City Upon a Hill

Here’s another short animation I made. It’s a dissection of our ideas about the Thanksgiving story.

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Categories: Uncategorized

Spectator

December 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Here’s a short animation I made. It’s about perspective, and it’s inspired by the play Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Let me know what you think!

Spectator from Joel Jordon on Vimeo.

Categories: Uncategorized

Updates

October 7, 2011 Leave a comment

I thought I’d leave some updates here about what I’ve been doing lately, because my grand life plan is coming together. Or something.

– I recently started a video game blog (at gamemanifesto.net) that I generally updated bimonthly (as in twice a month) over the summer but will probably only update bimonthly (as in every other month) during the school year. I’ve been using it as a place to post essays on games, and my intention is to develop a portfolio of writing that focuses on demonstrating how games are important cultural texts whose interactive elements can be used to express meaning and tell stories in new and unique ways.

– I worked as a freelance copyeditor over the summer. I copyedited book-length manuscripts written by self-publishing authors and also wrote these authors comments and editorial letters with suggestions for changes.

– Last spring I invented my own major called Writing and Interactive Media. It’s considered an Individually Designed Interdisciplinary Program (or IDIP), but I like to call it my supermajor.

– As part of my supermajor, I’ve begun to work on a few projects. I’m writing an interactive short story for the Web, for example, which I may link to here in the future if I think it’s decent enough to share.

– I hope to design my first (probably very simple) video game by the end of the spring. I’m taking a computer animation class now and then a 3D game design class next semester.

– I’m planning on designing a video game for my thesis project next year. This one I intend to spend a lot of time on and develop into something I’m really satisfied with.

That’s all! I hope to share some of my work here in the future, so I’ll update as I have stuff.

Categories: Uncategorized

New video game blog

I have a new blog over at gamemanifesto.net where I hope to be hosting some thoughtful pieces about video games. It will probably be updated more often than this blog is ever updated. Check it out!

Categories: All, Video Games

When Platformers Fell into a Bottomless Pit

I needed some new writing on my blog, so I wrote an essay about platformer video games. I hope it shows my commitment to writing unique and thought-provoking video game pieces.

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Super Mario 64 seems to have been designed with a core focus on allowing the player to experiment with movement in 3D space, new to video games at the time. Banjo-Kazooie copied Super Mario 64’s structure, but it failed to provide the same essential quality of new and enjoyable movement. Just as 3D platformers were being established as a genre, Banjo-Kazooie actually set off the stagnation of that genre, eventually leading to its near-extinction just two generations of consoles later.

Super Mario 64 provides you with new movement from the moment you load up the game, when you are immediately presented with Mario’s face in 3D. You are allowed to manipulate this face by grabbing on to Mario’s ears, nose, and mustache and stretching them out, and you are given the opportunity to look at this face from different angles and at different levels of zoom.

Now consider how the sheer number of moves allowed in Super Mario 64 made Nintendo spend 8 pages delineating them all in the game’s original instruction manual. The A button lets you jump. Consecutive jumps result in a double and triple jump respectively, each adding slightly more height. Head in one direction, quickly turn in the opposite direction and press A, and Mario will do a side jump.

Add the Z button into the mix and Mario’s moves multiply. By itself, it only allows crouching and crawling. But hold down the Z button and press A, and Mario will do a back flip. Run first and hold down the Z button just before you press A, and Mario will do a long jump. Press the Z button after pressing A, however, and Mario does a ground pound. Three completely separate moves using a combination of just two buttons.

And all this without even getting into the B button.

Consider, also, the game’s preoccupation with the camera system. Nintendo found it necessary to explain the camera by featuring a lakitu who flies behind Mario the entire game and carries a camera on its fishing rod. This camera is controlled with no fewer than four buttons. This seems superfluous today, when a third-person game’s camera is usually merely an abstract, invisible, and simple thing controlled by an analog stick. But Super Mario 64 was concerned with making 3D make sense to a generation of players who only had experience with moving avatars through 2D spaces with no manipulatable camera to speak of. It’s natural that they would be concerned with having an explanation for this unprecedented movable camera. Making the eyes to this 3D world understandable helps the player, new to 3D, make sense of how he’ll be able to look at things. So, not only does the player have an extreme amount of navigational ability in the form of Mario’s many moves, but Nintendo has also made it easy for him to understand how he has the ability to control how he looks at the world. Super Mario 64 completely takes advantage of its new 3D space.

Lastly, consider how Nintendo has remained committed to introducing new forms of movement in later 3D Mario games. Super Mario Sunshine introduces FLUDD, a water pack that Mario can use to hover and propel himself upward. Super Mario Galaxy introduces spherical planets and new gravity-related physics, with plenty of walking upside-down. There has always been a very visceral sense of enjoyment and an extremely satisfying visual and aural feedback to each one of Mario’s movements. Mario’s perfect form and the high-pitched sounds that he makes each time he jumps, which we may take for granted, are an essential quality that make us want to jump. The perfect flips we see and crisp “wahoo!” we hear when Mario pulls off a triple jump that lands him over a bottomless pit and safely onto the ground—these are what makes the 3D Marios fantastic platformers.

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Banjo-Kazooie, as many freely pointed out at the time of its release, copies the formula established by Super Mario 64. However, it seems to miss completely the quality of movement that made Super Mario 64 such a viscerally enjoyable game. Banjo’s arsenal of moves is minimal compared to Mario’s. Press A to jump. Press A again while in mid-air and you’ll receive a slight boost to your jump. And that ends the types of jumps available to Banjo.

