Mario 64 rainbow ride 1-up.png

In the Rainbow Ride stage of Super Mario 64 (1996), there’s a large, grey, stoney cuboid containing a maze of platforms. It’s there to house a red coin challenge: you follow the walkways and magic carpets to that bit of the level, collect all the coins from inside this big concrete thing, then grab your star and you’re done.

But once, I thought, why am I always inside this huge, stone block? I wondered if I could get on top of it. I took a look around the level and I realised that maybe, with a well-timed, blind jump from a higher platform, I could just about catch the wind and scrape my way onto the top of the thing. But why would I do that? Why try to climb it? Because it’s there.

That was George H. L. Mallory’s purported response when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. There is no better reason that can be offered: it’s the drive to quest. In Mallory’s case, it was the drive to climb the highest mountain in the world, enduring barbarous conditions that will constantly oppress the very existence of any human determined enough to press on into them. My case was not exactly the same, but it was quite daring in its own way — and let’s not forget which one of us survived and which one had his frozen corpse found 75 years later. Knowing your limits is a kind of bravery, really. Anyway, I’m not trying to set this up as a competition between me and Mallory. I would only be open to accusations that I look superior just because of the way I framed the matter. And it’s also unfair that, of the two of us, only I have the privilege of defending my position — just because I planned and accomplished my feat in a way that avoided both freezing and death. I really should say, though, superb effort by Mallory. No one likes a bad winner, do they? He did great.


So anyway

All of Mario 64’s stars require some exploration, but the stars are all part of the core game, so the thrill’s not the same. The adventure you get riding the boat-on-a-rope round Pirates of the Caribbean is not the same as the adventure you get when you hop out onto the fibreglass set and stick your head into the service corridors. The brilliance of Mario’s level design is its acknowledgement of that fact.

The top of that stone edifice on Rainbow Ride is just barely within reach — exactly and specifically within reach, with a gust of wind that blows behind you when you leap into the unknown, and makes the stretch just possible. So what great reward awaits the climber? A secret level? An extra star? No — wait! — nothing at all, because the adventure is its own reward?

A coin.

A knowing coin that gives a silent nod to a fellow explorer. Within the game, the coin is worthless, but no reward could mean more than the acknowledgement of your achievement by a kindred mind. The designer was ready for you to try that jump — he understands the drive to quest, and had the same inspiration himself.

It has to be a coin — an unremarkable nothing — because that keeps the secrecy, keeps the spot off the map, off the route of the guided tour. If it was a star or a red coin then any player would get it and every walkthrough would list it. If it was Yoshi hiding on the castle roof then it would be a surprise spoiled by a thousand YouTube videos.

But it’s just a coin. Just a knowing coin, just a nod. Which is perfect.




Categories🎮, 🔍

Rez (2001) brings out the gamer in me. It’s a perfectly designed son-et-lumière spectacle, but it’s also a videogame, and in one of the most firmly established genres: the rail shooter.

As a child I was captivated by Space Harrier (1988) on my friend’s Atari ST. It was colourful, fast, and exciting. I felt as if its “Fantasy Zone” spread out forever, full of mysteries. Just as we thought we would make some progress, it always seemed to be time for me to go home. The mysteries went unsolved. Space Harrier caught my imagination as if it held the key to transcendence or had some kind of ultimate, joyful revelation hidden away in its final stage. That’s what games did to us as kids.

But it was actually just another dumb beige disk in the pile, and we imagined the magic for ourselves. It was just a rail shooter. But what if a game like that really meant something?

Madeleine moment on this one. Source

Madeleine moment on this one. Source

A rail shooter story

I like to talk about two problems for storytelling in games. The hero problem is the tension between a narrative of heroic success and mechanics where the protagonist might fail. This comes up in most games. The Freeman problem is the tension between authored scenarios and player freedom within them. E.g. when mechanics allow for stupid behaviour by the protagonist which is not in line with the story the author wanted to tell.

Some indie or arty games shed light on these problems in interesting ways — The Stanley Parable (2013), for instance, or Braid (2008). Rez solves both problems, but without being fancy or clever. It’s not a game that’s even thought of for it’s story. It’s not even of a genre usually though of for stories: it’s just a rail shooter, but it means something.

Rez HD remake on Xbox 360 Source

Rez HD remake on Xbox 360 Source

The original Dreamcast disc Source

The original Dreamcast disc Source

Rez is a tremendous work of storytelling. In contrast to other popular games-as-art poster children, whose good artistic elements still jar against their gaminess — Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, for example — it takes familiar and polished videogame tropes and lets them become a narrative on their own. It proves that games don’t need to hide their history to do something valuable.


The story and its telling

Rez’s otherworldly story is about a computer system which is being overwhelmed with information, and is wrestling with the traumas of worldly understanding and self-awareness. The player is a hacker infiltrating the system to locate the central AI and shut it down.

In playing the game, the player is bombarded with information in the form of typically rail-shooter enemy waves and attack patterns, dressed up with Tron-style computer-space graphics and hypnotic, rhythmical sounds quantised to the techno beats of the electronic soundtrack.

The narrative is developed in vague passages of text between playable levels. It deals with the evolution of life, intelligence, and consciousness, the puzzles of self-understanding, and the possibility of ultimate transcendence in their solution.

The playable stages do not add concretely to the narrative, but instead develop the story thematically. They allow the player to learn, understand, and develop mastery, so that by the time the central AI is located, the player shares with it a sensation of adeptness and of oneness with the system of the game.

Completing the game provides a closing cinematic and rolls the credits, but then finally displays a single line of white text on a black screen:

“She still lies trapped within the system…”

So inquisitiveness demands another play through the game.

The repetition does nothing to dismantle the narrative because it is set out so vaguely, and is all about progress, development, and revelation. Replaying only strengthens the effect of the interaction, developing the player’s ability further, and bringing you closer to mastery and a complete understanding of the world.

The player is primed for transcendence, for the potential escape from the system that is tacitly promised in the closing text. Your hope is that if you do better — if you achieve perfection — then the AI will join you in your release, sharing in perfect mastery of the system you both inhabit.

The hero problem is avoided because there is not a narrative of success in each attempt — only a narrative of overall completion. If the player gives up before getting there then the story remains unfinished. A restart of the game is not a restart of the narrative — it’s a continuation of your development as the hacker in the system.

The Freeman problem is avoided because the player has no freedom to interfere with the author’s control. It is the essence of a rail shooter that you are taken along as the creator dictates. If the game is on rails then it makes sense that the story is too.


Developing the metaphor

What I’ve described so far falls under the system of the game — the interactivity mechanics. Those mechanics are set perfectly in line with the story of the game. The metaphor, the non-essential superficial characteristics of presentation are also brilliantly executed.

Developing the theme of evolution, the player-character levels up during play from a rudimentary polyhedron, through increasingly complex humanoids, to a figure of religious enlightenment, and then beyond, to a form of pure abstraction. The beam fired from the player-character progresses in tandem, from inefficient, snaking lines, to straight, direct flashes, to, with the final character form, the mere effect of removing targets, with hardly any visual cue at all — only sounds.

The six forms of the player character as depicted on Club Sega, where they have a good write-up of the game

The six forms of the player character as depicted on Club Sega, where they have a good write-up of the game

The sound design as a whole works perfectly towards the game’s themes. The samples and rhythms in the music grow in sophistication and complexity as each level progresses, and also from one level to the next.

Visually, too, the five levels’ predominantly abstract appearances become progressively more concrete and organic, until sound and visuals come together in the final stage, full of animalistic mechanical targets, wireframe vegetation and geographical features, and musical voice samples attached to player actions. It’s a general impression of humanity itself coming together in the lead up to the game’s climax.

The final boss — the AI at the centre of the hacked system — takes on a broken human form, representing its struggles with self-consciousness, self-destruction, and transcendence.


