This post contains spoilers for Radiant Historia and Chrono Trigger.
The scuttlebutt I had heard about Radiant Historia was that it was Atlus’s answer to Chrono Trigger: a time travel-focused JRPG made by a dream team of genre veterans. And while there are indeed similarities, the peculiarities of how time traveling is implemented gives Historia its own thematic flavor.
In Chrono Trigger your party can jump between several epochs — the present day, the distant future, prehistory, and so on — but within each one, time is strictly linear. In other words, you can’t redo individual events by going back in time; if you kill Magus and later come to regret it, for example, you’re out of luck. History can be changed on a macro level, but at a micro level things happen and then stay that way.
Radiant Historia, by contrast, is all about the micro level. Your party jumps between two parallel timelines, but they can also jump to arbitrary points within each timeline called “nodes.” In other words, you can finish part of the story, go back to an earlier node, and then do it again later. Time is reversible.
Some quests make clever use of this mechanic. In one, you intimidate a would-be traitor by showing him his own bloodied armlet from an alternate future where he was killed. In another, you borrow a rare paint from an artist to give to his future self, but he won’t surrender the paint until you bring back his work in progress, thus inspiring him with his own eventual masterpiece. This sort of thing is low-hanging fruit for a time travel-themed story — similar quests exist in Chrono Trigger on a millennial scale — but it works.
The ability to reverse time also brought me a strange sense of comfort. I usually have some low-level stress while playing a JRPG, caused by this internal monologue: Can I move on, or are there still important sidequests to do? Should I be grinding? Are there any rare drops from the monsters here? What am I missing? The ability to go back for any missed content neatly circumvents that problem.
One consequence of reversible time is that none of the game’s ostensibly important choices carry any real weight. Not that that stops the writers from trying; almost every decision, from lighthearted matchmaking to high-risk war stratagems, causes a world-ending catastrophe if you mess up. “I have to think about this one carefully,” the protagonist Stocke repeatedly says to himself, even though he and the player both know that there are an infinite number of chances to make the right choice. (And since the game keeps track of how many nodes you’ve found, I found myself ending the world at every opportunity for the sidetrack bonus.)
This endless search for the “true” path of history is baked into the story from the opening scene, so I actually didn’t feel any narrative dissonance from the world constantly ending. (There is even unique dialogue from your spiritual guides Teo and Lippti for each way you can muck things up.) Instead, the pattern of “face a ‘difficult’ choice, intuit the wrong choice, watch the world end, try again” contributed further to that sense of comfort. Nothing I could do, no matter how idiotic, had any lasting consequences.
Some of Radiant Historia’s quests are less about going back in time than going sideways. Early in the game, Stocke must decide whether to join a military brigade or a special intelligence unit. It soon becomes obvious that both choices are actually necessary, and that you’ll have to maneuver him through two parallel timelines in order to move the plot forward. (Notably, Stocke travels through time alone and his party members are unaware of it for the majority of the game.)
The two timelines interact in a variety of vaguely defined ways. Sometimes Stocke will learn a skill in one timeline that lets him progress past some barrier in the other, like Heiss’s disappearing trick or Kiel’s “sword dancing.” While this requires some suspension of disbelief — for some reason no one questions Stocke’s sudden and inexplicable acquisition of new talents — it feels like a reasonable enough way to gate progress.
At other times Stocke can directly meddle with plot events in the other timeline. For example, rescuing a merchant from bandits in one timeline also saves that merchant’s life in the other. This is far less reasonable to me; most plot events and character deaths do not “carry over” from one timeline to the other, and there is no explanation for why some do. Every time travel story needs a few paradoxes, I guess.
At still other times Stocke will inspire a change of heart or strong emotional response from someone, and that feeling will carry over to the other timeline. At one climactic moment Stocke is attacked by his best friend Rosch because of the latter’s loyalty to the military; Stocke must jump to an earlier point in the other timeline and disabuse Rosch of his nationalism. When Stocke returns to the node just before the fight, Rosch is no longer hostile.
I found these emotional rewirings to be the most effective approach for reconciling the two timelines; they’re not as pat as the skill transfers, nor as narratively incoherent as the plot meddling. One ramification of splitting time is that, once the world collapses back to one timeline at the end, half of a character’s development are rendered inconsequential because it never technically happened. Allowing emotions and convictions to flow between timelines helps unify the two disparate “versions” of a character into one that matches the story arc that the player experiences.
