Monday, 22 April 2013

Journey. thatgamecompany. Overview.

Is Journey a game or an experience? Probably the best way to describe it is a game that must be experienced. From the moment you see the scorching grains of sand, and the musical score kicks in, something triggers inside of you that tells you Journey is going to be something special.

Taking control of a robed figure in the desert, all you need to know, and you will know instinctively, is to head towards the brilliant light emanating from a mountain in the far distance. Turn off your phone and chase anyone who doesn’t need to be around, because although you can probably complete the entire game in 90 minutes, it will be 90 minutes that commands, and deserves, your full attention.

What worked


Many people have been judgemental of the lack of depth Journey offers, but that is not what Journey is about. If you treat the gameplay as a path through the emotional experience, then it serves its purpose just fine. The controls are nice and smooth, and the interaction with the environment is beautiful.

In addition to basic running around in 3rd person, you have expendable flight ability, denoted by a diminishing scarf flowing from the player. The player also has the ability to shout a small variety of chord-like chirps which occasionally serve a purpose, but more than likely you will be chirping to keep your morale up.

Journey’s strong point is its minimalistic approach to storytelling. There is no dialogue, and what few cut-scenes exist, serve mostly as establishing shots, exposition is kept mainly to uncovering glowing glyphs carved into stone, and the occasional cut-scene depicting a tapestry of sorts.

Emotional experience

Just like previous thatgamecompany titles, Flower, flOw and Cloud, Journey was developed with the explicit intention of evoking emotion. Unlike their previous releases, Journey actually achieved what had been intended, more than even thatgamecompany hoped for. The exact setting of Journey is ambiguous, some say it is a religious experience, but regardless if you ever have ups and downs in your life, I challenge you to not be touched by this game. I have heard from gamers who have been through a tough time that playing Journey gave them some much needed therapy.

By the time you have reached the final level and the musical score reaches a crescendo, you will have goose bumps, and by the time the end credits roll, you will be a blubbering wreck.


I have already mentioned the strong contribution the musical score makes to Journey, but special mention must be made about the use of sound effects, which really help everything come together and strengthen the believability of Journey.


Journey does not need multiplayer. Many games do not need multiplayer, but it is bolted on in some form, for better or worse. Thankfully, Journey bolted it on for better. You may play through the entire game without meeting another player, or you may meet numerous players. If you do encounter another player, you will likely feel a sense of hope; that you are not totally alone in this barren wasteland. That a total stranger is going through the same emotions as you, at the same time. You cannot chat to, or otherwise communicate with other players, with the exception of using your aforementioned chirps as a primitive language and hope that your intentions are clear. (Some players have even developed their own Morse code style of communication).

When you complete the game, the names of the players you encountered will be revealed to you, so you can send a friend request if you wish. Chances are you will befriend some players, as you will have formed a bond with them more in a brief encounter, than you will after a thousand headshots in Call of Duty (Not a criticism of FPS games, just a reiteration of Journey’s emotional power).

What didn’t work

For all intents and purposes, there is very little that didn’t work in Journey, with the exception of the obligatory bolt-on sixaxis control, which thankfully you are not forced to use.


If you are looking for a fast paced game, or like your story telling in the style of Space Marine (TM) banter, then you probably won’t get much out of playing Journey. However, if you want to experience something a little different, something that will challenge your emotions a bit deeper that choosing to save character A or character B, you will be more than satisfied with the short but deep Journey.

If you are a game developer, then Journey is a shining example of bare-bones storytelling and pacing, and how its less-is-more approach does an excellent job of finding its way into the player’s deeper psyche.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

VVVVVV. Distractionware. Overview.

VVVVVV is a game that every gamer should play, and every game developer/development student should study. Simple in execution, VVVVVV’s (almost) one-man army developer Terry Cavanagh must draw out the insecurities in every budget-haemorrhaging publisher and developer across the globe, for he has achieved single-handedly what many developers fail to achieve after wasting years and spending millions on - gaming perfection.

Of course, gaming perfection does not necessarily mean it is the best game ever (although it must be a strong contender), what it means is that the game is boiled down to the core DNA of what makes great games - playability, character and soul.

