Month: October 2014

Mountain vs. Temporality

by Jed Pressgrove

Mountain has received a lot of attention and analysis due to the perception that it isn’t like other games. This hype underlines “mountain simulator” strangeness and only represents a half-truth. Like many video games, Mountain immodestly asks for hours and hours of the player’s time. Without that time, you might not “get it,” you might not properly enjoy it, you might miss something. In contrast, Temporality, a recent game by James Earl Cox III, takes a few minutes to play, and there’s nothing “to get” besides the game’s reflection on the complementary joy and fragility of human existence.

Mountain tends to inspire a mixture of irrelevant reactions. Some describe Mountain as a screensaver, others speculate about the meaning of a polygonal mountain getting struck by random objects after hours and hours, and still others, like Jim Sterling, refuse to criticize the game seriously. The positive/negative hype and guesswork surrounding the game serve no purpose. My review of Mountain also fails to put the game in a meaningful historical context (though I hold that the grandeur of real mountains trump Mountain’s smart-assed messages.)

Mountain’s weirdness and connection to Hollywood — developer David OReilly worked on the Spike Jonze film Her — encourage people to see it as an anomaly worth studying. Tying Mountain to OReilly’s past work, Ian Bogost shares the most articulate interpretation of the game:

Mountain breaks the mold of video games not by subverting its conventions through inactivity, but by offering an entirely different kind of roleplay action as its subject. It presents neither the role of the mountain, nor the role of you the player-as-master, nor the absence of either role. In their place, Mountain invites you to experience the chasm between your own subjectivity and the unfathomable experience of something else, something whose “experience” is so unfamiliar as to be unimaginable. What is a mountain, exactly? It is a stand-in for the intractability of ever understanding what it’s like to be something else. Mountain offers a video game version of a philosophical practice I call alien phenomenology—a sustained and deliberate invitation to speculate on what it’s like to be a thing.

Of course, this articulation is part of a pitch for Bogost’s book, “Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.” For Bogost’s review to register as positive criticism, one must enjoy speculation about the theoretical experiences of things. Even with this academic interest, Mountain offers little universal insight into “mountain experience” with its remarks and objects. The game involves what random thought you have in reaction to a random thing, and for a lot of people, that random thought isn’t going to be “oh, alien phenomenology.” Regardless, like a campaign from a “AAA” game, Mountain can provide hours and hours of fantasy, this time about “Mountain experience” rather than what cool sword you might come across. (Mountain is even vaguer than Dark Souls, but at least the difficulty in conquering the latter can be defined by anyone.)

temporality

Cox’s Temporality defies the video game traditions of vague commentary and fantasy content. The game concerns the life and death of a soldier. The lives of soldiers have been explored often in fiction, so Temporality is not wholly original. Nonetheless, Cox’s delivery of this concept carries an appreciation of time that goes beyond platitudes like “Life is short.”

Like Mountain, Temporality doesn’t have the expected things of video games like talking, collecting, shooting, managing, buying, selling, investigating, sneaking, jumping … the list of traditional game actions goes on and on. Instead, Cox uses a combination of music, pixels, and time manipulation to inspire consideration of a soldier’s sacrifice. Temporality only offers two actions for the player: the ability to move time forward and the ability to move time backward. If the player doesn’t hold down a key to perform either action, the game freezes allowing one to contemplate the gravity of life and death as defined by time and memory.

As you move events forward or in reverse in Temporality, the game depicts life as a series of parallel occurrences in time. Cox’s intention isn’t to show a soldier at death’s door having flashbacks to happier, less dangerous experiences. The game avoids this banality through a cyclical presentation of pivotal moments in the soldier’s life, suggesting that our experiences move together and play off each other, like the individual instruments of a song. Cox’s intellectual understanding of life and time is not forced; it gives the game an emotional, universal power that is amplified by Jon Hopkins’ song “Immunity” (the affecting piano in “Immunity” exposes Mountain’s insulting offering of keyboard notes to the player).

Temporality displays unique beauty that encourages interpretation, whereas OReilly’s floating mountains look like jokes compared to the awe-inspiring landscapes in Brothers: A Tale of Sons (Mountain’s zooming and spinning are backhanded features, not perspectives). While Cox uses primitive pixels in Temporality, the game’s side-scrolling soldiers recall the tracking shots in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan — not as homage but to establish definable emotional stakes. The game’s limited use of color heightens the stakes when the soldier, as a young boy, runs in a bright blue rain. Cox’s child-like appreciation of the past is genuine.

For hours upon hours, you can let Mountain hang in the background of your computer activities. Perhaps the game chimes to signal another (hopefully) revealing message about “what it’s like to be a thing,” or maybe the whole thing is trivial fun. In any case, many point out Mountain only costs $1. So what? Temporality, free, has an indisputable statement to make and doesn’t need text to do it. Mountain is time wasted. Temporality is time considered.

