Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Singling-Out, Simplifying, and Why They're Both Stupid

Note: I wrote this back in October for a potential e-book by another games journalist, Nathan Hardisty. The e-book no longer requires my segment, so I'm no longer withholding it.

"Bishop G, they told me I should come down cousin, but I flatly refuse I ain't dumb down nothing."
- Lupe Fiasco, (Dumb it Down)

I'm not the kind of person to define games as art. I am however, an ardent believer of video-games as an incredible entertainment medium – one that will one day soon outstrip other media in unadulterated joy and satisfaction deliverance. And yet, there is a clear and ever-present divide between people who play and enjoy games, and those who don't (or maybe have never even considered them). This kind of salient split doesn't occur for music or films and there are people who profess to not being readers; but I don't think that's an issue of books not being advertised as valid entertainment.

A possible explanation as to why public interest in games is fragmented would be how they're discussed. This shouldn't be especially surprising, but for niche interests and hobbies - in a mixture of creating an easy shorthand for discussion and to create an identifiable group of individuals 'in the know' - terminology is invented.

This is incredibly prevalent when considering video-games, and doubly-prevalent when discussing nerd culture as an entity. To people who regularly play and discuss video-games (and I'm going to assume here that you, the reader is one of them), "RPG", "Kill:Death Ratio", "DPS", and "Metroidvania" all have an easily understood meaning and context, which appear in all forms of writing about video-games; from blog posts, to Instant Messages, to published reviews. But consider, for a moment, individuals who are not part of a community that understand such terminology.

It's not as if other entertainment mediums don't have their own jargon – my understanding of musical theory is limited, along with my knowledge of the technical side to music production. While I am entirely capable of discussing why I enjoy Portishead or what I thought of an Erykah Badu concert, if I was to read about legatos or impedance in an enthusiasts' magazine or was talked at by someone who did have that knowledge; I know I'd be utterly lost and somewhat turned off - especially if the terminology went unexplained.

Games journalism already has an audience (a large and lucrative one, at that), but I feel it could do better at appealing to those who don't already know how much fun video-games can be. Ignoring, or worse, ostracising that group is something that will keep the public opinion of games as entertainment (or more than entertainment) stunted even if the industry itself keeps growing.

While the gaming/non-gaming audiences are separated to a degree (in practice, people obviously don't fall into such stark dichotomies), methods for catering to these audiences - and why it's important – is a lengthy topic and not one I can claim actual authority over. This piece is essentially a summary of the effect of jargon in games writing, how a few existing publications have handled the topic, and a few of my own experiences.

The prevalence of jargon when talking about video-games serves a potentially necessary use of shorthand. Like abbreviations in general, they're used to get a point across to save time and effort. When actually playing video-games, speedy communication is vital – when playing a game like World of Warcraft, spending the time to type out “I've run out of mana” is frivolous when “OOM” will get the point across. But in literature, such time constraints aren't present, in neither writing nor reading. What jargon does instead is re-enforce what is called in linguistics as a Community of Practice.

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are groups of people who are connected by a common interest, regardless of where the individuals are socially or geographically. If this made you think of message boards, Facebook 'Like' pages, and university societies, you're on the right track. Naturally, these CoPs have a structure and a rough hierarchy – the society chairperson, the message board founder, or even long-standing members will hold 'Core' positions within a CoP; and that gives them power – linguistic power.

People at the Core of a community can have their ways of speaking (essentially their use of slang and jargon) filter outwards to the less involved - Peripheral – members, because it re-enforces a sense of belonging. The individuals know they're part of a community because they can use and understand language in a similar fashion. Apply that to video-game jargon, and the result is exactly that, and on multiple levels. The terms gamers know identify them as:
  • A gamer.
  • A fan of a specific genre (If you know what 'OTG' means*, you're a serious Fighting game fan, etc.).
  • Even not a fan of a specific gaming group.
The concept that I'm getting at here is that jargon has the effect of saying “I'm talking to people of a specific group – if you're not part of that group, then too bad”; something that can be consciously or subconsciously enforced. The power of that in writing is like putting a barbed wire fence around your work. Not everyone has the means to process what's discussed – not because they're stupid, but because it's being obfuscated - it's not as if they don't understand video-games, or don't want to be entertained and I feel that's a misconception a lot of people subscribe to.

In addition, games journalism is something pretty close to being part of the Core for gaming's Community of Practice. Games writing is filled with (mostly) talented, (mostly) knowledgeable writers, and their opinion is valued by the gaming community. There are issues with review scores and 'churnalism' (disguising advertisement as journalism) marring that but I won't divulge into that here. How journalists talk about games and try to appeal to an audience is taken on by the readership, and consequently reflected in how they talk about games themselves. If part of that method is using jargon to isolate an audience then there's a problem.

So how do publications talk about games? As entertainment mediums grow more popular and accessible, more people become interested in discussing them, both in publications and to each other. Whether the publication (or speaker) is specifically devoted to that type of entertainment is mattering less. At the time of writing, recent news about a high-definition re-release of PS2 titles Ico and Shadow of the Colossus appeared not only on dedicated gaming blogs and magazines, but also in widely-read newspapers like the Guardian, and lifestyle magazines that have only a fraction of technological interest, such as GT.

