Friday, November 30, 2007

SMG - Edge Re-review

Structures are probably the most recognizable feature of videogames. Because structures create the foundation for the game rules and player to learn these rules, analyzing structure develops a clearer insight into how a game works at its core. We're all familiar with the structures of genre. Any gamer can instantly recognize a first person shooter like Halo from a puzzle game like Tetris. Each gaming genre has a certain look to it that is the result of the gameplay structures. Like with any genre, the degree to which the conventions are followed or deviated from varies greatly from game to game. Recognizing a game's structure is an acute way of talking about how a game works in or outside of its genre.

Aside from a structuralist approach to critical analysis, A New Classical approach looks at how the game's various elements (moves, attacks, level elements, sound, visual effects, etc) work together or harmonize to support the core of the game. The core of the game is more than the sum of its basic mechanics. The core can usually be described in a simple phrase of an action or feeling that encapsulates the overall impact of a game. In a New Classical critical mode, we assume that every element in a game adds up to some effect or purpose. Whether or not the end result is fun, boring, broken, or not quite what the developers intended doesn't matter to a New Classical critic. How a game comes together in the end is a measure of its unity and consistency.

The following review of Super Mario Galaxy by EDGE is a quality review that not only makes my top 3 SMG reviews (the other two I've re-reviewed previously), but it also reflects a Structuralist and a New Classical critical approach.

Edge Super Mario Galaxy Review

Super Mario Galaxy is impossible. Don’t get the wrong idea – it’s not a particularly difficult game, although it does have its moments. What we mean is, it obeys no rules, contradicts everything you know, and has no right to exist.

Just like in Margaret Robertson's review, the intro paragraph is sarcastic, silly, and totally appropriate matching its style with Super Mario Galaxy. The last line in this quoted section already suggests Galaxy is a game that deviates from the conventions of its genre. "It obeys no rules" doesn't mean the game has no order, but that the established rules from previous games in the game genre don't apply thus contradicting "everything you know." By thinking about rules and conventions, we're already working toward thinking in a structuralist mode.

Mario Galaxy turns 3D into 2D, and 2D into 3D. It takes complex spatial ideas and makes them simple and instinctive; it takes the most basic, most familiar acts in gaming and makes them strange, finger-twisting and fresh.

Edge starts to break down Galaxy's apparently unconventional genre. This section hints at the importance of space in a platformer 2D or 3D. In Galaxy's case, what was once complex is now "simple and instinctive." Just like in Parish's review of Galaxy, Edge comments on the blurred distinction between 2D and 3D. Each sentence here deserves at least a page of supporting material, but for the purposes of this review, Edge had to move on.

It lets you reach into the screen, collecting and shooting the star bits that litter the universe, grabbing on to tractor beams, steering bubbles through mazes, twanging Mario and Toad out of catapults. It lets you play the game in two ways and two places at once, and breaks a hitherto unseen barrier between the player and the action. That you can both be Mario and help him is another of Galaxy’s initially strange dislocations, but it comes to feel so comfortable that losing this godlike power is like losing an arm.

Also, as Parish mentioned, Edge writes about the how collecting starbits while simultaneously controlling Mario merges two dynamics of spacial interaction. This aspect of Galaxy's controls and interaction structurally divides and defines space (a key component to platform games) in ways never dreamed of before. "Reach into the screen," "breaks a hitherto unseen barrier," and "play the game in two ways and two places at once" are phrases that speak to the amazing unifying structure of Galaxy and of its ground breaking design.

Structurally, it’s a little more conventional – 120 stars, split into six areas comprising several galaxies each, with the ‘final’ boss coming halfway through, is an entirely familiar arrangement.

Edge even uses the word "structurally" here. In this case, Edge comments on the arrangement of the hub world by describing a formula that the previous two 3D Mario platformers (Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine) have established. This is an example of how Galaxy is structured within genre conventions.

Super Mario Galaxy is a platform game, pure and simple. More so than Mario 64 is; more so than any truly 3D videogame ever made. For all its countless diversions and bizarre ideas, it keeps coming back to running, bouncing, scaling, exploring, teetering on the brink, taking your heart in your mouth and jumping off the edge of the world. For others, space is the final frontier, the furthest you can go; for Mario, it’s just like coming home.