A cop-out?

Separating narrative progression from player control could be considered a cop-out: the problems for interactive storytelling are avoided but not solved.

An interactive story is normally supposed to allow the player to affect the direction of the story, but in Rez, you can’t. The story goes along on its rails, while a refined interactive experience engages the player and pulls you into the story world. For me, this is a legitimate approach to interactive stories: after all, it’s great storytelling, it’s interactive, and it’s great because it’s interactive.

The player gets a direct experience of understanding and mastery, leading up to that final humanistic stage, and a stepping stone to climactic transcendence in the narrative if you can truly master the system of the game. Rail shooters are the kind of game where expert players focus, obsess, perfect their technique, and have their own little peak experiencesRez is the only one that formalises, celebrates, and guides that experience. It leads the player to transcendence, reflects that transcendence in its narrative, and acknowledges perfection with a secret reward.

Furthermore, the absence of player control over narrative isn’t accidental or meaningless; it’s deliberate and conspicuous. It makes the story’s progress inevitable, implying a higher power, a grand system much bigger than the player and with a grand existential purpose.

All the videogamey quirks and all the limitations of Rez’s form are are not just dodged, but harnessed, for an artistic result that would be completely impossible in any other medium. That’s why Rez is so captivating, with transcendence, joy, and revelation hidden away in its final stage — and in a rail shooter! A rail shooter!

Rez thank you.png


Monument Valley (2014) has got a lot of attention since it came out. It certainly looks pretty.

Compared to an unresponsive spreadsheet you’re supposed to be working on, or compared to trying to get Hangouts to work again, it’s enticing. Next to other apps, it looks interesting. Next to other games, it’s dull.

Monument Valley is like watching a boring cartoon that keeps pausing itself and asking you to click play again. Here’s what you do:

  1. Watch girl walk
  2. Find control on pretty picture
  3. Touch it, spin it, whatever
  4. Watch girl walk
  5. Repeat for 1 hour

Imagine a picture book on your iPad with a “Turn Page” button. The story is boring as hell, but to make up for it, the “Turn Page” button moves all over the screen and is annoying to try and find.

Sold? You, me, and half a million other chumps.







A handheld console was even more conspicuous when people didn’t all have smartphones. An adult who stared at a little screen in public did so with nerd-heart on sleeve. In 2003, Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand required you to take your Game Boy Advance out into the world and admit who you really were.


The sun is in your hand

What makes this game such a curiosity is the oversized cartridge’s clear plastic case, which protrudes from the GBA’s slot and gathers sun rays into a UV sensor — perfect for summer gaming.

There are ROM patches to fake the sunlight in an emulator, but this is definitely a game to be played on the original plastic. However, on the practical retrogamer's favourite AGS-101 (or any SP or the Micro) the bottom-sided cartridge might require a grip adjustment to keep your hands clear of the sensor. You might consider using a DS for its extra width, but it’s not worth subjecting yourself to the original GBA screen just to get the cartridge on top.

Boktai came out just after the SP form factor and is clearly not optimised for it.

Boktai came out just after the SP form factor and is clearly not optimised for it.

So about the game

Forget the sunlight sensor for now. What’s this actually about?

Boktai is an isometric vampire-hunting action-adventure with basic stealth elements. It was produced by Hideo Kojima, looks slick, and is not shy about borrowing from Metal Gear for the sneaking mechanics. The weapon upgrade system exemplifies the vaguely steam-punk aesthetic, which touches enough tropes to be fun, but tweaks them enough not to be clichéd.

The not-quite-isometric distortion is characteristic of the game, not just my screenshots

The not-quite-isometric distortion is characteristic of the game, not just my screenshots

The overall impression is kind of steam punk meets Count Duckula in Japan

The overall impression is kind of steam punk meets Count Duckula in Japan

The presentation is still fresh in 2014 — maybe fresher than in 2003, since pixel art is at the peak of yet another resurgence. You could easily imagine a Boktai iPhone port being successful today, maybe combining weather data and ambient light sensing to bodge the sunlight conditions. (Or maybe UV sensors will be the next big thing…) However, it would probably be ruined with a free-to-play model selling more sunlight instead of making you wait until morning.

Let’s not go there: 2003 was an innocent time.


What you actually do

The structure is as follows: go to a castle; sneak past undead creatures; shoot some undead creatures with your solar gun; find a vampire’s coffin; drag the occupied coffin outside; toast it with sunlight; repeat.


Stealth comes in because your gun’s solar power is a precious resource. You can scan the mazy levels within a screen of your character by holding L or R, then you can flatten against walls and tap your hand to distract enemies. It’s a simple hide-distract-move manoeuvre thoroughly QA’d by Solid Snake, and it’s fun.

In a further twist, you can’t run or shoot while you drag coffins, so your exit routes need careful observation and planning.


The sunlight mechanic

You have a weapon that fires sunlight. If your character’s standing outside or near a window, and if it’s sunny in the real world, then sunlight pours in on-screen and he can charge up. Sunlight is also stored in batteries located in the castles, where you can recharge a limited number of times when direct sunlight is unavailable. A few situations also require direct sunlight on top of what’s stored in your gun.

Boktai 1.png
Boktai 2.png


Also in the cartridge is a “real-time clock” (otherwise known as a “clock”, right?). Monsters are more active or less, depending on the time of day, and certain goals can only be achieved at the right times.


So when do we get to the boring conceptual analysis?

The effect of the UV sensor and clock mechanics is that you really are best off carrying your GBA around with you and finding time for gaming as you go about your life. Which is fun. There’s nothing clever-clever or meta about Boktai tying the real world into the game.

It’s a good, traditional game from a quality developer, which got good reviews in 2003 and easily holds up now. What’s more, Boktai assumes that you have your Game Boy with you at all times and are always willing to play. That’s an assumption that makes a nerd feel at home — even when you have to go outside.

So no theory today, just a recommendation for summer.





Earlier this month, Arin Hanson (A.K.A. 1.5m-subscriber youtuber Egoraptor) posted a 30-minute video critique of the Zelda series, focussing especially on Ocarina of Time (1998).

It’s a bit rambling compared to his other ‘Sequalitis’ videos, but it’s just as high-paced, passionate, and incisive. (For a shorter intro to Egoraptor, try his Castlevania IV one.)

I don’t agree with his analysis.

Link discovers the Master Sword on the NES

Link discovers the Master Sword on the NES

Link discovers the Master Sword on the N64

Link discovers the Master Sword on the N64

Ocarina’s bullshit

Among Hanson’s criticisms is an objection to the over-the-top ceremony of Link opening treasure chests in Ocarina of Time. An extended animation and musical cue accompany every opened chest — a feature absent in A Link to the Past (1991).

(15:41) A treasure chest in and of itself is a mystery and a sense of suspense. […] Simply walking to the chest is all the suspense you need. […] The feeling of suspense [in Link to the Past] is real, and very valid.

(16:17) Ocarina decided to add in bullshit! Link opens up the treasure chest and is all like “What the fuck is… What is this? Oh my god! I’m amazed!” Who cares that he’s amazed? I wanna be amazed!

This gets at his broader point: that Ocarina takes pains to tell you what to care about, instead of making you care with its gameplay.


Hanson goes on to argue in this vein that the whole sense of adventure in Ocarina is diminished by over-eager exposition of purpose in on-screen text and cinematic showboating. In fact, he levels the same criticism at A Link to the Past, and argues that only the first game in the series — The Legend of Zelda (1986) — got adventuring right.

(2:35) Exploration still exists in Link to the Past — and God knows it’s required to beat it — but if a game is telling you to do specific things with marks on a map and a sequence of which things to do and specific instructions, you’re not discovering a world; you're being taken on a tour.

(20:10) Ocarina’s story provides you with a context to your quest […] but it refuses to acknowledge the player’s innate sense of wonder, and drive to quest, to fight. Players […] want to enter a dungeon, see what’s inside, and succeed against enemies.

Hanson’s saying that games should elicit an emotional response, not assert one, and on top of that, they should elicit that response using game mechanics and interaction. He dismisses what the games are doing with their superficial presentation — with their metaphors — on the grounds that their underlying mechanics — their systems — must do those jobs for them to count.

Link completes the Triforce with minimal ceremony on the NES

Link completes the Triforce with minimal ceremony on the NES

Link completes the Triforce with astonishing 3D graphics on the SNES

Link completes the Triforce with astonishing 3D graphics on the SNES

I don’t think that’s right. System and metaphor both have roles to play in engaging the player, and when they’re used together the effect can be phenomenal.

In a previous post about this, my example was Thomas Was Alone, but here’s another example. In the case of Zelda, all that’s happened since the first game on the NES is that the metaphor has been brought into alignment with the system. This is an improvement.


What’s really going on

In the first Zelda, the metaphor did very little work at all. Hanson loves that fact:

(0:59) In Zelda you were an adventurer and, well, seriously, that much wasn’t even explained. You were just a green dude, walk into a cave, old dude goes ‘Hey, take this!’ You’re like ‘OK.’
(3:20) It’s not the kind of game that holds your hand. There’s no explanation or even really like a goal, but there’s adversity everywhere, and you can approach it any time you want, whether you’re prepared or not. You run the real risk of facing off against something that will kill you — in a fucking second! It’s fucking awesome!

There’s nothing to stop you from going somewhere except for the fact that it’s really difficult. And you don’t know if you need to persevere because it just is hard, or if you should come back later when you’ve found an easier section that will reward you with a new ability that you need. “Adversity” is the right word — it’s brutal.

So Link to the Past tightened up the structure. At the level of the system, instead of just really hard sections that encourage you turn back, you get out-and-out inaccessible areas and things that are strictly and clearly impossible until later stages of the game. But instead of just punishing you for wondering if you can, admonishing you for your adventurer’s instinct like the first Zelda, Link to the Past communicates with you in it’s metaphor as well as it’s system. You are told in dialogue that you are on a quest, and that you will need to complete certain steps along the way.

You even get a map with flashing numbers on it telling where you’re going next and where you’re going five steps after that!

Link to the Past map.png

OK, so that’s a bit heavy-handed.

A Link to the Past and Ocarina didn’t replace the player’s experience of achievement with a narrative of progress existing only in the metaphor. On the contrary, it added to the metaphor an explicit framework for making sense of the progression the player feels in the game. The system and metaphor are brought into line with one another.

This was an enormous step up in sophistication over the rudimentary and punishing NES game. Instead of a brutal world that you would feel privately relieved to have survived, you are given a proper framework for your progress, a story to enhance what you are actually experiencing when you play, and a ceremony of success and closure to accompany your satisfaction.

Systems of interaction are special to videogames, and Hanson seems to want them to carry every aspect of what any game does. But I don’t think he’s found a universal rule that the Zelda series has broken. What he does is highlight a change in direction between Zelda on the NES and A Link to the Past. Maybe it’s a shame the direction changed, but that’s a matter of taste. Nothing in Link and Ocarina undid the first game’s work, and what was added was evidently added with coherent purpose.


The drive to quest

Hanson covers a lot more ground in his video, but one thing I really love about this thread of argument is his craving for the player’s “drive to quest” to be acknowledged. I suppose where we differ is that he thinks making the quest explicit in the metaphor undermines the successful work of the system to give it structure, whereas I think it enhances it.

But I agree that the drive to quest is real — and I love that turn of phrase. I also agree that videogames can provoke that drive in a special way. It’s true that our reason to conquer Death Mountain may just be the same as Mallory’s to conquer Everest: because it’s there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t dress the quest up with all the lights and sounds that videogames also do so well.