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Song of the Day #160: Kodama

20Syl – Kodama

Created by 20Syl, member of C2C and founder of the Hocus Pocus hip hop group. I especially love this because the Akai MPC 2000XL (a vintage drum machine that I’ve had since 2008) is featured so prominently.

Check out C2C or 20Syl on Youtube. Both of these channels have fantastic music.

Published on October 11, 2014

Game Review #6: Shadow of Mordor

Shadow of MordorShadow of Mordor is an open-world action game developed by Monolith Productions, set in the Lord of the Rings universe originally created by J.R.R. Tolkien. The protagonist is a human who’s been possessed by a spirit and cannot die until he’s avenged the death of his wife and child. On his journey, he meets and faces characters from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, although the plot itself is loosely based on lore created by Tolkien.

Although this game didn’t receive much hype before release, it has been roundly well-reviewed and celebrated for its innovative artificial intelligence system which it calls “Nemesis”.

Story & Narrative

Firstly, I have no particular knowledge or interest in Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. In fact, I haven’t even bothered to see any of The Hobbit movies, so the fact that this takes place in that world isn’t something that led me to this game at all. But unlike Destiny, Shadow of Mordor not only has a competent narrative, but every action you take in the game has a purpose.

The story is driven by Talion, a ranger of Gondor stationed to protect the Black Gate, when he and his wife and child are executed by the Black Hand of Sauron in an attempt to resurrect a dead Elven spirit named Celebrimbor (pronounced kel-a-brim-bore). But when Talion dies, Celebrimbor’s spirit melds with Talion and the two become united in their mission to seek vengeance against Sauron. Throughout the game the identity and motives of Celebrimbor begin to unfurl, and they are not what they seem to be.

Shadow of Mordor

Because Talion is linked to Celebrimbor, you cannot die. When you’re killed, you return as Celebrimbor to a nearby spirit tower. This actually makes sense from a narrative and gameplay perspective, which is rare. In nearly all games you inexplicably have an infinite number of lives (as a side note, the movie Edge of Tomorrow has an imaginative explanation for this “start again” phenomenon).

The most note-worthy element of this game, the Nemesis system, actually contributes greatly to the story as well.

The “Nemesis” System

Shadow of Mordor is a single-player game, which means you won’t be cooperating with or competing against other human players in any capacity. In the gaming industry that’s becoming increasingly rare, especially for a major release, because introducing human players creates deep, dynamic gameplay in a way that pre-programmed characters cannot. But the nemesis system challenges that convention in a meaningful way by dynamically generating a colorful cast of characters for you hunt.

Enemies generated by this system are within a hierarchy of opponents with War Chiefs at the top. Below them are their subjects, who receive commands from above. When you dispatch units in the hierarchy, other orcs move into their place to assume their role, so you work your way to the top. Below is an example of an enemy generated by this system, with a list of attributes on the right. What’s not shown in this image is that each character generated has a unique name, appearance, and personality.

Shadow of Mordor Nemesis system

Especially in the beginning of the game, you get repeatedly killed by the same characters more than once. Each time they kill you, they observe and comment on the circumstances, which makes them feel very lifelike. They also level up and gain strength each time that they defeat you, which is likely where the Nemesis name comes from.

You will want to continue just to return and defeat the orc who is so convincingly crafted that he feels like a human rival you want to beat. This is a significant technical innovation because the system creates characters so persuasively lifelike that they elicit an emotional response. It’s amazing and I’ve never seen anything like it.

Morality of the Crusading Assassin

One thing that made me a little uncomfortable in this game was the context within which extreme violence takes place. Halfway through the game you learn the ability to execute foes, which is either impaling them with your sword or decapitating them, whereby the head slowly floats away from the body in slow motion. Later in the game you get the ability to perform an unlimited number of executions within a 15-second time period, which means that when you are surrounded by orcs, you can deftly dash between them, removing all of their heads one after another.

Shadow of Mordor

I understand that according to the lore of the Lord of the Rings, orcs are inherently evil, but the story says otherwise. For a portion of the game you cooperate with an orc who shows himself to be a nuanced and psychologically vulnerable character. Orcs look human-like and are portrayed as human-like (you even assassinate them at their own feasts), but on the other hand you assume the moral high ground while brutally hunting them down. This creates an ethnical quandary wherein it becomes a little difficult to genuinely believe that your actions are noble. At the end of the game the story addresses this somewhat, but I see games now entering an era in which violent deaths are disturbingly convincing.

Conclusion & Rating

One criticism that should be mentioned is that by the time you get to the late game, your character is too powerful. By the end of the game you are effortlessly slicing through groups of dozens of enemies. This leads to the game losing a bit of its luster after you’ve fleshed out the ability tree. But even then, the action and animation is so fluid and well done that it surpasses its similar contemporary, Assassin’s Creed. This game is supremely fun.