Here, Edge claims that Super Mario Galaxy is a platform game that reins over all over other platform games and "3D games ever made." More importantly, Edge expresses that all the "countless" variety in the game all adds up to solid platforming: "It keeps coming back to running, bouncing, scaling, exploring, teetering on the brink, taking your hear in your mouth and jumping off the edge of the world." In other words, there's nothing in the game that detracts from the simple task at hand; like the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES, it's all about that jump. Even in space and the most 3D environment ever, Mario is still harmonized around that famous jump. This New Classical idea not only displays the unity in Galaxy, but in all of Mario's platform games throughout his entire series. The feeling of unity is a big part of what makes Mario games feel like Mario games.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What Being a Critic Does....

"What being a critic does is gives you access to the language to explain the gut reaction you had. And to understand it, to interrogate it, to challenge it.... My gut reaction is still my gut and that is what I trust more than anything." ~ N'Gai Croal

The 1up 11/16/07 cast of 1up Yours featured special guest N'Gai Croal the writer of Level Up. Level Up is a videogame blog affiliated with Newsweek. In the podcast, the group responded to the question of does reviewing/critiquing video games reduce the enjoyment of playing games. This is a commonly expressed concern that exists for many fields of art. I believe that one's initial reactions or gut feelings about a game are greatly sustained through criticism. More importantly, I believe that understanding, interrogating, and challenging our feelings and gut reactions is how we can move from expressing unbacked opinions to taking control of our individuality and truly explaining ourselves in relation to a work.

I've found that many game journalist (rather game enthusiasts) toss around "buzz" words in attempt to express their gut feelings, and reactions to a game. How many times have you come across the word "intuitive" when reading Wii reviews, or the word "compelling" when reading a review of just about any game with smidgen of story? In a good review, these words are just the beginning. Backing them up with examples of elements from the game that created this feeling speaks volumes about the game and the reviewer. Unfortunately, most cop out without explaining anything.

Having an opinion or a feeling is just the beginning. Understanding these feelings involves discovery and knowledge of oneself and of the game. What if you think a game about a son searching for his father is masterfully compelling because your father disappeared when you were little? Does your history make the game more compelling? Can you look at how the games elements work together without considering your personal history? If not, can you come to terms with your possible bias and still say something about the game that may be more universal to other's experiences?

A dialog must exist within yourself. In this conversation all opinions, reactions (however brash), and thoughts are welcome to freely bound around. At some point, you should question why you reacted the way you did. After this, you may have to challenge yourself. Ultimately, properly supportable opinions/feelings will survive such scrutiny, while everything else might dissolve somewhat. Coming to this point doesn't destroy your opinions though. Though the quest to find one's father might enthrall you, you can still see how the story in this particular (hypothetical) game succeeds or fails to come together to mean anything significant. Being a critic isn't a sacrifice of one world (enjoyment) for another (sterile-trenchant-critique). Knowledge is power: in this case, the power to exist in both worlds simultaneously.

With time, your gut will be tempered and refined into a machine that can lead you into developing highly intelligent and profound reactions. Like with so many goals in life, practice makes perfect. N'Gai trusts his gut. I trust his gut too, but not in the same way. I trust N'Gai's gut to provide him an efficient avenue to explain his feelings through articulated speech, and subsequently who he is in relation to a particular issue/work. This doesn't necessarily make his statements right, but the clarity of his writing provides a clear ground for any possible rejections.

I recommend checking out N'Gai's blog. In the meantime, know thy self and stay critical.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mass Effect- Game Informer Re-review

Highlighting good game reviews can show us a lot about how reviews should be written. Likewise, examining the shortcomings of bad reviews can also be instructional. Some reviews are very poorly written. Aside from the final score, the written portion of these reviews often reflect the reviewers bemused conception of the game. This confusion is most likely due to the reviewer's lack of understanding of how the game's elements work together to create the overall product. Regardless of how good the game is, a review should clearly communicate either some aspect of the game or a personal account of the reviewer's gameplay experience.

In preparation for my review of Mass Effect, I read the review in issue 175 of Game Informer by Reiner. I also read the second opinion by Ben. I have several issues with these reviews.

"Not since Star Wars made its theatrical debut in 1977 has there been a universe so full of wonder and awe."