While these pieces all cover the same topic; the approach is obviously different - when not aimed at gaming enthusiasts, the amount of information imparted can be a hell of a lot lighter, and simplified. This in turn makes the enthusiasts scoff, as if they are discussing video-games incorrectly. This has varying levels of truth. Going back to the examples of the Guardian and GT writing about Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection, the Guardian does a good job in focusing on talking about the game's stylistic merit – something the readership can appreciate:

"Two videogame legends arrive in new HD versions on the same disc. Ico tells the story of an outcast boy and the lost girl he befriends in a vast castle. Almost without words and featuring nothing as crude as scores or on-screen instructions, you're left with the interplay of light and shade and the lugubrious howl of the wind as you tackle its beautifully designed puzzles and intruding smoke monsters. Shadow Of The Colossus, meanwhile, has you stalking, clambering on to and killing a series of giant, silent colossi in order to win back the soul of your dead girlfriend; their eventual deaths providing bittersweet moments of victory tinged with sadness. Both are remarkable and singular experiences." [1]

Do note that this is the review published within the newspaper, limited in length, and forced to share space with other releases of the week. The Guardian website itself has a far more in-depth look at the game – they're fortunate enough to have the scope to be able to appeal to both types of reader needs. The GT article is different in its approach:

"Two of the best games ever made (and among the few to be deservedly regarded as art) these Playstation 2 classics have been spruced up with silky smooth HD graphics (yay!) a 3D mode (woo!) and trophy support (meh). Released back in 2001, ICO is an ethereally beautiful puzzler in which you lead a ghostly girl through an endless castle. ICO's 2005 sequel Shadow of the Colossus, ups the action – you must battle a series of roaming giants – but the bleak landscape and haunting score gives it a unique, melancholy feel. If you haven't played 'em, you're in for a treat." [2]

The length and information given of the two are similar, but GT's attempt has that creeping feeling of pandering and dumbing down. Unlike the previous quote, this one isn't part of a set of games articles, but a cornered footnote in a round-up of general media. There's no in-depth version online either.

It could be argued that comparing a globally recognised broadsheet to a monthly magazine aimed specifically at LGBT Londoners is incredibly unfair; but neither of them are solely dedicated to media/entertainment. They both have longer and more detailed sections for other media and if anyone claims that gay people would be categorically less interested in video-games (or need to have discussion about games and technology simplified), I will be more than happy to punch them in the face.

If games are to grow (and to be taken more seriously), these attempts at writing for outside the gaming community are very much important – even if the level of detail isn't as in-depth as some (or at least I) would like. There is, however, a problem in how much space in publications that video-games get compared to other entertainment media. It's all too common to have the entertainment section in a newspaper have a double-spread on the latest album releases, and only a fifth of a page about what video-games were released that week; which goes some way to explain the lack of detail.

It's a very telling reflection on what the UK press (I can't really speak for the world at large) thinks of video-games as something that may draw public interest. Maybe they're fully aware that there are dedicated gaming magazines out there and think it's a market not worth giving much notice - but the best way to get people interested and excited about something new is to make sure it's within their notice and is presented as something they can easily participate in. Dedicated magazines don’t fill the gap as such because it conflicts with their target market - EDGE's in-depth (and sometimes pretentious) discussions about the state of the industry and the finer points of game design would make a layman run for the hills - or fall asleep. As said before, I wouldn't blame them.

Conversely, in the simplified games reviews of the newspaper; you're not going to see discussion about the kind of quality of animation, music, or voice acting used; nor are you as likely to read about how the game made the reviewer feel, the raw emotions that a reader could relate to (again, I'm glad that the Guardian can be an exception to this) and I find that incredibly backwards in terms of getting people interested. Those who might not know much will perceive the games as basic or childish, and others will feel like they're being talked down to. This kind of scenario is total bullshit and while keeping two different audiences pleased is not immediately straightforward, it's a far cry from being impossible.

Attempting to write for two audiences is something that I've experienced first-hand. My journalistic experience started with writing for my university paper; and naturally I was writing about games. Games was only a single page in the arts section, no competition to the 4-page spread the music section had, so space was limited. The readership being uni students across a wide range of interests, my goal wasn't to write for enthusiasts exclusively, but to draw in the interest of newcomers. The problems lay in creating pieces that people who didn't know the jargon and the references could still understand, and the people who were well-versed wouldn't feel patronised.

Issues with jargon were solved simply by explaining acronyms used, and wasn't too difficult to summarise. Obscurity was a bigger issue. Only games of the current generation gain media exposure and are stocked in ordinary supermarkets and electronics stores (as opposed to say, DVDs, where you can get a movie from any time period on one format). As a result, unless you've been interested in games for a long time, it's very likely to have some blank spots in video-game history - even if those titles would be well known within the group of enthusiasts. This means a retrospective on anything from yesteryear (whether it's as well known as SSX Tricky or as big of an unknown as Gotcha Force) has a requirement in both generating nostalgic sighs from those who have heard of it, and enticing people who haven't heard of it to find out more.

As such, choosing a title to wax nostalgic about - but is almost impossible to get a hold of - isn't a great idea. With the age of digital distribution, obtaining old titles is now a lot easier: all current consoles offer a range of retro titles to download, and for the PC, the website Good Old Games makes sure that popular classics will function on more than just Windows '95 systems. Of course, it's not only old games that are obscure - there are many recent titles that don't make it to the EU nor the US shores, and as such, you'd be hard pressed to have many Western folk hear of them.

