eliminate the distraction. And the question is "Is The Walking Dead even a game?". I never felt like I had control over the story. So far as I could tell, the puzzles had an extremely limited set of options, and some only had one solution (a matter of finding a particular key to open a door, etc). I felt an unusual lack of agency as a player, and that troubled me and gave me pause for a while. Now I'm going to skip straight to my conclusion on the matter and then we can go back through and examine the why and wherefores as they seem relevant. The conclusion I drew was that yes, it is a game. But not based on any criteria I had previously.

In our series introduction, we made a statement about exploring the idea of games as the approximation of some experience. And by that definition, The Walking Dead knocks it out of the park. There is no doubt about what experience is being had, and though there are some narrative forks in the road, the depth of the apocalyptic experience and the emotional investment that were awakened within me as a player are unprecedented.

I still have this nagging question about how to dig down into this experience analytically. Genre tags like "adventure" and "interactive fiction" all share bits and pieces of similarity to my observations about The Walking Dead, but none of them quite hit the nail on the head.

With adventure games, The Walking Dead shares the generally linear story progression to a singular ending, where the focus is on the cleverness and richness of the journey through the content. With interactive fiction it shares a focus on the value of the writing and the characterization of the world and its inhabitants. I thought for a while this might be an appropriate genre assignment, with voice acting and animation substituted for a text display. But in some interactive fiction titles I've explored, there are various and sundry endings and turns of the story that I didn't feel were present on the steadfast hand of the writers of The Walking Dead. As both a player and a developer, I felt that no matter what choices I made, the experience was steering me with unsettling inevitability toward one conclusion.

With that, however, I'd like to champion the fact that inevitability and desperation are integral to the story and emotional tone, so it works. REALLY well. As a player, no matter how strange it seemed as a game, it felt right for the story. As a developer, I just kept wondering about that sense of agency, which in many games is crucial. This is only game I've ever played where your own emotional fortitude is the primary gate of access to the next segment of content.

4Jul/150

Final Fantasy V: Andrew Parties With A Four Job Fiesta (Finale)

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Want to catch up on previous parts?  Click here for part one, here for part two, and here for part three.

FFV Banner w - photo

Welcome back to this play for charity, pay for death, #Classic run of Final Fantasy V with the Four Job Fiesta.  After overconfidence resulted in a multitude of wipes, my journey through the second world of Final Fantasy V was relatively uneventful.  This time, I was able to play until the bitter end.  How well did this go?  Slowly, for reasons we'll get to starting...right now!

2Jul/150

Octodad (2011) and Octodad: Dadliest Catch (2014)

If you enjoy Can't Stop the Movies, contributions help me eat and pay rent. Please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution via PayPal.

Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

OctodrewSeth, I have to say, I'm disappointed in you this week.  After our video game analysis started off so well with a good initial chat and great examination of Myst last week, I thought we were going to be in for something special.  After all, how do you follow walking around a mysterious island and interacting with unusual machinery?  Well, you don't do it by making me play a video game starring a perfectly normal father.  I mean, I was pumping water through a dilapidated ship last week, and this week I'm picking up groceries?  What's next, selling lemonade?

I kid, of course, but at the heart of any good joke lies a great deal of truth and the truth is I'm delighted that you wanted to talk about Octodad in both student game and retail release formats this week.  Delighted because it's one of the few examples of its suddenly overpopulated and mostly rubbish genre, of which I don't have a specific name so I'll go with "how the hell do I control this?"  Also delighted because it'll allow us to discuss something we didn't really get to talk about too much last week, that being how to engage the player through character and control.  Finally delighted because it has quite easily the best theme song of any video game released in the last five years (and was an initial pick for my fiancée and I's "coming out" music for the reception).

But, perhaps most importantly, we'll be able to see an evolution.  Because I played through Octodad: Dadliest Catch only a few months ago and had it fresh in my mind, but the student game was new to me.  It astonished me how much a simple change in design philosophy made the experience so much better.  In the student game Octodad, you are an octopus who happens to be a father, but in Dadliest Catch you're a father who happens to be an octopus.  A slight turn of expression did a world of good, and I'm curious if that was part of your plan in suggesting the two together, or if there was some other devious reasoning afoot?

OctosethYes, indeed. I see the two Octodad games as parts of an interesting statement. The student game seems to be a shot in the dark. An experiment. They Young Horses team took wobbly, nigh-unpredictable controls to a certain extreme, and went to work making a character so charming we didn't mind. I don't know how they decided on an octopus. But the interesting point is not the species of animal they selected. It's that they prescribed a series of goals to that octopus which weren't meant for it. There have been lots of games about animals doing human-like things. But they tend to be fully anthropomorphized and skilled (See: Ratchet of the Ratchet & Clank series and many others). In other words, the standard animal fantasy is to imagine that animal as having a level of sophistication similar to humans and run with it. This is not so with Octodad. This octopus is just an octopus. Yes, he wears a suit and has learned and accepted certain trends of human life. But we get to share in a wide-eyed bewilderment with this creature as we discover what it's like to explore and manipulate a world that was not meant for him.

The tasks had to be simple enough that the game was about experimentation. Those wobbly tentacles are the center of this game, and the glue that binds them to the world design is the Suspicion Meter, which is based upon consequences of physics rather than direct input. It's the things that we are doing unintentionally that alter our metered success in this role. Without that touch, it might have been a curious physics toy and not a fully-realized game.

It's interesting that we are given unmatched inputs and outputs, as it were. This is not a game about being an octopus. This is not a game about being a human or accomplishing tasks that humans value. It's a game about an octopus trying to be human. That's the subject, anyway. Weird place to be. Putting aside the specifics of the controls, or the setting (the fatherhood narrative), what do you think this says about the core fantasy of Octodad?

30Jun/150

Final Fantasy V: Andrew Parties With A Four Job Fiesta (Part 3)

If you enjoy Can't Stop the Movies, contributions help me eat and pay rent. Please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution via PayPal.

Want to catch up on previous parts?  Click here for part one, and here for part two.

FFV Banner w - photo

Welcome back to this play for charity, pay for death, #Classic run of Final Fantasy V with the Four Job Fiesta.  Overconfidence and lack of any real strategy with my Jobs led to a series of seven wipes.  Now I'm starting the second world of Final Fantasy V with a bit more caution and experience.  Onward!