Archive for the 'Arcade' Category

Everyday Shooter: What Is Music?

I’ve described Everyday Shooter as a music game. And certainly, shooting stuff produces musical sounds. But can we really describe the end result as music? A cat walking on a piano keyboard also produces musical sounds, but we don’t call it music. Unless, I suppose, it’s used as part of a deliberate musical composition — sampling can turn pretty much any sound into music, like the barking dogs in The Beatles’ Good Morning or the rattling of a door in They Might Be Giants’ Hearing Aid. The cat on the keyboard lacks intentionality, but by being sampled and placed into a work, it becomes at least as intentional as Duchamp’s urinal — as if that were a convincing argument.

But even with intentionality as a criterion, the sounds in Everyday Shooter occupy a middle ground: the individual sounds were deliberately chosen, but their arrangement is left up to the player’s actions, which are guided by a desire to score points and avoid death, not an intention to produce music. The player might as well be a random number generator. But random processes have been used in composition before. The only difference here is that the random component occurs after it’s left the composer’s hands. Or, to put it another way, it’s rather like windchimes. Do windchimes produce music? I honestly can’t answer that.

For that matter, perhaps intentionality isn’t all that important. Coincidentally, about a month ago, a friend emailed me with some youtube clips of the arcade games Pulsar, Qix, and Zookeeper, asserting “These games are better electronic music than most electronic music out there.” Of the first, he said “I have entire glitchcore CDs that sound like this, but not as musical” (emphasis mine). This for sounds that were created by a very similar process to the ones in Everyday Shooter, but were not intended to be musical by the player or the creator. From this point of view, the important thing is merely the way the sounds are perceived.

And that, for me, is where Everyday Shooter fails. As is usually the case when I play a game a lot, I’ve had the music going through my head when not playing. And the music that goes through my head is just the background track, without the incidental player-initiated sounds. So clearly, on an automatic and intuitive level, I’m perceiving those sounds as not part of the music. It’s possible that I would perceive them differently if the background music weren’t there, because the consistency of the background music is so much more musical (repetition being the backbone of music) that it drowns out any perceived musicality of the foreground. If so, it’s ironic, because the author clearly intends the background music to encourage us to think of the foreground sounds musically.

Everyday Shooter: Reaching New Levels

Well, I’ve reached the penultimate level: Earthworm, which seems inspired by Centipede. Mostly superficially, it must be said: there are segmented bugs to blast apart, and spiders appear here and there, but neither the bugs nor the player bahave like their arcade counterparts. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have thought it similar at all if I hadn’t been anticipating the appearance of a Centipede-like level, due to all the other references to arcade shooters of yore.

Deliberate attempts at reaching new levels in this game involve some tension between going after points to buy extra starting lives, and simply trying to survive — that is, aiming for eventual or immediate progress. There’s always a bit of this balancing act in any game where points yield extra lives, but usually it’s a wash if you lose a life in the process of gaining one, and that’s not the case here. I’m finding that I generally decide at some point what the purpose of a particular session is, and therefore what kind of risks I take for the big scores. It get interesting when I change my mind about this mid-match, when I’ve gotten further along than I expected and suddenly feel like I have to start trying to survive.

Everyday Shooter: Controls

Like I said before, I really knew very little about this game going in. One thing that I only just recently learned is that its original platform was the Playstation 3. Which means that it was designed for a PS3 controller, with its dual analog sticks. Which isn’t really all that surprising, given the gameplay…

Suddenly it struck me. I’ve been using the wrong controls. I had been using the keyboard, which limits me to eight directions of movement and fire, when I should have used my PS2 controller and USB adapter to get the intended 360-degree rotation.

I suppose I failed to think of this sooner because of the obvious Robotron influence. After all, Robotron used a pair of 8-direction digital joysticks. And for many years, in the days before dual-stick gamepads became standard, the best way to play Robotron adaptations or imitations at home was with a keyboard. 1This didn’t stop people from coming up with single-joystick solutions, but the results never had the feel of the original. The few existing console ports of Crazy Climber have the same problem. But Robotron is far from the only game to influence Everyday Shooter, or be referenced by it. Level 4, for example, draws heavily from Time Pilot, a game whose feel is more or less defined by the smooth rotation of an analog stick.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get my PS2 controller working under it. I don’t know why. The game makes provision for a gamepad under Windows, as evidenced by its options menu, but it just doesn’t recognize mine, no matter what I do. And this gamepad works without problems in other apps, so it’s not a hardware problem. Perhaps the game’s PS3 origins mean that it won’t accept anything so antiquated as a PS2 controller, even though it seems equivalent for this game’s purposes. At any rate, it looks like I’m stuck with keyboard for the time being, which makes certain parts harder than they should be. Fortunately, extra starting lives will compensate.

