Monthly Archives: May 2011

Just a quick thought where I ramble a bit

On the eve of my L.A. Noire review appearing in hardcopy for the newspaper I write for, I’m starting to think about how I write my game reviews. I’ve decided I want to do better.

As humans, we all evolve, we all change. Be  it personally or career-wise, and as a writer,  I’m always wanting to evolve my writing style for the better, while keeping the things that I think identify me as a writer.

After years of writing reviews, I’ve decided I want to approach my game reviews differently.  I want to write them more about how I feel about a game rather than the tired old structure of game play, storyline, graphics, closing comments, score. This has partly come about because I’m tired of writing my feelings down in a review then sometimes seeing them appear differently once published because someone down the production line decided they’d re-write a sentence or paragraph. Did they play the game in question? Chances are no.

I’ve tried to change my formula in the past  – for example, written a review from the point of view of what I’m witnessing as a game character – and it’s worked, most of the time, but then I fall back into the tried-and-true formula. It’s comfortable but safe.

Other times, though, I’ll write a review then read it the next day, in the cold light of day, and think “What the hell was I thinking writing it like that?” I often post-mortem what I’ve written.

I think game reviews should be more about feelings and the emotions they create than just a list of all the parts that a game is made up of.  I’m regularly guilty of writing reviews that just describe the components then slap a score on the end.

As a writer my writing should evolve, it should continue to grow, it should convey me feelings.  From now on, I hope it does.

Interview: American McGee talks about Alice: Madness Returns


Eleven years after gamers were first introduced to American McGee’s take on Alice in Wonderland, the game maker is back with a sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, due for release by EA on Windows PCs, PS3 and Xbox 360 next month. The game has been made by McGee’s Spicy Horse studio, which is based in Shanghai.

Alice: Madness Returns sees Alice released from the asylum that kept her captive at the end of the first game but she is still haunted by the death of her parents and returns to Wonderland. I spoke with American McGee and Ken Wong from Spicy Horse about the new game when they were both in Australia last week.

GC: Gentlemen, it’s nice to speak to you both.

AM: Yeah, it’s nice to speak to you as well.

GC: American, if we can start with you. It’s been 11 since the original Alice game what can we expect to have changed in the world over that time?

AM: Obviously it’s changed a lot in terms of visuals, which Ken can speak to, and also in the scope and the scale of the game which has grown quite a bit, but in terms of the core of what made the original game so attractive to so many people, we actually kept a pretty classic approach to exploration, combat and platforming are all there but with a different tone in the story telling and puzzle solving. But at the same time we tried all this time to try and listen to the fans to tell us what they love most and also some of the things that they loved not so much and that allowed us to update things like combat, for instance, which in the first game at lot of people felt was a little bit too one dimensional, so the combat this time around … there’s a definite strategy on how you apply your weapons and your timing against specific NPCs. So that’s one areas that’s received quite a lot of attention but I think that people who played the first game are going to find that the formula that was there with the first is still there, only it’s been improved across the board.

GC: American, I know that in Madness Returns you revisit Wonderland but also visit Victorian England. Is the game a lot darker than the original was? I mean in tone?

AM:  The thing you have to remember about Wonderland is that it all springs forth from Alice’s imagination so we had a rule during development that what we saw in Wonderland had to be something that we could reasonably expect would have come from Alice’s mind. I mean, it had to be something that she drew upon from her real life experiences so I’d say that the tone isn’t more or less dark, I mean, it’s a continuation of what she saw in the first game, though the new threat to Wonderland … there’s something else attacking Alice, attacking Wonderland … I would say that it was much darker in many respects than what was threatening her the first time around. The first time around it was all potentially about her losing her mind, going insane. This time around there’s a real world component to it, as you said in London and that spills over to potentially affect characters other than Alice and so that horror’s kind of spread out and I think in that way when people finally see what it is that’s happening I think they’re going to definitely feel that this is a much darker game in that sense.

GC: Had you ever wanted to make a sequel to Alice earlier than now or did you feel that now was the right time to do it?

