Saturday, April 30, 2011

[Not Your] Everyday Shooter

A few obvious releases aside, most indie shmups - especially western releases - tend to fall a bit short from being noteworthy entries in the grand timeline of shooting games. Many are too slow, or too lackluster, or too much of an intensity plateau, or something else that prevents them from standing out. They aren't something you'll remember, a game that allows you to take experiences with you when you're not playing anymore. Nostalgic games aside, a long-lasting shmup needs to know exactly where it's coming from and exactly where it's going. One such title is Everyday Shooter by Jonathan Mak, a delightful breath of fresh air to come to PS3 and PC.

Seriously, Abstract?
Described by its creator as an "album of musical abstract shmups", it's... well it's basically that. But there are hundreds of "abstract" shmups out there, many being created in such a style because their creators aren't quite sure what to do with visuals, or feel they can't create something more tangible, or perhaps they legitimately want to push the medium and visual style to complement the gameplay.

Kenta Cho's games immediately come to mind, a marriage of abstract colors, shapes, and sounds combined with an overwhelming array of lights, movement, and good ole fashioned bullet dodgin'. In Everyday Shooter, Mak takes things in a different direction, instead using his visuals and audio to create a narrative that is told in the space between the bullets.

To start things off, the player controls a square. It kind of warbles around as you move, but it's more or less a square. The real treats come from how enemies present themselves, how they attack, and how you can make them all blow up. There's a hidden trick in each of the 8 levels to chain together an explosion or combo to both destroy many enemies and to get a score boost (in later levels you'll end up saving your life as well). These instructions are not provided, their solutions all the more rewarding when discovered without the aid of the all-too-tempting Internet.

On top of each level having different enemies and chaining patterns, they also are played almost completely differently, as if the player is jumping from one game to another. And yet they're all tied together because of the soundtrack, consistent controls, and the on-going unspoken relationship between the player and the environment.

He Had One Guitar
The music and sound effects themselves need special mention, as they all come from a guitar. Distortions and other tubular effects are applied to create some variety, but from start to finish, the only sound you'll ever hear is a 6-stringed plank of wood with some holes here and there. The dynamic range of tracks and sound effects clearly demonstrate the versatility of a guitar as the end-all device for which to craft our audible experience.

Simplicity for Simplicity's Sake
The controls are your standard twin-stick duo, two pairs of four keys on the keyboard if need be. There are no powerups, no bombs, and no continues. The only things to collect are energy bits, left behind by destroyed enemies. Collect enough and you earn an extra life. It's simplicity like this that only echoes the charm and transparency of the game and its message. Your focus is clear and your goals obvious, thus allowing you to make your mark and perform without unnecessary distractions.

Story Through Experience
The ways in which enemies and bullets are used to tell a story are just ingenious, in each level. I would think that personal interpretations will vary from player to player, but here are a few elements that I personally enjoyed:

Level 2 is a network of hubs. They connect to each other, working together to put an end to your dominance. Each time you destroy the main HQ, they rebuild their community, only this time more powerful, with new weapons and a more tightly packed neighborhood. Not to say that you're the villain destroying their creation, but this simple visual representation of connectedness demonstrates motivation, willpower, determination, and (my favorite) hustle.

Level 3 is a level without bullets. In their place are robots, all controlled by an all-seeing eye. The reversal of the robots' directions halfway through the level is mirrored by the guitar's chord scheme being played in reverse. It's this subtle touch that helps guide the narrative along. By the level's end, the eye's vision is blurred, its reign diminished as it makes its final blink.

Level 7 is such a stray away from the rest of the levels that it feels like a calm before the storm (more on that below). It's a serene world of worms and raindrops, bringing the scale of your world and the tensions involved to insignificant sizes. Despite quite a few hectic moments to be found here, the experience captures the soothing repetition of a light drizzle.

Level 8... what do I say about this? You fight the wind. Spoilers, folks, but the final boss is wind. I don't think I've ever seen that before. In any game. The way to know where it is is to pay attention to how it affects the objects around it. The fact that you can fight the wind and win is more than enough incentive for me to want to play through the game again just to exact my justice on that invisible foe who so often prevented my deserved victory.

Review Score:
I really didn't want this to come off as a review, but rather an incomplete list of reasons why this game excels at what it set out to do. Calling it "Everyday Shooter" was just another tongue-in-cheek decision to help set this game apart from the constant flow of mediocrity we too commonly put up with.

If you haven't played, and if you like shmups, then you owe it to yourself to buy this gem and just enjoy yourself. Everyone else should either buy it too, or load it up again and re-experience what you already knew was enjoyable. It's by far the most fun I ever thought I could have with a square.

...Okay, maybe second most fun.

Here's a low-res clip of Level 3. It's kind of sad to only see low resolution captures of this game from 3+ years ago. Alas.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

Friday, April 1, 2011

That Was The Sound Of You Winning

I recently read through this plea to Roger Ebert in defense of videogames being art, despite his popularly permanent claim that they never were, nor will they ever be. I really don't want to get into that discussion, not only because no one has ever made a good case for it either way, but because humans are still having trouble figuring out what "art" is in the first place, let alone if a videogame can be considered one. I bring this up because of a mention of Radiant Silvergun in that letter, noting the change in audio during the final battle against the human-like mass of all evil in the universe (if confused, please go play). At that point, I was again reminded how important sound is to an experience like that. It's probably the most important factor in a videogame's success.

