Category Archives: Tech

Are Videogames Art? (Part Five)

Part Five – Art for All.

‘Heavy Rain’ is easily one of the highest profile games of the last decade to take an experimental approach to game design. The rare hybrid of a cutting edge, visionary director in David Cage, cross-bred with a big money first party development team (Quantic Dream); Heavy Rain divided opinions upon its arrival in February 2010.

Many were reluctant to call Heavy Rain a ‘game’. The player was asked only to move their character around, touch objects to inspect them, and then follow pre-determined on-screen prompts during these interactions. A thug throws a clubbing right-hook your way and an arrow flashes from right to left across the screen. You do the same on the analogue stick? You duck the punch. Don’t manage it in time? You get smacked straight in the jaw. It becomes interesting, though, by the way the game branches off in a new direction because of your actions. The character you’re controlling can actually die, and not be involved any further in the entire rest of the game. Your actions actually matter.

The obvious highlights of Heavy Rain are the absolutely gorgeous graphics and the unusually mature, relationship-driven narrative. But the less obvious achievement, I would argue, is how easy Heavy Rain makes itself for the un-initiated to enjoy.

Approachability is definitely a problem with videogames, and a huge reason people have trouble accepting them as a legitimate canvas for entertainment and art. Mobile games and Facebook-style social games often don’t fall into this trap, but console and PC games can be hugely hard for ‘n00bs’ to get into.

TV doesn’t have this problem. Drawn art doesn’t have this problem. There surely isn’t a person alive who doesn’t ‘understand’ how to watch a television programme. You can’t fail to observe a painting. Yet videogames still too often make themselves unavailable for the masses to enjoy. Heavy Rain has gamers and non-gamers, men and women, adults and children alike all within its reach. It was a huge stepping stone for actually allowing most people to play a mature videogame.

Okami may well be a visual masterpiece, but you no doubt need to understand how to use 16 different buttons and two analogue sticks to appreciate it. Dear Esther has a totally different, yet equally impressive way of telling a tale, but you have to have a grip on the complex nature of PC gaming to even play it. With Heavy Rain, you have you, the game, your Playstation, and a learner-friendly control scheme that allows almost anyone to enjoy the experience. The merits of Heavy Rain in the ‘Videogames vs. Art’ debate have been sung before, but to me its defining achievement is how easily it lets everyone in on the conversation.

At the end of the day, it’s all about that conversation. I’ve just noted a few ways in which videogames can be seen as art, and the games herein are just art in my opinion. And that’s the beauty of it. What is and isn’t art is in the eye of the beholder. What I see as a profound and thought-provoking comment of current affairs, you could see as cliché and pretentious. What to me is an imaginative and unusual world could to you be ugly and abstract. And in no other medium is personal taste more important in distinguishing good from bad, art from entertainment, than in videogames.

Games are not just a new form of art. They are the greatest form of art. A form of art from which you can take everything its creator intended, and then add your own very personal story to.

What is your take on the videogames as art debate? And what did you think of this more lengthy, episodic approach to blogging? Let me know and thanks for reading!

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Are Videogames Art? (Part Four)

Part Four – Focused Vision

A defining characteristic of this console generation has been the rise of the smaller (often downloadable) games from diminutive teams. Larger companies are having to sell millions of copies to break even, and are taking less and less risks because of this. Games have simply become too big.

I’m not just talking about massive in-game worlds like in Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto; or lengthy quests such as a Final Fantasy. Some modern videogame teams, like Treyarch (Call of Duty) or Ubisoft Montreal (Assassin’s Creed), employ upwards of 300 people over periods of multiple years to create their technological vision. However, with huge teams comes different visions and approaches to game-making. This means creativity is often watered down in the process. So when a game like ‘Dear Esther’ comes along with a mood and idea so precise, so clearly and exactly what the developers intended, you know it must have come from an intimate and tightly-knit group. The type of group which many of the games profiled in this series, from Journey to The Unfinished Swan, have spawned from. The type of group which understands mood.

