Friday, August 12, 2011

Sexuality, puzzle games, and Catherine

I'm not into sleazy Japanese games. I've never played Atlus' acclaimed Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series of RPGs, and never even gave them a second thought until Extra Credits did a fantastic analysis of sexual diversity in games using Persona 4 as the primary example. Then I started thinking more seriously about Atlus. Then I heard about Catherine.

It's got naughty pix abounding, and on the surface seems like your average sleazy Japanese game. But the developers insisted it was a deep exploration of sexuality and adulthood, so I remained interested.

Since Catherine was released in North America last month, plenty has been written about its elegant handling of sexual identities and mature themes. Something fewer people have touched on is the context of all this arty stuff.

It's not an RPG. It's a puzzle game.

You read that correctly. Catherine's gameplay is split into three parts: lengthy anime cutscenes, RPG-style nights hanging out at the local pub, and the core of the game--Q*bert-style block-climbing puzzles.

But how can a puzzle game have a deep storyline?

We're stuck in the idea that puzzle games have to be simple. All the most iconic puzzle titles are incredibly minimalist: Tetris, Bejeweled, and Lumines don't really have anything at all resembling a story. In fact, they don't even really have a "fiction"; they're just abstract images used to convey gameplay.

There are a few popular puzzle games with slightly deeper fictions. Puzzle Quest features some fantasy RPG elements, and the Professor Layton games feature Studio Ghibli-style art. But in both of these games, the stories are only superficial packaging for the core gameplay, which is still simple puzzle fare at heart.

So does Catherine do anything different than Professor Layton? At the end of the day, the protagonist Vincent could be replaced with a generic stick figure, and the gameplay would still succeed. But the puzzles themselves serve a purpose in the story: they're allegory for Vincent dealing with the emotional consequences of his infidelity towards his girlfriend, and his anxiety towards maturation and adulthood.

Yes, this is still superficial. The puzzles would work without the story. But through their connection to the fiction, they made me feel more invested in Vincent as a character during the non-puzzle sections. We understand the puzzles as explorations of Vincent's psyche, and that immerses us more in the story. As great as Puzzle Quest and Professor Layton are, neither are able to accomplish this, and as a result their stories come off as much more unnecessary. With Catherine, I loved the puzzles, but I can honestly say I wouldn't have enjoyed them nearly as much if it weren't for their deeply-bedded connection to the storyline.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Thoughts on Metroid's 25th birthday

Twenty-five years ago this past Saturday, the first Metroid title was released on the Famicom in Japan. Plenty has been written on how the game revolutionized non-linear gameplay, how it broke gender barriers, how its dark, melancholic mood redefined atmosphere in games, and how Team Ninja bastardized the franchise with Other M. You can find all those articles on other websites.

The story of Metroid is really the story of its creator, Gunpei Yokoi. He's by far the most tragic figure in the Nintendo game design pantheon--if Shigeru Miyamoto is gaming's Thomas Edison, Yokoi is Nikola Tesla.

Yokoi's life parallels the story of the Metroid franchise. Both are integral figures at Nintendo, still the most important game company in the world. Both had moments of sheer greatness followed by moments of neglect and disaster. Both are black sheep in the Nintendo family whose legacy is too often forgotten today.

Along with Metroid, Yokoi is the creator of some of Nintendo's most important works. Among them: the Game & Watch, Kid Icarus, the Game Boy, Dr. Mario, and Fire Emblem. While many of these were popular and influential, nothing reached the stardom Miyamoto's creations.

And there were the failures. In 1985, Yokoi created R.O.B., the Robotic Operating Buddy! It's a cult classic today, but when it was released, it flopped. The plastic robot add-on for the NES only got support from two games, and it was shortly discontinued.

He was also the father of Nintendo's first foray into 3D gaming, the infamous Virtual Boy. Released in 1995, it was such a failure that it led to Yokoi's departure from Nintendo in 1996, after three decades of service.

A year later, he was hit by a car and killed. And today, unless you're a huge gaming enthusiast, you have no idea who Gunpei Yokoi is.

(Side note: I wonder what Yokoi would think of the 3DS. It's the spiritual successor to the Game Boy and Virtual Boy combined!)

What about Metroid? It's often grouped in Nintendo's "holy trinity" with Mario and The Legend of Zelda. But is it really up there? Metroid has never enjoyed the commercial success of its Miyamoto-created brethren.

To me, it's personal. As a kid, Metroid was the first series that made me realize video games could be something deeper as an art form. It's the most important game franchise to me. If it weren't for Metroid, I'd be another 14-year-old boy on Xbox Live chugging Mountain Dew and calling people homophobic slurs in Halo.