AM: Well, we knew that there was sequel potential in there, even as we were developing the first, but the timing for this was really just about right place at the right time. I had left EA and travelled the world, then met up with Ken shortly after going independent. Then Ken and I moved to Hong Kong and made some games there and we moved to Shanghai and once we’d established the studio in Shanghai and the capabilities became apparent we realised that there was an opportunity there to talk to EA about a sequel. So really it was just a question of timing.

GC: As you said, you left EA for a while then did the independent route. Did you feel that you grew as a developer during that stage?

AM: Yeah sure. I mean this study that we built in Shanghai is pretty unique in that it required a lot of growth, not just about in the sense of how we go about making the games but also having had to move to China, and the culture and learn the language. We had to learn the ins and out of setting up a business there and so I’d say for me, personally, it’s been a tremendous growth experience and apart from moving to the moon or something I don’t think you can pick a more challenging thing to do. And out of that challenge, of course, there’s always growth.

Ken Wong: And I think for us as a studio, American has been the leader of all of us and for some of us this is our first or second game and he’s really bought his considerable experience to the table and really taught us a lot about what he’s learnt. I think it’s a really unique studio where we have about 50 per cent Chinese employees and made a really interesting game in a really interesting city.

GC: American, what do you think Louis Carroll’s take would be on your take of the character that he created? Do you think he’d approve?

AM: That’s a really interesting question. I think first of all Carroll would have loved video games because of the possibilities available there. It was clear that in his writing that he was trying to stretch the possibilities of the medium that he was working in, which was print and when you look at the style that was present then he was really pushing boundaries in that sense, so I think for him to see an adaptation of that work in something as dynamic as a game, I think that he would appreciate it. The question of whether or not he would see the story progression that we’ve created as a natural one – that’s a tough call but I’ve heard a lot of people who are artists, musicians, film makers that I respect a lot who have said that they think that this is the truest interpretation of the fiction that they’ve ever seen and I think that means something. I think that it’s clear that we’ve tried to stay true to the original material while at the same time creating a branch that feels logical and meaningful.

GC: For you both, how does hearing people talk about your work like that make you feel?

AM: I think, like I said, the ideas really flow out of the characters that for me it’s always been about Alice and being true to her and so in some respects it’s almost automatic – she almost guides where we’re going and, sure, I think we feel good that we’ve built a product and it’s come in on time, and it’s looking great, and people enjoy it, but I think you have to look at the source material for some of the credit for what’s good about it. You also have to look at the team that’s built it. Of course, this isn’t a one-man operation – it is the imaginations of multiple people over two years so there’s a lot in there and a lot for people to feel proud about.

KW: The source material was so rich that often it wasn’t finding a solution but picking what of the many solutions that we could go with, where could we take this character, where do we take this one location from Wonderland and how can we interpret that and how has it evolved in the time that Alice has been away. It’s actually been a lot of fun to work with: Wonderland and Alice are just rich.

GC: It’s a hugely rich experience but for both of you, what drives you as game makers. What is it that gives you the direction you go in your games?

AM: That’s a complicated question At the most basic level it’s put food on the table (laughs), right? But beyond that, we have a lot of people in the team that are experimenters – they want to try new things and they want to push boundaries, and I certainly am in that place where I see games as a way to tinker, to try different things and so that’s one of the areas where I get a lot of pleasure but I think for each person in the studio they’re driven by different things and it’s been very clear for us in the development the personalities that have come out and who is driven by what. It’s a pretty broad question and I think it depends on who you talk to. I don’t know: what drives you, Ken?

KW: Well, what I enjoy at Spicy Horse is that it’s an environment that encourages us to buck the trend and look for things that haven’t been done before and that’s great for an artists and a creative as it’s a really good environment to work in. We try to keep things as egalitarian as possible and everyone is encouraged to volunteer their opinions and ideas. So that’s what drives me: I want to make unique games, games that have something surprising or something we haven’t seen before.

GC: Are games art? Do you think that games can be classed as an art form?

