Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Top ten: Nordic game developers

We live in a video gaming world dominated by the U.S. and Japan. But it's always intrigued me to look at games developed by the rest of the planet. Last week I took a gander at Canadian developers. This week, let's look at the newest hotspot for the industry: Scandinavia.

Having lived in Denmark, I know Scandinavians argue over what the definition of "Scandinavia" is, so I'll try to simply say "the Nordic countries," even if it doesn't roll off the tongue as easily.

In a part of Europe known for minimalism and bleak landscapes, their games reflect a more pensive, thoughtful nature than their American and Japanese counterparts.

10. CCP Games (Iceland)

CCP is Iceland's only developer on this list, but with a nation of only 318,000 people (half the size of Washington, D.C.), it's understandable. They're best known for creating the massively-multiplayer science fiction game EVE Online in 2003--one of the only MMOs that's been able to sustain a consistent userbase in a market virtually monopolized by Blizzard's World of Warcraft. CCP is currently working on Dust 514, a massively multiplayer first-person shooter set in the EVE Online universe; players in the two games will be able to interact with one another.

9. Rovio Mobile (Finland)

I couldn't do a list of Nordic game developers without mentioning Rovio, the team behind the 2009 casual gaming colossus Angry Birds. They've created their fair share of mediocre iPhone games, and Angry Birds itself has inspired dozens of rip-offs by other companies, but its place cannot be denied in the Nordic gaming pantheon. Perhaps it's the intriguing name, perhaps it's the story of "fat birds launched at pigs," but Angry Birds is one of Finland's most important exports.

8. IO Interactive (Denmark) 

IO Interactive is most widely known for its Hitman franchise, started in 2000: one of the most creative takes on the stealth genre, where the player has the titular job and must disguise himself and stay below the radar to accomplish missions. IO is also famous for the controversial Kane & Lynch in 2007, but their best title is perhaps their most overlooked: 2003's Freedom Fighters, a game about a Soviet invasion of America. Side note: famed Danish game music composer Jesper Kyd had his mainstream breakthrough writing the soundtracks for IO's work.

7. Nifflas (Sweden)

Nicklas Nygren, better known as "Nifflas," is different from the rest of the developers on this list. He's never released a commercial game. He's never had mainstream success. But he's created some of the most important independent games available on the internet. His series Knytt is about a character from a famous 1960 Swedish-Finnish novel, Vem ska trösta knyttet? (Who Will Comfort Knytt?). Nifflas also created Within a Deep Forest, a minimalist platformer set in a post-apocalyptic world.

6. Playdead (Denmark) 

Playdead was started in 2006 by former IO Interactive employees so they could have a bit more artistic freedom to create their first game, last year's dark puzzle-platformer Limbo. The game was a stark, minimalist departure from the action-packed norm at IO, and a premium example for the classic "games as art" argument. The protagonist has no name, and players must piece together the narrative on their own. Playdead is currently working on their second title.

5. Funcom (Norway) 

Norway lags behind its Nordic brethren when it comes to game design, but Funcom continues to carry the torch. They were put on the map with The Longest Journey (Norwegian: Den lengste reisen) in 1999. It was a swan song for the PC adventure genre, with an enigmatic, cerebral storyline and complex characters. Funcom then turned its focus to MMOs with Anarchy Online in 2001 and Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures in 2008. They're currently working on a post-modern MMO called The Secret World, which could be a breath of fresh air in today's online RPG landscape.

4. Frictional Games (Sweden)

Frictional Games specializes in thought-provoking psychological horror games. After creating the moderately successful Penumbra series in 2007, Frictional finally had a cult hit phenomenon last year with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It's a survival horror game in the truest sense of the term--the player has no weapons. They must simply navigate a dark castle without going insane. The monsters you can see are not nearly as scary as the ones you can't see. Amnesia's popularity has led to hundreds of YouTube videos of people playing the game and freaking out.

3. EA DICE (Sweden)

EA DICE is best known for two completely different experiences. The first is 2002's Battlefield 1942, considered by many to be a milestone for the online first-person shooter genre. It launched the whole Battlefield franchise, which is planning to go head-to-head against Infinity Ward's immensely popular Call of Duty series for online FPS domination this year with Battlefield 3. EA DICE's most ambitious title is the parkour masterpiece Mirror's Edge in 2008, with minimalist visuals and a revolutionary free-running control scheme. And the new Spider-Man trailer seems to have ripped Mirror's Edge off completely.