All told, Radiant Historia doesn’t stray terribly far from genre cliches and tropes, but it has an interesting take on time travel and is one of the most frictionless JRPGs I’ve ever played. Special thanks to Mattie for passing along her copy.
This post contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series, especially Mass Effect 3.
If you follow gaming news, perhaps you’ve heard by now that a controversy is brewing over the ending to Mass Effect 3.
Because I’m a fan of the series and have no regard for my own sanity, I’ve been keeping abreast of the official forums since finishing the game a week ago. By my estimates there has been a post about the ending every five to ten seconds for that entire period, with the vast majority of them being negative. They range from pleas for epilogue DLC to demands that BioWare retcon the ending to conspiracy theories about an elaborate PR stunt. Meanwhile, a Child’s Play charity drive has amassed over $60,000 in donations, and dozens of stories have appeared from both the usual suspects (Kotaku, Destructoid, Penny Arcade) and a few unusual ones (Fox News, CNN, Forbes.com).
Some fans are saying that the ending to Mass Effect 3 was so bad that it ruined the rest of the game; some say that it ruined the entire series; one poor betrayed soul said that it’s actually ruined all video games. But even ignoring the hyperbole, I think it’s fair to say that this runs a little deeper than the usual whinging that accompanies popular video games.
What the official Mass Effect Twitter account has looked like for much of the past week.
Though often exaggerated, the complaints about the ending are not without merit: the last fifteen minutes or so of Mass Effect 3 really do seem uncharacteristically poor, given the pedigree of the series. Many of the decisions are completely mystifying to me: the thematic non sequitur that suddenly propels the organics/synthetics subplot to the forefront of the story, the disconnect between the final choice and virtually all other choices in the series, the three nearly identical cutscenes that follow that choice, and the inexplicable crash landing of the Normandy on some untouched habitable planet. I recommend reading Michael Clarkson at Ludonarratology and Richard Cobbett at Rock, Paper, Shotgun for more elaboration on the details, but suffice it to say that while the ending did not ruin the game for me (let alone the series or the medium), it didn’t exactly satisfy, either.
So why did things misfire so badly?
Here’s what I think BioWare was hoping we would experience. The choice Shepard makes atop the Citadel is not meant to be the end of the Mass Effect trilogy; Mass Effect 3 as a whole is meant to be the end. The major plot threads from the series — the geth/quarian conflict, the genophage, Cerberus, the fates of myriad secondary characters — may be wrapped up throughout the game instead of in its final moments, but a majority of them are still addressed. Everything from the Reaper invasion onwards is intended as denouement.
By the time Shepard is gearing up for the final battle on Earth, it should be abundantly clear that no one expects to survive. The series of pep talks from the squad in London is where the player is supposed to find closure with the main characters. Think of it as a bleaker version of the Dragon Age: Origins post-Archdemon scene, where the Warden shares a final goodbye with his companions before everyone parts ways. Here, though, they head to their deaths instead of to new adventures.
All this is to say that when Shepard makes her choice after speaking with the Catalyst, her (probable) ensuing death is not meant to come as a surprise but as the inevitable culmination of her efforts. Rather than mourning the lost, though, the player is meant to reflect on how the victory was worth the sacrifices. This, effectively, is where the story ends; the final scene with the Normandy is meant to reinforce a feeling of blossoming hope for the future, not to suggest some further escapades. (The post-credits stargazing scene is largely an Easter egg to showcase Buzz Aldrin’s cameo.)
The critical mistake BioWare made was to confuse their fans’ investment in the characters with interest in the fate of the universe as a whole. The ending is supposed to be hopeful — the Reapers are no longer a threat, and organic life can flourish. But by attempting to wrap up the story arcs before the final battle, and then sketching out the conclusion with broad strokes in which everyone’s fate is left unresolved, they’ve betrayed a colossal misunderstanding of how the audience was engaged with the story.
