Thursday, December 27, 2018

A Brief History: Leaving a Presence in the Video Game-Art Debate

Can video games be considered high art?

I had originally written the below article way back in 2013. It was published on the former online gaming news source, GameHuddle, in the spring/summer of that year. Unfortunately, the company was sold only a few months after that and the website ceased to exist.

In having a conversation with fellow gamer Gee Marsh on my podcast, Decipher the Media, we had touched on the topic of gaming as an art-form in comparison to other media, such as film. Obviously, Gee and I both agree that it belongs in this category.

This discussion had originated from reading about commentary from the late Roger Ebert, a popular film critic who had passed away on April 4, 2013. He had his own opinions about video games as art, which led to the piece that was written for GameHuddle.

My discussion with Gee led me to revisit this article, as I had always found an interest in the topic and the opinions that Ebert had on the medium of video games. 

In an effort to build upon the original opinion piece, I added some information that I had originally left out of the initial publishing, such as Clive Barker's comments on video games as art and an embedded video of Kellee Santiago's TED Talk.

Here is that article, in full:

“In response to your repeated requests to bring back the TV show ‘At the Movies,’ I am launching a fundraising campaign via Kickstarter in the next couple of weeks. And gamers beware, I am even thinking about a movie version of a video game or mobile app. Once completed, you can engage me in debate on whether you think it is art.

Those were some of Roger Ebert’s final words. He held a strict position against considering video games works of art. Can they have the same kind of artistic value as other categories such as filmmaking, painting, photography, sculpting, etc? With Ebert’s recent passing, let’s delve into the history of this debate.

Doom (2005) | Image source:
Throughout the years, Roger Ebert had firmly believed that video games can never be classified as art. This began in 2005 when Roger Ebert’s review for the film Doom included some negative comments towards the entire medium of video games. The video game community retaliated. Later that year, Ebert fueled the fire by stating, “To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” Ebert did attempt to explain his reasoning by saying, " Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control."

It seemed Ebert believed that by making a medium malleable (providing free-will or choice), it removes some of the mysticism or magic that helps us to grow as an aware and experienced individual. We aren’t retaining the same kind of lessons that we would learn from highly-acclaimed film or literature. The power to choose means that the message, or overall theme of the medium is lost. Players can choose their own message by molding their own outcome. For example, a player can choose to play a game, such as Grand Theft Auto IV, and decide to that he/she doesn’t want to complete the story or main campaign. Instead, they choose to drive around, cause chaos, ignore the main plot, and simply play it for the entertainment value that comes with the “sandbox” genre. Does it lose the message intended by the developers, if played in that style?

Keep in mind that this debate isn’t just black or white. There are many factors that come into play. By criticizing the power of choice, Ebert is focusing on only a small perspective of this debate.

Clive Barker | Image source:
In the span of two years, the debate flared to point of including other famous figures. Specifically,
Clive Barker (film director, Hellraiser), responded to Ebert’s claims at the Hollywood and Games Summit in 2007, saying “You have to come at it with an open heart... Roger Ebert obviously had a narrow vision of what the medium is, or can be. It seems so high-handed. A lot of very, very smart people, here in this room, are working to make these experiences extraordinary."

He concluded his argument with: "We can debate what art is, we can debate it forever. But if the experience moves you, some way or another, even if it just moves your bowels, I think it’s worthy of some serious study... Games mean something to a lot of people.”

Ebert countered by responding to Barker in a blog post. In this post, Ebert developed his own sum definition of video games: “They tend to involve (1) point and shoot in many variations and plotlines, (2) treasure or scavenger hunts, as in Myst, and (3) player control of the outcome. I don't think these attributes have much to do with art; they have more in common with sports.” Ebert failed to explain the similarities between video games and sports in this article. However, he did try to justify every claim that Barker made against him at the Hollywood and Games Summit. Admittedly, Barker did come off as a little hostile toward Ebert, calling his previous argument a “prejudiced vision.” At the same time, Ebert remained unmoving on his own views, saying that the medium of video games will never be “Shakespeare” (or a high form of art). Ebert’s case seemed to directly address all of Barker’s claims, but still left many questions unanswered in the debate, such as the emotional impact of the medium and the influence of having the power of choice.

