20 June 2021

Too much content

Photo: Nintendo

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is such a good game but there's something that has led to the point where I'm stuck with it because I don't know what to do! There's so much content: quests to do and places to see and it's overwhelming.

For some reason the need to see and get everything on one playthrough has became a thing for me and I hate that. It's hard to enjoy a game when you're constantly thinking about things that are coming and not the moment you are living (or playing in this case).

I guess it's more to do with how our culture works nowadays - you need to have access to everything at once. As younger I would play same games over and over again and experience them in different ways - now that needs to be done on the first playthrough. When there s so much to play why return to games that you already spend time with?

This might be only me -issue but its an interesting phenomenon at least.

Photo: Nintendo

I had this same problem with Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Super Mario Odyssey but managed to finish bot with brute force - I still enjoyed both of the games (and Breath of the Wild too) but I had to admit myself that I'm not the one to 100% games - I like stories. But then again, I've grown with games that are more or les story-driven shooters so... 

Just something that I've been thinking about.


11 June 2021

E3 2021 Hopes & Dreams

There is only one thing that I want form E3 this year:

Half-Life 3.

I would also be happy to get a new Fallout game or something Left 4 Dead or Team Fortress related, but I'm pretty sure that none of that is going to happen for a while...

To be honest, I would like to see some new and interesting single player games with old school FPS mechanics. Co-op and multiplayer is all fun and stuff but a good and polished single player campaign beats everything to the ground. For example, Outer Worlds has been one of my favourite games lately and a sequel would be cool. I just need a good sci-fi game to be happy!

But I guess that multiplayer is the thing right now. Multiplayer, skins and unlocks and all that stuff. I'm not really sure anymore because I haven't been following what's going on the gaming world lately - I've been too busy playing games.

And that's what I like about E3 and other gaming conventions - it's fun to know what are the latest trends in the gaming.

The fact that E3 is virtual this year is pretty cool, because there is no chance to gather like that because of the pandemic. It also opens doors to those who haven't been able to get there previously for any reason. Maybe the future of gaming conventions is virtual? Who knows?

Anyway, now I need to get back to my Animal Crossing island and pull some weeds.

06 June 2021

How 7 Days to Die made me feel scared again

I love horror. It's one of my favourite genres and aesthetics, but there's not many games that make me feel scared - I might get spooked by a jump scare or get little bit tense by the good atmosphere, but it's never something that really makes me feel nervous. It's more like just ''this looks and sounds good but why should I be scared of it? It's fiction!''

Truly the last game (or in fact a demo) which made me really uneasy was one of the first ones I ever played: Half-Life: Uplink. I remember playing it in mid 2000s in a small room with an old computer, and the first encounter with headcrab zombie was enough to give 12-year old me nightmares. And to this day I think that Half-Life games, especially the first one, are masterfully crafted horror experiences. But as I got older, the spookiness didn't work on me anymore.

And then I played 7 Days to Die. This game makes me seriously uneasy - and I love that. There's something special about the game's crusty graphics and clumsy gameplay which makes it truly scary at some times. It feels that you're never safe, even after you have locked yourself in the highest spot of your base, because zombies will tear everything apart if you give them a chance. And the fact that you may just hurt yourself deadly by accidentally bumping on your own spike traps just makes me nervous - I need to be on my toes all of the time.

I like that. It's fun to try to keep yourself alive in a hopeless situation - because if you do it makes you feel like you can achieve anything in life. And if you die, you can always try again (unlike in real life). 

30 May 2021

Oblivion and the magic of not fast traveling




The Elders Scrolls IV: Oblivion is pretty good game. Sure, it's old and clunky, but that's the charm of Bethesda games to be honest. But what's the best part of the game?

Travelling. I just love to ride my horse from town to town and get to know locals, find some secrets and sell stuff. Reading a in-game guide book to familiarize yourself with the town in question and then exploring those small places, still full of interesting people and places, is something that really stands out in Oblivion for me. I don't really care about fighting or the main story line, the side quests (like following a person for days and days) are far more interesting! Though I enjoyed exploring few of the first caves and playing kind of an archeologist, but that became boring pretty soon.



Oblivion is the first Bethesda game - or an open world game in general - which I decided to play without using fast travel option. That has really made the world much more... real? It might be boring to travel across the map with a horse or by walking, but at the same time it gives a new approach to the game. You do some quests and tasks at the one part of the world, spend some time there, and when you are ready you travel to the next place to get your rewards or move on with main story. It's like you're really there!

