Friday, July 2, 2010

A boy and his blob for Wii: Final Review

A boy and his blob

I vaguely remember what it was like to learn to read. Reading came pretty easily for me, but I remember the way it felt to pick up a new book and try to read it for the first time. It was exciting, but challenging, since each new book presented a new set of vocabulary words, words I had never read before, words I had never even heard before. Playing video games evokes the same exact feeling for me and that got me thinking. Imagine if every time you pick up a new book, you had to learn how to read it first. That's how video games are to me. Is that how video games are to everyone or am I just not familiar enough with the vocabulary of video games to be able to pick one up and play it comfortably, the way I would pick up and read a book?

I find myself bringing up books a lot on this blog, which could be because I like to read and write so much and books are special to me. It could be because I have a bit of snobbishness about books in comparison to video games which is one of the main reasons why I started this project in the first place. I wanted to explore where that snobbery originates and whether or not it is fair. A Boy and His Blob, more than any other game I've played, kept making me think about books and I wondered why.. After a a lot of thought I find myself with much to discuss on the subject.

If Dead or Alive:Xtreme 2 were a book, it would be a trashy romance novel you read through while locked in your bedroom under covers where no one can see you reading it. If God of War were a book it would be a really bad novel adaptation of a cheesy 300-style Greek god action movie. Flowers would be read in a college fiction class as an example of what makes a great short story. A Boy and His Blob would be a Caldecott Award winning children's picture book. I couldn't get that out of my head while playing this game. Playing through this game was like playing in a beautiful children's picture book.

A disclaimer. I love reading books. I do not love playing video games. I am clearly biased, but I am trying to have a positive attitude while playing through these games and to be fair-minded while writing about them.

With that stated, books have elements that make them easily comparable to many, if not most, video games. Both books and video games introduce character, setting, and plot. They both often use dialogue, description, and narration to tell a story. They have protagonists and antagonists. They have drama, adventure, and humor. They have a beginning, middle, and end. Video games take an extra step, though, to include the reader in physical involvement in the story beyond reading, thought and imagination. Video games require the “reader” to become physically involved in the storytelling, which is what I love most about video games and what I hate most about them.

I love that I can make that little boy character hug his blob. I love that I can make him roam through the beautiful caves with their rays of light and trickling waterfalls. I love that I can choose to transform the blob into a trampoline to help the little boy soar into the sky or into a bouncy ball he can use to hop across water or into a parachute he can use to float in a colorful sunset. I love that the player of the game becomes the main character in a game. There is so much potential in that! I love the creative potential inherent in open-ended action and involvement.

One of my favorite books I owned as a kid was a choose-your-own adventure story. At the bottom of each page I could choose what the characters should do and the book had page numbers to flip to depending on my choice. I found it empowering to direct the story's plot and the character's actions and I thought it was amazing that the author could organize a book in a way that made choice possible. Video games have the potential to always give you, the “reader,” that feeling and that power, an ability that books can't generally provide. While books rely on a reader's imagination to make the story come to life, games have the gift of actual player participation. The game can show you the setting, the characters ,and the plot and the player actually enters into it. That ability is the ultimate in storytelling potential.

I love that this game takes advantage of that by using subtle details that help the story unravel and help you get to know the characters...at least a little bit. For example, the few words heard in the game are the boy's commands to his blob which is interesting because it calls attention to the importance of the boy's command over the blob and the blob's willingness to rush to the boy's commands. The lighting in the game helps tell you, the player, where to go. In one level, the blob is your light and you have to have him close to you so you can see. That detail subtly speaks to the fact that the boy may control the blob, but he also depends on it. When given charming and adorable characters, beautiful and interesting places to explore and a story about a blob who has landed on Earth and needs your help, who wouldn't want to actively, actually experience the world of A Boy and His Blob?