Talking about these games can be a little tricky; considering the main aim is to raise awareness and interest in something people might enjoy, talking in-depth about a game no one can get their hands on without the tribulations of importing doesn't sound like a very sensible idea. That said, I once wrote about the grizzly DS visual novel 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors; discussing how (when comparing it to the vast majority of video-games) its storytelling was incredibly impressive [3]. I got a couple of messages asking about how they could get the game themselves and it warmed my frosty heart.

What I found the most effective in appeasing both types of reader was going for a "And If You Like This" angle. While most games today are refined essences of a genre - learning lessons from the titles before them (at least in theory) - there's a lot of fun and experience to be gained from taking a look at the classics. It's a concept that works in other media - would the movie Source Code be as well-defined without The Matrix? - and I find it pays its dues here. While I might struggle to talk to a gaming neophyte about the arcade beat-em-up Cadillacs and Dinosaurs [4], if you lead in with the Scott Pilgrim beat-em-up spin-off; then talking about the kinds of games it was inspired by suddenly seems a lot less intimidating.

If they're really hooked, they might go on to look at other games in the genre - Streets of Rage, Final Fight - or maybe even discover the treasure trove that is arcade game emulation, at which point you've successfully given someone the gift of entertainment, the same kind of satisfaction from giving someone a book recommendation or a cool waistcoat you found in a vintage store.

I wouldn't say that I have the skill for wide-audience writing down pat – I still have a lot to learn, and journalists more practised that I would most likely find my present attempts hamfisted. That said, it's an attempt that any writer can try; paying more attention into intended audiences and considering how one's writing changes when addressing both the experienced and the new is a useful thought experiment. If anyone catches me being pandering or condescending in my writing then I give them full consent to track me down and give me a good hard kick in the shins.

* 'OTG' refers to attacks in fighting games that can hit knocked over opponents On The Ground. That this is a property so important that it needs an acronym boggles my mind.

Film Review: Dream House

Psychological thrillers are hard to do properly. Whether trying to appeal to a pretentious deep-seated metaphor, or just a set up for an M. Night Shaymalan-esque twist, attention absoltuely has to be paid to keeping the twist obscured, and orchestrated to pack the biggest emotional punch; what's colloquially known as the 'MindF**k'. What you can't go and do is give the twist at the end of the first act with next to no buildup.

It looks like Dream House didn't get the memo.

Okay, so the premise then. Daniel Craig is Will Atenton, a British man with an all-American family, moving into the house of his dreams. Problem is, the neighbours are freaked out by him, there are goths hanging out in his basement, and... oh yeah, five years ago the family living there were shot in cold blood. So not so dreamy then.

This could have devolved into a run-of-the-mill slasher film with the ghosts of the recently deceased causing havoc, but no, Dream House is clearly too smart for something so gauche. After finding out that the husband of the murdered family survived and was interred at the local mental hospital, Will goes to visit the facility, and then The Twist happens. I would feel bad for spelling it out (though the film's trailer blatantly spoils the twist...), but I'll just say that the reveal is laughably contrived, lacked build-up, and poor Daniel Craig did his best to act as if the revelation was tearing him apart.

With the twist out of the way so early into the film, the rest of the runtime is taken up with a one-sided murder mystery. Only Will Atenton seems particularly interested with the pursuit of the truth, neither the police nor the audience offer more than a shrug, and just leave him to get on with it.

That's not to say that Daniel and the rest of the cast are doing a bad job of working with the awful source material; they just can't do anything to save it. A fair amount of dialogue is required from the two daughters of the family in order to go for a sappy, heartstring-pulling angle (rendering them immediately annoying from the get-go), and the rest of the cast does a good job of keeping them in line, but the end result doesn't really work. It's pandering and tedious.

Dream House's thrilling conclusion goes down like the clichéd path it was predestined to roll towards. Villains are evil and hateful simply because they're evil and hateful, everything goes down in flames, and it all resolves with a happy ending like there was no gruesome murder in the first place. Yawn.

Dream House turned out to be a movie that thought it could survive on star power. Hopefully its failure will stand out as an example to other film projects as what not to do when putting a thriller together.

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - Zelda for the Modern Gentleman

The hype for the Wii's true Zelda game has been going on for a while; ever since the Electronic Entertainment Expo of last year. Twilight Princess, the Zelda title released at the start of the Wii's lifespan was actually a Gamecube title altered to work with the Wii's unique control scheme. Now we near the end of the Wii, with the WiiU on the horizon, and Nintendo has put all their knowledge of how to best use the format, steering Zelda in a direction away from its tried-and-tested staples.
And lo, Skyward Sword was born.
Okay, I'm being overly-dramatic here. Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a Zelda game for the current generation, taking design aspects from peers that themselves were based on older Zelda titles. It shrugs off some outmoded traditions and is all the better for it, but in doing so, some new bad habits have been acquired.

From the moment the game loads, Skyward Sword charms with its improved characterisation. Traditionally, Link is normally a blank slate in a green hat, and Zelda is normally a mysterious and distant damsel to be rescued. Here, they've been best of friends for years – Zelda is a lot more outspoken and pragmatic, Link is more boisterous and emotional - and they play off each other in a way that reminds me just a little of 90's high school sitcoms. It's a bit hackneyed, but comparatively refreshing. Giving you the time to actually care about a character before they're snatched away does so much more to make things personal for the player.

