Ostensibly a casual puzzle game, Stacking’s novel game mechanic, distinctive art style and colourful world will draw in almost everyone. You take on the role of Charlie Blackmore, the youngest (and smallest) of a family of matryoshka, or Russian nesting dolls if you prefer. The Depression-era story is one of child labour as Charlie must rescue his siblings who have been pressed into service by a corrupt industrialist.
Set against this backdrop — complete with silent film inspired cutscenes to progress the story — the game itself is a light-hearted romp rather than heavy-handed social commentary. Charlie can do little alone, but has the ability to jump inside the other dolls that populate environments. Doing so lets him use their abilities to solve puzzles. The draw is that each puzzle has multiple solutions and while finding one or two is usually swift, others will take some creative thinking.
If you breeze through for the story alone, Stacking may feel somewhat slim even at its low downloadable price. However the urge to collect the unique dolls and discover all the puzzle solutions encourages return trips to completed areas and will keep most players engrossed for several hours.
While Tim Schaefer’s critically-lauded creativity has not resulted in the financial success it deserves, it’s great to see that Double Fine has found a way to push through fresh and interesting game design (between this and last year’s Hallowe’en-themed Costume Quest) in a small package that reduces the innovation risk associated with large-scale releases. While their next big project gestates, this provides developers with a creative outlet and keeps fans happy, so it’s hard to see a downside. Perhaps more studios should take note as the downloadable game market continues to mature.
We all have grand plans for when we’re in charge. Instead, this series of posts embraces the little things that would make the world a little better for everyone. Or just a little less infuriating for me.
DECREE II: When I rule the world… …Hollywood remakes will be limited to the US Midwest.
I have clearly mellowed with age. In the past I railed absolutely against Hollywood remakes and would have banned them outright. However someone explained the reason for their existence and the folly of my outrage very succinctly: “they aren’t made for you.” He went on to explain that there are people living in the US Midwest who, throughout their entire lives, will never see a subtitled film. Is it really better that they never be exposed at all to the ideas and concepts explored in foreign cinema? If I go and see one of these remakes, which is not really intended for my consumption, that’s my own fault.
I found myself in reluctant agreement. The problem is, of course, that the gargantuan budgets mean these films are pushed out to the entire world and marketed in such a way that many of the original films are drowned out. Many of you will know my pet hate here is Vanilla Sky, which embodies all I hate about remakes* and yet most people have never even heard of its superior (if less slick-looking) predecessor, the Spanish Abre Los Ojos (“Open Your Eyes”).
In the Midwest, fine. Here in the literate world, not so much. We can read subtitles and we can watch the originals. Limiting geographic release will greatly reduce the income from such remakes which will undoubtedly reduce the financing. All that saved money can be pumped into proper marketing and distribution of the originals, which will become more profitable in turn. And once people start watching more foreign fare, they may find it contagious.
I accept this plan is not without drawbacks. We would lose stellar remakes like The Departed (you did know it was a remake of the Hong Kong Infernal Affairs trilogy: they made that clear, right?), and perfectly adequate remakes like Let Me In might drop in quality. Yet that is, I would argue, a small price to pay.
* Vanilla Sky did not just take the film rights; it also nabbed the original’s lead actress — one Miss Penelope Cruz — and made her act in English, as if this would somehow elicit a better performance rather than a stilted one in which she was too focused on her lines in an unfamiliar language. The most obvious sign of the director’s cavalier disrespect to the source material lies in the name change. Not only does “Vanilla Sky” have nothing to do with the film itself, he revealed in an interview that it was simply a title he’d always wanted to use — in fact he nearly gave his previous film that name!
Once upon a time there was a girl. This girl had a special power. She could create magical hats from the softest threads that glistened with vibrant colours in the sunlight. She made herself a hat in rich shades of green, streaked with gold if you looked at it just right. It was soft, it was comfortable and, of course, it was magic. Her two evil cousins were jealous of her hat and they each plotted to steal it for themselves. The girl, being a generous sort — and not at all evil unless she had not been fed — decided she would craft another hat. This hat, she explained, would be given to the winner of a contest.
For you see, the source of the girl’s powers lay in her secret addiction to a witch’s brew which could only be prepared with ingredients from a far-off land over the oceans. The winner of the contest would be the first to journey to the Wise Wizards of Whittard to obtain these ingredients and hand deliver them to her. The girl knew the task was almost impossible for, although her cousins lived close to the Wizards, they had only recently made the Great Journey to see her, and it would be many moons before they could afford to undertake the perilous route once again. Unfortunately she had not accounted for their cunning.
