Review – Gravity Ghost

nazlyrdyxvzckk1hlp3s

Playing through Gravity Ghost is a beautiful, relaxing, somber and uplifting experience. In just a few short hours the game acted as a much needed palette cleanser, a dive into the simplistic beauty of childhood and a reminder that sometimes you just need to have a good cry. Not since Thomas Was Alone have I played such a cohesive, stunning, simple video game.

I really think Gravity Ghost is going to be one of those games I play time and time again, every time I feel in danger of forgetting why I sought to dedicate myself to covering this medium. Gravity Ghost is that solid an experience.

So, what actually is Gravity Ghost? Gravity Ghost is a 2D puzzle platformer where you jump through space, collecting stars and flowers, reunite animal souls with their bodies and ultimately explore the events that lead to end tragic end of a young girls life.

Much of the challenge of the game comes from learning to manipulate the young Iona’s orbit among a series of planets You leap off from one hunk of space rock, fling yourself into orbit and attempt to soar in arcs around space. It’s calming, it’s mesmeric and it controls unbelievably smoothly. The art style of the game and the hypnotically beautiful soundtrack certainly add to the mechanical sense of simplistic majesty.

Throughout the experience you’ll unlock abilities designed to either manipulate your movement through space or the planetoids you come into contact with. These abilities, often tied neatly into narrative plot points, are well spaced out and provide a great sense of progression and pacing across the two to three hour experience.

When you combine the superb mechanical simplicity and polish, mechanical pacing, visual style and soundtrack together, you’re left with something stunningly beautiful in every regard.

Still, by far the most important aspect of Gravity Ghost’s appeal to me was it’s superbly written narrative.

At it’s core, Gravity Ghost is a story of childhood innocence. It’s a story of the beauty of innocence and a story about how the world will pull away pieces of that innocence, no matter how hard you try to prevent it. It’s a story about understanding that exploration and risk taking are a part of childhood, but that those necessary childhood experiences never come without costs, no matter how innocent the intentions behind them. It’s an incredibly moving tale that, by it’s conclusion, is incredibly relatable in a way that left me weeping cathartic tears.

Gravity Ghost is simply stunning. It tackles universal themes that people struggle with at all stages of their life in a package that’s simple, accessible and gorgeous. If you ever find yourself struggling to remember why you love video games as an art form, this game is a perfect way to regain that sense of wonder toward the medium.

Now, no more me ruining the experience, go look into this game.

(Also, if you buy the game from the developer’s website you get two Steam codes and a giftable DRM free link. So yeah, spread the joy around).

The One Console Future – Is it viable and do we even want it?

controllers

Over the last half decade, I have heard a lot of rumblings within the games criticism community surrounding the idea of a one console future. On the surface these discussions usually posit that video games are unique as a medium in having competing proprietary standards that run for up to a decade with media exclusivity, without at any point one of those solutions becoming standardised. The solution usually posed is a one console future, a world where anyone can manufacture video games for a standard video game media format. No more exclusives, every game comes to every game box.

While I think the posed discussion is interesting, I think all too often a huge amount of the discussion is somewhat swept under the rug. What actually sets video games apart as a medium? Will those differences settle down over the coming decades? What pros and cons would such a potential system have for consumers? What role would timing have in the success of such a solution?

Strap yourself in folks, I’m about to try and answer a lot of pretty huge questions. Let’s kick off with what separates video games from movies when it comes to standardised physical media formats for home or personal consumption.

Movies as a medium are incredibly easily scalable. Movie producers can create their movie on cutting edge hardware, scale it to display on multiple playback formats and not have to worry about which format is adopted as a hardware standard. This means movies as a medium can be created by creators with minimal thought placed on home playback solutions.

While video playback standards have always seen competition over new hardware standards, the nature of film means these battles usually happen before the average consumer feels the need to upgrade their setup, meaning that most consumers can essentially enter a one hardware setup standard without having to worry about competition. Just because a new movie comes out on bluray and HD-DVD doesn’t mean it can’t be scaled down for a DVD release too. The same goes for VHS owners while DVD and Laserdisc fought things out.

While movies have generations of hardware competition, because such a relatively small number of consumers feel pressured to adopt early, by the time the mass market moves on they generally have a single hardware format future to move to. Anything released that is exclusive to one half of the new standard wars is also probably going to get released on the past generation, so there’s no pressure on movie fans to buy into both standards in order to experience the new piece of media. You’ll still get the same movie in all regards, besides possibly raw resolution, audio clarity and stability.