In another stark difference to previous Zelda titles, the game world is split up into isolated areas with a much smaller 'overworld'. It's an improvement - it never takes long to get where you need to go, and although the game flow follows the traditional pattern of finding and clearing a series of dungeons; the process of actually getting to the dungeon entrance is more involved - the game map itself is a set of puzzles and hurdles. It keeps the action constant, and feels a lot less claustrophobic than confining all the action to ancient tombs.

Link's movement abilities have also seen a change. A new stamina gauge means for a limited time Link can sprint, wall-run, and lift heavy objects. A lot of the game puzzles now revolve around using Link's stamina as an obstacle, rather than just physical barriers. It's a nice variation, but there are areas that overuse the idea, and risk tediousness.

Mechanically, the most outstanding element is the mandatory motion control. The Wii as a format has taken a lot of flack for introducing motion controls to gaming; and although the complaints have not always been justified - there's always the problem of having 'waggle' included just for the gimmick, which can often make a game imprecise and frustrating. Skyward Sword... largely avoids that problem.

Everything short of moving Link around requires some form of motion gesture - a great method of immersion. Waving your sword about and manipulating the many many tools at your disposal is satisfying for as long as the game wants to co-operate with you. It doesn't take much for the sensors to go slightly out of alignment, or to misinterpret what direction your sword swipes are in. It's not too much of an annoyance when you can take your time to solve a puzzle, but in the heat of battle the game is all too willing to punish you for not slashing in the (clearly shown) direction it asks of you. Seeing what you need to do laid out in front of you, but struggling to get Link to act it out is often jarring.

Also jarring is the game's hint system. Your sword has a guardian spirit named Fi, standing in for Navi or Midna from other Zelda games. In a contrast to the personality and characterisation of the rest of the cast, Fi has the literal personality of a computer program (her dialogue is filled with 'progress reports' and probability percentages). Not so terrible on paper, but in practice she bothers you frequently, often with information you already know about. If you're taking too much damage, or your remote batteries get too low, she'll notify you; and it's profoundly irritating. There is a difference between being able to ask for hints when you need them (which the game offers and does a very good job of pointing you in the right direction without solving puzzles for you), and stopping the game to tell you precisely what item you've just found on the ground.

While these setbacks are hard to ignore, they don't (or can't) ruin the great experiences that Skyward Sword has to offer. The characters are endearing, the locations are beautiful and distinct, and the game's villain, Ghirahim, has now become my favourite Zelda antagonist - he makes an incredibly cool first boss.

Nintendo have definitely shown that they can embrace modern game design sensibilities while still keeping the stylistic flair that makes them distinct. If Skyward Sword is a preview of the large-scale games Nintendo has in mind for the WiiU; consider me damn excited.

Sonic Generations - Gotta Follow My Rainbow

Back in the days of the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive, the idea of 'Mascot Platformers' were incredibly popular. Mario and Sonic were the kings of the genre, and their success introduced many imitators; most of them nowhere near as popular. Some may have heard of Sparkster or Pulseman, but you're an odd bird if you've heard of - let alone played - Awesome Possum (You're not missing anything if you haven't).
Moving on to the era of 3D games; Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter and Banjo Kazooie had entered the scene, and Super Mario was still going strong. Sonic the Hedgehog on the other hand had changed greatly with his foray into the 3rd dimension with Sonic Adventure, a point which die-hard enthusiasts of the side-scrolling experiences claimed was the point that Sonic had gone downhill. Today mascot platformers have largely disappeared, with Mario, Kirby, and Ratchet and Clank series holding out as the last bastions. Sonic has persisted through the ages, but the general quality of his games haven't managed to quite keep up with his peers.

More recently Sonic Team have managed to pull the franchise out of its funk with the bright and charming Sonic Colours for the Wii last year, and this winter they've released Sonic Generations - an honest attempt at taking the best of what made the old and new Sonic games fun, stripping away the additional mechanics that didn't work out, and wrapping it all up in a package that will get knowing smiles from fans of any age.

The set up is a complete throwaway excuse. A purple eldrich abomination made of purple fog and gears - the Time Eater - has ripped through Sonic's timeline, turning levels from his past into grey husks. This abuse of the time-space continuum also lets the Sonic of the modern day meet his younger self; shorter, chubbier, and (maybe thankfully) mute. Together they run through select stages of all the main-series Sonic games in order to get things back to the status-quo.

What this means in gameplay terms is that the game is bifurcated - half of the game is a smoothed-out, high resolution rendition of the 2D Sega Mega Drive style; the other half a tweaked and refined engine taken from Sonic Colours. Both styles of play are all about reaching breakneck speeds and good reaction skills, but the Classic Sonic stages are a lot more straight-forward in terms of controls than the Modern variant.
While this made the Classic stages easier to complete, they also felt a little less involved to me than the Modern versions. Modern Stages add in the ability to do aerial tricks, wall-jumps, and other neat acrobatics that feel incredibly satisfying when done correctly. All stages in the game have a certain rhythm to them that aren't easy to notice when playing for the first time, but as I progressed and retried a few stages, the quality of the level design became more apparent. That's not to say that all of the levels are great - late game stages Crisis City (from Sonic 2006) and Planet Wisp (from Sonic Colours) cause many deaths due to the level pitting the game physics directly against you. Even with the rest of the game's quality, these moments will easily wear your patience thin.

