E.1 – Resident Evil 2 (Remake): First Impressions & Retrospective

Welcome to the inaugural episode of Screen Looking, a podcast where close friends take a closer look at our favorite video games. We’ll be focusing on one game per episode from the perspective of its artwork, game design and storytelling, ranging from contemporary blockbusters to remakes and indies.

Typically, we’ll be unpacking games we’ve already played through, but because this is the first episode we decided to do something special: the newly announced remake of Resident Evil 2 (RE2).

RE2 was originally released in 1998 to critical acclaim as a two-disc game for the Sony Playstation, shortly following its breakthrough predecessor. Twenty years later, it’s finally seeing the remake fans have been clamoring for since the original Resident Evil had its own in the early 2000’s (and seen multiple re-issues since). The pair of survival horror classics defined a new genre in gaming, and terrified gamers in their formative years. My guest, Alex Koval, and I can attest to this, as it’s a series we grew up playing together, bonding over, and thinking about ever since.

Join us as we look at what gave RE2 the status it earned in 1998, our impressions of the remake fresh off of its E3 reveal, and what we look forward to seeing next.


Music in this episode comes from the OST’s to both Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2.

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Engadget Feature: The (re)making of ‘Crash Bandicoot’

If you have ever thumbed through my blog here, it doesn’t take long to deduce that the original three Crash Bandicoot games were essential to my childhood.

With that in mind, I am very pleased to share my latest piece of professional video game writing: a full-length feature on the process behind remastering the Crash Bandicoot trilogy. The feature was published and laid out by Engadget in early July, featuring in-depth interviews with art & design leads on the team at Vicarious Visions (VV), in addition to exclusive process-artwork that outlines their creative workflow.

What stood out to me were the philosophical aspects of VV’s approach, and the pressure they placed on themselves in striking a balance between their vision and Naughty Dog’s original thought process. As a lifelong fan, I had immense expectations for the remaster, and VV went above and beyond — my conversations with them only solidified that trust.

Special thanks to Aaron Soupporis at Engadget for his mentorship, collaborative spirit and going the extra mile on the layout, as well as Jessica Conditt for connecting us. Nicholas Ruepp, Kara Massie, Cory Turner, Curtis Orr, Leo Zuniga and Wiebke Vallentin at VV & Activision were all extremely helping in coordinating the interviews and art assets we needed, all the way up to the eve of releasing the N. Sane Trilogy.


Aside

Although I played the original games into the ground throughout the late 90’s, it was stumbling upon Andy Gavin’s making-of blog series that got me interested in them again. Unfortunately, while I had a working PlayStation, I didn’t have my original copies anymore — I sold them off in order to raise money for my mom’s Christmas gift as a kid, back when allowance was hard to come by.

I began recollecting each one, the original black-label editions, from a variety of regional used game stores. Revisiting the legacy games over the course of my 20’s became an annual hobby, but my years as a professional designer — on top of my game design education — gave me a newfound appreciation for the effort and thoughtfulness that went into each one. What’s fascinating is how they preserve a clear evolution in Naughty Dog’s talents and sensibilities, which you can still see traced in the remasters.

All that being said, I feel incredibly fortunate to have recently authored a feature on the (re)making of Crash Bandicoot for Engadget, just in time for its long-awaited return by Vicarious Visions.

I still remember waiting for the latest issues of Ultra Game Players or PlayStation Magazine to arrive in our mailbox, just to tear them open for any information on the newest Crash Bandicoot game. That excitement certainly had a resurgence as VV began releasing more details on the N. Sane Trilogy. I feel grateful to have gotten to know the team and their vision a little better, and to have an inviting and respected platform like Engadget to publish that experience on.

 

Polygon Opinion Piece: The Last Guardian

 

Recently, I wrote an opinion piece for a well-known video game website, Polygon.

The article recounts my experience with a long-awaited game, The Last Guardian, and the parallels I drew between it and our bond with animals during a trying time in my life. It’s an analysis of the game’s design as much as it is a personal essay and investigation into the ways we all encounter animals in need. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

The Last Guardian doubles as an interactive metaphor for the discovery and rehabilitation of animals in situations of abuse or neglect. For being such a fantastical setting, it plays host to a cautionary tale that is grounded in reality. By offering us an extended glimpse into an abused animal’s perspective, The Last Guardian asks us to empathize: What does it mean to spend time in their environment? How are they a product of it, and how much can they change?

The full article can be found here, and I invite you to share your own story and/or takeaway from The Last Guardian.

Tiny Apocalypses: An Interview with Dan Pinchbeck, Creative Director of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Everybody may have vanished from the slumbering town of Yaughton, but not without a trace.

Across a blindingly bright English countryside, with radios left on, research abandoned, doors unshut and phone booths ringing, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture explores what life there was like as you piece together a hauntingly calm apocalypse in a most unfamiliar setting: home sweet home.

