After a summer of projects in Edinburgh and further afield, as well as various holidays, the team are back in the studio – which means it’s time for another round-up of what people have been playing recently.
Comedian Dies in a Middle of a Joke is a new project from performance poet, H&S collaborator and all-round man of excellence Ross Sutherland, and was playtested at Forest Fringe on August. It is an interactive play for fourteen people, with a further thirty-odd people watching them play. It’s November 1th, 1983: the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. Comedian Joe “Pops” Pooley is headlining his local comedy club. As if his job wasn’t hard enough this evening, the venue has found itself trapped inside a six-minute time-loop.
The way it works is that, on your seat when you sit down, you find a simple instruction and some tiny bits of costume. They tell you to do something when the comedian gives you a cue; for example, there’s a soldier’s hat, and when it’s your turn, you say ‘show some respect, you _______‘ where the blank is to be filled by an insult of your choice. All fourteen people do something at some stage. Then, the six minutes come to their sad end and time spins back, and everyone moves up a seat. So a new comedian, and everyone gets a new costume and a new heckle to deliver.
At this point, the opportunity to play spread out before me like the most amazing vista. I get to deliver seven heckles, on cue, and it’s allowed! It stimulated amazing creativity in the players and much hilarity for the audience – everyone starts to collectively understand the opportunities the form affords you – and witty or surreal takes on the structure are rewarded with big laughs. The truly lovely thing was that it didn’t rely on amazing performance – the funniest and loveliest comedians were often the ones who just gamely ploughed on with no attempt to deliver like a stand-up. Ross has designed for this wonderfully – you’re told at the outset that this is a terrible set, that Joe really died that night, and there’s nothing you can do to save it.
It was a huge amount of fun and I can’t wait to see how it develops.
Mostly I’ve been learning to navigate first-person video games. I find it really, really hard. In the real world, I navigate by motion – the set of movements I have to go through to get from one place to another, the stairs, the fence to climb over, the feel of the step down from the footpath to the street. In third-person-viewpoint games, I do at least see my character making those movements – but in first person, that’s gone too, and I’m left running repeatedly into the sides of doorways and shouting WHAT DO YOU MEAN GO NORTH STOP SHOOTING ME STOP IT STOP IT.
There was always an obvious solution to this: sit down and play a game for a good five or six hours, persevering past the first-hour hump of wandering around and bumping into stuff. But I’m lazy, and I’d never found a first-person game I liked enough to keep playing past that hump, not until Portal 2. Portal 2, of course, was ideal – not just because it’s brilliant, or because you spend it largely not being shot at, but also because it’s made of so many discrete small-scale fairly-easily-navigable levels.
The trouble came when I finished Portal 2: what next? The answer turned out to be: Modern Warfare 2, and specifically: the suspension bridge in the co-op Special Ops mode. Even I can’t get lost on a bridge, and if someone else can shoot 80% of the bad guys then that makes things a lot easier. Eventually my co-operator got tired of it, and I was forced to manage the bridge on my own; and then on a harder setting, and again, and by then I was sufficiently used to it to try navigating something a little less two-dimensional.
I’ve been trying different games, since then, and getting used to how it all works. One moment of revelation came when I realised that the trigger button is called the trigger button because you’re supposed to pretend it’s a trigger on a gun. It’s not just another arbitrarily-named button like A or B, and – and this is key – you can reliably expect pulling it to result in some shooting.
It’s going okay, overall! I’m still easily confused by rooms with multiple exits and quite bad at shooting imaginary enemies in the head, but I’m getting better. It turns out to be quite good fun.
I’ve been drop-kicking angels with a giant stiletto heel made largely of hair. Which means only one thing: it’s been a summer of Bayonetta. I described it to a friend as “great, but a very me-kind-of-game“. By which I meant: the plot is daft, the cutscenes absurd, but the mechanics at the heart of it are where the magic lies.