Aesthetically, Sonic Generations is a real treat. Not competing to bring about super-realistic environments, the developers focused on bringing all the stages to the current generation with as much authenticity as possible - and they definitely succeed. Green Hill Zone will be familiar to many, but when I started up the City Escape stage from Sonic Adventure 2 (The first Sonic game I ever played!), seeing how they managed to capture the feel of the stage without just copying the level wholesale brought on waves of nostalgia, and the widest smile.

The boss fights against choice final bosses from the series and against Sonic's rivals are both energetic and done with more creativity than I was expecting. The final boss, however, is lengthy and rather boring; a weak way to tie up the game. Just beating the game will only take a few hours, but there are over 80 Challenge Stages split evenly between Classic and Modern Sonic. They feature some interesting variations, and many are honestly a real challenge to beat. Those who like to chase after the highest ranks and full completion will find Sonic Generation a lengthier and more complete experience. But they might see some hair loss when they come to the hardest ones.

Sonic Generations is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC (360 version reviewed). Please note that the 3DS version of Sonic Generations is developed by a different team, and may differ wildly from this version.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Singles' Club: Review Compilation

These singles reviews are taken from assorted articles found at the Yorker. Reviews are ordered from earliest to most recent.

Lupe Fiasco – The Show Goes On
The recent fad of rappers (and wannabe rappers) producing club tunes to hit the top 40 has been really successful, but rather irritating. It's disappointing that Lupe Fiasco's stellar lyricism and less egoistic tone is wasted on the autotune-tinged chorus and "party all night" theme. The beat feels like it was made for T-Pain or Flo Rida instead of Lupe, but I can't hate the Modest Mouse sample and catchy brass.

Wiz Khalifa - Black and Yellow
Let it be known: catchy beats will always save mediocre rapping. 'Black and Yellow' isn't an exotic song; the beat's nothing especially creative, but the simple synth melody that's like an artillery of music boxes is somehow hummable, danceable, and easy to rap over all at once. Wiz Khalifa's rapping is inoffensive, but boils down to a kid showing off his shiny new car to girls. It's entirely forgettable - a remix featuring Snoop Dogg and (ugh) T-Pain replace Wiz with no detriment.

Far East Movement ft. Frankmusic - 'Do it in the AM'
Having already released songs about things that don't actually exist (there's no such thing as a 'G6'; the plane is called a 'G4'), Far East Movement prove that they don't even need logical metaphors. You would guess that what they're doing 'in the AM' is in a quick-and-dirty in a nightclub bathroom, but lyrics like 'Last one's in, first one's out / Baby we ain't the crowd' makes the implication... kinda sleazy. Frankmusic's beat-juggle at the end saves this one.

Big Sean feat. Kanye West & Roscoe Dash - Marvin & Chardonnay
The unknown that is Big Sean relies on Kanye West as a saving grace; though unless he's rapping about his personal life - Kanye's flow is... pretty awful. No, this is not "The F***in' Anthem" in any context. And as for the beat - we have a reasonable string intro before being dumped into what sounds like a tuba player jumping on a rusty trampoline. I'll take some actual Marvin Gaye over this, thanks.

Labrinth feat. Tinie Tempah – Earthquake
Listening to it sober, what comes across is just how... entirely acceptable it is. This is definitely the Average Party Anthem of cheap nightclubs for the season - but the beat is nowhere near aggressive enough for the smashing and moshing it asks of its listeners. However, the acapella for the bridge is cute in how out-of-place it is.

Listening to it drunk, though? Amazing tune, love it.

Beyoncé - Party
Her diva personality may grate on some, but I feel that Beyoncé's vocal quality far outstrips her attitude outside the music studio. 'Party' has a rubbery and easy-groovin' synth bassline with lyrics simple enough for me to sing along and annoy the housemates. André 3000 offers a rap verse of quality that the Waynes and Wests wish they could produce.

Side note: The music video version of 'Party' has a different guest rapper - J. Cole - who is... nowhere near as good. Why did they do that?

Bonus Single Review! Beyoncé - Countdown
Agressive brass in R&B and Hip-Hop is nothing revolutionary, but I enjoy it. It feels a little too busy here, especially compared to the straightforwardness of 'Party'. I'm not sure if I'm feelin' the staccato-filled chorus, either. At the very least, the music video looks great; Beyoncé's so cute in a turtleneck!

Batman: Arkham City - Skyscrapers and Shark Bait

 This article can also be found at the Yorker.
It's an easy sell to produce something 'for the fans'. More so than just milking a character or series within video games, games about other 'fandoms' brings in consumers who wouldn't otherwise be gaming enthusiasts. What better series to capitalise on that than Batman - a franchise existing since 1939 and with a dozen retellings and alternate universes.
Rocksteady's previous effort, Batman: Arkham Asylum was praised for making a title that paid honest attention to the source material - having new interpretations of Batman and his adversaries, while not going wildly off-base. The art style was suitably 'comic book' in nature, and there was a ton of trivia and minutiae to keep the hardcore nerds happy.