I believe that following the strength and success of this game, Warner Brothers will continue to publish open-world action games in this game world, developed by Monolith. This could be the beginning of a long-lasting series.

4.5 Stars

Published on October 9, 2014

Game Review #5: Destiny

Destiny PS4Developed by Bungie, creators of the Halo series which hugely contributed to the success of the Xbox, Destiny is an online first-person shooter that will take you across the galaxy as you fight to defend humanity with other players online.

This is most anticipated release in the lifetime of the Playstation 4 so far.

Although it’s available on other consoles, the version that I played was on Playstation 4.

The Story & Myth of Destiny

When you begin playing Destiny, you select a race and a class and begin as a Guardian, shooting things to save the human race.

Seven hundred years in the future, the human race is under attack by a vaguely described group of space bad guys, divided into four groups. I won’t bother describing them because they are completely forgettable, much like virtually every aspect of the story and setting in Destiny. You are fighting to suppress alien invaders and recapture glory for the human race, even though by virtue of having your choice of race to play, you are very likely not even human yourself.

Although shockingly little is described or explained in the game, the broad strokes painted by the storyline are reasonably fun. A moon-sized object called the “Traveler” hovers visibly above earth. It’s never really explained how it got there or what it does, just that it played a role in the rapid expansion of space travel technology.

To be blunt, the story in this game is garbage, which is especially surprising and disappointing for two reasons:

  1. The promise and potential of this game was so grand. It sold itself as being a galactic world populated with people and places to explore, on a grand scale. What it actually turned out to be is a “shared-space” first-person shooter which means it completely lacks any kind of exploration. The characters and themes that are there are vague and undeveloped.
  2. The game is developed by Bungie, who has rightly built up a lot of credit over the last ten years through development of the Halo franchise. Although Halo has always been an action game, it has a significant story component that crucially supplements the frenetic action with a thoughtful narrative. No one thought that Bungie would drop the ball like this.

I was hoping for a story along the lines of Mass Effect, which is like interactive space opera in the best way possible. This is nothing like that. Instead, it feels like you are pointlessly shooting everything that moves, almost without pause. The protagonist never asks any questions nor goes through a single journey that involves anything but incessantly shooting enemies.

Graphics & Presentation

The presentation in this game is simply phenomenal, from both a technical and artistic standpoint.

The user interface is pragmatic and pleasant to use, and everything looks and feels extremely slick and next-gen. One of the highlights of the experience of playing Destiny is the first time that you’re introduced to each new planet. They all have their own distinct feel and appearance, and are incredibly detailed and well designed. When you first play on the Moon, you can see earth, slowly but noticeably rotating in the distance.

Destiny

The soundtrack is equally amazing, from orchestral ambience to the pulsing music that accompanies boss fights.

Visually and aurally, this is a showpiece.

When Hype Hurts

The legacy of this game has been significantly tarnished by the expectations that it would be a great leap forward for the genre of shooters. Instead of being a leap forward, it turned out to be a decent game, but certainly nothing to challenge the status quo. Is this the fault of the developer and publisher, or of people with unrealistic expectations? In my opinion, there is no question: it is the fault of the developer and publisher, whose misleading propaganda led to this becoming the highest grossing pre-sale game of all time. Upon launch alone, this game recouped $500 million, which is an absurd sum.

Destiny logoOne major factor in the story and narrative being Destiny’s obvious achilles heel is that the lead writer of the game, James Staten, quit Bungie in the fall of 2013. I still fail to see how it resulted in such a catastrophe, but it doesn’t seem that they were able to mount any kind of successful rescue mission for the piddling narrative that this game half-heartedly put forth.

An interesting point is that the three most-hyped AAA games of this year were all cut-down immediately upon release: Titanfall by Respawn Entertainment, Watchdogs by Ubisoft, and now Destiny by Bungie. All three were commercial successes. This paints a distressing picture of the supposedly triple-A game market, which is evidently unencumbered by mediocre actual games when it comes to accruing record-breaking profit.

Conclusion & Rating

I finished Destiny in about 20 hours and see no reason to go back and play it again. There are no characters to empathize with, no distant planets to explore, and no new experiences to be had. Before release, the Bungie Community Manager said “You may never finish Destiny”, clearly implying that the game has an astounding amount of content. The release of this game has proven that to be an outright lie, regardless of what events they periodically add to the game at this point.

Destiny isn’t bad. In fact, in some ways it excels over all of its peers. The presentation and action is phenomenal. But in terms of living up to its potential, this is a dismal conclusion to the long-awaited release of Destiny.

3.5 Stars

Read about Destiny on Wikipedia

Published on October 9, 2014
Video

Song of the Day #159: Adventure

Disasterpeace – Adventure

Fez OSTFez is an independent game released in 2012 that I never got around to playing. Now that I have, I am blown away by the soundtrack, which was entirely produced by a guy from Oakland working under the moniker “Disasterpeace”. Video game soundtracks are almost always entirely forgettable, but there are some notable exceptions like Fez and Hotline Miami.

With the game Fez featuring a colorful pixel-based art style, you would expect the soundtrack to conform to a retro game aesthetic. But it comes closer to sounding like a video game interpretation of the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis, with bright synths and heavy reverb which gives the overall sound a dream-like quality. It also sounds like Boards of Canada.

Two other songs which I really enjoyed on this soundtrack are Flow and Beacon, also on Youtube along with the full album. This is a game I have really enjoyed so I expect that I will write a review of it when I’ve completed the game.

Check out the Fez official soundtrack on Spotify or read the Wikipedia entry on the music of Fez.

Published on October 8, 2014

Event Flyer Designs #1

Chengdu event flyer designs
Recently I’ve been designing some event flyers optimized for mobile sharing. They are all to iPhone 5 resolution (640×1136 px) and made to be shared on mobile social networks like WeChat. I experimented with some animated gif flyers at this size which had moving parts or text that changes color, but the animating process was slow using Photoshop, so I went back to static designs.

When I first started doing Disco Death in 2010, I designed and printed meter-tall posters for each event. It was exciting to embrace a new format which came with different challenges, and recently I feel the same way about designing for mobile first. Although the lack of a physical flyer feels like something may be lost, the viral potential of a digital flyer is far unparalleled.

Published on September 30, 2014

Movie Review #16: Wild at Heart

Wild at HeartWild at Heart is a shockingly violent love story released in 1990 and directed by David Lynch, starring Nicolas Cage.

The story is about Sailor, an Elvis admirer who’s imprisoned for killing a man in defense of his girlfriend, and Lula, the girl he has killed for. When he’s released, his girlfriend greets him at the prison gates with a snakeskin jacket whereupon he drops this spectacular line which sets the tone for the first half of the film:

“Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?”

Love & Hate

Wild at Heart fits nicely into a small group of seemingly contradictory love stories that feature excessive unpleasantries. The format was pioneered by the 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde which depicted the infamous depression-era couple traveling across America, robbing banks and leaving a trail of bodies behind them.

Wild at Heart was released in 1990 and inspired a string of other movies which received more recognition, including True Romance (Tarantino), Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone), and Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott). Some of the best movies of the 1990’s.

This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top.

But you don’t need to look at the chronology of these films to feel how on-the-edge Wild at Heart is. In the David Lynch tradition, this movie is sublimely disorienting, and is an emotional roller coaster. Like Bill Paxton in Lost Highway, the protagonist in this movie is impossibly slick (Nic Cage belting out “What do you faggots want?” when surrounded by gang members is one of the most brilliant lines of the film). Like Blue Velvet, its sheer weirdness will discomfort you. And like Mulholland Drive, you will probably struggle to understand what’s going on and feel like you’ve been unknowingly dosed with a hallucinogen.

Wild at Heart

David Lynch, like Wes Anderson, has developed a distinct storytelling methodology and you will see these common characteristics throughout all of his work. Although it hasn’t received the kudos or recognition of Blue Velvet, it’s impressive to stand back and see how influential Wild at Heart has been.

Willem Dafoe is one of the most terrifying villains imaginable in this movie. One of his best roles.

Conclusion

This isn’t an easy watch, but no David Lynch movie is. If you’re looking for the best work from Nicolas Cage, or for a movie that had a big impact on Quentin Tarantino and gritty love stories of the 1990’s, put this on your short list.

Nic Cage does a good Elvis impression. Even better, I’d say, than when Christian Slater has a daydream conversation with Elvis played by Val Kilmer in True Romance.

Rating:

4 Stars

Official Trailer:

Published on September 30, 2014

Photos from Cologne

Last month I went to Cologne to speak at GDC Europe 2014 along with some other experts on the China game market. Here are some photos from my time in the city, and a few from GamesCom and GDC. There’s a link at the bottom of this post to the rest of the photos.

Cologne, Germany

Cologne, Germany

Cologne, Germany

Cologne, Germany

More Cologne Photos
Published on September 29, 2014

Castle Burg Arras in the Rhineland

Last month I took a road trip around South Germany with my Mother and had the opportunity to visit a 1,000 year old castle in the Rhineland called Burg Arras, situated on the Mosel river. Here are a few photos from the inside and one from atop the castle.

Burg Arras

Burg Arras

Burg Arras

Burg Arras

Burg Arras

Burg Arras

Burg Arras

Burg Arras

Published on September 29, 2014