Thursday, September 19, 2013

Rayman Origins (PS3) Review

Rayman Origins is an insane game. A delightful, charming, funny, quirky, unique, bizarre, brilliant, crazy, insane game.

Origins is a celebration of the absurd: a wild and crazy mixture of the funkiest corners of human imagination. I’d never played a Rayman game before this one and have never had much interest in the series. After playing Origins, I kind of regret that. The back-story of Rayman’s world is actually quite interesting to me. A god-like being known as the “Bubble Dreamer” dreams Rayman’s world and all of its inhabitants into existence, and this creature also lives with his creations, who spend their days lounging on top of a giant tree. One day, their loud snoring attracts the ire of their underworld neighbors, the Livid Dead, a group of crotchety zombie grannies. When Rayman, his best friend Globox, and the rest of the gang refuse to quiet down, the Livid Dead unleash war upon the Glade of Dreams and send an army of the Bubble Dreamer’s nightmares to attack.

After freeing himself from a cage, Rayman and his friends set out to free the Electoons, which are the “stuff of dreams” that hold the Glade together, and the Nymphs, guardian fairies who protect each land, from the nightmares. The story serves as a back-drop for a beautiful and imaginative landscape. I was a bit disappointed that most of the game’s worlds fit the incredibly worn-out themes of “forest”, “desert”, “ice”, and “water” (and follow Nintendo's Rule of Mario 3 by having the second world be the desert world), but the level designs themselves, both visual and gameplay-wise, more than make up for this. Also, in addition to the numerous individual levels in the game being expertly-designed, many worlds combine different themes to produce something truly special. The desert world, for example, is both desert and music-themed, and everything Rayman hops and bops on emits some kind of tune or note. Enemies sing and flute snakes fly through the air. The player makes their own music that combines with the background music for a richly sensory experience. The ice world, meanwhile, combines a frozen surface paradise that acts as a refrigerator full of canned goods, frozen fruit, and ice-skating dragon waiters, with a fiery, oven-like underworld that’s home to dragon chefs and fire-breathing sausage creatures.

Rayman and friends lounging on the Snoring Tree

The Glade of Dreams is brought to life by incredible art direction and animation. Rayman Origins is honestly one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played, both in terms of the magnificent painted environments, full of numerous details in both the foreground and background, and the cartoonish, animated characters that live in this world. The cartoony inhabitants of the Glade of Dreams combined with the beautifully rendered naturalistic environments create a vibrant and eye-catching universe. At any point in time, the game is honestly akin to viewing a painting in a museum. Technically-speaking, even after leaning as close as I could to the TV screen, I couldn’t find a single jagged edge or flaw with the visuals. They’re technically perfect.

The music and sound design is also wondrous. Between the varied and unique tracks that accompany the game’s world to the hilarious sound effects and auditory touches in the game, such as platforms releasing drum beats when Rayman lands on them to the Lums, the collectible critters of the game, waking up and singing at certain points, the Glade of Dreams is truly alive. The music is at times beautifully environmental and natural-sounding, at others gleefully silly and downright hilarious, at still others potently atmospheric, oftentimes appropriately upbeat, and finally just plain epic.

Origins is a visual marvel

As a platformer, Rayman trims a lot of the unnecessary, outdated components of the genre. Gone are frivolous “lives” and in their place are unlimited tries and frequent checkpoints. This allows the designers to create zany and immensely challenging scenarios where it doesn’t matter if the player fails a million times. The treasure chest chase levels in particular and the game’s final secret level (which is one of my favorite levels in platformer history) require precise, pitch-perfect timing and platforming to be overcome, and are incredibly satisfying to finally conquer after many, many attempts.

Rayman also blends its collecting, another staple of the platformer genre, very intelligently with its game design. Instead of collecting a bunch of coins that only increase a needless life count, Rayman tasks the player with collecting the golden Lums and much of the challenge in the game comes from finding these creatures and trying to maximize their numbers at every turn. The game does a nice job of incentivizing the player to collect these critters as at the end of each level, their Lum totals are tallied up and traded for Electoons which can then be used to unlock new character skins and secret levels. The player has to pay close attention to every detail in a level to collect every last Lum and meet each stage's strict goals for gaining Electoons. Also, hidden in each stage are cages full of trapped Electoons. Time trials also add extra challenge and where I usually don’t bother with them in most games, I found that it was fun to replay the levels in Origins in two different ways: either taking it slow and trying to find every hidden collectible or breezing through them to optimize my time. These time trials also reward the player with Electoons. Each level is well-designed both as a traditional platforming challenge and in regards to hiding its collectibles.

