Why I Still Have a Weird Love for the 7th Guest

You ever play an old game called The 7th Guest?  It was a haunted-house-themed "CD-ROM game" back when "CD-ROM" was a shiny, brand-spanking-new concept.  It was a multimedia game, even.  (Until then, games had only been able to employ one media.)  It was truly the dawn of a new era -- an era of Microsoft Encarta articles about tapirs whenever you wanted.

A lot of people remember the game a little... less than fondly.  This may or may not be because, in some respects, the game was terrible.  And yet, I love the game.  I still love it even after all these years.  It has a weird grip on me that I've been trying to explain.  I'm certain a fair chunk of it is nostalgia, but I strongly suspect that there's something more there.  And I think modern games could actually benefit from studying it ... in certain respects.

I am perfectly willing to grant you that the game was flawed - the acting in the full-motion video left  everything to be desired, the puzzles were often brutally frustrating, and the storyline was random and confusing, if it could even be called a storyline at all.  What's more, the puzzles - arguably the central "game" of The 7th Guest, were all isolated experiences seemingly divorced from any larger story or purpose.  This seemed to annoy a lot of people.

Some folks will defend The 7th Guest in spite of these things - they'll say it had an excellent, excellent soundtrack by The Fat Man (which is true), and that the house itself was creepy and well-designed (which is true).  However, I would like to take a different tack and defend it on the basis of some of the very reasons that so many people disdain it.  Hear me out on this.

Since The 7th Guest, I've tried a number of horror-themed puzzle games (mostly on mobile and web platforms, where this sort of genre seems to thrive) and they all bore me to tears.  They all have a suitably dark, creepy haunted house to explore, with lots of old artifacts to pick up and play with, and generally lots of old letters and books to read, with the idea that by reading a bunch of dimly-lit text, you will uncover the mystery behind the moderately scary house you're trapped in for whatever reason.  These games typically have a more reasonable, even believable, storyline, and all the puzzles are nicely integrated into the environment and story.  I've seen one game go through a lot of trouble to justify why the builder of the house saw fit to require three different statue pieces to unlock a door, etc etc.

The thing that annoys me is that, (for me at least) that kind of thing profoundly doesn't matter.  I don't need my storylines to make a lick of real sense.  I need them to make emotional sense, to carry me along on a wave of feelings - I don't need anything "explained."   I don't want to read any text to explain the storyline.  That's boring.  Heck, that's almost as boring as zombies.

The 7th Guest, by contrast, was especially threatening to me as a kid precisely because it made no sense.  The lack of sense, whether intentional or not, created a real sense of mystery.  The storyline was presented in chunks in no particular order, some of which seemed to contradict the events in other chunks.  As a kid, I was certain I was missing something, and that vague, oblique style of storytelling worked very well - mostly by preventing me from ever feeling like I really knew what was going on.  Knowledge is power, after all, and in a horror game you really want your user to feel powerless.  Explanations, logic, reasonableness, internal consistency - all these things are the enemy of suspense, mystery, horror, and emotional manipulation.  Don't play by the player's mental rules - threaten them at every turn!  Especially when you're making a horror game.

The 7th Guest was an excellent mood game as well.  Virtually the entire game is presented as one continual tracking shot - a deliberate design decision that means the reality of the game is never broken.  Camera cuts are comforting because they remind you there's an editor between you and the thing you're watching - it's a distancing device.  Remove all cuts, and there you are - just you, all alone, in this empty house.  

The lack of ability to directly control your POV helped as well - you could give direction with the animated, beckoning skeletal hand, but once you clicked, the house seemed to kind of take you wherever it wanted you to go, at whatever random speed it wanted, through whatever object it wanted.  You didn't even know who or what you were supposed to be yourself.  The environment was threatening in a surreal, quiet kind of way - dark, cavernous reaches of rooms you were unable to explore, strange color palettes, that big, strange, sweeping staircase in the foyer, etc.   You were never really afraid something was going to jump out at you, but you were never allowed to feel settled.  You were at the game's mercy in a way that inventory-collecting, weapon-firing games can simply never achieve by their very nature.

The randomness of the game helped create the feeling that you were in a world where magic and ghosts reigned - there were no rules that you had any power over.  Hands could reach at you through a painting, dishes could fly around for no reason, a doll could suffocate a baby that you're not sure whether it ever was a real baby or not...  You could travel down a drain or through a telescope - whatever the game wanted.  No reasons, no explanations.

The music was also very well done (it's one of my favorite game soundtracks), but sometimes the most effective thing about the music was its bizarre absence for long stretches, or its continuation past when it "should" have ended.  The voice of Stauf, the evil toymaker whose spirit rules the house, is always very clearly in control.  The puzzles might seem isolated and random, but as a kid, I never had any doubt that they were all part of some sick game being played on me.  His voice, more than anything else, helped blur the line between reality and fantasy for me as a kid.  He always knew where I was, watching me play.  There was no indication that his power was in any way limited or defeatable, making him an excellent villain.  It made the game awesomely unsettling without the use of jump scares, gore, or depressing elements. 

I imagine that if you've played this game for the first time as an adult rather than a kid, it wouldn't affect you the way it affected me.  In fact, you'll probably react the way many of my friends reacted when I showed it to them as adults - you'll get really frustrated at the puzzles and laugh at the cheesy ghost acting.  And there are probably more effectively unsettling non-jump-scare/non-gore horror games out in the modern era that I haven't played (if you have a recommendation let me know!).  But in spite of it all, I still have a soft spot for The 7th Guest.  And I probably always will.

Adventures of Chris HD Officially On the Way!

