Sunday, 30 September 2012

British Gaming Heroes: 2008-2012

Continuing my series of posts taking a year-by-year look at the history of British video games, focusing on the many colourful characters that the industry cooked up.

2008: Sackboy

Developed by Guildford-based Media Molecule, LittleBigPlanet is one of the most successful video game franchises of recent years. But while it may cutting edge technically speaking, its protagonist is decidedly low-fi.

The star of the LittleBigPlanet series is Sackboy, a tiny brown woolen character who resembles the kind of thing that Jim Henson might have created had his budget unexpectedly run out. Sackboy inhabits a world peppered with similar craft-fair creations and must make his way across levels made from cardboard cutouts, hinged ornaments, toy building blocks and various other household objects.

LittleBigPlanet's aesthetic is cut from the same cloth - if you'll pardon the pun - as the contemporary vogue for creepy-cum-sweet-cum-ironic-cum-nostalgic imagery
that is figureheaded by Tim Burton. As a character Sackboy evokes both the classic stop motion creations of Oliver Postgate, and iconic Japanese knick-knack characters such as Hello Kitty; he is both cute, and slightly unsettling in his demented, childlike behaviour. As Jan Svankmajer has demonstrated, even the most innocent toy can take on an uncomfortable edge when it is animated.

The game's hand-made visual style ties in with its heavy focus on user-generated content. Players can customise Sackboy by altering his clothing and facial features, and also create their own levels. This latter feature can be used online, with players in different parts of the globe collaborating on a single piece of work together. Sackboy, with his decidedly home made vibe, serves as a perfect master of ceremonies for this creative series.

2009: The DJ Heroes

One of the biggest gaming franchises of the twenty-first century is the Guitar Hero series. The first title was created by the American developer RedOctane in 2005 and was followed by five sequels and various spin-offs. For two of those spin-offs - DJ Hero and its sequel - publisher Activision turned to FreeStyleGames, a Warwickshire-based company that was founded mainly by former members of Rare and Codemasters.

Ditching the cast of the Guitar Hero games, DJ Hero introduced us to a new set of characters: masked Mexican wrestler Jugglernort, gator-grappling swampbilly Cleetus Cuts; upstart adolescent DJ Kid Itch; punk rocker Kitty Smash; day-glo diva Candy Nova; stylin', shades-wearing Cool Papa G; mildly disturbing Vundaboy; and scrappy tomboy Mixy Trix. DJ Hero 2 added some more characters to the roster, and both games also gave players the option to control animated versions of real-life DJs.

DK Mixtress who, alongside DJ Kawstic, appeared in the first game but didn't make the cut for DJ Hero 2.

In terms of character design, the entire Guitar Hero franchise owes something of a debt to the Gorillaz videos. The protagonists share a similar gangly morphology that adds a hint of comedy to their effortlessly cool personas, a hint of comedy that is refreshing when it comes to designs so knee-deep in cool. There will be a time - if it hasn't happened already - when with-it youth will look at DJ Hero and find it to be so 2009, but perhaps with fondness rather than derision. As Yellow Submarine demonstrates, some pop music imagery is so of-its-time that it becomes eternal.

An example of Rebecca Thompson's stylish artwork for DJ Hero 2. More can be seen here

2010: Captain Viridian

At this point we seem to have come full circle. Captain Viridian made his debut in Terry Cavanagh's oddly-titled VVVVVV, a clear love-letter to games on systems such as the ZX Spectrum. The graphics and sound of VVVVVV are resolutely low-end, there are homages to titles such as Dizzy and Manic Miner, and even the flickering bars of the loading screen will be familiar to anyone who has ever used a Commodore 64.

Captain Viridian himself - herself? - is about as basic as a character can get while still qualifying for the description of "character". A chunky single-colour stick figure with a simple face, the good Captain has only two frames in his walk cycle and the same number of facial expressions. His five friends (all with names beginning with V, hence the game's title) look identical, aside from being different colours. It is unclear as to exactly what Captain Viridian is: the game has a nominal science fiction plot involving spaceships and dimensional warps, so Viridian is presumably an astronaut. But is he wearing a spacesuit? Is he an alien of some kind?

VVVVV's shout-out to the original Dizzy.