Rather than focusing on movements that enhance navigation through 3D space, the majority of Banjo’s moves are of the lock-and-key variety. You can shoot eggs or fart them out of Kazooie, but neither of these moves are useful for much of anything except in the specific challenges that call for them (e.g., you must shoot eggs at certain buttons, and you must fart out eggs into certain jars). The manifold jumping abilities of Mario opens the world up, giving the player multitudinous different ways of getting from point A to point B and, indeed, encouraging experimentation. The lock-and-key moves of Banjo-Kazooie close the world up, discouraging experimentation because there’s just one move that provides a solution. Banjo-Kazooie defies what a 3D world should ultimately be about.

So if Mario gets 3D right and Banjo gets it so very wrong, why was Banjo-Kazooie so often compared to Super Mario 64? It was the collectibles. The main objective of Super Mario 64 was to collect stars and coins. Banjo-Kazooie copied the focus on collectibles that we see in Mario, but it gets it completely wrong. Mario’s stars are of course an abstraction. They are there at the end of every challenge in lieu of providing a more overbearing story that would explain why Mario is completing all of these random challenges. The stars are a necessary abstraction so that the game doesn’t need to give explanations and can instead simply allow the player to enjoy the gameplay and the experience of moving in 3D space. The stars are an objective, but the actual challenge of getting there is the whole essence of the game.

By contrast, Banjo-Kazooie makes the collectibles its essence. First, it increases the number of collectibles immensely: there are now jiggies, notes, honey combs, eggs, feathers, and jinjos. Had it increased the number of navigational moves rather than the number of collectibles, it might have been a great platformer. But instead, it allows movement to feel more like a laborious chore. Banjo is significantly slower than Mario, and getting from point A to point B typically takes a long time. This is especially true of Rareware’s later platformers, Banjo-Tooie and Donkey Kong 64. The environments of these games are so ridiculously expansive and your avatar is so ridiculously slow that it really does take a mindnumbingly long amount of time to travel through them. And for what? You’re on the look out for collectibles that are much more difficult to find than Super Mario 64’s.

When playing through Banjo-Kazooie recently, I spent a whole hour blindly searching for the last remaining jiggie in one of the stages, eventually giving in to GameFAQs. How are you to know that some small windows—which look almost exactly the same as all of the other windows in the stage (i.e., like part of the background)—can actually be broken and entered? This is misleading game design, which can’t be intended for anything else other than to really hide those collectibles. The challenge of finding them without any sort of clue requires slow and particular movement through the environment over and over again to see if there was any small thing that you missed.

This is quite the opposite of Mario’s game design: in Mario, movement is fast-paced and there is a great enough variety of moves to keep it from becoming repetitive; the player is directed to a star by a clue that he receives before entering the level; and the other collectibles tend to be plentiful and attractive. Consider the star bits in Super Mario Galaxy. They’re all over the place, and they have that same quality of visual and aural feedback we get from Mario’s movements that make us want to pick them up: they are shiny and colorful, and they make a loud jingly sound come out of our Wii remote’s speaker.

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Mario has confidence in its presentation. The stars are a largely unexplained abstraction, and it is precisely in avoiding this explanation that the focus is allowed to remain on gameplay and on movement. Rareware lacks the same confidence, probably as a result of blatantly plagiarizing Super Mario 64.

Banjo-Kazooie reveals this lack of confidence by its frequent self-referentiality regarding its own status as a game. In Banjo-Tooie, the characters even point out that there is no good reason why they should be collecting jiggies. Because Super Mario 64 consisted of new ideas in gameplay and 3D movement and put so much focus on these things, it rightly had no need to explain the necessary abstractions that it had. But Banjo-Kazooie lacks the confidence of a game that originates new ideas, and it lacks the enjoyable movement of Super Mario 64; so it puts more focus on its abstractions by way of self-referential humor. But it doesn’t actually come off as very funny, and it mostly just works to reveal a reliance on the ideas of a previous game. It is humor that lacks confidence, because it is parody that was really only inserted to make players accept plagiarism.

The extreme self-referentiality of Banjo-Kazooie comes to bear in the final stage. This stage is a board game—a game within a game. And the board game consists of a series of trivia questions about the game: you are shown a picture and asked what stage you are looking at; you are made to listen to a snippet of music and asked which stage’s background music it is; you are even made to listen to sound effects and characters’ voices and identify to what or whom they belong. The board game divides the game up into its different parts—the graphics and the sounds that make it up—and reveal that each of these parts are distinct from each other. In its self-referentiality, Banjo-Kazooie reveals that it is not a whole or genuine experience, but rather a hollow and disparate one, mechanically produced from the parts of a game that came before it.

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What is to be said about the state of platformers now? Almost all other platformers out there eventually adopted gameplay mechanics from other genres. Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank show this phenomenon best. In their first renditions, these games were through-and-through platformers. Their later renditions introduced more racing and combat elements, respectively. By the fourth game in each series, this is actually all too literally true: Jak X: Combat Racing is very much a racing game, and Ratchet: Deadlocked is very much a third-person shooter. The developers of Jak & Daxter are now making Uncharted, a third-person shooter series; the developers of Ratchet & Clank, despite making several more Ratchet games on the PlayStation 3 that have a surprising amount of platforming gameplay, are now making Resistance, a first-person shooter series.

Traditional platformers, with the exception of Mario, have reached their demise, just two generations of consoles after the first 3D platformers were made. Nintendo gave birth to 3D platformers, and they are the only ones still making enjoyable 3D platformers. I don’t think that this is a coincidence. Nintendo, who brought the analog stick, the touch screen, and motion control to gaming, introduced a new form of movement with Super Mario 64 and have been consistently dedicated to introducing new forms of movement to platformers. This has been essential to the continued livelihood of 3D Mario games.

Or maybe I’m just stubborn and angry about having spent an hour searching for a jiggie in Banjo-Kazooie.

Categories: All, Video Games