Previously known for their surreal Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is the latest game from studio The Chinese Room. In my curiosity to learn more about what fueled Rapture’s story, its big questions and the creative drive behind them, I discovered what inspires and compels the team that created it. Dan Pinchbeck, Creative Director at The Chinese Room, graciously took me through their process, the artistic decisions they made, his thoughts on science fiction and the potential for storytelling within video games today.

Below is an excerpt from our discussion, and you can read the full interview here.


rapture-yaughton-09Andrew Kuhar: What lead you to explore the English countryside as the right home for this take on the end of the world?

Dan Pinchbeck: The other major idea behind Rapture was the collision of the epic and the intimate, and we drew a lot of inspiration from the ‘cosy catastrophe’ science-fiction of authors like John Wyndham, Christopher Priest, J.G. Ballard and John Christopher. There’s a very definite Englishness about this work that felt just absolutely right for Rapture. The combination of a sleepy, idyllic English village with this apocalyptic tale just felt like it would get that sense so absolutely.

At the end of each character’s story, we get the rather harrowing opportunity to witness the emotional arc of their final moments. Yet, these set pieces are presented in one of the game’s most memorable aesthetics. How did these moments come together and what inspired them?

Often it’s not a lightbulb moment, but a gentle process of things. We really wanted to capture that magic and majesty of the stars in the skybox, to have that silent, beautiful sweep across the world. With Rapture, the emotional punch comes from that mix of big and small — we’ve talked a lot about the epic and the intimate — so we wanted to have a moment where those really small private moments of connection between people, or something as intimate and extraordinary as someone’s death, were played off against this huge sweeping cosmos and beauty of the drifting lights, to really set it in this magical context. I’m a huge Carl Sagan fan, and he often talked about how the more he understood just how extraordinary and vast the universe is, the most privileged he felt to be alive. We really wanted to make that statement in those moments.

Read the full interview »

Generation gone: Where Playstation mascot Crash Bandicoot is today

As a reflection on the Playstation 4’s launch, I wrote an article for GamesBeat about the relevance of the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy in 2013. In essence, it’s about how what worked for Crash in the late 90’s might also be what the series needs today, should it ever finally return.

GamesBeat has since promoted and republished the article, which I thought I’d forward and share an excerpt from here:


In some ways, Crash Bandicoot 2 shares a philosophy with the puzzle-platforming series Portal. You’re given what moves you absolutely need near the very beginning and nothing more for the rest of the adventure. From there, it’s up to the level design and the game mechanics to play off each other to keep things interesting. Jumping, spinning, belly-flopping, crouching, and sliding are all you have to get from point A to point B. Granted, there are a few exceptions (like transports of some manner), but Crash himself never fundamentally changes.

Instead, the levels subvert your expectations by presenting you with interesting challenges based on what you already know. Suddenly, there are more dangerous crates to break open, so how do you move around them in a 3D space? A few levels flip your sense of direction, either having you running toward the screen and away from an agitated bear or moving along it like a traditional side-scroller. When moving forward starts to feel boring, you find yourself riding atop an untamable polar bear cub at top speeds or following fireflies down dark paths, making the game feel like an endless runner or a relay race at night.

But at no point in any of the above scenarios are the game mechanics altered beyond recognition. At its most abstract and arguably its best, Crash Bandicoot is purely about playing with familiarities in the platforming genre.

Here’s a link to the full article on GamesBeat »

(Thanks to Stephanie Carmichael from GamesBeat for promoting and editing the article.)

The Mirrors of The Last of Us

tlou-ellie-mirrors

A couple weeks back, I finished Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us — they’ve sure come a long way since Crash Bandicoot (though, I still pine for the franchise to return to its rightful owner).

As the final act came to a close, what struck me the most was how reflective the game was of itself, and how far its characters had come since the opening scene. The critical reception to The Last of Us has ranged from brightly glowing to argumentative and divisive, but what can’t be mistaken is how much thoughtfulness Naughty Dog has put into it. I jotted down my own thoughts on a few “mirrors” between the very beginning and the very end of the game, which I wanted to share here.

Warning: there’s a significant amount of spoilers ahead!

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The Clone Wars: PS4 & The One-Console Future

ps4_cube_trailer

“We realize people do not care about the size of these boxes, they hide them anyway. So we made a cube.”
– The Verge’s Ross Miller (from a live recap immediately following Sony’s Playstation 4 announcement)

Miller may have been playing the role of a Sony executive in the above joke, and maybe Sony executives have actually said something like it behind closed doors. Either way, they’d both be right.

We don’t often associate the word “computer” with the word “easy”, as easy as “a cube” makes it sound. Companies like Apple, Google, and even Microsoft now are spending most of their marketing and design budgets trying to remedy this stigma (and sometimes go too far). Meanwhile, boxes that were built to be more straightforward (video game consoles, for example) have been doing the opposite, spending the past decade-and-a-half adding features that first appeared on traditional computers: disc-based drives, the internet, buddy lists, digital markets, social networks, YouTube, etc.

Every other hardware developer may be going in the opposite direction of their competitors, but their compasses will eventually lead them all to the same place.

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