And then horses start levitating and the illusion is broken. 




23 May 2021

Revisiting Saints Row IV

 



In 2015 I said this about Saints Row IV:

''Saints Row IV feels like it's only recycling old ideas and quickly put together - something in its visual style makes my head hurt on a longer game sessions'' (Review)

...and all these years I've been thinking how bad game it was. For some reason in my head I created this fantasy of ''worst possible game of which I hated every second of''. But is that true? Not at all.

I decided to replay Saints Row IV earlier this year - I had fun revisiting The Third so I decided to give the sequel a chance too, even though I was sure that I would hate it Yes, hate. Years ago I didn't enjoy it because it wasn't anything like The Third, but now I found it being even better than the previous installment. It has certain charm with its weird sci-fi world - a perfect sandbox for chaos without consequences. And that is the magic of Saints Row IV: you pretty much do anything you like without having to think ethics of it! Cause who would think ethics when playing a game about murder and sex... 

Not me, not me...



But why did I enjoy Saints Row IV more this time? That's probably because now I played it as Saints Row IV and not just as second The Third. I really learned to like the superpowers and meta jokes. Especially the superpowers make this game fun - flying through Steelport and stomping on aliens is almost therapeutic during the time when you really can't do anything outside.

I'm happy I gave this game another chance - it's the superhero movie for my liking (and I pretty much only enjoy the original Spider-Man trilogy or 90's Batman movies).

I also put together this little video:


16 May 2021

The thin line between diegetic & non-diegetic sound in Portal

Video games can be an immersive experience. With great sound design and memorable music, they can affect the player in many ways and the feeling of ‘’being there’’ can be tense. In this essay I’m going to analyze sound and music in puzzle game Portal and investigate, how diegetic and nondiegetic sounds are used in the game in question.

According to James Buhler, David Neumeyer and Rob Deemer, diegetic sound means every single piece of music and sounds that the character can hear in the reality of the movie, or in this case, game. Non-diegetic on the other hand means the sounds and music that the audience (player) hears. (2010). In Portal, to examine these concepts is very interesting, as the audience – the player – takes a bigger role than just viewing the story, as they are actively taking part to it and sometimes even creating new events.


Portal in a nutshell

Portal is a video game developed and published by Valve Corporation (former known as Valve Software) for Microsoft Windows, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2007. Later it has been released also on mobile platform Android and on other computer operating systems like Linux and OS X. The main focus in the game is solving portal-based puzzles while A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) voice tells you sarcastic jokes and guides you through the game. Player spends most of the time in ‘’test chambers’’, which are located on the research station called Aperture Science. As I don’t want to spoil the game more than it’s necessary to analyze the music and sounds, I’m not going to discuss about story much more. Game is pretty short, it took me about one hour and thirty minutes to play it, and according to speedrun.com, the current world-record on completing the game is seven minutes (2017). Of course, the whole idea of the speed run scene is to complete games as fast as possible, but I still find that worth to mention.

There are two shown characters in the game: Chell, player’s character, who doesn’t speak a word during the gameplay, and GLaDOS, a computer A.I. voiced by Ellen McLain. There are also hints of other characters, but all that’s shown of them are only writings that they’ve left behind.


Soundtrack

Portal’s soundtrack is composed by Kelly Bailey and Mike Morasky. While the music is mostly dark ambient and instrumental, it includes also one song called ‘’Still Alive’’, composed by Jonathan Coulton and sung by Ellen McLain. I’m going to return to this particular song later on this essay. Soundtrack is released outside the game three times, first on Valve’s own collection called The Orange Box Collection (Valve, 2009), which includes various soundtracks from their games. In 2014 Valve released the soundtrack for free on their digital distribution platform Steam, and now the soundtrack has been released on the vinyl by Mondo in 2017. It’s also been released on a massive collection by Ipecac Recordings on music distribution service Spotify including also its sequel’s, Portal 2 (2011), soundtrack.

