December 9, 2012

Sweet’N Low – Sound Shapes

Filed under: Editorial Rants — Tags: , , , , , , , — Jamie Love @ 2:06 pm

Sound Shapes
Have you ever really lamented leaving a coin behind?

I mean, when we need some money to pay the shopkeeper, or find ourselves forced to collect every coin in order to complete a level or win a challenge, we begrudgingly do those things. But if I only grab two coins while fumbling through a Mario stage, it’s hardly something that keeps me from leaping toward the flagpole and moving on to the next stage.

Maybe there was a time when I attempted to collect all the rings with Sonic, but forever abandoned the idea after getting hit by an enemy and watching them all shoot across the screen – that’s trickle-down economics for you!

But Queasy Games’ Sound Shapes, released earlier this year, offers up something rather brilliant in the realm of obsessing over every collectible, despite the very real risk of repeated failure on the part of the player. Each stage starts in relative silence, save for the strange rhythmic chants of critters sparsely spread throughout the environment.

Collecting a coin adds a musical note to the proceedings, the everyday visual subtraction of a collectible object earnestly bringing the stage to life for the trouble, and visually replaced by the beating pulse of the note in time with the evolving score. In this way, the idea of suddenly leaving any coin behind robs the landscape of its full potential, denies the player a complete harmony at the finish line, and necessitates that no note be left unplayed – a grand recalibration of want and need on a subject that has lazily floated its existence between the tediously obligatory and the entirely optional.

With most rhythm games, missing a few notes is no big deal; the song continues and the chance to improve remains intact. But here there’s a demand for completion.

Simplicity is at the core of mechanics continually capable of boundless elasticity, offering stages wrapped in albums that all deliver distinctly unique sensations with the same tool set. You can experience the chill Zen tactile pleasure and you can have the retro flavored platforming challenge within the same framework.

And then there’s the entirely fresh thesis of Corporeal, a contribution from Superbrothers that cements the achievement of Toronto’s collaborative development space – tracks that place players within soulless corporate spaces to discover beats and rhythm while traveling to the hellish heart of some lost idea of conformist machinery. The trip is something of a beautiful nightmare, grasping at some idea of what the structure of society looked like to a six-year-old version of myself.

A lot of people will tell you that Sound Shapes turns music games on their ears, but it’s difficult to know what that means without stealing some quiet space and time with the game. Its full intent hasn’t been easy for me to divine since its release, but I’m scratching at some idea of exploring the relationship between sounds and the sources that create them, an earnest attempt to enable players to feel what they hear and vice-versa.

Persona 4’s candy pop aesthetics may well be the Vita’s saving grace this year, but Sound Shapes represents something more enduring for the soul ,with a thesis on sound and play that offers a fresh path toward undiscovered territory in lands generally considered barren.

March 20, 2012

Sweet’N Low – My Journey

Reviewing Journey would be a bit like watching the sun set over the water while holding a lover’s hand, and then breaking the silence of that precious moment with a number from 1-10. I understand that it’s some people’s jobs to stick a number to everything, and I sympathize, even if the act suggests knowing something about the price of everything and the value of nothing.

But don’t take that to mean that I’m in a hurry to help rekindle the games as art you hang on the wall angle either.

Journey is simply an experience, and one that I wouldn’t have been able to understand had someone tried to explain it to me beforehand, which someone did. Chris Lepine was going to write about the game here, and has since crafted some fine words you can catch up with here, but the moment I read them I knew that this was a Journey I would have to make on my own in order to discover some sliver of understanding.

Since my desire to have the longest scarf possible seems rather vain however, I’m still left wanting for words to begin describing what I found.

I can tell you about sinking heavy footsteps into glistening sands, or floating ever higher to ascend a tower, or even sliding down hills while the camera bends to let the light of the sun break through ancient ruins.

I can tell you lots of things, but I can’t convince you of the feelings such a journey inspired within me.

Maybe I should tell you that I met eight different people along that journey. I know this because the game has told me so, and I can only take that on faith since every encounter with another person provides the same anonymous companion that shares my own likeness. Perhaps one companion is less eager to chirp back with the musical notes of expression I continually sought to communicate some primitive intentions with. Perhaps one companion remains close at hand rather than rushing off toward the mountain in the distance. The only time the difference of your companion stresses itself is when they rush off beyond your line of sight with little regard for your company, and even then I can’t help feeling happy to find them again.

The nameless stranger that lingers on my mind is the one that crossed the icy mountain path with me, taking shelter behind stone markers as strong winds threatened to thwart our advance, and huddling in the shadows while large beasts flew overhead. As we overcame these obstacles, the path forward began to vanish in the rising winds, and my feet became heavier with each step forward through the thickening snow.

What kept me pushing forward on the analog stick was my companion, slightly ahead and providing a beacon, a reason to continue pushing against the blinding storm.

I had imagined that Journey’s limitations on communication would leave me saying that the game is about the most earnest connection two people can share, that it cuts away all the things we think we know about each other.