On the other hand, the play experience was repetitive, and although it took notes from Metroid and the modern Castlevanias (where progress is defined by finding new tools to unlock barricades seen earlier in the adventure), the implementations lacked charm. Arkham City, on the other hand, goes to lengths to fix the flaws of its predecessor, while still retaining the action and tone. For that goal, Arkham City definitely succeeds.

The main thing to notice is the change in setting - Batman is no longer limited to bouncing around a small prison complex - a whole section of Gotham City has been sectioned off to hold prison inmates and those from the asylum (justified in a lame and ultimately ignorable plot point - who cares why, you get to glide past skyscrapers dramatically). A handful of the main villains take the opportunity to start turf wars - taking in to account locations from the mythos that will mean little to anyone but die-hards.

Batman is initially imprisoned within the city as Bruce Wayne in a plot by Professor Strange to get rid of him for good. The narrative then flicks between Batman finding a way into Strange's headquarters, and dealing with the Joker in a sub-plot - genetics-altering steroids used by the Joker in the first game have taken their toll, and through a blood transfusion, forces Batman to find a cure before they both perish.

Mechanically, this means that the city acts as a 'hub world', connecting the buildings that Batman needs to visit to find items or beat up villains to progress the plot. It's within these buildings that the similarities to the first game are at their clearest, but as I played I became very strongly reminded of the Legend of Zelda games. Each building acts as a dungeon where Batman discovers a new item or skill, uses that new ability almost exclusively to finish the dungeon, with a boss fight at the end. To fit this formula, some of the tasks and boss fights become rather contrived, and ultimately don't seem to 'fit' in tone.

Indeed, while there are a lot of references to the Batman animated series I'd seen sporadically as a kid (many voice actors are the same, for a start), with some scrutiny, Arkham City felt more like the Nolan movies rather than the nostalgia they were hoping for. The way that Batman is entirely emotionless at all times (including in cutscenes, when being beaten up, and when being eaten by a shark); that the ridiculous and none-too-interesting plot is delivered entirely seriously; and the clinical, PDA-style interface made the whole package rather un-Batman to someone like me.

The main plotline is short - Roughly 25% of the game's completion count - and between (and during) dungeons there are a myriad of Riddler Trophies that unlock challenge missions, along with sidequests that are more demanding of your skills than the story, featuring and fleshing out villains that don't appear in the main plotline. I could live with the game being more linear if it meant that Riddler, Two-Face, and others could be directly worked into the story.
On top of that, there's additional content featuring Catwoman - her fighting style differs heavily to Batman's, but she gets very little play time. Then again, her presence is so skeezy (a character who's only dialogue consists of feline puns and innuendo is rather hard to put up with; saying nothing of how often the enemy dialogue gets... rape-y when you play as her), you won't mind seeing less of her.

The combat is where Arkham City improves the most over the prequel. Taking on the 'mash the attack and counter-attack buttons' system the first game had, Arkham City lets you use your gadgets during battle. Every item that you can use in the field has an effect in battle, an idea both actually Batman-esque and letting the battles become a bit more nuanced - later fights eventually force you to stop attacking blindly. A boss mid-way through the game (I won't spoil whom) revolves around using your arsenal and the scenery to get through the foe's defences, with no method working twice, and is by far the high-point of the game.

Arkham City achieves what it sets out to do - beat the pants off of its predecessor and gives the fans the callbacks and references they yearn for. If I was more of a Batman fan, my experience would be a lot more positive; but in my eyes Batman: Arkham City is a solidly built blockbuster title that's just a little too derivative and unfocused. I never though I could be not nerdy enough to appreciate something...
Batman: Arkham City is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC (PS3 version reviewed)

Film Review - Bad Teacher

This review can also be found at the Yorker (where it was uploaded ages ago, and I forgot to mirror it here...)

I never go to the movies alone. The idea of sitting in a theatre - especially a near-empty theatre - with no company and everyone else wondering why you've shown up alone is incredibly creepy and sends shivers down my spine. When I mentioned to my friends that I was going to see Bad Teacher, and if any of them wanted to join me, they all looked at the floor and made polite excuses. That should have been my warning to ABORT ABORT ABORT.

It turns out that going alone to a movie that has nothing of content aside from Cameron Diaz painfully posturing definitely makes you look creepy.

To fill you in on what little plot there is; Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz) has recently divorced from an apparently week-long marriage, when the other half realises she's only with him for the money. Without a sugar daddy she's forced to work at a junior high school, where the teachers are uncool but well-meaning, and the students are... not really focused on. At the same time, she decides the best method to get back on track is to shell out for a pair of $9000 breasts - and 'wacky hi-jinks' follow.

Unenthusiastic? I don't blame you. The idea of an anti-hero protagonist working as an incompetent teacher is something we've definitely seen before, and much of the movie reminded me of School of Rock in all the wrong ways. You could even describe Bad Teacher as “School of Rock, with Jack Black now sporting breasts, bleached hair and being dry-humped by Justin Timberlake”. Oh great, now I feel physically ill.