AM: The thing about the constituent pieces – each being art in themselves: the 2D art which becomes 3D art, the music the story, the narrative is as sprawling as a typical novel – is that when you start to put them together people start to question whether it’s art. I think it really comes down to the creator’s intent: I mean did the person who created the game believe that it was art? I think it depends on the game and what the creator was thinking about.

KW: In my thinking the term art is more relevant to scholars or journalists than to the artists themselves. I think us as creators we are simply making things for people to enjoy and consider, and in that sense I think we are making something expressive which has something to say about emotions and the way we interact with each other and you can compare that to books and film and what have you that are all considered art.

AM: I had some friends who went to the Biennale (in Italy) and they were there and they were walking around the galleries and came across this big pile of crates and cardboard boxes and they stood there admiring it for a while and were thinking ‘This is quite interesting. What does this mean?’ and finally the janitor came along and swept it away. Until someone told them it wasn’t art they were happy to stare at it so really it’s in the eye of the beholder and also maybe in the intent of the creator.

GC: Would you consider yourself a risk taker in the industry?

AM: Yeah, I think that in a lot of respects. Just picking up and moving to another country to start a studio is taking a risk ..

KW: Doing this game, in the country we have, with the team we have, was not the safest thing that we could have done. A safer thing would have been for us to work with an entirely Chinese team and make a very Chinese game.

AM: This was a team that had never made a console game before so we certainly took risks but I think in terms of the game design itself there are also some risks there and some of those risks we had to take out because we couldn’t prove them out, and I think that happens a lot in game development and of 50 ideas, maybe only 20 survive because 30 of them were risks that didn’t pay off.

GC: How do you hope gamers will receive Madness Returns?

AM: I hope they’ll each buy three copies! (laughs) That would be great. I think that the first game was hopefully a model for this one – and it still sells today quite well, it still has a following. I went to Japan for one of our shows and the press manager for EA Japan said “Alice looks great” and I said “Yeah, the new game looks awesome” and he said “No, no, the first game”. It’s still selling in Japan so I think there’s something enduring about the IP, about Alice in general. I just hope we’ve managed to once again listen to the characters and the world and let that come through in a way that will also endure in the same fashion.

Impressions: my time with Duke Nuken Forever

For the first time in my several years as a professional gaming writer, I’m sitting on the fence about a game.

The game is Duke Nukem Forever and I just don’t know what to think of it: the cynical gamer in me feels that gaming has moved on and there’s no place for a dated hero in today’s gaming landscape.

Has there ever been a game that will come under so much scrutiny and has so much expectation resting on its shoulders as Duke Nukem Forever? I think not.

Gaming has changed since Duke Nukem last flexed his considerable muscles and growled, “Hail to the king, baby” and there’s a lot of expectation weighing down on the game that’s been 14 years in the making and until last year, when Gearbox Software announced that it was, indeed, finishing the game, was a game that many had written off as nothing but vaporware: a game that existed as an idea but would never see the light of day.

Well, it will see the light of day: June 10, apparently. That’s like three weeks away, maybe.

While graphically things look a lot better than when pixellated Duke appeared in Duke Nukem 3D, what hasn’t changed is the juvenile toilet humour that most of us used to chuckle about when we were 15. That’s still there – by the bucket load.

“… and I’m all outta gum”

The game opens with Nukem urinating in a urinal. Yes, you get a first person viewpoint of Nukem pissing in a urinal. You can even control the direction of the stream. In another toilet cubicle Duke can pick up a “floater” from the bowl, carry it around then toss it, landing on the ground with a brown splat. He can draw on a whiteboard – emblazoned with the words “Operation Cockblock” and crude drawings of aliens – with vivid markers and after an easy battle against a giant rocket-firing alien in a football stadium – ending with Nukem kicking the alien’s eyeball over a goalpost and Nukem muttering “It’s good” .

It’s then that we see that the opening moments have, in fact, been nothing but a video game itself, with Nukem playing a video game starring him. “Is it any good,” ask two identical twins who rise up from Nukem’s nether regions (the less said about this the better). “After 12 f***** years, it should be,” Nukem replies.