   [ + ]

1. This didn’t stop people from coming up with single-joystick solutions, but the results never had the feel of the original. The few existing console ports of Crazy Climber have the same problem.

Everyday Zuma

The title “Everyday Shooter” can be taken two ways. It can mean a shooter that’s ordinary, the sort of dime-a-dozen thing that you see every day, or it can mean something that you play on a daily basis. And that’s got me thinking: both Everyday Shooter and Zuma are built for everyday play in the second sense. They both seem to want players to engage them casually but over an extended period of time. But they encourage this in different ways.

There are common elements, sure. Both games are skill-based, which rewards frequent play as the way to keep your skills intact. And both games discourage extended play within a single session by providing limited lives, and making the player start over when they’re gone. Once I’ve reached or even extended the apex of my achievement, I don’t really want to get kicked back to the very beginning — at least, not until I’ve taken a break and cleared my head. Where they differ is in their treatment of permanent progress. In Zuma, progress plateaus. It lets you skip over chambers you’ve cleared, but progress within a chamber is transient. If, like me, you play the ninth chamber repeatedly without reaching its end, those sessions are effectively wasted, except insofar as they provide practice that increases your skill. Everyday Shooter, on the other hand, does not let you skip levels, but at the same time, no session is wasted. As long as you get at least one point per game, those points build up over time and eventually let you buy additional starting lives.

Consequently, Everyday Shooter has an implicit promise that you will eventually beat the game if you keep playing it for long enough, even if you have to buy hundreds of lives to do so. (I said before that the cost of life increased exponentially, but in fact it seems to be capped at 20000. I’m currently earning about 3000 per session, which means I’d get a life per week if I play the game once daily.) Zuma makes no such implicit promise, but has a high enough luck factor to offer players hope anyway — sometimes you catch a break and the game delivers just the right sequence of colors to let you rack up a massive Chain Bonus and beat the level easily. The difference is a bit like saving up your spare change versus playing the lottery. Or, to put it another way, continuous versus variable reinforcement. So, even though Everyday Shooter in some sense gives the player more motivation to keep playing every day, the motivation in Zuma is of a much more insidious and addictive sort. (And I don’t mean “addictive” in the positive sense used in game advertising.)

Everyday Shooter: Music

I’ve asserted that music is central to Everyday Shooter, but I haven’t gone into much detail. This is because I basically lack the vocabulary. I am not learned in the ways of guitar. Nonetheless, let me give it a try.

The first song, “Robot”, is fairly relaxed, with the background music mainly consisting of simple chords repeated to a rock beat. This is the one level where nothing actively tries to kill you; things made of rectangular boxes just appear at the edges of the screen and drift across, like in Asteroids. For the most part, they take one hit to kill, and produce a simple guitar twang when you do so. There is one type of thing that fires bullets, but it doesn’t actively aim at you. It’s also important to the music, because destroying it plays a six-note motif, the only real melody that this level has. The fact that this motif can come in at any moment probably explains a lot about the background music.

Song #2, “Root of the Heart”, is based around stationary, electrically-vivid blotches that shoot various things at you (fans of bullets, ships that home in on you, slow-moving clouds, etc.) The blotches are easy to hit, but require quite a lot of shooting, the precise amount varying with their size. As a result, the player spends a lot of time just dousing them with bullets. This produces notes in very rapid descending sequence, reminiscent of Indian sitar music — which the guitar has been adjusted to imitate.

The third song, “Lush Look Killer”, is the first one that has any real structure. It alternates between two phrases, one very melodic, a sort of country thumping, the other consisting of strummed chords. There’s a large and lumpy eye in the center of the screen. During the thumping sections, truck-like boxes bring stuff to the eye that makes it grow larger if you don’t stop them. (It’s a little reminiscent of Sinistar.) During the strummed sections, the boxes disappear and tiny eyes drift around the entire screen. For the duration of this level, at least, melody corresponds to purposeful action. Strangely, I don’t recall how the player’s shots affect the music here. The effect of the two phrases seems much more significant.

“Porco in the Sky” has, as you might expect, a sky-like look, with two suns drifting about, emitting flocks of dots with triangular wings that chase you. There’s a lot of echo on the music, which starts with a longish and twangy melody, repeated twice. If you focus on destroying the suns, it takes about the length of that melody to finish off each of them. Regardless of whether you do so or not, they disappear for the next section, another bit of lazily-paced strumming, during which you’re periodically attacked by a red biplane, similar to the one in Atari 2600 Combat. (Or three such planes, if you managed to kill both of the suns.) The plane is apparently the “Porco”, presumably a reference to Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso. After its time is up, there’s a reprise of the sun melody, accompanied by another sun. Pretty much the only sound the player generates during this entire process is that of destroying the clusters of winged dots, which emit a little two-note wail like a bird’s cry.

