Sunday, February 28, 2010

Five-Minute Impression: Silent Hill - Homecoming

I have always been a pretty huge Silent Hill aficionado.

Moreso than Resident Evil or F.E.A.R., Silent Hill has always been my go-to survival horror series of choice. Unlike either of those two franchises, the Silent Hill series puts you in the shoes of someone who is both inherently inequipped to deal with the insane shit thrust upon them, and also a character who is integral to the narrative right from the start. The horrific and often traumatic world of each Silent Hill game is a direct product of the main character's own history and psychological state - and despite the fact that the odds are stacked against me from the start, I'm always sucked into the details. I'm not just an unlucky individual who found myself in a harrowing situation: I am somehow linked to the proceedings, and over the course of the game, I'll find out why.

I played the first three Silent Hill games back-to-back and each installment solidified my growing fervour. When I got around to playing The Room, some two years later, I appreciated the more immersive engine and the attempt to shake up the gameplay structure, but ultimately never got further than about a third of the way through it - I found it too difficult, even for a Silent Hill game, to get my bearings. And then some time passed before I was in a position, timewise and hardware-wise, to tackle the fifth entry in the series, Silent Hill: Homecoming.

Like the title of this post implies, I haven't played through that much of it yet - more than five minutes, admittedly, but less than an hour. And what I've experienced thus far has been simultaneously impressive and disappointing.

I love that your introductory level in the game is, in effect, a nightmare. I love that your character, Alex, is thrown immediately into the abandoned, effed-up Silent-Hill-hospital environment without any context or explanation, and is given a number of clues pertaining to a much larger mystery than you'll ever have the opportunity to solve in the span allotted to you. The structural design is clever and subtle and immediately familiar to anyone who's played a Silent Hill game in the past. And most likely terrifying to anyone who hasn't.

And I'll go even further and confess that the family theme, in particular the brother relationship, at the heart of Silent Hill: Homecoming is particularly engaging on a personal level. Silent Hill has always played up the family thing, but in the past, it always revolved around a daughter or a wife or a parent. It usually worked, but I'm finding myself especially drawn into this complex filial intrigue between Alex and his younger brother Josh (and it doesn't hurt that my own youngest brother is also named Josh. Spooky.)

So. It's appropriately spooky, it's well-written, it has a hook that grabs the player right away, and it employs a number of themes that are both compelling and feel like a natural progression for the series.

On to the bad.

This game is buggy beyond belief. So buggy, in fact, that every single time I have STOPPED playing it thus far has been due to a crash to desktop. Despite any number of patches and tweaks that I've hunted down and applied, it's the same thing over and over. Along with this, I've had to deal with control-scheme problems (no matter what I do, I cannot seem to map a key to move backwards) and glitches with both cutscenes and savegames.

And that leads me to my biggest frustration with Homecoming: the sheer lack of available save points.

See this?  Yeah, you won't see much of it in Silent Hill: Homecoming.

During the intro nightmare sequence, I came across at least two - always situated along my path of progression, right out in the open, and typically in a room that I could easily make my way back to if real life intruded.

After that sequence, we're treated to a cutscene, a (very) brief opportunity to run around Alex's hometown of Shepherd's Glen, and then another cutscene which explicitly instructs you to get thyself to a particular nearby location. There are no apparent save points either during this short Shepherd's Glen sequence or in the location you, the player, naturally make your way to. In fact - unless you do some online investigation and discover that there is, in fact, a save point in a random innocuous building nearby following the second cutscene - you're treated to at least half an hour of puzzles, fights, further expository cutscenes, and obligatory exploration before you're given the opportunity to save again subsequent to the nightmare.

All of which would not be nearly so aggravating if the game didn't have the face-clawing tendency to bork itself back to the desktop at random intervals.

This is disappointingly poor game design on a couple of levels. First of all, these bugs shouldn't exist in the first place. There's a reason why QA testers are listed in the credits of every single game ever released... It means that a developer has run their game through the gauntlet, so to speak, before they felt confident enough to release it to the public. And yeah, glitches and bugs are a fact of life. You can't predict with 100% certainty how your game will play on any one randomly-chosen person's system. But if, post-release, it becomes apparent that it's going to be a problem, you figure out why and you address it in a patch. Which Konami has yet to do, and likely, at this point, will not even bother with.