The beauty of VVVVVV comes from its aforementioned simplicity. The player controls Captain Viridian, who must find his missing crew when his spaceship is drawn into an alternate dimension. You can move left and right, and can switch gravity with a button press, and you will be switching gravity often while traversing the flip screen levels. In a throwback to classic games such as Manic Miner, each screen has a name, sometimes a humerous observation of the theme, others a cryptic clue to progressing.

Scattered about the levels are collectable trinkets, but unlike many games where collecting is padding; here they serve as temptation to venture off the path into great peril, should you have the confidence and patience to attempt it.

Checkpoints are fairly placed, and there are plenty of teleports to discover, which act as a fast-travel mechanic. You can keep track of your progress via the map screen, which will show areas you have visited, and unexplored areas are greyed out.

Many reviews of VVVVVV complained of the high difficulty, but unlike many difficult games with unfair balancing or lack of clarity and design intentions, VVVVVV is difficult in a good way. There are some seriously frustrating moments in the game, but never is the game to blame, it is usually a breakdown of your own composure under pressure of a taxing screen. (I have been known to scream at a game childishly with frustration, but with VVVVVV I was laughing at myself with every repeated error).

The story exists as little more than justification of events, but that’s fine, the game doesn’t need a by-the-numbers plot, and what little dialogue exists is natural and amusing.

The visuals are nice and simple. VVVVVV utilises a limited colour palette, and generally sticks to a few shades of the same colour per screen. The overall style is influenced by C64 graphics, and it works perfectly, again reinforcing that you don’t need fancy shaders to immerse a player into a world. Likewise the music is nice, reminiscent of chip-tune music of the 8-bit days.

While not the longest game around, VVVVVV’s lifespan is increased significantly thanks to the bundled level editor, and if that’s not your thing, you can always download custom levels from the thriving VVVVVV community.

A special mention must be made of Terry Cavanagh’s decision to include options specifically to improve accessibility for disabled gamers, namely a God Mode and a Slow Motion mode. It is refreshing to see a developer go that extra mile to make a game accessible.

I can’t really think of any negatives for this game, I suppose many gamers accustomed to recent generations will not have the patience for the difficulty and lack of hand-holding that this game offers, but for me, that is the true genius of VVVVVV.

If you have never played it, I implore you to check it out right now.

Friday, 5 April 2013

VideoGamePM needs your help.

This is a quick shout out for help in building VideoGamePM into one of the biggest resources for both gamers and game developers.

It doesn’t matter if you are a hardcore or casual gamer, nine or ninety, we want everyone’s opinions on what they like and dislike about games, as well as the industry. VideoGamePM is not about one person; it is about forming a hive mind that can collectively influence games for the better.

You don’t have to write a huge essay either - your contribution can be as simple as a concise bullet point list of what works, what doesn’t work and what you would change, with perhaps a brief explanation for each. It doesn’t have to be the latest releases either; if you have a favourite 8-bit game, by all means analyse that. VideoGamePM is not trying to be a review site, although hopefully gamers will find it valuable for making decisions. Our goal is to be a community focused, central source of analysis from the people who buy games, so that through natural selection, developers can make better decisions during development, which in turn gives us, the gamer, a better game.

VideoGamePM can be considered to be in alpha stage at the minute, so it is an excellent time to join in and have your voice heard.

Get in touch, tell your friends. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Everyone who contributes is fully credited for their work, and has the eternal thanks of VideoGamePM and the entire gaming community.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Tomb Raider. Crystal Dynamics. Gameplay.

Upon taking control of Lara Croft, first impressions are that there is an awful lot of pushing forward and responding to button prompts. These impressions will return frequently throughout the game, but luckily the game quickly opens into an entire open world island to explore. Lara has lost none of her ability to run, jump and climb the un-climbable, and there is plenty to climb. The level layout is generally well designed, with the exception of the Shantytown, which feels like a bit of a confused mess. A lot of the areas can and will be revisited at different times of the day, but because of this, areas designed for daytime play fail miserably if played at night. (Again, Shantytown is a prime example).