It's hard to determine exactly what Reiner means here. Is he claiming that Star Wars and Mass Effect contain fictional universes that are in a league of their own above other films? But Mass Effect is a game. Comparing Star Wars to it implies that this comparison covers all mediums. Is he really trying to say that there isn't some other book, movie, or game that has a fully awe inspiring universe? The following quote suggests Reiner is including these other mediums. If this is the case, this is a bold claim.

"It's an amazing work of fiction, a visual work of art, and a property that is so fully realized and so rich in its backstory that its contents could fill countless games, books, and movies."

This statements suggests that the content of Mass Effect endlessly generates. If not, how else can such a game fill "countless games, books, and movies?" I'm sure we all understand what Reiner meant by this statement, but the words themselves work against his meaning. Also, Reiner fails to even hint at what specific elements of the game makes it "amazing" let alone how they were assembled to create this effect. Even if there were strict limits to the length of this review, the writing reflects Reiner's lack understanding and critical thinking.

"The developers at Bioware have grown mightily as storytellers and have honed this craft to make every second of the content seem important. Even the side missions, which have the players traveling across the stars to different solar systems, planets, and moons, is either relevant to the conflict at hand or used to help the player better understand the universe and how it came to be. "

I wonder what other kind of content Mass Effect could have. Isn't the nature of a side mission one that is related to the main mission or created to deepen the player's understanding of the overall game world? Surely, the developers at Bioware wouldn't put something in the game that has nothing to do with the universe of the game. This statement fails to support how "Bioware [has] grown mightily as storytellers." As a reader, I still want to know what makes Reiner think that Mass Effect has better story/universe than most books and movies.

"Mass Effect's run-and-gun warfare is certainly ambitious, and it has the potential to be incredibly powerful. However, most of the skirmishes, which begin and end in the blink of an eye, run into balancing issues, problematic AI, and a difficulty in comprehending what is transpiring."

I do not know what Reiner mens by "powerful." Perhaps he means flashy, or functional. Furthermore, the four problems Reiner encountered with the combat are serious issues that occur "most" of the time. I can't see how such glaring problems with the action part of this Action/RPG, wouldn't seriously detract from the game. If most of half of the game (the action half) has problems, then the score of 9.75 suggests Reiner consciously ignored the games shortcomings.

"The gameplay is certainly fun, and it controls admirably, but it doesn't live up to the lare stage the story sets or the standards you've come to expect from action games and RPGs."

According to Reiner, Mass Effect falls short of the standards for both of its representative genres. This statement is significant. According to Reiner, even the deep character and weapon customization get old "after a few hours." Judging from Reiner's review, it's clear that Mass Effect privileges story and concepts above gameplay, function, and execution. In the review, Reiner even opens with positive comments about Mass Effect's scifi universe and story before transitioning into the shorcomings of the gameplay as if trying to hide the flaws of the game behind the promise of its story: "Now you've probably noticed I haven't talked much about the gameplay."

"You'll want more from it, but by no means does it hold the experience back."

I don't understand how Reiner can express so many of Mass Effect's gameplay shortcomings and then make this statement. Is he really trying to say that disappointing gameplay doesn't negatively affect the gaming experience? Reiner goes on to say how "captivating" the story is. If Mass Effect represents a "new age of interactive storytelling" they why would any reviewer discount the "interactive" part of the gaming experinece. Even when the story/experience isn't privileged over the gameplay, it's still an integral part of the game's narrative.

The Second Opinion written by Ben shares many of Reiner's sentiments. Ben also comments on the game's balance.

"Problem is, certain powers/weapon combos allow you to steamroll waves of enemies, making the game feel easy until the dice rolls turn against you and you find yourself dead within seconds."

Ben goes on to say "I want to call this a balancing issue." Shouldn't the game reviewer be able to discern if this problem is a balance issue or not? "Wanting" to call it a balance issue exposes Ben's lack of understanding of the issue.

"Still, Mass Effect could very well represent the future of entertainment, and its few flaws shouldn't' stop anyone from enjoying that experience."

What about people who enjoy solid gameplay?

In closing, according to these reviews, Mass Effect is all about story. However, neither Reiner nor Ben could explain what makes the story so good or "captivating." What is clear are the issues with the combat/action portion of the game. As an antecedent to my hands-on time with the game, my impressions of Mass Effect are disjointed and spotty.