But Journey cuts deeper than that, to the raw source of motivation and hope we find in others, to the fact that our existence on its own is not enough to necessitate that we continue for our own sake. Certainly we live for ourselves to project strength and obey the demands of our DNA, but beneath that skin, we always hope for others to connect and share the journey with, strangers that we’ll never really know, but who when you strip external constructions away, are perhaps exactly the same as us.

January 22, 2012

Sweet’N Low – My Haunted Weekend

Filed under: Editorial Rants — Tags: , , , , — Jamie Love @ 2:08 pm

The Hidden Sweet N Low
It’s a well established fact that ghosts are jerks – they move furniture around while you’re away, drive your electric bill up by playing with the lights, and though I realize you may not want to hear it, they do sometimes stick things in your mouth while you’re sleeping.

Within the videogame medium, ghosts have an equally dickish reputation, from the boards of Pac-Man to the haunted houses of Super Mario Bros. But this weekend I had a chance to catch up with perhaps the worst yet via The Hidden, which released for the 3DS back in November.

The augmented reality game asks players to walk around areas in the real world while the 3DS camera is used to layer blob-like phantoms on the screen – the game seems hesitant to call these creatures ghosts, but they fit the ghostly bill. The player’s task is to scan and destroy these creatures, which will have you spinning around as if grabbed by a seizure as these ghosts quickly twitch out of your field of vision while throwing some form of ectoplasm excrement at you. The player must somehow meet the challenge of calmly readjusting their perspective to keep these critters on screen without throwing the 3DS into the nearest ditch.

The game is hilariously terrible, perhaps the champion of such pursuits on the handheld to date – one of those interesting ideas that has no room to evolve beyond the “hey isn’t this neat for five minutes” factor.

The real long-term humor stems from the game stressing players be mindful of their surroundings, but at the same time making it necessary to visit new Wi-Fi areas to discover more ghosts and progress the game. The Hidden absolutely encourages players to find new destinations in which to play, and thereby look like a complete ass in public, which is just a little bit wonderful despite the awful act of playing the game.

If you still owe any of your frenemy’s an xmas gift, this might just be the ticket.

December 29, 2011

Sweet’N Low – Saving Eden

Filed under: Editorial Rants — Tags: , , , , , , , — Jamie Love @ 12:18 am

Child of Eden
With all the year-end articles that take time out to lament how the Kinect still lacks a single title that breaks the dancing and aerobics fixation, it has crossed my mind that I may have been playing Child of Eden wrong. And yet revisiting the title has confirmed that waltzing while shooting does little to raise my scores. It’s puzzling to say the least.

Returning to Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Kinect-enabled title did offer me the chance to once again glide along a rail through a cosmic ocean though, cleansing red points of infection from particle whales moving along the same tide before eventually vanishing on the horizon that gives birth to a fiery phoenix. My right hand grabbed multiple targets before a flip of the wrist fired locked-on shots. The left hand fired a repeating laser stream into the wings of the bird, producing a sound that left me feeling as if I were running my hands across a harp.

Perhaps this is the point where touch, vision, and sound come together in a harmony that exposes an experience of subtle discovery – you could miss it entirely in the action of firing lasers and target tracking. The sensory experience provides a clean palette for sights and sounds to emerge, so many tiny pieces weaving together in response to the actions of your hands.

Child of Eden also makes an existing genre more accessible, and that open-invitation encourages the desire to perfect the play of the performance the Kinect allows me to conduct.

Playing the game with a standard controller offers a striking difference – not necessarily lesser, but more linear, and something I want to often compare to traveling along the trench of the Death Star. The Kinect alternative never feels like anything less than the absolute emphasis, offering players a chance to feel quite a bit like Johnny Mnemonic – minus the burden of having to be Keanu Reeves, of course.

Eden is a space and place where abstract concepts take physical shape, and symbolic logic builds a complex world awaiting agile hands. Perhaps the accomplishment was doomed to always be undermined by the want for an expensive peripheral to fully appreciate the offering, but the experience left a significant mark on me this year all the same.

December 28, 2011

Sweet’N Low – Difficult Loves

Shadows of the Damned
I’d like to suggest that no female videogame character suffered more in 2011 than Garcia Hotspur’s ladyfriend, Paula. Dragged to hell, desecrated by perverted demons, and paraded through the underworld in heels and stockings only to be torn apart again and again, I’m hard pressed to name another woman from any videogame that endured such unrelenting torture.

Cloaked in horror camp, Shadows of the Damned pushes plenty on the tongue-and-cheek train, but alongside the circus of comedic horrors, the perils of Paula serves as the centerpiece – the emphasis for Garcia’s demon stomping rampage. The game was certainly not content in presenting the iconic Princess in a gilded cage as the obligatory motivation.

Paula’s time within the game was split between playing the damsel in distress calling out to Garcia for help, being used as the white lace rabbit meant to lure him deeper down the demonic rabbit hole, and becoming the instrument of his destruction during chase sequences where a single possessed kiss from her lips ends his life.