One of the most common complaints about the ending is that it makes the rest of the game feel “pointless.” With the Citadel and the mass relays destroyed, what difference does it make if the genophage is cured or if Rannoch is recovered? It feels pointless because, in the end, no one was really trying to save the galaxy; they were trying to save the people. Pulling the camera so far back that we can’t see anyone severs the emotional connection that the rest of the series built up. The implications of the three endings can make for interesting thought experiments — what does it mean to combine organic and synthetic life? — but they are just that: thought experiments. Abstract speculation about transhumanism is the ending to a story that was not being told.
Then there is the more mechanical way in which the ending undermines the series. If the Mass Effect games have been known for anything, it’s the complex ways in which they react to player choices. As is now catalogued on the BioWare forums, the developers had pledged to uphold that legacy in their prerelease talk about Mass Effect 3’s ending; executive producer Casey Hudson even specifically stated that it’s “not like a classic game ending where everything is linear and you make a choice between a few things.”
The ending they created — which, as many have noted, fits Hudson’s description almost exactly — fails on two counts: the choices leading up to it have little effect on how it plays out, and the choice made during it has a presumably profound effect whose consequences we don’t get to see. Such a decision is not in the spirit of the series, and it too helped contribute to the widespread sense that the player’s choices in the rest of the game don’t “matter.”
Speaking of player expectation, it’s worth noting that for some fans nothing short of a happy ending would have been acceptable. The earlier Mass Effect games, and even much of Mass Effect 3, established the precedent that if a player makes all the right choices, does all the right sidequests, and says all the right things, there is a “best” solution to the most difficult problems. Wrex can be saved on Virmire. The “suicide mission” at the Collector base can be survived without casualties. The geth/quarian conflict can be resolved peacefully.
There is no such solution available at the end of Mass Effect 3. Regardless of how many war assets you gather or multiplayer matches you win, the happiest ending you will see is a brief glance at a heavily wounded Shepard, weakly stirring from beneath a pile of rubble while abandoned by her allies and surrounded by corpses. If it were possible to end the game with a raucous celebration on the Normandy, a parade in Shepard’s honor, and a bunch of little asari children, I suspect that some fans would have been far more forgiving of the Catalyst. That said, I’m not sure I’d like to see BioWare alter the ending with the specific goal of making it cheerful, as that seems like a surefire way to make things worse.
Ironically, based on all the evidence I’ve seen Mass Effect 3 is significantly less bleak than originally planned. In the script that leaked last year, Cerberus assassin Kai Leng offs one of your squad members; in the game, he does not. During the final battle, Harbinger was going to kill two more squad members in a cutscene; in the game, it does not (though they can still die under certain circumstances). Moreover, Shepard’s sacrifice was originally unavoidable instead of merely likely: Geoff Keighley’s new feature “The Final Hours of Mass Effect 3” shows “Shepard’s death” written prominently on a page of Casey Hudson’s notes, followed by “But why did he have to die?” and, at the very bottom, “LOTS OF SPECULATION FROM EVERYONE.”
That last line certainly proved to be prescient, although much of the speculation they’ve engendered seems to be born of frustration and confusion rather than genuine engagement with the story. (One popular fan theory is that Shepard was indoctrinated by the Reapers in her last moments, making the entire end sequence a figment of her imagination.) But perhaps BioWare is starting to come around to the idea that inciting speculation was the wrong approach: in an official statement released Friday, Casey Hudson acknowledges the criticism of the ending and reaffirms his wish to maintain a dialogue with the fans about it — though he noticeably avoids making any concrete statements.
In “The Final Hours,” Keighley quotes Hudson as saying that “Whatever we do will likely happen before or during the events of Mass Effect 3, not after.” Given the current level of discontent, might he renege on that? What are the chances that BioWare would give in and say, in so many words, “Sorry about that ending — here’s a new one”?
I’d put those odds on par with Shepard’s: low but measurable. If I had to guess, I’d say that BioWare takes this one on the chin and tries to manage expectations better in the future. They are leaving the door open for something bigger, though, and if no more news is forthcoming between now and the Mass Effect panel at PAX East in three weeks, things could get interesting.
After hundreds of hours with Morrowind and Oblivion, I’ve learned that much of my enjoyment of an open-world game hinges on its ability to conceal its boundaries. Once I’ve explored the map, grokked the AI, experimented with all the skills, and otherwise consumed the lion’s share of the “world” content, I feel like I’ve depleted the game in some way — regardless of whether or not I’ve finished the quests and other ostensible “game” content. It’s as though a switch flips in my brain and the setting changes from a world to a sandbox, and once that happens, no amount of squinting can make me un-notice the setting’s artificiality. While that doesn’t stop me from having fun, playing becomes a qualitatively different experience once the illusion is dispelled.