  The mysterious jungles of the Yucatan await your exploration...

The mysterious jungles of the Yucatan await your exploration...

I'm excited to announce that my adventure platformer game is about to get seriously souped up!  The soundtrack has already been rearranged and remastered by AAA award-nominated music producer David Franco (listen to samples here), and now the graphics are getting a full-scale HD revamp by artist RicoD (you can check out his portfolio here - there's some awesome stuff in there!).   I can't wait to share sketches and designs as we work them out!

The upcoming version will have more than just cosmetic differences, however.  I will be expanding the game significantly, as well as finally porting to Unity.  So far, the game has been built in Adobe AIR using Starling.  AIR had the advantage of using a language and platform I already knew, and allowing me to build for mobile, PC, and Mac very easily.  Unity, however, is a far more popular platform with many more available target platforms (including Linux, WiiU, and PS Vita!), with many more supported tools and a larger, more active development community.  It's high time I made the switch!  The port to Unity will mean that Adventures of Chris should now be available on Linux - and hopefully other new platforms as well!

The present expansion plans include a lot of cool new toys, including:

  • Two new world locations to explore, with two new bosses and more!
  • A greatly expanded end-game
  • A shortened opening segment, to allow you to get to the free-exploring meat of the game much faster
  • New abilities and upgrades to help you fight much more challenging bosses
  • And more...

And if you're an OUYA or FireTV owner, don't worry!  I intend to keep supporting both systems.

I intend to blog about my porting challenges and new developments as they come out, so follow my blog here or my Twitter account (@chris_guin) to catch sneak previews and keep up-to-date, and make sure to check out the game's page at Steam Greenlight.  If you're a fellow game dev, you might be interested to learn what you can from my experiences!

Replacing Maelstrom with a Frozen Ride?

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I felt a strange, sinking feeling when I heard it.  Evidently, Disney plans to replace the Maelstrom ride in Epcot's Norway pavilion with a Frozen attraction.  It wasn't just a rumor.  I don't know why, but, as a huge Disney theme park fan, the thought really bothered me somehow.

It's not necessarily because I was in love with the Maelstrom attraction to begin with - it does have a nostalgic charm for me, but it's a very short ride and looks its age.  The problem is with the intended replacement.

As far as Frozen goes, I enjoyed the film, although I don't think it holds a candle to the Ashman/Menken masterpieces of my childhood - you know, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid.  Speaking of which, have you ridden the new Little Mermaid dark ride in the Magic Kingdom?  That's what I'm worried about Maelstrom getting changed into.  The Little Mermaid ride is the very definition of theme park mediocrity.

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It's technically called "Ariel's Undersea Adventure" but it might as well have been called "Ariel's Disconnected Undersea Static Musical Sequences."  I remember stepping off that attraction and not being able to figure out what I was supposed to enjoy about it.  I don't say that (merely) to be snarky - it was a legitimate question in my mind.  There are plenty of rides I don't enjoy that I at least feel like I knew what the designer was going for.  (For example, I'm supposed to be thrilled by spinning around really fast but mostly I get nauseated, etc.)  But for the Little Mermaid attraction, I just felt like I was getting shown various dioramas of scenes presented squarely from the movie, as though I was just supposed to say, "Ah, remember that scene from the movie?  Wasn't that great?" or maybe "LOOK!  IT'S ARIEL!"  The only exception was a brief sequence where the sinister eels are beckoning you into Ursula's lair - I actually liked the darkness and slightly threatening feel there.  But otherwise, it was a surprisingly dull ride.

Other Disney dark ride attractions have more of an emotional connection to create - Snow White's Scary Adventures was supposed to be scary, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride was supposed to be zany and threatening, Peter Pan's Flight was supposed to be dreamlike and magical.  Little Mermaid was supposed to be... what?  An authentic 3D replica of isolated moments from the movie?  It's one thing for an attraction to fail at its emotional goal, its quite another not to have one at all!

The Imagineers may surprise me when they renovate Maelstrom, but I highly doubt it.  If they keep the layout of the existing boat ride, they won't have a lot to work with.  Maelstrom is short.  Disney promises us we will be "immersed" in the music from Frozen, but how's that exactly?  Will we hear two seconds of Elsa singing "Let It Go" while our boat rushes past the place where the polar bears used to be?  Of course, I could be underestimating them - maybe they'll figure out a way to make the ride a magical experience somehow.  Maybe they'll figure out a way to lengthen the ride.  Maybe they'll figure out a way to engage people in a way that isn't just "here's a few characters and songs from the movie."  Maybe the attraction will actually be well-written.  

I have to say, though, it appears that Disney is relying increasingly on the demand of five-year-olds to see a particular character as the central rationale behind their new attractions.  Five-year-olds can certainly motivate their parents to ride through Little Mermaid, or The Seas with Nemo and Friends, or endless character meet-and-greets, but it's not the sort of thing that inspires whole families to actually want to come back.  It's possibly lucrative but ultimately destructive.

So I've gotta plead with Disney - please make the new Frozen attraction something with a cross-generational, lasting appeal.  Something that could even appeal to a person who's never seen the movie.  Something that will still be awesome more than five years from now.

Please?

Top 10 Nobuo Uematsu Epic War Anthems

I've always had a weak spot for grand anthems - especially when tied to a story about going into battle and probably dying.  One of the most consistently awesome writers of this kind of song is, of course, famed video game composer Nobuo Uematsu.  I've compiled a list of my top ten favorite epic war anthems written for the various Final Fantasy games.  Hope you enjoy it!