2. Remedy Entertainment (Finland)

The Matrix may have created the "bullet time" action movie effect, but Remedy's 2001 crime classic Max Payne was the first video game to fully realize bullet time as a game mechanic. An homage to the films of John Woo with a film noir art style, Max Payne opened with a bang: you come home and get to see your wife and daughter murdered. Instead of traditional cutscenes, Max Payne used graphic novel-style panels with voice-overs for exposition.

Remedy then went on to create Alan Wake last year, a Twin Peaks-inspired adventure about a novelist stuck in a town where the shit hits the psychological fan.

1. Mojang (Sweden)

Mojang has only created one game as a company, but it's perhaps the most influential and groundbreaking on this list: Minecraft. With a beta released in 2009, it's gone from cult hit to mainstream success story before the "finalized" version even becomes available this November.

Minecraft approaches the "games as art" argument in a similar way to The Sims: what is a game? Does a game need to have a goal or a way to "win" to be a game? In Minecraft, players must figure this all out for themselves. It's a cornucopia of user-generated content.

Monday, July 18, 2011

How to make a compelling firefighter video game

In my quest to validate games as an art form, I'm constantly hit with the fact that most video games are combat-based. Shooter games, strategy games... even Super Mario Bros. involves violence. There are plenty of debates as to why this is. Regardless, it makes non-combat games always stand out to me.

But we've perfected this first-person shooter format to a science! There must be something we can do with it that doesn't involve shooting people. So it hit me: we need to see a classic firefighter video game. It's a simple concept. Use the first-person perspective of an FPS, but instead of killing people, you're putting out fires and saving people! Sounds exciting!

So I took a quick Google gander at the handful of firefighting games ever released on any platform. Firefighting, along with deer hunting and bass fishing, seems to be represented in video games solely by bargain-bin casual titles. But I found a couple of "real" ones.

The first is Burning Rangers, a strange firefighting game for the dying Sega Saturn in 1998, developed by Sonic Team (who made, you know... Sonic). The game is set in a futuristic world where fires are the only real hazard left to humanity, so the government has set up an elite team of super firefighters. It's not exactly a realistic simulation--you wear a rocket-powered space suit and shoot water out of a laser gun. Although this game is actually highly regarded by Saturn enthusiasts, it's not exactly what I'm looking for in a firefighting game.

The next is Firefighter F.D. 18, developed by Konami and released in 2004 for the PlayStation 2. It's a third-person action game that tries to recreate realistic firefighting situations a bit more closely than Burning Rangers. It's a classic Konami formula of the era, even including "boss" fires at the end of levels. An interesting issue this game ignores: the player is not restricted in movement at all, so the fire hose he's holding seems to go on and on forever. The longest fire hose of all time. How could a game more accurately portray fire hose lengths, without constricting the player too much?

The last game I looked at is, in fact, a bargain bin casual game published by Conspiracy Entertainment, famous for such masterpieces as Ninjabread Man and Action Girlz Racing. This one is entitled Real Heroes: Firefighter and was released for the Wii in 2009. It takes the first person perspective I had been thinking about for my own theoretical game, with mediocre results. One of the main issues inherent with the firefighting genre is that your main enemy through the whole game is just one thing: fire. How do you keep fire interesting? This game consists of linear levels and a few civilians to rescue.

An honorable mention goes to the most successful implementation of a water-shooting device in video games: Nintendo's own Super Mario Sunshine, released for the GameCube in 2002. It's the most-maligned title in the Mario franchise, but the eponymous hero's Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device (FLUDD) works brilliantly in the game to clean up graffiti and muddy messes. Clearly, this game mechanic can be achieved. It simply needs to be used on fire.

So how can we learn from these mistakes?

First and foremost, fire is boring. Both gameplay-wise and art-wise, it gets repetitive. It's hard to program "creative" AI for something without a brain, but a game about firefighting has to keep the fires themselves interesting and fun to put out, other than just "walk up to fire, put it out, move on." As for the art, it seems every single firefighting game I looked at had the same color palette: orange, orange, orange, and black. It makes sense since it's fire, but good games have a diverse color range, so you don't feel like you're playing the same level over and over. Plus, modern game technology seems better suited to tackle the complex graphics of fire and water than the spate of PlayStation 2 firefighting games.