I’m sure that same switch will one day flip for Skyrim, but the scope has increased in so many directions that it’s proving to be incredibly resilient. More towns, more dungeons, more quests, dragons, shouts, housecarls, cooking, mining, smithing… The overwhelming sense of freedom and possibility persists as I close in on one hundred hours, and I still feel as though I could play the unmodded vanilla game forever.
So, yes: I like Skyrim a lot. With that said, though, I want to talk about one thing that’s been bothering me: Radiant Story.
The common wisdom with open-world games is that developer-created quests are all well and good, but the real story emerges from the interaction between the player’s choices and the world. That rings true to me, but most players still rely on quests over freeform exploration to push them along towards those moments. Bethesda realizes this, and has introduced a new system called Radiant Story that places potential quest markers over virtually everything in the game.
The general idea is that key elements of the story — the one told by the game, not by the player — can be generated procedurally to direct players to the most appropriate content. So, for example, the quests you pick up at the inn or guild hall can point you to a variety of locations and NPCs, and will prefer level-appropriate ones that you haven’t seen yet. From a purely mechanical perspective, this is a big win. Narratively, it’s not.
While I’ve always found the Elder Scrolls world compelling on a macro level — visit the loremasters at the Imperial Library, or read Kateri’s mind-bending series “The Metaphysics of Morrowind,” to see fans who appear to be playing a completely different game — I’ve never felt very strongly about the in-game stories. A few are great, most are serviceable, and some are dull. Many, though, are ultimately forgettable.
To its credit, Skyrim makes progress on this front by imbuing its characters with a bit more life. Thanks to improved voice acting and tighter writing, I could infer the motivations and foibles of Balgruuf and Ulfric in a way that I never could for, say, Baurus and Martin. (Even Lydia’s much-derided delivery of “I am sworn to carry your burdens” packs more personality into one line than some NPCs mustered over all of Oblivion.) No one’s going to confuse Skyrim for a Tolstoy novel, but it’s a welcome improvement — it feels like something more is at stake here than in past games.
Unfortunately, Radiant Story subverts that feeling; its biggest weakness is its tendency to make characters lifeless and interchangeable. One quest I got involved killing a random wild animal — in my case, a sabertooth tiger — that had invaded someone’s home. When I arrived, the tiger and I fought by the front door while a young girl watched from the living room, unfazed. (Her parents, presumably, were out at work.) Another quest tasked me with roughing up a random NPC in retaliation for some unspecified offense. As it happened, I had to pick a fight with Rorik of Rorikstead, a war veteran so revered that he had a town named after him, in the middle of an inn. Once the deed was done, no one acknowledged that anything had transpired between us — not even Rorik.
The implementation is crude in other ways as well. Because the people and places involved vary, quests are awkwardly presented in writing to circumvent the voice actors (or, worse, the relevant information simply appears in your quest log with no explanation). Also, some Radiant Story quests are repeatable — that is, you can keep going to the same quest-giver and keep getting new quests to kill animal x in location y, highlighting the system’s artificiality. Such a coarse approach obliterates even the meagerest attempt at telling a story.
Radiant Story frays Skyrim’s narrative threads exactly where they are already weakest — not only are the quests often nonsensical on their own (as with that indifferent girl and her neglectful parents), but they erode the progress made towards creating more distinguishable characters (as with Rorik’s obvious inappropriateness as a target). And by laying bare the mechanics of its quest construction, it threatens to flip that world-to-sandbox switch in my brain before I’ve fully absorbed what the game has to offer.
To be clear, this is not meant to be an indictment of procedural story as a concept. Skyrim is a first cut, and it’s easy to a imagine a more sophisticated system that addresses the issues I have. In fact, Bethesda designer Shane Liesegang has a great blog post on the potential for procedural story, and I’m confident that future iterations of Radiant Story will only improve. As implemented, though, its addition is doing more to dispel Skyrim’s magic for me than any number of quest bugs or repeated lines of dialog.