Game’s soundtrack is mostly minimalistic, electronic ambient score music. Score music is term for the music, that’s made specifically for the movie or game (Chion, 1994). It’s creating mood of being alone in the giant, weird research station, and in some ways, it reminds of horror movie music. During the main events music takes turn to more energetic and ‘’heart-pounding’’ style, being almost like trance or some other similar electronic music genre. This happens only few times during the game, so it really makes the mood and atmosphere change during the twisted story events. This kind of music is sometimes called as adaptive music (Timms, 2016).


Diegetic sounds in Portal

Player’s character, Chell, can hear many different sounds in the game’s world. There are lots of mechanical noises made by different apparatus in the test chambers, for example elevators and electric barriers. She’s also able to hear the GLaDOS through speakers, even though it might feel like the A.I. speaks inside of her head. This impression is broke during the last section of the game, where it’s clear that GLaDOS is speaking through bad quality speakers outside the chambers. Chell can also hear turret’s speech, sometimes even not seeing them.

Most of the speech in the game comes somewhere outside of the Chell’s and players view. Later in the game Chell meets previously mentioned turrets, and eventually she’ll meet GLaDOS, getting to know the voice that she’s been hearing during her adventure. GLaDOS’ voice is de-acousmatized, as the source is revealed to the player character in the end of the game (Chion, 1994), and it’s not possible to tell during most of the story where her voice is coming from.

There is also some diegetic music in the game, and it can be heard already in the beginning of the game. Music is played through little radios, that are scattered throughout the test chambers, and they play instrumental Latin styled version of the credit song, ‘’Still Alive’’. The familiar tune becomes somewhat relaxing and welcoming little thing during the game.


First radio you’ll encounter during the game. Source:

<https://cdn.wikimg.net/en/strategywiki/images/8/89/Portal_Radio_1_start.png>





Non-diegetic sounds in Portal

For the player, there’s lots of sounds that the played character can’t hear but player can. One example is the click-sound played when you press one button. It’s meant to demonstrate to the player, that they can or can’t interact with some objects. As the sound is familiar from the many other Valve’s games, it’s pretty safe to assume that it’s part of the game engine and not something that characters can hear in their minds.

The ambient music is only heard by player, as it’s not the part of the reality of the game and is more or less just there to create the mood. Music is sometimes almost non-audible, and it’s possible to think that it is part of the world’s atmosphere. We are speaking of imaginary environment, so of course it’s possible that the ambient music can be there in the world, but as the game is trying to be somewhat realistic I don’t think that’s the case.


Player as a character

Games differ from the films as in games you are (mostly) in control of the one or more characters related to the story. That creates an interesting dilemma whether or not the sounds you hear as a player are also sounds that your character hears. You are the character, so your ears are theirs too. When speaking of the sounds and music, this goes sometimes to very weird places. How can you know that your character isn’t wearing earphones and listening the ‘’soundtrack’’ while going through the game world as playing in the first person view (FPS) doesn’t traditionally let you see characters head?

Of course, we can assume that’s not the case, as we take many games as some kind of interactive form of movies. Still, it’s worth to mention, that in games player takes a bigger role than being just neutral viewer. Because of this, it’s sometimes hard to recall which sounds are diegetic and which ones are non-diegetic. Player takes a role of actor in some way, but with more ways to affect to the what’s happening on the screen. But as Portal is very linear game, and if you play it like it’s meant to be played, everything important to the story happens eventually. You can for example stay at the same place or refuse to do something, which actors probably can’t do if they want to get their salary. You have even the possibility to exit the story and never come back, but where’s the fun in that?


‘’Still Alive’’, the diegetic and non-diegetic song

The credit song of the game, ‘’Still Alive’’, exists in both game’s reality and our reality. In the game, it’s played on the radios that can be found almost on every level, and the distorted, Latin styled instrumental version can be heard. Song is also played at the end of the game while credits are shown, and you even get the lyrics to sing along. Different versions of the song are released on many releases, and there are at least two different sung versions on Valve’s official music releases.

Song itself is sung by Ellen McLain, the voice of GLaDOS, and the vocals are edited at the same way as the A.I.s voice. Lyrics are based on the game, and there are little notes of the story events and even hints of other Valve game, Half-Life. The lyrical and vocal aspect makes song very interesting as it’s supposedly something from the game’s world, but it’s existing in our reality, as normally this goes other way: we’ll take some pre-existing song from real life and put it on reality the game or movie, as a source music (Chion, 1994). In the case of ‘’Still Alive’’, we get something that’s not real, but instead it’s made real for us through playing the game and ‘’living’’ the story.