I did encounter a few environmental bugs while playing, more than should be present in a game of this calibre. I frequently got stuck in a hovering fall when jumping off ledges that the developers didn’t intend me to. A few times I fell through the map, and on a couple of occasions, sections of a level failed to load, leaving huge open areas of infinity (usually in, wait for it... Shantytown). Obviously the load error is down to streaming, but the other collision errors are down to shoddy placement of the collision mesh, and the designers not pre-empting the habits of gamers to push the exploration boundaries.

It is a recurring complaint with every Tomb Raider game that Lara spends too much time killing, especially for an archaeologist. This time around Crystal Dynamics have tried to justify it with a plot that forces Lara into killing, but she soon becomes a mass murderess with a body count (probably) higher than all previous instalments combined. The gameplay surrounding gunfights works nice. Lara can shoot from cover, but most cover will eventually break under pressure from enemy gunfire, forcing the player to keep alert of their surroundings and on the move. Lara can scramble while on the run, which lowers the probability of taking damage, and later can follow up a scramble with a quick flick of ground dirt into an enemy's face, leaving them prone to attack. Lara can dodge and melee attack, eventually upgrading to a killing blow, although unfortunately this usually consists of responding to a well-timed button prompt.

All enemy archetypes are present in accordance with 3rd person action/adventure difficulty curve rules - grunt, armoured, heavy and shielded. In addition to this, there is some nasty wildlife to keep you on your toes along with some not so nasty furry animals you can equally murder without prejudice to fulfil you XP bloodlust.

Trading XP for new and improved skills is pretty much the norm for action/adventure games these days, but it is a feature that adds an extra layer to gameplay if done well, and keeping the system simple is the best approach. Thankfully Tomb Raider does keep it simple - every notable action Lara performs will earn her XP, which can be traded for skills which in turn allow Lara enhanced abilities in areas such as fighting and scavenging.

Lara starts the game pretty helpless, but soon acquires a bow and arrow to help her through the Hunger Games. Soon you will be packing a pistol, and will collect more powerful weapons during the course of gameplay, meaning you don’t have to worry about missing any along the way. Lara’s bow and arrow serves as a handy little gadget for opening and accessing areas that are wrapped in rope. The novelty of using it this way eventually wears thin, but luckily you can upgrade it to help streamline the tedium, a smart move by the designers. You upgrade the weapons by scavenging little convenient boxes of nuts, bolts and cogs that serve as currency to buy the usual increased firepower, handling and so on. Doing it this way certainly works, but I don’t know if Crystal Dynamics realise how much little things like this undermine the story that they are so desperate for you to invest in.

There are plenty of side missions that involve collecting or discovering conveniently placed items such as diaries and GPS locators. If you like that sort of thing then they should keep you entertained, if you see them as padding then Tomb Raider will be a short experience for you. (If you do manage to collect them all though, there is a nice little easter egg in homage to the original Tomb Raider games).

One thing about the side missions that would anger me, if I was the sort of person to get angry about games, is the fact that the game's namesake - tombs, have been relegated to nothing more than a few shallow puzzle rooms. It’s pretty disrespectful to fans of the franchise to make the tombs such a minor side thought.

Extra sensory perception, it would seem, is this generation’s replacement for sparkling items of interest. Most associated with the Assassins Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum/City games, Tomb Raider’s survival instinct feels like a quick and easy solution to a design problem of level clarity, as a result you end up using it more and more frequently as gameplay becomes a chore.

Of course, Tomb Raider comes bundled with the usual standard bolt-on multiplayer experience you come to expect from 3rd person action/adventure games fulfilling the marketing department’s demands. It really didn’t need to be there and that’s about as deep as the multiplayer analysis needs to go.

The original Tomb Raider game, and some of its sequels, developed by Core Design, still stand the test of time remarkably well, if you can get past the dated controls. They come from an era when true talent was behind games, not like todays boys club industry. This Tomb Raider feels very current, but you can’t help but think that may be because developers these days are afraid of straying from the flock. It feels like one of those teen movies about the kid who is so desperate to be liked by the cool kids that he changes, and forgets his true friends.