While I can put up with a movie that exists for the sake of peddling "T 'n' A", or a premise that rides on the concept of other successful (though not necessarily good) releases, what gets me is how the story almost wilfully goes nowhere. In addition to the Quest for Fake Mammaries, Elizabeth is lucky enough to get a subplot where she competes with another - more competent, but rather anal - member of staff for substitute teacher Scott (played by the aforesaid Justin Timberlake). Both plot threads resolve; but they happen so close to the end, you almost don't notice. Indeed, you could potentially remove the film's finale and watch the second act over again, and the character and plot progression would still make sense. But I don't recommend anyone tries that.

"But Nathan!", I hear you cry. "Easy-to-watch films with puerile humour can be fun to watch, especially with friends. You just have no sense of humour!" What a hurtful thing to say! Bad Teacher offers little in the way of legitimate humour, even when trying to be risqué. It readily throws boobs and weed and the F-word at you, but it doesn't actually try and do anything witty with them, and definitely feels like it's refraining from offending anyone. The film vaguely hints at Scott having a character flaw in his 'white privilege' making him unintentionally racist; but they bury that quickly, and don't bring it up again. A missed opportunity for humour at his expense, but maybe them not elaborating on it is a bullet dodged.

If you want an easy 'n' cheesy American comedy, then I recommend you Green Hornet. It has all the perverted jokes you could ever want, backed up by some good actors and action sequences. If you want grown women being mean to each other, look no further than Desperate Housewives. Not a movie, but that just means it lasts longer.

Bad Teacher is a film about wasting $9k on cosmetic surgery. And I just wasted £5.50 watching it.

Film Review - Demons Never Die

This review can also be found at the Yorker.

I'm not particularly well-versed in horror films, but a lifetime of cultural osmosis has left me with a good understanding of how it's supposed to go. Morally bankrupt, personality-lacking, or otherwise Orange County everydude Americans are put somewhere dark and isolated through contrived circumstance, and are summarily killed - by a supernatural entity, a guy with a chainsaw, or just 'cause.

Aside from the killings, Demons Never Die entirely ignores this framework - and really it's worse off for it. While I doubt it's a full explanation for why this is the case, Demons is a British film, an oddity in a genre seemingly dominated by the US. Set in London, it has that same mixture of authenticity and self-parody that Attack the Block had with its council-estate setting. The soundtrack is Grime and D'n'B throughout, which I honestly quite liked.

The plot follows a group of kids who form a suicide pact when a girl at their 6th Form College takes her own life. Most have the details as to why they want to die fleshed out, and some are surprisingly serious - the female lead Samantha (Emma Rigby) suffering from schizophrenia, and Ricky (Femi Oyeniran) being pressured by his homophobic father. Lead character Archie (Robert Sheehan) has some trappings of unhinged stalker to his personality, which is interesting in his interactions with Samantha, but after a while it's played as endearing. Odd.

As the story progresses, they eventually realise that an elaborate suicide is not the solution to their problems, and become all a bit more comfortable with themselves. The cast have had their share of movies prior (sharing a few names with Adulthood), and they manage to get some compelling character interaction going, and you find yourself rooting for them to find a solution. That's not how slasher films are supposed to go at all! All of the Final Destinations and the Halloweens out there have almost intentionally flat or dislikeable characters, so when the flesh-rending eventually occurs, we don't feel like awful human beings for finding it entertaining.

Speaking of flesh-rending, that aspect is the weakest part of Demons Never Die by far. At the same time as the suicide pact plot, we find that there is a masked killer picking off the kids one-by-one with a hunting knife. It's clear that the film was produced on a low budget - not being able to go all-out on the violence is understandable, but Demons employs some incredibly obvious cutaways, torn clothing and blood packs; and it feels cheap; especially since the death of the kids doesn't seem to drive the plot as much as you think it would.

Up until the third act where literally every named character ends up knifed (to no real emotional impact - even with all the effort they put into characterisation), nothing would be particularly lost if all the murder scenes were removed. In fact, with some editing, Demons Never Die would be better off as a one-shot BBC human drama.

Part of me wonders if when this film was initially pitched, they had to crowbar in a crazed killer to get it to fit into a Halloween season release; but that's just wishful thinking on my part. There's nothing wrong with having a different take on a genre, but Demons is too tame to be a horror, and too shallow to be a drama – a failed experiment.

Have You Played - Resonance of Fate

This article can also be found at the Yorker.

Japanese RPGs fall into some rather typical camps. There are the menu-heavy games like Pokémon and Final Fantasy VII, slow affairs where reaction speed isn't a focus; and action RPGs like Kingdom Hearts and Monster Hunter - where high-level play is all about putting your reactions to the test.
Resonance of Fate (End of Eternity in Japan) is... neither; and that's what makes it an interesting experience - it's a game all about stylish and acrobatic gunfights that the Wachowski Brothers would approve of, but strangely the focus is on tactics and planning ahead.

The game takes place on Basel - a city within a mechanical skyscraper. Like all good stories about dystopian industrial futures, there's a stark rich/poor divide, and crime is rampant. The player is in control of three mercenaries - Vashyron, Zephyr and Leanne - completing town requests so they can get from day to day.

Beyond the initial setting concept, the plot matters very little. Developers tri-Ace (Responsible for Infinite Undiscovery and the Star Ocean series) are known for putting together visually and mechanically stunning games - but their storytelling has a lot to be desired. I've you've ever watched much animé (Or hell, if you've played a story-driven JRPG in the last decade) the roles the protagonists play is something all-too-familiar. Vashyron is the strong, responsible adult with a streak of lechery; Zephyr is filled with teenage angst and a mysterious past; Leanne is naive, demure, and still not quite sure why she puts up with the other two idiots she spends her time with.

