In the Spirit of Thanksgiving…

A few things I am thankful for…

(in no particular order)

1.  L.A. Noire 😀

Come on, who here is surprised? 😉 I am thankful for L.A. Noire because it significantly peaked my interest in games and also helped improve my gaming skillz (yes skills with a ‘z’ :P); specifically it helped me get over my at-the-time phobia of shooting games.  Turns out I’m not too shabby with a gun 🙂  My driving on the other hand leaves a lot to be desired *shame*

L.A. Noire also led me to be a part of a whole community of like-minded fans via Twitter and Tumblr (shout out to Kelly and Allyson – so thankful to have e-met you guys! :)), and also introduced me to Sean McGowan, the amazing, super talented actor behind Stefan Bekowsky, who also happens to be one of the nicest, sweetest, most down-to-earth people in the business today.  Sean, you are AWESOME, thank you for, well, being you! 🙂

So big thank you to Rockstar Games and Team Bondi!

2. Naughty Dog and Nolan North

The Uncharted series is the perfect game in every way, in my eyes 🙂  It has given me hours and hours of much needed escapism, which I have really craved this year, so thank you to the Dogs!!

Nolan – you brought life to Nathan Drake, possibly one of the most liked video game characters of this generation.  Thank you for giving me a virtual crush, HAHA!

I think I will leave it at that since I think I nattered on long enough about Uncharted in my previous blog post…

3. Jason Mraz

I have been a fan of his from the start (before the world took notice!), but I have grown sooo in love with this man ever since I saw him live last week.  I have been listening to his songs non-stop ever since – his songs are truly a work of art; he is an amazing lyricist with such a beautiful and unique style to his sound and his performance.  His improvisational method of performing means he sings a different rendition of the same song each time which is great!  He is even more fantastic live – heartfelt and effortless performance from start to finish…truly magical.  And man, can he rock that guitar!!  It is an experience I will NEVER forget and I can only hope that I get the opportunity to watch him perform again in the future.

To top it off he is just such a wonderful human being – I swear he is the nicest and most genuine person in the music industry (very similar to Sean ;)).  His humility, generosity and selflessness is truly inspirational.  I just love that even though he is this successful singer/songwriter (two time Grammy winner, no less!! :D), he doesn’t let the fame define him; he just wants to make music and share it to the world, he wants to enjoy life and make his mark in this world in his own special way.  I like that he sees his fans as his friends and that he sees the world as one big family.

The fact that he is also incredibly cute and charming is just the cherry on a very yummy cake 😉  He is quite a comedian too which I discovered at his concert.  WOW, he’s like the perfect package *swoon*

But yeah, I’ve been a bit down this week and listening to Jason’s songs have really cheered me up and lifted my spirits.  He also said something during his concert that really moved me and has motivated me to see things from a different perspective.  So muchos gracias, Jason – YOU ARE LOVED 😀

4. Patricia 🙂

I have known Patricia for quite a number of years now.  We’ve had our ups and downs as all good friendships do but we have certainly come a long way and I feel our friendship right now is at it’s best 😀  Patricia, you have been a source of strength and comfort to me this year when I needed it most and I cannot thank you enough for your words of advice, encouragement and support.  I will probably never be able to repay you but I can only hope that I can return the favor one day 😉  I love you, babe – I’m glad to have you (back) in my life xo

On the subject of friendships, I want to take the opportunity to extend some quick shout outs to the following awesome people:

Michelle – I’m thankful for the friendship we developed this year…until you abandoned me, that is! (how rude)  Have an absolute blast in NYC, can’t wait to catch up with you when you’re back 🙂

Jimbo – It’s been really great geeking out *ahem* chatting with you on Facebook these past few months; shame we didn’t get to do this more when you were actually here but oh well…better late than never, as they say!!  Thanks again for being an excellent Uncharted co-op buddy hehe 😀

Louise – We have been on quite a journey together, haven’t we?!  I am so thankful that our lives crossed paths all those years ago, I guess we have Harry to thank for that aye 😉  I’m so chuffed that we have still managed to keep in touch after all this time and that although we have moved on from the VTM days, we have new geeky things to talk about!!  I’m grateful to have you as a friend, in many ways you are like the big sister I never had 🙂

Lavy – The long lost friend from the good ol’ high school days!!  I’m so stoked and thankful that we are in contact again after quite a hiatus – I hope to see you again in the near future as it’s been far too long!!  Love you, babe 😉

Shane – My Irish cutiepie 😉  Like Louise, we have come quite a ways too.  Even though we both at some point have disappeared on the other, I am glad we have found each other again 🙂  I always enjoy our conversations and I’ve always felt we have a special connection – I’m thankful to Harry for bringing us together and to Facebook for helping us always come back 😉

**UPDATE!! November 26th @ 933AM:

2 more quick shout outs to a couple more people I forgot to mention, whoops!!