Dear Esther creates a wonderful sense of place

Interactivity in Dear Esther is limited. You play in first-person, and often all you have to do as the player is walk around, take in the sights, and soak up the atmosphere. Atmosphere is the key expression to describe Dear Esther’s charm. At times tense, moody, mysterious, but always engaging – the sense of place that the guys at thechineseroom have created is astonishing. I won’t get into too much about what happens in this short, experimental game for fear of spoiling its unique charms; but the important thing to take away is this – Dear Esther is an example of how an interactive experience (even with interactivity so limited) can create some of the greatest narratives available to us today. And all from a team that could comfortably fit in Treyarch’s bathroom.

A similar example is the beautifully simple ‘Slender’. It’s a straightforward horror game available for free download on the PC (or you can pay to pick up the newer ‘Slender: The Arrival’). All you have to do is collect pieces of paper from an almost pitch black environment, torch in hand to light the way, whilst avoiding the ever approaching Slenderman. Playing Slender for my first time was a horrifying experience. I was genuinely terrified at points. But the real fun came at a friend’s house.

This game scared the crap out of me

After a long night of Mario Party with my old pal Alex, his 13 year old brother and his cousin of the same age, Alex went off to bed. I was going to crash on his sofa, but as it was a weekend, Alex’s brother and cousin were still up around midnight playing Call of Duty, as 13 year olds do. I started to tell them about this great game called Slender, and shamelessly tried to scare the two youngsters by claiming the creaks and groans from the otherwise silent house were the Slenderman’s footsteps. They weren’t having it, and said no videogame could scare them. 10 minutes later, Slender was downloaded and installed on Alex’s PC. Another 20 minutes later, and one was hidden underneath a blanket whilst the other refused to play anymore. That really says more than I ever could.

Slender won’t keep you occupied for months and months, but it’s not meant to. It’s all about that first experience. The fear of the unknown. The tension as you find your second, third and fourth piece of paper and Slenderman tracks you more fiercely than ever. It’s Munch’s ‘The Scream’ come to life. It’s all in the atmosphere.

That’s not to say bigger companies can’t do atmosphere. One of my personal favourite games of the generation is ‘Deus Ex: Human Revolution’. In terms of gameplay, it’s an average third-person stealth shooter. But the characters, dialogue and most importantly the world this game creates is absolutely second to none.

The wonderful dystopia of Deus Ex

During my time with Deus Ex, I felt like I was playing the sci-fi classic Blade Runner. The characters have real flaws and real motivations. Their interactions are realistic. The near future setting, something so contrived in many of Deus Ex’s contemporaries, is fantastically believable. It feels like an organic evolution from our current surroundings, yet it’s just different and crazy enough to be absolutely compelling. Every time I got bored of skulking through another straight corridor, I hacked a computer to spy on the workplace gossip of ‘just what was in that secured container last Tuesday?’ Once the cookie-cutter cover shooting became tiresome, I just walked the city streets talking to police, pedestrians and even persuasive ladies of the night. I seriously wanted to live in this world, civil war warts-and-all.

One might say the creation of place was simply artful (sorry).

So there it is, the games that artfully construct place and mood better than even most films can manage. Part Five, the finale, coming soon!

Are Videogames Art? (Part Three)

Part Three – More than just a pretty face.

Videogames can be artistic in more ways than just pretty visuals. Whereas Saving Private Ryan may be a standout in the field of cinematography, the Godfather tells the greatest story of this generation (or so many would say). Similarly, if wonderful HD graphics aren’t your thing, the captivating and frankly insane yarn from ‘Catherine’ may be more to your liking.

Don’t get me wrong, Catherine has a wonderful anime art style. But it’s the utterly unique and medium-defining maturity of the games’ narrative that sticks with you.

A common scene, chatting at the bar

You play as Vincent, a 30-something bar-crawler with a dead end office job he hates. Basically, he’s us. We aren’t all in our 30’s and we don’t all hate our jobs (unbelievably), but we can all relate to his slightly slacker lifestyle and desire to just hang out with his friends in the pub on a Friday night. His one saving grace is his girlfriend, Katherine, whom he is too commitment-shy to marry. The monotony of his life changes, though when he has a drunken one-night-stand with the beautiful young Catherine. He adores her playful and carefree nature, perhaps wishing to go back to a time when he could live and act more like her.

I know right? I couldn’t believe it either. THIS IS A VIDEOGAME. Videogames never have anything mature or profound to say about relationships!