The Pirates of the Caribbean Principle

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There have been several times where someone pitched an idea for a story or musical to me that went something like this:

"So this guy is an artist, right?  And he's generally a nice guy but he has a little bit of a fear of commitment.  And he's trying to figure out whether to be true to his art or maybe live in this commercial space.  What do you think?"

If I had been totally honest, I would have said something like, "Why, that sounds like the most excruciatingly boring concept for a story I've heard in quite some time!"  I probably didn't say that, because I am so conflict-averse, but I was thinking it.  But why?  Why is that particular idea so boring and awful, and why are such ideas so depressingly common?

Is it that the ideas are trite?  I'm not so sure that explains it - "trite" ideas can be "classic" if you like them enough.  

My money's on something else - notice the number of qualifying words in that pitch: "generally," "little bit," "maybe."  Even the "but."  It's wishy-washy, middling.  Maybe the writer is trying to write what he or she knows, or express a personal experience, but it's never clear why anybody else is supposed to care.  It lacks extremeness.  Don't tell me a story about something ordinary.  Tell me a story about something on the edge.

I call this the Pirates of the Caribbeans Principle, after the classic Disney ride.  (I'm quite sure I didn't think of this, but I can't remember who I stole it from, so I'll just take the credit for the time being.)  A theme park attraction is under constraints that a novel or play or even short story isn't - a vignette has to make an emotional impact in the 10 seconds that a boat is gliding by, with no guaranteed beginning or end.  The pirate has to repeatedly dunk the town mayor in the well so that whether the boat sees him going down or coming up, it makes just as much sense and is just as emotionally effective.  Unless you want to require riders to go through over and over again, it has to be comprehensible, clear, and impactful almost instantly.  This is quite the design challenge, but I feel like it would make other art worlds vastly better to try to adhere to the same constraints - including the musical theater and game design worlds.

In fact, musical theater and game design both have been under such constraints in the past.  Early games didn't have a lot of resources to store pictures and text, and musicals had to get the story told in the short moment that the curtain was down, before the next 20-minute dance number came on.  But as technology and traditions changed, they've been freed up from the need to make their point and get out, mostly to their detriment.

So without actual constraints, designers in these media will have to self-impose.  One of the ways to do this is by encouraging extremeness.

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If you actually got out of the boat and stood next to one of the Audio-Animatronic pirates, he would seem mighty grotesque - look at that face.  It's a ludicrous cartoon character rendered in three dimensions.  But from the vantage point of the boat gliding by, that pirate's face communicates everything that needs to be communicated quickly and powerfully.  

The point, by the way, is not that exaggeration precludes subtlety and mystery - in fact, it can help both.  Subtlety in the absence of intensity just feels like nothing.  Nor does exaggeration automatically guarantee value - what's being exaggerated matters, too.  Exaggeration carries a risk.  Exaggerate something dumb and you get something VERY dumb.  But if everything is middling and wishy-washy, you've got no point of interest, no emotional impact.  So you might as well take that risk.  Failure to take that risk is often disguised as sophistication or realism when it's actually creative cowardice.

Musical theater songwriter Stephen Sondheim likes to quote the "less is more" principle, and he's right to do so - but your choice of what "less" to use matters, or else the "less" really is less!  Consider the famous auction scene from Pirates.  You know the redhead lady is enjoying strutting her stuff, and the gag lands with only a line or two of dialog.  In fact, it lands even if you can't hear any of the dialog, because the visuals are so exaggerated and so clear.  Your eye immediately jumps to the lady in red, standing in the center, and then off to the lady in blue behind her and the pirate auctioneer.  As you realize the absurdity of what's going on, the humor response kicks in.  The colors. lighting and staging draw your eyes instantly to what matters.  What's important is exaggerated and spotlit, and what's not is pushed into the dark background of the nighttime Caribbean village.

In fact, clarity is the other important part of the Pirates of the Caribbean Principle, along with extremeness.  They mutually reinforce each other - things that are interesting receive more focus, things that are boring are sent to the shadows - creating breathing space, and allowing the interesting things to be accentuated by virtue of contrast.

It might be instructive to consider an attraction that has extremeness but severely lacks clarity - the thoroughly mediocre Universal attraction called "Revenge of the Mummy."  The ride system is reasonably entertaining, the special effects are mostly all right, but the whole thing is paced so rapidly that it's never really clear what's going on, and the whole experience feels like a muddy mess. (Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey has similar issues.)

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Or consider a lot of modern games, like Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii, where so much junk is happening on the screen at once - highly polished, good-looking junk certainly - that it's hard to focus on what's important.  In game design, the concept of putting things in the background that should be in the background is even more important than other media, because busy visuals confuse gameplay and makes concentration a chore.  That giant blimp going by in the background might look cool, but it has nothing to do with the actual game, so it effectively functions as a banner ad on a Geocities page, drawing the player's attention in multiple directions when it needs to be focused and clear (and also irritating the crap out of the player).

This is why the dark areas in between the vignettes of the Pirates ride are just as important as the vignettes themselves.  They create pacing, provide contrast, establish atmosphere and tone, and allow you to focus on what's important.  Without the breathing spaces, the exaggeration becomes perverse and overwhelming.

So if you're going to tell me a story, make it about something on the edge - a real hero, a threatening villain, a dire situation, a beautiful world.  Like Tolkein's Middle Earth, make something more than reality typically affords.  And then once you know what's important, clear out the cruft.  Communicate what matters and then get off the stage.  Then you too can be as awesome as a ride about pirates.


Why Indie Game Devs are Like Preachers (Sometimes)

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A while ago there was an interesting debate on a gaming forum I read - somebody had donated to a Kickstarter for an indie game and felt burned when the recipient spent some of the money on stuff for themselves.  Game devs responded with peculiar intensity - they have to live same as anyone else, don't they?  They argued that if that money supports them full time so they can develop the game, then it shouldn't matter WHAT it's paying for.  The emotions were running high, shall we say.