There's a lot of gameplay we can derive from firefighting other than just fighting fires. Saving people in different situations and trying to use your tools to get to trapped civilians adds a whole new element to the gameplay. Something none of these games touched on is the fire engine itself. Fire engines are so much a part of little kids' dreams, and they're ripe for gamification. You could customize and upgrade the fire engine, and drive through traffic and red lights to get to the fire itself. And the fire station could be a nifty "home base" for it all.

But the question remains--how do you keep it interesting for an extended period of time? There needs to be some sort of emotional hook without making it cheesy or melodramatic.

Then it came to me: the final level of the game. It should be September 11.

Imagine the impact. You're playing through this game, having gritty firefighting adventures, and suddenly you're hit with something a bit more heavy. If handled well, it could be incredibly poignant. I would want to avoid any sort of over-patriotism or jingoism in the game. If it's simply about firefighters doing their jobs and then dealing with the events of 9/11, I believe that's something real-life firefighters could identify with.

There would be the same controversy that surrounds Six Days in Fallujah, with many people saying it hits too close to home. Publisher cowardice aside, Six Days in Fallujah is able to handle its subject matter gracefully because the developer, Atomic Games, actually spoke extensively with the Marines involved in the Second Battle of Fallujah; they got the Marines' approval to make the title. This firefighting game would have to do the same, with the New York City Fire Department.

And then we can cross the line from "fun games" to "games as art."

Friday, July 15, 2011

Top Ten: Canadian game developers

In the game industry, we often think of Japan and the United States as the only relevant nations. And yes, the vast majority of games today do come from these two countries. But like Neil Young and Jim Carrey, many people we assume are American are, in fact, Canadian. Our neighbors to the north have contributed to video games in a huge way--they're the #3 biggest game manufacturer in the world. So let's take a gander at the top ten Canadian video game developers. Looking at the games on this list, it seems Canadians have a passion for strategy games. What does that say about them as a gaming nation?

10. United Front Games

A new developer created from former employees of EA, Rockstar, Radical Entertainment, and Volition, Inc. Developed the user-creation-driven kart racing ModNation Racers in 2010.

9. Rockstar Vancouver

Began life as Barking Dog Studios making extra content for other games, but went on to become a part of British giant Rockstar Games and create the underrated open-world boarding school game Bully in 2006. Currently working on the upcoming sequel to Max Payne.

8. Ironclad Games

Consists of former Barking Dog Studios employees. Developed the landmark 2008 science fiction strategy title Sins of a Solar Empire.

7. Silicon Knights

On this list primarily because of their masterpiece psychological horror work, 2002's Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. Fittingly, afterwards they went crazy and created the titanic disappointment Too Human in 2008.

6. Relic Entertainment

All about strategy games, largely in the spacey vein. Created the 1999 Homeworld and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War in 2004. as well as the crown jewel of World War II strategy games in 2006, Company of Heroes.

5. EA Canada

The biggest developer for the biggest American third-party publisher is based in Burnaby, British Columbia. A major player in the sports game genre. Created perhaps the best sports game of all time, NHL '94, and continue to perfect the art of hockey with the NHL series. The industry standard for soccer, too, with FIFA. Invented the snowboarding genre with SSX. Dethroned Tony Hawk's skateboarding monopoly with Skate (as EA Black Box).

4. Ubisoft Montréal

The most successful French-Canadian developer. Fittingly, a branch of French-French publishing giant Ubisoft. Brought stealth gaming to the masses with Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell. Reinvented the Prince of Persia franchise for the modern era, then created a spiritual 3D platforming successor with Assassin's Creed.

3. BioWare

Name a major Western RPG with some sort of moral choice system, and there's a large chance BioWare developed it. Defined early 2000s RPGs with Baldur's Gate and the Neverwinter Nights reboot. Made what's widely considered the "greatest Star Wars game ever," Knights of the Old Republic. Developed the commercial smash hits Mass Effect and Dragon Age, as well as the vastly overlooked ancient China adventure Jade Empire.

2. Chris Taylor

The biggest name in sci-fi strategy games, with a few dungeon crawlers to boot. Worked with Cavedog Entertainment and later his own company, Gas Powered Games; both headquartered in the United States. Conceived Total Annihilation in 1997, the first real-time strategy game with 3D graphics. Went on to make his mark on the dungeon crawling genre with 2002's Dungeon Siege, then went back to his native science fiction strategy with Supreme Commander in 2007.