It's hard to justify such high review scores based on the two articles. In the end, readers should realize that these reviews communicated very little about what makes Mass Effect (potentially) so good. And with a double score of 9.75, we have to start judging whether these reviews are bias or even worth considering.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Portal: Narrative

Portal is an excellent example of a game that follows the rules, assumptions, and principles of Classical Game Design. The setting, dialogue, characters, visual style, music, and sound were all set into subsidiary roles to support the gameplay, the unique driving mechanic of the videogame medium. Because the game's elements are so tightly focused on the gameplay, the player's gaming experience becomes the narrative of Portal. It is also significant to note that when people try to describe Portal, they constantly jump back and forth praising its various elements. It's hard to talk about the portal gun without talking about how the level design accentuates gravity and momentum. It's difficult to talk about the level design without noting that the player is in a stylisticaly bland laboratory research facility. It's nearly impossible to talk about the lab facility without mentioning GLaDOS, the whimsical, mysterious, sarcastic, dangerous voice that guides the player throughout the game. Even then, I couldn't simply describe GLaDOS as a voice played over an intercom system. Anyone who's played the game understands that she is more than a passive comedian interspersing clever one-liners in between levels. The apprehension and distrust toward this voice is a key part of the narrative of Portal.

*The rest of this article contains spoilers*

So we've identified that Portals narrative is built into the experience of the player, and that this experience is guided by level progression like most other games. Before we can analyze and critique Portals narrative, we have to identify which parts of the game are analogous to common elements of literary (or even film) narratives. In Portal, the player takes control of the main character, Chell. Chell uses the portal gun to manipulate her environment to overcome challenges set by Aperture Science, a fictional facility. The purposes of these tests and Aperture Science are shrouded in mystery. The second character is GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System). GLaDOS is not the narrator, but a character with limited omniscience. Though she informs and guides the player through an intercom system, her limited omniscience is expressed through the placement of cameras that monitor the players progress. Whenever a camera is tampered with by removing it from the wall, the player is informed by GLaDOS not to do so. If, the maintenance of the cameras was integral to maintaining gameplay, as the player proceeds to destroy the cameras, a light scolding is their only consequence. The credibility of the narrator also comes into question very early in the game. GLaDOS tells many lies throughout the game and, when caught in a lie, she casually back peddles her way out of it.

" As part of a previously mentioned required test protocol, we can no longer lie to you."
"The Enrichment Center regrets to inform you that this next test is impossible. Make no attempt to solve it."
"Fantastic! You remained resolute and resourceful in an atmosphere of extreme pessimism.
"Have I lied to you? I mean in this room. "

The primary plot in Portal consists of the main character completing a set of challenges. The subplot involves discovering the true nature of the Aperture Science facility. As it turns out, after you complete all the missions, GLaDOS tries to dispose of you through fire and flames. At this point in the game, the plot shifts from a "hero's quest" (in this case the quest for cake) to a quest for freedom. Everything that GLaDOS has told you up to this point can't be trusted. Before, the hidden passages in the walls revealing interesting personal notes from other test subjects who've gone before you, were just whimsical asides. Now "the cake is a lie" means more than a failed promise of dessert. The "cake," GLaDOS, and Aperture Science are all a lie. For the player, everything they've been experiencing and all the puzzles were just a clever ruse. The only way to break free from the lies is to seek the source, GLaDOS.

It is only fitting that the Portals narrative structure simultaneously describes it's design (gameplay) purpose. From Valve's website...

"The game is designed to change the way players approach, manipulate, and surmise the possibilities in a given environment;"

Using the Portal gun the players sense of perspective shifts from overcoming Chell's individual perspective to overcoming a perspective that encompasses GLaDOS and Aperture Science. Change the word perspective with "environment" and it's clear how the narrative parallels and reinforces the gameplay.

Now that the narrative has been defined, it can be critiqued more traditionally. These are the areas I would focus on and some of the questions I start with.

Psychoanalytic Theory: Can a Computer Feel? Examining GLaDOS psychological state, and the systematic destruction of here colored personality components. Does the red component (at the end of the game) function as GLaDOS's Id? How, if at all, does GLaDOS show signs of repression? Does GLaDOS's limited omniscience as exhibited through the monitoring cameras operate as her conscious mind while Chell (the player) and those who've escaped the confines of the testing facilities operate as the unconscious?

New Criticism: The Truth as I See it Now. Does the game's narrative harmonize into the universal truth of "escape and control only exist in a given perspective"?