What was most interesting to me about this debate is that I felt like I like had it before, but in a completely different context - a church budget meeting.  Some members at the church I was going to at the time were upset that they were paying so much money to one of the staff when we were having trouble making budget.  Every line item on the church budget was heavily scrutinized to make sure it was legitimate, and if it was deemed otherwise, a surprising amount of anger was unleashed.  Why such an intense reaction to this stuff, I wondered.  Why so emotional?  

Certainly, we don't care "where the money goes" when we buy a pizza or a couch.  The pizza delivery guy can spend it on whatever the heck he wants - we got our pizza.  But for churches, non-profits, and (evidently) Kickstarted projects, suddenly the money we give comes with a lot of strings attached.  Why should that be?  When we donate to a church or a non-profit, you might think that it would increase our sense of goodwill and charitable-ness, but then you would be dumb.  Instead, the fact that we "donated" the money has all sorts of implications.

It might seem like people perceive donations differently than people perceive purchases.  I would argue, however, that people perceive them in exactly the same way.  This may or may not be a bad thing, depending on the situation, but it seems clear enough to me that it happens.  

People don't give money without expecting something in return.  When we purchase something, we get the thing we bought, and the transaction is complete.  When we donate toward something, we might think we are selflessly giving towards a good cause, but in fact, we are purchasing something - perhaps the good feeling of having supported a cause, perhaps goodwill from others, perhaps progress towards some moral end - but it's seldom 100% altruistic.  Otherwise, why would we be so upset when a non-profit doesn't deliver 99% of our donation directly into the hands of starving children?  Or when a preacher takes his family to Disney World?  Or when a game developer uses Kickstarter funds for general life purposes?  Our donation actually was a purchase of something - and certain things can make us feel like we've been cheated out of what we purchased.  "I didn't put that check in the collection plate so you could live the high life," and so forth.  

Now, for the record, this may or may not be a bad thing.  This instinct may help us keep churches and charities and Kickstarter recipients honest, but it can go too far, I think.  We seldom understand all the economics at play.  If I demand that my preacher live on a pittance, he may decide to go somewhere else where he and his family don't have to live like paupers.  And so on.  Our desire to not feel "cheated" out of our "donation" can be destructive in some ways.  Maybe that non-profit is able to do so much good precisely because it pays the best and brightest a living wage to do its work (or maybe it's a racket - but you can't assume either way!).

The fact that we feel the same way about donations to completely non-moral/non-charitable entities like game developers is interesting to me, because it shows that this instinct really isn't theological in character - it's not that we have some special ideas about preachers per se.  We have some special ideas about our money when we donate it, no matter who we donate to!  It's all about economics and services rendered (or not). 

So if you accept donations for any reason whatsoever, just don't be surprised when people act like it's not your money to do with as you please.  And if you donate, be aware of what you feel you're really purchasing, and whether or not that feeling is fair to the organization you're donating to.

Today's Overlooked Video Game Music - Secret of Evermore, Horace's Theme

Secret of Evermore on the SNES wasn't exactly my cup of tea, mostly due to the fact that it was terrible.  Even though it was made by Square, creator of most of my favorite games from the era, it was excruciatingly long and boring.  Even the soundtrack was mostly "cinematic" (also known as boring).  There was, however, one song that really stuck in my head - a melodic gem of a song with a nice beat.  It only occurs in one place in the game, but here it is, for your listening pleasure:


The Importance of Maps

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I love maps.  I've loved them since I was a little kid.  I loved the maps that you got at the entrance to Disney World.  I loved colorful maps of far-away countries.  I loved the maps of Narnia and Middle Earth and Wonderland and Neverland and other fantastic places in the front covers of books.  And I loved the big fold-out maps that came with video games - Zelda, Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, Ultima (cloth maps!) - showing elaborately detailed and exciting locations, all neatly organized in geographic space for my personal convenience.

I still enjoy maps - so much that the world map is a central theme of my OUYA game.  I really had no choice in the matter.

And now I've started to think that maps may be very important to games in general, even (possibly) to people who aren't as strangely map-obsessed as I am.  A map means something.  Yeah, sure, it's a handy reference tool for a game.  Yeah, sure, it means that the game creator is significantly invested enough in the world to flesh it out and treat it with respect.  Yeah, sure, it can be a fun collector's item to stick in the Deluxe Edition box to sell to suckers like me.  But a map in a video game means something much cooler than any of that, and to show you why, let me give you one of the most effective "maps that aren't maps" from classic games...

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This isn't a "map" per se, but it accomplishes the same thing to me - that thing that made game maps (and theme park maps!) so awesome to me as a kid:

Maps let you know that more awesome is on the way!

Each empty space in that inventory box is a signal that there's something fantastic and fun you've yet to discover - something that's going to give you a new ability when you press that B button!  A new tool maybe, a new weapon.  A location on a map is something to explore or discover, a spot in an inventory is something to collect or something to give you new power.  Either way, it's something that makes you want to keep playing!

It's actually a pretty simple principle.  I can't tell you how many times* I've taken a chance on a new video game - AAA or indie - and after playing for five minutes, or an hour, or even several hours, I get the decided impression I've seen all the game has to offer.  At that moment, I start to believe that I can pretty much extrapolate from what I've already played through to the end, and whether I've enjoyed it so far or not doesn't matter - the mere fact that I feel like I can predict the rest of the game means I instantly lose interest.  