Fortunately, Resonance quickly puts the narrative on the back-burner in favour of the gunfights. Battles are, in a word, complex. Fights deal in two kinds of damage - Scratch Damage caused by machine guns, and Direct Damage caused by handguns. Winning fights revolves around wearing down the enemy with Scratch Damage, and then sealing the deal with a Direct attack. While not too difficult of a concept, it then introduces Attack Charges, Hero Actions, Critical Conditions... at which point I was very much lost, and was relieved to find a tutorial mode hidden away.

Resonance, therefore, is like the Anti-Chess - hard to learn, but much easier to master. Once the explanations are laid out in front of you, competence soon follows, which is a great feeling - the first time you successfully take out a room full of enemies by doing an impossible leap from one side of the room to the other by flinging about 20 grenades is an incredible thrill for yourself and anyone watching.

It then becomes a game of one-upmanship - Resonance will put you up against enemies that know how to hide their weaknesses and terrain that puts you at a disadvantage, and you'll think long and hard about a method of attack that leaves your team unscathed. The battles reward spectacle - properly executing the more stylish attacks lets you keep up the flashy moves, and saves you from damage.

That's not to say the game is easy, however. Executing a manoeuvre poorly may lead to having one of your party members surrounded - and consequently riddled with bullets. Like any RPG you can flee, gain a few levels and come back, but clever use of cover will save your hide way more often than having extra health.

A game that largely survives on spectacle is something that I could be scoffed at for recommending, but Resonance of Fate puts you in control of the action, supplying a feeling more tangible than a cutscene, and a bigger sense of satisfaction when you do well. Not everyone will have the patience to learn all the ins-and-outs of the combat, but those who like fighting games or strategy games will get a kick out of this.

Resonance of Fate is available on the PS3 and 360.

Summer Backlog: Kirby's Epic Yarn

Woah, I'm behind on keeping this updated. This article can also be found at the Yorker.

Kirby's Epic Yarn was something of an experimental title, letting Nintendo take some different steps in how they designed their platforming titles. The entire game revolves around the player character and the surroundings made from yarn, fabric and buttons - and it resulted in some interesting and visually-striking levels.
You might have remembered that I've covered this game before - and also that I mentioned that it was a title that took well to being completed 100%. After saying such I... moved on to other games before I'd reached total completion. Absolutely shameful.

With its 'no death, no failure' approach to gameplay, what made me put off finishing it was that it appeared too easy to be worth doing. Even for those who aren't the greatest at video games (and this would include myself), an element of danger and challenge is a good motivator. That challenge is present in Epic Yarn, but it's hidden under layers of fabric and fluff. The collectable items of the game are all items of furniture (or fabric patterns to decorate the walls and floor) to go in a virtual flat of your design. Furnishing your flat does nothing to affect the main platforming aspects of the game - and as such wasn't something I was prepared to bother with.

However, the interior design is actually a set up for bonus Challenge Stages. In addition to Kirby's hovel, there are five other apartments that each require a combination of furniture found in the main stages of the game - and even though I'd found the majority of them by besting the storyline, a few remained elusive. It was at this point that Epic Yarn had started to become a little more compelling. I was no longer just tasked with completing stages - something impossible to fail at - but a treasure hunt was added to the mix. It wasn't anything earth-shaking, but it made me look at some of the stages in a new way; taking time to explore the nooks and crannies.

With the requested furniture obtained, the challenge stages were open to me. These tasks take sections of the main stages and introduces alternate goals and restrictions. Find all the hidden characters in the stage. Destroy all enemies. Escort an item to the finish without losing it. Succeeding at these tasks unlocked additional wallpaper designs (joy), but they also added the factor of failure that the main stages lacked.
All of the challenges adhere to a time limit, sometimes a rather unforgiving one. Only a fraction of the challenges can easily be completed on the first try; and I found myself noticing just how slow Kirby moves. His relaxed gait was a direct conflict to the warning chime signifying I had less than 10 seconds to reach the finish line. Kirby's Epic Yarn had finally manage to become daunting!

However, while I was making steady progress with the challenge content - there was another factor that meant the play experience of Epic Yarn wasn't quite as excellent as when I had first played. When I made my first foray into the game, I was playing in 2 Player Co-Op. Having a partner deepened the experience considerably; not just in terms of gameplay - your ally doubles up as someone to help you get to hard-to reach areas, and handy ammunition to help you circumvent some puzzles - but also in having another human by your side, also experiencing and enjoying a game that may be short on spectacle, but abundant in whimsy and charm. Even in instances where your co-operation is less than stellar, the 'no failure' stance means relationships remain unsoured.

Taking on these bonus tasks solo was a smoother experience than playing with a friend, it was a lot less involved. While doing challenges, I was instinctively noticing how, if I were playing in Co-Op, I could circumvent a trap, or collect items twice as fast. Even with my successes, it felt a little hollow when the Player 2 character would show up on screen to do a happy little jig, but there was no equivalent sitting on my sofa.

Kirby's Epic Yarn may be a straightforward, and mostly unchallenging game, but it's taught me some interesting things about game design, stylistic direction, and most of all friendship. How appropriately saccharine.