The New Generation – Part One: Design

  • Reading time:15 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published by Next Generation.

An idea is healthy only so long as people question it. All too often, what an idea seems to communicate – especially years and iterations down the line – was not its original intention. Context shifts; nuance is lost. To hear adherents espouse an idea, measureless years and Spackle later, is to understand less about the idea itself than about the people who profess it, and the cultural context in which they do so.

In 1985, an obscure Japanese illustrator slotted together a bunch of ideas that made sense to him that morning, and inadvertently steered the whole videogame industry out of the darkest pit in its history. Since that man’s ideas also seemed to solve everyone else’s problems, they became lasting, universal truths that it was eventually ridiculous – even heresy – to question.

So for twenty years, skilled artisans kept building on this foundation, not really curious what it meant; that it worked was enough. They were simply exercising their proven craft, in a successful industry. Result: even as technology allowed those designers to express more and more complex ideas, those ideas became no more eloquent. The resulting videogames became more and more entrenched in their gestures, and eventually spoke to few aside from the faithful – and not even them so well. Nobody new was playing, and the existing audience was finding better uses for its time. A term was coined: “gamer drift”.

NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History

  • Reading time:30 mins read

by [name redacted]

Originally published in some form by Next Generation. I was asked not to include 1999 or 2000, because the Dreamcast was perceived as a low mark in the industry rather than a high one. I was also asked to include the previous year, to suggest that we were in the middle of an upswing. So… that explains some of the selections.

In videogames, as in life, we tend to get things right about a third of the time. There’s one decent Sonic game for every two disasters; one out of every three consoles can be considered an unqualified success; the Game Boy remake of Mother 1 + 2 was released in one out of three major territories. With the same level of scientific accuracy, one can easily say that, out of the thirty years that videogames have acted as a consumer product, there are maybe ten really excellent milestones, spaced out by your 1984s and your 1994s – years maybe we were all better off doing something out-of-doors.

It kind of makes sense, intuitively: you’ve got the new-hardware years and the innovative-software years, spaced out by years of futzing around with the new hardware introduced a few months back, or copying that amazing new game that was released last summer. We grow enthusiastic, we get bored. Just as we’re about to write off videogames forever, we get slapped in the face with a Wii, or a Sega Genesis – and then the magic starts up all over again, allowing us to coast until the next checkpoint.

This Week’s Releases (April 10-14, 2006)

  • Reading time:11 mins read

by [name redacted]

Week thirty-five of my ongoing, irreverent news column; originally posted at Next Generation. Two of the sections are expanded into full articles, posted later in the week.

Game of the Week:

Tomb Raider: Legend
Crystal Dynamics/Eidos Interactive
Xbox/Xbox 360/PlayStation 2/PC

Something that people keep bringing up, yet probably don’t bring up enough, is that the first Tomb Raider was a damned good game. And what it seems Crystal Dynamics has done is go back to the framework of Tomb Raider 2 and to break it down, analytically. What they chose to do is bring the focus back to exploration – in part by introducing some new gizmos, in part by making the environments more fun to navigate. Reviews nitpick a few fair issues; still, the overall response seems to be a huge sigh of relief. Maybe it’s not the best game in the world, or all it ever could be. Still – it’s not terrible! The theme that keeps coming up is one of nostalgia – that, for the first time, someone has managed to recapture what makes Tomb Raider interesting. And that sentiment is itself interesting.

The Method

  • Reading time:5 mins read


* Zelda 1 and 2.
* Dragon Quest in general.
* Riven.
* Shadow of the Colossus.
* Metroid II.
* Half-Life 2.
* Phantasy Star II.
* Metal Gear Solid 3, in particular.
* Lost in Blue.
* OutRun.

There is a common thread to all of these. It has to do with the gameworld, and the player’s method of interaction with it.

Stacking boxes to make your own path or eating the parrot in Half-Life and Metal Gear are the same as the magic wand in Zelda 1 or the structures in Wanda that serve no apparent purpose except to look at them, climb on them, stand on them, ponder about them. Building a spear in Lost in Blue is the same as gaining that level or buying that copper sword in Dragon Warrior, as finding a heart container or a boomerang in Zelda, as making that leap of logic in Riven, about that device halfway across the island.

The technique names in Phantasy Star are the same as the number system in Riven, as the clues in Zelda, as the Erdrick lore is in Dragon Warrior, as the artifacts are in Lost in Blue. And these are the same as the boxes and the parrot and the spear and the boomerang.

