The Unfinished Swan – Theme (Peter Scaturro)

While the most common purpose of video games is to entertain, it’s not the only one. The interactivity aspect gives games this unique power and opportunity to bring various concepts into reality – concepts that one could not present in traditional art, be it static (music, painting, sculpture) or dynamic (movie). Because games happen in time and you often have control over your experience, interesting ideas can pop up here – like how you perceive “yourself” in the game, what you see and hear, how you react to it, what you feel. Games are not “real” in a sense that they don’t happen in your perceived world. They rather happen in your head. They test your brain’s ability to deduce and learn “rules” and adapt to them – and then see what happens. This time, I’d like to describe a game that takes this challenge to a new level.

“The Unfinished Swan” is the title. And even the title itself can tell you a lot about the content. You see, most video games’ titles are still quite descriptive, catchy, bombastic or simply juvenile. “Quake”, “Doom”, “Super Mario”, “Diablo”, etc. When you see a title like “The Unfinished Swan”, you can definitely expect something unique, a personal and artisanal piece of work that aims high. And it’s true in this case.

I really like games that deliver a deep story or unique personal, emotional experience. Surprisingly, I’m delighted with The Unfinished Swan, though it doesn’t really focus on either of these. Here, you have another experiment, something different, in a way that’s not extrovertedly “mindblowing” but rather introvertedly “fascinating”. The Creative Director of Giant Sparrow, the studio that created The Unfinished Swan, says that what’s really important for creators and gamers is actually not whether the game was good or bad (and if so, how much, etc.) but rather whether it is memorable. I like this thought. It allows you to fit many different games, different experiences under your umbrella, without narrowing your personal perception to “this and that” games. Is The Unfinished Swan a good game? Probably, though there will be people who will not like it. Is the game memorable? Definitely. You may not like it, but you will remember it.

Why, you ask? Look around you, close your eyes. Imagine yourself being in a world where everything is completely white. And I mean completely. So white that it’s like a canvas. You don’t see light, you don’t see any edges, textures, nothing. There’s no shadow. It’s like floating in white nothingness – you lose the perception of space, direction, distance. How would you orient yourself in such environment? How would you train your eyes and your brain to regain anything you can hook on, just in order to make a few steps and not bump into a wall? The solution that The Unfinished Swan puts in your hand is … a paint gun. You’re equipped with a tool that can generate blobs of black paint and send them out in a parabolic trajectory. This is your way of seeing the world again. In that absolute white, you spatter black paint all over the place and you observe results – where did the paint fall? What does the splat look like? Does it uncover any edges? Does it fly farther when you shoot this direction or that one? And slowly you’re starting to discover everything around you in this new, imperfect way.

While the core experience can be described, it’s somewhat hard to explain what’s going on in your brain during the process of figuring out the space around you. At the end of this entry, I’m sharing a gameplay that will hopefully give you the idea. It’s weird, it’s definitely weird. But what really amazes me is that how little information we need to rebuild and project. We can just cling to a couple of shades or edges and our brain performs this great work of spatial mapping. We all know this – when you wake up and go for a sip of water to the kitchen, you have very little light to work with. You see some edges, you remember the setup of the room, you probably reach out with your arms to look for walls. Sure, you sometimes trip over a shoe on the floor, but you eventually reach the fridge without major health loss. So this is an interactive walk, because you can touch, you have feedback you can base upon. In a game, you cannot really touch, so instead, you paint. It opens your mind to a thought – “Wow, I can actually do that!”.

But apart from the scientific value, there’s also esthetics factor involved. In the end, you use the paint. On white surface. So it actually is painting. In a twisted way, because you don’t paint what you want, instead you uncover, you “unpaint” the predefined world around you. But the nature of this process still leaves you some space for your own “artistic touch”. It’s not really a game of “just uncover everything and proceed to the next room”. If you paint everything black, you will just invert the situation – and still won’t be able to see anything. The same goes for actual painting. When you have a white canvas, you can put something on it. But if you cover it all in black, then you just end up with a black canvas  – but it’s still not a painting. But if you go somewhere in between, you have the chance to create something great. However, creating a picture this way is “static”, because you just move your brush, you don’t move yourself that much – you project what’s in your brain onto a canvas. In The Unfinished Swan, this is the “painting in movement” experience. The world around you is projected into your brain. I’m not that familiar with art to compare this result to the work of actual painters, artists – the closest thing that comes to my mind is the impressionism movement. But decide for yourself.

There is a background story for all of this, but it’s my impression (see what I did there? :) ) that it has been added at a later stage, it’s not integral with the gameplay and it’s hard to guess who it was intended for – adults or kids. But it’s an interesting attempt. It tells a tale of Munroe, a young boy who lives in orphanage after his mother died. She was a painter, but she never finished any of her work, leaving Munroe with a lot of paintings, from which he keeps one – a painting of a swan, that is – you guessed it – not finished. One day Munroe is having a dream that will begin this inner adventure of discovering himself. The authors of The Unfinished Swan tell us the scale of the unfinished. And the “most unfinished” is when you give birth to a child, but you’re not there to raise him, to answer all the questions and to take care of him. Starting a life is just a part of the painting, a part of the swan. Shaping new life is what makes it finally whole. So Munroe is robbed of the chance of being finished by his mother. He has to finish himself alone – and that would be the journey through the unpainted world. Unfortunately, the story is inconsistent. It tries to be funny, when there’s little to laugh at, it tries to be mature, when it clearly isn’t. The initial metaphor is interesting and could leave a lot to interpretation, but its execution is shaky, leaving the player confused at the end. But then again, the game is not really about the story.