Bayonetta is a third-person action game directed by Hideki Kamiya – previously responsible for the Devil May Cry franchise. The titular witch strings together combinations of attacks through three three attack buttons – one for hands, one for feet, and an extra one for “shoot” (which largely serves to juggle and extend combos). Every button press is sacrosanct: tapping a button unleashes an attack instantly. Attacks can be strung together into a huge number of canned combos, which is par for the course. Except: by holding an attack button at any point, you pause the combo, cancelling that attack into a barrage of gunfire from the limb in question (because Bayonetta’s the type of girl to strap guns to her feet). And so the huge branching tree of potential combos branches further when you take the ranged-cancels into account – and further when you contemplate the various combinations of weapons on offer.
Coupled to these combat mechanics are a dodge system that rewards perfectly-timed dodges with a brief burst of slow-motion – “witch time” – that lets gives you a few seconds to deal out even more damage, and powerful “punishment” attacks that are doled out as rewards for consistent combos without taking damage. You can begin to see how everything locks together tightly: dodge opens up opportunity for attack, cancels let you switch attention between enemies, and long combos reward you with an instant-kill attack on another foe.
It looks like a blur to an observer; if you watch a video of the game in action it’ll likely seem bewildering. But what makes Bayonetta so great is that every single action the character performs – everything in that blur of colour – is completely down to player action. There’s an incredible sensation of total control as you dole out damage, dodge attacks, dash to the other side of the arena, dodge another attack, drop into Witch Time and reel out a combo only to cancel it into attacking a different opponent, dodge them in mid-air and then kick a giant angel into a guillotine you’ve magicked up out of nowhere. The violence isn’t what’s makes it good; it’s the tactility of it, the knot of systems that are perfectly balanced, the sensation of total control that’s so rewarding when it trips off your fingers at sixty frames per second.
Also, you get to boot angels in the face with a giant stiletto made of hair.
I’ve been tearing around a slightly disappointing cityscape at break-neck speeds, avoiding the police and miraculously surviving a series of clearly-fatal collisions in Need For Speed Most Wanted. (NB: this is the original Most Wanted for the original Xbox by EA Canada, not Criterion’s reboot for current-gen consoles).
I keep playing this even though I’m not a massive fan of the game. The trouble is that the balance between isn’t-it-fun-driving-really-fast and isn’t-it-fun-to-do-things-in-a-real-world-that-you-can’t-normally-do is just a bit off. Interacting with the world consists of a) getting annoyed that that truck pulled out in front of you and b) having to gain ‘bounty’ points by annoying the police and then running away and not getting caught. This interrupts the driving-really-fast fun. Every time I hit the point where I’ve won the current races and have to go and irritate the police in order to progress, I put it down and do something else for a while.
The real kicker is, even after you’ve won a race, any police following you must still be successfully avoided before you can save your game. Frustrating.
I’ve been playing Infinity Blade. The aim of the game is to kill a range of foes as you wander through a castle, making your way up to the penthouse dwelling of the fearsome ‘God King’, all in the name of revenge. I started off quite enjoying this sword swinging fantasy fighter. Some moves to master, lots of weapons to choose from and some gruesome sound affects – it kept me busy on a few train journeys.
When I finally defeated the God King, the finale seemed to suggest I was about to move on to the next level – but then the game took me back to the start, with my player standing on a rock, looking at the castle and saying ‘father, I will avenge you’. Which was a bit confusing, considering that I had just kicked some arse. And, annoyingly, despite defeating the God King – who wielded the aforementioned Infinity Blade – I didn’t actually get the Blade myself to use.
Once again I face up to my nemesis – the God King – checked his status, and saw to my horror that his power had doubled since the last time I beat him. No matter how good you get, your player needs a certain level of weaponry and shielding to defeat the God King, and the inventory is set up in such a way that after you reach a certain point, players need to start spending serious cash. (for example I bought the sword Khill for 39,500 gold pieces – the next one up is Echo, a snip at 199,990 gold pieces).
So though it was a good diversion for a while, it quickly became very boring. And I couldn’t understand why the eponymous Infinity Blade wasn’t the most expensive inventory item – it seemed to undermine things a bit!