These are all different approaches toward the same, or similar, ideals. Player progression relies on personal growth and curiosity. Within its own laws, the gameworld is responsive to nearly all actions allowed the player. There is a strong focus on trial and error. On exploration on both the micro and macro levels. On pushing the limits of the gameworld to see what happens, and maybe being punished half the time. On intuitive leaps of reasoning, within the given laws. On patience. On innate appreciation of the intangible within a greater scheme.

The laws and structure of the gameworld are a framework filled with an open question. Rote progression is never a problem, and yet the purpose never particularly lies in the plot. Or in completion. Any story, any imposed goals are simply excuses. MacGuffins. They’re there to get you out the door. To give you an anchor, a point of reference. Maybe a path to walk down. The real joy, the really important material, comes in the unimportant treasures of providence provided by the player’s presence in the gameworld, by interfering as an outsider in a self-contained system.

The player, as Link in the first Zelda in particular, is not particularly meant to traverse Hyrule. He has no weapon. He has no defense. He has no health. There is no path specifically laid out for him, and yet there is a certain logic to be exploited — inconsistently, though consistently enough. At no point does the game call for the boomerang, or the wand. The game can probably be beaten without the sword, if the player is so inclined. Yet the tools are there to be made use of.

The world of Riven is alien to the player, and presents a barrier at every turn — and yet there is a logic behind it all; a reason why everything is where and as it is. As an outsider this lack of familiarity is an initial barrier. Later that same outside perspective and status puts the player in a rarified position. The simple joys of Riven come again from a whimsical turn of that same relationship with the gameworld — from sitting on a sun-baked stone stairwell, listening to the birds and the insects and the surf below. Imagining the coolness of the shadows and the moss on the stones. Appreciating what would go unappreciated were the player to belong here. Finding one’s own treasure in a broader system.

And yet none of these games are wholly open. Unlike Morrowind or Fallout or Baldur’s Gate, there is a clear and immediate structure. There is a limit to the options available to the player. The rules and the logic of the worlds are all simple and compact. There are only so many actions. There are only so many items. There are only so wide a world, so many levels, so many set pieces, so much of a variance in direction. There is a specific ultimate task before the player, a specific direction to move in. Save the princess. Learn about these Biomonsters. Figure out what’s going on in this world. Defeat the Metroids. Survive and maybe escape. Defeat the Colossi.

The secret to success in all cases is in understanding the reasoning of the gameworld, and the method of understanding — as in life — is experimentation. It is in the quirks, the exceptions, the trivialities — that with no clear explanation — that the searching mind finds the most wonder and curiosity. And it is in these quirks that such a mind imbues the most meaning, specifically for their lack of meaning, their lack of purpose. Their lack of structure, and all it implies about the gameworld and the player’s presence within it.

It is in these imperfections that we find beauty and we find reality. In which humanity and therefore something we identify as truth shows itself. In which we see hints of a structure or a randomness beyond our comprehension, that is greater than us, that is greater than our mission and yet that leads us to our fate. It is here that we find significance, that we find meaning, that we find verification for our continued efforts.

It is this which drives us on.

Altered Sega

  • Reading time:1 mins read

by [name redacted]

There was nothing going on at Sega. Perhaps that’s why they decided to hide the booth in a small room off a little-used hallway, apart from the show floor, where no one who found it did so by accident and few who did intend to take a look remembered to do so. Out of sight, out of mind. Yu Suzuki strolled around, gently sipping his bottomless Coca-Cola. Some other high-level Sega staff sat crosslegged on the carpet in the hall outside, chatting. No one paid attention.

( Continue reading at Insert Credit )


  • Reading time:1 mins read

by [name redacted]

As we strolled past the Megaking booth on the show floor, I spotted an OutRun2 machine in the distance. Drawing closer, I noticed that it was a feature of the CRI (now a subdivision of SEGA-AM2) booth. A polite elderly Japanese fellow swiped Brandon’s and my ID cards; he handed us pamphlets and old-fashioned Japanese fans with the CRI logo on them. Only two people were before us. The initial plan was, I — being such a fan of the original OutRun — would play the game, and subsequently write up my impressions. Time was short.

As we waited, I read through a bilingual “Naze Nani CRI” comic, which illustrated for kids on both shores the benefits of MPEG SofDec and the ADX compression algorithm. A middle-aged Asian man stood behind me, arms crossed in front of his ID badge. “Do you like the original?” he asked. We nodded and grinned, politely.