And that’s the tone throughout the entire demo, which was made up two parts: the game-within-a-game section and one where Nukem drives a monster truck through a desert which runs out of petrol. Here, Nukem faces off against pig guards using railguns, shotguns, the shrink ray and an RPG against an attacking alien ship. After smashing his way into an underground mine and shooting up some beetle-like things Nukem rides a mine cart – in a very Indiana Jones like sequence – on a rail way until he’s back at the monster truck, takes out some pig guards and refuels it.

2K says the game is littered with parody but I didn’t really see much evidence of that in the demo – unless the literally on-rails section at the very end of the demo was parodying Indiana Jones?

To be honest, Duke Nukem Forever has me scratching my head. It’s a game with a tone and humour that feels like it belongs in the ’90s but a graphical look that fits right in with today’s modern games (although games like Battlefield 3 have nothing to fear).

Sorry, but I’m just not sure how a game like Duke Nukem Forever will do: I think it’s going to appeal to nostalgic gamers who want to relive the glory days they had with Duke Nukem 3D  but  have they, like games, moved on? Or am I completely missing the point about Duke Nukem Forever?

I guess we’ll know sometime after June 10.

I’ll get my impressions of The Darkness 2 up tomorrow. Promise.

First impressions of L.A. Noire with Radio Wammo

Yep, it’s that time of the week again, where I discuss games with Glenn “Wammo” Williams at Kiwi FM.

This morning we chewed the fat about L.A. Noire, Rockstar’s latest game that uses a revolutionary head-scanning technique to give credible performances from the in-game actors. It’s pretty impressive, actually.

I’m only about an hour and a 1/4 into the game but I’m enjoying it so far, even if the first hour was a little formulaic and predictable. I think now that my character, cop Cole Phelps is now a detective, thinks will start to pick up and get interesting.

Enjoy. Oh, I saw Duke Nukem Forever and The Darkness 2 yesterday afternoon – I was in Auckland for a Microsoft Windows Phone 7 thing and an appointment with 2K came available. I’ll post on what I thought of those two games either tonight or tomorrow, but I think I like the look of The Darkness 2 more than Duke Nukem Forever.

Game Junkie 2.0 interviews Suda 51

If there is a game designer that fits the rock star tag, it’s definitely Japanese game designer, Goichi Suda.

Suda, or Suda51 is he is more well known to gamers, is the CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture and the brain behind the No More Heroes series and killer7.

He was in Australia last week to promote his latest game, Shadows of the Damned, a game he jointly made with another famed Japanese game designer, Shinji Mikami.

Shadows of the Damned takes place in the realms of Hell, with the game’s hero Garcia Hotspur having to save his girlfriend, Paula, after she was kidnapped by the game’s villain, Fleming, and taken to Hell.

Thanks to EA, I was able to spend 15 minutes chatting to Suda over the phone last Thursday afternoon. He was a delight to talk to.

Here’s the interview:

GC: Suda, it’s a great pleasure to talk to you. I guess firstly, could you tell me how Shadows of the Damned differs from the earlier works you’ve done.

Suda: A: Thank you for having us for the interview. Well, there are a lot of differences. We developed games for the Wii for a very long time and this is really the first HD title that we’ve done using Unreal (engine) so we definitely had to change the development environment, and also this was the first collaboration with EA, which was to create a game for a worldwide audience. This game was definitely difficult and challenging for us, but at the same time, in a creative sense, we had marvellous support from EA and we remained the same throughout the course (of development).

Q: How did EA react when you first pitched Shadows of the Damned? What was its reaction?

A: It was really surprising. We had a representative meeting with EA’s top members and their immediate reaction was that it (the game) was really different and new and something that EA didn’t have. They wanted to start development very quickly so I was really surprised at how quickly they could actually decide on something and move.

Q: Suda, so do you like to be revolutionary in your games? Do you like to push the video game medium as far as you can?

A: Definitely. I think that it is our job as a game designer to offer something new, always, so I definitely keep that in mind, being revolutionary

Q: How does your design process work? How do you come up with the ideas for your games?