Structuralism: Lies (perspective) and Truth (cake). Examine the cycle of perspective generates assumptions that generates lies that generates the breaking into a new perspectives. From the opening of the game (overcoming the escape from a room with no doors), to passing "impossible" tests after tests, to overcoming Aperture science, to the website valve created for providing additional information about Aperture Science, each step follows the cycle. Does the Aperture Website frame the final perspective of the player especially considering it's only accessible after obtaining a code at the end of the game?

Feminism: Where's the Free-man? Does the portrayal of females in Portal support patriarchal values? Where are the male characters? GLaDOS and Chell are female, and GLaDOS also mentions 'take your daughter to work' day. Are the only male characters buried on the markings on the walls in the hidden alternative rooms/closets? If so, what ideologies does it promote. Can GLaDOS's command for Chell to "Place The Device on the ground then lie on your stomach with your arms at your sides" be read as the super ego's attempt to pacify Chell, a woman?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Approaching Game Narrative Critique

Critiquing stories, or narratives, in video games presents an interesting problem. Because video games are so complex covering a wide variety of genres (story and gameplay-wise), picking out the story can be complicated. Only by understanding how stories relate to other mediums and to the game itself can we develop adequate techniques and approaches for critiquing video game narratives.

According to the theories of Classical Game Design, a game's story only operates on the level that the player can interact with. In other words, the story in a game is not the short description found in the instruction manual, or the series of cinematic scenes interspersed throughout the game. Rather, the story is the actions, functions, and outcomes of the player as they play the game. In Classical Game Design, all of the games elements are designed to support the gameplay. This is significant because this school of design puts graphics, music, sound, and story in subsidiary roles. By prioritizing game play, classic game design puts what is more unique about games, their interactivity, in the forefront. In The Lester Bangs of Video Games Chuck Klosterman posts a quote from Steven Johnson regarding how established methods of critiquing games are ineffective because they fail to take advantage of what is unique to the medium.

"Games can't be analyzed using the aesthetic tools we've developed to evaluate narrative art forms like books or films. Video games generally have narratives and some kind of character development, but--almost without exception--these are the least interesting things about them. Gamers don't play because they're drawn into the story line; they play because there's something intoxicating about the mix of exploring an environment and solving problems. The stories are an afterthought."

Thinking in the Classical Game Design mode, for a Mario game, the story isn't so much about saving a princess as it's every jump, star, and power-up along the way. For a Zelda game, sure, Gannon is most likely up to no good, but the transformation from the ephemeral teen to the hero of time is the narrative. Every enemy, heart piece, and item you collect defines and harmonizes the vast, seemingly chaotic world around the player. This is the narrative of the game. When the game's elements are all designed to support its gameplay, the core functions are unified into an experience that is both unique and universal for all players. It's not goal, but how you get there.

The rules, assumptions, and principles of Classical Game Design, were pioneered by Shigeru Miyamoto. The functions of a game (gameplay) should be supported by how the game looks, feels, and sounds. His background in Industrial Engineering is the obvious source for this kind of approach to game design. Such an approach is an important part of what makes Nintendo's games Nintendo games. Needless to say, most developers don't follow many of the principles of Classical Game Design. Western game design and some genres in particular, privilege story over gameplay. It seems odd that a developer would sacrifice what is most unique about the video game medium (the interactivity) for story that, in the traditional sense, isn't interactive. However, without getting into a debate between the two schools of game design, figuring out a way to approach critiquing stories in games that prioritize story over gameplay is still important.

Years ago, game stories were communicated via large amounts of text. RPGs fall into this camp. The story sequences, and all the dialogue from both main, side, and the NPCs (non playable charactres) were all driven by text. Though story is such a large part of these games, it's strange that reviews fail to review or comment on the more intricate aspects of such stories. Most reviewers will write a shallow summary of the plot that does little more than inform the reader that the game is an epic or features some kind of hero's quest. Most RPG stories fall under these categories. What's worse, many reviewers seem to only judge a story based on how many plot twists or cliches it contains. Unfortunately, this method of review fails to critique or even think about the execution of such stories. Shouldn't these stories be critiqued like any other piece of literature, especially if the story is prioritized over the gameplay? Shouldn't we be able to critique cinematic cut scenes with the same methods as short film/movie critiques? Certainly if we did, most "excellent" game stories wouldn't hold a candle to actual books/films. The more games privilege story over gameplay, the harder they'll have to fight as they straddle the line between literature, film, and games. By properly critiquing game stories, we'll be able to recognize their quality by their own merit and hopefully stop saying stories are good "for a videogame."