I have a short piece in the newest issue of Kill Screen magazine; it’s a distillation of my series on music in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that excises most of the music theory and highlights Koji Kondo’s stylistic forebears. And there are lots more music- and sound-related articles from some of my favorite writers — check it out!
(Apologies for the consecutive non-post posts — Skyrim soon.)
Apologies for the downtime this morning. I saw something that looked like malware on my server, so to be safe I nuked the entire site from orbit, dropped the SQL tables, and reinstalled everything with fresh passwords. I think things should be back to normal now, but let me know if something doesn’t look right.
Additionally, I’m going to try a new policy: comments will automatically close after three months. Hopefully that will cut down on the spam building up in the moderation queue.
Regular content to follow soon!
11/24/11 update: Thanks to those who pointed out that I had somehow broken all of the music and picture embeds. That should be fixed now! (And, while I was at it, I fixed a bunch of old typos and formatting errors.)
So, this is awkward.
Within hours of my publishing that last post, Kotaku did their best to convince me that they were not, in fact, improving with articles like “Korean Pop Is Better with Chun-Li Cosplay,” “When the Street Isn’t Safe for Work,” and “It’s Ladies Night Here on Kotaku’s Cosplay Roundup.”
Meanwhile, my cynical tweet from January started making the rounds again for some reason. As it turns out, it was picked up by rather more Twitterers this time, including some heavy hitters like Notch. The ironic upshot of my attempt to praise Kotaku was putting some ten-month-old snark in front of half a million people. I was then in the odd position of trying to defend them against my past self while their new posts actively discredited my position.
Among the people who saw that old tweet was Joel Johnson, who I had championed as the man potentially responsible for pulling Kotaku out of the gutter. We had this conversation via Twitter (keep in mind that the first message is from January):
danbruno Why do girl gamers get so little respect? I DUNNO, KOTAKU. YOU TELL ME. http://is.gd/ydHoiy (article: http://is.gd/kaNqKn)
joeljohnson @danbruno I suspect it might be because of some male gamers’ lack of nuance.
danbruno @joeljohnson FWIW, that Tweet is from January and is getting RTed again (out of context) because of this: http://cruiseelroy.net/2011/11/the-ne…
joeljohnson @danbruno Got it. I appreciate the write-up. But I also am the person who came up with the “Fetish” column, so I’m the problem, too.
danbruno @joeljohnson Ah! The plot thickens! :-) Well, I hope it was food for thought, if nothing else.
joeljohnson @danbruno I enjoyed it and appreciated it. I’m simply of the mind that there is room for a lot more in gaming w/o losing the sex, etc.
danbruno @joeljohnson Agreed, but I think there’s a qualitative difference between e.g. one of Leigh’s Aberrant Gamer columns and a cosplay gallery.
joeljohnson @danbruno Just read Kotaku for the articles.
That last comment may have been tongue-in-cheek, but there’s a kernel of truth there — because to some extent, this does resemble the Playboy model of pairing intellectual stimulation with the other kind. They’ve improved on the former, as I tried to highlight in my last post, but I now worry that I misinterpreted its significance and it won’t be at the expense of the latter. If so, that’s a shame, but it’s their choice to make.
Anyway, that’s probably enough for now. There are games that need critiquing!
I’ve had a complicated relationship with Kotaku. They’ve run pieces from some of my favorite games writers, from Stephen Totilo and Leigh Alexander to Maggie Greene and Tim Rogers. (Even me, a couple of times!) They’ve done bona fide journalism in a field where regurgitating news is the norm (Tracey Lien, on the Australian offshoot, has been particularly great recently). All together, they have some of the strongest editorial voices in the industry.
However, Kotaku has historically posted a lot of bullshit too: sexy cosplay galleries, and gratuitous shots of booth babes, and vaguely game-related antics from porn stars, and the inexplicable “What Is Japan’s Fetish This Week?” series. Stuff that reinforces the stereotype that all gamers are maladjusted, oversexed teenage boys. Stuff that sets the tone for the more noxious comments, which too often represent those stereotypes most forcefully. Stuff that, as I called out back in January, makes their attempts at more serious coverage seem half-hearted and disingenuous.