And so it was that some weeks later the girl received a strange parcel addressed to her in spidery handwriting. Surprised and intrigued the girl set the box upon a table in her kitchen and opened it. Peering inside she let out an unholy scream, horrified to discover the ingredients she craved along with a dismembered hand!
People’s first question is, unsurprisingly, “where on Earth did you get a dismembered hand?” The answer: Amazon marketplace. They seriously have everything there. Following the facebook discussion which inspired this endeavour, I had a hand ordered by 3 o’clock and it all felt rather Lebowski. The hardest part was keeping it all under wraps once it was boxed up and in transit. Admittedly I was slightly curious as to whether the package would arrive at all, what with these crazy restrictions about not sending body parts through the mail. Prior to posting it, naturally I had to take some shots of the hand around the flat, which I can now share with you in a little gallery called After The Outbreak.
Over the weekend I was invited to a Nintendo event showcasing their forthcoming 3DS handheld console. They were taking a small group approach to the demo space they rented near Brick Lane. We were first ushered through two rooms with short live-action presentations to warm us up. The first of these was an impressively detailed Street Fighter stage with a choreographed Ryu versus Ken fight. My inner child could barely contain his glee. The second was distinctly less successful and frankly somewhat unnecessary: a darkened Resident Evil themed room, half lit with actors “protecting” the group from attacking zombies. Unlike the preceding room, audience participation doesn’t work quite so well in what might have been cheesy fun merely to watch.
We then proceeded to the demo rooms with dozens of 3DS stands featuring a range of games. First the hardware itself: this is undoubtedly the best build quality for a Nintendo handheld thus far, feeling solid and robust with a larger 3.5″ 3D screen at the top and the now-familiar 3″ touch-sensitive screen below. The top screen is of the glasses-free autostereoscopic variety and, while the viewing angle is narrow, playing alone one can remain within it comfortably. Interestingly the adjustable 3D effect is not simply on/off, but rather features a slider much like a volume control which adjusts the depth of the effect. Naturally their demo sets were mostly set to the maximum, but I found a middle setting much more comfortable and it’s likely where most people will learn to default. The analogue “circle pad” is a welcome addition (though just the one, like the original PSP, while the PSP2 has upgraded to two analogue controls). I found the placement of the flat Start and Select buttons below the lower screen made them a little fiddly to use. Finally there are no less than three cameras, one front-facing and two rear-facing which can even be used to take 3D photographs, though I did not get a chance to see the results.
So is 3D the proverbial — and literal — game changer? It is undoubtedly a gimmick but, for the most part, one that works. Unsurprisingly, no photography of game footage was allowed, since the 3D effect would be lost. Racing and flying games naturally benefit from the additional dimension as you hurtle off into the screen. Street Fighter looked particularly impressive with its background pulled away and the action in the foreground. It also neatly utilised the touch screen for easy execution of special moves, making the hardcore fighter more approachable to a casual audience. Resident Evil is undoubtedly part of the launch push because of the franchise’s status, but I don’t think it forms a great showcase for the new hardware. With enemies’ up close the graphics consistently look pixelated (the 800×240 resolution is really only 400×240 per eye) at which point the 3D does little to improve immersion.
Interestingly the one game that took the technology beyond a gimmick into truly fresh territory was the augmented reality offering. Placing a card on a surface, the 3DS’ twin cameras can identify it with depth perception, and create a virtual gaming space wherever you like. Looking through the 3DS screen you can then move around in three dimensions and interact with it. In this case it meant moving around to aim at targets and ultimated defeating a dragon which required maneuvering behind it to hit certain spots. Hopefully we will see more of this originality from developers once they become accustomed to the hardware.
The demos we experienced were all too short to give a good indication as to whether prolonged use would cause eye strain. Certainly I think setting the 3D slider to a middling level will be more comfortable but I would not be surprised if eyes do become fatigued faster. When leaving, I also noticed reps having to turn away a couple who had brought with them a young child, since Nintendo is clearly very aware of the ongoing debate as to the potentially detrimental effect of 3D on young eyes. Marketing a console where the key new feature is not to be used by children will be a difficult line. Similarly the StreetPass system, allowing data automatically to be transferred between consoles in proximity, even while asleep, is an interesting touch that requires careful marketing. Although I think the minimal data held by the console ought to leave little to fear, with privacy concerns on the rise the words “send data without you even knowing” from one rep were alarmingly ill-chosen.
Overall I came away with a decidedly positive impression. A more powerful hardware refresh means better games even in 2D, as evidenced by a Resident Evil game, while the 3D varies between gimmick and — at its best — some genuinely original innovation. Marketed well, there’s no reason the 3DS shouldn’t follow its predecessor’s monumental success. Whether the 3D remains, or we all switch it off within a few months, remains to be seen.