Music of “The Unfinished Swan” is subtle, ambient. In a world, where your vision is scarce, music plays (aha! again!) a guiding, soothing role. There are cymbals, some hang drum, the violin. It will lead you patiently through your journey so that you might feel a little bit less lonely and maybe a little bit more finished.

More about The Unfinished Swan  –

Here’s the actual gameplay –


Dear Esther – Always (Jessica Curry)

This one is going to start a little bit differently. There was a gap in my writing for about half a year because of “other important things” and I don’t like it. It’s still very important to me and it’s unfortunate that I was not able to find the time. To that one gentoo penguin out there being a loyal reader all this time – I’m sorry, man, I really am. A lot of things happened for games during that time and even though I did not write about it, I usually was at the right time and in the right place to see these new developments. There’s a stack of several titles I want to go through and I hope to make up for this time and write about them. And so I would like to tell you about one of these now, but let me preface this with a few things not directly related to this particular game. I believe it’s important.

In the world of video games, experiments are not that common. Most of the time, it’s even hard to describe what a “game experiment” would be. Is it just a science project? Story telling? Is it still a game (and what constitutes a game, really?), and if it is, is it playable? Do you just enjoy it or are you supposed to shut up and learn? The psychological “frame” of a game is usually connected to just having fun while performing mindless zombie shooting. There are tons of people out there who love to play games. They will spend a lot of time doing this and pay a lot of money (collectively) to maintain access to that leisure. This means that it’s tempting to set up a company, scan your market and then produce games tailored for that market, cashing a lot of money in the process. And indeed, gaming world mostly works like that. Gamers are accustomed to that. To games that look like games, behave like games, sound like games and don’t try to be something else. Such an environment discourages experimentation.

But game world has also its own place in the art department. This stuff is just too connected to things we perceive as art – story, music, graphic, picture – to be left behind. This means that this market is also ready to mature and branch out and evolve into hundreds of paths. Some of these paths would result in casual, crappy games, made for money. An equivalent of a Harlequin story or a Justin Bieber song. There will be games of “the middle”, not that bad, but also not very creative or mind-provoking. Let’s call them the “Avatars”. There will be those one-man-army indie jewels, that surprise and astonish, “Discworld” novels, if you will. And finally, there will be a path for those who attempt to push the envelope even further, creating things that will be very hard to categorize, understand and even play.

For a long time, we’ve seen games of the “middle”. Then, something happened. Suits and ties figured out that this silly “game” thing can hatch them a gold egg. And so the evil machine kicked off and we started to see bad games, without substance and meaning. You can be easily fooled, because they use mind bending graphics powered by special effects, besides, all the reviews will tell you it’s supercool and the special edition contains a real-size gun, so it must be good, right? That’s the era of crappy games and it was almost over, but it is sort of reincarnating presently on mobile platforms (yes, Angry Birds, I’m looking at ye). But then, around 2008, we saw a sudden outburst of weird games, made by weird people, who actually don’t sell their souls to producers and investors. They don’t have tons of money. They put their mind and heart into the what they make. They sometimes even don’t care what you’re going to say, they just have to do it. It’s their way of expressing themselves and the result is very pure and honest. This is the indie market. Until recently, I thought that we’ll be in this for some time. But, as great as indie games are, we’re already seeing productions that display the ambition of taking steps into the unknown lands.

“Dear Esther” is a prime example of such a pilgrim.

“Dear Esther” is a title of production that was created as a mod of Half Life 2 game (this is a simplification, but it doesn’t matter for us here). A “mod” is a slang word to describe an effort of replacing some of already existing game’s logic and graphical assets with something else. You know, like replacing aliens with rabbits, or something. It might be just a graphical tweak, but sometimes it can seriously change the original game. It’s not “game development” yet, but it might be a first step for someone who wants to try it out, but not necessarily want to invest in programming and all that complex stuff you have to deal with, before you even start putting your idea into the computer. So “Dear Esther”  was very different back then and was perceived as an oddity. Few liked it and praised it, but it drowned in the sea of mediocre, but easier to grasp games. It was not the right time for it. But, fortunately, someone fell in love in it so hard, that they decided that they will make a proper standalone game out of it in 2012, with new graphics and improvements. So the result of this effort is probably what you’re going to encounter under the name of “Dear Esther” and it is that game I’m describing for you here.

A game? Is it really a game? At the risk of entering a never ending debate, let’s say it is. It runs on a computer/console, it’s interactive (though the level is really minimal) and it maybe even has a goal. This “game” can be described as a “ghost story”. The player sees an island in the beginning. He apparently controls something, he can influence the move of the camera. Is he a living person, though? We don’t know. There is some voice speaking or reading words. These words are either random observations or series of letters addressed to one Esther, starting simply with “Dear Esther”. Who is Esther and who is actually writing those letters, the player does not know. “Are we” a character? Is it “us” who speaks? Is it some kind of a narrator? Friendly ghost? Memory flashback? Is it related to “us”? There is no answer. So after some pacing there and back again, the player learns the “rules” of the situation he’s apparently being put into. He can wander, see things and hear commentary. That’s it. There is no choice, no action to take, nothing to interact with. There is no other living soul the player can meet. Just the island. But there’s clearly something else, yet you can’t put your finger on it.

