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Column: Chewing Pixels

There Was a Young Lady Who Swallowed a Fly

September 30, 2009 4:00 PM |

scribblenautsGSW.jpg['Chewing Pixels' is a semi-regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by British games journalist and Flash game producer, Simon Parkin. Today, a look at how children trump adults when it comes to Scribblenauts.]

What’s the best way to get rid of a bothersome fly? It’s one of the first questions asked by Scribblenauts, the DS game that grants its player access to a dictionary of more than 30,000 nouns with which to solve puzzles. Type the word “Swat” into the game’s dialogue box and a sketchpad representation of the object will ping onto the screen, ready and prepped to squish the insect.

If pushed for an alternative answer, you might try, ‘Insect Repellent’ to shoo the fly away, or perhaps ‘Turd’ to lure it elsewhere instead. And herein lies the genius of this extraordinary database: where the vast majority of games give us a handful of tools with which to solve their conundrums, Scribblenauts offers solutions as wide and deep as our own imaginations. It’s a subtle yet seismic shift: a game that, rather than focusing on what you do with your tools, simply asks which you want to use, chosen from a catalogue of everything.

And yet, the disappointment is that many of the game’s tasks lack invention, posing somewhat vanilla, mundane tasks for you to complete: eliminate the fly, fetch a bouquet of flowers, tidy up the rubbish, make a packed lunch.

This is just one of the reasons that Scribblenauts, which is in at least one-way revolutionary, has received a somewhat lukewarm response from critics and consumers alike. While the technology is a sort of irresistible witchcraft, the application is often dry routine. It’s like someone gave you the power to move mountains and then forced you to spend all day shunting shopping trolleys around Tesco’s car park.

COLUMN: 'Chewing Pixels': Downgrade Complete

July 7, 2009 8:00 AM |

['Chewing Pixels' is a semi-regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by British games journalist and Flash game producer, Simon Parkin. Today, a look at a satirical game that reveals much about the state of game design.]

The evidence that videogames may yet emerge from their period of extended adolescence comes not from the dizzying realism of the next Forza, nor from the unrivaled spectacle of the forthcoming God of War, nor even the news that Lara’s improbable cleavage is scheduled for a sober reduction in the next Tomb Raider.

Rather, it's in the emergence of a new breed of satirical web-game, one most famously exemplified by last year's Achievement Unlocked, which poked fun at gamers' obsessional pursuit of Xbox Achievement points and PlayStation trophies.

These snappy experiences parody not the grim clichés of gaming’s stories, settings or visuals but rather the more subtle underlying systems that drive them or, in the case of Achievement Unlocked, surround them. They compel us to play via the very same hooks that big budget titles employ, but their exaggerated presentation and irreverent context encourage us to evaluate the worth of these mechanics and, in doing so, question the very reasons why we find them so irresistible.

Upgrade Complete is the latest such satirical game in this vein. It begins by presenting players with the bare bones of a shoot ‘em up; a blocky, silent retro game whose music, graphics, menus and even developer logos must be bought and upgraded one by one with in-game currency.

At first glance Upgrade Complete appears to be making fun of downloadable content, those upgrades - new costumes, weapons, characters and levels - released by a developer for a modest fee after their game’s initial release. After all, until you purchase a humble loading bar you can't even start this game (the developer 'lends' you $1000 to make this initial purchase).

But as you play on, the game’s target is revealed to be a more substantial and pervasive one: that of the in-game upgrades that furnish our characters with better weapons and abilities, a feature found in almost all contemporary videogames from Fallout 3 to Call of Duty 4.

COLUMN: Chewing Pixels: 'Lest We Forget'

June 19, 2009 4:00 PM |

['Chewing Pixels' is a semi-regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by British games journalist and Flash game producer, Simon Parkin. Today, a wargame producer doesn't quite find the perspective he was looking for from a consulting veteran.]

“So I’d just like to start by thanking you for agreeing to help us out on this project. It’s very much appreciated by the team.”