Campbell's Soup Cans by Andy Warhol
Image source:
Ebert concluded this article by saying, “Barker is right that we can debate art forever. I mentioned that a Campbell's soup could be art. I was imprecise. Actually, it is Andy Warhol's painting of the label that is art. Would Warhol have considered Clive Barker's video game Undying as art? Certainly. He would have kept it in its shrink-wrapped box, placed it inside a Plexiglas display case, mounted it on a pedestal, and labeled it ‘Video Game.’” Take these inconclusive statements with a pinch of salt.

Speaking of which, many more gamers and critics made it known that Ebert’s comments seemed rather inconclusive, so in 2010, Ebert wrote a piece focusing on  his opinion of video games, in hopes to clarify his views. He even admitted to avoiding more explanation by saying, “ ...I have declined all opportunities to enlarge upon it or defend it. That seemed to be a fool's errand, especially given the volume of messages I receive urging me to play this game or that and recant the error of my ways.” He attempted to clarify previous comments by explaining, “ ...I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art.”

Then, instead of returning to previous comments he made and elaborating on the point he was trying to make, he remained stubborn and made yet another attempt discredit a key figure that made the point that video games can be art. This time, Ebert attacked Kellee Santiago, who gave a TED talk at USC on video games as art.

After dismissing every key point made by Santiago, Ebert concluded with, “I allow Sangtiago the last word. Toward the end of her presentation, she shows a visual with six circles, which represent, I gather, the components now forming for her brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.” Ebert continued to remain unmoving on the issue, taking his ideas and opinions to his grave. Yet, he still left little clarification or explanation, despite being given multiple opportunities to expand upon his opinions.

Cosmology of Kyoto cover
Image source:
It’s worth noting that Ebert didn’t always think so negatively towards all games. In fact, he wrote his own review in 1994 of a game called Cosmology of Kyoto.  He specifically noted that the game gave him no apparent objectives or goals to reach. Was this Ebert’s idea of the perfect game? Was it one where the objectives are hidden, thus making it less possible for the player to stray from the focus of the game? Should games be a mix between the malleable and non-malleable? Was journeying into the unknown, rather than being provided with a clear objective, Ebert’s vision of video game art? The world may truly never know.

You, as an individual, develop your own definition of art. There is no concrete concept behind art. Art can be many things, and one movie critic doesn’t have the power to decide what specifically isn’t art and set it in stone. I’d like to leave off with a quote from the top comment on Ebert’s post, “Video Games Can Never Be Art.” “The truth is, unless you're willing to play a game, you don't really get a say in the matter,” said commenter Dave. I rest my case.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Now on Nintendo Switch: 20XX

Last year, I raved enough about a Mega Man clone to develop my first ever video game playthrough and publish it on my YouTube channel. Now, since 20XX has come to the Nintendo Switch (released July 10th, 2018), I felt it was a good time to put that video back in the spotlight as I gear up to release more videos on the play.matrix network.

While definitely rough around the edges (I'll admit, it was just a "screen test" for the channel), this video covers all the elements that can be found in the crossover of Mega Man and rogue-like elements.

Also, with this video, I received my FIRST EVER THUMBS DOWN! MILESTONE! WOO!