Taking a Break, Writing a Book

by Jed Pressgrove

I will soon be taking a break from Game Bias. Since the start of Game Bias in February, I have tried to keep it regularly updated. From this point forward, I will not be as concerned with updating. I have a few posts planned for the remainder of this year, including an article about the best games of 2014. After this year, I will continue to use Game Bias here and there. But my focus has shifted away from writing for this blog and toward getting published elsewhere, such as Paste and Slant.

Please note that if you would like to write a guest post for Game Bias, I am still committed to editing work to fit this blog and promoting your work. Despite its youth (it’s not even a year old), Game Bias has been Freshly Pressed by WordPress and has been featured on Critical Distance, Gamasutra, The Escapist, Kill Screen, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Game Bias is a good place to let your voice be heard and to get editorial input.

I am also working on a book (I will share the title at the appropriate time). As a collection of reviews, this book will critique and interpret some of the most celebrated independent games of the last few years as well as other independent games that haven’t received as much attention. Some reviews will be updated versions of reviews I did for Fate of the Game, a site that no longer exists. Many of the reviews will be completely new and cover games I haven’t played at the writing of this post. Games that will be reviewed will include Super Meat Boy, Fez, Braid, Gone Home, Papers, Please, The Stanley Parable, Flower, and more.

If you have any questions about this book or any suggested games that should be reviewed in this book, please let me know via the comments section below, Twitter (@jedpressfate), or email (pressgrove84@yahoo.com). Feel free to contact for any other reason as well.

Finally, I would like to thank Cyril Lachel, Amanda Wallace, Patrick Lindsey, Joe Köller, Garrett Martin, and Ed Gonzalez for editing my work and encouraging me to grow as a writer. Special thanks to Anthony Murray, Paul Schumann, Greg Magee, Jim Bevan, Sidney Fussell, and Mary Lew Florida for contributing to Game Bias and making it better. I thank Indie Gamer Chick for her frankness and encouragement, Cameron Kunzelman for his consideration, and Richard Goodness for showing me the way. Last but not least, I thank everyone who has read, shared, enjoyed, and challenged my thoughts and reactions to games and game media. The book is for all of you and everyone else.

Gain Ground: An Underrated Sega Masterpiece

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the Genesis version of Gain Ground. This version of the game can be found on Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Xbox 360 or PS3 or in the Wii’s Virtual Console library.

Not Another Gauntlet

Gain Ground is often underestimated. Consider the beginning of Nintendo Life’s review:

Gain Ground started life as a largely unpopular 3 player arcade game. Surprisingly when taking into account the relative lack of commercial success it was ported to the Sega Megadrive/Genesis and Master System pretty swiftly. The gameplay is similar to Gauntlet but with a fantasy/sci-fi setting.

Nevermind that the Genesis port wasn’t that swift (Gain Ground was released in arcades in 1988 and on the Sega Genesis in the early 1990s). Comparing Gain Ground to Gauntlet serves no purpose other than acknowledging a superficial similarity. As Kurt Kalata explains, Gain Ground “is a completely different animal [than Gauntlet], adding a bit of brain to a genre mostly known for pure brawn.” (Interestingly, despite bringing up genre, Kalata doesn’t clearly indicate what Gain Ground means to any genre.)

Unlike Gauntlet, Gain Ground doesn’t scroll; it’s a one-screen affair for every level. Every level/screen has strategically positioned enemies. To clear a level, you must either dispatch every enemy or advance all of your characters to a marked exit. Going too slow can be devastating: if you’re not able to kill all of the enemies or get all of your characters (who have different walking speeds) to the exit before a timer runs out, you lose the characters who haven’t reached the exit. Once your last character is gone, the game is over.

Strategy

Lucas M. Thomas has difficulty describing Gain Ground while calling the game “inarguably unique.” Thomas opens his review with “You wouldn’t think to find a strategy game in an arcade [in 1988].” Why not? Missile Command, for example, hit arcades in 1980. Like Missile Command, Gain Ground isn’t purely a strategy game, but it requires strategic thought in addition to good reflexes.

Enemy placement in Gain Ground determines much of the strategy in Gain Ground. For some levels, not all enemies are on the screen initially, so paying attention to the enemy counter on the left side of the screen is essential. Since off-screen enemies can rush onto the screen during already tense moments, awareness is key to advancing. Without a combination of awareness and reflexes, Gain Ground becomes a trial-and-error game, which puts you at a significant disadvantage given the lack of continues. At the same time, each new game of Gain Ground means you have that much more knowledge about when and where enemies will ambush. You can’t develop the best strategy until you know how the game attacks.