This generation of gaming has already seen a leap in the quality of story telling and presentation. Heavenly Sword is one of the forerunners for this leap. The cinematic scenes in this game are so well acted, animated, and voice acted that many reviewers have commented that the gap between films and games is shrinking. These comments aren't unfounded. Heavenly Sword looks phenomenal. However, like movies, there's more to communicating a story than sharp visuals and talented actors. Direction, editing, and scripting are all critical components. It doesn't take a professional film critique to see that Heavenly Sword's "movie-like" sequences fall far short of telling a decent story. Strictly critiquing the scenes, many are jumpy, poorly cut, and poorly paced. Though the acting is great, the characters are little more than histrionic hyperboles of cliche characters. Such characters can be used to assemble great narratives, however, their portrayal in Heavenly Sword is insufficient. The first few major scenes in the game are actually good. However, as the game progresses, the scenes become more abrupt and less coherent.

If Heavenly Sword were a film, it would fail to tell a cohesive story. Though the gameplay isn't necessarily privileged over the presentation, it is still important to consider how the level interactivity supports the narrative. Many of the transitions between the cinematic scenes and the gameplay sequences are jarring. I found myself frequently wondering where my particular character was, what I was doing, and why. Ultimately, Heavenly Sword's story is just a gallimaufry of ideas and over the top characters with gameplay that does little to connect the scattered dots.

While Heavenly sword features a very linear story, the upcoming game Mass Effect boasts a deep, and robust narrative adventure that the player can interact with by carving out their path through the galaxy. If Heavenly Sword's narrative is like a roller coaster, then Mass Effect is like being turned loose on the whole theme park. Where you go, and how you get there is up to you. The player's unique journey through this world comprises the story in the same way a Zelda games does. When I considered how to approach critiquing a story like Mass Effect's I came up with a few approaches. One key feature of the game is how the player's choices change the paths they take through the game. Examining the extent these choices actually have on the gameplay and the story is one approach. Another approach is to compare the multiple branching narrative paths to try an expose a overarching/master narrative that could be considered what Mass Effect is really about. Minimizing the significance of the player's choice, the dialogue (text) and the scene composition can also be critiqued borrowing the terms and techniques from film critique.

I will be spending time with Mass Effect next week in order to write about its real story, something that other reviewers will probably fail to write on despite Mass Effects significant focus on narrative.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

SMG- 1up Review of a Review

It's the week of Mario, so I decided to review another Galaxy review.

Jeremy Parish wrote this Review of Super Mario Galaxy.

Although this review is short and clean, the topics Parish touches on hint at his remarkably deep understanding of Super Mario Galaxy. I originally intended to lift a few quotes from his review to comment on, but I ended up with quite a few. Now I must comment on all of them.

At the end of this re-review, I'll discuss how I would have liked Parish to continued while comparing the points of discussion with Iwata Asks: Super Mario Galaxy.

"It is an exceptional game by any standard, Mario or otherwise. It doesn't invent new kinds of gameplay, but it represents something that is perhaps equally important: A rethinking of how 3D platformers should work."

This statement is one of the many cliche statements found in many Super Mario Galaxy reviews. It's quite a statement indeed, and where most quickly shy away from backing it up, Parish continues....

"Galaxy strips away those encumbrances, revisits the essential concepts that made its esteemed predecessor so enjoyable, and then expands on them in new and intriguing ways."

From here Parish has set up how the rest (or at least some) of his review will be structured. By comparing Galaxy to Mario64, and Sunshine, Parish attempts to define what he means by "a rethinking of how 3D platformers should work." For those of us who are familiar with Miyamoto's game design philosophies, it is no coincidence that the previous two 3D Mario games are the best in the genre. So what may look like a cross comparison of 3D Mario "predecessor(s)" is essentially a comparison of the best platformers.

Paris clearly identifies what he feels are the encumbrances: "needlessly complex controls and obsessive-compulsive item collection." He quickly comments on how Galaxy has less to collect than Sunshine thus its design shifts back towards the design of Mario64. Then, Parish comments on how the collection in Galaxy has been dynamically redesigned.

"To make collection even less of a chore, Galaxy uses the Wii Remote as a cursor that allows you to gather star bits by simply pointing at them, regardless of how far away from Mario they happen to be. In fact, Wii functionality is incorporated into Galaxy more subtly and effectively than in any action game to date, and it allows for a simplified control scheme that nevertheless offers Mario more varied control options than ever before -- an amazing accomplishment in itself."

By using the Wii remote's pointer function, the player is given a level of control that is subtle, effective, and adds a new variation that's executed with more finesse than "any action game to date." Without explicitly stating so, Parish has explained how Galaxy has surpassed Mario64's level of collection: "that nevertheless offers Mario more varied control options than ever before." Parish then moves on to controls.

"The streamlined controls are more than simply a reaction to the overbearing interfaces common in modern platformers, too. They're born of necessity"

Jeremy Parish almost restated the "essence of Mario" in this quote. In the Ask Iwata interviews, Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario) was finally able to put the "essence of Mario" (what trule makes a Mario game a Mario game) into words. According to Miyamoto, "Mario is to create form around function." In other words, all of the elements in a Mario world create the world that is defined by Mario's abilities (and subsequently the players sole means of interaction/expression). This philosophy at its best results in a game where there are no bumps, rocks, or enemies randomly placed in the level. Every enemy, animation, sound, and action work together to support how the game is played because that is the only means the player has to interact with the game world. And through this close relationship of form and function, the player feels a deeper connection with the game world.

Taking away the uneeded elements of a platformer resulted in a game where a complex control scheme was unnecessary. In this way, the philosophy of the game design filters into the rest of the game's formal elements (like controls).

"You've never done these things before in a videogame, but Galaxy makes even the wildest challenge feel almost second nature. Its subtle, intelligent visual design deserves much of the credit for easing players into the unfamiliar; everything you can do (and must do) is indicated by the shapes of platforms, by the placement of telltale shadows on the ground, or by NPCs pantomiming your actions."

When the entire game world is designed with the player in mind, it is no wonder that "the wildest challenge [can] feel almost second nature." When every "platform" and "shape" is quietly telling you "you can make this jump" or "try this," understanding the game world and its rules becomes as easy as looking at the screen.

"The orchestrated themes are as vast and majestic as befits a game that spans the universe, and the sly interweaving of dynamic sound and classic motifs creates a soundscape that is quintessentially Mario yet uncharacteristically sophisticated."

Under "The Sound Team" section in the Iwata Asks: Super Mario Galaxy, the "vast and majestic" sounds and the dynamics of the sound designed are discussed throughly. Again, it's as if Parish read the interviews. I don't know if he had or not, but it's clear that his comments align with the developers.

And shortly after, Parish wraps up his review quite succinctly. Staying far away from plot summaries, or long lists of new features, world types, and/or powerups, Jeremy Parish stuck to his formula of detailing why Super Mario Galaxy is "the difference between a good game and a great game."

To dip in a little critical theory, I think if Parish intended to write in a critical mode he would chosen Structuralism.

Others have mentioned interesting structures in Mario Galaxy, but few have expounded on these areas. Matt Casamasssina commented in an IGNpodcast, that the level designed for the planetoids in Super Mario Galaxy very very similar to 2D levels found in classic Mario games like Super Mario Bros. 3. This is a deep concept that should be explored. Unfortunately, I found Casamassina's Galaxy review to be devoid of any such material and deep analysis/thought.

Parish has several governing structures/ideas that he has found in Galaxy as evident in his review.
  • simple and intuitive games are quite effective for reaching all types of gamers and people (the Nintendo Philosophy) "In Galaxy, Nintendo finally makes good on its grand ambition this generation (with only a few small snags): to create a game that anyone can play, but laden with enough depth and intricacy to satisfy its hardcore fans."
  • form fits function (the "essence of Mario") "They're born of necessity"
  • The best 3D design is ultimately very 2D in nature. (level design and wiimote pointer)
On this last point, though Parish didn't mention the 2D nature of the planetoids like Casamassina, he did explain the Wii remote pointer as being a control element that transforms 3D space into 2D space: "Galaxy uses the Wii Remote as a cursor that allows you to gather star bits by simply pointing at them, regardless of how far away from Mario they happen to be." The function of retrieving an object in 3D space by pointing at it's location on a 2D screen, transforms all of these "candy" bits into collectibles that exist on a 2D plain. While this function may seem like it's reducing the depth and complexity of "candy" collection, remember that the 2D image on the screen is relative to the camera position that dynamically moves in 3D space according to how the player controls Mario. So, though Mario's controls are very simple, they affect the other elements of controls and gameplay simultaneously.

Linking these structures to more universal human experiences will require more study with the game. When I get my hands on Galaxy, I'll be sure to write a a few articles in several different critical modes to better demonstrate the difference between a game review and a critical essay.

Friday, November 9, 2007

SMG- Eurogamer Review of a Review & Player Response

This Super Mario Galaxy review by Margaret Roberston stood out from the majority of the other reviews I've read from around the net. Though this particular review doesn't address the game on a critical level or on a technical level, it does a great job of capturing the spirit and energy of the Mario.

"Bright, bold, unrepentantly loony, Galaxy is everything you wanted it to be. It's beautiful and inventive. It's pure-blood Mario without being a retro indulgence. It's a stiff platforming challenge and a free-wheeling romp. It's the best thing on Wii, and the best traditional game Nintendo has made in a decade."

Moving from the singular bold adjectives , to short descriptive statements, the sentence structure mimics jumping. Before proceeding into the rest of the review, the last sentence leaps off the "ground" of the established history of "mediocre games" to prep your mind for a game that will be out of your world.

"The only thing about it which dulls your enjoyment is the memory of all the mediocre games you've had to play in the meantime."

The article touches on many of the areas we have come to expect from a typical game review. Controls. Story. Variety. Creativity. Level Design. Annoyances. Legacy. However, these topics aren't addressed one by one in a linear fashion. Like the open-ended freedom of Mario Galaxy's hub world, Roberston follows her own path through her review. Without being constricted to an overly organized "formal" approach, she's free to interject more personal statements that reflect her own experience with the game.

"Where's the sky? Where's the ground? Dimensions come and go as the game slips in and out of 3D and 2D with little warning and no reservations. Gravity flips and switches - on, off, one way then another way. It would be the game most guaranteed to give you vertigo, if at any point you had any clear idea which way down was. Instead, you just follow the fun, chasing star trails and distant glimmers across oceans of empty sky. Levels form and dissolve under your feet, rotating and revolving. Somehow, through it all, the camera doesn't break sweat. And somehow, through it all, you're never lost and never confused. If you've seen Fred Astaire dance on the ceiling in Royal Wedding, or Jamiroquai sliding into Virtual Insanity, then you're well prepared for Mario's new galaxy. You may also want to schedule another lap of Portal's mind-benders, just to be sure you're warmed-up for his total disregard for the recognised rules of physics. You'll blow bubbles, de-louse giant bees, race rays, skate through the stars, climb towers that don't exist and battle giant robots, all without a second thought."

In this section alone, Roberston describes from the various level elements, comments on the games primary drive and how the level shapes this experience, and the camera all while connecting her experience to the world outside of Mario and videogames too. (Portal & Royal Wedding). While reading through this section even for the first time "somehow, through it all, you're never lost and never confused." To put it simply, when writing this review, Roberston seems to have simply "[followed] the fun" inspired by the experience of play Super Mario Galaxy.

After reading through the review, you should have a pretty good idea of what kind of game Super Mario Galaxy is. My favorite part of the review is that it communicated the spirit and quality of the game without being bogged down with blandly repeating details that most previews have already explicated.

This review most closely reflects the kind of writing in Reader-Response literary critical theory. In a nut shell, this mode of critical theory accepts the readers personal experience with a piece of literature as being guided by elements within the work. In other words, certain words, styles, and or literary devices guide the readers experience/interpretation away from floating off into an cloud of possibilities. After the reader forms his/her interpretation, it must be submitted to a community of some sort. The ultimate goal of this critical theory is to examine "how readers read" or what happens between the page and our minds. The reader is the cornerstone of this critical mode.

I've detailed a mode of critical game theory I call "Player Response." This mode examines how the elements in the game shape the players experience. Once an impression/interpretation is formed, it should be submitted to a community of like minded people (ie. compared to other game reviewers).

If Margaret Roberston were to write in the Player Response critical mode, she would have to find specific elements and parts in the game that clearly shaped her gaming experience. It would be essential (and also very interesting) know to what parts of the game allowed for Roberston to walk away with such an experience that warrants a 10/10 score. And by understanding how she experience the game, we could all learn a little more of how we play any games ourselves.