( Continue reading at Insert Credit )

Game Artists’ Manifesto

  • Reading time:10 mins read

Skies of Arcadia — there’s little I did in that game that didn’t result in something rather wondrous. And little that didn’t feel important in some way. Everything about Arcadia, it’s set up to build anticipation and wonder. Even just the dungeon and town design.

Take that ruin near the beginning; the tower where the moonstone lands, just after the intro events. There’s this long walkway, above water. The camera follows behind Vyse’s shoulders. There’s a fish-eye effect, which seems to make the path stretch on forever. And way on the other end is the dungeon. As Vyse runs toward it, his feet and elbows flail back toward the camera. He seems eager to get where he’s going. And we’re following him, seeing what he sees. It’s not really that far, but there’s this buildup of tension as you approach. And — inside, it’s one of the first real 3D dungeon environments I’d encountered in a console RPG.

That is to say: it takes its third dimension into account. As it it’s a real space, with is own logic. As you progress, you begin to understand the importance of features that you didn’t more than notice before; elements of the dungeon’s structure. And eventually, you solve it like a Rubick’s cube of sorts. You’ve unlocked its secrets, and mastered some skills, and begun to own some space.

It leads you on, but it does so by trusting you to follow your intuition. And when you do that, you’re rewarded. That is what is glorious about the game. It is built to reward curiosity, and gut instinct. And it does a great job at creating that curiosity to begin with. That is its genius. Then there’s the fact that most of the elements that are required to understand are in plain view through most of the game — it’s just that you need to play the game, to understand the significance of everything in the world well enough to put it all together. It’s a real place, and you get to know it by living there.

By the end of the game, there’s this sense of great enlightenment. So that’s why the world is the way it is. And — there’s still more left to discover. It leaves one with the feeling of possibility. Like anything could be out there, if one just were to work hard enough to find it. It’s incredibly inspirational. And this is all… intentional. Maybe not fully conscious, but it’s part of the game’s design.

Part of this comes from the protagonist, Vyse. There aren’t a lot of positive models in modern videogames. Not a lot of hope. After all of this cynical angsty Squareish teenage punk nonsense, it’s refreshing to see a lead who is actually a hero. Who has some spirit. It makes me feel like… I can do things. It’s all about attitude. That is to say, what you make of your situation. I feel that he’s the condensed center of Kodama’s message to her audience: Never give up. Never look down. Be proud. There’s always a way.

It’s not just the actual events within the game — it’s the strength of the conceptual significance behind them. I mean. It’s fiction. But fiction illustrates a lot about normal life. One of the best traits of fiction is the capacity to illustrate possibiliy. Whether this is tangible possibility, or just the emotional sense for where it comes from and what it means.

This isn’t something that you honestly get from most videogames. I’ve only gotten it from a handful. The original Zelda. Phantasy Star II. Riven. Skies of Arcadia. They all have made me look at the world differently. They’ve strengthened me, personally, in one way or another. That’s a sign of pretty good literature, I’d say.

I find it really interesting that Kodama is responsible for two of the games on that list. She… well. There’s a reason why I cite her as my favourite game creator. Shenmue has a bit of that, although its clunky (if endearing) AM2-ish edges keep it at a bit of an emotional distance.

The reason why I cite these games as amongst the best I’ve played is because they aren’t content with just being videogames, as such. They carry a deeper meaning. And not a contrived one, just for the purpose of being “deep”. They… stretch outside the boundaries of their medium and do something, emotionally. They actually speak some pretty inspiring messages to their audience, if the audience is willing to listen.

Most games are too calculated. Most games are designed by programmers. Or worse, by people who want to make videogames. Kodama and Miyamoto are both artists, foremost. Miyamoto has become… entrenched in Miyamoto in recent years, unfortunately. Still, he started as a slacker art school kid who didn’t even know that the company he was joining made videogames. Kodama didn’t exactly know what Sega did either, from what she says.

Rand and Robyn Miller, behind Myst — well. They certainly didn’t set out to be game designers. And by the time they’d gone through their first rough draft (that being Myst itself), they had amassed a pretty huge trove of mythology. They just… wanted to make their own world, with its own history and logic. And all of that work came to fruition in their second game.

