Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Review of Cards Against Humanity

Thank you to my blogger pal Mike of The Blog of Thog for this guest post on Cards Against Humanity. I'll be off the blogosphere for a while, catch you all in a few weeks!

Cards Against Humanity
Cards Against Humanity is a horrible game. Anyone in their right mind should not play this game, not for a moment.

If you're not in your right mind, however, read on. It's awesome.

Cards Against Humanity is a card game for three or more players, with a really simple premise. You have two types of cards - black question cards, and white answer cards. Each person takes a turn to be the "Card Czar" and draws a black card. They ask the question on the card, for example "What's the new fad diet?" and the other players have to put forward one of their white cards as an answer to the question. And when everyone has put forward a white card, the Card Czar reads them out, and gives the funniest one the black card. Everyone who put forward a white card draws a new white card (people always have ten white cards) and the next person becomes the Card Czar.

But the game really depends on you and your friends having a, shall we say, questionable sense of humour. If we take the example question, "What's the new fad diet?", some of the questions that come back could include:

"Authentic mexican cuisine"

And I've kept extremely polite in the possible answers above, some of them really do go into being potentially offensive - but that all depends on the people playing it.

Cards Against Humanity is a beautifully simple game. I love came games and board games, but the complexity of them often frustrates me, even supposedly simple games can have so many stages or rules, or exceptions to rules, that it can take some work understanding how to play, and you really can just jump into Cards Against Humanity and within a couple of minutes you're suggesting that your best friend drinks to forget Sean Connery.

If you are of a legal drinking age, then it is fair to say that a drop or two of alcohol won't hurt the game, in fact it'll probably improve it somewhat, but I have played it sober and it is still brilliant fun.

Find out more about the game at www.cardsagainsthumanity.com - you can buy a set (there are different sets available for US, Canadian, and UK players) or even print it out for free. There are stacks of fan translations into other languages too, even Pirate!

So try Cards Against Humanity.

If you and your friends aren't easily offended, that is!

Mike, when not drinking to forget Sean Connery, blogs over at thoggy.blogspot.com and produces mediocre quality videos at youtube.com/ravenswingthog.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Emotional Journey of Shovel Knight

WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for the story of Shovel Knight.

Shovel Knight Characters
Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games is one of the best games I've played in ages. A loving homage to the 8-bit NES games of my childhood, it is both nostalgic and fresh, with challenging platforming and boss fights, lots of secrets, an intelligent loot system, and an original epic chiptune score by Jake Kaufman. All of these factors make for an amazing game, and tying it together is a well-told and surprisingly emotional narrative with memorable characters and bosses that really define the world you're playing in. This focus on emotional storytelling raises Shovel Knight above the status of the traditional platformer, in which story is generally less important than action, into the realm of art. The storytelling is achieved primarily through Shovel Knight's conversations with other characters, which are brief so as to not detract from the action, but manage to develop each of the characters' personalities and motivations, making Shovel Knight's quest feel much more personal than the stories from the games in which it draws inspiration. At the crux of the story is Shovel Knight's relationship with Shield Knight and the resulting rivalry with Black Knight. This is developed through Shovel Knight's repeated encounters with his dark counterpart, and Shovel Knight's dreams in which you really sense his deep feelings for Shield Knight, all of which works to make the conclusion of the game all the more satisfying. It's amazing how well the story is defined through such limited interaction, and the story resonated with me so much that it is these memories of the game, more than the action, that will continue to linger with me in the years to come.

Shovel Knight Shield Knight
Shovel Knight is not the mute, two-dimensional character that so many platformers have adopted in the past. He speaks fairly often, giving his actions within the game context, and is given a tragic backstory to augment his shovel-hacking ability. The titular character of the game starts out as a broken man, having lost his partner, Shield Knight, through a dark and powerful magic. He goes into retirement, but when evil confronts the land again, and the Tower of Fate where Shield Knight fell is unsealed, he comes out of retirement to kick some enemy tail. The introduction to the game gives you context for the action, not unlike the old games platformers it was based off of, such as Castlevania and Mega Man. Generally speaking, however, those older games dropped character development beyond the initial story, whereas Shovel Knight continues to develop as a character as the game progresses.