1. Sid Meier

Really doesn't need an intro. One of gaming's first iconic auteurs. Worked with MicroProse and later his own company, Firaxis Games; both headquartered in the United States. Sense a trend in Canadian video game figures? Created landmark pirate sim creatively titled Pirates! in 1987. Revolutionized strategy gaming with Civilization in 1991, followed by futuristic opus Alpha Centauri in 1999.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Secret of Monkey Island and the life & death of point-and-click

The point-and-click adventure genre occupies a strange place in game history, living and dying with LucasArts' non-Star Wars endeavors in the 1990s. The complete non-action nature of these graphic adventures seems counterintuitive in today's game development mentality, where combat is thrown into every title whether it benefits the experience or not--I'm looking at you, Tomb Raider.

I've recently been playing through Tim Schafer's body of work. His games during this period are sort of a microcosm of the point-and-click genre as a whole, bookended by 1990's The Secret of Monkey Island and 1998's Grim Fandango. Both are widely considered classics: there were certainly graphic adventures before, but The Secret of Monkey Island kick-started the genre's mainstream success. And Grim Fandango is perhaps the genre's apex, met with a landslide of critical praise but an utter commercial failure, contributing to the end of the graphic adventure era.

I just finished The Secret of Monkey Island. With limited technology and some monotonous mazes, it'd be easy to overlook in the modern day. But what shines through today is what always stands out in Schafer's games: the writing. Monkey Island's dialogue satirizes both video game convention and clichés of pirate mythology; the game takes inspiration from Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride, thirteen years before Johnny Depp's flick.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the writing is combat. "But what does writing have to do with pirate swordfights?" you may ask. Well, being a point-and-click game, Monkey Island doesn't feature swordplay in the traditional sense. Instead, protagonist Guybrush Threepwood must engage in verbal battles with his swashbuckling opponents, trading insults until one of them is overwhelmed. The rapport is hilarious and completely matches the mood of the rest of the game.

I mentioned too many modern games shoehorn combat into the gameplay even when it doesn't fit. Monkey Island pulls it off because it works in the context of the genre. Instead of stabbing, Guybrush declares "You fight like a dairy farmer!" Swoosh, swipe! To which his opponent retorts, "How appropriate. You fight like a cow." Parry! Whiff!

Tomb Raider is a fantastic puzzle game with horrendous gunplay thrown in to make it more commercially viable. "You control a hot woman solving puzzles!" doesn't appeal nearly as much to the average American as "you control a hot woman gripping long, hard shafts and causing massive explosions! ...oh and there are puzzles."

But perhaps if Lara Croft could learn a lesson from Guybrush Threepwood, her games would benefit exponentially, and her tomb raiding adventures could get a step closer to the "games as art" realm we all dream of.

And Tomb Raider is one example in a list of thousands. Point-and-clicking is dead in 2011, but maybe today's game developers could take a few pages from their books and we'd all be a little happier.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Auteurs, Shadows of the Damned, and Suda 51 motifs

The film industry revolves around stars. When you see a movie poster, it likely has the names of star actors prominently displayed to lure you into the theater. Actors are sexy. Actors sell tickets. But there are a number of directors who are big enough names on their own that they're able to get their names on posters, too. It's a way of validating film as an art form, that the name of the "artist" behind it is able to sell something like the names of authors or painters.

There are a handful of auteurs in the video game world who are considered big enough to get their names on the boxes of their titles, but despite Japan's massive worldwide industry presence, virtually no Japanese designers receive this honor outside their home country. In fact, the only name that comes to mind is Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima. Even Shigeru Miyamoto, the most important game designer on Earth, doesn't get his name on the cover of the newest Mario game. So it's a pretty big deal when punk rock designer Goichi Suda, better known by his pseudonym Suda 51, gets the phrase "A Suda 51 Trip" emblazoned across the front of the North American and European release of his newest title, Shadows of the Damned.

Gaining a cult following in 2005 with his opus Killer7, Suda finally had a commercial breakthrough with 2007's No More Heroes. This led to his company, Grasshopper Manufacture, doubling in size and adding offices both in Japan and in the United States. It was all a lead-up to Shadows of the Damned, released last month as a collaboration with famed Resident Evil creator (and auteur in his own right) Shinji Mikami, and a soundtrack by Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka.

