Thursday, August 14, 2008

PixelJunk Eden

Ask any video game console owner when downloadable games earned their respect. You'll get several different answers.

Some may say it happened when “Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved” was released through Xbox Live Arcade. Others may claim it was the success of Nintendo's Virtual Console on the Wii that sold them on the concept.

There is no right answer. But saying the arrival of “PixelJunk Eden” on the PlayStation Network certainly isn't wrong.

This stylized platform game places players in gardens as a tiny creature called a Grimp. Players control the Grimp's trajectory with the left analog stick and propel it in that direction - like a jump. This action is the crux of the Grimp's ascent up the plants of the gardens in order to obtain Spectra, which signal the completion of a garden stage.

As the Grimp jumps into plants, it sticks to them regardless of the angle at which it hits the curvaceous structures. From there, the Grimp can either jump toward another plant, or swing in a circular motion at the end of a short-lived strand fixed to a point on the plant. It is with this swing action that the player can collide with aimlessly floating foes, who are turned to pollen upon impact. Nearby seeds absorb the pollen and, once filled, blossom into additional stalks along which the Grimp can climb.

As these plants waver in the air, they steadily complicate the platforming with exacting physics friendly only to the most well-timed jumps. In later stages, the Grimp encounters floating enemies that actually attack it by bouncing it across the screen or severing its swinging strands.

Speeding the pace of the action is the game's synchronization meter, a life meter that automatically counts down as the Grimp swings and jumps through the garden. The meter can be replenished by collecting crystals in the same swinging manner as the Grimp collides with enemies. Though the meter can frustrate in a player's first few “Eden” go-rounds by cutting the action short, learning to manage it comes naturally. Without that obstacle, the game would simply be too easy and, as a result, rather fruitless.

Once players master the deceptively simple controls, there is a kinetic grace to behold in the Grimp's movements. With well-timed swings and jumps, the Grimp can weave its way through the baroque garden landscapes in a balletic manner reminiscent of Spider-Man. The action's balance of accessible controls with a deep play dynamic will likely addict many a player.

Accentuating the spectacle are the flourishes of light and color that accompany collisions with foes and the filling of the air with pollen. The game's whole aesthetic is a breathtaking collage of layered patterns, ornate plants and intensely warm and cool shades. Drawing players in further is a trance music soundtrack so organic to the pace and look of the action, it's faintly noticeable.

Some players may feel tedium as they revisit gardens to collect all five of their Spectra. But with cooperative play and a point system contingent on completion time, seed pollination count and other factors, “Eden's” replay value fades little. Players not content to compete against themselves can compare their scores to the game's online leader boards, and the PlayStation Network's new trophy system provides another batch of challenges.

There are more than enough apples in “PixelJunk Eden” to not only delight players, but convince any remaining doubters that downloadable games will compete with their pricier physical counterparts in quality.

If you play
Game: PixelJunk Eden
Score: A
Parental rating: E for everyone
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment of America
Developer: Q-Games
Platform: PlayStation 3 (PlayStation Network)
Price: $9.99
Features: 1 player, multiplayer
The final boss: With its vibrant and addictive platform play, “PixelJunk Eden” may ultimately prove a key moment in the popular acceptance of downloadable games as a legitimate delivery system for the medium.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Gazing gamers

RagingbeautyThe cinematic scale of "Metal Gear Solid 4" shames previous attempts to merge movies with games - even Director Hideo Kojima's own. The sharp script is realized by Hollywood-caliber voice acting, particularly from Christopher Randolph as Hal and Khari Payton as Drebin. The facial animations and body language of characters like Snake and Meryl convey emotions with amazing subtlety. Images of the scenes Kojima conceives - namely the boat showdown in Eastern Europe and the balletic fight between Raiden and Vamp - overwhelm with their scale and linger long past the game's conclusion.

As a game successfully woven within a grander movie, "MGS4" ripens for criticisms geared at both mediums, including the rich body of theory birthed by film studies over the last century. I couldn't help applying one of those theories to one of the game's most lasting images: The female body.

Kojima's camera captures a lot of it: Naomi and Big Mama's wide cleavage, the Beauties' skin-tight camo suits and even Mei Ling's shapely Navy uniform. But the game derives its sexuality from more than just the female character design; it also stems from the prominence these characters' enticing features enjoy on screen. Several shots leave the females' heads out of the frame to focus on their curvy figures. Others, especially the post-boss battle Beauty shots, take stylized angles to accentuate the women's contours. Often the characters are animated in such a way that flaunts their bodies, even at the expense of the internal logic of the script. Mei Ling bends over to pick up her pointer, but then, for no apparent reason, she remains in that position - on all fours, her butt arched up - and continues briefing her crew as they stare.

Then there are the moments when Kojima enables the players' lascivious eyes. He gives them the options of leafing through the Playboys Snake uses to bait enemies and shaking the Sixaxis controller to jiggle Rose's breasts during codec conversations. In fact, the chests of almost all the females in the game improbably bounce at least once.

Kojima seems to go out of his way to ensure that his mostly male players will gorge themselves on sexual eye candy. Whether he intended to or not, this aspect of his authorship presents a striking example of the male gaze, a concept introduced by Laura Mulvey in her 1973 essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Mulvey suggested that film narratives often frame the action from the (heterosexual) male point of view and focus on them as the causative forces of that action, while females are traditionally pleasure objects relegated to the fringes of it. And perhaps the most noticeable visual trace of this cinematic trend is the camera's emphasis on the female body.

Whether "Metal Gear Solid 4" falls in line with the other tenets of Mulvey's theory is certainly worthy of debate - but another debate. For now, let's limit the discussion to the B-movie-degree prominence of female curves in Kojima's camera. There is precedent for this symptom of the male gaze in video games, both in Kojima's own series (Big Mama in "Snake Eater") and as far back as the NES days (when players could speed-run "Metroid" for a glimpse at Samus in a bikini). You could stick to the surface explanation that gamers are mostly male, like to look at females, and game designers know this. But what else does this persistent trait of video games say about the medium?

- From, a new video game blog I'm co-authoring with some friends.

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