What’s experimental here is not just the confusion. It’s not that easy to trick a player. Players are quite good in “sustaining” the “weird” period for some amount of time, because they know that pattern quite well – “Ok, ok, this is crazy, but I’m quite sure the story will roll out soon and I will get it all, so let’s keep playing.”. But it’s not happening in “Dear Esther”, exactly because of the twist in narration. Simply put, it’s disjointed. There’s no cohesive story, no obvious mystery or puzzle to solve. After half an hour or so, the player discovers, that he’s just hearing apparently random ramblings about weird stuff, but it seems like there’s no glue to stick it together. Worse, it’s even might not be the same speech. You can play the game again and you will hear a different set of “letters”. Some of them will carry the similar thought, just expressed differently. Some of them will be just about something else, that you do not recall from the previous session. It’s like a stream of consciousness. Things just happen, and you cannot really make it stop or change them. All you can do is receive them. And this is the core of the experiment here – is it possible to tell a story using different means? Can we use a game to make the story less obvious, non linear and not just “pre-scripted”. Can we create an experience that will be a mash-up of what player hears, what he thinks and what he feels? How player’s prejudice might affect the story he will “create” on his own? This is, in my opinion the root cause of creation of “Dear Esther”.

How did it work out? While I encourage you to try the game out, I’m going to report here that the result is a mixed bag. In fact, I was quite disappointed with “Dear Esther” at the beginning. The experience is quite short, if you just faceroll through it – it’s probably an hour of your time. And I knew this game would be different and not approachable, so I knew what I was going for. Still, I felt that it was just wasted time the game does not live up to the hype. But then I tried it again and again, and now I no longer feel that way. Here’s the secret – try not to concentrate on emotions and the story (which is what I usually do), but rather on the mood. This focus shift enables you to open to a slightly different experience.

Because if we talk mood, things that will really conquer your heart are sound and graphics. Those combined create a remarkable experience. The music is very subtle, soothing, sometimes feel like a lullaby. Sound effects are gentle, but realistic – your steps, the sand, seagulls up above you. The island feels very, very calm and it projects this onto you. At the beginning, the evening slowly comes upon us, but the sun is still there on the sky. It looks like it’s going to rain or maybe it’s right after the rain. Everything gets a little bit different color than their “natural one”. More blueish or more orangey. There’s a mild wind blowing, so you can hear the grass rustle. You can see and hear the ocean waves slowly hitting the shore. You take a slow walk and you really feel like there’s no rush. There’s no puzzle to solve, enemy to kill or story to be followed – or maybe even if there is a story, we expect it to pour onto us at some point, as opposed to us chasing it. Let’s just take a walk and see what happens. It puts you into this melancholic, reflective mood. You’re not really sad, but you can’t say you’re cheerful. You’re mostly just silent, tuning in to everything around you and gathering all those weird thoughts from the present and the past. And in that environment, it makes perfect sense to hear those random thoughts. It’s just that they’re not yours, they’re someone else’s. But it doesn’t matter that much who they belong to. They just fit. And it might surprise you, that you start to weave your own thoughts into the picture. “I remember walking on a similar island myself”, “this sun rays are really familiar”. The feeling of loneliness will stay with you, but it’s not exactly a destructive force here.

You’re purpose is – apparently – to go for a trip. After a while, a route plan emerges from the scraps of thought – you first walk through the island, then you go deep below, to finally get out to the surface and climb to the very top of the island, which is marked by an aerial with an unnerving blinking light. I’m not going to spoil too much here. But that journey is very metaphorical and each phase of it carries several meanings. There is a leitmotif of “getting to understand yourself”, there’s a biblical trip to Damascus. There’s the redemption and punishment. Body and mind damage. You will hear the “character” trying to explain, but the explanation will be unclear, not complete and messy. You will hear the voice being a little bit more eager at certain points, sometimes angry, but usually just filled with pain or sadness. And maybe you’ll even discover that there might be a story behind all of this in the end. But rest assured – it’s not handed over to you on a silver plate. You will get scraps, musings of a tired, untrustworthy and confused man, who’s uncertain what to do, who he is and what’s really going on. You will witness his memory failing him, resulting in contradicting facts – just like your grandparents, trying to recover the same situation, but remembering it differently. Who are “you”? Are “you” alive? Who’s Esther? Who’s writing those letters? Is it the past, the present or the future? What is the meaning of all this? Is the island really what it seems to be? Maybe it’s also a symbol of something else? Maybe “you” don’t exist, maybe the island is a projection of something?

Maybe. Maybe this, maybe that. Dear Esther is all about maybes. You will probably end up with your own interpretation, but I doubt that you will feel that you’ve “cracked the story”. It’s more like “the way I see it”. Not everyone will feel comfortable with this. And I like it. It’s controversial, it stirs the reaction pool. You’re no longer spoon-fed. What you will get out of the game is really a function of your own ego and sensitiveness.

But this dreamy experience is at times damaged by the narration – and this was the thing that put me off in the beginning. The writing is just uneven. Sometimes you’re entangled in pseudo-poetic gibberish that can be really tiring and you can tell that someone was trying too hard. Like this elementary schoolboy writing a love poem to a girl from his class. You know, too many silly, obvious rhymes, too many adjectives. Unfortunately, I find this in “Dear Esther” sometimes. But then again, I wander several hundreds of steps further and bump into brilliant pieces like this:

“When you were born, you mother told me, a hush fell over the delivery room. A great red birthmark covered the left side of your face. No one knew what to say, so you cried to fill the vacuum. I always admired you for that; that you cried to fill whatever vacuum you found. I began to manufacture vacuums, just to enable you to deploy your talent. The birthmark faded by the time you were six, and had gone completely by the time we met, but your fascination with the empty, and its cure, remained. “

I just get goosebumps from reading this. It’s amazing. It’s deep, it’s emotional and it sets this unique mood for the story. It’s too bad that it’s sometimes ruined by rants that make little sense. There’s a thin line between mystery/metaphor and gibber-jabber. Dear Esther dangerously balances on this line, falling on the wrong side a few times too often. The original script, before the remake, was a bit different. It is my personal impression, that the person who has made the amendments has sometimes lost the original meaning on the way. But, if you can suffer this, you will get your reward, I promise.