To be clear, Kotaku is of course allowed to post whatever they want. Mostly I was just disappointed that, given the choice, that is what they decided on. They were clearly excluding a large part of their potential audience — you know, the people who might not stay for the incisive commentary if the article above the fold looks like this (picture likely NSFW). In short, it seemed they were missing the chance to leverage their popularity and move the community forward.
Now, it seems like they’re trying to do just that by injecting more social consciousness into their writing.
I’m not sure who to credit for this shift. One possibility is Joel Johnson, who migrated back to Kotaku from Gizmodo earlier this year and took over as Editorial Director. He’s written posts like this one questioning why there aren’t more gay protagonists in games, and this one in support of Gamespot reviewer Carolyn Petit, who is transgender. I don’t know if he’s responsible for killing off that fetish column, and for the apparent decrease in titillating nonsense posts, but I’ll give him credit anyway. And he followed that up by hiring Kirk Hamilton, who he rightly describes as “one of gaming['s] most exciting writers.”
Whether it’s Joel’s doing or not, the change of pace has been refreshing. Look at these posts from the past month: Kirk Hamilton wrote about the worrying fixation on using “bitch” as an insult in Batman: Arkham City. Denis Farr wrote a powerful and heart-rending guest editorial on the word “faggot” and its hidden personal implications. Leigh Alexander wrote about sexism, and how tired she is of having to write about sexism. Stephen Totilo wrote about Capcom responding to misogyny in the Street Fighter community — and then ran a guest editorial from Nicole Leffel about how their response wasn’t good enough.
Compared to the Kotaku of a year or two ago, this feels like a pretty staggering improvement. Naturally the commenters have not all taken to the new direction, and there are still some posts that don’t seem to either, but that will hopefully improve further with time. Meanwhile, the writers and editors deserve an enormous amount of credit for what they’re attempting here. As Kill Screen’s Chris Dahlen said on Twitter: “It’s rare to see a publication work as hard as Kotaku to drag its audience kicking and screaming into maturity.”
Kudos to everyone trying to make Kotaku, and the games community more generally, a better, more thoughtful and more inclusive place.
If Bastion falters anywhere — and I’m not sure it does — it’s at the beginning.
The hyper-streamlined action RPG mechanics are slick and well-crafted, but retread familiar ground. The early plot development is vague to the point of meaninglessness. The much-hyped dynamic narration feels gimmicky, making snide comments when you wander off the edge of a cliff or overuse the dodge button and occasionally reaching for pathos that the story doesn’t yet support. Ambivalent, I stopped playing after about two hours.
Then I began to notice that literally every other person I know who has played Bastion can’t stop talking about it. I went back to it, and in another hour everything had clicked. Not only that, but I somehow found myself retroactively pleased with the beginning of the game and couldn’t imagine wanting to change anything.
My delay in appreciating Bastion is wholly attributable to its deliberate pacing. The gameplay feels shallow because it is — until the weapons and enemies and spirits and idols start rolling in. Similarly, the plot is delivered via a gradual accumulation of detail; it takes a bit before there’s a large enough corpus to start connecting the dots. The narrator’s blend of world-weary crypticness and casual familiarity slowly coalesces into the game’s soul; by the end, even the loading screen factoids seem incongruously matter-of-fact.
My ex post facto enjoyment of the opening mirrors Bastion’s great narrative trick: recontextualizing your past actions in light of a major plot decision. Nathan Grayson, for Maximum PC:
For many reasons (narration, innovative usage of music, etc), Bastion is the type of story only a videogame can tell. However, the biggest of them – in my eyes – is that it can so effectively put me in two entirely different, largely opposite states of mind. Bastion can shift the ideals and motivations behind every action I perform, and – more importantly – it can make me believe in them.
Bastion accomplishes this, Grayson argues, through consistency and restraint, which seem like as good an explanation as any. It’s the narrative equivalent of the ground flying up to meet your step; any direction you choose feels like the right one.
(This site being what it is, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the music. It is, in a word, fantastic, and is unlike any game soundtrack I’ve heard. Composer Darren Korb calls the genre “acoustic frontier trip-hop,” but even that seems too narrow for the variety of styles he’s appropriated. I don’t have an angle for any deep-dive analysis — not yet, anyway — so for now I’ll just recommend that you listen to it. It’s my favorite game soundtrack of the year, and very listenable as a standalone work. More on it later, perhaps.)