The Tomb Raider reboot ends up being one of those games where you enjoy playing through it, but with hindsight you start to realise it was all a bit of an empty experience.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Bioshock Infinite. Irrational Games. Story

Bioshock Infinite could well have captured lightning in a bottle, so far as storytelling in games goes. From the ominous opening scene, capturing an atmosphere reminiscent of classic-era Stephen King, you know you are in for a treat, and from the moment you get the first glimpse of Columbia, you are well and truly hooked.

Ken Levine and Drew Holmes, responsible for the bulk of the story, have set a narrative benchmark that every game developer must surpass. Many will fail.

The world of Columbia (no doubt influenced, and not just in name, by the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893), is beautifully realised. Columbia is not a dead city like Bioshock 1 & 2’s Rapture, but a living, breathing city in the clouds, full of civilians indulging their every whim, as that ominous undercurrent slowly begins to surface, and when it does, prepare to be challenged on every level of your conscience.

For any story to work, it must acknowledge and address the facts of its chosen era, for better or for worse, and this is no more obvious than Bioshock Infinite’s handling of racism. Many storytellers ignore it; others confront it in a self-proving way that is equally laughable as it is offensive, but in Columbia, it just is. Make no mistake, it will disturb you - that is the emotional impact of a story that respects its inspiration.

I have never been a fan of the silent FPS protagonist; they always come across as ignorant and antisocial. Thankfully Bioshock Infinite’s hero, ex-Pinkerton agent-cum-alcoholic gambler Booker DeWitt, is very vocal about his feelings, and this allows a real connection to the character. Accompanying the player is Elizabeth, the Rapunzel-in-a-tower that is the motivation for Booker’s presence in Columbia. Elizabeth is a charming young lady, as well as a genuine asset to gameplay - (A helpful AI partner, another first that the team at Irrational Games should be proud of). According to Ken Levine, Elizabeth evolved from a naive childlike character with a rapidly annoying needy personality in early builds of the game. It takes a lot to take something back to the drawing board after investing so much time into it, but Elizabeth is proof that sometimes you need to let go and start over.

The real beauty of Bioshock Infinite’s story is that every decision present in the final game seems natural, nothing feels contrived. The world of Columbia is so believable and, just like Rapture, so representative of the ideologies of their respective era’s, that you never question the feasibility of the technology behind it. In fact, it encourages you to go and explore the facts and influences behind the setting, making you realise that the floating utopia of Columbia is more grounded in reality that you think.

Furthermore, the story understands its purpose. Like every game, the story should support the gameplay, not suffocate it, and Infinite pull this off perfectly. Exposition is not intrusive, meaning the player never feels like their interaction is significantly interrupted.

That is the lightning bolt that surely puts both Bioshock Infinite and its creator, Ken Levine, up there with the greatest.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Resident Evil 6. Capcom. User Interface

The user interface for Resident Evil 6 is such a shambolic mess; you can’t help but think it was a deliberate sabotage. The item selection/weapon swapping system, assigned to the d-pad, is so confusing and counter-intuitive that even after playing through 80% of the game, I still cannot efficiently swap between weapons in the middle of a heated set piece, which usually consists of accidently selecting a first aid spray, or perhaps a remote bomb, repeatedly, until I again decide that the best strategy is to retreat so I have time to cumbersomely navigate to my item of choice.

The ‘live’ item selection was introduced in Resident Evil 5 to accommodate the newly introduced co-op play, but it was still fairly intuitive, all items were visible at once, and placing items in certain slots would hotkey them to their respective d-pad position. Accessing the inventory without the need to pause gameplay, as was required for all previous instalments, seems to be a natural evolution catering to the impatient, frantic world we live in. However, I can’t help but think the pinnacle of item management was Resident Evil 4’s attaché case. For me it wasn’t just a necessity of item storage, it was a fun mini game all in itself. The feeling of satisfaction I got from ensuring my items were arranged neatly and consistently made me wonder if it was a secret ploy to infect the world with OCD.

