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When we last saw the upcoming game from Jonathan Blow this summer, The Witness already looked like an intriguing experience. The way that Blow's game design interwove puzzles and environmental cues created a hypnotic level of immersion where you had to pay attention to a gameworld like never before.
As a result of updated designs from a partnership with architecture firms FOURM Design and David Fletcher Studio, the look of The Witness' world and the resultant immersion will get even deeper. In a new post on the game's Witness website, Blow talks about updating the aesthetics of The Witness from the blocky placeholder structures previously seen to newer models with real-world architectural details:
If you see the different civilizations that came to this island as embodying different philosophies; and you see the structures they built as representative of the way these philosophies led them to interact with the world; and you see further that when they replaced a site, it represents the rejection of some older worldview that they consider no longer useful, then perhaps you start to get some idea of the amount of backstory that can be encoded into the world, nonverbally.
Further down, Blow explains even more what's driving the re-envisioning of his project's look:
Having smart architecture, it seems, really helps this process work, brings it alive. If you build a game where people are supposed to pay attention to details, but the details are wrong or naive or just don't have much thought put into them, then at some level the game just won't work. Even if you don't know the first thing about architecture, you have been in enough buildings in your life that the deeper parts of your brain have distilled plenty of patterns about those buildings. Your brain knows the difference between a real building and a nonsense building that wouldn't occur in the real world. It can feel the difference in veracity between carefully-thought-out structural details - on the one hand - versus stuff that was just placed by a level designer to look cool.
When I got my hands on The Witness this summer, the incongruity of the game's landscapes struck me as being on purpose. Were these structures from different dimensions? Were they meant to symbolize different states of consciousness in Blow's mysterious new adventure game? Now that Blow's offered some insight as to how interconnected the whole design of The Witness is going to be, it sounds even like it'll be a singular experience when it comes out… whenever that is.
Architecture in The Witness [The Witness]
It was independent games development's darling of 2010, and all who dared cross it risked the righteous anger of its creators and fans. But badass platformer Super Meat Boy still is not available on mobile gaming's No. 1 platform. And I don't think it's because one of its creators got into a pissing contest with Apple.
It's probably because this kind of game really isn't fun with multitouch screen control, a conclusion reached after spending some time with CheeseMan, the best port of Super Meat Boy you can put finger quotes around. Frankly, I'm not sure it wasn't published by proxy for Team Meat. Either way, it's available now for 99 cents on the iTunes App Store.
CheeseMan is, evidently, doing its thing with the blessing of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the creators of Super Meat Boy. Dr. Fetus, their game's antagonist, is right there staring CheeseMan in the face on the first level, after all. Other Meat Boy characters will appear later. And the same gameplay style is there throughout—you're an anthropomorphized cheese cube instead of a meat wad, zipping through a platform level, avoiding spikes, sawblades and other gruesome instant-death traps, clinging to and double jumping from walls and trying to reach the goal in as little time as possible.
Your strategy evolves as it did in the original Super Meat Boy, too. Basically, you go haul ass into some uncharted part of the screen, die, remember there's a hazard there, and try not to hit it in your next life. Controls are carried out on a virtual game pad of left and right and a jump button.
These are not ideal controls for this kind of game. So much of Super Meat Boy involved technical, perfectly timed jumps that you really need fixed, physical controls that you can feel with your digits through a long gaming session, rather than virtual squares that feel no different when you reposition your hands after picking your nose.
My parkour jumps between walls never went smoothly, even without hazards forcing me to act quickly. Too many times I simply wall-humped my way to the top rather than try to switch my left thumb while hammering the virtual jump button at the same time. This is on an iPhone, whose playing surface dimensions reasonably approximate a gamepad controller. On an iPad, I'm not sure what it's like.
CheeseMan is allegedly published by AlphaNoize, a German shop founded in November of this year. It, like Team Meat, is a two-man outfit made up of Hicham Alloui and Arne Worheide. I have no idea if these are pseudonyms, aliases, alter egos or secret identities. They don't appear to be anagrams. Alloui's bio lists work for Ubisoft in his credits.
Maybe CheeseMan is totally original; maybe it exists with a license from Super Meat Boy. Maybe it is the game that allows Team Meat to reach the iOS without compromising the intellectual stance Refenes took way back in March 2010, when he declared iOS devices to be the "Tiger handheld game of this generation."
None of the intrigue changes the fact that you are still playing an extremely demanding platformer with virtual controls, whether meat, cheese, or something else is involved. Good luck.
We've done a lot of big-budget games so far in our Best Video Game Music of 2011 series, but there were some great indie soundtracks released, as well. One of the very best of those was Danny Baranowsky's dangerous, dark, synthy work on the Zelda-esque roguelike The Binding of Isaac.
Described by our own Stephen Totilo as "A wonderfully warped Old Testament Take on The Legend of Zelda," The Binding of Isaac was a rigidly difficult game that centered around punishing exploration and experimentation as players made their way through a series of randomly generated basement levels in an attempt to help the titular hero escape from his mother's zealotous captivity.
It was a wonderfully challenging, creepy game, but what put it over the top for me was Baranowsky's sinister soundtrack. A dark combination of synths and electronic beats, it took a bit of Danny Elfman, a touch of Muse, a hint of old-school Final Fantasy boss music, and brought 'em all together into something dark and unique.
For this entry in our series, I thought it would be fun to chat with Baranowsky about the process behind writing three of my favorite tracks.