But you know what? Let's say that's the case: your game turns out to be laden with unexpected problems, but you simply aren't in a position to tackle them. Here's a thought: give the player the option to quick-save. Seriously, why this is not a standard option in every single game released right now is a mystery to me. By and large, we all have lives and may, despite all reluctance to the contrary, need to unexpectly quit the game and deal with some banal responsibility. Even if Homecoming had been the recipient of rock-solid coding and never, ever crashed, quick-saving would be a necessity. And because it isn't rock-solid, it's that much more of a critical issue.

Sad to say - since Homecoming really does have so much to offer in terms of narrative and concept - but given my ongoing frustrations regarding phenomenally poor design choices and recurring gameplay bugs, I may not bother returning to it anytime soon... If ever. I mean, at some point, I'm going to stop fighting against the obstacles and turn my time and attention to Bioshock 2, Resident Evil 5, or another one of the dozen games I've put on the back burner just so I could give the latest Silent Hill entry a fair shake. I'm a patient man, but this is just getting ludicrous.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Levels Up

It would be overly simplistic to state that Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim is a comic series about videogames... But on the other hand, it's not NOT about videogames, either. Games are just one of a number of themes woven into Scott Pilgrim that make my nerdy little heart race with glee every time I read it. There's the fact that Scott and his friends are (mostly) Torontonians, so there's any number of casual shout-outs to daily Canadian life (Scott regularly wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the CBC logo, for example.) Or the whole struggling, self-important indie band thing, as epitomised by Scott's band Sex Bob-Omb or rival band The Clash At Demonhead, amongst others. Or the near-constant stream of pop-culture references -, Trainspotting, The Shins - that never come off as forced or overly cute.

But this is a blog about videogames, and if there's one thing Scott Pilgrim's got in spades, it's videogame love.

To date, O'Malley's released five of his intended six-volume Pilgrim opus, charting Scott's epic quest to defeat his girlfriend Ramona Flowers' seven evil ex-boyfriends (I'm wildly speculating here, but presumably the final volume will come out concurrently with or just prior to the theatrical release of the movie adaptation this August - but more on that in a sec.) In both concept and execution, it's pretty much a comic-book translation of the definitive videogame storyline: the hero must tackle and beat X number of level bosses, go up against the Big Bad, and win the heart of the princess in the end. It sounds incredibly precious, and make no mistake, it is - but O'Malley knows what he's doing, and over the course of the five books to date, he's thrown so many curveballs into the proceedings, and dealt with so many identifiable, grown-up trials and tribulations (like scraping together enough rent money to hang onto your shitty apartment for another month, or navigating awkward and often soon-to-fail relationships) in an admirably deft and even-handed manner, that it's anyone's guess where the story will end up.

Of course, at heart Scott Pilgrim IS about videogames, and there are clever little touches throughout to remind the reader of this fact. Besides the band names, the ex-boyfriends literally drop coins (actual pocket change) and items after they're defeated, and characters transform from average 20-somethings to cartoonish, insanely skilled fighters at the drop of a hat. They operate within a universe that's half-reality, half-videogame, and Scott himself is the quintessential videogame protagonist. And in a weird way, all of this makes perfect sense and actually lends the book a kind of heightened realism (at least for colossal nerds like me): how many times have I gotten through a rough day at work by thinking of it as XP grinding so I can eventually level up, or justified dropping $100 on a textbook by looking at it as providing +1 to INT?

Yeah, it's nerdy. Laugh all you want, but you do it too - we've all been deeply influenced by a lifetime of growing up playing videogames. And the great thing about Scott Pilgrim is that he doesn't just think this way: this is the way his world actually works.