Chelsea – I’m glad and grateful we’ve had the opportunity to grow closer this year 🙂  Who knew we had such similar dramas and perspectives on things? 😉

Lewis – My fellow Survivor freak – I never thought I would find one and I’m thankful I have!!  I’ve really enjoyed our e-conversations and I think an actual hang out is in order at some point!! 🙂

PHEW that’s a lot of thank you’s aye!!  I actually have a lot of things I am NOT thankful for too but probably better to leave that for another post, or maybe it’s just best to keep to myself 😛  I will say this though: I am NOT thankful to be in New Zealand on Thanksgiving because I don’t get to have turkey 😦  No gobble, gobble for the Whimsical Banana, sigh…

Uncharted: The Hollywood Blockbuster of Games

Uncharted 3 was easily the one game that I had been (impatiently) waiting for all of this year.  I’ve been a huge fan of the series from when the first game first released even though I actually only started playing the games this year – you know, being late to the (gaming) party and all…

On the day the game arrived (and Explorer Edition, no less!) *thanks for the hook up, Mighty Ape* it was honestly like Christmas came early.  I blazed through it in about 3 days which was really quick by my standards (sorry for not savoring it, Louise *wink*) but I’m now on my 2nd playthrough in my quest for more trophies.

I have really gotten into games this year and many of you know that I am totally obsessed with L.A. Noire.  However the Uncharted series is pretty much on par with it; I adore both games for many similar but also altogether different reasons.

So the first thing that really drew me to the Uncharted games was that it promised an “active cinematic experience”.  This peaked my interest and intrigued me greatly.  Movies have taken a bit of a backseat in my life in recent years but it will always be my “first love” and this has bled into and influences my taste in games.  I am slowly but surely venturing out and diversifying but currently the games I am attracted to and play are those with strong narratives and are very “movie-like”.

The Uncharted series have certainly come a LONG way; the games have just gotten progressively better through the years.  Game developers Naughty Dog really are a well-oiled machine, in my humble opinion.  They somehow manage to top themselves each time which is mighty impressive since each game is already so bloody amazing that you think, surely it couldn’t get any better?!

Naughty Dog have managed to hit this perfect stride where they know what works and what they do well so they subsequently maintain the tried-and-true elements (with perhaps some tweaks) that make Uncharted the games fans know and love, but at the same time they also have this like “bag of tricks” that they know to pull out at the opportune time to keep things fresh.  They are always looking at ways to improve the experience and surprise gamers which is I think a big reason why the games are so successful.

One of the (many) great things about the Uncharted games is how fantastic it looks.  The graphics are absolutely top notch, even in the early days of Drake’s Fortune.  There was a marked improvement in Among Thieves apart from the rather odd “glassy eyes” the main characters got during the cutscenes (particularly Chloe) – which freaked me out a bit!  Then Drake’s Deception rolls along and WOW.  The Dogs have really outdone themselves this time!

The world and everything in it is about as realistic as something computer generated can be.  The levels are all absolutely stunning – breathtaking views, incredible attention to detail and virtually everything you see Drake can interact with and vice versa.  Background “props” are not just there to fill and decorate the space but have a more defined appearance and presence.  When you are wandering around the cobbled streets of Cartagena, you feel like you are right there – everything looks tangible enough to touch and you can almost smell the air of this little Colombian village.  I liken this a lot to how I felt as I was driving around the streets of L.A. in L.A. Noire.

One of the most realistic environments I thought was the Rub Al’ Khali desert.  You would think creating an endless landscape of sand and sun wouldn’t be too tricky but even before watching any of the Naughty Dog interviews about the making of this level, I could see how much effort had gone into the finished product – because it looks so damn real!  That sand is ridiculous.  It moves with the wind, it changes in form as Drake trudges through it.  Superb effort, Dogs!

