Author Archives: Jake Shapiro

About Jake Shapiro

Music nerd, hockey nerd, film major from Washington, D.C.

Super Mario Crossover

This is a nifty little game I stumbled upon when reading Kotaku today. Entitled Super Mario Crossover, it’s Super Mario Bros. in its entirety(!) where instead of playing as Mario, you can play as the protagonist of other NES games–Link from The Legend of Zelda, Bill Rizer from Contra, Simon Belmont from Castlevania, Mega Man from… uh, Mega Man, and Samus Aran from Metroid. All the characters control exactly as they do in their respective games, so it’s interesting to see how their game mechanics mesh with the mechanics of the classic Super Mario Bros. formula. This reminds me of another game we played for HNRS 353, albeit in a much more cohesive, complete form.

Obviously I didn’t need to post this for the class, but I thought it’d be interesting provided what we studied this semester. And maybe if I’m missing some earlier blogs (not sure if I am or not), this’ll make up for it…

Half-Life 2: Finding the G-man

I wrote briefly about this in a previous blog post, but my final project will be on Valve’s 2004 dystopian opus Half-Life 2. I will go in-depth about the storytelling techniques employed throughout the work, focusing on a few things like the lack of cutscenes in the game, the silent protagonist, and the role of the mysterious G-man. This is one of the defining games of the last decade, so it’s only fitting that my final project tackle it.

Obviously, Half-Life 2 is part of a series that includes a prequel and various add-ons, but I will focus on Half-Life 2 on its own as a singular entity.

Chasm Spasming

I found this great little counter-game a while ago called Chasm Spasm. Before you read anything I have to say about it, go play it. It only takes a couple minutes.

Chasm Spasm begins looking like any platformer-adventure game, and looks like it will be one for the ages. Then as soon as you try doing anything when the game starts, you fall into a chasm. How do you get out?! Press buttons frantically to try to figure it out. All you do is… spasm. Hence the name of the game. But you get such things as extra points, “ocelot bonuses,” and “SQUIDSTORM!” Really, you’re playing the game by failing to play the game.

I’m not going to pretend this game has any super deep meaning. It’s mainly just a humorous look into what people expect from games based on prior experience, and how to deal with games that seem “broken.” We realize that our expectations for Chasm Spasm are based on tons of other games that look like it, and when it’s not what we expected, we freak out.

I wonder if someone who’s never played a 2D platformer game would find Chasm Spasm not nearly as bewildering.

Those crazy Chinese gamers…

This article from video game blog Kotaku is about a Chinese Counter-Strike player. He allegedly used a cheat code to give him the ability to see through walls and give him a distinct advantage in the game, and as a result, a fight ensued. But not just any fight. He received a foot-long knife through the head.

And survived.

To me, this shows how different Chinese gaming culture is from American gaming culture. Yes, there have been American WoW players who have killed themselves over the game and whatnot, but China is a country where people are professional WoW gold farmers, the government runs video game addiction clinics, and in general, seems to be a much more extreme gaming culture. Perhaps this is just because China is a country of 1.3 billion people, and among all those denizens, there are inevitably going to be some weirdos. Maybe Americans are just as crazy (some kid did kill his mom for taking away his Halo 3). Whatever the case, it’s an interesting look into gamer psychology.

The most intense image you will see today.

I believe video games do not create people like this, though. Kids who want to stab other kids are going to stab other kids, and video games just happen to be the excuse here. If video games didn’t exist, I’m sure they’d do it over a soccer game or LARPing.

Atmosphere and diegesis in games

The G-Man in the opening sequence of Half-Life 2.

I’m not going to lie. When we were first assigned Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture and Professor Mark “Sample Reality” Sample insisted multiple times that it’d be the hardest thing we read in college, I groaned. I assumed I would just sort of skim through the reading and pull a response out of my ass, because that’s what I’m good at. I was going to write, “You know what I don’t understand? THIS ENTIRE BOOK, it’s a load of shite!” I haven’t read any other students’ blogs on the reading, but I’m sure that was the basic thesis of multiple posts.

Against all my better judgement, I found myself actually enjoying Alexander R. Galloway’s first chapter. Real references to real video games, from cult classics like Ico to my favorite game of all time, the masterpiece Metroid Prime (which came out in 2002 on the GameCube, and is not to be confused with its 1986 NES predecessor Metroid, as Professor Mark “Sample Reality” Sample seems to have done in response to one of my previous blog posts).

A couple things caught my eye about the reading. First of all, since I’m a film major, I loved the idea of diegesis and non-diegesis in video games. I never thought of this before, but it’s very important to how players approach a game. One of my favorite games as a kid was Command & Conquer: Red Alert, a real-time strategy game that relied, as RTSes mostly do, on completely non-diegetic gameplay. While having no affect on the quality of the gameplay itself, it definitely made it harder to become as emotionally involved in the story and the characters as, say, Half-Life 2, which is 100% diagetic in its interaction with players. Both are great games, but I get much more emotionally invested in the Half-Life series.