What Did I Just Listen To?
As I've heard in many places, "The best sound design is transparent." That is, a sign of truly successful audio engineering in an experience is when the audience/player doesn't complain about it afterwards. Listening is passive. You can't focus your ears like you do your eyes to something visual; you can only pay attention to it more (and to other senses less). It's this reason why sound is the easiest way to subliminally get into a person's head without him or her knowing. And if that sound was meaningful for play? Then it'll not only enrich the experience, but make you remember it well after having played.

We should all be aware of how sound is used in movies: Orchestras tell us how to feel at any given moment, regardless of on-screen content. A lack of music lets us know that the current moment is important (or someone is about to appear in the mirror behind the supporting character who's about to die). The hero's gun is always louder than the enemies' guns. All punches and kicks are amplified so you can hear how they feel to the recipient. I could go on, but I wanted to address audio in games.

Hearing Is Fun Again
Games today look pretty cool. They have a way to go before we finally say, "Sweet, graphics can no longer improve." As for audio, the surface has barely been touched. It's pretty easy to make music for a movie, since that movie will play out identically every time. You can shape the music specifically to make every ounce of the movie stronger through smart sound decisions. Games, however (obviously), will not be the same experience between any two people. This is why it's so much more complicated to create that perfect experience. While one player may get a pretty good string of audio in his playthrough, another may get stuck in an area and hear the same segment loop over itself to the point of disgust. This is why scrolling shmups are the closest to being able to control an environment, as the developers will know exactly where in the level you'll be at any given time.

So I'd like to take a closer look (listen?) to some of my favorite levels from shmups I'm sure I've linked to far too often by this point, pointing out areas that help improve the experience through audio. I'm not saying that these following examples are the height of human accomplishment in audible excellence. I'm also not saying that other games never even tried. Most AAA games today have so many fancy audio techniques going on that I'm proud to see (hear?) so much effort being put into something we'll never visualize. However, they're not shmups so I'm not talking about them.

Radiant Silvergun

As mentioned in that argument for games as art, this segment of the game makes a drastic change from epic synth orchestra to a choir of sadness. It was a perfect switch to cement the fact that the rest of humanity and existence is gone by this point, and only you are left in this world to destroy that which created hatred (spoilers? Seriously, just go play). This is the only one of my examples that is just a looping sample, but in contrast to the rest of the game's soundtrack it makes a deep impact. Also of note is how certain audio motifs from the main theme are still buried within the harmonic schemes heard here, avoiding a complete sense of disconnect.

ESP Galuda II

The way the music starts in the first level was actually a selling point for me importing this game for lots of money from Hong Kong. I know this genre of electronic JPop-y music isn't up everyone's alley, but there's some smart stuff going on. The beat doesn't really kick in until the player gets his first powerup. The music takes a breather just as the first large enemy explodes, creating a sense of wonder in what was just accomplished. The finale of the piece doesn't conclude until the player has finished off the miniboss. The most complex portion of the music starts when the screen floods with enemies/bullets for the first time. All of these cues to the gameplay hidden in the audio have been a staple of Cave's games in recent years, so not only do these practices exist throughout the rest of this game, but they can be found in almost everything they've put out in the last 10 years.

Death Smiles

This one is just weird. Though to be fair, this is a game centered around Halloween and general ghosts, ghouls, and goblins. The final boss, closely resembling Death (complete with scythe), is accompanied by Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The song has always been an icon of grim times, so it's no surprise that it's used here. I'm only pointing this out because the rest of the game's soundtrack was totally original in composition. This kind of took a gamble to break the 4th wall and remind you that these developers have been doing homework and researching how to make your experience better. And I know this has been done many times in games over the decades, even with this piece in particular. I'm just saying it worked well. It made the experience creepy. It's possible they tried to create something original, but similar to Bach's piece, failed, and just used his since it's in public domain now. Either way, it successfully creates the perfect mood against a pretty menacing final boss.


I would have to say that all of Ikaruga's tracks are beautifully composed to match the experience going on. The music here not only helps to enforce emotional connections to what's going on, but also plays a vital role in providing cues for when certain patterns are going to appear (for score hounds like me, naturally). This level is by far the most complex (visually), and the score here does an excellent job of capturing that chaotic nature of movement, interaction, frustration, and hopefully success.

Listen Up
So the next time you recall a game you love, try thinking about the music that went along with it. It's likely you'll immediately be whistling main themes and boss battles. This is not only because you heard them so many times, but because you enjoyed those experiences. You've heard a lot of annoying commercials in your life, many times, but to ask you to recall their jingles would be a little more difficult (thank goodness).

And the next time you play a game, don't bother paying any more attention to the audio than you already do. After all, it's supposed to be transparent. It's likely you won't even be able to spot the best uses of the medium. And for that, I'm glad.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]