Wonderfully absurd in the best way possible

Rayman doesn’t control quite as tightly as I’d like, but the game still plays very well. I found Rayman’s hovering move, where he can float in the air for a short time by spinning his hair, to be a bit finicky and unreliable at times, as I’d swear I’d press the correct button, but would go falling to my doom. Also, on some of the harder levels (like the aforementioned endless runner-style treasure chest chases), sometimes it can be a bit frustrating if the game requires pin-point precision platforming, but it’s not clear right away what needs to be done or how much pressure needs to be applied to that jump button. This is definitely a trial and error game in many situations.

I’m also not a big fan of the levels where Rayman boards a gigantic mosquito to do battle with waves of enemies in a “shoot em' up”-style side-scrolling shooter. These levels were a nice way to add variety to the gameplay at first, and can be fun at times, but as the game went on, I found them to be a bit too prevalent and I found myself becoming tired of them very quickly. These levels just aren’t as engaging to me as the traditional platforming stages and I usually just tried to “get through them” so I could move on to the next regular level. If I wanted to play a shmup, I’d play one, but Rayman is a platformer and having this different genre forced on me is annoying. In some platformers, these different kinds of levels work, such as the mine-cart levels in Donkey Kong Country and even the swimming levels in Rayman Origins, which actually control well and are beautifully atmospheric, but the shooter levels are just a bit dull and repetitive. Of course, traditional platforming is still far and away the most prevalent kind of gameplay in Origins, so these stages are only a minor annoyance.

The shooter levels aren't my favorite, despite having gigantic chicken bosses

Origins has plenty of levels to enjoy but does suffer from some odd pacing. After completing the first five worlds, four more worlds simultaneously unlock and can be done in any order, but these four worlds are really just expansions of the game’s four main territories that have already been visited. It feels a bit redundant going back to these familiar world themes again and as a result the game has a bit of a “dragged-out” feeling. These “new worlds” contain completely new level designs, but the theming is familiar. Due to this, even though the game technically contains ten full worlds of levels, it still feels like there aren’t enough unique world themes, especially because what’s here is such high quality and I would have liked to see how creative the team could have gotten with even more unique worlds. I guess that’s what Rayman Legends is for though.

Rayman Origins is both delightfully absurd and wonderfully creative in its story, art direction, music, and level designs and it’s an all-around raucously fun platformer. It’s also one of the funniest games I’ve experienced, not because it’s full of overt jokes and dialogue, but due to the game’s oddball characters, lively animations, strange and magnificent music and sound effects, and the charming way in which the inhabitants of the Glade of the Dreams all speak in a gibberish, Pig Latin-like language. The hilarious way all of the characters, friends and enemies alike, carry themselves and just the whole way the game presents itself and how it never takes anything seriously leads to a refreshing and unique sense of humor prevalent throughout the whole experience. Origins’ gameplay isn’t quite as perfect as that of some of the other platformers I’ve played, but it is still very responsive and near-enough perfection that it's not a damning issue in the slightest. Besides, the game highly succeeds in its genre thanks to its creative and funky levels and aesthetics. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the bosses in this game are massive, beastly, and beautifully revolting creations. Origins is a product of pure human imagination and a powerful demonstration of the kind of visual, musical, and interactive euphoric mixture that video games can bring to a player. It’s a celebration of nonsense of the best kind, and an experience that will stay in my heart for a while to come.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Seven Video Games that Redefine "Video Game"

I played seven video games over the weekend. Most of them weren't fun (at least in the traditional sense). Most of them actually downright depressed me. When it comes to the "video games as art" debate, I've heard that the medium might be onto something when a game makes a player feel depressed.

Well, thanks to a handful of flash games, none of which lasted more than a few minutes, had any more than two basic actions, and featured bare-bones, minimalistic visuals, consider that feat accomplished.