But that’s the thing. They do. You just have to know where to look. Stop ending your search for a new fix at the first-person shooter section. Stop laughing at the ‘geeky’ anime art styles of Japanese games. Pick up Catherine and enjoy the breadth of artful experiences videogames have to offer. Chat to your surprisingly judgemental friend over a cup of sake. Attempt to balance the needs of two very different women; or don’t, just pick your preferred lifestyle and the girl who best suits it.

The puzzle-play can frustrate

The greatest compliment I could give this game is that it made me turn around and look at my own life. In a time where I myself was unsure what I wanted from my relationship (you would NEVER guess what my girlfriends name was), and even life, Catherine spoke to me. It’s not often you can say a work of art from ANY medium does that, so for an obscure videogame from Japan to do it is profound. It’s a special achievement, and the sort of experience everyone should give a chance.

Just make sure you bring a guide.

The downfall of Catherine rears its head when you play it. If you like insanely difficult puzzle games, all the better. But sandwiched in between all the great story sections comes the actual ‘game’ portion on Catherine. Set in Vincent’s nightmares, you have to escape from his greatest commitment-driven fears. It is a clever way of manifesting Vincent’s thoughts at first, but over the course of the game gets way too hard, and simply gets in the way of Catherine’s best attribute, its wonderful story.

It’s a great example of a wonderful idea getting bogged down in an attempt to turn the tale into a ‘game’, and Catherine turns out worse for it.

This isn’t the only way in which a game’s greatest assets can become muddled. Some games are simply too huge. Luckily, this generation has ushered in a new era of smaller, denser, but equally as artful titles…

Part Four soon…

Are Videogames Art? (Part Two)

Part Two – The Modern Masterpieces.

Modern games offer such a breadth of experiences. Yes, many are bombastic shooters aimed squarely at the testosterone of teenage males, but think of these as the ‘summer blockbuster’ equivalent of the videogame world. There are also casual puzzlers, engrossing role-playing games and spectacular science fiction sandboxes. But sometimes, just sometimes, a ‘game’ comes along so original, so innovative and so breathtakingly beautiful that you simply cannot deny that it is a modern work of art.

Take ‘The Unfinished Swan’, for example. A Playstation 3 exclusive game, you play as a boy transferred by his imagination into the canvas of one of his late mothers incomplete paintings. You are thrown into a totally blank world, tasked with using thrown paint to reveal the world around you and try to come to terms with the space left in your life by the loss of your protector. Simply looking at this game you can see that it’s a moving, living painting.

Understated beauty

But screenshots can only tell you so much – you need to see it in action. You need to throw the paint yourself, see it splash and colour the world around you. See it create the world around you. You need to explore this world that has been manufactured for you, but unravel it at your own personal pace. Find as much or as little as you want. Colour just your path and move your story forward, or take your time to fully realize this realm and let its intricacies slowly sink in.

Its unlike anything else you can feel with any other form of expression, and that alone is worthy of calling it a piece of art.

The world slowly grows in complexity

Then there’s ‘Journey’, the third in a trilogy of non-sequential but spiritually connected games for the Playstation. Like Swan, it’s a short and very simple game that really has no noticeable difficulty barriers for the un-initiated (a rare thing in game design). You’re a nomad, thrust into a gorgeous desert setting with one unexplained aim – reach the summit of the mountain towering in front of you.

A Journey awaits, what’s up there?

It’s hard to say much about Journey without spoiling the ride. However, what I can tell you about is the serene, peaceful feeling you have whilst traversing its nearly barren world. You gently slide down the slopes of sand dunes, float on the currents of desert gusts and are driven forward by a human inquisitiveness to know – just what is on top of that gleaming mountain?

On top of the sense of solitary adventure, it’s utterly beautiful. The pictures could tell you more than I ever could. If Monet was alive and creating today, this would be his masterpiece.

And whilst on the topic of visually beautiful games, may I point you in the direction of ‘Okami’?

Unique, traditional Japanese style

In terms of visual spectacle, Okami mixes the best of both Swan and Journey. First and foremost Okami is an ‘action-adventure’ game, but truly it’s a Japanese watercolour come to life. But how much life is up to you. Environments start out glum and grey, and as you vanquish the fairy-tale evils of the game you can restore life to these once and future picturesque lands. There’s nothing quite like – after wondering for 20 minutes in a diminished, lifeless world – seeing a flourishing cherry blossom bloom by fields of green grass, azure lakes and joyful wildlife.