In terms of gameplay, like I said before, they’ve kept to their strengths and what the games are inherently about which is a good mix of platforming, gunplay, puzzle-solving and most importantly a thumping good story rooted in real-life legend told through a cinematic lens.  I did feel with this 3rd installment they’d really pulled out all the stops and just gone bigger and better.  I would say there was the least amount of change in terms of the “mechanics” related to the platforming and gunplay sequences however the new locations Drake finds himself in is what kept these two aspects of gameplay fresh and exciting.

One of my favorite moments in the game was the capsizing ship chapter – having to figure out which direction to head in, where to jump to next when everything has rotated 90 degrees was something I did find fairly challenging and confusing at times but it was also very enjoyable all the same.  The most impressive thing about this chapter was that the ship was created on like some kind of special “engine”, I believe?  Sorry, I’m not too well-versed with the actual jargon but essentially in layman terms a program or something similar was made especially for this sequence which enabled the ship and the surrounding ocean to behave exactly like how a real ship out at sea would in real life.

This means it will feel different each time too which I think is great in terms of replayability.  The end result is pretty freaky, like you actually do feel like you are on a real ship – suffice it to say this really adds on to the game playing experience.  I recall actually feeling quite seasick throughout that whole chapter – I kid you not!

I thought the puzzles in the game were really interesting and challenging enough without being too tedious.  As for the melee I thought that probably had the biggest improvement; Drake’s movements were more fluid and you could do extra things like throw someone up against a benchtop (or out a window!) and use nearby items as weapons to help you knock out an enemy – there’s even a trophy if you use fish to hit a baddie when brawling in a market, which I think is pretty funny!

The one thing that really sets the Uncharted games apart from a lot of other similar games is just how real the characters are, in particular Drake.  He doesn’t feel like a 2D computer-generated figure which you merely move around on-screen; the way you’re able to control him, how he interacts with everything and everyone around him – he actually does feel like a real person.  Thanks to the amazing technology that Naughty Dog have at their disposal, Drake is actually created with weight and mass which is why he feels real when you play him.

And of course let’s not forget the extremely talented Nolan North who is responsible for breathing life into our hero!  For the uninitiated, Nolan North is the games equivalent of an A-list Hollywood star – he has lent his voice to MANY games although he is best known as Nathan Drake.  He really embodies Drake so perfectly – and it really is like he literally has given Drake a beating heart because I feel like I know him, that he’s not “just a character in a video game”.  You totally rock, Nolan!

Gameplay aside, I have to say I was completely captivated by and engaged with the story.  I loved that we were (finally) told the story behind Drake’s and Sully’s relationship.  I loved that you got to explore Drake more intimately, really delve into his past and learn why he is the way he is.  I felt the narrative arc was just spot on; it was paced extremely well and each character’s individual story had a point and purpose and fit perfectly with the overall plot.  Major kudos to Amy Hennig, you are such an inspiration to me and I can only hope I can learn to write like you one day!

I think some of the best bits in the game were the action sequences, hands-down.  Naughty Dog really took the “active cinematic experience” to the next level, I thought.  And they definitely had a mammoth of a task in front of them because Among Thieves had some really awesome action sequences.  I won’t give any specific examples as I want to keep this post as spoiler-free as possible but what I will say is many of the action sequences got me screaming/swearing and my heart racing!  As terrifying as it is at the time, they are also an absolute blast – and of course rewarding as hell when you come out of it on the other side!

There are many people that are quite purist when it comes to games like Uncharted that blur the lines between game and cinema.  I personally do not have a problem with this and anyone who has had a conversation with me about games will know my thoughts on this.

I think what makes Uncharted so appealing to me is that it really is escapism in it’s purest form, isn’t it?  In a movie, you passively watch the action unfold before your eyes.  But in a game, specifically a game like Uncharted, not only do you see what happens unravel, you get to be a part of the action, and (sometimes) influence the course of the story.  As much as a game can look and feel like a movie, it’s the interactive aspect of games which is not possible in film that is what I find most unique and intriguing about this entertainment medium.

