Odin Sphere cover art['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at video game albums, with a album of three examples.]

Video games are most often compared to movies. They are usually long, monolithic works that tell a single cohesive story. Sometimes, however, a video game release will break this mold and present an experience that is not quite so unified. These games are less like movies and more like music albums, where a group of thematically related pieces are collected in one release.

Some video game albums are more like rock operas, where the pieces connect to form one story. Others are concept albums, where the games share a theme or mechanic but are separate entities. Still others have little connection beyond being released at the same time by the same group. In the spirit of the video game album, this column will discuss three different releases, one of each type: Odin Sphere, Kirby Super Star, and The Orange Box.

The Rock Opera

Odin Sphere, developed by Vanillaware for the PlayStation 2, is a rock opera. Each section of the game has its own main character, storyline, and special game mechanics, but the stories of the characters intertwine, and two final sections serve to complete the plot. The game is operatic in theme as well as structure; the story is an epic one, concerning godlike monarchs, dragons, valkyries, and the armageddon.

The developers of Odin Sphere chose to keep the component works very similar. Each character's story uses the same basic gameplay, the same graphical style, and the same setting. The only things that really differ are the characters' individual chronologies and a single special power that each character has.

Odin Sphere could have been made into a single, unified game. The developers could have organized the events in chronological order and had the viewpoint character shift, or chosen a single viewpoint character and made him or her more prominent in the storyline. By splitting the story into separate segments, the developers encourage identification with each character and highlight the multifaceted nature of the game's storyline.

Kirby Super Star title screenThe Concept Album

Kirby Super Star, developed by HAL Laboratory for the Super Nintendo system and later re-released in an expanded form for the Nintendo DS, is a concept album. It consists of nine games, all starring the character Kirby. Seven of the games use the standard Kirby platforming mechanic, while two of the games are simple mini-games that use the Kirby characters.

Super Star's platforming games all use the same basic engine and mechanics. Kirby can run, jump, and fly, as well as inhale enemies and gain their special abilities. However, the structure and goal of each game is different. "Spring Breeze" and "Dyna Blade" are the most basic: the player must get to the end of a series of levels and fight bosses along the way. "Revenge of Meta Knight" adds a more prominent plot and a time limit for each area. "The Great Cave Offensive" features a treasure-collecting goal, and "Milky Way Wishes" replaces the normal swallow-to-copy mechanic with a system that lets the player switch between any discovered abilities at will. "Gourmet Race" and "The Arena" are the least substantial of the games: one is a platform racing game and the other has the player battle the other games' bosses one after the other.

Super Star serves as an exploration of the potential of the Kirby formula. The variations in theme and gameplay between the component games serve to give each a different feel and focus. "The Great Cave Offensive" focuses on careful exploration, while "Revenge of Meta Knight" is fast-paced and dialogue-heavy. Each game would seem simple and short if released on its own, but combining them provides a varied experience that makes exhaustive use of the potential of the Kirby series.

Orange box box artThe Disconnected Album

Valve's The Orange Box is a release for the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 that includes three main games: Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Team Fortress 2, and Portal. Each game is an independent entity, with different characters, settings, and gameplay styles. Their only similarity is that they use the Source engine. Still, in a way, the games are related; they represent the full range of play styles supported by the engine.

HL2:E2 is the quintessential single-player powerhouse title. It combines fast-paced, action-focused combat with exploration, physics puzzles, a dense story, and cinematic set pieces. TF2, on the other hand, is lightweight and comedic multiplayer, with cartoon-styled arenas for pick-up-and-play team battles. Portal completes the array with gameplay that is almost actionless. It provides a short experience full of puzzle-solving and dark humor.

On its own, HL2:E2 would face criticism for its lack of multiplayer, TF2 for its lack of single player, and Portal for its length. By combining them into a single title, The Orange Box, Valve creates a package that allows them to provide a carefully-crafted, specialized experience in each game and eliminates the need for a hybrid title that is mediocre at all things.

Why Not a Single?

So what are the advantages to this album approach? The first is variety. By giving players a range of experiences in one box, a title is more likely to appeal to more people for longer. Rather than playing one title for ten hours and getting bored, a player can play three titles for six hours each and be entertained the whole way through. Even if a player finds one of the games in the album uninteresting, she can move on to one of the other games and have a new experience.

Second, it is usually cheaper in terms of time and effort to make several games that share the same engine, art, and/or setting than it is to make the same number of games separately. The same amount of game can be made with fewer resources. Additionally, once the core codebase for the games is complete, the teams for each game can be split off from each other, which simplifies communication and lets large development teams avoid the problems that arise with the point of diminishing returns on team size.

Finally, the album allows an aesthetic statement to be presented. The titles within the album can represent segments of a larger story, offer variations on a theme, or simply compliment each other. One can truly have the best of both worlds if each world has its own game.

The titles mentioned here are not the only video game albums out there. Squaresoft's Live a Live and Cryptic Sea's upcoming No Quarter are obvious examples, but the definition could also include re-packagings like Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt or Super Mario All-Stars, as well as minigame collections like Wii Sports or the Wario Ware series.

The one-big-game-in-a-box approach is not the only way to make video games. Video game albums, anthologies, and short pieces all have their place in the art form. By using the album approach, developers can provide greater variety, save effort, and make a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

[Gregory Weir is a writer, game developer (The Majesty Of Colors), and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at Gregory.Weir@gmail.com.]