What's your favorite video game farm?!?
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Gary Garcia passed yesterday in his home in Florida. He was 63 years old. Garcia, along with his songwriting partner and lifelong friend Jerry Buckner, struck an ephemeral bit of pop-culture gold almost exactly 30 years ago with the novelty radio hit “Pac-Man Fever”, a catchy, fleeting little ditty cashing in on what was, at the time, the passing trend of video games. Oh, little did they know!
Those of you that follow Giant Bomb closely may remember when we spoke with Buckner & Garcia earlier this year about “Pac-Man Fever” during the Pac-Man Scrub League, an encounter that resulted in the duo penning and recording a similarly specific tribute to our silly-ass website called “Found Me the Bomb.” I’ll admit that my appreciation of Buckner & Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever” always came cloaked in an ironic veil, but in the brief occasions that I happened to speak with Gary Garcia over the past year, I got the sense that he didn’t mind, particularly. Both he and Jerry Buckner seemed extremely comfortable and at-ease with the relative frivolity of their claim to fame, and the fact that their response to the weird affection for “Pac-Man Fever” shared by myself and Jeff Gerstmann was to write us a song speaks to that.
I’ve never written a proper obituary before, and not having really known Gary Garcia, it seems shallow and hollow to speak strictly within the confines of this sliver of his existence. If you’re looking for something of a little more substance, I recommend reading what Jerry Buckner had to say about his close friend.
Well obviously we can't do this on the live show now. GEEZ, THANKS FOR BLOWING THE SEGMENT, GUYS.
LET ME JUST SPIN ANOTHER TERRIFIC IDEA LIKE THIS OUT OF THIN FUCKING AIR OH WAIT I CAN'T SO NOW THE LIVE SHOW'S GONNA SUCK BECAUSE OF YOU GUYS.
SO THANKS. GUYS.
I think I speak honestly for the entire Giant Bomb team when I say that the Penny Arcade Expo is, hands down, one of our favorite events of the whole year. What it lacks in E3's electric buzz of new game reveals and game publisher excess, it more than makes up for with its feel-good indie vibe, and there's truly no better venue for us to go face-to-face with you, the Giant Bomb audience. I don't mean to sound precious here, but sometimes it can feel like we're just hurling this nonsense out into a cold black void, and it's really profoundly gratifying to meet the people who make all our silly-ass shenanigans possible.
In preparation for the show, Jeff, Vinny, Brad, Patrick, Drew, and myself will all be flying out to Seattle at the crack of dawn tomorrow, and we'll be at the show all day Friday, Saturday, and (most of) Sunday. We've got a pretty full schedule of game demos and interviews and whatnot, though we'll also have plenty of time to just cruise the show floor. If you're at PAX, and you see us, and it doesn't seem like we're in the middle of Serious Games Business, feel free to come up and say hi!
Your best opportunity to Taste the Rainbow, though, will be at the Giant Bomb Variety Hour, which takes place at 8:30PM on Friday Night in the Pegasus Theatre, and is actually scheduled to go for two hours, despite the misleading name. It'll be an extravaganza of aimless banter, special guests, musical interludes, audience interaction, and more! Pardon the egotistic presumption here, but our PAX panels tend to fill up quick, so if you're going to the show, and you want to see our panel, it's not the worst idea to show up a little early. I also have it on flimsy authority that Tested's Will Smith and Norman Chan, plus regular guest Gary Whitta, will be hosting a live version of This Is Only a Test at 11:30AM on Sunday in the Serpent Theatre, if you're into that sort of thing.
Having the whole crew at the show means that the site will be a little light on content for the next few days--we're
skipping Thursday Night Throwdown this week playing Team Fortress 2 for Thursday Night Tested this week, and the Whiskey Media Happy Hour will be lean, if it happens at all--though we've hopefully pre-loaded enough content for those days to keep you entertained. If you're not going to PAX, don't sweat it! We'll be taping our panel to post on the site next week, and we'll be bringing home plenty of other cool content from the show as well, so stay tuned for that.
They won’t say it in so many words, but the folks at Namco have a lot riding on Ridge Racer Unbounded. Though its long-running arcade racer has maintained a strong enough fan base to support some 20-odd titles over the past 18 years, there’s little question that the waters have grown stagnant. People just aren’t excited about Ridge Racer like they used to be--just ask Kaz Hirai.
So, good on Namco for showing a little stone and bringing in Finnish developer Bugbear to mix things up with Ridge Racer Unbounded, a game that bears little resemblance to a traditional Ridge Racer game beyond shiny cars going fast. Bugbear has plenty of experience with racing games, and from the one race I’ve had a chance to play so far, the influence of the destructive, rubbin’-is-racin’ philosophy of Bugbear’s FlatOut series is palpable. (Ridge Racer purists who are already sobbing openly and burning their Reiko Nagase bodypillows, chill: Namco assures us that a proper Ridge Racer 8 is still on the way.) Players are encouraged to fill up a power meter with clean, risky driving, then use that power to smash through walls and take out competing drivers. By virtue of the FlatOut connection, it’s easy to then draw comparisons between Unbounded and the Burnout games, as well as other derivatives like Split/Second. To this end, Unbounded, at least in its current state, doesn’t have the same level of visual pop as either of those, and the handling model is still in the process of being tuned, though the potential's clearly there.