These seven games probably won't change your life, and you might just walk away confused, but I guarantee that you'll at least think: "Well, that was interesting." All of these challenge the notion of what video games are expected to be, and use the medium's most important and unique tool, interactivity, to try to make the player feel something.

And even though some of these games left me scratching my head, all of them made me stop for a moment after I'd finished playing and meditate for a moment on what I'd just experienced.

Every Day the Same Dream

Featuring a bleak art-style and a single droning guitar melody that plays throughout the game's entirely, Every Day the Same Dream follows one man as he wakes up, gets dressed, exchanges pleasantries with his wife, gets in his car, drives to work, gets berated by his boss, and sits in his cubicle. Over and over and over again. It is entirely possible for the game to become an endless loop, but there is a end-point that the player can reach if they are enterprising enough. This game uses repetition and blandness to highlight the importance of stopping and doing something completely different every once in a while. I'm not exactly sure how to interpret the cryptic ending, but it still gave me chills.

The Company of Myself

This game uses its gameplay mechanics as an allegory to tell the story of a hermit. The main character tells us that he used to rely on the company of others, but now he only has the company of himself. He has gotten good at "multitasking" and solving problems on his own, and this is symbolically shown through the game's unique central mechanic of creating multiple "replays" of your character that you can then use to solve puzzles and make it through the game's many obstacles. The game can get a bit tedious and at some points I just wanted to give up, but the pay-off is worth it in the end. The game has a distinctive atmosphere and left me feeling lonely and sad.

I Wish I Were the Moon

Can this be called a video game? How do you define "video game"? Is it any digital work that is interactive? I Wish I Were the Moon consists of a single screen with a few distinct elements: a girl rowing a boat, a boy sitting on the moon, a passing seagull, some moving the mouse, the player can take photographs of these elements and magically move them to a different place on the screen. For example, the boy can be removed from the moon and replaced with the girl for interesting results. By mixing and matching these elements, five different endings can be viewed. A somewhat cute experience, this "game" that is more like an interactive painting is certainly interesting.

One Chance

"In six days, every single living cell on Planet Earth will be dead.

You have on chance."

These haunting words open One Chance, a game about making decisions and living with them. Scientist John Pilgrim and his team have found a cure for cancer, but in a horrifying twist, this discovery has lead to the release of a deadly pathogen that will kill every living thing on Earth in just six days. You, as John, must make the tough decisions: spend the final days with your wife and daughter, work tirelessly in your lab trying to find a cure, or throw away all responsibility and abscond with a female co-worker. The way things dramatically escalate in the extremely short time frame of this game creates a desperate and chilling atmosphere. What started out as a goofy-looking game that reminded me of South Park art-wise for some reason had me feverishly debating whether to spend my final days in the park with my daughter or drag her to my lab and try to cling to hope for a cure with everything I had. And just like the title says, you really only have one chance. No matter if I tried replaying the game, refreshing the page, or reopening my browser, I could not try again. I'm sure you could find a way to circumvent the rules to try the game again and make different decisions, but that defeats the point. My only issue with this game was that my final outcome was a bit ambiguous. This ambiguity left me wondering if I'd made the right choice or not. But maybe this dissatisfaction was purposeful.

Today I Die

Another game by Daniel Benmergui, the experimental designer who created I Wish I Were the Moon, Today I Die also challenges the definition what a video game is. To put it simply, Today I Die is an interactive poem where you switch certain words of the poem around to change the environment and situation. I think it's a game about helping a girl rise out of despair or deep depression. It can be equal parts baffling and uplifting and it only take a couple of minutes to experience.

