Game Eaters

Thursday, August 10, 2006

How the ESRB can hurt gaming.

I picked up the new GameInformer of the floor at the office today (which is typically where we keep our magazines) and I noticed an interview with Patricia Vance, President of the ESRB. In it she said:

[O]ur ratings are more conservative than movies and television. Yet, we're not at a point where we can be comfortable to make them more lenient. One of the things we do every year is we go out and test our ratings assignments with parents. We find that the way we assign our ratings is very in line with mainstream American tastes. I don't think we're in a position to adjust that at all based on that research.

It's at moments like these I wonder if I'm just a simple creature. Maybe this proves I'm a naive hippy with no sense of political give-and-take, but I found myself imagining the following conversation...

ME: Hey ESRB! Why do you perpetuate the double-standards held by the game-illiterate mainstream? Aren't you supposed to be on our side?

ESRB: We aren't a public service, duh. If our ratings help stifle the artistic growth of the industry by forcing the market to conform to a conservative world-view that's your problem, not ours.

ME: Golly! Thanks ESRB! I'll never complain again when you slap an AO rating on a game with PG-13 sex!

ESRB: No problem, kiddo. Check back with us in 20 years. By then the mainstream might be on your side.

ME: Will do! Let's just hope the misconceptions about games endorsed and officialized by your current rating system don't shape anyone's perception over the next two decades.

ESRB: *sigh* Silly boy. We just reflect culture. We don't influence it.

ME: I guess you're right. How could I ever doubt you, ESRB!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

bit Generations

I didn't have any luck finding the first series of bit Generations (Boundish, Dialhex and Dotstream) but I managed to pick up most of the others. So far, I'm a little ways into Soundvoyager and Digidrive. I'll get to Orbital and Coloris eventually.

Soundvoyager has many different modes, but the basic concept seems to be variations on a single theme: use the shoulder buttons (or left and right on the D-pad) to intercept or avoid glowy dots. The dots emanate a sound, often synchronized to a background music track, and get louder as they get closer. They also have a cute doppler effect as they pass by. Generally, the games move at a relaxed pace, and you may be wondering where the fun is in that.

Trick is, the dots get dimmer and dimmer as you successfully collect or avoid them, then they completely disappear. That's when you realize that the game isn't about seeing the dots at all... they're only visible in the tutorial levels. For the rest of the game, you're doing the same thing, only faster and occasionally with multiple sources of sound, and the only way you'll be able to figure out what to do is to trust your ears. You'll also start to really appreciate the fact that the game is in stereo, although I found the games easier to play by reversing the left and right speakers, which is only practical if you're using earphones or headphones. I believe all the actual GBA's (Gameboy Advance, GBA SP, Gameboy Micro) only have mono speakers built-in, so you'll definitely need some sort of headphones handy. At any rate, this is possibly the first game I've played where the experience is dramatically improved by keeping your eyes closed.

Digidrive is, for lack of a better term, a hardcore realtime puzzler. You have colored shapes "driving" in from all four roads of a T-junction. It's reminiscent of Crash from gameLab, where you can steer the incoming shapes to the left or right of their trajectory or just let them keep going. Unlike Crash, however, the "cars" don't drive off the screen, they stop at the end of the road. If you match two or more cars of the same shape and color, they start to stack. Accumulate five in a stack and they disappear, but a gauge appears next to that road in the color of the cars and begins to fill.

That's the basic idea of the entire game: stack like-colored, like-shaped incoming objects and separate different objects into different roads. By doing so, you fill up the gauges. The gauges start out as triangles; fill it up completely, and it becomes a square, then a pentagon, then a hexagon, and so on. It gets faster and faster over time and you start seeing more shapes (even having three different shapes can get hellish, but at least the colors and shapes are always associated... good for colorblind players). What happens if you make a mistake? You lose your accumulated gauge for that road. If you're lucky, your gauge will fill up the other gauges a little in the process of disappearing.

On the right, you have something that looks vaguely like a cosmic shuffleboard game, complete with a shuffleboard cue and distance markings. Bet you didn't expect that from the previous paragraph. The cue is evil; if it touches your cosmic shuffleboard disc, the game ends. You need to keep propelling your disc further and further away from the cue to keep the game going, and your high score at the end of the game is the total distance that you propelled your disc.

Yes, this game is a simultaneous combination of Shuffleboard and traffic conducting. Every once in a while, an "ambulance" with flashing lights and sirens comes down the crossroads, and if it runs into a road with a nicely filled gauge, the gauge gets converted into a good shove for your shuffleboard disc. This game is a real tangled pile of metaphors. You can actually create new ambulances, which you can call up by pressing the A button, but I'm not even close to figuring out how to do this on a regular basis.

The amazing thing is that the whole game works. It recalls another gameLab experiment, Arcadia, where you had to play four games at once. In Digidrive, you play one game, whose results influence another game, which is the one you actually care about. Switch to two-player mode and the meta-level goes up another step, turning the game into something akin to one-dimensional Shufflepuck Cafe with powerups. If you enjoy studying complex realtime systems or discovering rules through exploratory play, Digidrive is surprisingly elegant despite its confusing premise(s).

All bit Generations games seem to share a minimalist 2D art aesthetic and an ambient/electronica hybrid soundtrack, bringing to mind Electroplankton or a more mellow Lumines. If the style interests you, bit Generations games can be a real treat. I'll post up more impressions as I work through the collections, but it's already clear from the above two that the gameplay between each title will be drastically different. As such, there are probably some real problematic games in the collection, and some real gems. Hopefully these posts will help you find the ones you'll like.