So even if Nintendo refuses to acknowledge your existence in 2011: happy birthday, Metroid. And thank you, Gunpei Yokoi. I'll pour one out for ya.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Minimalism in Limbo, and ambiguous endings

Last week, I listed Limbo creators Playdead as one of the best developers in Scandinavia. Today I'll go more in-depth with their game, and explain why the Danish designers deserve such praise despite Limbo being their very first title.

Limbo is minimalist game design in its purest form. Aside from the main menu, there are absolutely no words through the entire story. No spoken dialogue, no text, nothing. There is no tutorial. You are thrown straight into the plot.

You're a small boy unconscious in a forest. The visual style of Limbo is immediately striking--it's entirely in grayscale, with characters all in silhouette. And the music is minimal. No score, no sweeping theme song. Ambient sounds are the only tunes accompanying the boy, supplemented by single orchestral notes at particularly poignant moments.

The boy, who is never given a name, doesn't wake up until the player presses A. But the game doesn't tell the player to do this; they must figure this out on their own. Once he's awake, control is simple. The control stick moves the boy, the A button makes him jump, and the B button lets him push and pull objects in the environment. That's it. Even the boy's jump ability is fairly modest compared to most other 2D platformers.

This isn't an empowered protagonist like we're used to seeing in this medium. It's just a boy. We're left to come to our own conclusions about anything more than that, because there is absolutely no exposition or backstory. SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT We learn about halfway through the game that he's searching for a girl. Perhaps it's his sister, but this is never expanded upon. Again, we're left to come to our own conclusions. END SLIGHT SPOILERS

Limbo is essentially a puzzle-platformer. The boy must manipulate the environment to get through to the next area. But why he's doing this is anyone's guess. And I like it that way.

As the boy travels through this forest, it seems everything wants to kill him. A tribe of slightly older boys sets traps for him, and a Shelob-like giant spider wants to consume him. We see the bodies of other children hanging from gallows in the background. There's a very Lord of the Flies feel to it all.

Death is all around the boy. In a particularly disturbing sequence, the boy must conquer the spider chasing him by amputating its legs himself. Once the spider has been fully de-legged, the boy must roll its torso into a spike pit and use it as footing to jump off.

Another factor in all this violence is the realization that this boy cannot swim. Any time he goes underwater, he drowns to death. In one sequence, the boy must use the floating corpses of other children to get across a pond. Death follows the boy everywhere--rotting carcasses of animals are pervasive throughout the forest, and insects follow him everywhere. This grisly subject matter might be too much to handle, but the silhouette art style makes it palatable.

Considering how two-tone the visuals are, his deaths are jarringly graphic. The deaths get increasingly gruesome as the game goes on. Being a puzzle-platformer, the player will die dozens of times in one playthrough. But the boy always reappears quickly next to the trap that killed him, so players can try again. Through the sheer volume of deaths, players get almost desensitized to the violence incurred on this small child.


There is no "final boss," and I commend Playdead for eschewing this game industry trope. Instead, near the end of a puzzle, the boy shatters through glass and dies. For real. He doesn't respawn to where he can try again. He actually dies.

But then he wakes up again, much like in the beginning of the game. He's in a forest, and he finds the girl he's been searching for. She's near a ladder, sitting down. She looks up. And then the credits roll.

After the credits, we come back to the game's main menu screen. We make the realization that the ending of the game has been staring us in the face ever since we began: the main menu screen shows the ending of Limbo. It's the same forest as the ending scene, with the same wooden ladder. But it's rotting. And instead of the boy and girl, we see two lumps on the ground with insects buzzing around them.

This abrupt ending was very polarizing for players. But to me, it fits. In an experience where he has died countless times in various super-violent manners, this is closure for the boy. He can finally rest. And perhaps "true death" was the only way for him to find this girl. He's finally out of limbo, and can have his eternal sleep.

Or is he? Since the main menu screen is actually the ending, it could mean the boy is forever in limbo. He's back where he started, and now when a new player starts the game, they can take him through the same purgatorial trip again, again, and again until the end of time.


But that's just my interpretation of the ending. It's up to you to decide what you think. And that's the beauty of ambiguous endings, something far too scarce in the gaming medium. But it's not the only game like this...

As far as "arty 2D platformers" go, Limbo is often mentioned in the same breath as Jonathan Blow's Braid. But though Braid also features no tutorial and an ambiguous story, Limbo's minimalism puts it firmly on top for me. Braid uses a beautiful orchestral soundtrack and hand-drawn, exquisite visuals. But it reeks of pretension, exacerbated by the endless walls of text between levels presented to give the story meaning. In addition, Jonathan Blow has publicly spoken at length on numerous occasions about the themes behind his game. Playdead, on the other hand, has intentionally left the meaning of their game up to the players, and hasn't said anything about the themes of Limbo since it was released.

Braid is a fantastic game, but it relies on overuse of another medium (literature) to deepen the experience. Limbo is something that could really only be accomplished in gaming.