Another feature noticeable by its absence in RE6 is the lack of a weapon upgrade system. Instead we are left with skill sets – spending XP on various perks that can be assigned to one of three slots, changing various attributes that can tailor your preferred play style. After completing one campaign, you then have access to 8 different skill sets, allowing you to mix and match your skills in use during gameplay. However, swapping skills in-game requires navigating to the skills menu and locating your chosen skill set, all while gameplay continues running in the background.

This brings me to the core problem I find with RE6’s HUD – I have to learn, very carefully, the layout of my items and skill sets if I ever wish to use them with any level of rapid efficiency. There are many reasons why a game can go wrong, but in my eyes one of the most unforgivable mistakes is a bad user interface, there really is no excuse. I think too much time was spent worrying about the visual aspect, and it does look nice, if a little too Dead Space, but at what cost? One of the worst user interface designs in recent memory? I mean, come on Capcom, you guys influenced most horror games of the last 20 years, where has your confidence gone to influence a generation?

One more problem is the on-screen button prompts for set-pieces. They are not clear in their intention; I know what buttons you want me to press, yes, but timing, sequence? Do I press and hold a button or do I tap it once? Perhaps I should I be spamming the button? This is no more prominent than ‘climbing’ sequences. The first time I encountered one, the button prompts appeared for alternate presses of the triggers. I followed my intuition, based on instinct and how other games did it, to no avail. I tried various timings, again with no success. It got so frustrating that I began to repeat techniques I had already tried, until eventually I checked the internet. (I never check the internet to help me complete tough games, yet here I am checking how to press the buttons!!)

So what did Resident Evil 6 get right with its user interface? Well, as mentioned above, it looks fine. I liked the hotkey assignment of a quick heal. Unfortunately, I think that’s about it. For Resident Evil 7, please fix everything, and bring back the shop so I can upgrade my weapons the correct way.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Tomb Raider. Crystal Dynamics. Story.

Crystal Dynamics put a lot of focus on the story, and the emotional journey we are supposed to experience, following Lara Croft’s rite of passage. I am always dubious of games that are so heavily story driven, and usually for good reason.

The general story arc of the Tomb Raider reboot is well paced, even if there are a few too many cut-scenes breaking gameplay in the first hour or so. Rhianna Pratchett was brought on board to scribe the reimagined origin of Lara; however, I struggle to see what exactly was brought to the table. The characterisations are typically clichéd, and all archetypes are present and correct. The dialogue is very amateurish, embarrassingly fan fiction in nature. This is evident from the opening monologue, and a personal highlight is the following exchange between Lara and her ‘mentor’ Conrad Roth (name courtesy of the videogame-name-o-matic generator):

You can do it, Lara. After all, you’re a Croft.

I don’t think I’m that kind of Croft.

Sure you are. You just don’t know it yet.

I’ve not heard it yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before I hear “It’s just a flesh wound”.

The voice actors are fine, and do the best with the script they have been given. Camilla Luddington, the voice of Lara Croft, has a particularly mesmerising voice, yet somehow, through no fault of her own, it doesnt quite fit the character.

Now, I always take gameplay over storyline, and I am willing to give story a chance, but as soon as it starts falling apart, I start skipping cut-scenes. A prime moment of when the story falls apart is Lara’s first human kill (I won’t go into details, there are no spoilers, what I am about to say was discussed during the pre-release hype). Lara’s first human kill was supposed to be emotionally draining, both for Lara and us, the so-called protective observer. However, with minutes of taking someones life, Lara doesn’t even bat an eyelid as she goes on a gung-ho trigger-happy killing spree, ploughing through a few hundred ‘human beings’ for the rest of the game. (For a lone standout example of the pinnacle of drawing emotion from gamers, I highly recommend playing through ‘Journey’, developed by ‘thatgamecompany’. A game which has no real characters of note, and absolutely zero dialogue, yet managed to tap into every hope, fear, and love and hate lying in your subconscious).

If a developer puts so much focus into the story of their game, there is absolutely no excuse for not pumping more of their budget into the best writer willing to sign up. Much of the games industry is so desperate to be Hollywood, it’s about time they started signing up Hollywood screenwriters. Until then, story-driven games will never get the respect they crave.

Do you agree? Disagree? Please join in by commenting below.