“Build 88” is next, based around an insistent “Kathoonka-thoonka-thoonka-thoonka-thoonka-thoonka-WAH-wah” motif. The music is fast, but ironically, the enemies (various sorts of tanks and tank generators) are not. Instead, they are numerous and unstoppable, which I suppose also fits the “driving beat” idea.

I’ve managed to get to the level beyond this, “Bits of Fury”, but only once. Consequently, I don’t remember the music. I remember the gameplay, though — mainly, you have to shoot red circles to make them blow up and destroy the massive quantities of stuff that’s flying through all the time and which would otherwise kill you. I suppose this shows that I was paying more attention to the action than to the music. You really need to play through a level a few times for both to register in a way that you can remember.

Everyday Shooter: Points

Everyday Shooter makes one really big departure from standard practice in shooters: in most cases, you don’t get any points for shooting stuff. In fact, you never get points just for shooting stuff. At most, shooting stuff releases square chips that you can then collect for points, possibly wasting valuable time or putting yourself at risk in the process — and these chips are the only source of points in the game. But most things don’t even release chips, unless they’re destroyed as part of some kind of chain or combo.

You might wonder why I care. I’m seldom concerned with score, unless it affects game mechanics somehow. Which it does. Certain milestones yield extra lives, of course, and while they don’t come as fast as in Robotron, I always seem to manage to get a few. (The first extra life is at 200 points. I’m not sure how it goes after that. I typically seem to wind up with something over 2000 points per game, but I don’t think I get anywhere near 10 extra lives in the process.)

More important are the unlockables. See, your points build up from game to game, going into a pool that you can spend on stuff. There seem to be three categories of things you can buy: graphical effects that make no difference to game mechanics, additional starting lives, and the ability to play specific levels in isolation without going through all the previous levels to get to it. (For that last one, you have to actually reach the level normally before you can buy it.) Obviously the first few lives are must-haves, but the marginal price seems to go up exponentially. (And I do mean exponentially. That word gets misused a lot, but not on my blog.) I can foresee a point when the single-mode levels become a more attractive expenditure: when I’m having difficulty mastering the most-recently-reached level and want to practice it without wasting time on levels I’ve already mastered.

Because, in the tradition of the arcades of old, there’s no permanent progress within a game. When you run out of lives, all you can do is start over from the very beginning, which becomes tiresome. I suppose the buying of unlockables is an attempt at finding a compromise between this uncompromising design and the more modern approach, where progress is regarded as your right just for playing a lot. And really, it works pretty well, but I think I’d be happier if it worked a little faster.

Everyday Shooter

Everyday Shooter is a title I’d heard before, but didn’t know much about: I knew it was abstract, and it had received some attention around the same time as Portal, but that’s about all I could tell you. Somehow I had got the idea that it had a great many levels, each with its own rules. That’s half-right — there are only eight levels, each more elaborate than I had been led to believe. And yes, each level does work a different way. The controls stay consistently Robotron-like, but they vary in enemy mechanics, and in particular in how you create the chain reactions that clear the most enemies and potentially net the most points.

I also wasn’t expecting it to turn out to be a member of that severely underpopulated genre, the Music Shooter. Instead of zaps and explosions, your shots produce notes, or even entire riffs, played on an electric guitar. These sounds become part of the music playing though the level, always an unaccompanied guitar piece, as abstract as the shooter itself. The underlying songs are linked to the levels’ structure, and in a way that suggests that the song, rather than the level, is the dominant element. Each level lasts exactly as long as it takes to play the song, and changes in what’s going on in the game are governed by shifts in the music more than by anything the player can do. The game’s creator even refers to it on his website as an “album”. I’d almost say that it turns shooter mechanics into a kind of dance, but really, that’s something that’s always been inherent in the genre — particularly in scrolling shmups, which share Everyday Shooter‘s unstoppably flowing nature. All too often, however, those games interrupt the flow by stopping the music and the action when the player gets hit. Everyday Shooter understands what it’s doing too well to make that mistake.

It’s definitely what I’d call an art game, which is a little ironic, given its origin. According to the author’s notes, it was created to get away from the mistakes of a previous project that he describes as “a ridiculous concoction of self-indulgent, games-are-art-theory-innovation wankery” by getting back to basics. But of course the basics are art. Like those Grecian urns that Keats liked so much, it’s an art born of human requirements. Theory is all very well, but its importance can be overstated.