So is it a good or bad game? I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that this is an experiment that made my life richer. Even now, I like to return to it sometimes. When I’m in this state of mind I cannot really describe, I take a walk on the island. I can see the sun, I can feel the wind – everything falls back into place. What really makes me happy, though, is the fact that “Dear Esther” made a lot of money. By extension, this means that a lot of people bought the game and supported it. And this means, that either gamers have matured enough to embrace this kind of experiment and understand the depth of it or the people who do this every day finally embraced games as “accepted” medium they can also channel to. Whichever case it is, it’s just great. “Dear Esther” has shown, that there’s a place for experimentation, for uncertainty, for non-obvious and it’s not just for the sake of creating something different, but it actually serves a purpose. It’s beautiful and it has a meaning. I believe this is what True Art aspires to.

The song I’m presenting here for you is made by Jessica Curry, the composer who made all the music for the game. It’s called “Always”. The movie is also a presentation of a part of the game, the one that takes place under (or deep inside) the island. It contains another captivating spoken piece around 0:25. I remember waiting for this game to be released and watching this movie over and over again, listening to that piece, until I learned it by heart. And here’s a cruel joke – I’ve never actually had a chance to hear it in game. But that’s all right, Esther.

Sincerely, Sebastian.

More about Dear Esther –

Journey – Nascence (Austin Wintory)

Journey is a game I have waited for since I’ve learned about Flower – previous game from Thatgamecompany. Time flies very fast. About 24 hours have passed since Journey has been released in PSN Store for PS3 console. So this time, I’m going to write about a very fresh, new game, as opposed to remembering older titles. I still feel overwhelmed and enchanted by the game. Here I’ll try to capture why.

Thatgamecompany’s game titles are short, simple, yet descriptive and meaningful. Cloud was about flying among clouds, feeling free. Fl0w was about flow of life of an organism, floating in water and evolving. Flower was about nature and how it affects us, how we seem to be forgetting about it. About a life of a flower petal carried on a wind breeze on a sunny day. Journey is, surprise surprise, about…

… journey.

It sounds cheesy, but it’s not. It’s quite an extensive topic, hard to grasp. Honestly, while you will probably find good books and movies on journey, it’s hard for me to recall a game that would be about journey itself. Not just traveling from one place to other, having fun or doing quests. I mean more deep and metaphorical sense of setting out alone, into the unknown, without a clear goal, no score, no guns. About a transcendental path of life and death, about the sense of being both alone and not alone in our world. I believe it’s very hard to contain all this in a game, yet somehow Journey has it all. It grows on you.

What does the game look like? You wander through a windy desert as a lone, red-hooded stylized figurine, with a scarf dancing in the air. You cannot tell whether it’s a man or woman and it doesn’t really matter. You don’t know what’s going on and you shouldn’t know. You vaguely feel that you should move towards a mountain you see on the horizon, but that’s it on goals. The rest is a journey. And so journey it is – you tread the ground with your small feet, strewing the sand in all directions, climbing dunes and gliding down sand valleys. At some point you start to look back, trying to figure out how long you traveled, and if it was really all on foot? The concept of distance is well established here. After a while, you discover that you can not only walk, but also jump/fly for a limited time. This movement, and the cloth fold/play in the wind “transforms” you into some sort of a flying bat or living kite. From now on, you will glide and float through the world. You can even do some pseudo sand-boarding when you go down. It’s an incredible experience of being in the flow, you steer naturally in all directions, and suddenly your travel gets another, a little bit magical, dimension.

You wander through a set of sceneries at different day times and weather conditions. Each set ends with some kind of meditation, where you’re shown another figure, somehow connected to the mountain – a ghost? your mother/father? mountain spirit? You will never know for sure. There’s also an intriguing animation of a mural, that will expand with your journey. Until 3/4 of the game, you don’t have a clue what it is. It’s an interesting choice. From the very beginning of the game, you’re never told what to do and how to go on. You’re just there. No tutorials, no instructions. Journey treats you as a human being, curious of what’s going on and being able to figure it out on your own. Not some puppet, that has to be told every action along the way. You don’t know who “you” are, where and why exactly you’re going and what these strange objects or stories you encounter in the game are. That’s the sheer beauty of it. Because of this approach, you’re really on a journey, you focus on it. Everything’s enchanting, new and unknown to you. There’s no map, no directions. It’s up to you, what you want your journey to look like. It’s really hard to imagine it or write about it, it’s best to play it yourself. The game leaves you sort of helpless, still you want to explore, you want to understand, you want to see what’s behind the horizon. These are goals not related to the game – they touch something very human in our nature. It’s amazing that the game can extract this from you.

If that’s not enough, here’s another aspect being a major selling point of Journey. You are a lone traveler, but it doesn’t have to be like that. The game engine traces who is playing Journey as well and through online system, randomly matches players exploring the same areas. What this means is that sometimes you will encounter another traveler, just like you, a small figurine, weary and tired, clueless about what’s going on. There’s no name, no flag, no nick. Totally anonymous. This simple thing creates a whole new experience and approach. You just meet someone along the way. But it’s different from a typical MMORPG game, where you coincidentally meet others, do quests with them, and then part. You can see their race, their role, their equipment, you can judge from the name who they are and where are they from. In Journey, you know nothing. And because of that, the emotional attitude changes. You start to care about your companion. You realize that it’s good to see other living soul. You crave for emotional contact. You’re convinced that it will be better to travel together. You don’t want to loose him from sight, want to help him jump to that ledge and cross that dune. You intuitively stick together, close to each other, shielding from wind and sand. You cannot say anything. The only way of interaction with each other is through emitting a single “chirp” or bleep. That’s it. Weird? Of course. Creative? You bet.