Video games have the power to engage so many more senses in a more physical way that books, but books have the power of a reader's imagination. For example, the reader can imagine how a character's voice sounds so there's not a danger of bad voice acting ruining the experience. In some ways, a reader's imagination is as freeing and empowering as a video game's ability to include the player in the story's action. Video games' greatest strength is also it's greatest weakness. I haven't played a lot of games, but from what I've seen, games and story don't coexist well; one always seems to get in the way of the other. They trip over each other, creating a lurchy, strangely paced experience for the gamer. A boy and his blob has all the elements of a great book and if I saw this children's book on the bookshelf, I would immediately pick it up to read it. I want to know the story! I want to get into this little boy's head and I want to befriend his blob right along with him. I am dying to travel wherever those maps lead. I want to investigate the boy's tree house and see what his house looks like. I want to ramble in the forests and jump up into the sky and fall down under the ground. I yearn to know why this blob is on Earth and whether it will find it's way back to Blobolonia. Even the black blob frog and bull villains are intriguing. All the elements for an unforgettable story are in place, but they don't seem to come together because the game's puzzles get in the way! I want to be compelled to keep playing just like any reader wants to be compelled to turn the page, but I'm not and that mystifies and frustrates me.

Part of me feels like A Boy and His Blob is successful as a puzzle game since the puzzles allow you to explore the world. For example, I have to figure out how to go down a hole but there are sticks blocking the path so I have to turn the blob into an anvil (which I called a power drill and Ben will forever tease me about that). Then I have to push the anvil down the hole, breaking the sticks. Then I discover that I must turn the blob into a parachute so I can float down the hole slowly and safely, careful to avoid the flying black blobs on the way. It's fun to figure out ways to utilize the blob to get where I want to go while getting to see this world. It reminds me of being a kid and having to be resourceful to get what I want. As a kid, a tree trunk becomes a table and a pile of leaves becomes a bed.. Then the other part of me is frustrated by the puzzles. Here's an analogy. It feels like I'm trying to read a book that requires me to complete a crossword puzzles before I'm allowed to turn the page. Sure, maybe the crossword puzzles have something to do with the story, but they aren't necessary to understanding the story and they slow down my reading of the story. They get in the way. Not to mention the fact that they're hard, sometimes so hard that I just want to quit reading, Why do I have to work so hard for my story? If I'm going to have to work hard for awhile, at least give me rewards for my effort along the way, because if I'm not going to be rewarded, then I'd rather just read a children's picture book version A Boy and His Blob. I'm sure I'd love it.

I only played through one and a quarter maps for about three hours and in that time I learned next to nothing new about the characters except that my blob could change into a wide variety of useful objects. The setting changed a bit, but not significantly. I learned nothing more about the plot. I was solving the puzzles just to get to another area that looks a bit like the area before it. That isn't good enough. That doesn't make a reader turn the page and it doesn't make me keep playing. If I'm going to work for it, I want something in return. I appreciate the details that I mentioned before. I am intrigued by the subtlety of the storytelling, but it might be too subtle.

Or maybe this is all my fault. Maybe I just play too slowly. If I played faster and solved the puzzles faster, then I could have probably gotten twice as far into the game and maybe I'd reach the rewards I'm looking for. I know that just when I was ready to quit playing Ben told me I had to play the next level because my blob is about to eat me to become a ball I then ride and that ball can go really fast. I was surprised to hear that news, because there was no hint that something new was about to happen and there hadn't been anything like that in my previous three hours of playing, but I turned the game back on and he was right. It was really fun! It was a bit of the reward I'd been looking for! So maybe my attention span is just too short. Maybe I got bored with the puzzles too fast. I don't know. I just think, if I read a book and I know nothing about the characters, or their setting or their story or why I'm reading about them within the first three hours of reading, I'm not going to keep reading. I don't think that's uncommon for a reader. Why is that uncommon for a video gamer?

Do I expect too much? Maybe I shouldn't expect to feel emotionally attached to my characters. Maybe I shouldn't expect well-written, compelling story lines. These are supposed to be games, right? I don't go into a board game expecting to be moved by the experience. I should just want to keep playing for competition's sake or for the sake of reaching the goal and enjoying the little challenges and tasks set before me. Maybe game designers are just trying to find new ways to make old tricks continually interesting by introducing beautiful settings and interesting stories. The game could just be a bunch of puzzles in a sterile environment, but these game designers bothered to create a great world for the puzzles to inhabit and charming characters to use to solve the puzzles. Maybe I shouldn't be complaining. Maybe I should be grateful!