Metroid Prime is an interesting case, because its seemingly non-diegetic elements are, in fact, diegetic.

A snowy vista in Metroid Prime. Note the diegetic HUD.

There is a very prominent HUD in the game, but it’s inside the visor of Samus’ helmet. The icons to denote switching weapons and whatnot are actually within the world of the game. When Samus gets wet, water droplets drip down the screen. When there is a blast near her face, you can see the reflection of her visage in the visor. But she never speaks. She is alone on an alien world, and the player is immersed in it through (mostly) diegetic gameplay.

I was also drawn to Galloway’s concept of “ambient acts” in video games: that in many games, when the player just sits back and doesn’t do anything, the game continues on its own, playing itself in a way. The world of the game exists even when the player doesn’t interact with it. There’s a certain zen to this idea. On a basic level, it’s a microcosm for real life–when the hero does nothing, Earth is extant. People go on their daily routines, the sun sets, day turns to night, and night turns to day. In a way, regardless of all the power-ups we’ve got, we don’t matter at all.

I know I didn’t really talk about anything I didn’t understand in the reading, but I thought this would suffice.

Sensawunda in games: Small Worlds

Raph Koster writes profusely about the different sorts of ways people feel good, and one of these that struck my fancy was “sensawunda,” or aesthetic appreciation. Unlike many games, in which various sorts of “fun” makes us feel good, sensawunda is a delight in awe, mystery, and harmony. It’s looking at a beautiful painting or sharing a smile with a stranger you pass in the stairwell.

With the sort of arty flash games Professor Mark “Sample Reality” Sample has been having us play, I couldn’t help but think of a number of video games that accomplish this. A recent favorite of mine is Small Worlds, a fairly short (maybe 10-15 minutes) game crated by David Shute in which the player explores, well… small worlds.

At first, the game seems extremely pixelated, but as the player explores the map, it continues to zoom out and reveal a bigger picture. In the end, the game makes a subtle statement about society which I’ll leave for you to discover. Beautiful music accomplanies the gameplay, so I’d suggest making sure your speaker volume is at a good level.

The crux of the “sensawunda” in Small Worlds is that while the player is technically playing the game, there is no way to win, lose, die, or gain points. It’s more of an experience than a true “game” in the traditional sense of the word. The “fun” in Small Worlds for the player doesn’t come from earning power-ups or killing enemies, but from revealing the game world and taking in the beautiful imagery (along with the music).

The “are video games art?” argument is futile. Games aren’t categorized as “art” or “not art.” It’s a spectrum. On one end is “games,” such as Monopoly and baseball. On the other end is “art,” such as books and movies. Video games all fall on different places in this spectrum. Small Worlds is much closer to the “art” end–while retaining elements of games, it’s in no way a game like Pac-Man is a game. And that’s not a bad thing. We need more independent game developers to create pieces like Small World that take advantage of the medium to actually say something about the world around us.

What Metroid teaches us

For my first blog post, I thought I’d explore our reading from A Theory of Fun as it applies to Nintendo’s groundbreaking Metroid, from 1986.

Metroid is most famous for being the first major video game with a female protagonist. Players assume they’re playing as a burly dude in manly armor until the very end of the game, when Samus removes her helmet to reveal her true nature–she’s a beautiful woman!

But the other major innovation with Metroid, and the one I’ll be addressing in this post, is that it was one of the first non-linear platforming video games.

Raph Koster divides early video games into two paradigms: “get to the other side” games and “visit every location” games. Metroid combined the two. Producer Gunpei Yokoi wanted to mix the platforming of Super Mario Bros. with the exploration elements of The Legend of Zelda. While intrinsically, the goal of Metroid is to jump and shoot your way to the end of the game, multiple paths are presented to the player. Some are traversable from the beginning, and others require powerups to reach. So players, instead of only looking for the end of the “level,” must first search for said powerups to reach the end.

Before this point, platformers were seen as “go to the right of the screen, jump over obstacles, kill bad guys, win.” Metroid added another dimension, as it required *gasp* leftward movement, backtracking to reach new parts of old levels, and a higher level of critical thinking.

The Metroid series has continued to break new ground in adventure platforming, from 1994’s SNES masterpiece Super Metroid to 2002’s argument-for-games-as-art Metroid Prime on the GameCube. The gameplay style has changed other games as well, like Konami’s Castlevania series. But they’re all based on the concepts of the 1986 original: nonlinear gameplay derived from finding powerups to get to new areas.