Let me tell you about my personal Journey. It started very casual, just some walking through sand, solving easy puzzles and going forward. But from the moment I’ve met my companion, I’ve suddenly realized something was different. We were both chasing an unknown target of our journeys. Was it the same one? I didn’t know. My companion greeted me by chirping cheerfully. I responded with few chirps as well, to express my gratitude for meeting someone in this god forsaken place. From that moment, we would travel together and help each other. We stood atop a column, looking around and making a confused chirp or two, not knowing what to do next. We were hysterically chirping at each other, while floating over a red carpet, happy that we were able to solve a puzzle. And when I decided I should go to sleep and continue the next day, I felt deep sadness, that I was going to leave my new friend. I didn’t know how to communicate this to him/her, so I just ran close to him. What I wanted to say was “This was extraordinary adventure, I feel amazing, thank you so much for being a great companion, but I have to go now. Best of luck on your way!”, but all I emitted was several chirps. Did the other figurine understand what I was trying to say? Was he ok with that? Was he mad? Or maybe sad? Did I hurt him in this way? It’s astonishing, how much you wonder, when the communication channel is so thin and unclear. It’s like communicating with E.T.

I didn’t even know what was going to happen when I leave. I was worried that me finding this friend was a unique experience that might not happen next day. But when I continued my journey, after few minutes I’ve met someone again. And it all makes you think – who is this? What’s his agenda? Is it the same person I was playing with yesterday? How can I tell? What are the odds it’s him or her? Maybe we should establish some secret movement or code to recognize ourselves? Will he also be friendly? And even – can I trust him? I was haunted with these questions throughout the game, though my new companion was a great friend in sickness and health. We’ve discovered that if we run in circles next to each other, our scarfs will tangle, making this sort of an eerie magical dervish dance. There were even more amazing areas to explore, and hurdles to overcome. When we were climbing the mountain in howling wind and snow, covering our faces, making very small, very slow steps forward, being occasionally blown down by hurricane – it really felt like a struggle. The game is sending you a message, that it doesn’t have to be all nice, cosy and fun to still get to you. That you’re on a hard journey and you should know it, feel it. If you stop moving, who knows what’s going to happen. You’re on your own there. You cannot just run through or shoot everyone. It’s the path that matters, it’s the neverending step by step, a rajaz rhytm of camels, a 20-thumper hajj to the south. It leaves you a lot of time to think, to appreciate who you are and above everything else, to find yourself here and now, in this very moment of your “life”, your “journey”. It was spiritual to me. My companions – if by some wicked accident, you read this – thank you for being there with me and for me. You made my Journey even more important.

The art of the game is stylized. To imagine how the game feels like, try thinking Prince of Persia + Shadow of the Colossus + Flower + Nights! Into Dreams + Spirited Away + Indiana Jones + Samurai Jack + whatnot combined together. There are some oriental influences, especially in character design. But the graphical setting is arbitrary to a certain extent. You will not find stunning, close-to-reality, full of detail pictures here (sky textures were sometimes a bit cheap, in my opinion). Most of the time, there will be sand, wind, more sand, some rocks, even more sand and some persian-ish buildings. It will change to some other surroundings, but I don’t want to spoil it here for you. Most of the time, you will feel overwhelmed by the nature around you. It’s not an easy journey. It’s slow, it’s tedious, it can sometimes even frustrate you, but it can also liberate you. What will leave you speechless is the work of light and reflection and great camera shots, showing your silhouette from different angles and distances.

Journey’s sound effects should be quite familiar to those who played Flower. You will hear similar soothing dinging of various instruments here or there, very relaxing and warm. Sounds are designed not to “interrupt” your gameplay and your story, they mix perfectly with the landscape and background music, never going into your way, but discreetly enhancing your experience. The music deserves a sincere “omg, this is so right”. Did I mention, that I listen to Flower soundtrack quite often while going to sleep these days? Or when I chill out in the evening? Journey’s music is a little bit different, less “wandering”, setting a more serious, deep tone. It probably won’t work as a lullaby, but will be perfect when you go melancholic or just let your thoughts stray while looking through the window. You will hear a harp, flute, string instruments, triangles, occasional vocals (in “I was born for this” song). The music fulfills the experience of a journey. It’s (mostly) slow, it’s with you as a third companion, it makes you feel that you’re doing something important, something exceptional. String instruments always work great for me personally, when it comes to picture a big space, travel, quest – I think I’ve mentioned that while describing World of Warcraft. Their sad notes underline that you’re in a struggle, you’re going through something, it takes effort, it will take time. And, most importantly, that you’re alone in this.

It’s truly an inspiring and touching experience, probably possible only through a game as media carrier. Because of games like Journey, I’m insanely proud to call myself a gamer and a consumer and a critic of such fruitful part of our culture. Journey is an example, that there’s still so much we can do with games, that they work miracles when they try to open you up, to make you feel something and take part in something. Thatgamecompany, Jenova Chen, they’ve all already earned their place as creators of something unique and artisanal, they’ve left something important behind themselves, a dent in the universe.  My hat off to you – I’m so grateful and honored to have a chance to play Journey. Our world is a better place because of it.