Mikami's influence is clear from the get-go, as the gameplay and controls of Shadows of the Damned are drawn straight from his own personal masterpiece, Resident Evil 4. And oddly, both games feature a "merchant" who first appears hostile to frighten the player, but is revealed to be a friendly character who sells the protagonist goods throughout the storyline. In Shadows of the Damned, his name is Christopher, and in Resident Evil 4, he's simply known as the Merchant; both characters emanate a blue glow from their stores to let the player know they're near. But that's where the obvious Resident Evil connections end, as this game is firmly placed in Suda 51's realm.

The premise is simple: your girlfriend commits suicide and gets dragged to hell by demons, and you must travel to the Underworld to get her back. Sounds like a standard video game trope, but Suda adds his signature crude humor and crazy art style with creeps galore. Since this post is all about auteurs, though, let's take a gander at the motifs running through Suda's games, and the sexual themes explored in Shadows of the Damned.

Right off the bat, protagonist Garcia Hotspur comes off as strikingly similar to Travis Touchdown, the main character in No More Heroes. Both are leather jacket-wearing cool dudes in their 20s or early 30s with giant motorcycles and a penchant for penis jokes stemming largely from their phallic weapons of choice (see photo above for Garcia's). Both embody a hyperbolic version of modern male American (in Garcia's case, Mexican-American) culture, and are going through the violent events of the game in pursuit of a hot blonde woman (see below for Garcia's).

The enemies of the game bring Killer7 to mind. Coincidentally, it was the last game on which Suda collaborated with Shinji Mikami. Both games take place in a strange afterlife world--Shadows of the Damned in Hell, and Killer7 in an alternate version of Earth where protagonist Harman Smith interacts largely with characters who are dead. The lowest form of enemy is similar in both games: the demons in Shadows of the Damned resemble Killer7's ghostly Heaven Smiles.

Suda's tradition of featuring a game-within-a-game is even more widespread. Killer7, Contact, and No More Heroes all feature games-within-games, and it's most developed in Shadows of the Damned's "Great Demon World", a 2D R-Type-style shooter with a distinct construction paper-esque art style. Even a major boss battle against one of the main game's prominent antagonists takes place in this 2D minigame.

Another motif in Suda 51's games is his obvious love for Mexican imagery. One of the playable characters in Killer7, Mask de Smith, is a lucha libre wrestler. Travis Touchdown lives just north of the Mexican border, collects dozens of lucha libre masks and learns Mexican wrestling moves in No More Heroes. And in Shadows of the Damned, we've finally got a Mexican-American main character. Garcia uses plenty of Spanglish throughout the story, and his background is a big part of his characterization in the game. It's strange, then, that Suda didn't capitalize on all the great Mexican Day of the Dead imagery he could've used for the Underworld.

Shadows of the Damned is a tonal halfway point between the deathly subject matter of Killer7 and the juvenile shenanigans of No More Heroes. While Shadows of the Damned is a solid game, Suda's distinct style works better if he stays in either extreme; this median means the game is not quite as compelling as the two that precede it.

A more serious theme the game deals with is Garcia's sexuality. As he travels through Hell to find his girlfriend Paula, hellish apparitions of her appear to him constantly. Sometimes he thinks he's finally found her and they share a loving embrace, only for her skin to peel off and reveal a demon inside. Sometimes her severed head appears to him in Underworld markets or ghoulish bowling alleys. Sometimes she simply chases after him in a zombie-like state and tries to kill him with the Kiss of Death.

But while the "real" Paula appears to Garcia in an elegant dress, the hallucinations of Paula always appear to him in seductive lingerie. In a sequence about halfway through the game, Garcia most run across gargantuan building-sized Paulas, who are naked and moaning while he is forced to run between her breasts and down her stomach.

It's all a reflection of his sexual tension. This suddenly puts all the dick jokes and fun phallic insinuations throughout the game in context. Now it doesn't seem so trivial. Shadows of the Damned is a trip through Garcia's fragile psyche, his greatest fears and instincts visualized.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trollhunter would make a fantastic video game.