Shovel Knight Black Knight
Rather than just beating people up for the shallow reason that they are bad and he is good, we see through Shovel Knight's interactions that he lives by a code where he tries to avoid conflict when he feels it is unnecessary, often trying to talk his way out of a fight, but never backing down against those who prey on the defenceless. He is a paragon of justice, and his personality is defined to act as a perfect foil for The Order of No Quarter, knights with huge egos who have pledged allegiance for various reasons to the game's primary antagonist, The Enchantress.

Shovel Knight Treasure Knight
In true Mega Man style, each member of The Order of No Quarter has their own stage, with traps and enemies that are reflective of the boss' theme or powers. In Mega Man, these stages work to define the character of the stage's bosses whose motivations were rather shallow, but Shovel Knight takes this a step farther by defining these boss knights' character against Shovel Knight's through conversations between them prior to each fight. The Order of No Quarter are seen to be fighting for various personal reasons related to their own ambition rather than blindly following The Enchantress for the sake of 'evil.' For instance, King Knight gets raised from a lowly servant to become the King, and Treasure Knight is able to take advantage of the chaos sewn by the sorceress to secure all his ill-gotten gains.

Shovel Knight Treasure Knight
The boss conversations are short, and yet manage to turn what would otherwise be straightforward 'good versus evil' boss battles into a battle between righteousness and dishonour. The satisfaction of beating each boss amounts to more than simply being able to learn enemy attack patterns and time attacks; Shovel Knight's conviction is at stake. Rather than each boss feeling merely like just another roadblock towards the game's final encounter, every victory feels significant, as if you are removing a scourge upon the land independent of their service to the larger enemy.

Shovel Knight Black Knight End
A notable exception to the Order of No Quarter is Shovel Knight's rival, Black Knight. You fight with him several times, over which you learn that their feud goes back a ways. His motivations are initially unclear. You see him engaging with The Enchantress, and though he refuses to fight for her, he also continues to impede your path to The Tower of Fate. Eventually it becomes apparent that Black Knight is aware that The Enchantress is actually Shield Knight, who has been transformed by the dark magic. All of a sudden their feud makes sense, they're fighting over a woman. Black Knight has been trying to prevent Shield Knight from hurting, and possibly killing, Shield Knight. This is not mentioned explicitly, but by pacing out the encounters with Black Knight and dropping hints here and there, a portrait of their feud, much larger than what is actually presented in the game, is made apparent. Black Knight admits that he's not strong enough to take The Enchantress down, and this admission plus the knowledge we gain of his love for Shield Knight transform him immediately into a sympathetic character. What's amazing is how all of this character development is accomplished through very limited exposition.

Shovel Knight Dream Shield Knight Fall
Shovel Knight does not escape his battle against The Order of No Quarter unscathed. While he is strong, we see he is not infallible as he requires rest, and slumbers by the fire between stages. This gives the character a distinctly human quality, sets the game's quest within a more realistic timeline, and provides the backdrop for one of Yacht Club Games' most clever methods of character development: Shovel Knight's dreams. In these sequences, Shield Knight is falling from the sky, and after a few moments of fighting off a swarm of enemies, the prompt "catch her" appears on the screen, and in slow motion you must rush over as she falls. The outcome is the same whether or not miss you miss catching her (Shovel Knight wakes up), but does it ever feel horrible if you miss. These sequences are brilliant, as they manage to convey without words Shovel Knight's pain and regret over losing Shield Knight, and in waking up upon catching her you can genuinely feel the loss that one feels when waking up from a pleasant dream.

Shovel Knight Catch
These sequences also turn out to be a form of foreshadowing, as after you defeat The Enchantress and Shield Knight is freed from the power of the dark magic, you must catch her one last time, but this time for real. The game's creators do such a great job of building up emotional expectation through the interrupted dream sequences that the realization of those dreams is made all the more potent. Having Shield Knight then fight alongside Shovel Knight in the final battle is a sweet touch that shows how well they work as a team, and why they were considered a force to be reckoned with. When Shovel Knight is knocked out and Shield Knight stays behind to offer protection while Black Knight carries Shovel Knight away, the worry that she is gone for good after having finally found her again is palpable, and had me clinging to my 3DS during the credits to wait for the final payoff.