Monday, October 30, 2017

Switch Feature: The Legend of Zelda and Breaking the Mold

Over six months after its release, Nintendo has proven that the Switch is the new driving force behind the video game company. Hardware and software sales continue on a high note as we enter into the holiday season. And now, it seems like we’re finally picking up steam with third-party support. While the Wii U was a solid entry in Nintendo's line, many factors caused it to have less-than-stellar sales around the world. And with that, Nintendo quietly swept the Wii U under the rug and quickly switched focus (pun intended). A smart move in marketing, Nintendo overcharged the hype train to the point that there have been console shortages of the Switch, much like the Wii in 2006. While the consumer fights to scoop up their own Switch, Nintendo plans to increase console production to meet this demand. I was one of the lucky few to get my hands on a Switch within the first couple weeks of its release.
So what has made the Switch such a hot seller? One reason may be the Nintendo's flagship series, The Legend of Zelda. Breath of the Wild released with the launch of the Switch on March 3, 2017 worldwide and immediately became the hottest title for the Switch. According to SuperData estimates, of the Switch consoles bought by consumers, about 89% percent of those consumers also purchased The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That means that 9 out of 10 Switch owners have a copy of the new Zelda title. Of course, other factors may have played into that, including what other titles were available alongside Zelda at launch (or lack thereof). But the game's success isn't only because of Switch's launch. Reviewers are saying that this is best iteration of The Legend of Zelda since the release of Ocarina of Time in 1998, and from the first-hand experience with the game, I can see why.
Let me break it down for you. I knew going into this game that it was going to be a different experience. I was a little worried that it was going to stray too far from the Zelda formula. It was a bit concerning because this franchise is something that I grew up with. I started with A Link to the Past and Link's Awakening in the Super Nintendo/Game Boy heyday. Since then, I have grown with the series, as it established itself in the 3-D realm and expanded on that formula through the Gamecube and Wii life cycles.
Skyward Sword felt like the first attempt at a departure from said formula. With the addition of certain mechanics and motion controls, there was a bit of a learning curve. And from the feedback that I've seen, that departure was met with mixed emotions. Personally, I both loved and hated Skyward Sword for the direction they went. I loved the story, locations, characters, and exploration elements, but I absolutely hated the motion controls to the point where it felt like a chore every time I had to lift my Wii Remote and swipe it in a specific direction to deal damage to an enemy or solve a puzzle.
So, when the first details for Breath of the Wild trickled out in 2014, I had to be skeptical. Sure, I think what makes The Legend of Zelda great is that each iteration invites something new to the series, but sometimes it is such a departure that it feels like the core elements are being compromised. So, I held my breath and waited three long years as more information arose, until I pieced together my own conclusion from the first gameplay trailer that I saw: this was going to be Legend of Zelda: Skyrim. There were so many mechanics and overworld elements that overlapped that it was hard to not make the connection. Though, I praised the new game for taking the vastly open-ended approach, I wondered how this would change the heart of the series. Then the release came, coinciding with Nintendo Switch. March 3rd marked the release of the first console Zelda game in six years (not counting Hyrule Warriors). While the Switch sold like hotcakes, I opted to purchase the Wii U version of Breath of the Wild, while everyone fought over Nintendo’s new toy. I booted up the game and was immediately caught off guard. I was expecting to see the usual start screen, possibly with a glimpse of the fields of Hyrule and some whimsical tune to accompany the tone. Following that, I was expecting a prompt to select the file of the character that I named. Of course, it would be accompanied by an updated rendition of that fairy tune that is such a staple for the series. You know what I'm talking about. You can hear it in your head now. However, Nintendo threw tradition out the window and simply went directly into the start of the game. No button commands required. All of sudden, I’m hearing a voiceover calling out to Link. In this game, he is actually called Link, not ‘DeezNuts’ or whatever silly thing I decide to name the man in green. Speaking of green, don’t expect Link to don his staple green tunic and least not in the traditional sense.