It’s – again – that kind of game you should instantly buy and tell all your friends and show it to everyone you possibly can. It’s a game that should be added to every PS3 console sold. If you don’t own one, buy PS3 just for Journey – it’s totally worth it. Make your friends and family play it. Ask them about their feelings, their thoughts, their experiences of their own Journeys. I will do that. I’m going to have each my guests sit for an hour or two with Journey, to let his soul come out and hear it crying and singing.

More about Journey –

American McGee’s Alice – Time to Die (Chris Vrenna)

Unique title, that seems to be always referenced with the creator name before it – “American McGee’s Alice”. It’s just a game about Alice, you know the girl from L. Carroll books. But this strange choice of putting the name into the title persisted and become one with the game. American James McGee is an american (you guessed it!) game designer, known mostly for his work in id Software. He helped coding both Doom’s and Quake I and Quake II. Actually, best Quake I deathmatch maps were made by him (dm2, dm4 anyone?). After leaving id software, American created his first adventure game, based on Quake III engine – and that game is Alice.

Now, when you think Alice, you probably remember the silly rabbit, hatter, red queen, cards, bizarre adventures involving shrinking and growing. Great material for a kid’s game, maybe with some twisted graphics, etc. This, more or less, was the expectation of an average game reviewer back then in 2000. Boy, were they wrong…

American McGee’s Alice story happens years after Alice book adventures. There’s no silliness and candy. At the very beginning you see Alice, being a poor, wretched creature in some kind of asylum, where she is clearly mad and thus being under constant observation. We learn that her parents died in a fire accident and their house burnt in it also. Alice is the only survivor and obviously the great trauma she suffered inflicted heavily on her mind. And here’s where “Wonderland” comes into play. Wonderland is no longer a dreamy bizarre land of a innocent bored girl. It’s now a nightmare, constructed in a tormented mind, trying to cope with the loss. All the characters look very grotesque, twisted. You will not recognize the rabbit, caterpillar or hatter. The game’s characters are roughly based on the inhabitants of original Wonderland, but they are “warped incarnations” of their conventional selves. It’s a place where “off with her head” order is being taken very seriously.

She’s not alone in this voyage. Her mysterious companion would be obviously the Cheshire Cat. He’s not that cuddle type you might think. Cheshire Cat looks more like a lampart, skinny, with an earring and tempting voice. And yes, he still grins as hell :). He will appear suddenly, to comment on what’s going on, give Alice some hints or just talk with Alice a bit:

– There may be more than one way to skin a cat, if you’ll pardon the expression.
– Most unpleasant metaphor, please avoid it in the future.

So, Alice, being sucked into this macabre reality, must find her way out. By completing several stages in different sceneries, she will strive to come back to her senses and to put back the shattered reality, regaining sanity and accepting what’s happened. As we further learn, some characters in Wonderland are projections of Alice’s fears, while some resemble positive, friendly forces. The game itself is pretty straightforward FPS game, where you steer Alice, jump a lot, shoot and hack/slash a lot, killing enemies and solving puzzles. You will gain few weapons, such as vorpal blade or deck of cards. It was quite an achievement back then, visually and atmospherically – and the game was praised for what it tried to be. I’m not sure if it led to a commercial success – not many people I’ve talked to actually knew the game.

The plot itself, however, is the strongest point of Alice. I don’t remeber the gameplay itself that much, but I remember the struggle Alice was undergoing, trying to not loose her marbles completely. Before each “boss” fight, there will be an interesting dialog, in which characters attempt to give Alice some hints about her past. There are also great dialogue lines. I definitely think this is not a game targeted for younger audience. You must not be teenager to appreciate all the dark tones and subtleties of the game. To give you an example of what you can expect:

– If ignorance is bliss, I must be ecstatic. (Alice)     
– If it’s my keen invention you’d like to destroy, I’ll withstand your best shot; I’ve got the right toy. (Alice)    
– Every adventure requires a first step. Trite, but true, even here. (Cheshire Cat)
– When the remarkable becomes bizarre, reason turns rancid. (Chesire Cat)       
– Even blurred vision is valued by the blind. If I were clever, would I cower in this slag heap? I’m not wise, girl. I’ve just … grown old. (Gnome)

What is most important about Alice, when it comes to contribution to the game genre, is that the game is a great proof that gaming industry can be a very creative business. Games don’t have to base on movies, comics, take their lore and characters. Games also don’t have to be blind followers of what’s already on the market. American McGee has shown here, that game creators also have balls to take a very popular story and provide a fresh, new, creative look, own radical vision. It’s no just for mere fun, but it also aims to be some kind of an artistic attempt. Game developers were very long ostracized and games were treated as “silly stuff”. Here you can see, that game can convey a very powerful and interesting story, that might never see the light without the help of the game it was part of.

The music of the game fits very well in the overall gloomy, bizarre world portrayed in the game. You will hear a lot of tick-tocking, tingling or toy instruments (triangle, xylophone), music boxes, door squeaking, cog rumble, machinery sounds. It reminds me the music of old horror movies, you know, where the music is quite steady, calm, but unnerving and eerie – and this drives you crazy, the anticipation. It’s like being into insane’s man mind – easy, easy, and all of sudden a weird outburst. It’s not exactly soundtrack you will listen to outside of the game (unless you’re looking for a theme for your rpg session), it’s too creepy and tied to the game atmosphere to stand on its own. But within the game, it’s exactly the music you want to hear.