Do you remember recommending Portal to your friends, or having it recommended to you? There was this little dance where you had to temper your enthusiasm to avoid overselling what was, ostensibly, a puzzle game. “No, no, I mean, it’s really cool — it’s like, you make these two holes, and you go in one, and then…listen, you just have to play it, okay?” The fact that Portal could be spoiled was, itself, a spoiler.
From that perspective, Portal 2 was at a disadvantage from the start. Valve had already played their plot twist card, their novel mechanic card, and their Jonathan Coulton epilogue card; while continuing along those lines seemed like a safe bet, I wasn’t sure if bouncy gel and the like would be enough to support several more hours’ worth of test chambers. At the time I expressed this doubt by asking if Portal “needed” a sequel, though that framing seems odd in retrospect.
Regardless, my fears were unfounded. Portal 2 doesn’t — and, indeed, couldn’t — recreate the tremendous effect of its predecessor, but it’s still fresh and funny and stunningly executed. For more on that I refer you to Mitch Krpata, Kirk Hamilton, Michael Abbott, and Matthew Burns, all of whom wrote wonderfully thoughtful pieces while I was dicking around for two months.
So instead of rehashing those posts further, I thought I would talk a little about music and sound.
From Geoff Keighley’s must-read feature “The Final Hours of Portal 2”:
The first Portal was renowned for its musical ending, and in Portal 2 composer Mike Morasky wanted to up the ante with interactive music that would subtly evolve as players completed a puzzle. Run along orange speed paint and the music speeds up. Successfully jump across a ledge and the music shifts to let you know you’re doing a good job. “The puzzles are thanking you for playing with them,” is how Morasky puts it. “They love you.”
Interactive music isn’t new, of course, but I haven’t seen anything quite like Portal 2’s approach before. Sound and music are more thoroughly interwoven, and the distinction between the two is less meaningful.
Film editor and sound designer Walter Murch has a theory about categorizing sound. Using the spectrum of visible light as an analogy, he imagines an aural spectrum with “encoded” sound at one end and “embodied” sound at the other:
When you think about it, every language is basically a code, with its own particular set of rules. You have to understand those rules in order to break open the husk of language and extract whatever meaning is inside. Just because we usually do this automatically, without realizing it, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. It happens every time someone speaks to you: the meaning of what they are saying is encoded in the words they use. Sound, in this case, is acting simply as a vehicle with which to deliver the code.
Music, however, is completely different: it is sound experienced directly, without any code intervening between you and it. Naked. Whatever meaning there is in a piece of music is ‘embodied’ in the sound itself. This is why music is sometimes called the Universal Language.
What lies between these outer limits? Just as every audible sound falls somewhere between the lower and upper limits of 20 and 20,000 cycles, so all sounds will be found somewhere on this conceptual spectrum from speech to music.
Most sound effects, for instance, fall mid-way: like ‘sound-centaurs,’ they are half language, half music. Since a sound effect usually refers to something specific – the steam engine of a train, the knocking at a door, the chirping of birds, the firing of a gun – it is not as ‘pure’ a sound as music. But on the other hand, the language of sound effects, if I may call it that, is more universally and immediately understood than any spoken language.
What Portal 2 does, I think, is push sound effects and music towards each other so that they meet somewhere in the orange on Murch’s spectrum.
(You can hear this without the ambient natural sounds on the soundtrack as “The Future Begins With You,” but I recorded it, and the others below, in game for context.)
This piece has what I would call a primitive electronic sound: simple waveforms are spread into octaves-wide arpeggios, with a sparse arrangement and raw timbre. In this way, the music is more effective as sound qua sound than as a composition: its harsh, antiseptic quality reflects Aperture Science’s ethos, and the erratic buzz of the synthesizers evokes the facility’s disrepair after years of neglect. In other words, it leans towards the violet or “encoded” end of the spectrum even though it’s ostensibly musical.
Many sound effects in Portal 2 exhibit the opposite behavior. Here’s a laser, or “Thermal Discouragement Beam,” connecting with its target (most audible at 0:13):
And this is the sound of soaring through the air after bouncing on an “Aerial Faith Plate” (at 0:09):
(These are “Triple Laser Phase” and “15 Acres of Broken Glass,” respectively, on the soundtrack.)
Both of these “sound effects” are, I think, better understood as musical events. They slot too perfectly into the already-playing song when they’re triggered, and they don’t make sense as diagetic sounds that Chell would hear anyway. (Soaring through the air doesn’t actually make a noise, after all.) These sounds, then, lean towards the red or “embodied” end of the spectrum.
There are more early examples of this, but let’s move a little further in. Here’s a short sample of a theme that plays just after the big fall, when you begin the 1950s-style test chambers with Cave Johnson:
We’re back to featuring arpeggios, as with “The Future Starts With You” above, but the effect here is quite different. This music is much “redder” — the instrumentation and the arrangement allow us to immediately and decisively identify it as musical, and we aren’t caught up in deciphering an encoded message.
As it turns out, it also provides the harmonic basis for the music in the next set of puzzles.
Here’s a snip from the first repulsion gel test chamber. Beginning at 0:13, you can hear a floaty high-pitched arpeggio play each time Chell bounces:
And here, in the first propulsion gel test chamber, you can hear a tremolo effect as she sloshes along starting at 0:04:
Here sound and music are so intertwined that I don’t think they’re meaningfully distinct on Murch’s spectrum; they are only differentiable insofar as some events are triggered by the player and some are not. It’s an unusually unified sound design that prevents the music from fading into the background.
I’ve had a half-finished post entitled “What’s next” in my queue for months now. It’s a gloomy piece about how the “thinness” of games on iOS leaves me cold. I don’t mean to say that iOS games are all bad, but rather that I’ve never actually looked forward to playing one. They are diversions and time-wasters, not inherently satisfying experiences; as such, they occupy a fundamentally different space for me, and (I wrote) I’ll likely lose interest in the medium if that’s the way all games are headed.
After playing Sword & Sworcery for twenty minutes, I scrapped that post.
Sword & Sworcery — more formally Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP — is a collaboration between musician Jim Guthrie, artist Craig “Superbrothers” Adams, and indie developer Capybara. Unusually, the idea for the game grew out of the music and art — Guthrie was inspired to compose some tunes after seeing Adams’s pixel art, and in an interview with Now Guthrie describes the eventual result as “an album you can ‘walk through.’” Naturally, that phrase alone was enough to get me excited.
The actual appeal of Sword & Sworcery, though, is more difficult to describe. Yes, the music and art are fantastic, and they complement each other well, but I got the sense that I was responding to something deeper. I might call it intentionality: everything in the game feels like it belongs, in a way that seems rare for video games with their piecemeal development and iterative design. It’s as though the entire project fell out of someone’s head in one piece and they shipped it, warts and all. The focus on aesthetics certainly helps with this cohesion, but I think there’s also some ineffable quality that I haven’t nailed down yet.
On top of that are a million small touches that make Sword & Sworcery something more than the sum of its parts. I love the inscrutable main menu. I love the on-screen directions like “tip tap?” and “believe.” I love that you can tap every bush in the game to make it rustle. I love that the girl (named Girl) stands up every time you pass by. I love that the writing invests phrases like “our woeful errand” with ominous power and then subverts them with lines like “groan not another fetch quest amirite?” I’m not really sure how or why all of this adds up, but it does; it has substance, and gives me what I’ve been missing from iOS games thus far.
That said, it’s worth mentioning that the gameplay itself is not particularly engaging. If I had to tie it to existing titles, I’d say Sword & Sworcery mixes together elements of Out of This World, Prince of Persia, The Legend of Zelda, Punch-Out!!, and, er, Twitter. At its core, though, it’s a simple adventure game where most puzzles (and battles) can be completed by just tapping a lot. There are a few LOOM-like moments of brilliance where you move mountains or call down lightning, but these are rare and unintuitive enough that the game must nudge you towards their solutions.
That kind of criticism seems unfairly reductive here, though; the aesthetics so thoroughly dominate that the shallowness of the game mechanics don’t hinder the experience. The developers’ precious descriptions of Sword & Sworcery — a “brave experiment in I/O cinema,” a “psychosocial audiovisual experiment” — seem to pick up on this as well; it’s the kind of game where you can spend half your time wandering, listening, and tapping the screen at random and still somehow enjoy yourself. Perhaps for some it only evokes the experience of playing a game without providing the real thing, but for me it was enough.