This stuff, you can’t teach it. Being taught means being told “this is how to do things”. Generally speaking. Learning, on the other hand, means coming to recognize the organic patterns behind things and how to relate with them. It’s about communication. This isn’t something that can ever be pressed into you. It’s something you have to have the will to seek out on your own. The most someone can do is to set all of the right pieces before you, and to illustrate what they might mean. But it’s up to you to approach, and to add those pieces to what you’ve already collected. And to pick up the hints as to what else they might imply about you and your world.

It’s just like how you can’t tell a person how to write a novel. Or else you’ll get… a bunch of form-feed novels. The best way to learn is to simply have the right environment. To have the right materials around. To be given enough context and enough carrots to inspire you to look for meaning on your own — to care about the world, and about life. And to have someone or something you can use to reorient you, whenever you’re lost. And this is why art is so very important. That’s part of what it does — it provides some of that context. It helps to hint you in the right direction to finding your own meaning in life.

Art is actually a strange term. It’s rarely used correctly. Even I misuse it. Art is a process, more than a thing. A thing cannot Be art, in and of itself. Art comes in the process of interpretation of that thing, by the individual. It’s a way of looking at the world, really. As is science. Hamlet is not art, unto itself. It is art To Me, because I appreciate it as such. Because its meanings are strong enough, and I’m able to find something within them that has relevancy to my life. There is no objective Art. By its very nature, art is subjective. It’s when people try to put art on a pedestal that it gets… well, pretentious.

Something to think about: the only way you know the world is through your own senses, and your own understanding of the world. Whether the world really exists, you can’t know. The only basis for verification that you have is your own self. Objectivity — removal of one’s self from the picture at hand — is useful for understanding the inner workings of a system within the world that you perceive. However — whether or not thost things really exist, that you choose to be objective about, really comes down to a subjective decision. Therefore: in order to gain understanding of the world, the first step should be to search for what the world means to you. Through that, you can do anything else. You can play with your subsets of objectivity all you like. Of course — once objective understanding is established, that automatically gets kneaded back into your overall subjective understanding of life, your world, and what sense it all makes.

Science can, in a very real sense, be considered an art — inasmuch as it is a subset of the same methodology of understanding, with its own unique behaviors — just as philosophy differs from painting, differs from film direction, yet all are the same thing in the end. It’s all life, really. It’s all about understanding, and communication.

Videogames, too often, are held as objects; as important for their own sake. It’s easy to be fetishistic about them. I certainly am, at times. This is a problem of interpretation, all across the board — on the part of the “consumer” (read: the audience), as well as the critics as well as those who actually produce the games. The average videogame is no more important, artistically, than the average Hollywood explode-a-thon. Or romantic comedy, or whatever other tired formula you like. All the same.

Now. There’s something to learn from that as it is! You know what they say: there’s more to learn from bad art, than from good; from carelessness, compared to compassion. Provided that you’re willing to put in the effort to find it. However: something needs to change.

If this medium is ever going to become respectable, and to come unto its own as a form of expression — we need more people communicating through it. And using it as a medium to inspire understaning. We need to change our expectations, and stop considering videogames as important for their own sake, rather than for the the sake of the meaning they contain for us personally. And for the sake of the life which goes into them as an outlet for their creators.

Comfort is a dead end. Life is change. The moment you stop, you die. Either inside or outside. The body itself is ever changing; it’s different from one day to the next. All of the matter in your body now will be gone in seven years. You’ll technically be a completely different person. The moment that’s no longer true – it’s the same thing. It’s just the nature of life. Stasis doesn’t fit into that.

Gradually, I’m allowing more and more change into my life. And the more I let in (within my tolerance levels), the more I indeed feel that life. The more I learn to appreciate it, simply for what it is.

Videogames have the potential to convey so much meaning. And it’s not really a medium that’s been tapped well, on either end of the divide. Maybe I can help bridge the gap a bit. I don’t know. Help to give people one more outlet, to gain and express meaning for their lives. I guess… I’m pretty much doing the same thing.

Pugilism Screed Two

  • Reading time:2 mins read

So I’ve here my copy of Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution. As has been established, I obviously have no PS2. So, in attempt to get some value for my purchase, I’ve been flipping through the elaborate-if-monochrome manual.

Something I notice is that we’ve got (similarly!) elaborate profiles for all of the returning (pre-VF4) characters — and yet for all of the new characters (from both versions of VF4), many of the personal details are unknown. No age is listed for any character who’s debuted since VF3.