Beta_tape_sizes_2

Now, this is definitely pretty different to the current state of the video game industry. Due to the fact video games have to be processed in real time, it is far harder to produce high end products, then scale down the experience to past generations of media standard without cutting content. While a movie is likely to only see a drop in resolution, in order to port down a high end video game you’ll likely have to strip out physics simulations, particle effects, volume of content, rendering distances and whole features.

The speed at which video game technology is evolving and the speed with which new tech prices drop means that consumer affordable leaps in high end production come around every couple of years. Every time this happens, creators are able to create notably more impressive pieces of art, and the lack of scalability encourages consumers to buy into that new generation while it’s still in heavy competition with itself.

This race to adopt early ultimately leads hardware manufacturers to monetising the creation of exclusive content. Video game consoles are released before they’re truly at a consumer friendly price point, with operating margins for manufacturers as a result becoming so slim that high sales volumes are needed to remain profitable. Meet the current video game industry, a place full of pieces of media that are tied exclusively to certain manufacturers hardware standards.

The resulting fragmentation of media across multiple formats doesn’t help video games grow as a medium. Consumers, future critics and future creators on a budget are locked out of experiencing all the releases the medium has to offer due to the somewhat prohibitively high cost every five years or so required to keep being able to purchase new releases. We don’t even have a cinema release analogue where someone can experience the media without owning the hardware for a higher fee.

ku-xlarge

So, let’s get this out the way, I don’t think the idea of a one format or single console future is going to be viable for a LONG time. In order to be both viable for the industry, and advantageous to consumers, we need several criteria to be met. We need to hit a tech ceiling, perhaps the passing of the uncanny valley or similar, where video game technology has reached a stable peak that lasts as long as the average movie format lifespan.

More than that perhaps, we also need to reach an era where high performance hardware is affordable enough that scalability of media doesn’t detract from the core experience. We need to reach a point where resolution drops and audio bit rate drops are still a part of generational gaps, but where low end hardware is strong enough to run those experiences without cutting any features that noticeably alter the experience.

That era of video game development is right now very hypothetical, and a very long way from being a reality.

Still, just because a viable one console future is still decades from being feasible on a technical level, let’s take some time to look at the possible pros and cons of a hypothetical one console future in a world where video game technology has hit its admittedly high tech upgrade speed plateau.

Everyone could revel in the joys of playing Zelda games without needing a specific
Everyone could revel in the joys of playing Zelda games without needing a specific “Nintendo Box”.

The benefits to consumers of a one console future are pretty easy to imagine. All consumers would have equal access to video game releases regardless of who manufactured the box they purchased. Price competition and quality competition would shift from pushing hardware limits to polishing the hardware generation we had at hand, improving the quality of what we have rather than chasing a moving tech ceiling.

Perhaps most importantly for the medium, we would have less of a race to new hardware, which would allow creators to focus on the art of game creation rather than constantly learning new tech standards. It’s a widely accepted fact that toward the end of a gaming hardware generation, games made for a single hardware standard tend to hit a higher overall quality and a level of critical reception. Having a long term hardware standard means developers can get comfortable with a hardware setup and then just focus on making the best possible product in a known development environment.

As great as all that may sound, there are some serious drawbacks and questions to consider regarding the move to a one format future for video games. On paper, moving to a one console future would reduce competition to push the medium as far as it can go technically. While I’m positing a future where we have hit a video games technological plateau, it’s still worth keeping in mind this reduction to pure technical competition.

Too many choices.
Too many choices… Simply too many choices.

A hypothetical one console future would also likely need to agree on a single accepted set of controller format standards. Sure you can have your own brands of controllers and remap controls, but we would need an agreed number of buttons, style of sticks and other standardised elements. Of the three console manufactures currently this would stand to harm Nintendo the most, as their attempts to innovate with control schemes have genuinely been one of the driving forces of video game innovation over the last decade. That is something a standardised single format future would harm.

Lastly, we have to consider how PC as a gaming format would fit into this equation. Perhaps this one console format future would require these mass produced boxes to much more closely match PC systems in architecture so that all video games could essentially be developed for PC. You can have different strengths of box, but they should all play a scaled version of all software.

Wait a second, it feels like I’m describing Steam Boxes. Hmmm, could Steam Boxes possibly be a couple of decades ahead of their time as the blueprint for a one console future? I’m not sure, but it’s an interesting thought.