Interesting bits – Chris Vrenna was a drummer for Nine Inch Nails. Also Marylin Manson was involved in creating of the music and the game itself. While I don’t know which music pieces would be influenced by him, articles reference him as a man who gave the Mad Hatter the look he has in the game (he was even considered as his voice).

More about American McGee’s Alice –’s_Alice

Braid – Maenam (Jami Sieber)

And, after another pause, back again, with new material. From now on, these will happen here, on this blog, with only references visible on Facebook. Happy reading!

I remember mentioning Braid in some of my previous writings. When putting Bastion next to Braid, you will for sure find some similarities – both games are very stylized and very colorful, almost like a child’s tale. And indeed both are disguised as such, but below that innocent cover, great, deep stories are waiting for you to be discovered.

Braid is, essentially, a puzzle platformer. The game is, as I understand, a work of one guy, Jonathan Blow, with the help of an artist David Hellman. 2011 was a great year for great indie games, and Braid is a proof for that. So, a platformer, eh? But this game is oh so different. At the beginning you have even the impression that your task will be to wander through a house and solve several jigsaw puzzles on the wall. Shortly after, you’re entering a different location with books to read. The text is a bit cryptic, so you march further to enter first level. What’s this, Mario Bros clone? Some wandering creatures, your character also not very convincing, what’s so good about it?

It’s about time.

By all means, it’s about time! It’s how the time affects us as people, how time affects how we perceive our world, our lives, relationships. How time screws up things and heals things, how time influences what we do, and what we avoid. And, above all, time is a key factor to solve almost every puzzle thrown at you by the game. How? You simple hold on key, and all (ALL!) your movements are rewind back to the place you wish, even to the very beginning. I’m a developer and a sheer insanity of programming solution drives me nuts – must be a really really smart trick.

So there you go, various puzzles, mostly asking you to get to the door, sometimes grabbing some bonuses or jigsaw puzzle pieces with you. And it all evolves time. Later on, some things are introduced to make levels even more complicated like things or areas that do not “rewind back” in time, or only work “one way” etc. etc. It’s really bizarre. After a while, you’re kinda loosing track of what’s going on. Our brains were not developed with that kind of perception in mind.

But even with that, Braid would be another game with time-based puzzles. The concept was exploited in many ways before. Movies, books, games (Prince of Persia: Sands of Time anyone?). What makes Braid unique – and I’m really repeating myself here in all these reviews – is the story. You could get through the game, without paying attention what’s going on, but I strongly recommend you read all the books. Braid indeed smartly plays on Mario Bros inheritage – there are flags, there are castles, you’re also looking for your Princess and you’re constantly finding out, that she’s *again* in a different castle. And, though you may think it’s just a cute pursuit for eternal love, it’s far from it. Below, there’s a story told by the books. It’s so good I took time to combine it together and translate for my friend. It describes a journey of a man, but it’s filled with symbolism, metaphorical sentences and double, triple even meanings. The way the story is told is also wrapped in time, so you’re not sure, where’s the beginning and where’s the end and whether things have order, or they exist as parallel “choices”. To give you correct impression, that the game is not a festival of cliches and actually is trying to make a very important message, here are some parts from books:

“Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster. This happened because Tim made a mistake.”

“Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with  forgiveness. By forgiving them too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we’ve learned from a mistake and became better for it, shouldn’t we be rewarded for  the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?”

“What if our world worked differently? Suppose we could tell her: ‘I didn’t  mean what I just said,’ and she would say: ‘It’s okay, I understand,’ and she  would not turn away, and life would really proceed as though we had never said  that thing? We could remove the damage but still be wiser for the experience.”

People are still dredging through all the pieces, finding different interpretations, although two are dominant: the obvious one – Tim (our hero) is trying to regain trust of his wife, and the second one: Tim is a …. working secretly on a big project. Not going to spoil it for you here, but the key part to discover it for me was: “she radiated fury”. The final level where it’s so obvious what you’re finally have to do… and the look on your face, when everything suddenly flips over and you bash your head saying: “Of course! It makes perfect sense now! I couldn’t see that earlier.”. And the interesting thing is that while reading the story, without actually playing the game, you’re loosing the unstable sense of coherence, meaning, it all fits very well in game, where you’re constantly faced with time problems and you’re struggling with them, as opposed to just reading the whole story from the screen, where these issues are not with you.

This game really touched me and I applaud the author for a great effort of creating a game, being (or it seems) just a cover for carrying over a catalyst for our minds and emotions. How yours is going to get through it, I cannot say. But it will be something, promise.

This music plays during the title, it’s very sad, deep and pompatic. It comes from Hidden Sky album of Jami Sieber – this track was licensed for the needs of the game.

More about Braid –

Planescape: Torment – Fall From Grace (Mark Morgan)

I’ve mentioned before, that I do not write about games I haven’t played. I try to be in touch with most of interesting part of the gaming world, but its like with books or music – there’s too much of it to know it all. Thus, some great games eluded me, yet they deserve to be mentioned. So, today we’re having Marek Papierski / temporar, my friend, also a gamer, who was kind enough to make a guest appearance in “The Music of Video Games”. Thanks!

How would it feel like living in a city featuring hundreds of doors and windows, each leading to another plane?
The city full of light, no access to sky that cannot be entered or exited save via portals.
How would this city’s music sound like?

Planescape: Torment was released in 1999 by Black Isle Studios, following great successes of Fallout 2 and Baldur’s Gate franchises. Once again, Mark Morgan was asked to create music score. Soundtrack featured 38 themes totaling almost an hour of great, distinctive work.