One of my friends told me she has a tendency to play through Zeldas right up to the last dungeon, at which point, her motivation dies.  Why shouldn't it?  Mine does too!  There's no more surprises at this point.  No more worlds to explore or new awesome abilities to acquire or characters to meet.  Probably no more new songs to listen to.  Just more fights and puzzles, and probably more annoyingly difficult ones.  More challenge, but less payoff.  The anticipation of future awesome is gone the minute you realize it's time to set foot into Ganon's Castle.

Now the sad thing is that this principle applies even when my intuition is WRONG.  Maybe there really are awesome surprises on the way - new places to explore and new content to discover.  The thing is, I've been burned so many times with games since I was kid, I feel like it's the game developer's responsibility to LET ME KNOW THAT MORE STUFF IS COMING!  

What's a good way to do that, you ask?

How about... a map?

How about an empty inventory screen?  How about an exciting, swirling front page demo showing glimpses of all the excitement to come?  How about creating a story with actual suspense (very hard to do, by the way)?  Even Super Mario Bros, which had no map at all, managed to maintain interest by introducing new content almost instantly.  Sure, World 1-1 is a typical flat green landscape, but World 1-2 is a strange underground destructible environment, World 1-3 is a platform challenge in the treetops, and World 1-4 is a castle full of fiery traps.  You don't have to beat 4 (or more) levels of green flatness before the game rewards you with new content.  It slaps you in the face with new content right off the bat so you expect that even more new content is nigh.  And you know what?  It delivers.  There are water levels, flying-fish bridges, mushroom forests, Lakitu, and more wackiness still to come!  The level of variety and interest created in a simple, 8-bit platformer is astonishing to me.  (Miyamoto was a friggin' genius)

No literal map needed, but this is all you need sometimes:

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I can kind of guess why maps (literal and not) are becoming depressingly less common.  New content is expensive.  It's time consuming.  When making The Adventures of Chris, the most difficult and time-consuming parts were composing the music and drawing the art assets.  Every level that was a "new concept" meant more testing and more risk, and I tried to get a new play concept in almost every level.  I definitely could feel the temptation to repeat myself, hoping that new arrangements of existing material and increasing challenge levels will be enough to sustain interest.  For some people, it might very well be.  As for me, I start to feel like every game becomes reducible to Tetris - the same thing over and over, harder and faster.  And yeah, Tetris can be fun.  But games can be so much more for me.

They can have maps.

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Beating the Post Release Blues

 Vanity, vanity!

Vanity, vanity!

Last year I had my very first (and so far only) musical produced in Boston.  This year I released my very first (and so far only) console game.  What do both experiences have in common?  If you said, "They both left you mysteriously and deeply sad after they were over!" I say, "Congratulations!  You are a very smart person or maybe you read the title of this blog post!"

I've learned a tremendous amount through both experiences, but probably the most surprising thing was the weird funk I felt at the end of them.  I don't say surprising as a euphemism - it hits you with the speed and ferocity of a sumo wrestler on a bowl of chanko nabe.  Even if you think you see it coming, you are not prepared.  (However, I was rather quite prepared for Burning Crusade.)

So, naturally, when you feel sad to such a sudden and intense degree, you start to wonder "WHY?"  The obvious candidate would seem to be the sudden lack of stimulation and immediate purpose.  If you've ever done theater, you know how intense it can be.  This is true even if you are the writer of the show and your only official job after rehearsals start is "occupy space in theater while stuff happens around you."  A vast majority of my free time was spent focusing on the show.  When it's all over, it can certainly feel like a gigantic crash. 

I mean, that makes sense, right?  That could explain the blues!  Except that, during the whole experience, I kept thinking, "MAN it will be so NICE to finally have some time to RELAX!"  The end of the show certainly provides plenty of time to relax!  Why not revel in it?  Why feel sad and not relieved?  There have certainly been times where I worked really hard for many weeks on something and was glad to be done with it - travel and demos and conferences for my day job, just to name several hundred examples (by my last count).  

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So for this reason, I feel like it's not simply the sudden lack of stimulation or purpose that leaves one feeling sad.  It's something else.  I trace it to one particular moment.  I felt it during rehearsals while I was in my day job office.  I call it my "Ecclesiastes" moment.

If you're not familiar with the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most depressing book in the whole Bible - King Solomon basically lists all the pleasures available on the planet and explains why, in the end, they're all "vanity, vanity."  (I like really like the book for some possibly perverse reason.)

Well, at that moment, in my office, it's like I suddenly realized that the whole musical was "vanity, vanity."

I sometimes feel like there are two Chrises in my head - we'll call them Dumb Chris and Smart Chris, because I say so, and that's how our relationship works.  When I work on a creative project, Smart Chris is very conservative about things.  He said, "This is just a fringe theater company in Boston.  It's a very nice first step into the theater world, but the odds of it launching your writing career just aren't that high.  It will probably be a whole lot more work to get your SECOND production."  Dumb Chris, however, said, "Oh my gosh!  YOU'RE GETTING PRODUCED!  There is now a NON-ZERO CHANCE that Cameron Mackintosh or Hal Prince will walk into this theater, love your show, and give you a contract for a MILLION JILLION DOLLARS!  A NON-ZERO CHANCE is practically a CERTAINTY!"  Dumb Chris is dumb.

The trouble is that, for some reason, Dumb Chris has all the emotional controls in my brain.  If you had asked me, I would have told you I KNEW everything Smart Chris said to be true.  But I BELIEVED everything Dumb Chris was telling me.  And that random moment in my office was when Smart Chris had finally had enough, shoved Dumb Chris out of the way, and grabbed the controls.  "Actually, Chris," he said, "the odds are fairly high that few people are going to even notice your musical at all."