If you haven't seen the rollicking Norwegian monster flick Trollhunter (Trolljegeren), do yourself a favor. It was released last year in Norway, although it didn't hit U.S. theaters until this past month--if you're in the D.C. area, the E Street Cinema is still showing it until the end of the week!

André Øvredal's Trollhunter is about exactly what it sounds like it's about--a guy who hunts trolls. The handheld camera and giant monsters immediately bring Cloverfield to mind, but it's a vastly superior film. It's got the action and scares, but it's also got a lot of humor, and uses Norway's extensive troll folklore to make the titular creatures more compelling.

While watching the movie, all I could think of was "this would make a fantastic video game." I know, movie tie-ins rarely work out, but in my theoretical game world, it would be perfect! Warning: minor spoilers ahead, but hear me out:

You play as Hans, the Norwegian government's official Trollhunter. It's a Ghostbusters-meets-Men in Black sort of job; you've got to get rid of trolls that travel outside their territory, while at the same time covering it all up and making sure the public doesn't learn of their existence.

Since trolls only come out at night, the game is split into night and day. During the night, you hunt trolls; during the day, you cover up your tracks and stock up for the next night of trollhunting. The nighttime gameplay would be similar to that of a first-person shooter, but instead of a traditional gun, Hans carries a sort of "light gun." Trolls' biggest weakness is sunlight, so Hans must expose them to UV rays with the light gun, similar to a big camera flash bulb.

As we learn in the film, there are several different varieties of trolls, so there are different ways to approach each breed. This will help diversify the light gun mechanic, and provides a natural video game progression courtesy of the film's story. The movie's characters go from encountering a small (tree-sized) troll to facing a 300-foot behemoth, which sets itself up almost too perfectly as the final boss of the game.

During the day, Hans hides it all, and moves on to the next one. This is like a detective game in reverse, making sure the general populace is unaware of what happens at night. While some trolls explode when exposed to sunlight, older ones simply turn to stone. Hans breaks down the stones and turns them to gravel. Any damage incurred by trolls (half-eaten farm animals, destroyed power lines) gets covered up as bear attacks or freak tornadoes. Hans then prepares for the next night, by setting up traps and re-stocking supplies.

Hans' Land Rover is another critical part of the film and the gameplay. It's where he stores all his trollhunting gear and navigates the sweeping locales of Western Norway to get to the next one. Finding trolls is an art of its own--finding cryptic newspaper articles, examining the landscape for hints of troll activity. The Land Rover is a big part of that. But it's also used in battles against the trolls themselves; he upgrades it and outfits it with protective spikes and a giant troll-fighting UV searchlight.

One last element of the film to incorporate into the game is one of trolls' stranger abilities: being able to "smell the blood of a Christian man." One of the characters in the film is indeed a Christian; while everyone else sneaks around at night mostly unnoticed by the trolls, the Christian character must constantly cover himself in "troll stench" to prevent them from easily sniffing him out. This could translate to nifty stealth mechanics in the game, although it would be a fine line to tread. Poorly-executed stealth sections can ruin a game.

There you have it. Why Trollhunter would make a superb video game, and a bit of a promotion of the film itself in the process. Go see it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Publisher meddling, and what could've been Beyond Good & Evil

Beyond Good & Evil is a cult classic, and rightly so. The French adventure from Ubisoft Montpellier combines Legend of Zelda-style nonlinear gameplay with quirky characters and a stunning color palette, as well as Pokémon Snap-inspired photography. But it's a shadow of what could've been.

After years of working on the beloved-but-aging Rayman franchise, series creator Michel Ancel wanted to make something more complex. He loved the open world of Zelda, but hated the long travel times of the most recent entry (at the time), The Wind Waker. So Ancel set out to streamline this open world, where the most critical story sequences were in much more linear levels. But he wanted to "pack a whole universe onto a single CD—mountains, planets, towns. The idea was to make the player feel like an explorer, with a sense of absolute freedom," while still telling a meaningful story. There was to be a sort of filmic rhythm to it all.

The aftermath of the September 11 attacks was to be a thematic inspiration for Beyond Good & Evil, without ever explicitly mentioning them. Ancel took artistic influence from the work of seminal anime director Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away), and had a very distinct visual look for the game, perhaps reminiscent of another cult classic--Ico. 