Lastly, it’s worth considering how portable and mobile games would fit into this discussion. Do we have to reach a point where console and handheld games can be scaled between those two formats? In many ways this sounds like the rumours of Nintendo’s upcoming NX being a hybrid console and handheld. Again, interesting food for thought and discussion.

While the concept of a one console or one format future is at least a couple of decades away from being viable, I think it’s definitely worth us starting to discuss the possibilities. Is this something we want? Is it even viable? I think yes on both counts eventually. Still, we need to start discussing how we would get around the currently unanswered questions.

On the LauraKBuzz Brand and Crass Humour

Hey all. This is going to be a bit of an off the top of my head post, so while I will try to keep it clean and concise, forgive me any rambling from the nature of the post.

Over the past few days, there has been a lot of discussion of my personal “crude butt lover” shtick and how it fits alongside some of the more serious industry criticism that I take part in. I thought it was worth giving a little insight into where the sillier aspects of my career came into play and what role they played in me getting to where I am today.

I found myself catapulted to prominence in the video games industry incredibly quickly. When I made the jump into full time video game criticism October 2014 the vast majority of my content was very serious in nature and slow to gain traction. I was a trans woman in the games industry who produced good quality serious critique, but who struggled to convert that into the kind of notability and invested fanbase needed to make a career move to Patreon viable for me. Those who loved my work loved it, but there was a limit to the speed at which I could grow my audience.

I was producing work that competed with what my contemporaries were producing, with limited ability to stand out from the crowd. As a trans woman in this industry, my success relied on me not only keeping pace with my contemporaries, but managing to exceed their audience and become someone whose industry voice had some unique, defining trait. That defining trait becoming “crude, but also intelligent, sex and butts humour” was never something I planned.

Without a doubt, the biggest factor in my Patreon becoming the financial success it needed to be, happening as fast as it needed to happen, is thanks to my working relationship with Jim Sterling. Jim invited me to be a permanent co-host on Podquisition around the time that I was first making the move to Patreon and the huge spotlight that shone on me made a huge difference to my solo career prospects. Still, it did not come without challenges.

Jim is a hugely popular, confident, loud and established media personality. Being invited to be the only woman on a show he was creating was a daunting task. While it may sound silly now, when the show was initially starting out I was terrified of getting drowned out by my pair of male co-hosts. Having listened to Jim’s past shows, most notably The Dismal Jesters, I was aware that if I allowed myself to naturally fall to a slot in the show dictated by my natural personality, I would likely end up in a Jonathan Holmes style position. I would either be the submissive joke foil, or just be drowned out of discussions.

I made a conscious effort before agreeing to be a co-host on the show that I was going to push myself as a personality and resist the easy option to fall into that dynamic on the show.

As someone relatively unknown, this strategy and personality have served me well while playing with the big dogs. It has allowed me to go toe to toe with some of the most outgoing voices in the industry, and have a unique and memorable angle while doing it.

I mixed what I was good at, serious critique of video games, with an outgoing, silly and brash persona. I was getting to be all of the things I’m normally not and it was a huge amount of fun for me as a creator. I discovered a love of combining the serious with the silly, this idea of juxtaposing traditionally silly topics with overly in depth and serious critique. I applied my usual level of serious critique to small games and topics that others might throw away as having no inherent discussion value. A perfect example of this being taking butts, and turning them into a vector to discuss serious topics regarding character design and narrative pacing. Creating serious from silly.

Here’s the thing, I’m well aware the brash, crude, silly aspects of what I do are not for everyone, and I respect that. That being said, for a lot of people it seems to have really resonated in a big way, which makes me unbelievably happy. I love that I can create content this silly, and have this many people enjoy it enough to fund a career of it.

So, where does this leave us? Well, I am under no false impressions of what my career is and why it’s successful. I’m also under no false impressions that this will ever be everyone’s cup of tea. All that really matters to me is that I am doing something I find incredibly enjoyable and rewarding, I can survive on the money it brings in and it has allowed me to have a memorable personal brand which has room for real growth within the industry. As a quiet, unqualified, aspergers and dyslexia riddled transgender woman in the video games industry, the fact I have carved out a niche, no matter how polorising a niche it may be, is more than I ever thought I would achieve.

Review – Volume

Mike-Bithell-Volume-5

As many of you who have followed me for a while will know, I was a big fan of Mike Bithell’s debut hit Thomas Was Alone. As a narrative focused gamer, I was won over by the game’s charming narrative and Mike’s focus as a developer on narrative over mechanics. Thomas Was Alone wasn’t mechanically flawed, but the game is unlikely to be remembered for it’s 2D platforming mechanics as much as it’s personification of basic four sided shapes. The charming plot of friendship and teamwork, the relatively short playtime and the ease of completion made it a game I came back to time and time again.

Going into Bithell’s newest release, Volume, I had a certain set of expectations. I went in expecting narrative to take centre stage ahead of mechanics. I went in expecting a game whose core narrative could be completed in a single sitting. I expected a narrative that had a steady level of quality and cohesive tone from start to finish. For better and for worse, that’s not what I got with Volume.

Volume is a 3D stealth game that definitely puts its focus on mechanics over plot. A loose futuristic retelling of the Robin Hood narrative, the game sees you enacting simulations of crimes in a VR environment and streaming your progress over the internet, in the hopes of sparking a national revolution amongst those worse off in society.

I’m generally not a fan of 3D stealth games as a genre. The lack of clearly defined visibility states, the difficulty of keeping abreast of the environment around you and the focus on level design dependant on clearing an area out before progressing just never gelled with me. I never bumped into any of these usual barriers to the genre with Volume’s core level set. Over the eleven hours I spent playing through the core campaign, which interspersed new enemies and non lethal gadgets at a very steady pace, I never once failed to enjoy Volume on a mechanical level.

Volume uses a series of visibility cones of varying intensities to denote visibility across the world. Employing an isometric viewpoint, you’re able to see a decently sized area around yourself at all times. If you stay out of visibility cones, or behind walls in less intense cone areas, you’ll be completely invisible to the world. Sounds produced by the player create predictably sized and visible circles of influence that make the concept of audibility much easier for me to visualise.

The selection of gadgets, a new one being offered every ten levels, served well to keep the gameplay fresh. Gadgets are introduced in isolation where they can be freely experimented with, ramped up in difficulty, mixed in with previous gadgets and moved to the standard repatoire all within a ten level arc. I was constantly being introduced to new tools and not only given enough time to learn them, but also allowed to move onto something new before it became too familiar.

While I’m glad to see Bithell not resting on his laurels and releasing a second game that places narrative over mechanics, this focus on mechanics over narrative has left Volume’s very ambitious plot to suffer in terms of polish and cohesion.

1__2_

Let’s start with what Volume’s narrative gets right. The overarching plot of Volume and the lore it sets up for England was certainly fascinating overall. The idea that the plot of Thomas Was alone would eventually lead to a nation turned Corporatocracy, political immigration stance analogues for non human beings and a city state system are a fascinating backdrop for a narrative about attempting to stoke an uprising.

The problem is that many of the finer details of this ambitious plot either fail to be adequately explained within the game, or suffer from the dreaded concept of ludonarrative dissonance.

While Volume’s plot attempts to invest players in the idea of a privileged male hero fantasy gone bad, much of the game’s final act fails to properly critique the actions of the protagonist in any meaningful way. The hero is confronted with the consequences of their actions and never really seems to take the time needed to properly weigh up the risks, rewards and morality of is actions. The idea of a mechanics based game mid way through flipping the hero fantasy on its head is genius, but the follow through just wasn’t there for me.

This all being said the performances in the narrative were all superb. Charlie McDonnell, Andy Serkis and Danny Wallace all do a terrific job. While there are inconsistencies in the larger plot, all the dialogue written for these actors is distinct and well directed. The soundtrack is also a very high point in the experience, working well to fit the atmosphere established within the levels. Voice over is paused when the music raises in intensity and continues where it left off when you move from one level to another, preventing narrative being missed by those fluent with the gameplay systems at hand.

Volume ultimately is an incredibly strong game from a mechanical standpoint, but I just can’t shake my problems with its uncohesive narrative. For a game with such rich lore and such a promising concept, much of the follow through is missed in the later arc of the game. Still, it should not be understated how much I enjoyed working through the game on a mechanical level. Considering that I never usually enjoy the genre, Volume certainly succeeded in keeping me excitedly playing longer than any 3D stealth game before it.

Disclaimer: I know Mike Bithell fairly well. He has made small recurring donations to my Patreon, as well as that of IndieHaven.com, a site I founded a number of years back. While these recurring donations were very small, it is important to acknowledge their existence. I reviewed the game based on code provided by Bithell.