Shovel Knight End
Yacht Club games has truly created something special in Shovel Knight. The story elements of the game are quick and never detract from the action, but for all their brevity manage to define a much larger world which is easy to get lost in. The protagonist's personality and motivation become well-established, and his enemies no less so, leading to rewarding, weighty encounters. Most importantly, the player is allowed to take a glimpse into the heart of the character he controls, something which is all too rare in games. 'Rescuing the Princess' is such a common trope in video games, but so rarely do we really get a sense that the hero actually cares for her, or even feels remorse for having lost her in the first place. Shovel Knight takes what we loved about the NES era and combines it with a unique storytelling aesthetic that allows the player to truly resonate with its hero, proving that you can have a fast-paced and action-packed platforming spree without sacrificing story to do so. I dig it.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Treasure Hunting Folly in Studio Crazy Horse's 'Eye of Mubala'

With a story inspired by the likes of Indiana Jones and Tintin, Eye of Mubala is a short animated film that is currently in production. The film is written and directed by Nas Pasha and Matt Bakerdjian, and is being animated by them along with a collection of friends comprising Studio Crazy Horse. It is about a reckless anthropology professor who snatches a forbidden relic, awakening a terrifying guardian named Mubala, and his plucky research assistant Pema, who has to keep her senior's ass out of the fire. The trailer Studio Crazy Horse released for the Toronto Animation Arts Festival showcases the film's three primary characters and its use of traditional hand-drawn animation:

The characters, although silent, demonstrate abundant personality in their animated expression. You really get a sense of The Professor's roguish nature in his treasure hoarding, and the cowardice on his face when he's chased by Mubala. Pema, on the other hand, gives off an air of heroism and determination, and perhaps also her frustration with always having to save The Professor. The use of traditional animation really lends itself well to this story, giving it a somewhat gritty aspect that really appeals to the relic-hunting genre. The environments this team have created are gorgeous, with lush backgrounds and realistic lighting. I caught up with one of the co-directors Nas to ask him about his process on the film and its influences:

Tell us a little bit more about your film and Studio Crazy Horse. How did they come about?

We're a group of likeminded animators, and the film is really just a codified way for us "Crazy Horses" to have some fun. We all love animation, and are pretty unhappy with the state of the industry today. Eye of Mubala is our attempt at taking an idea that we're in love with and sharing it for the only reason that should matter, so that people can enjoy quality hand-drawn animation uninfluenced by money.

In this short trailer I really get a good feel for the character of both The Professor and Pema. How did you first come up with these characters?

It's a funny story! In short, both Matt and I individually came up with two similar stories of a foolish character who steals a gem of sorts from a temple and is chased by a beast. We were dumbfounded that our stories were so similar. As we talked with the team members, we came to agree that there should be two characters in order to express both the desperation and determination of stealing a jewel so precious. So in essence, we have a Jack Sparrow-esque fellow who isn't stupid, but does seem to get himself into terrible situations, and his research assistant Pema, who is the actual brains behind the madness and bails him out of these sticky scenarios.

You have stated that Indiana Jones is a major influence for Eye of Mubala. Are you a big fan of the action-adventure genre? What other stories helped inspire the plot?

Definitely a lifelong fan of Indiana Jones, though I haven't seen the new one with the aliens in it. I love the idea of mysterious tombs and ancient curses, so along with Indiana Jones other influences include Tarzan, Uncharted (the PS3 game), Tomb Raider (though I haven't ever played it), and Mission Impossible. In terms of our film's plot, though there are probably similarities to other stories (since the treasure hunting genre can only be so varied), Matt and I weren't really influenced by any particular source. We just thought it'd be neat to create a treasure chase movie.

I see in your work a combination of both Eastern and Western influences. On your website you have lots of anime-inspired art, but the animation style of Mubala reminds me a lot of the work of Belgian and French comic artists, such as Hergé or Fabien Mense. Which artists and animators would you say most inspire your style and that of the film?