This is one of the first tracks to play in the game, and one of the most evocative. It's got this winding, ever shifting 6/8-ish thing going on, and the melody twists and turns and never quite resolves the way you expect it to. The chord progression almost reminds me of a creepy (or, creepier) version of "The Carol of the Bells," which feels appropriate, given the sinister biblical allegory of the game. Here's Baranowsky:
"Welcome to the basement" was kind of the idea [with "Sacrificial."]. Something brooding, a little "music-box"-y, and inspired by classical choral music (to fit in with the biblical allusion). But at this point the way I write is very based on state of mind, I try to consume the aesthetics of the game and the situation of the track at hand, and just be absorbed in it and just.....go.
That it ended up being in 9/8 with other parts in 6/8 just kind of happened, I felt like the asymmetry of it would help to make people not get comfortable in any kind of familiar rhythm, while at the same time having sections that were something to ground the track and give people a feeling of progression.
This piece is gorgeous. Nothing says "a moment of calm in the storm" like some wide, wandering ambient chords. I love the natural sixth that turns up in here—most minor tonalities have a flat sixth, but here, we've got an "A" landing while in C minor (kind of sounds like it's over a Bb chord, actually). It's that brightness that gives things a pensive air, as opposed to the driving dread of most of the other tracks on the soundtrack. Which is fitting, since it plays inside of the "safe" secret rooms in the game.
Late in development, most of the music was done, and I had some time to polish/add extra shit, and so I started doing like the "Shop Theme (Greed)" and "Ambush Room Theme (Burning Ambush)", and I felt that the secret rooms (you find them by bombing walls) was a great opportunity to introduce music unlike most of the rest of the game, kind of a contrast to the madness/insanity/evil of the rest of the game.
Indeed it was.
The funny thing about "Respite" is that the idea for the arrangement came to me instantly, and the whole track was sone in about 15 minutes. Not terribly impressive, it's very short, but the funny thing is Omnisphere (the VST used to make it) had some some dumb ass bug that made it POP every time it looped. I spent hours screaming at my buddy Jimmy Hinson (Big Giant Circles, worked on Mass Effect 2 soundtrack) who is kind of an Omnisphere guru and he calmed me down and helped me fix it. and then, to top it all off, because of the way the game was coded (flash) all the tracks have gaps when they repeat anyway, so it didn't even matter....
This track is shit-hot. In my opinion. What starts out as the sort of typical boss-battle-ish driving thing quickly morphs into something more notey and more compelling. Right around 0:33 shit gets real, as the beat double-times with this cool-as-heck ascending sixteenth-note line in E minor, pulling up, up, up and back around to the driving, building main theme. A terrific example of boss-style music done right.
I don't know why but boss music has always been my favorite music from probably anything ever. I can't begin to try and guess how many hours of my life I've listened to the boss themes from FF4, FF6, FF7 and FF8 on loop. I like to think my boss themes are very Uematsuean (i just coined that), which feels like blasphemy to say, but he is by far the greatest influence on my with regards to music in general, and certainly boss themes.
You can download the The Binding of Isaac soundtrack for ridiculously cheap from Baranowsky's BandCamp page, and he has also just released a very cool album of piano renditions of tunes from his killer Super Meat Boy soundtrack. Check 'em both out.
We'll be back tomorrow with another of 2011's best video game soundtracks.
Good news and less good news from the Humble Bundle camp today. The happier end of the bargain is that purchasers of the current Humble Bundle 4 now get the base contents of Humble Bundle 3 (i.e. VVVVVV, Crayon Physics Deluxe, Cogs, And Yet It Moves, and Hammerfight) added to their pack. That’s if they’ve bought HB4 already. If they haven’t, they’ll have to beat the average price to get the bonus goodies. The average price is currently $5.17 million. (more…)
Did that headline get your attention? Good, because you should go and read this super-cool piece by Kill Screen's Lana Polansky about mechanics, practice, saxophone, jazz, and Street Fighter. (It also features the amazing illustration above, drawn by Daniel Purvis.)
Wait, why the heck am I referring to myself in the third person? Ugh. Anyhow, Polansky's piece is tackling an angle near and dear to my heart, looking at how Street Fighter requires a strict, musical mastery of its systems before play is possible:
I can't imagine a more perfect example than Street Fighter for how a game system can treat practice and play. It not only demands a fairly profound understanding of how its mechanics work, but allows players to combine those mechanics in intriguing and unusual ways once they understand them. Once mastery is achieved, the feeling of play emerges.
From there it goes to a lot of super brainy places, like… the work of Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Bit.Trip Beat and Super Monkey Ball.
It's a cool piece, and worth a read. Everyone we can get to start talking about music and games in this way is a win, as far as I'm concerned. The two have so much in common, we gotta get those crazy kids together more often.
Please Try Again [Kill Screen]
We've seen our share of Humble Indie Bundles over the past year or two—independent developers who gather under the "Humble" brand and release a bunch of their games priced at whatever people want to pay.
The latest one, Humble Bundle #4, might be the best one yet—for any price you want, you can get Super Meat Boy, Bit. Trip Runner, Jamestown, Shank and Nightsky. Pay more than the average price (currently tracking at $4.61 on the Humble Bundle site), you get Cave Story + and Gratuitous Space Battles as well.
There's no shortage of gaming to be done this December, but these are all great games, for a great price. And not only will you be supporting indie devs, you'll have the option to give money to either the American Red Cross or Child's Play.
Check out their (endearingly cheesy and reference-laden) trailer above. It's funny, I was quoting that bit from The Rock all last weekend for some reason.
Humble Indie Bundle #4 [Humblebundle.com]