“Well, that’s absolutely fine Mr… Mr? I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name”

“Caldwell. John Caldwell. I’m senior producer here at Eternity Games. It really is a privilege to have you here. We’re confident that the unique and personal insight you can provide us into this moment of history will prove quite invaluable to our product.”

The older man shifted a little in his seat, causing his walking stick to slide to the floor from its leaning position on the chair’s armrest with a resounding clack. “Well, I’m not sure about that Sir, but I’m quite happy to help out in any way I can. Your game is about… it’s about the war, yes? Are the kids really interested in that sort of thing these days?”

“Absolutely. And we think that by consulting some veterans we can add greatly to the verisimilitude of the experience we're creating. This kind of thing makes for an excellent back-of-the-box selling point, you know. Young people are keen to learn what it was like to serve on the frontline and games like ours offer them a unique and realistic chance to witness both the horror and the glory of the battlefield."

“Well I can’t say I especially approve of that Mr Caldwell, but anything that might help prevent a young person from going to war and having to see the things that I see is just fine by me.”

America’s Army, Full Spectrum Warrior and all the other military recruitment games flashed across Caldwell's mind for a moment. But just as he started to wonder just how many young men had been drawn to real war by way of virtual battlefields, he tore himself off that thought trail and back to the matter at hand.

COLUMN: Chewing Pixels: 'A Tale of Destiny'

April 27, 2009 4:00 PM |

['Chewing Pixels' is a semi-regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by British games journalist and Flash game producer, Simon Parkin. Today, a fictionalized account of a real-life tragedy from the heart of Akihabara.]

“IRASSHAIMASE!”

In the fifth minute before he is hit by a rental truck, Kenshin Kitano allows himself a slight nod at the shop assistant’s near-hysterical greeting. Eyes down, he makes his way to the back of the electronics store, around the stack of dusty peripherals for forgotten music games and idiot train simulators.

In the corner there's a set of crumpled, tragic dance mats, all the bright plastic detritus of a long gone Japanese videogame boom.

In the fourth minute before he is hit by a rental truck, Kenshin Kitano makes a beeline for the bargain tray, entertainment platter of the student gamer. Clack, clack, clack, he flicks the cases forward in quick succession, making staccato snap decisions as their titles flit past his eyes: no, no, maybe.

Cracked jewel cases holding broken games: the forgotten work of long-gone studios. If their creators could have seen their creations then as they are now, would they have persevered in making them, he wonders? Probably. Everything and everyone ends up on a bargain tray one day or another, right? Doesn't stop us.

In the third minute before he is hit by a rental truck, Kenshin Kitano’s fingers pause on the second to last jewel case. Tales of Destiny: a middling RPG stacked behind a misfiled two-year-old Idol CD. 200 Yen? With the sidequests he can probably draw it out to sixty hours playtime which works out at, er, nearly 20 minutes per Yen. That has to be the cheapest escapism in all of Tokyo, he congratulates himself.

COLUMN: Chewing Pixels - 'The Infatuation'

April 1, 2009 4:00 PM |

['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time, a non-joking April Fools update about deep gaming obsession.]

If games are lovers then our promiscuity knows no bounds.

For many gamers, their relationship with the hobby is characterized by a string of flings: transient passions expressed through a fortnight’s worth of devoted and frantic interaction. But, aside from those controlling, abusive marriages that MMO players find themselves in, the fling usually remains a fling. In almost every case, a game exerts only a short-term hold on the head and the heart, one that loosens once the end credits roll or the zeitgeist moves on.

Many gamers have become addicted to the fling cycle. The pre-release hype reaches an irresistible fever pitch, deepening the pleasure of the release. Then, during the days following consummation, forum impressions are devoured, the to-ing and fro-ing of discussion articulating our own experiences and crystallizing our own opinions.

Perhaps Youtube videos are digested during lunch breaks like cherished home movies, screenshots pored over like worn photographs, lover’s guide FAQ techniques noted and absorbed. Then, at night we tussle again, learning one another’s form and function, exploring the boundaries of the experience, our skill and confidence growing with familiarly.

So it is with all video games that grip us and it's the memory of these firework love affairs and the promise of future ones that keep us invested in the hobby, which acts like a pimp to our appetite.

But rarely does the fling blossom into a sustained relationship. Of course, there are those titles, the Wii Sports and Rock Bands that make continued appearances at the weekend when friends come to dinner, but these are games of convenience, not ongoing infatuation.

COLUMN: Chewing Pixels: 'Video Game Critic Slain Over 7/10 Review'

February 20, 2009 4:00 PM |

['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time, a surprising press release sheds light on a dangerous profession.]

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Video Game Critic Killed Over 7/10 Review

A white, male video game reviewer has been murdered at his home in South London.

Charlie Drummond, a 30-year-old print and web journalist, was hacked to death by between 12 and 20 members of the gaming forum New-Gaf in his bedroom on Saturday morning.

According to police, his attackers had become riled at a review Drummond had written of the, at the time unreleased, videogame, Gears of Killzone 2, a product which the writer valued at 7/10 in a review printed in the Wedge Magazine two weeks ago.

A friend and fellow journalist told the BBC that Drummond’s killers had carved a 7/10 into his forehead using a DS stylus, a reference to the value judgment that apparently led to his demise.

While most of Drummond’s attackers are at large, one man, known at this point only by his online handle ‘Dutka-Fan’, handed himself in to a police station on Sunday morning. The police are yet to issue a statement, however one officer confirmed to the BBC the suspect had “not played the game in question yet”.

A discussion thread on New-Gaf, which ran to 60 pages prior to Drummond’s killing, was filled with expressions of dismay from forum members who accused the writer of “indulging [his] massive ego in an underhanded attempt at getting attention”, arguing that Drummond should “not be allowed to do things like this” and, in reference to the score he awarded the game, elliptically claiming: “This...is...a...lie.”

COLUMN: Chewing Pixels: 'In Another Castle'

February 4, 2009 4:00 PM |

['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time - a sad tale.]

The candle snuffed itself out, a wisp of smoke curling upwards and around the wooden beams of the cottage. He sat, body hunched, forehead rested dead upon the kitchen table. In front of him a row of empty bottles lined up like icicle soldiers, beside them a scrumpled note rocked in the near imperceptible breeze that breathed down the chimney and about the room. The fire was turned to embers. Through the numbness, he felt his body growing cold.

There were no tears: he had known this day was coming and so its arrival brought with it little surprise. He had conjured the sense of loss he now felt many times in the past, curious of the pressures and pains it would one-day inevitability exert on his heart. As such, he was familiar with today’s feelings, even if their intensity was far keener in reality than in imagining.

On the floor next to the chair lay a crumpled dress. It was pink with a rustling skirt, peach buttons and a ribbed bodice. There was a hollow in the centre of the bust, the hole left by a plucked jewel.

Earlier, before the drink and fury, he had torn the dress from her wardrobe, held it against his face and breathed in so deeply his lungs burned. Then he crushed it in his arms until his strength ran dry.

A rap at the door.

“Who is it?” he croaked, raising his head from the table.

“It’s-a-me. A-Luigi,” came the muffled reply.

“It’s open.”

“Brother,” Luigi nodded, closing the door behind him with a click.

“Here,” the first man said, voice brimming with sorrow, pushing the note across the table toward his sibling.

Luigi un-scrumpled the piece of paper, and in a low voice, read aloud what was written on it:

Opinion: 'Chewing Pixels: Children of the Revolution'

January 13, 2009 4:00 PM |

['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time, a video game-related adventure in late-night London.]

It's eleven ‘o clock on a Saturday night and London’s drunk.

She gets like this from time to time, usually at the weekend. Sometimes the booze manifests itself in shouts and swagger, in furious fistfights sicked up by bar doors onto the pavement outside. Tonight though, the city’s wrapped in a gentle sort of inebriation, an exaggerated swaying on the tube ride home, eyes clenched shut with concentration: down stomach, down.

Five minutes walk from Piccadilly Circus’ bright lights and slogans sits the Trocadero, the capital’s largest remaining amusement arcade. A hen party, all crooked tiaras and bleared mascara totters past the giant double doors: these tall escalators and polished floors are no place for cocktails on high heels. Inside, rows of arcade machines buzz and bleep, attract mode sequences beckoning the curious with the promise of pixel adventure.

Kids stand idly by with studied nonchalance, glancing at player performances here and there with self-conscious dispassion. Five minutes with Guitar Freaks and maybe you’ll be a rock God to them; five minutes with King of Fighters, you’ll probably be a laughing stock: either way, you won’t know.

Upstairs, to the right of the central escalator that runs like a spinal column up from the building entrance to its summit, stands a Dance Dance Revolution cabinet. It holds pride of place, dominating the scene with its bulk and neon and noise. It must still be the operator’s highest earning machine to warrant such a valuable location.

All around a crowd of teenagers and young twenty-somethings loiter. They are not here to play. They are here to perform and to be performed to. Here, in this spot, at this moment, London is sober. And, yes: she’s about to dance at you.

COLUMN - Chewing Pixels: 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'

December 21, 2008 8:00 AM |

['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin.]

“Wow. This is excellent wine.”

She is exactly right. This is excellent wine.

In fact, that’s not the half of it. This is an excellent restaurant. The excellent food we are about to order will have been cooked from excellent ingredients by an excellent chef and we’ll eat it to the soundtrack of an excellent jazz trio (whose standards we’ll pretend to know by name).

The waiters, perfectly poised between attentiveness and professional detachment will provide us with excellent service. The loud bits of conversation that float over from our neighbours’ tables will be spoken by an excellent clientele, one that brims with that cozy warmth that comes from relaxing in excellent surroundings.

Outside it is cold and slush, a city returning home from a day’s Christmas shopping, shivering and spent in service to capitalism. But inside, here at this table, in this glass, all is peace and excellence.

Column: Chewing Pixels - 'Second-Hand Memories'

November 22, 2008 8:00 AM |

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time - why video game retail might be important for the soul of gaming.]

“Um, hi. Do you think you could tell me anything about this game? I, er, found it on the bottom shelf back there.”

“Gunstar Heroes? Hmm. I’ve not heard of that one. Let me take a look.”

This is Mad Andy. We’re not friends and that’s certainly not a nickname of my invention. Rather, it’s the name Andy’s given himself and, by extension, his shop, an independent, second-hand video game store based in South London.

Mad Andy pulls a dog-eared phone directory from the shelf behind where he’s sitting, and plants it with a dull thud on the counter with that officious sense of purpose some men display when called upon to give advice.

Tongue peeking from the corner of his mouth, he flickbooks through its tatty pages, every now and again calling out the name of a game that catches his attention as it flits past his eyes alphabetically.

“Altered Beast, Another World, Bomberman, Contra, D,…”

The book’s a catalogue of every game ever, or so it seems to the thirteen-year-old me. More accurately, it’s a price guide compiled by goodness–knows-who, listing the buy and sell rates for games current and past. Armed with this tome, every independent videogame store knows how much to buy in a second-hand game for and how much to mark it up in order to secure fair but essential profit without undercutting market rates.

As well as prices, the book also boasts reviews, again, written by God-knows-which sorry freelancer. These pithy one-line assessments are accompanied by a score out of five, two pieces of information that gives the salesman everything he needs to issue customers with an authoritative recommendation.

“Elite, Frogger…Ga…Gi…Go. Ah! Here we go: Gunstar Heroes. Hmm. Well what do you know! It’s a good one. Look, right there: ‘Fast, frantic, frenetic scrolling shoot ‘em up. Five out of five.’”

Our sorry freelancer is a fan of alliteration.

“Whoa.” I look down at the back of the box in my hands. “Treasure? Never heard of them.”