Now imagine a world governed by three principles:
1) Rule of Three – things tend to happen in three.
2) Unity of Rings – thins on the planes are circular, coming back around to where they started.
3) Center of All – everything and everyone is the center.

Imagine its habitants bursting with lines of memorable quotes:

Dak’kon: “Endure. In enduring, grow strong.”
Annah: “Yeh like me wee tail? I could wag it for yeh.”
Fall-From-Grace: “Time is not your enemy, forever is.”

Finally, think of yourself, somewhere out there.

More about Planescape: Torment –

World of Warcraft – Dun Morogh (Jason Hayes)

It’s very hard to write about World of Warcraft. I’m already aware I have no chance of properly describing it. But, whatever the outcome will be, you should just carry on with the thought that WoW is both social and gaming phenomen and it’s worth knowing. Unless you’ve lived under a rock for past 8 years, you must at least have heard something about this game. It’s definitely most important game of our times and probably the ultimately best one, too. A milestone, dividing everything on before and after. A masterpiece production from the legendary Blizzard.

World of Warcraft is a massive multiplayer online role playing game. In short, it means that you only play it online, through the internet, you play it together with tens of thousands people in the same time and the game revolves around creating a character and “being” that character. The game is based on a fictional universe, created for previous Blizzard’s strategy game Warcraft. This world is filled with fantasy, sword and magic, honor and betrayal. On great lands of Azeroth and Kalimdor, two factions of Alliance and Horde are fighting each other. Alliance joins Humans, Night Elves, Dwarves and Gnomes, while Horde recruits from Orcs, Trolls, Taurens and Undead. Each race, each faction has its own history, its own rights, its leaders. You, as a player, can pick which side you want to enlist with, and which race suits you. After that you’re picking a class, that is – what’s the playstyle of your character. Is it Mage? Priest? Warrior? Hunter maybe? How about Shaman? There are more classes and more races even, added in further expansion sets to the game. The class you’re taking will determine what you will do, what skills you will have, how you will fight your enemies and how can you help others in their struggle. Just a quick load… and there, you are lvl 1 character, starting in your own area, and the digital adventure of your life is just in front of you. You will kill monsters, you will find treasures, you will rescue people, find things, carry things. You’ll learn new things, you’ll get better equipment, you’ll advance through enormously big world, and “ding” through 85 levels of your character. And then, it’s just a mere begininng… there will be mortal adversaries, dragons, evil things, robots. You are the hero of this world. You are going to bring back the order and save the day.

World of Warcraft has over 10 milions of subscribers – people who are actively paying the monthly fee to access the game. It’s a huge community. WoW has its own jargon, own cartography, own set of memes, jokes, sayings. Not all the people play together, people are scattered around on so-called “clusters”, each being a separate “world”, but even that single world can hold approx 10k-20k people. It’s incredibly approachable game. I had success of showing it to girls, elderly people, small kids, guys of my age. Everyone and I mean everyone, wanted to play after a while. The sheer power of the game is just mindblowing. There’s not enough space to even cover 10% of all the aspects of the game. At its core, I think, lies the flexibility, the complexity and the freedom. There’s no simple goal in WoW – you choose what you want to do, when you log in. You may want to talk to people. You could visit local faire. You could be the auction house animal and make insane money on controlling the market and speculation. You could by an avid player killer or competetive player. You could seek for adventure behind the horizon. You could kill a dragon. You might want to travel all around the world and see beautiful things. Heck, you can even decide that you will sit on that bridge and wave hi to all passers-by! That’s the greatness beyond WoW – everyone plays it differently, everyone CAN play it their way. People have different turn ons, different motives, motivations. Yet, they will still find themselves well in WoW. The game is enormous. But it’s not a “virtual reality” toy. The world itself matters. You feel you are part of some greater epic history. You can sometimes just forget yourself and stare into setting sun, rippling water. People tend to do “photos” (screenshots) in the game all the time – just like shots from last trip or holidays. These hold similar load of emotions. There’s really way too much to be simply described. You should play the game. It has the potential of being your best gaming experience you ever witness. The game is so good, that it’s even a threat – there are these borderline people who are reportedly addicted to it and simply cannot stop. You will understand, when you enter WoW… but don’t worry, as with everything, that can be controlled :)

Makers of World of Warcraft – you have my deepest respect and gratitude. You. Created. Best. Game. Ever.

Dun Morogh theme will be forever my favourite music from WoW. It’s because I associate it with great memories. Dun Morogh is a starting area for Dwarves. It’s cold, snowy, windy, but light and beautiful. It’s also a place, where a great Dwarven capital city is carved in stone – Ironforge. Dun Morogh promises a hint of an adventure that will await you, something extraordinary, something truly epic. Similar to the snowy forrest of Chronicles of Narnia. One of my great moments in WoW was in Dun Morogh, back then, eight years ago, when all in this game was new, fresh and overwhelming to me. I know very little about it, I just played my character. I remember staying almost all night with my friend Matt. We travelled Dun Morogh and experienced a lot of “wow, this is so amazingly fun and cool!” things, finished lots of quests and discovered a story of the place, tales of its habitants, local worries, sorrows and cheers. It felt perfectly matched – us two, passing through snowy mountains deep in the night, scouting some scary creatures that were threating villagers. So silent, so calm, so focused. And this violin music in the background – it was truly an amazing experience I will always remember. It mixes art, music, gameplay, the sense of achievement, the sense of adventure, companionship, friendship, socializing, helping each other, quest, journey, surroundings, weather. Best parts of the music for me – 1:08 – 1:50 and 4:55 – 5:25.

More about World of Warcraft –