Overall, Uncharted 3 was SO worth the wait.  Not a dull moment; thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish.  I have the utmost respect for everyone at Naughty Dog because what they have achieved with this franchise is nothing short of phenomenal.  IMHO they have made the “perfect” game in the sense that Uncharted has all the right elements that make for a fantastic gaming experience – stellar graphics, brilliant cast, great soundtrack, exciting action-packed sequences, engaging and immersive gameplay and an amazing well-written story.

Whimsical Banana rates Uncharted 3: A well-deserved 6/5 Bananas! 

Thanks for the thrilling ride, Naughty Dog!  I look forward to reading about the many awards and accolades you will no doubt be receiving for this epic masterpiece.

L.A. Noire: Closing the Gap Between Game & Cinema

Anyone who plays games and/or has some knowledge of the who’s and what’s of the gaming world will need no introduction to L.A. Noire and what it is all about.  I have pretty decent knowledge of the gaming industry – for a girl, and for a “part-time gamer”, that is! –  but surprisingly I didn’t know of this game until about 6+ months ago. Ever since then I have been anxiously awaiting it’s release.  That day finally came on Friday the 20th, and what a happy kitty I was!  29 hours later, plus a few more hours of gameplay replaying missions and collecting trophies, here I am, ready to share with you all my experience and thoughts.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, let me firstly sum up in a nutshell what the game/story is all about: It is set in 1947 Los Angeles and you play Cole Phelps, a returning war hero who joins the LAPD force.  You start off as a patrolman but as the game progresses, you quickly rise up the ranks of the department.  With each case solved, Phelps delves deeper into the criminal underbelly of  L.A. and soon learns that nothing is as it seems; that underneath all the glamor and fame of the post-war boom, crime and corruption are rampant.

The game is greatly influenced – visually, stylistically and thematically – by film noir.  For all you non-film-geeks out there, film noir is a style of film made during the 1940s and 1950s which have a distinctive “look” (and sound) about them – they are generally shot in black-and-white and with low-key lighting, involve plots that center around sex, drugs, corruption and moral ambiguity, and accompanied by a haunting jazz soundtrack.  The game incorporates all these elements, even down to having the option of playing the game in black-and-white!

This was the first thing that attracted me to L.A. Noire.  The history of (American) film has always fascinated me and I have always been particularly drawn to film noir – I even took an entire paper on it at uni!  There’s just something about crime/ detective stories that peak my interest, for some reason.  L.A. Noire – put simply – is completely and utterly AMAZING.  I haven’t played many games as I am still fairly “new” to the gaming scene, but I have a deep, innate appreciation for the arts (yes I do consider games to be an art form) and thus believe I have a pretty good grasp on what is a good game, or what makes a game good.

The game is brilliant and impressive on so many levels.  The world is beautiful – what’s amazing is that 90% of what you see is historically and geographically accurate…minus a few artistic licenses here and there.  The production team spent months and months painstakingly researching to recreate 1947 L.A. as accurately as possible – even down to mirroring color palettes of corridors in certain key buildings, products/brands used at the time and billboards displayed on the streets.

Hundreds of aerial shots were taken so as to perfectly map out the streets and locations of landmarks and buildings of L.A.  This staggering attention to detail is truly incredible; it really makes you appreciate the game so much more when you know the lengths that the production team went to and how much effort was put into creating the world.  If you find this intriguing and want to learn more, check out this feature article.

Many of us enjoy entertainment mediums like film and games because it provides us with that few hours of escapism.  L.A. Noire does this brilliantly – the whole time I was playing I was completely immersed in the world; I really felt like I had been transported back in time.  Being able to experience this period in history – one that would have otherwise been impossible to experience firsthand – and especially one that is so significant and one in which I have a personal interest in, is what made the game all the more enjoyable.

I’ve watched many a film noir and yes I’ve felt connected to the stories, the characters, etc.  But here’s the big difference with games, a “leg up” over films, if you will – in games you get to interact and actively engage in the world.  You don’t just passively sit and watch the world unfold before you (literally), instead it is your actions in the game that sets in motion how the events will unfold.  Of course, some games are more restrictive than others, in terms of your control over the narrative/outcome.

I think the more seasoned, hardcore gamers will probably criticize the linearity of the game.  It is considered a somewhat open-world game (like it’s predecessors, Red Dead Redemption and the infamous GTA series) however after you’ve completed all the usual “easter egg hunting” (in this case, collecting Hollywood film reels and solving street crimes), there really isn’t anything else to do on the streets apart from literally just driving around sightseeing.  Unfortunately your ability to interact with the people and places in the city is virtually non-existent.

In terms of the actual storyline, there are some forks in the road (e.g. bringing in multiple suspects for questioning and having to decide which one to charge) but for the most part, the story is set in stone.  Many will see this as boring and unimaginative but do not be fooled – there is more to the narrative than meets the eye.  The story does have a lot of depth and many layers that unravel at the opportune time.

There are many subtleties and “hints” that are purposefully placed at specific points in the game that you later discover were there to foreshadow future events.  In a well-executed film, every camera angle, every shot, every choice of soundtrack, is there for a reason.  Similarly in L.A. Noire, everything you see, everything that is said, has a specific purpose that serves the narrative.  I felt the plot and sub-plots including the side missions (street crimes) were for the most part perfectly written, perfectly timed and perfectly intertwined – this is something that is not easy to do so it is mighty impressive that they managed to pull it off so seamlessly.

I have to say I really enjoyed playing detective.  All the cases you investigate are based on or inspired in some part by a real-life crime story that happened in and around L.A. circa 1947.  You can read about one of them here.

As you get promoted within the LAPD you get the opportunity to work across different “desks” – namely traffic, homicide, vice and arson.  I found the homicide cases to be the most intriguing and exciting.  This aspect of the game, however, loses brownie points in terms of replayability as I can imagine it could get a tad tedious having to go through the motions of searching for the clues all over again; even inspecting dead, mangled bodies in just the first playthrough starts to get a bit routine towards the end of the game.

Detective duties aside, there is enough action to keep you hooked and entertained – on-foot and car chases, fist fights, and shooting aplenty.  I was actually dreading the chase and gunplay sequences quite a bit, knowing full well that it will be a struggle for me.  As expected, I completely sucked at driving, and even moreso when I had to speed after fleeing suspects, however to my utmost surprise I’m actually not too shabby with a gun!

One of the awesome things about this game – and I believe it’s a first – is that after you’ve failed a sequence a few times, you will actually be given the option to skip it and move on.  Personally it is a bit of a slap in the face because it’s like you’re being told “hey it’s obvious you suck at this, you should just give up” but then looking at the big picture, it’s actually bloody brilliant.  Had this option not been there, I would probably not be very far in the game and eventually get too irritated/impatient with where I was stuck at and give up and not finish the game.  Or I would have gotten a more experienced gamer to give me a hand.

The decision to have this option available to the player can be seen as a cop out, but I see it as a “free pass” to more casual gamers like myself who are not necessarily so skilled with the controller but still want to engage in and enjoy the whole gaming experience.  It is what I feel makes L.A. Noire such a remarkable game – it’s more about the story than it is about gaming prowess.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game is how real the characters look, in particular how realistic their facial features and expressions are.  This is all thanks to a groundbreaking new technology called MotionScan which closely and accurately captures every aspect of an actor’s facial performance using 32 surrounding cameras.  It’s really amazing stuff – check out how it all works here.

The difference in visual quality, and more importantly, in the level of realism of the character is mind-blowing.  Combine this with the use of motion capture to record the actor’s physical movements and you’ve got one very real, albeit digitalized “human being”.  Aaron Staton (of Mad Men fame) plays Cole Phelps and when you look at him in person and compare it to his character in-game – it is essentially the same person!  It’s him through an animated lens…quite freaky really.

The game gets to really show off this fantastic new technology when you interrogate suspects.  Once the suspects have responded to your question, you have to determine whether they are telling the truth or lying.  I don’t claim to know a lot about the technologies and engines used in gaming but I daresay that it would have been near impossible to construct believable reactions and true facial expressions…least not ones that are realistic enough anyway.

Heavy Rain comes to mind when I think of this – it came pretty damn close; the characters overall were pretty life-like but when it came down to actually conveying true emotion (e.g. anger), it fell short.  But in L.A. Noire, thanks to MotionScan, it is pulled off seamlessly – the level of detail is astonishing; if a suspect is lying and you are attentive enough, you would be able to catch even the smallest nervous tic.