I didn’t realize that Virtua Fighter had a plot. Or that Kagemaru was the “hero”, rather than Akira. I really don’t know what the hell is going on. I suppose it doesn’t much matter. This isn’t SNK.

Actually, now that it hits me: I did know this. In theory. Virtua Fighter has an incredibly complex plot. I just don’t know any of it. It’s never been illustrated in any of the actual games, to my knowledge. Not even a shred of it.

Again: curious.

Brandon wants me to do the HTML for this megarticle thing we’ve got pending. For those of you who aren’t sure to what I refer — well, be patient. It’ll be… big, if nothing else.

A partial cast list:


Please anticipate it!

It occurs to me that it’s been around a year since I’ve really drawn much of anything worth mentioning. I’ve got all of these keen supplies sitting here. Maybe I would do well to break this trend. Who knows what will happen!

It seems the only way I improve artistically is by not-practicing for extended periods. Expect a rebirth of Leonardo (non-turtle), any time now.

Analysis analysis

  • Reading time:2 mins read

See, my major problems were in figuring out what the heck to do with Wow, Sega Rosso, and UGA. Smilebit seemed the most obvious choice for a sports team. The other five teams, I knew weren’t dispensible.

I also didn’t forsee that Sega would be hiring more staff to form Suzuki’s new team; I just assumed from what had been reported that the current divisions would be reorganized. That’s what all of the news had implied, previously to the more recent announcements.

With that assumption, what I tried to do is figure out how to remold Sega Rosso, UGA, and Wow into some new form.

Wow was the biggest question mark, as they’re actually a pretty big team. As it turns out, they’re too big. I guess I was just desperate to get rid of them. I wanted to split them into kibble.

In contrast, I knew that UGA and Sega Rosso would vanish somehow, in whole. I tried to merge them into that new arcade team (as it had been reported), because they needed to go somewhere. Instead, they’ve being absorbed into Sonicteam and Hitmaker. Fair enough. Whatever.

Now it looks like we’re not even getting a new arcade team, but a cinematic online game team. Uh?

Meet your friends in Yokosuka! Play darts against enemies!

Hey… actually. That… might not not-work. Hmm.

Regardless. Given the information I was given, I rather like how I handled that. The one big surprise is the outright merger of Wow and Overworks, although in retrospect it… is a little less not-obvious.

Now. If I had just been given complete and correct working information from the get-go, I might have been even more onto something.

Woo. Need to work on my sources. And then I will be unstoppable.

The end of the end of the end of the era

  • Reading time:2 mins read

Okay. A method has been announced to theoretically convert a Shenmue US save file to a Shenmue UK save file. I knew people would be jumping onto this.

Now all we have to do is hope the game actually gets released in Europe. A few sites are saying it’s doomed there as well, but in general the word seems sound so far. As odd as it might sound, I think I do believe it will be released there. SoE, during this last stretch, seems to be picking up everything SoA is abandoning. I’m not sure what’s gotten into them, as traditionally SoE has been by far the lousiest out of the three branches — but as long as I can get versions of Shenmue II and Headhunter, I’m not complaining. I think Rez can be imported from Japan with less difficulty, seeing its genre, and SC5 Part 2 will undoubtedly stay in Japan, when one notices how much work had to be put into dubbing the first game in order to get it released in the West. So I guess that’s where that one’s coming from as well. Again, for a game like SC5, I doubt it will be too much of a sticky problem.

Oy. I can work around these things.

Only five games left…

Oh goodness!

  • Reading time:1 mins read

I am no longer the #1 Space Harrier player in the state of Maine! Since I last looked at the records, I’ve been shoved all the way down to #2!

The horror! The shame!

… I’m hungry.

Welcome to the Fantasy Zone

  • Reading time:1 mins read

Hey — I got the highest Shenmue Space Harrier score in the state of Maine!

What an achievement, I know. But — well. I suppose it’s something, at least.

Yokosuka of the Past

  • Reading time:1 mins read

I managed to finish Shenmue… sigh. At least the sequel should be coming up next year, hopefully. It feels somehow like I’ve witnessed some great historic event now, and I’m beginning to feel oddly wistful for the way things used to be (before the game had ended, that is). The ending also just sprang up and bit me — I didn’t really realize I was that far into the game. Hm. Ah, well… Now I can concentrate on JSR with fewer distractions.