Zuma: Sequelable?

The recent announcement of Zuma‘s sequel has also got me thinking about what a peculiar notion that is. To my generation’s grandparents, talking about a sequel to a game makes no more sense than talking about a sequel to a cheese or a hatstand. But this is because the word “game” has shifted in meaning. Modern videogames, unlike traditional games, are a narrative medium. A game can have a plot, and that’s all a sequel needs.

But does this really apply to Zuma? It has a plot of sorts, but it’s paper-thin, and about as important to the experience of the game as the inter-level animations in Pac-Man (you know, the ones where the ghosts chase Pac-Man across the screen and then he chases them back). There isn’t a trace of a story until you get past the third chamber, at which point you get some nonsense about an ancient prophecy and some sort of spirit guardian. (For some reason, prophecies seem to figure into videogame plots a lot, much like abducted princesses. Perhaps because inescapable fate is an easy excuse for constraining the player’s actions.) My point is, no one can seriously be expecting that anyone will buy Zuma’s Revenge to find out what happens next.

Rather, people will buy it for whatever new gameplay and graphics it provides. But even those can’t be too new. It looks like they’re keeping the fundamentals intact, which means whatever innovations the new one provides will be the sort that, under a different business model, would be provided as an upgrade to the original. The fact that PopCap is releasing them as something they call a sequel, rather than as an expansion pack, or even just an incremented version number (as a freeware game like Nethack would), is clearly a business decision, not an artistic one. PopCap knows how to sell new titles, not updates to old ones.

Zuma: No Progress

So, no sooner do I make a move away from Zuma than PopCap unexpectedly announces a sequel. I take this as a sign from the gods of gaming and synchronicity that they don’t want me to abandon it just yet, and who am I to argue with gods?

If there’s one thing that really separates this game from PopCap’s more recent titles, it’s that its Adventure Mode is actually hard. Of the other PopCap games that I’ve purchased since starting this blog — Peggle, Bookworm Adventures, PvZ — I completed two of their campaigns in a single day, and the other in three. I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to finish Zuma. I’ve been stuck at the same point for several posts now.

And yet, the point where I’m stuck is so very close to the end! This is the point where one wants to just charge through and finish the thing, but that’s exactly the wrong approach to take to a game like this. It asks the player to be patient, to keep practicing without any measure of progress — no virtual cash or experience points building up from session to session. I wonder if the sequel will add such things? It could be a significant way to extend the game’s appeal to magpies like me, but at the cost of changing the game’s character in ways that fans of the original might not like.

Zuma: Levels

I’d like to expand on something I said earlier: that the level layout affects how Zuma plays. I already pointed out how the geometry of the path makes some parts more difficult to aim at than others, but that’s a relatively small matter — I do occasionally fail to put a ball where I want it, but, as I’ve said before, aiming is not the game’s primary difficulty.

zuma-longrangeMore relevant is how the path allows or blocks shots. For example, consider the level called “Long Range”: the path is open on the right side, allowing the player to easily dispose of any balls that aren’t immediately useful. zuma-rorschachOther boards, such as “Rorschach”, make this convenience contingent on how you play: the path ultimately closes around you, but it’s possible to keep the balls from advancing that far, or to maintain a gap if they do.

zuma-quetzalcoatlAlso significant is the ability of the path to cross itself. We see this used to great effect in “Shrine of Quetzalcoatl”, where the part that the player can reach is quickly divided into three non-adjacent pieces. In the levels that simply spiral or zigzag without crossing, you pretty much always have access to the same balls, which is to say, the ones that have been there longest. The player comes to remember which colors are needed where, and this knowledge helps the player to act with appropriate quickness. But when the path weaves in and out like this, the run of two yellows that you remember seeing a moment ago may not be available at the moment.

zuma-sunstoneIt should also be noted that these crossings rely on the path going through tunnels. Balls in these tunnels are inaccessible even when there’s nothing blocking the way. “Sunstone” is notable for putting a tunnel near the very end of the track, exactly where it prevents you from doing anything effective at the game’s most desperate moments, when your marbles are about to disappear into the sunskull’s maw.

zuma-exodusBut the level designers don’t really need tunnels to do that. I just encountered for the first time the board “Zumaic Exodus”, possibly the last new level in the game. Its concept is so simple, I should have been anticipating it: it starts in the middle and spirals outward. Thus, it makes you deal with the newest additions to the board, while the oldest disappear out of reach. There’s a sense of helplessness there, as runs of color that you hoped to smash slip away, even though the player’s power to affect things really hasn’t changed all that much.

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »