The Wind-Up Culture Blog

September 14, 2013

On the Extraordinary Polish of Fez

Filed under: Video Game Reviews,Video Games — Joseph @ 4:40 pm

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FEZ Game-Play

I am struggling to find the words that adequately describe the simple joy that is Fez. I think the word that I most often find in my reflection is complete. That is, I think Fez is a more polished and “whole” game than many a modern Triple-A title.

Concerning Publishing Unfinished Games

It has become too common to see games placed on shelves before they are truly finished. I could point the finger at any number of triple A titles (mostly in the MMORPG and FPS genres) wherein the release of the game is done before production has really honestly finished. But the most brazen releasing of unfinished games seems to come from the Independent scene where often games seem more like tech demos then completed titles.

These unfinished games are hobbled together and released while their ideas are still weak and unrealized. They lack the true polish that is necessary to fully explore their game-play potential. Graphics are unpolished with no eye for creating a cohesive aesthetic. Game-play consists of repeating the same simple mechanic over and over. And content is either procedurally generated, random, or simply lacking in complexity and attention to detail.

These poor unfortunate children are cast out into the marketplace and I am still surprised to see so many titles getting praised despite their severe flaws.

Exploring the Observatory in FEZ

Unity of Ideas in Fez

When I look at Fez what I see is a gestalt that creates an exceptional sense of unity in presentation. The game is whole and explores its ideas sufficiently to fully showcase the game without exhausting our temperament. I am reminded of the original Super Mario Bros in that it is a game that could be beaten in a short time but yet each piece — the art, the arrangement of the platforms, and progressive difficulty was a creative expression that created an ensemble that far exceeded it’s parts. Indeed, had one platform been off, had one level simply felt as though it was a hap-hazardous assembly of ill thought ideas the entire idea would collapse. But we do not see this with Fez, instead we see a kind of excellence found only in minute attention to detail that encourages us to immerse ourselves in the scene feeling secure that it will not disappoint us by failing to reward our explorations.

In essence, we have a game whose levels encourage a kind of tranquil enjoyment of each scene — the dog laying to sleep, the strange hieroglyphics adorning the walls, and pixel-perfect skies. The developers behind Fez certainly felt the need to reward such careful exploration as without the desire to wander about the levels solving Fez’s mind-boggling puzzles becomes nigh impossible.

That is, the process of rewarding for exploration is built into the game. On one level spinning a globe reveals hidden treasure maps. On another turning a valve lowers and raises the water table on a completely different level. Puzzle pieces reveal that what looks like decorative glyphs in the game may be a part of solving a larger puzzle. Rather than punish us for wandering beyond the linear paths and only rewarding us for progress, Fez rewards us for returning over and over again to the same places to look again. Our approach to each level is hyper-linear and this hyper-linearity creates a sense of choice not found more linear narratives.

Sidescrolling Game-Play in FEZ

The Game-Play of Fez

The stages of Fez go on far beyond what I typically expect of an independently produced title. We find such a variety of unique realms that rarely repeat their themes — haunted mansions, seasides, jungles, and libraries.

Each stage reveals such a wealth of history into the eight and sixteen-bit eras. We see tetris blocks built into the levels, Owls that look remarkably like those found in Zelda, and a story that winks at the 2D “worlds” that exist inside our computers as our hero sets off to save the world by collecting cubes all the while electronic tears appear all about him in the world.

The idea of exploring a 3D world collapsed onto a 2D plane while still allowing the user to change the plane of collapse is not a new one. Mario explored these visuals in the various Paper Mario titles. Portal, likewise explores the bizarre possibilities of physics-breaking that video game space can produce. So, like so many other games before it, Fez is not something truly new but an exploration of something that has come before.

But it is not the exploration of something new that makes Fez, or many great games great. It is once again the fact that Fez is complete, polished and a unified example of it’s kind.

August 18, 2013

Steam Summer Sale 2013

Filed under: Video Game News,Video Games — Joseph @ 9:10 pm

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Outside of a select handful of console titles that I absolutely adore (Zelda, Mario, Shin Megami, Okami, Team Ico), most of my gaming goes on via the PC.

The Steam sales are thus regular points of interest in which I indulge myself in buying far more games than I could realistically play through in a year.

To save myself from myself, I established a series of simple rules that I (mostly adhere to) where Steam sales are concerned

  • I may only follow the summer sale.
  • I may only make one purchase per day.

So here’s my list of this year’s purchases:

  • The Witcher 2
  • Just Cause 2
  • Ys I & Ys II Chronicles
  • Borderlands 2
  • Torchlight III
  • Dust: An Elysian Tail
  • Civlization V Gold
  • Alan Wake Bundle
  • Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition
  • Tomb Raider Collection

So there’s 10 purchases for 10 days! (Although Alan Wake gave me Alan Wake and American Nightmare and Tomb Raider gave me the entire 10 game series).

May 2, 2012

Portal 2: A Rave Review

Filed under: Video Game Reviews,Video Games — Tags: , — Joseph @ 9:12 pm

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Okay, Portal 2! What could be said about Portal 2 that wouldn’t already be known by anyone who stumbles upon this blog?

Portal 2 is amazing? That’s a given since this is a product of Valve we are talking about here. Valve just does a very good job on it’s games and Portal 2 is no different. This is a product that has been polished until not one little error remained. Every line of dialog is a pleasant suprise, every puzzle an innovative joy and I am only sad that it is so short.

For those who may have been laying beneath a rock — Portal 2 is a first-person puzzle game built using Valve’s Source engine, that is the same engine responsible for the likes of Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead, and Half-Life 2. Except instead of focusing on run-and-gun gameplay, Portal uses the first-person perspective for an entirely different take. Your gun shoots portals. Left click and it sets an entrance on a wall. Right click anywhere else and you create a doorway that will take you from one space to the next.

It’s like playing in an M.C. Escher painting and the challenge is simply being able to visualize the problem of moving between point A and point B. At first this is rather simple. Shoot a portal on a wall, put another one somewhere else and hop through. But the puzzles become increasingly challenging as the game progresses requiring a great deal of creativity upon the player’s part to simply navigate the levels.

And as a companion to your trials you get a collection of some of the most delightful, twisted characters that I have seen in a game before: GlaDOS, Wheatley, and Cave Johnson exist to torment, mock, and serve up a kind of science-experiment-gone-wrong scenario as Chell (our protagonist) delves into the bowels of Aperture Science to uncover where it all began.

If I am beaming about the game it is because it is just that much fun. It has been a long while since I hit a game that I just could not put down and Portal 2 is definitely hard to put down.

April 25, 2012

Sunshine (the movie not the phenomena)

Filed under: Anime & Film,Anime & Film Reviews — Tags: , , — Joseph @ 7:40 pm

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The Sun
I came upon the film Sunshine by way of the exemplar Moon. The latter being perhaps one of the best instances of hard science fiction that we have seen in theatres since 2001 A Space Odyssey. Sunshine, while a very good film, cannot live up to Moon simply because of some very basic plotting issues. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting science fiction flick.

Sunshine works on the premise that in fifty-some years the sun’s light has begun to dim plunging the earth into an eternal winter. In order to revive the fires of the sun, Icarus was sent to detonate a payload with “the mass of Manhattan” into the sun’s surface. This mission, for unknown reasons failed. The film begins following the second mission (Icarus II) as it retraces the steps of the Icarus I in an attempt to follow up on the same mission.

This is decidedly a psychological film — one that draws upon many past science fiction themes of the lonesomeness and vastness of space and how this conveys the minuteness of humanity in the cosmos. It is particularly interesting how involved the main cast gets into the sheer importance of their mission and the willingness to throw everything away for their mission. That said, they are very human characters, not the machismo heroes of the action-suspense genre we often see out of Hollywood.

The sun, our antagonist, plays so many roles for our heroes as they address it both as a villain who threatens the ship and with a kind of spiritual reverence held by various pagan sun gods.

The very name Icarus seems to very important to understanding the film. In the old Greek myth, Icarus is the son of Daedalus the inventor. The two are imprisoned onCrete and in a stroke of genius Daedalus constructs wings for the two to escape the island by flying through the heavens. Daedalus warns Icarus that the wings are fragile and made of wax which will melt if he flies two close to the sun. Nevertheless, Icarus is too taken up with the excitement of flight and flies higher and higher until his wings melt and he plummets into the sea.

Herein we can see the fate of Icarus the ship — a work of technological achievement sent on a mission to visit Apollo himself. In flying so close to the sun, it chances total destruction by it’s firing furnace and only by a massive aspis-styled that reflects the sun’s light.