Strategy in Gain Ground changes based on whether you play alone or with another player. In a two-player game of Gain Ground, one player can draw fire from a stationed enemy so that the other player can sneak to the exit or attack the distracted enemy from a better angle. Such tactics are not available in a one-player game, as you have to commit to the strengths and weaknesses of every character you select. Specifically, before you select a character in Gain Ground, you can see the level and on-screen enemies, so it’s important to scope the level and choose the most appropriate character to begin your attack. There is a catch: the timer for the level runs as you select your first character. As a single player rushing to save time, you might overlook an enemy on top of a building that can’t be killed by your chosen character. Depending on your goal for the level (killing every enemy or reaching the exit with every character), this mistake might translate to significant lost time. But if you’re playing Gain Ground with another person, that person’s character might be able to kill the enemy on the building with a special shot or, at the very least, draw the enemy’s fire away from your character.

Frank Provo doesn’t suggest such strategy was historically significant in arcades, instead calling Gain Ground a “haphazardly conceived” real-time strategy game, which ignores the button-pressing action of the game. Provo’s assertion that “it’s nearly impossible to get the hang of the details” raises the question of whether he’s aware of the extreme challenges of other games during the 1980s (Gain Ground is not “impossible” compared to Sega’s 1987 masterpiece, Shinobi). But as inaccurate as Provo’s “real-time strategy” label is (Gain Ground isn’t even a distant cousin of Starcraft), he is right to acknowledge the game’s attention to detail that makes its action unique.

Shooting

Ironically, the first sentence of a banal overview at Giant Bomb does a better job than most describing Gain Ground’s significance in genre terms: “Gain Ground is a top down shooter that focuses on tactics.” Shooting and tactics should sound familiar to the modern gaming world, but old shooters of all kinds, from Asteroids to Space Invaders, required players to learn strategies to be successful. What separates Gain Ground’s shooting from that of other 1980s games is the sheer amount of factors the player must account for in order to be successful.

Gain ground

You shoot a lot in Gain Ground, and you shoot in numerous ways. Some characters shoot right-handed while others shoot left-handed, which makes accuracy a concern, especially when you are flanked by enemies not lined up with your dominant firing hand. Additionally, every character has his or her own regular and special shots. For instance, one of the three starting characters (second row, fourth from left in above image) has a regular short-range pistol shot that can be fired in any direction. This character’s special shot is a long-range pistol that can eat away at enemy lines from a distance, but the shot can only be fired in one direction (north).

Many of the special shots in the game can only be fired north; that’s why characters with special shots that can be fired in all eight directions are coveted. For example, two archers (first row, third and fourth characters from left in above image) share a special arrow shot that can (1) hit enemies from a longer distance; (2) fly over walls to hit enemies on the opposite side; or (3) hit enemies on higher ground, where most shots cannot reach. The viking archer with blonde hair can fire this special arrow in every direction, meaning he can dispatch enemies that other characters, including his archer counterpart, could never kill. However, while the archer with gray hair can only fire the special arrow north, his north-traveling arrow can travel an even greater distance. The catch for both archers is that their special shot flies at an arc, so if you try to shoot an enemy too close to you with the special arrow, the arrow will fly right over the enemy. You must be aware of the distance the arrow must travel before it can actually kill (similar to the attention one must give to the L-shape attack of a knight in chess). The key to great shooting in Gain Ground is recognizing the limitations of your characters’ and enemies’ various shots.

Rescue and Death

Despite the attention to shooting tactics, the most important element in Gain Ground is rescuing characters. Since you start the game with only three characters, growing a stable of soldiers is essential to survival and flexibility to tactical problems. “Captured” characters wait for you on most levels like lost chess pieces. To rescue, you walk over the piece (so that the new character follows you) and take it to the exit. The piece can’t be damaged during rescue, but if you are shot, your character becomes another chess piece on the field. Only one piece can be rescued at a time, so if you run out of potential rescuers, the level is over and the pieces stay. (And if you kill the last enemy on a level during a rescue, you don’t get the extra character unless you hit the exit immediately.) Rescued characters become available on the next level.

A failed rescue can mean death. As mentioned, if you get shot while trying to rescue a piece, this results in two pieces in need of individual rescue. If a third character gets shot while in the process of rescuing either piece, the piece you’re trying to rescue will disappear permanently. Similarly, if you enter a level and get shot, your character becomes a chess piece that can be rescued, but if the next character gets shot (during a rescue or not), the piece is gone for good.

Rescuing has another dimension during a two-player game of Gain Ground. In a one-player game, the goal is obviously to collect all the extra characters that you can. But with two players, preferences and balance enter the equation. In terms of preferences, two players must agree on which characters they will individually rescue, as rescued characters only become available for the specific player who rescues them. In terms of balance, the two players must avoid one player rescuing all slow characters, for example. This oversight can result in a situation where a player has no character appropriate for tactics requiring higher walking speed.