GLaDOS. Source: https://theportalwiki.com/wiki/File:Glados_ending_monologue.jpg


Conclusions

Portal includes a lot of diegetic sounds, but as many games, it’s playing also with non-diegetic and blurring player’s and playable character’s borders. At the same time it’s easy to say, which sounds belong to the game’s reality, but then again, you can never be sure if some clicks or beeps that feels like part of the game mechanics would be real sounds in the world you are playing on.

Game’s sound design leaves al lot of room for player’s own imagination, as even the sound of keyboard feels something that could be part of the fame. Soundtrack is almost a part of the world, and even in the real world ambient voices you hear can be somehow musical. At the same time you know, that the soundtrack is something that doesn’t belong to game’s reality, but the border between ‘’real’’ ambient in the game and music is very thin and blurred.

The whole idea of Portal-series is to play with reality, as Valve’s been releasing a lot of videos and other material based on the game and its story. These little things are made so that they feel like being part of our world, and Valve is sometimes even advertising their own services using characters or places from the Portal-universe.


References

1. Research material

Aperture Science Psychoacoustic Laboratories 2012. Portal 2: Songs to Test By (Collector’s Edition) [Spotify]. Ipecac Recordings.

Valve Corporation 2007. Portal [PC]. Valve Corporation.

2. Internet-references

Speedrun 2017. Continuously updated speed run record collection and list for Portal and other games. <https://www.speedrun.com/Portal> (read 5.12.2017)

3. Literature

Buhler, James, David Neumeyer and Rob Deemer 2010. Hearing the Movies: Music and Sound in Film History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Chion, Michel 1994. Audio-vision: sound on screen. New York: Columbia University Press.

Timms, Mark 2016. How sound design is used to create a sense of tension and horror in video games. Academia.

<https://www.academia.edu/24424213/How_sound_design_is_used_to_create_a_sense_of_tension_and_horror_in_video_games> (read 7.12.2017)


Note: I wrote this essay in 2017 for my musicology studies in University of Turku. I wouldn't recommend using it in academic context.

09 May 2021

Why Half-Life 2 is my favorite game

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

It was somewhere in 2009 when I first played Valve’s masterpiece, Half-Life 2. My gaming experiences before that were mostly demos of old games (Half-Life: Uplink, Worms, Turok) and Flash games so Half-Life 2 hit me like a truck. From the first time I arrived in the City 17, fought through Ravenholm and learned the secrets of this world I knew that this is something special - at least for me. These memories are dear to me and I notice that I want to relive those first times of playing this game again - they are some of my favorite memories and the feeling that I had playing Half-Life 2 for the first time is still something that no other game has been able to give me.

In Half-Life 2 you step on the shoes of Gordon Freeman, who’s trying to help the remaining human resistance to fight against Combine, an alien force that has been taken over the world after the 7 Hour War. Player is taken through the ruins of a world that is so familiar to us but now deserted: seas have been dried, humans can not give birth anymore and even most of the animals are gone. Gordon must fight his way to the Citadel, where local alien forces are controlling the City 17 and its remaining population. On his long way there he gets reunited with some old friends from the previous installment on Half-Life series, like Barney and Dr. Kleiner, and meets some new characters. Alyx, his trusty sidekick (or a real main character of the story?) is one of these. Gordon’s - and player’s - relationship with Alyx during the gameplay is something that stands out from the other games. All the characters in Half-Life 2 react somehow to the player and what they are doing, and especially Alyx on your side it really feels like you are there in the game world. That’s something that I haven’t really personally experienced with other games and I think the fact that the game has this uninterrupted flow within it makes it really stand out. With Half-Life 2 I don’t always feel like I am playing a game, it’s sometimes more like a book kind of experience - there is no jumping in and out from levels, no time spent in menus or anything like that. Everything just happens and you are part of it.

Physics are one thing that make Half-Life 2 stand out for me. I’ve been playing a lot of different games and how the game handles real life like physics is something that really is important for my personal gaming experience, especially in the FPS genre. There’s just something so special with the way Half-Life 2 and the Source engine handle physics that I always feel at home when I get to play games made with Source. I know how things work, I know what to expect and most importantly the feel of the game(s) feel right. And maybe this feeling of home is why Half-Life 2 to this day stays at my all time favorite game.