Play this game.

It’s absolutely breath-taking, and the images of its watercolour world will stay with you long after the credits and rolled. And what’s better, it has been re-released on the Playstation Store in HD, so there’s no better time to give it a go than now.

These games are all, of course, art in the visual sense. That is absolutely fine, but the beauty of videogames is that they can also be so much more than that…

So it’s clear to see how videogames can be art in the most obvious, visual sense. But it’s time to delve much deeper, so come back over the weekend for more!

Are Videogames Art?

Part One – Changing the Way You Think.

Humans and their ancestors have been painting or drawing since before recorded history. From simple symbols to intricate real-life recreations, this form of expression has slowly become known in the public consciousness as a form of ‘art’.

In the early 20th Century, Hollywood began to capture the imagination of millions. Throughout the century, film and cinema grew exponentially in terms of sheer size, maturity and the technology that allows these movies to be made. In less than 100 years, cinema has gone from a fresh new form of entertainment to a legitimate medium for ‘art’.

Then there’s videogames. Videogames’ roots are vague yet complex. Games as we see them today are generally believed to have been ‘invented’ in the 1980’s (it’s up for debate exactly when), and have since gone on to become one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. They have also ushered in beautiful, thoughtful and meaningful experiences in a variety of genres for a plethora of different audiences. Yet ask a member of the general public what videogames are and who they are for, and the answer would be anything but “artful experiences for intelligent adults”. Instead, the overwhelming majority would tell you that games are about shooting people, killing people, and they are for children – or adult recluses still squatting in their mother’s basements.

I’m not here to ask why that is or berate misguided people for saying it, but to change those people’s minds about what videogames can be. I’m also going to skip right ahead and answer my own titular question right now.

Yes.

Videogame ARE art.

Let me show you why…

My Are Videogames Art series will be going up in five parts over the next two weeks, so please tell me what you think and enjoy! Part 2 coming soon…

The 5 Best Games You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

The average gamer’s videogame collection consists of a mixture of first-person shooters (a Halo, CoD or Battlefield), with an annualized sports title (FIFA or Madden), maybe a racer (Forza, GT or Need for Speed?) and a customary open world sandbox game (Assassin’s Creed or more likely the juggernaut GTA).

Sound familiar? It most probably does.

Those games, and many similar ones besides them, are great. They’re highly rated and sell in huge numbers for a reason.

Sometimes, though, we need something a little different to both cleanse our palette and expand our horizons. In the spirit of trying something new, here are my 5 games that are totally awesome, but you probably didn’t play.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Multiplatform)

The hook of Deus Ex is the choice it gives you. Making your way through a room full of guards and security cameras could go any number of ways. You can run in guns blazing, sniping off the first henchman from a high ledge and disposing of the rest with semi-automatic fire. But in being so crass, you’d be robbing yourself of some of the greatest stealth gameplay in years.

The augmented cop, Adam Jensen

As Adam Jensen, you can use your cybernetically enhanced body to hack computers and turn turrets or armed defence robots against your enemies. Or you could use cloaking and a hidden vent system to sneak through totally silently, your adversaries never even knowing you were there. Or try my personal favourite route, somewhere in the middle. Sneaking up on enemies, and depending on how pissed off you are, either temporarily knocking them out or outright murdering them (using awesome blades that extend from Jensen’s arms).

A great politically and morally charged story, memorable characters, and one of the best worlds in gaming (I spent SO much time just walking around the astonishing near-future worlds of Detroit and Singapore) add up to make a memorable experience. The shooting mechanics need an upgrade, and the boss fights are downright poor, but there’s more than enough here for anyone looking for a new Metal Gear Solid.

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (Multiplatform)

There’s a reason Pac-Man Championship Edition has a Metacritic average of 93% on Xbox 360 and 91% on Playstation 3. It’s frigging awesome.

So shiny

Utterly, utterly addictive, its neon aesthetic and synth sounds look and sound like the original Pac-Man on acid. And it plays that way too. This download only title takes the basic gameplay of the arcade original and turns the old-school action up to 100. It’s exhilarating to see a chain of 50 ghosts (yes there’s more than 4 now) all lined up and ready to be consumed in one epic chain. You really have to play it to realise how fun it is. I’m not a high score-chaser, but this game had me eagerly scouring the leaderboards trying to find out how many places I had climbed on my last run.