May I first answer this question with a big "Thank you" for regarding my name and that of Fabien Mense in the same sentence. Collectively our team is classically trained and therefore we almost all love the classic Disney animated films, and even though Disney hasn't done anything 2D in a long time, they're definitely in our DNA. That being said, Studio 4C, Ghibli, Bones, and Les Goblins are all major influences. Personally, the works of Fabien Mense, Joel27, BAHI JD, LeSean Thomas, Ki Hyun Ryu, Inseung Choi, and Yutaka Nakamura inspire me in my style of animation. Very snappy, so to speak.

Why did you choose to use traditional hand-drawn animation for Eye of Mubala over computer-aided animation?

Because I like it more, and though unfortunate, many animators these days don't even carry a sketch book - and I'm obsessed with drawing! We have a joke, among us: 3D animation makes all the hard things easy, and all the easy things hard. The skill involved in 2D hand-drawn animation is unmatched and timeless. Classic animation made decades ago still holds up today, The Jungle book is a perfect example.

Who makes up the rest of Studio Crazy Horse, and what are their roles in the film?

We're a team of 11! Here they are:

Mark Conmigo, Matt Bakerdjian, Naseer Pasha

Giuseppe Arabia, Dale Watson, Tenzin Chime, Mark Conmigo

Character Design:
Chris Morin, Dale Watson

BG Paint:
Mike Chung, Julien Nema

Cel Colour: Joseph Ng, John Chan, Matt Bakerdjian, Dale Watson, Naseer Pasha, John Chan, Giuseppe Arabia, Tenzin Chime, Chris Morin

Any idea when we might be able to see the completed product?

This is our first time making something so big from scratch together, so I don't want to speak too ambitiously, but we're hoping to finish it by the end of the year, or early in January.

Anything else you'd like to promote?

I'd like this time to thank my personal mentor, Bruce Lee, for all his - hah! Not really. I guess maybe to let anyone who's interested to check out the studio website, as we will constantly be putting up art, pencil tests, and all sorts of other goodies. Also, you can find me and my buddy Chris at FanExpo 2014, where I'll be selling my graphic novel series, Two Mistakes Two Many. You can find it in print at the show, or online for free on my website.

Thank you for your time!

The pleasure is definitely on this end. I speak on behalf of all the enthusiastic members of Studio Crazy Horse when I say thank you for taking an interest in our independently-produced 2D animation. Expect weird, wild things in the future!

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Video Game Danger in 'When You Broke My Heart'

When You Broke My Heart
Currently up for this week's Awardeo Video of the Week, When You Broke My Heart is a colourful short film by a group of French Animators about a King who loses his Queen when he ignores her for his video games, and then, after being confronted by a physical manifestation of his sadness, embarks upon a quest to win her back. It's a love letter to Japanese kawaii and to video games, with an unexpected ending that reminds us that it is possible to have too much of a good thing:

I was immediately struck by how the characters in the film are quite fluid, and I don't just mean the liquid movements of the amorphous avatar of sadness conjured by the King. Characters' limbs and faces contort and stretch in such amusing ways, imbuing the film with loads of energy, with each grimace and double-take pulled straight out of Japanese anime. The video game references are numerous, from Space Invaders wallpaper and amusing arcade machines in the throne room (PacNyan anyone?), to the authentic-looking late 80s Gameboy, or 'Geekboy' as it is called, that helps the King on his quest. The authentic gaming sounds are nostalgia inducing, and are a fitting backdrop for the King's obsession; Even though the King decides to give up his Geekboy to win back his Queen, he still lives as if he were in a video game, jumping from platform to platform before confronting the final boss.

As someone who plays a lot of video games and also has a special lady in his life, I definitely take the message of this film to heart. I'm not sure whether it was intended or not, but to me this film clearly demonstrates the danger not only of ignoring someone special in your life, but also (in its twisted ending) how easily you can take something which is meant to be a fun, occasional distraction and have it completely dominate your life. A big kudos to the film's directors: Charles Lemor, Lisa Fenoll, Anaïs Gresser, Anna Masquelier and Laura Fleischmann.

You can find lots of behind the scenes concepts and designs on the film's website.