A: OK, first of all, normally my style is to go to the bathroom, get rid of things, and come up with new ideas – that was my style. For Shadows of the Damned I thought my style would change, but actually it didn’t, so …  bathroom (everyone laughs)

Q: I’ve heard Shadows of The Damned described as a punk rock take on grindhouse. Is that how you would describe it?

A: Yep, I think that is very accurate.

Q: With Shadows of the Damned it looks like it has lot of light and dark and parallels with good and evil. Would that be a good description?

A: Actually this game focuses on Hell and you basically kill enemies throughout the world but when you venture through this world you actually encounter this darkness and also the enemies are wearing this darkness around them. In that state, Hotspur (the hero) cannot kill them so you need to use the forces of light to get rid of the darkness – and that’s the logic behind the game.

Q: Has this been the most challenging game you’ve worked on so far?

A: Actually, this wasn’t exactly the hardest game to develop. Of course, yes, it’s taken a long time and it was challenging, but the length of the development and the product testing doesn’t necessarily equate to how hard it is to develop. I think the challenge is always to come up with something new and revolutionary. It’s really hard to say but I wouldn’t say this was really the hardest one.

Q: Suda, is it hard to constantly come up with revolutionary ideas for your games?

A: Ah, I’m OK. I’m doing OK. I still have like 40 other ideas that I want to do but I think the challenge is to really achieve what is in my head as an idea.

<EA’s PR person cuts in telling me I have two questions left>

Q: Suda, you collaborated with Shinji Mikami on this game. How was that process for you?

A:  We got along really, really well and in fact some people think that we could be gay, but of course this really was the second time we had worked together and so we know exactly what’s expected from each other and so we understood each other completely, so it really was a perfect match.

Q: Last question, Suda, your games seem really popular in the west but what do you think it is about them appeals to western gamers?

A: Well I’m really glad that they are popular in the western market, actually more than in the Japanese market, but I’m not really sure. I guess when I was young I really liked a lot of different things and I tried out things and saw and listened to different things. Of course, I like a lot of things from the western world.

Q: Suda, thank you for your time.

I’ll get the American McGee interview done tomorrow night. I promise.

Who I interviewed today: Suda 51 and American McGee

A short posting tonight, but it’s an oh, so cool one.

I interviewed one of the true rock stars of video games this afternoon, Japanese game maker Goichi Suda – or Suda 51 as he more commonly known to gamers.

Although I only had 15 minutes to talk to him over the phone from (I think) Sydney, he was an absolute delight to talk to (through an interpreter). The only downside is that the 15 minutes went by too quickly and I could have spoken to him for a couple of hours.

Suda 51 is the CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture and is behind such games as killer7 and the No More Heroes series. He was visiting Australia to promote his newest game, Shadows of the Damned (EA). Sorry I can’t actually remember any of the cool things he said at the moment as I’m so freaken tired.

I’ll get the interview transcribed and written up shortly (tomorrow, hopefully) then post it here.

I also spoke to American McGee, also in Australia to promote his new game for EA, Alice: Madness Returns, the sequel to the 2000’s Alice. He, too, was charming and talkative, which is always nice in an interview subject.

I’ll try and get that interview transcribed and posted as soon as possible too.

Good night.

On the wireless: Game Junkie chats with Radio Wammo

Today is Tuesday.  All day.

Tuesday means my regular gaming segment with Glenn “Wammo” Williams on the Radio Wammo breakfast on Kiwi FM (although sometimes when I’m away or Glenn is away we do the segment on a Wednesday or sometimes a Thursday. We like to mix it up).

Although I’ve strongly argued that I don’t have a face for TV or a voice for radio, which is  part of the reason why I love working for print and online (plus I’ve heard myself during playback of interviews and it ain’t pretty), Wammo has, for a while, streamed all his content online using Skype. So, unfortunately,  not only do you have to put up with my voice when you listen to the Radio Wammo segment with me, you also have to see my mug in action.

Today, we chatted about the Gears of War 3 beta, which finished up yesterday. I played a bit of it. I sucked pretty much but it was fun. When I wasn’t dying or being beaten to death with my own arm, that is.

Enjoy.

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