Month: February 2019

The Ultimate Video Game: protagonist


I really enjoyed the challenge of devising a setting for The Ultimate Video Game as part of Later Levels’ Question of the Month in January. I thought the winning entry by Hundstrasse was amazing and I really want to visit that world.

So February’s game element is the protagonist. There are two options set by the dev team: create a protagonist to reside in the previously winning setting, or create one for the setting you came up with.

Since a) I’m not great at writing characters, b) I’m short on time, and c) I’m void of ideas for the winning setting (see a), I’m going with the second option. This option isn’t eligible to win, but I wanted to do it for fun!

The abandoned IT room

As a reminder, the setting is an excavated IT room that’s been lying dormant since 1989, dug up in 2019 by some archaeologists. Everything is perfectly in place, as if its occupants left in a hurry.

Earl, the IT guy

Earl is one half of our protagonist duo. That’s right, I’m breaking the rules and having two, ha!

Earl is head of the IT department in 1989, shortly before The Big Untimely Accident, which I’m not allowed to talk about because this is strictly about characters, not plot. (I also wasn’t going to mention that parts of the game are played in flashback, but I guess that’s obvious now.)

Earl is a rising genius in the expanding world of IT, with a mechanically astute mind and an uncanny knack for troubleshooting. Unfortunately, he is also afflicted with a debilitating sense of apathy (thanks to Thatcher) and an addiction to onion bhajis. As such he spends his days slumped in the basement fixing minor issues and drawing what little enthusiasm he has from his younger, fresh-faced team mates.

In his younger days he was a looker. Now age has puffed his features, peppered his hair and made him stout (though that may be the bhajis). He wears army regulation khaki pants because they have lots of pockets to hold tools and attachments. His T-shirt is clean but faded, and when he sits down Cheetara grimaces from the folds.

Earl has a hard time convincing upper management about the importance of good IT infrastructure and rigid processes, to the extent that he is on the brink of throwing in the towel and donning a McDonald’s hat.

Pete, the architect

Back in 2019, Pete is the architect sent to take photos of the buried IT room for restructuring purposes. His company plans to gut it and build on top of it.

Pete is ambitious, but not on a psychopath level. He’s kind, with a creative eye and a built-in bullshit detector. He carries a picture of his daughter everywhere, but his wedding finger sports nothing but a rough indent. He buries himself in his work, trying to steer his company to support and protect the city’s historic landscape, instead of replacing it with flashy eyesores.

He’s a man of admirable precision, reflected in both his work and appearance; he’s always clean shaven, dresses casually but cleanly, armed always with a notepad, measuring tools and a Brompton bike.

He rarely indulges in anything, and will persistently be off sugar or caffeine – sometimes even cutting out random foodstuffs like potato or cinnamon. If you asked his colleagues they would say he’s self-punishing for something, but what do they know.

Very little, in fact. They wouldn’t know that he goes home and plays old video games. That he devours old books and is transfixed by old films. That he’s more content in the warm hug of the past than the grim, uncertain future. If they understood that, then they might understand his obsession with protecting old buildings.

If he could find a path to the past, he would blindly take it.

Tetris Effect: my favourite game on acid

That heading makes it sound like I enjoyed it. Spoiler: I did not.

Like most kids who grew up in the 90s, Tetris has long been one of my favourite games. I first played it on the Game Boy, then religiously on my Mega Drive (before you get excited, it’s a knock-off multicart). Its simple, tile-placing format makes it the perfect game for mindless achievement – since my childhood I’ve whiled away countless hours trying to beat the current world record holder (only 813,133 points off).

Tetris-Game Boy
Tetris on the Nintendo Game Boy, 1989

So when I heard about Monstars Inc/Resonair’s Tetris Effect I was cautiously excited. Cautiously, because whenever there’s a reboot or remake of anything my standard response is disappointment. The art of revamping a treasured classic while retaining what made it so great is nigh on impossible.

It’s no surprise, then, that I’m not a fan. As I suspected, the snazzy effects are all too much. I didn’t really feel nostalgic in the warmest sense – it was more like back in the 90s someone had come along and set my TV on fire in the middle of my game (‘warm’ in the wrong sense).

What Tetris piece?

Sure, the visuals and music are impressive, and there are some clever subtleties – such as the music matching your movements, which is reminiscent of other rhythmic games I’ve enjoyed (She Wants Me Dead). But the pumping, club-scene overlay is far too overwhelming and detracts so much from the game (especially on higher levels). The concept is supposedly inspired by the so-called Tetris effect (or Tetris syndrome), which I find a bit ironic given that ultimately you can’t see the blocks well enough to hallucinate them later. The ‘effects’ are more like side effects from a migraine.

What eyesight?

I can hear people saying ‘that’s the point – it makes it a harder game!’ And I guess that’s key – the aim of Tetris Effect is quite different from classic Tetris. It’s not just about clearing lines and maintaining technique in faster-paced levels; it’s doing those things through a filter of increasingly trippy neon animations. Some of them are pretty, but it’s almost a bit cheap – I would prefer to see variations in the actual puzzle mechanics.

EuroGamer named Tetris Effect their 2018 Game of the Year, stating ‘It makes for the perfect drug’. Perhaps, then, I’m missing the point – it’s not about nostalgia, more about transporting the player to an ‘altered state’. While that works with games like Rez (also produced by Mizuguchi), I don’t think it blends well with what people recognise from the original game. That’s overcomplicating the classic premise of Tetris.

Sure enough, Eurogamer goes on to say ‘I don’t think gaming gets any purer than this’ – and this is my issue. It’s not ‘pure’ Tetris at all – it’s quite the opposite. Tetris was successful because it used a very basic concept of slotting tiles together against the clock – it didn’t need over-styling. Why overcomplicate a game that thrived on its simplicity?

I guess that’s quite nice

I accept, begrudingly, that this opinion is probably what you’d expect from a stubborn, traditionalist gamer like me. It ain’t like it used to be, yada yada, suck on a Werther’s, grandma. I know. While I’m not a fan of remakes it’s good to see developers playing with dated concepts and refreshing old game mechanics, and I bet a lot of ‘modern’ gamers would enjoy this one.

And sure, my beloved Mega Drive Tetris had dinosaurs and stone henge among its backgrounds, which could be considered distractions in themselves, though they were static and didn’t make me swirly-eyed. It also didn’t cost the equivalent of £30.

I have only played the demo, so I can’t speak for the whole game. I’ve also heard good things about the VR version, if you like that kind of immersion (it won ‘Best VR/AR game’ at the 2018 Game Critics Awards).

From what I’ve seen so far, Tetris Effect has mostly met with positive reviews, particularly with critics – but I’ve seen mixed opinions from gamers themselves.

Have you played Tetris Effect? What did you think?