Link wakes from a 100 year slumber, wearing nothing but some futuristic-looking boxers. Immediately, I took control of Link, after the voice told me that Hyrule needed saved (or something along those lines). So, I moved him forward and picked up this game’s big gimmick: the Shiekah Slate. And I mean ‘gimmick’ in the kindest way possible. Most Zelda games have one: an ocarina, a minish cap, a wind waker, etc. The plot of the the Zelda game is usually centered around this device, which manipulates elements around Link and helps him to advance through the game. The Sheikah Slate is no different.
I’m going to get this out of the way: the fact that the Sheikah Slate is designed around the Wii U gamepad is apparent. In fact, at one point, Breath of the Wild was supposed to be exclusive to the Wii U, incorporating the “second screen experience” into the game. All of that was scrapped when the game went multi-console. In fact, the Wii U version of the game doesn’t even use the second screen, other than when you don’t feel like playing on your television. I guess you could argue that the Shiekah Slate also looks like the Switch when you’re playing in portable mode with Joycons attached. But anyway, this doesn’t distract you from the game. I just wanted to point it out because I think it’s interesting how this game has evolved since its announcement. Once Link finds the Sheikah Slate, your next thought would be that Link dons his iconic green tunic and hat, right? Wrong. While previous games in the series dabble in changing clothes/armor for the right situation, BotW is the first game in the series to fully implement a mix and match armor system, where each piece of armor or clothing has its own unique stats and perks. At the beginning, Link digs out some old, ratty shirt and pants from chests near where he wakes. He only just begins to upgrade to better clothing when he gets off of the initial “tutorial” section of the map.
Once Link exited the cave, I was introduced to the new, larger Hyrule. What’s amazing is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. As I mentioned, what you initially explore is more or less a tutorial to get your feet wet. Not long out of the cave, you meet an elderly man who acts as your guide for how things work in BotW. Instead of being handed a sword and shield and sent off to the first dungeon, the game emphasizes that this iteration is about survival. You collect your weapons, shields, and bows from abandoned structures or defeated enemies, using those items to explore new areas or defeat stronger enemies that might have better tools to survive.
While not a new concept, BotW is the first in the series to offer a wide assortment of weapons for combat, mining, cutting down trees, etc. Keep in mind, there is now the addition of weapon durability, creating a limited use for each weapon in hand before it breaks. Initially, this reminded me of the system that’s used in the Dead Rising series. You pick up weapons to use until they start losing durability and break, thus forcing you to find a new weapon. Much like Dead Rising, you have several weapon slots to carry multiple weapons, shields, and bows, thus you need not worry about coming into a situation where everything breaks and you have nothing to defend yourself with. In fact, you’ll find that later in the game, you’ll have more weapons than you know what to do with (luckily, there is also the option to upgrade your weapon slots to hold more in your inventory). And later in the game, you’ll learn that temples (dungeons, etc.) have changed considerably. You are no longer left to explore large dungeons to find an item and defeat a boss to help you progress through the game. This system has been altered to be more open-ended, which is the basic theme of BotW. You are free to explore the world in any way that you wish (although some areas will prove to be a little more unforgiving near the beginning). Instead of massive elemental-themed dungeons, you are met with mini-dungeons, known as shrines. You can
explore them in any order that you choose, and they will become the primary way for you to increase your number of heart containers and your stamina wheel. Also, there are lots of them. Strewn all over Hyrule. Some harder to reach than others. While there are TECHNICALLY larger dungeons that progress the story, they are very different from previous
iterations. These dungeons, know as Divine Beasts (you'll understand why as you progress), emphasize more on puzzles and using everything at your disposal to reach the end. Much like the rest of the game, they are much more open-ended and can be explored freely, leaving it to you to find the most efficient way to reach the end.

Each Divine Beast can be found on the far corners of the map. The process of getting to each area is probably the most linear part of the game. Link generally has to complete a series of tasks relating to whichever tribe or town is near each Divine Beast. In the most extreme cases, the tasks can be very...uh, unique.
Once you complete the required quests, a new path opens up to the Divine Beast, acting as a dungeon complete with its own puzzles and traps. Each dungeon is designed around your setting (desert, volcano, etc). The thing that I immediately noticed is that each dungeon is more puzzle-heavy than any previous Zelda title. By "puzzle-heavy", I mean that I felt like I actually had to put quite some thought into these puzzles.

Since you are no longer limited to using the dungeons item to solve most of its puzzles (there are no items to find in the the traditional sense), you have to use a combination of the skills that you already possess and rely on the physics of the dungeon to solve each puzzle. I felt like it was completely different experience than any of the previous games in the series. While refreshing, I couldn't help but miss the more traditional formula. However, that's only a personal preference. The system that they have implemented in BotW is still absolutely fabulous and refreshing.

Now, the thing that makes the puzzles really stand out in the game is that there are multiple ways to approach each puzzle. As I mentioned, you use the many skills that you already possess, meaning that there are several combinations of ways to attack any certain puzzle. Sure, there's (generally) a more obvious way to solve it, but that doesn't mean you are limited to using that specific approach.

The new approach to the entire Zelda formula means that the game really steps away from the tradition in the 3-dimensional gameplay that was established in Ocarina of Time. And while I love the traditional take that is hard rooted in each game, it's so nice that this iteration broke the shackles of tradition and opened itself up unlimited possibilities. Basically, if you can think it, you can do it.

I will most definitely be returning to Breath of the Wild in the future, likely when The Champions' Ballad finally releases. Stay tuned for more in the Zelda universe.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

I was so wrong about Mighty No. 9; some other housekeeping

The last article I wrote on this blog was about Mighty No. 9 (prior to the release of the game). Well, since then, the game has been released and I have played it.

I was wrong. I was so wrong about it. We absolutely did not need Mighty No. 9. If you want better alternatives to it, check out Mighty Gunvolt Burst or 20XX (the latter of which I have recorded and will release soon).

Anyhoo, I just wanted to get that off of my chest. Onto the new stuff. Basically, this blog is going to take on a whole new format. Linked with my YouTube Channel, I will be recording live playthroughs of games, accompanied with audio commentary and posted with a short blurb on this blog.

I believe the kids these days call this format a "Let's Play". It's all the rage with the youths.