I just feel gypped when I know that great storytelling in video games is possible and it isn't delivered. If you're going to provide me with a story, make it a good one. If you're going to add in characters, make them round characters that are interesting. If you're going to plop me into a world, give me a reason why I'm there and make the world believable. Why is that rare? Do video gamers really like killing things or solving puzzles or jumping so much that they can overlook bad voice acting, contrived plot lines and game play that has nothing to do with forwarding the presented story? Again, ir seems that when story and game play coexist, one always gets in the way of the other. Uncharted is the only game I've ever seen that has successfully reconciled the two. The game made the player part of the story while the story supported and gave the game play relevance and purpose. That's what I'm looking for.

Are these the rants of an ignorant gamer newbie? If so, let me know. I want to be wrong (just tell me I'm wrong nicely, please). I want to see games that are compelling because of great writing, believable characters, and great game design. In my college writing classes, my favorite writing professor taught his students there was not good or bad writing, only writing that is successful at what it set out to do or not successful. If I were to look back at the games I've played so far during this project, I would honestly have to say that Dead or Alive: Extreme 2 might actually be the most successful game of the bunch! The game's goal was to give me a bunch of bitchy girls with big boobs who play beach games. The setting, the characters, and the game play all worked to that aim and, honestly, all three elements were done well! And because it was a ridiculous, silly game, anything silly or ridiculous about the characters, setting, and game play worked!

I'm speaking like a judge on a dance competition TV show. The judges are always most critical of the most talented dancers who show the most potential. The judges are easy on the so-so break dancer with no formal training attempting to do a Cha-Cha, especially if the dancer manages to exceed the judges' already low expectations. It's the good dancers who suffer the harshest criticism. This game is a victim of it's own greatness. Of all the games I've played, A Boy and His Blob probably has the most potential to be a truly beloved, memorable, touching game and that makes me extra critical of it. Like I said, the game is charming and beautiful and nostalgic and subtle and something really special. I just can't say that it is everything it has the potential to be.

Let me exist in the story of the boy and his blob and make me compelled to keep playing it. Make me emotionally involved. Make me cry. That shouldn't be difficult. Even car commercials can make me cry. I know this boy and his adorable blob could, too. I really wish they would.

My next game might make me cry. With a name like Deathsmiles, I want to cry just thinking about having to play it. To be fair, I know absolutely nothing about this game except that Japanese anime French maid type girls grace the cover. Ben has told me that it is a side scrolling shooter for the XBox 360. Who knows? I mean, I just admitted that Dead or Alive:Xtreme 2 was the most successful game I've played so far. This project continues to shock me. Perhaps this Deathsmiles game will, too.

9 comments:

  1. I hope you find your Alex & Twitch game. :)

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  2. YES! Me too, Mike. Me too.

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  3. The first game I ever cared about was the first Legend of Zelda. It had action--stab those octopi thingees! Stab 'em! It had puzzles that could be as difficult as recognizing a sketchy pixelated landscape as representing a face or as simple as trying to burn/blow up everything in a scene until a door opens. It had characters and a world that interested me beyond their simple functions: ghost flowers? Ganon has enslaved the land so fully that he has not only killed all its flowers, but enslaved their ghosts? And Link: he was on his quest because there was LITERALLY nothing else he could do. His entire world has been taken over and turned hostile, but it didn't feel forced, it felt REAL. The game had a sense of urgency. It had great music. It captivated me completely. Of course, I was a tot, and the ability to interact was easily confused with import. But the characters still have a hold on me now, years later; whenever I see a new Zelda game, part of me twitches and there's a feeling I have a hard time denying that tells me I MUST HELP LINK.

    I wonder if you would like Braid? I think it is the first game I ever encountered that actually fully and successfully integrated puzzles and story line so that one could not exist without the other. The dialogue is a little... you know, overblown, and it's not a perfect game or anything, but it's the game that gave me hope that someday the world would provide me with a game I could actually really care about again, the way I cared about LoZ.