The End of Us

The End of Us is one of the most interesting concepts to me out of all of these games, but it falls a bit short of its full potential. The mission of the game is to evoke feelings of friendship and attachment purely through gameplay. What's more interesting is how it attempts to do this using two comets, as opposed to something more human-like, as the participants. I love the idea of evoking specific emotions purely through game mechanics and it's a concept that is sorely underused in the mainstream gaming scene, which often relies too much on the language of film (cut-scenes and grand set-pieces, etc.) to evoke emotion and tell its stories instead of taking more advantage of what makes video games so unique: their interactivity. Sure enough, flying around with and bumping into my orange buddy as we both travelled through space did evoke some feelings of affinity within me. But the experience was far too brief, lasting the duration of a single short song that accompanied it, for me to get truly attached to my comet friend. The game also ended a bit confusingly instead of having the emotional impact that I think the designers were going for. The description for the game talks about a final, important "choice" near the end, but this choice was never apparent to me. Also, the ending sequence takes control away from the player, which I think also diminishes the impact. Great concept and a fair effort, but unfortunately it wasn't as meaningful as it could have been for me.

Freedom Bridge

The last game I played was perhaps both the most effective and the most minimalistic. Featuring nothing but a black square in a white space interrupted only by a few black squiggly lines, this game tasks the player with guiding this square to the right and nothing else. But the way the "black square" started to trail blood after passing through the "squiggly lines" and the sound of rushing water that got louder and louder as I moved on created a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. Freedom Bridge only took a minute, maybe three at the most, to "play", but it affected me. It left me depressed and confused and capped off a day of playing bizarre and mostly depressing video games.


Are they video games? Really, it doesn't matter. One day the label "video game" might morph into something else or maybe "video games" will be separated into sub-categories. Again, it doesn't matter. The point is that these seven experiences left me staggered by the artistic potential of this medium.

If these games, which lasted mere minutes and featured barely any frames of animation and only a few screens, could leave me feeling anything, none the less inspire attachment to soundless, pixelated little characters, or empathy for a moving black square, just imagine what video games, what interactive experiences, could accomplish with big budgets and teams of talented designers and artists pouring their vision into them.

Again, the pure potential of this medium as truly inspiring and unique art unlike anything else we've ever seen is staggering.

There will always be a place for video games that celebrate pure joy like Super Mario Galaxy, for games that revel in more base and primal pleasures like God of War, for games that weave brain-bending puzzles and witty narrative like Portal, games that send us on epic adventures and invite us to explore new worlds, and games that just make us laugh and smile. Games can also of course be both fun and emotionally affecting or meaningful. Fun is not always divorced from meaning. But there is also a place for video games that make us sad, or that make us introspective, or that comment on our lives and our reality in deeply meaningful ways. Games that inspire in us some deeper meaning than just pure mental satisfaction, or just simple fun, and also games that don't feature any kind of combat, violence, or any of the other traditional trappings of the medium.

When interactive experiences can be about anything, it is downright criminal if we limit this medium to only delivering big-budget games that, at their core, are about combat or violence in some way, or are set up as fantasy, wish-fulfillment adventures. These widely-prevalent games are superb fun, but there is room for so much more. Titles like Dear Esther and Gone Home show some of the potential of what an artist can do with an interactive space beyond just combat and fantasy. And with the advent of iPhone games, crowd-funding, and Steam, more and more bold new ideas are being explored. I'm not saying that violent or fantastical games can't be powerful and meaningful. You need only look at many of my old favorites like Silent Hill 2, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, all games that employ violence and fantasy in their deliverance of a deep and meaningful experience, for proof of that. I'm also not saying that all games should be "artsy" and abstract. And even though many of the above games left me feeling depressed (and the combination of them all left me yearning for something happy and colorful by the end of the day), I'm not suggesting that video games should start depressing people more at a much more profound rate. I'm just saying that video games do have the power to depress you, and they also have the power to enrapture you, to enlighten you, and to fill you up with emotions you never even knew you could experience. I'm saying that video games can explore so many more topics than they are now, and deliver an almost limitless range of experiences.

This limitless potential has only been barely breached. I find myself immensely excited and proud to be a supporter of this beautiful medium, which is on the verge of expanding into the world's next great art form.

I only hope that my fellows, those who love video games, can embrace the enormous potential that our favorite pastime has, even if they don't care about games like Gone Home and just want to kill things with a samurai sword.

Special thanks to Extra Credits for recommending these games.

Also check out Anthony Burch's "Fun Isn't Enough".

Also, this Extra Credits episode. Also, all Extra Credits episodes for wonderful insight and intelligent lectures from people who love video games just as much as I do. Maybe even more. And that's saying something.