Unless you've been living in a Hutterite colony for the past year and this is the first opportunity you've had to escape the watchful eyes of your elders and get onto the internet, you're probably aware of the upcoming adaptation of Scott Pilgrim, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which - barring global catastrophe - should hit theatres August 13th of this summer. Edgar Wright (who, besides having directed Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, was the co-creator and director of the brilliant nerd-love British series "Spaced", which if you haven't seen... you should) is directing, lovable geek George-Michael Bluth is playing Scott Pilgrim, John McClane's daughter is playing Ramona V. Flowers, and the likes of Brandon Routh, Chris Evans, and the incorrigable Jason Schwartzman have been cast as various Ex-Boyfriends (the screenplay was penned by one Michael Bacall who, despite having no major studio credits to his name thus far, is following up his Pilgrim script with a fictional adaptation of the documentary The King of Kong for New Line Cinema - good enough for me.) And it was, appropriately enough, shot in Toronto, which makes it one of the few high-visibility American films I can think of both filmed in and unabashedly set in a Canadian city (seriously, can you think of any? At all?)

There are a ton of movies out this year based on both comic books and videogames. On the one hand, we've got Iron Man 2, Kick-Ass, Jonah Hex, and The Losers, while on the other, there's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Resident Evil: Afterlife, not to mention the rumoured Mortal Kombat remake. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World stands as the only adaptation slated for 2010, however, that falls comfortably into both categories, and frankly (based on the admittedly-miniscule amount of information that's trickled out thus far,) it's probably the one film I'm most excited about, in a cautiously optimistic sort of way.

AND, because the world apparently is a beautiful place, Ubisoft Montreal is currently developing a videogame adaptation of Scott Pilgrim. Whether it'll hew closer to the film or the graphic novel (or equal measures of both) remains to be seen, of course, but in an interview with Comic Book Resources, Bryan Lee O'Malley has gone on record to state that it'll be a classic, retro side-scroller beat-'em-up.

Just as it should be. A videogame based on a movie based on a comic book inspired by videogames? It's almost enough to make a guy religious.


All five volumes of Scott Pilgrim are available in paperback from for $11.26 each (Canadian funds). That means you can get all five for around $60 Canadian, including shipping! That's how much you spent on BrĂ¼tal Legend! This is a much better investment, trust me.

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (Vol. 1)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Vol. 2)
Scott Pilgrim & The Infinite Sadness (Vol. 3)
Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together (Vol. 4)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe (Vol. 5)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pixified: More Gaming Wallpapers

Hot on the heels of my previous post on game-themed wallpapers, I’d like to formally welcome you to Round Two.  Fight!
NESPad1Oh Nintendo Is So Cool, by ~Jhny-heat (1680x1050)
PadGutsNES Gamepad Guts, by Reintji (1280x1024)
WASD WASD, artist unknown (1680x945)
PixelPipe Pixel Pipe, photo by Annamarie Tendler, original artist unknown (1680x1050)
241041 Bioshock, by Jhonen Vasquez (1358x1018)
241040 Big Daddy & Little Sister, Penny Arcade (1600x1200)

Retro Flashback: EmoGame

Back in the heady days of yesteryear, yesteryear here referring specifically to that wanton, innocent time spanning from 2002 to 2004, I recall discovering and taking perhaps an inordinate amount of glee in the free-to-play EmoGame series by developer StarvingEyes.

Essentially fan-service sidescrolling platformers with deliberately retro pixellated design, reminiscent of everything from Pitfall to Sonic the Hedgehog to cult PC classic Commander Keen, EmoGame and its sequels were particularly enjoyable and novel because not only were they clever and well-designed from a gaming perspective, but they were also predicated on a staunchly devoted and surprisingly well-informed knowledge of pop culture.

Although the final installment in the series was released in 2004, the EmoGame website is still up and all of the games still available, either as a download or for browser-based play.

NOTE: Every single one of the EmoGame games are NSFW and are highly offensive to pretty much anyone, ever. You have been warned.


The debut features the likes of Chris Carabba of Dashboard Confessional, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, At The Drive-In's Cedric Bixler, and Tim Kasher of Cursive as playable characters, with guest appearances by (amongst others) Jimmy Eat World and A New Found Glory (not to mention less-than-glowing cameos by Creed, Courtney Love and Fred Durst.) While the humour, both here and in the sequels, leans at times towards the puerile, the game is packed with references, subtle in-jokes, and some pretty phenomenal level and puzzle design.

That, ultimately, is the point I want to get across here: given that EmoGame is a less-than-serious undertaking and takes regular pointed jabs at everything from Hot Topic to major-label commercial rock, it's impressive just how much talent went into making it.

EMOGAME 1.5: Alkaline Trio vs. Hell

Following on the original, EmoGame 1.5 is considerably shorter in length and focuses on Alkaline Trio rather than a revolving cast of playable characters. The story has something to do with the band dying, cutting a deal with God (who apparently is Bob Sagat) to get a second chance by killing the devil (who apparently is Skeletor,) and embarking on a journey through Hell to accomplish said goal. It makes about as much sense as any of the EmoGame plotlines, and is mainly just an excuse to toss in as many cute pixelly renderings of recognisable cultural icons as possible... In other words, if you haven't been sold on this yet, EmoGame 1.5 won't sway you, but if you played the first one and are totally stoked on the notion, it's as entertaining as the first.

EMOGAME 2: The Epic Quest Continues

A proper sequel to the original, with more than twice the number of playable characters, improved design both graphically and structurally, and more obscure shout-outs than you can shake a stick at. Conor Oberst and Matt Skiba return from EG1 and 1.5, respectively, along with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie, Claudio Sanchez of Coheed and Cambria, Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley and "The Wizard", Blake Schwartzenbach of Jawbreaker\Jets To Brazil, and tons more. It has something to do with Enrique Iglesias kidnapping a bunch of people in order to have sex with them, and the cast of Friends starting a band in order to brainwash the masses into a cult, and... You know what, fuck it, I don't even know.

EMOGAME 2.5: The Anti-Bush Game

Let's be honest, games are not a medium well-known for tackling political issues - and when they do, they tend to be as neutral and message-free as possible to avoid alienating anyone. Foregoing the musical premise of the previous games, EmoGame 2.5 allows you to play, for some reason, as Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, and a fat-ass He-Man as they battle the evil villainy of the Bush Administration. While it's certainly no less offensive (and is unabashedly polarised in its stance,) the in-game political critique is nevertheless reasonably well-informed and sincere. It's not likely to convince anyone who might hold a differing opinion, but it remains an interesting and mostly-successful experiment in combining the disparate world of politics and videogames.


Sadly unlikely to ever be completed, Super EmoGame III never got past the demo stage (the demo, Purvolume vs. The Podicons, was available from the website for a while but looks to have gone the way of Internet purgatory.) There isn't a whole lot of information available on it, but from what I've been able to glean, it would have implemented some sort of fighting-game mechanic alongside the classic platformer engine. Unfortunately, it looks like we'll never know for sure.

StarvingEyes has now moved on to website and album design, and something they're calling "advergaming" - essentially, promotional minigames for bands, albums and media sites like Atom Films. It's a natural move for them - given their overtly fannish love of certain bands in the EmoGame series - and brings up a number of compelling questions on the nature of a medium which, while it likes to cultivate the impression that games stand on their own as consistently artistic ventures, has been commercial right from the start. I mean, with the emergence of product placement in the likes of Test Drive Unlimited and Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow, why not just openly craft games that are intended to market something right from the get-go?

EDIT: My mistake, I was under the impression that all of these were available to download for offline play when, in fact, at least the first (and possibly some of the others) are entirely Flash-based.

I don't want to irritate starvingeyes by offering up the following sneaky, ninja-like method for obtaining his Emogame series for offline play - so if this is completely uncool, starvingeyes, and there's an alternative in place, let me know and I'll announce it here.

Having said that, the Emogame site hasn't been updated in a couple of years and so I think this is probably justifiable.

1. Download emogame1.swf.
2. Download the free Swiff Player 1.5.
3. Install Swiff Player.
4. Rock out.

Alternately, you can head on over to, plunk in the URL of whatever Flash-based game you want to download, click on the "Objects" tickbox, and right-click and save the appropriate .SWF file that comes up. Again, you'll want to grab Swiff Player as well.