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  4. Also, I don't know anything about Deathsmiles, but the Wikipedia entry has this at the end:

    "On the back of the arcade game poster, there is a template for a skirt blowing game. In the game, the player attempts to blow up the skirt or petticoat of the model to see her underwear. The player scores 30 points for blowing up a skirt and 50 points for blowing up a petticoat. Points are deducted if a pumpkin or tombstone is knocked over."

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  5. Hannah, your comment continues to make me wonder whether or not the type of game or the quality of the game is more important for enjoyment. I think A Boy and His Blob is a high quality game, but I think I may not have enjoyed it because of the puzzles. But then I wonder if the game had given me more to latch onto like LoZ did for you, would I have stuck with it and liked it even more?

    I've never played a Zelda game. Have you played all of them? Do the more recent Zelda games disappoint you because of how much you loved the first one or do they build upon your love of the first one?

    Your Deathsmiles comment is not encouraging. I'm not sure what Ben is hoping I will get from this game. I should have tried it out today, but didn't. I will have to play a bit between stuffing my face with Americana tomorrow.

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  6. Great writeup!

    There is an unfortunate disconnect between game difficulty and rewards that you're rubbing up against unfavorably because you don't have all the skills the game designers expect you to have. If you were great at this stuff, you'd probably enjoy it more in the first place and not be upset by having to solve thought puzzles or jumping puzzles to progress.

    Examples:
    * Ben knew there was a cool part in A Boy and His Blob coming up. You were frustrated because it's hard, but I'll bet Ben didn't find it hard when he played through it so he had no problem getting to the cool part.
    * Mike M. got hung up on a tough boss in Metroid Prime 3 and probably won't advance because of that. Which is a shame, he says, because he KNOWS the game continues to be great after that point but he'll probably never see the rest.
    * I watched Ben repeatedly play through a difficult sneaking-around part in Uncharted 2 for a couple of hours without progressing. Neither of us had any idea what the game expected him to do, but he kept getting into super-touchy instant-lose situations. He sucked it up and eventually got past because he knew it was just a flawed section in an otherwise great game. I'm still not entirely sure what he did differently the time he did beat it, either; he had tried the same stuff half a dozen times. I don't think I would have had the patience.
    * Roger Ebert just recently said maybe he should play Shadow of the Colossus. I'll bet he never gets to the finish even if he wants to, because he has no video game skills at all and that game looks pretty tough.

    You had an analogy of reading a good book but the pacing being messed up due to solving crossword puzzles along the way. The reverse problem also exists: you can read a great book with a wonderful story and fantastic characters, but it's written for kindergarteners. In that case the book is just not as satisfying as it could be. For games, using your skills to successfully complete difficult sections is seen as PART of the reward/satisfaction of playing. People are upset when a game's too easy, and the easy games that do exist are often simplistic in other ways.

    Games have always had this problem hitting a sweet spot in the difficulty scale. Some try to solve the issue with difficulty levels (Easy/Medium/Hard), which is alright. The new Mario games are starting to notice when you're struggling and help you along. A perfect solution could adapt to each player and provide the right challenge level so you're infrequently frustrated, frequently satisfied, proud when you
    get past challenges, and still provide you the story rewards. But that's a really tough balance and few games have done it well.

    Have you played Portal? To me, it had awesome story, pacing, and difficulty. It's still hard, though, and chock full of puzzles.

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  7. Thanks, guys! I think I'll probably end up writing an add-on to this piece since your comments have made me think about some things differently. I've never played Portal, though from everything I've heard about it, it sounds good, though perhaps impossible for me?

    I'll write more on the subject tonight or tomorrow, I think, since July 4th fun and a dead refrigerator has put Deathsmiles on the backburner until Wednesday.

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  8. I keep typing things to respond to your last comment, Jess, and about Colin's comment, but it just comes out all long and convoluted and dumb. I think it would be better just to have some wine and giggles next time we see each other in person on the subject, cuz I just can't seem to express a thought clearly in type.

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  9. I would love to plan a wine and giggle date! We're free all weekend if you guys want to come over. I know what you mean. It takes me days to write one blog post. My first draft of each post reads like a total mess - completely dumb and confusing. :-)

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