It only costs a couple of quid, has multiple ‘maps’ and modes, and I practically promise you’ll become addicted. Waka-waka.

Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale (Playstation 3/Playstation Vita)

I love fighting games, but I’m put off buying so many of them because of their ridiculously high learning curves and the thought of getting absolutely trashed online. This is where Playstation All-Stars comes in.

All-Stars is most like Nintendo’s Smash Brothers series, pitting multiple famous faces on 2D battlefields in anarchic but skilled fist-fights. It’s got the perfect ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ balance and comes into its own playing against friends sitting next to you on the couch.

“It’s got the perfect ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ balance and comes into its own playing against friends”

There’s nothing quite like pitting God of War’s Kratos, Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, a Helghast soldier from Killzone and Tekken’s Heihachi in an epic 4-way brawl to the death. Or seeing who really is the greatest Playstation duo; Jak and Daxter or Ratchet and Clank? With a fairly large marketing campaign behind it, but ultimately selling under a million units, this is underrated gem.

The Orange Box (Multiplatform)

I recently wrote about the Orange Box in my ’10 Best Console Games of the Last Generation’ post, so for the details of this brilliant collection check that out. Just know this is a collection of some of the best shooters since the start of the last gen.

Half-Life 2 and its two extra ‘episodes’ are the place to get your single-player story and character fix; Team Fortress 2 will please those looking for fast-paced multiplayer; and Portal is a puzzle-infused twist on the shooter genre that will satisfy your appetite for humour and scratch that itch on your brain.

Selling a combined 3m units, it was hardly a flop, but each game in the collection deserved to sell more copies than that by themselves. The PS3 version has technical issues, but it’s X360 and PC counterparts have 96% Metacritic ratings for good reason.

Valkyria Chronicles (Playstation 3)

Take one glance at the beautiful artwork of Valkyria Chronicles and you can probably tell whether or not it’s for you. If a strong anime style and a typically Japanese type of storytelling put you off, fine. But by skipping on this brilliant strategy RPG you’re denying yourself one of the greatest exclusive games of the past decade.

The Galian Reserve

The story is essentially an anime retelling of WW2, with you playing a recruit in the fictional ‘Gallian’ army. Befriending a group of misfits in your miss-match squad (a slight twist on the cliché ‘high school class’ dynamic), you face increasingly difficult strategic battles best described as Final Fantasy Tactics meets Gears of War (but of course far more the former than the latter).

Another highly rated (an 86% Metacritic average this time), but under-selling (just over a million units) game, you owe it to yourself to overlook the art direction and dig in to the meaty, challenging campaign. And if you like anime and all of its tropes, why haven’t you played this yet?!

So there it is, the 5 games you may not of heard of but sure should give a try. Obviously I’ve kept this list to the last gen, as most people will currently own those consoles/a compatible PC. What obscure gem would you recommend? Let me know in the comments!

Flappy Bird is the Greatest Fucking Game Ever

That Flappy Fucking Bird. Bobbing along with that useless fucking look on his face. Barely able to do the one fucking thing birds have fucking evolved to do – fly. Fucking Flappy Bird.

Time of my life I'll never get back
Time of my life I’ll never get back

I really hate the flappy bird. But I can’t help but to try and help him get further and further each time. I don’t even know where he’s going, or why. I don’t care. I just want to beat my own records and everyone’s around me. I want the flappiest fucking bird in town.

It’s so simple, just tap at the right time. The difficulty is so perfectly tuned, though, that people simply can’t resist that ‘one more try’. It’s never unfair, we know the rules, yet when you get so close to a new high score and inelegantly headbut a pipe you lose it and have to stop yourself smashing your phone through a desk.

Yet I come back. Everyone comes back. Even if you fail again, its only taken 30 seconds of your time. So you’ll have another go. It’s brilliant. That flappy fucking bird.

The new game from cult mobile game creator Dong Nguyen is top of the Free Games chart on the App Store, and all over my social network feeds. Word of mouth seems to have spread this game like crazy, even putting Nguyen’s other games top of the free charts. If you can beat my current high score of 69, let me know in the comments!