What Unbounded does bring to the table, though, is its city creator, which Namco and Bugbear are showing off now for the first time. At its most basic, this is a track editor that presents you with a grid, lets you pick from pre-fab track sections that come in a few different flavors, chain them together into a track of your own design, and then share them with the community. Though the pre-fab track parts don’t provide for much detailed track-crafting, an advance mode will allow you to specifically place obstacles and explosive objects, and the end results look virtually indistinguishable from what we’ve seen so far of the dense, urban, developer-built tracks the game will ship with. The number of unique tiles that Bugbear will produce for the final game, as well as the number of tiles players will be able to use in a single track, are still up in the air, and both seem like real make-or-break factors for the success of this feature.
With its current, vague 2012 release date, Bugbear seems to have plenty of time to do that work, and assuming that the fundamentals gameplay comes together, Unbounded has the potential to fill the current void of crash-happy, high-impact arcade racing games, as well as broaden the scope of what the Ridge Racer name means. Like I said, there’s a lot riding on Unbounded, and I’ll be curious to see its impact on the future of Ridge Racer if it actually pays off.
Approaching the nondescript front gate of Jonathan Blow’s foggy hilltop San Francisco apartment, I had very little idea of what to expect from The Witness. This was the next game from the man who very nearly single-handedly conceived and executed Braid, a game that, if not the work of actual genius, was at the very least very, very clever. So even though expectations were nonspecific, they were also fairly high. Outside of a surreptitious showing at PAX, I hadn’t heard of anyone beyond Blow’s circle even laying eyes on the game. Even in my correspondences with Blow leading up to our extended gameplay demo, he had been reluctant to provide more detail than to say it was an “exploration-based puzzle game.” I certainly know I wasn't expecting something that could be sloppily, and perhaps unfairly and reductively described in shorthand as a “modern Myst.” But, much like how Braid could be summed up as “Mario with time manipulation” this is really just the start of the conversation.
Speaking about the game, Blow’s not shy about the comparison to something like Myst, or any number of adventure games driven by contextual puzzle solving, but he’s also very vocal about what he finds distasteful of games both old and new. Speaking of the adventure game format, he takes issue with puzzle designs that require you to, somehow, read the intent of the game designer, citing the infamous cat-hair mustache puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3 as a particularly egregious example. Even in Myst, going from one puzzlebox to the next, there’s rarely any consistent logic. This, he feels, is an unfair way to gin up some sense of challenge in your game. Which is not to say Blow doesn't appreciate a good cerebral challenge, something he feels is grossly lacking in modern games. Rollercoasters are fun, but there’s room for something more thoughtful, too.
So! What is The Witness?
The game starts with you, an anonymous, first-person avatar in a spartan, polygonal room, facing a door. On this door is a screen with a simple path drawn on it. Using the analog stick to to trace along this path, the door opens, and you enter a small, gated courtyard, with several more screens, now with slightly more complex paths on them, which appear to be powering the gate. Solving these panels in a similar fashion opens you up to the majority of the mysterious, peculiarly vacant island where the game takes place. There are a number of unique geographical features, as well as structures of seemingly various age, but what deliberately sticks out are these panels, which the island is littered with.
Discovering the logic behind these panels, which evolves and changes as you explore the various areas of the island, is the heart of The Witness, but it’s not a simple matter of trial and error. The panels are often grouped in sets of five, and are designed to teach you a new set of rules by which subsequent panels must be solved. Though certain regions require you to solve a set of panels before exploring them further, the island is generally open for you to explore. This can often lead you to panels which look familiar enough, but which abide by a set of rules that you’ve not yet been introduced to. If you find yourself stuck, the game encourages you to move on and revisit particularly puzzling panels once you’re better equipped.
New rules and elements are introduced, but the basic format of the panels themselves--the tracing of a line through a square grid--never changes. The abstract, seemingly simple nature of these panels can make the evolving subtleties of the underlying logic difficult to describe. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to explain them in detail if I could, as discovering the solutions on your own is the very thing that makes the experience so satisfying.
This is where the greatest similarities between The Witness and Braid are most apparent. As you learn the different rules by which the panels are governed, you also start to build up certain assumptions and expectations about how a panel should be approached, something that the game then turns against the player. As an admittedly, frustratingly vague example, the expectation that all of the information you need to solve a specific panel would be contained within that panel is something that The Witness plays with liberally. Suffice it to say, The Witness rewards a limber mind, and the game preys on the psyche's tendency to focus on what's in front of it, though it always puts the solution in plain sight--you just have to know what to look for.
Like Braid before it, The Witness seems like a heavy vessel for Blow’s specific brand of amorphic, perhaps autobiographical narrative style, though in my time with the game, I was unable to make heads or tales of the cryptic audio recordings I found hidden across the island. Like everything else about The Witness, this seems very deliberate.
Though Blow said that the puzzles that we saw in The Witness are essentially finished, the game is still a year away, time that Blow repeatedly stated would be spent “hitting the game with the production stick.” Which is to say that just about everything that we saw from specific level geometry to voice work and, presumably, the stiff, robot-shaped shadow your anonymous avatar casts, is all placeholder, so don’t put too much stock in the austere appearance of the early screenshots provided.
Appearances aside, I came away surprised and impressed by my experience with The Witness, though I also know that, on a certain level, words aren’t quite enough to describe the contradiction between the simplicity of the form and the complexity of the execution, as well as the subsequent satisfaction of grasping the solution. Jonathan Blow seems to know this, too.