Diversity

Given the positive relationship between character balance/quantity and tactical options, a successful game of Gain Ground recalls the sociological idea that a diverse set of workers can create the most efficient and effective division of labor. Unlike many shooters, Gain Ground doesn’t value the idea of weapons/items impacting the proceedings. Instead, the game calls attention to the individual qualities of characters. There is no “powering up” — you are forced to utilize unique talents and quirks to win. This demand can perhaps explain some of the lack of appreciation for Gain Ground.

As shown in the image above, Gain Ground also seems to value racial and ethnic diversity. In fact, the skin color of the characters varies more significantly in the Genesis version than in the arcade version. That some characters have dark- or light-skinned counterparts can evoke brotherhood or sisterhood where a character creation option (as in Fallout 3) would not.

Interestingly, one of Gain Ground’s starting three characters is, on the surface, a stereotype: a black man who throws spears (first row, first from left in above image). This type of character was over the top, if not offensive, in Resident Evil 5. But in Gain Ground this character is part of a historical battle involving many peoples. The game’s inclusion of a white man who throws spears (first row, second from left in above image) suggests a common ethnicity or background, not a dehumanizing portrait.

The fact remains that the appearance of diversity in a game doesn’t mean the diversity is particularly meaningful. While critics should recognize the diversity in Gain Ground (for the sake of historical game knowledge, if nothing else), one should note its extremely limited relevance to human experience and perspective. I sometimes get the sense that if, for instance, Assassin’s Creed had the skin color diversity of Gain Ground, many would praise Ubisoft without acknowledging that diversity is more about different experiences/perspectives than representation in a power fantasy (though Gain Ground is a strategic struggle rather than a power fantasy). If a modern game can’t surpass Gain Ground in terms of diversity, what has it really accomplished?

Conclusion

References to Gauntlet and to a lack of popularity in arcades don’t address Gain Ground’s unique combination of strategy and shooting. The diverse cast of characters, rescuing, and lack of power-ups make Gain Ground more like real-time chess than most shooters, yet the enemy ambushes and multiple forms/quirks of shooting emphasize the importance of reflexes and awareness. The diverse cast also raises questions about the meaning of diversity and can inform us on the accomplishments of modern games. Given the relative lack of discussion on the game’s significance, Gain Ground is the most underrated masterpiece Sega has made.

Death Plays Favorites — Postmortem: One Must Die

by Jim Bevan

Postmortem: One Must Die is one of the few games that knows how to illustrate the concept of player choice effectively. As an agent of Death, the player must claim the life of one of six people at a fundraising event in Galicia, a nation torn apart by civil unrest. The results are not only determined by who dies but also by interactions with the potential targets before the decision is made.

Each nonplayable character has personal views regarding the national conflict, with quality dialogue trumping the need for voice-overs (though there are a few insignificant spelling and grammatical errors). Some characters advocate preserving traditional culture by any means necessary either because of deeply ingrained pride for their heritage or outdated prejudices. Other characters favor progress no matter what, not caring about those unable to adapt or believing that social advances should be reserved for a select few. Conversing with the characters provides the opportunity to learn more about their views and to challenge thought, whether to alter agendas or, at the very least, to inspire reconsideration of more extremist opinions. Newspaper clippings and journal entries provide further information on the national conflict, which can further influence your decision.

Once the player takes a life, articles will appear describing the national implications of the death. Did your decision prolong or shorten conflict between rival factions? Did Galicia become more progressive, or did it remain stuck in the past? The final outcome is unpredictable since conversations with the nonplayable characters, both the prominent members of society and the common people, have a greater effect than originally considered. In my first playthrough, I inadvertently convinced a waiter to quit his job, persuaded a young student to join a violent rebel group, and, most shockingly, influenced a woman to become a serial killer because she needed human corpses for medical research. The game is a great analysis of how something seemingly insignificant can create a strong ripple effect, how “the right decision” can result in something much bleaker than intended. In this way, the game reflects current feelings on the electoral system. In almost every election voters must select from several undeserving candidates by deciding which of them is the “lesser evil,” hoping that they’ll choose someone who won’t necessarily make things better but less worse.

Poor Richard’s Almanac had a short poem titled “For Want of a Nail” that examines how seemingly innocuous events can lead to massive consequences. Postmortem is one of the strongest pieces to embody this concept. While each playthrough can be completed relatively quickly (about 20 or fewer minutes, depending on how invested players become in conversations), I imagine many will return to the game in order to see how different decisions play out, to see if they’ll finally claim the necessary victim and influence people in a way that will bring about peace. The dilemma of whether we can foresee the results of our political actions makes Postmortem a relevant challenge.