Anyway, my love for gaming and watching others record their own Let's Play channels inspired me to get into recording and capturing for the fun of it. In the near future, I plan to start live streaming a bit, but this is going to be a step-by-step process.

More to come very soon. Just planting the seeds of yet another new project. I'm on a roll.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

PC Feature: Why We Need Mighty No. 9

Three years. It has been three long years since we have seen a brand new Mega Man title from Capcom. Three. Years. That's a lot, considering that this series juggernaut used to produce close to half a dozen Mega Man titles each year. Now, all is quiet on the Capcom front. Since then, no announcements have been made on any new Mega Man titles. 

Official Logo

Any games that were in the works were cancelled, including the long-awaited third entry in the Mega Man Legends series. It was a small gleam of hope to fans, which was publicly canned when it was so close to completion. Why? It didn't meet the criteria set by publishing company. Really? Did they even see the final product that was Resident Evil 6? I don't think it would've been any worse than that. And even that turd was released to the consumers.

Promotional Artwork
Yet, MML3 was dropped and games like Resident Evil 6 survived.  Several other projects would suffer the same fate, including a Mega Man first-person shooter (that's right).

Since that time, no new Mega Man games have been released. The last game to be released was Mega Man 10 on March 31, 2010, not counting the Mega Man Zero Collection which was just a bundle of all the previously released MMZ titles packed together for the Nintendo DS. The last official RETAIL release was Mega Man Star Force 3 in 2009 (MM10 was only distributed digitally).

To make matters worse, Keiji Inafune, one of the godfathers and lead producer of the Mega Man series and its spin-offs, left Capcom in 2010, during the production of Mega Man Legends 3. Despite promises that development would continue, the game was cancelled a year later. With Capcom's key player out of the game and several failing to launch, it seemed as though that the Mega Man franchise was slowly dying. Capcom has only been keeping the character alive through appearances in other games like Namco x Capcom and Super Smash Brothers for the 3DS and Wii U.

After Inafune's departure from Capcom in 2010, he proceeded to start his own company, Comcept, only a few months after. The key figure in Mega Man's long history was gone. Inafune lost custody of his child, since Capcom retained all the rights to the series. And since that time, it seems as though Capcom doesn't know what to do without Inafune at the helm of the franchise.

Official Logo
Meanwhile, Inafune began working on new properties at his studio, such as Soul Sacrifice. It seemed as though Inafune moved on. However, something must have led him to miss the good ol' days. He soon created a concept that is similar in design and gameplay. Introducing, Mighty No. 9:

Looks familiar, right? Well, the idea is to provide longtime Mega Man and sidescrolling fans with a familiar (and enjoyable) experience. Mighty No. 9 was first introduced at the 2013 Penny Arcade Expo. Inafune launched a Kickstarter funding campaign on August 31st, which ran until October 1st. The campaign went beyond its goal and collected over 3.8 million dollars.

Following the very successful funding campaign, the game went from being an exclusive title for Microsoft Windows to becoming a multiplatform release with loads of additional content, thanks to the donations that went far beyond their original goal.

The desktop and console versions will be developed in conjunction with Inti Creates, who has previously worked with Inafune to develop several Mega Man titles, such as the Mega Man Zero series, the Mega Man ZX series, Mega Man 9, and Mega Man 10. Needless to say, the spiritual successor to Mega Man is in good hands.

And it is undoubtedly a spiritual sequel. The game stars and android named Beck, a member of a group of combat numbers called the Mighty Number. The plot begins with a computer virus that attacks Beck's colleagues in Mighty Number and turns them into rogue robots. Beck must then travel through eight stages (Sound familiar?), track down his former colleagues, and put an end to their threat.
Gameplay will combine 2D platforming with 3D animation, merging modern graphics with classic game mechanics. Much like Beck's spiritual predecessor, Beck will have the ability to tackle the eight stages in any order. Beck is also able to take skills and abilities from his fallen enemies, creating more variety in how the game can be played.

From all the details that have been released, it seems as though Mighty No. 9 is being created as the ultimate fan service for those who are starved for more Mega Man action. Who can blame them? It doesn't seem like the Capcom execs are jumping through any hoops to green-light another Mega Man title anytime soon. Not when they're busy cranking out lackluster Resident Evil titles and a dozen slightly altered versions of Street Fighter IV.

With that in mind: Mr. Inafune, I solute you for keeping my childhood memories alive!