What the player is often left with is a woman who falls into your arms while brandishing a knife, torn between whispering sweet nothings and cursing you for her suffering – and perhaps the familiar feeling that relationships are always a tad more complicated where Suda51 is involved.

While the comparison isn’t easy for the surface differences and thematic shift, I can’t help thinking about Travis Touchdown’s appraisal of Sylvia Christel from No More Heroes 2 –

Sylvia, I can’t figure you out.
You don’t like me?
I didn’t say that. But there’s a lot of things about you I don’t get: you lie, you’re greedy, you’re a fucking contradiction in heels.
You hate me?
Well, your personality kind of sucks.
So you -do- hate me.
…I’m fucking crazy about you.

Garcia uses the word crazy to paint a different picture of Paula, whom he is equally infatuated with while unable to question or comprehend the reasoning. Love is a many splendid things of course, none of which seem easy to explain.

I suppose a great deal can be written off given the agenda of infantile offence Shadows of the Damned pushes on the player. But it certainly sticks in my teeth while looking back over a year’s worth of releases.

December 27, 2011

Sweet’N Low – Tripping Wonderland

Sweet N Low Alice 2 Madness Returns

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’

From the time I was first able to competently hold a controller, each year in gaming has brought a few titles that tempt my unbridled anticipation only to deliver disappointment. And while age hasn’t necessarily made me wiser in that regard, it has furnished me with the ability to move on quicker thanks to the divide between the child stuck with a stinker of an NES cartridge and the here-in-now that allows me immediate access to the next “big thing”. With that said, Alice: Madness Returns deserves a few words before the year draws to a close, because it’s a rather fascinating failure.

My anticipation for any interpretation of the source material forgave perceived expectations of simplicity inherent to the name American McGee – the shtick of twisting existing works, wringing Wonderland like a wet towel drenched with gothic tears. But my expectations were derailed by a convoluted narrative that fumbled in trying to do more – namely attempting to tie together the psychological deviancy of this dark Wonderland with real world suffering and a trail of breadcrumbs tripping around a tale of child abuse.

The result is truly strange in the attempt to bring reason to the madness, as if trying to provide the finality of definitive explanation taints the surreal magic of Wonderland. There’s more solid ground to provide rich soil for criticism, particularly the relentless tedium of the cookie-cutter platforming action. But what truly left me reeling was the divide between brilliance and confusion in a game earnestly dripping with creative energy.

The Walrus and The Carpenter, for instance, put on a show that uses lyrical charm and dark theatrics to bring the potential of the source material to life and nearly justify the grinding play required to reach the performance. But this is accompanied by awkward insertions of material, particularly the dollhouse world that grabs at a far more direct statement of intent and wants for the most ridiculous analogy about misplaced puzzle pieces possible.

The game speaks to Spicy Horse’s artistic talent, from breathtaking concept imagery straight through to a revisit of Wonderland that bursts with color and imagination rivaling any of the year’s more favorable releases. Despite the bumpy graphical road Alice traverses, there’s a continual supply of seductive visual details to beg forgiveness for the hiccups.

The failure I find so fascinating is in the attempt to bring reason to madness, which seems to so obviously fail to recognize the madness inherent in the pursuit. It’s a tricky sticky talking point given the various interpretations of Wonderland that exist, but I can’t escape the feeling that Madness Returns crossed into a territory others were wiser to leave unexplored.

December 6, 2011

Sweet’N Low – The Adventure of Link

Filed under: Editorial Rants — Tags: , , , , — Jamie Love @ 1:50 pm

sweet n low zelda 2 the adventure of link
Faithful Sugarfiends have likely noticed the slack in activities of late. In truth, I have a to-do list that spirals out the door, and hardly an ounce of interest in tackling any of it. In particular, there are some 3DS games we should be talking about this month, but countering my productivity is the fact that I can avoid a full 3DS game by using the handheld to play Zelda 2.

But it hasn’t been the short nostalgia kick I was looking for – in fact I enjoy the game more now, as if I had to go and age for twenty more years to really “get it”. That said, the experience is proving merciless – I’ve died so many times that I wake up hearing Ganon laugh at me. And yet, with every death comes some small increment of progress – I grab the candle to light the way through caves but die, only to return and score another stat increase before dying, only to again return and discover that after dispatching some troublesome knights, that horse-headed boss wasn’t nearly so hard as everything guarding him within the first palace.

There are no helpful arrows pointing out that I should discover a trophy within a cave to earn the high-jump – everything I earn is a reward for perseverance, and convinces that lost feeling of really having suffered in order to gain, which seems to make even the smallest moments more memorable as Link proudly hoists swag over his head.

The frustrating and at times incomprehensible game from my childhood is now the shining star that tests the player in equal measure with Link, convincing the elements of his adventure in a way largely taken for granted within Skyward Sword.

Rather than slip into an essay on the subject however, I’d prefer to put the call out to you and ask if you’ve ever had a similar experience with a game.

So you know, have at it below.

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