"Vanity, vanity."

I'm not a big of Smart Chris.  He makes me feel sad.  

And I think THAT'S the real reason I got hit so hard with the blues after the musical was done.  A little part of me - that dumb part that believed that somehow I had taken the first step towards "making it" - died.  The show was over, and it would be right back to before.  I had a cast album and a video, but my life would be pretty much the same.  The set was gone, the magic was over, the theater would have somebody else's dream in it.

So when it came time for my next project, a video game - a light-hearted, classic-style adventure platformer for the OUYA - I thought, "My heart and soul WON'T be in this project!  My expectations will be ZERO!  Smart Chris will have the controls from the get-go!"

Who was I kidding?

For the record, my expectations were zero at first.  But when I released the game on OUYA, I had no idea the game would immediately show up on people's screens in the "New Releases" section.  I was expecting a trickle of attention at the most, and suddenly there was... SOME.  "Some" was more than I had been expecting.  And there were some positive reactions from some people!  Some people were marking it 4 or 5 stars on the OUYA store!  This was all it took for Dumb Chris to get right back in the controls.  Clearly, this was the first step to becoming the next Shigeru Miyamoto.

So naturally, once the game moved off the front page of the OUYA store, things went back to normal, and the Ecclesiastes moment kicked in again.  

So is there a way to beat this, other than actually be wildly successful?  I don't know.  I sometimes read interviews with people who I feel like have made it, and they still seem to get hit by Ecclesiastes moments.  Quad-jillionaire actors in Hollywood wonder if their career is over.  Big time writers worry that their moment has faded.  Maybe even success can't beat it - it just delays it.

Maybe the answer is to force Smart Chris into the controls from day one and be more aggressive about keeping him there.  Don't let my expectations get away from me.  Don't fantasize about things that aren't likely to happen. 

The trouble with this strategy is, if I REALLY had logical expectations for my creative projects, I wouldn't bother with them.  The odds are too against me.  Real success would require me dedicating my whole life to my creative pursuits, instead of a few nights and weekends for fun, and EVEN THEN it would be a lot of work with no guarantees whatsoever.  

But I don't want to do that.  I don't want to stop making things.  Even in spite of the post-release blues, I HAD FUN.  I enjoyed getting that email from F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company saying they were going to be producing my show, even though it was slightly, you know, not written at the time.  I enjoyed rewriting Act Two at the last minute, and seeing the theater process in action, and meeting great people.  I enjoyed making my game, and watching friends play test it, and clicking that "Submit" button on the OUYA website, and yes, I enjoyed believing somewhere in that stupid brain of mine that this was only the beginning.  I had fun being dumb.  Sometimes, I still do.

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So you know what?  I think the "answer" is just to take the punches of reality and keep going.  The post-release blues don't last forever.  I encourage you not to label them "depression" and not to hide yourself away from the world because there's no reason to prolong the feelings.  Start thinking about the next awesome thing you're going to make.  Hal Prince, famed Broadway director/producer, always made sure to have another project lined up to work on the day after the last play opened.  Seems like a good strategy.  Take the downs with the ups.  Just keep moving on.  Enjoy the dreaming.

I mean, after all, who knows?

Today's Overlooked Video Game Music - 8 Eyes (NES)

8 Eyes on the Nintendo Entertainment System was a difficult and frustrating game, frequently called a Castlevania ripoff.  I guess that's fair - it's a lot like Castlevania, except instead of a whip you get a teensy-weensy knife.  That being said, the two-player cooperative mode was pretty interesting, and I really enjoyed the music.  Check it out here:

An Analysis of the Theme from Kraid's Lair

The original Metroid soundtrack is much loved, as it should be, even though the creator was evidently trying to go for something "atmospheric" rather than "melodic," which usually turns me off.  In fact, Hip Tanaka, the Metroid composer, has stated in interviews that he was deliberately trying to avoid melodies, which, to me, is sort of like saying, "Hey guys!  You know what we haven't tried yet?  BAD music!"   Nonetheless, given the constraints of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, being not melodic is REALLY hard, and Metroid failed.  It's melodic whether Mr. Tanaka likes it or not!

The best track, in my estimation, is the theme from Kraid's lair.  Check out the original loop here:

Or this awesome piano rendition here:

It's not that long, but it's very effective.  It's also one of those tracks, like Forest of Monsters from Super Castlevania IV, that causes a huge wave of difficult-to-describe feelings in me - like getting punched in the face with childhood nostalgia, generously mixed with a weird sadness, plus the usual excitement of rocking minor-key music.  Listening to it recently, I tried to figure out how it accomplished this.  Usually when a song does something to me that I don't understand, I assume that there's some harmonic trick going on that I'm not familiar with.  Generally, however, it turns out there's no new trick for my toolbox - it's something I'm already familiar with.  It's just done well.  "Kraid's Lair" is no different.

The song is in a driving 6/8, which gives it a little bit of an off-kilter feel right off the bat (can't you just see Kraid waltzing around rapidly to this tune?  Yeah, me neither).  Even though the NES offers 3 non-noise instruments, this track is essentially just two voices - a rapidly moving melody line over a simple bass line.  It accomplishes quite a lot with just those two, however.

The first section starts off low-key (you have to build from something) with a steady E-minor drone in the bass line.  The B flat accidental at the end of each phrase adds a little energy, although I could stand a few fewer repeats.

The second section uses conventional energy-building chords (some of my favorites, in fact), changing the bass line chord once a measure from C to D and back again.  The melody line stays pretty squarely in the notes of the chord.