Returning the mythical elements, the crew seem to be in awe of the sun. They spend hours watching it’s furnace glow, talk reverently about it, and dream nightmarish dreams about it’s flames.

Scene Reminiscent of 2001 A Space Oddyssey

The only issue with Sunshine? Besides introducing the ridiculous cliché of an accidental oxygen shortage, the third act forgets who it’s antagonist is. The sun, such a perfect villain for a man-vs-nature plot is supplanted by the mad captain of the Icarus I who boards the ship and turns an otherwise amazing film into a run of the mill slasher flick. The captain, burnt by the sun’s rays, and having lived alone aboard the Icarus I for seven years believes the sun that the sun is God and that it has commanded him to abandon the mission.

While I can appreciate the sun-god motif in the film and the interesting questions that Sunshine brings to the table about how we have related to our star over the centuries — the rabid fundamentalist captain is out of place in this film. He suddenly interrupts our story and transforms it into a battle between science and fundamentalism or man-vs-man which is not altogether what we have been promised in the first two acts.

Indeed, the violence that the deprived captain inflicts upon the crew is a merger of horror into an otherwise fulfilling film. I do enjoy the occasional cerebral horror film. However, in Sunshine I was not expecting a razor-blade wielding maniac to suddenly appear and displace the sun from it’s dominant role of antagonizing our heroes and I do not think his addition adds anything to the film other than to pad it out an extra twenty minutes.

Despite the plotting flaws, Sunshine is an excellent example of how cinematic science fiction can rise above the empty plots ofHollywood action-suspense flicks into truly masterful pieces that explore our relationships with being. I highly recommend watching it.

April 18, 2012

Okamiden – Final Impressions

Filed under: Video Game Reviews,Video Games — Tags: , — Joseph @ 6:16 pm

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Okamiden Boxart

Today I finished an adventure that I had started out on just a mere 24 hours or five months earlier: Okamiden.

My initial apprehension towards Okamiden rapidly faded as I began to get into the game and realize that in it’s complexity it was far more than just a scaled down rehash of the seminal PS2 Okami. From combat, to brush strokes, to atmosphere and plotting the game has nearly everything that it’s big brother has.  


My initial impression dwelt heavily on Okami’s scaled down gameplay at it’s lack of features. I now have to eat these words. Although the button-mashing aspects of combat are scaled down to just mashing A to attack, the ease of using brush strokes on the DS makes the spirit brush an integral component of late-game combat. As I began collecting slicing, lightening, fire, and wind strokes I soon found myself combining them into effective combos: wind to knock an opponent on the ground, rain or lightening to slow and trap them, then close in with a couple of bombs and basic attacks. I would say that by the end of Okamiden it had the combative depth of Okami.

Dungeons were likewise exemplar. Puzzles made liberal use of companions special abilities and combinations of brush strokes to activate devises. I found myself taking my time in many of these places to really explore all the rooms, solve the extra puzzles and pick up every last scrap of artwork I could find. I don’t think I have so thoroughly immersed myself in the exploration aspects of a dungeon crawl since Ocarina of Time.  

Aesthetics & Plotting

Okamiden is gorgeous and I am rather surprised that the aesthetics of Okami could scaled down so perfectly to fit onto the DS’s small screen. Yet, here it is completing with music, sounds and tantalizing natural scenes.

Okami suffered one issue. It jumped the shark in its plotting. The early gameplay introduces eight-headed dragon Orochi and for the large part of the tale we believe that we are somehow fighting against this beast. Yet, we defeat him two thirds of the way through the game and are suddenly a new demon turning the progression of the story completely on it’s head. The result is a feeling that the later half of the game had been rushed and lacks the detail of the first portion of the game. The ending seems a tacked on after-story to the quest to lift Orochi’s curse.

Okamiden, on the other hand, feels like a much more complete narrative. The major plot turns are well foreshadowed and we expect these surprises — Kurow’s betrayal and the appearance of Akuro make sense from a narrative perspective.

I feel that Okamiden is a complete adventure title. Unlike the DS Zelda titles which I think attempt to be minor iterations in the overall Zelda lineup — Okamiden simply feels like a full fledge title and not a scaled down hand-held port of it’s predecessor. I hope that it sees some good success on the handheld platform and look forward to the continuation of this franchise. Kuni’s tale deserves to be told.

Okamiden Combat

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