It’s blatantly clear from all the praises I have sung that I think this game is the best thing since sliced bread.  However anything man-made, no matter how great it is, is not perfect.  The game does have some flaws.  First thing that comes to mind: the passersby on the streets say things to/at you as you walk by.  The trouble is they have very limited dialogue – the things they say are on a very short loop so it repeats fairly often; after awhile it starts to feel like Groundhog Day.  Of course this is a very trivial gripe – the city folk do not affect the narrative in the slightest so it doesn’t matter and I can see why not more thought was put into it.  However one could also argue that with everything else being so hyper-realized, it does put a bit of a damper on the experience.

Additionally there are some minor continuity errors (e.g. my car ending up at a different location from where I had originally parked it)  and plot loopholes that I noticed in a couple of the cases, plus I don’t quite understand certain decisions that were made near the end of the game (I won’t be more specific, don’t want to spoil it for anyone!) – but overall these faults are very few and far in between.  The positive aspects far outweigh the negative and thus these shortcomings can be forgiven – in my humble opinion, anyway.

A good story is built from great writing and excellent storytelling.  I thought the script was skillfully written; very true to 1940s America –  in particular the slang words and phrases used in the dialogue – this made the characters believable and seem more like actual real people, not “talking puppets”.  I felt Cole Phelps was a very interesting and complex character to play; I enjoyed playing him and very quickly got invested in him and his plight to “right all the wrongs”.

In addition, the accompanying jazz soundtrack was exceptional – again, very true to that period in time and particularly to film noir.  When you are driving, the radio plays actual songs from artists of that era and also actual radio shows that aired during that time – yet another admirable effort at making the world as realistic as possible.  The score which plays at crime scenes, interrogations and the action sequences perfectly complement and add on to the experience – for me even moreso during the more “intense” situations.  For example I remember my heart literally pounding out of my chest when I was chasing a crazed serial killer throughout a long maze of catacombs – most seasoned gamers have probably become really jaded by sequences like these, but I really felt like I was Cole at that point in time, fighting for justice and for my own survival – never been so terrified in my life!

And this is why I have taken quite a keen interest in gaming lately, specifically games that blur the lines between the filmic and gaming worlds.  Some gamers are of the opinion that games shouldn’t try to be like movies, that by doing so they are just being “lazy” and not utilizing the full potential of the gaming medium and what it can offer.  To some extent, I agree.  With technology getting better and better every day, games have the ability and ongoing potential to do so much more – things specific to games which are not possible in a movie – so why play safe and take the “tried and true” route of making just essentially a playable film?

Here’s where I play the devil’s advocate: I do not see anything wrong if the game developer knowingly and intentionally wants to make their game in the style of a film.  Making this choice doesn’t necessarily make them uninventive or unambitious, but could very well just be their nominated style of making games.  In some ways I see games like these – and L.A. Noire is obviously one of them – as categorized under an altogether different kind of game genre in its own right.

It’s a mission on its own making a good film, it’s all the more challenging making a perfect marriage of the two, a “game-film” that makes sense in both universes – one that looks and plays out like a film on the game-screen but also simultaneously manages to interact and actively engage with its audience the way only really great games know how.  But if you get the balance/mix right – absolute magic is created.

With that being said, I feel L.A. Noire has hit the nail squarely on the head in this respect.  I think the fact that it is the first game to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival speaks volumes on what it has achieved in terms of closing the gap between game and cinema, and how taking this route could potentially make for a truly remarkable masterpiece of a game.

It has its issues but overall L.A. Noire is a visually stunning film noir-style crime thriller that promises an interactive gaming experience that you will not soon forget.  From start to finish I was completely immersed, engaged and emotionally connected with the world, the narrative and its characters.  I was transported back in time and experienced an important era in film history through a game – that is what great escapist-entertainment is all about!

It has undoubtedly set a benchmark for any future game developers who wish to make film-style type games but regardless of how many other “game-films” that come along from now onwards, I firmly believe that L.A. Noire – and what it has managed to deliver visually, stylistically and emotionally – will always own a piece of important gaming history.

Whimsical Banana rates L.A. Noire: a well-deserved 5 bananas!  I’m also stoked to say that I have become a slightly better gamer because of it!