It builds even more in the third section, where the melody starts moving rapidly in sixteenth notes while the chords change every half measure now - but this time the chords are the "Grim Grinning Ghosts" chords (the theme song from Disney's Haunted Mansion) - useful for all-purpose weird, bad-guy music, but not necessarily super emotive (at least for me).

The part that really hits me is the fourth section, with the rapid scale-like melody.  You're expecting the energy to build even more, but the base line suddenly drops into a simple pattern almost like the drone from the first part, appearing to stay pretty squarely in E minor.  This is accompanied by extremely rapid-fire scale-like movement in the upper melody whose principal notes sound like they're in D - particularly the top note of each ascent.  This overlaying of D on E minor is a trick I use all the time in my own writing, so I admit to being a little disappointed that it was so strange and effective here.  But maybe I should be encouraged - there's still a lot of weird awesomeness to be mined out of fairly simple rhythms and chord progressions.  Music is a strange and fascinating thing...

The song ends with a repetitive, quiet E minor drone in the bass line while the melody line seems to shift lightly from D to E minor and back again before launching back into the opening, as generally all video game music must...  (It's also funny to me how hard it is for me to keep track of where the beat is in this section!)

Another interesting thing about this song is how it doesn't seem to be designed for any particular musical purpose.  It's just an awesome song that comes out of nowhere.  Why should Kraid, a lumbering monster that shoots spikes out of its belly, get this song for his lair?  The other music in the game serves more conventional purposes - Brinstar's melody is vaguely heroic, like trying to be close to an anthem or march without crossing the line.  Norfair's melody is weird and disjointed and isolating (and another one of my all-time favorites!).  Kraid's Lair?  It's sad and strange and driving and just all-around excellent.  Kraid doesn't deserve it, but I'm not complaining!

Bottom 10 Video Game Character Designs

So I was thinking the other day about all the truly horrific character designs I've seen in video games throughout my life, and naturally, I thought I should share some of them with you, on the theory that you will somehow enjoy this.  

(I should say before I begin that, yes, I realize this may be a horribly negative way to start off a blog, but I think you'll find that, in the end, I don't care.  But it IS important to remember that there are many games I haven't played, and so I might be missing some character designs that are truly epic in their awfulness.  In summary, this is all simply one guy's opinion, and if yours differs, that's what makes it wrong.)

So with that, let's start the countdown!

#10: Freya (Final Fantasy IX)

"Gee..." you might be thinking.  "That's quite the, uh... triangular costume you got there..."  You would be exactly right to think so.

Freya is a disappointment to me.  If you said, "Hey, Chris, let's have a female dragoon named after a Norse goddess," I would have said, "Hey, that sounds like an excellent idea!"  If you then said, "And let's make her an anthropomorphic rat," I would have said, "Hmm... I'm not so sure about that..."  If you followed that up with, "And she should wear a misproportioned triangular pink suit with bellbottom sleeves, and we'll make all her facial features REALLY TINY so you're never quite sure what you're looking at," I would have punched you in the face.  

And don't get me started on Amarant and Quina...

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#9: Sindel (Mortal Kombat 3)

Sindel was the point for me where Mortal Kombat went from dancing on the edge of camp to wallowing in it.  To me at least, she looks like they threw some costume elements together from the Halloween aisle of CVS.  The banshee screams, the living hair, the flying move that pretty much just makes you more vulnerable... the whole package is too cheesy, even for Mortal Kombat.  (Although I should state for the record that I love cheese.)

 

#8: Cecil (Final Fantasy IV Remake)

You know, someone who's job title is "Dark Knight" should have, as an objective matter, legs at least somewhat wider than a drinking straw.   

#7: Female Dwarfs (World of Warcraft)

The trouble with these characters is that clearly the designers were trying to make them somewhat conventionally attractive.  This is a fool's errand.  Male dwarves aren't conventionally attractive - they're comical.  They're characters.  For best results, the female versions should have likewise been comical characters, instead of the freakish-looking mutants we were given.  Maybe something like Helga from Clay Fighter...

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#6: Piantas (Super Mario Sunshine)

I realize these guys are supposed to be cute, stylized, friendly-looking characters that you want to rescue from the evil paint-thing in Super Mario Sunshine, but I just can't get over how ugly they are.  I don't want to save them.  I want to jump on them repeatedly.

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#5: The Gremlins (Epic Mickey)

People were really annoyed by Navi, the little fairy that followed Link around in Ocarina of Time shouting "Listen!" and giving helpful advice over and over again.  So I guess it seemed to the folks who designed Epic Mickey that the right thing would be to still give you a relentlessly annoying helper, but make it a tiny, floating old man with a strange bulbous head, permanent cross-eyes, and goofy proportions instead of a fairy.  There!  All better now!

#4: Mrs. Pac Man

Am I supposed to getting "sexy" from this?  Because it's not really working... (hat tip to the awesome Meghan Plott for catching this one!)  Although it seems to be working for that ghost there... he seems to be really digging those yellow, spherical ladies.  Gee, that puts a whole new spin on the whole "being chased by ghosts" aspect of the game...

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#3: Baby Mario (Yoshi's Island)

I know it's supposed to be Mario, and the whole point of the game is supposed to be saving this baby, but this kid's head must be at least 40% nose by weight.  (And his body is 75% head by weight, so do the math...)  Big noses are cute on some characters, but please Nintendo, THERE IS A LIMIT.  That single tooth, the endless crying, the wacky proportions... I wouldn't have blamed any of those Yoshis had they "accidentally" left this kid floating away in a bubble once or twice...