But then the publisher came in. Ubisoft wanted Beyond Good & Evil to appeal to mass audiences. The Ico-like art style was scrapped in favor of a more mainstream one, although it still maintained its unique colors. The game was shortened substantially, and the protagonist, Jade, was changed from an insecure teenage girl to a more confident woman, perhaps making it more palatable to video games' mostly-male demographic.

Beyond Good & Evil garnered great reviews when it was released in 2003, but it was a commercial failure. Part of it was because of the game's strange premise, but most of it was Ubisoft's lack of marketing for the title. They weren't really sure how they were meant to promote a game like this, and as a result, they didn't market it much at all. The game slowly gained a word-of-mouth cult status, though, even warranting an HD re-release on Xbox Live Arcade this past March.

Despite the initial sales flop, the finished product was a remarkable experience. The Miyazaki influence shines through in the characters, mostly a collection of anthropomorphic animals with distinct, charming personalities--none more so than Jade's partner in the game, a bumbling middle-aged pig named Pey'j. Jade remains one of the gaming medium's strongest female protagonists, not sexualized or one-dimensional like most women in video games today. Beyond Good & Evil's soundtrack is daring, too--it incorporates music from all over the world, from a racing song in Spanish to a bar tune with Bulgarian lyrics.

But one can't help but envision what could've been. The photography element is still fun, but it could've been expanded greatly. The most in-depth characterization of the game's cast is in the main city in the fictional world of Hillys; it would've been nice to see that extended to the mostly bland enemy design, and the unremarkable caves and caverns Jade explores. In addition, the "evil government" theme in the storyline isn't fully explored; you can tell Ancel wanted to put much more into this game than what we eventually got in the end product.

It's a shame, but there's light at the end of the tunnel: a sequel is in development. With the recent vindication of the title as a classic, Ubisoft is finally willing to give Ancel the money to develop a sequel. It's been on-again, off-again since 2008, and Ancel has recently stated it won't arrive until the next generation of consoles, but it WILL eventually reach store shelves.

Beyond Good & Evil is not quite the giant Michel Ancel wanted it to be, but it's still one of the greatest games of the past decade. Perhaps Beyond Good & Evil 2 will finally be what the original was meant to be, and gain the mainstream success the franchise has deserved since 2003.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Costume Quest = Fight Club for Kids

Costume Quest is a lil' downloadable RPG developed by Double Fine Productions, the company founded by Tim Schafer of Grim Fandango and Psychonauts fame. Its inception came about during Double Fine's tumultuous Brütal Legend period in 2009, when they had no idea if the game would end up getting published at all. The developer went through a series of what they called "Amnesia Fortnights," where the company split into four teams that each worked on their own small game to potentially be released in the future.

As it turns out, the Amnesia Fortnights might be what saved the company, after Brütal Legend was a bit of a Jack Black-filled disappointment. Last year, Costume Quest was the first of the four to be released--the other three are this year's aptly named Russian-stacking-doll Stacking and post-World-War-I-battle-mech Trenched, along with the upcoming Kinect-infused kids' game Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster. All three of the games released so far have received great reviews.

Anyway, let's get back to Costume Quest. You play as an elementary school kid getting himself or herself into a bunch of Halloween hijinks. The kids fight evil monsters, Grubbins, who wish nothing more than to steal all the candy of the world. The characters wear quintessential Halloween costumes like cardboard-box robots and trash-can-lid-for-shield knights, and they go trick-or-treating and collecting as much candy as possible.

Besides the beautifully cartoony cel-shaded art style and Tim Schafer's hallmark sharp, humorous writing, this is a standard turn-based RPG with Paper Mario-style quick-time moves during battles to keep you on your toes. But what stands out most about CQ is the context in which these battles are fought.

When the characters enter battle, the world transforms into a fantasy realm. The kid in the cardboard box transforms into a Gundam-style superbot and the kid with the makeshift shield becomes a larger-than-life knight in shining armor. The characters are fantasy versions of themselves.

But the children in the world of Costume Quest seem to be the only people who even notice the Grubbins. Whenever the characters attempt to call the police, their reports are dismissed. The children talk to plenty of adults throughout the game, but have strictly non-Grubbin-related conversations. Do the Grubbins really exist? Are the characters actually fighting at all? The quest is subtly ironic--stop the Grubbins from monopolizing the world's candy, while at the same time grabbing as much candy as they can get for themselves.

Are the children fighting themselves?