#2: Tingle (Majora's Mask)

What on earth were they thinking with this guy?  The little goatee... the shiny, skin-tight green outfit... the red, bulbous nose (as though he's just finished doing... something)... the tiny, tiny legs... even the name "Tingle"...  WHY?!?!?!?  And I'm supposed to find him adorable somehow, instead of truly, deeply horrifying?

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#1: The Great Fairy (Ocarina of Time)

THE HIDEOUS CACKLE... THE FLAILING LIMBS... THE UNCANNY VALLEY... THE POINTY, POINTY... EVERYTHING!  PLEASE, MISTRESS FAIRY, DON'T POKE MY EYES OUT WITH YOUR LOVING EMBRACE!  I PROMISE TO BE GOOD!  So scared... so scared...

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So did I forget anything obvious?  Any other truly regrettable character designs out there that I missed?  Let me know!

Today's Overlooked Video Game Music - Jurassic Park (SNES)

Jurassic Park for the SNES was not the easiest, or even the best designed, game in the world.  It was frustratingly difficult, with no password or save feature, and it was a very long game, to boot.  That being said, it had a FANTASTIC soundtrack.  Take a listen to my two favorite tracks from the game, "Triceratops Trot" and "River."

Just How Open Should a World Be Exactly?

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At a recent E3 event, Nintendo announced that their upcoming Zelda game would be "vast," feature a "wide world," be "open," as well as "vast," and, on the whole, be "vast."  This prompted some cynical commentary from some folks who played Twilight Princess (a previous title in the Zelda series): "How can a vast, open world be fun when the last time you tried a larger, free-moving kind of world, it wound up being kind of empty and desolate and boring?"  Well, this is a matter of opinion, of course, but the answer is, "It can't."

I'm a little surprised to hear myself say this, because ever since I was a kid I liked to say that I preferred non-linear, exploratory, free-flowing games, for example, the early Zeldas, Ultima VII, various and sundry RPGs both American and Japanese.  It turns out I didn't know what I was talking about.  There were plenty of completely linear, restricted games that I loved then (and love now).  Final Fantasy II (US), for instance, a game I adored, featured a remarkable number of ridiculous excuses to keep you from going a direction the narrative didn't want you to go ("Sorry, the old man won't let you pass the bridge until you've talked to your love interest in the last town!  After that, he has no issue with it"), but I didn't mind a bit.

And this leads to a generally important point when it comes to art-type endeavors - people generally don't have the slightest idea why they like anything, or how to articulate or describe their preferences and opinions.  We simply react, and for the most part, everything else is a total mystery.  In a musical theater critique group that I'm a part of, I was taught a lesson that stuck with me mightily, in the form of a quote from... somebody.  Let's say Mark Twain.  "When it comes to emotional reactions, the critic is always right.  When it comes to suggestions for how to fix your work, the critic is always wrong."  This may be a slight exaggeration, of course, but it isn't.  People tend to know what they like and don't like, but not why.  For this reason, you can get into a lot of trouble by listening to your audience for anything other than, "How did you feel?"

It's times like listening to this E3 announcement that make me worry that Nintendo is making the mistake of listening to people's stated preferences.  They say they want a vast, open, free world, but then, when they get one (Twilight Princess), it's not terribly satisfying.  Sure, the vistas are pretty and, I suppose, "vast."  But vistas alone do not a 30-hour game make.

So what is it that people (and by people, I mean mostly me) actually want when they say they want large, open worlds?  Well, if you look back at some of the extremely awesome earlier Zelda titles, like Link to the Past (SNES) and Ocarina of Time (N64), you'll realize that the worlds weren't actually very large.  The games employed tricks to make them seem large and "world-y", but in reality, entire towns can not support themselves on an economy consisting exclusively of midway games (at some point, agriculture HAS to enter the equation).  The worlds weren't big, or even "vast."  They weren't even necessarily as free and open as they could have been.  But they did allow some freedom, which is important, and most significantly, they were FULL of interesting things to see and do.

When people say they like "exploration," I believe they don't really want "freedom," what they want is "content to explore" - and that's a big difference.  They also don't want to be frustrated by artificial constraints if they can be helped.  This doesn't mean that perfect freedom is called for.  It just means that they need enough freedom to not get annoyed that they have to go somewhere or do something.  But more significantly, if the thing they have to do is interesting enough, they won't mind having to do it.  (For example, when I first played Final Fantasy VII, I was deeply annoyed at the linearity of the multi-hour opening sequence in the squalid modern city of Midgar.  Now that I've matured somewhat, I enjoy that part of the game most of all - it has an awesome atmosphere and a compelling story.  As a kid, I kept waiting for the "real game" to start.  Now I know - Midgar WAS the real game!)

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It's tricky.  It's not that people want perfect freedom.  They want enough freedom to feel that their choices have rewarding consequences.  We want to think, "What's behind that tree?", go look, and find something cool.  If we don't find something cool, the ability to look behind the tree is no longer that important.  The rewards can take many forms - it could be an actual treasure, like a Piece of Heart, or 20 rupees (but it should be a Piece of Heart :P).  It could be an exciting new place to look at, with new music to listen to, new characters to talk to, and new designs to admire.  It could be something else that I'm too dumb to have dreamed up.  But it needs to be something.

Nintendo has been very good at filling worlds with treasures to hunt for and find.  Every nook and cranny of earlier Zelda titles had something squirreled away in it - perhaps a Moblin forking over money for no reason, telling you "It's a secret to everybody!"

So Nintendo, please, if you do a "vast" world, try to fill it with as many cool things to find as possible.  Make the world free if you have to, but make it interesting and rewarding first and foremost.  You've done it plenty of times before!