Had VVVVVV been a genuine ZX Spectrum release, this question would likely have been answered by airbrushed cover art portraying Captain Viridian as a dashing Buck Rogers-alike. But in 2010 he was presented, simply and purely, as a video game character. Just as early animated characters such as Felix, Bosko and Koko seemed well aware that they were ultimately just blobs of ink, Captian Viridian is designed to be nothing more than a bundle of pixels arranged in a rudimentary humanoid form. VVVVVV turns crude graphics into a kind of pop art, doing for pixels what Roy Lichtenstein did for printing dots.

Captain Viridian faces three enemies modelled around glitched-up ZX Spectrum sprites.

For all its retro-80s stylings, VVVVVV is actually a very clear product of the twenty-first century. The early days of video games witnessed the phenomenon of the bedroom programmer: self-employed designers, some in their teens, who were capable of churning out industry-changing hits. This died out as games became more complex, but in the era of the World Wide Web small games once again became big: first there were online Flash games, then games for mobile devices and games downloaded via online services such as Steam and Xbox Live Arcade. Independent game developers once again found a slice of the market, and the bedroom programmer made a comeback.

2011: Kate Wilson

For the last time in this series, I've had to cheat. Dark Energy's Hydrophobia actually made its debut in September 2010 on the Xbox Live Arcade service, but as all subsequent versions - including Hydrophobia Prophecy, a rejigged release generally regarded as definitive - came out in 2011, it's close enough.

Hydrophobia is set in the near future when, faced with overpopulation, humanity has begun to construct floating cities. One of these cities, the Queen of the World, is targeted by a band of terrorists; a systems engineer named Kate Wilson is caught up in the middle of the chaos, and turns out to be the only one who can save the rapidly-flooding city.

In many ways, the world of Hydrophobia and its characters do not live up to their potential. We are given hints that Kate has a fear of drowning, possibly resulting from a childhood trauma - if she begins to lose oxygen during gameplay, we hear echoes of a child calling and coughing, as though experiencing Kate's memories - but her backstory is never explored. The terrorists have an interesting motive - they turn out to be devotees of Thomas Malthus, a pioneer in the study of population growth - but their leader turns out to be a standard-issue moustache-twirler, complete with Blofeld scar.

On the other hand, the portrayal of Kate Wilson is refreshingly normal. She is not a glamorous fantasy figure in the manner of Lara Croft but instead - in the context of the game's science fiction setting - recognisable as an everyday person; she is a perfectly credible mechanic of the future. Voice actress Lisa Heanley does a good job on her many soundbites, which range from confident remarks on her progress to anguished exclamations in the face of danger.

The different releases of the game contain two different endings, both leaving Kate's fate uncertain. Before Hydrophobia was released two sequels were promised, so the story of Kate Wilson may yet be continued.

2012: The Rogue Pixel

The Dare to be Digital contest, which was designed to promote the work of student game designers, began in 2000. Originally restricted to Scottish entrants, it began allowing international contestants in 2005, and in 2007 the contest began a partnership with BAFTA, which introduced a "Ones to Watch" award open only to Dare to be Digital winners.

One of the three contest winners from 2012 was Pixel Story, made by a five-person team from Manchester called Loan Wolf Games. Like VVVVVV this has its aesthetic roots in an earlier age, but it picks a wider range of influences. In the intro we see that the main character started life as the tennis ball from Pong; after a glitch allows him to break through a barrier into the wider world he develops a face and body. From then on he must explore a range of lands that evoke various classic games from Super Mario to Castlevania, all the while avoiding the computer's efforts to fix its error by erasing him.

The British video games industry has had its ups and downs lately: on the one hand major studios have been forced to close in the face of the recession, on the other the industry has recently been gifted with tax breaks that will help keep it afloat amongst international competition. Endeavours such as Dare to be Digital are vital in nurturing new talent for future generations of games developers.

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6

Friday, 28 September 2012

Tell Mummy and Don't Talk to Strangers

In 1969 Richard Taylor made these two public information films using a cut-out style that emulated children's drawings. Both were later remade almost word-for-word as Charley Says shorts.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Nick Upton: pixilation star

Nick Upton has worked as an animator on numerous stop motion productions over the years, including A Close Shave, Gogs and Chicken Run. Unusually, however, he has also produced a large amount of animation from in front of the camera: Upton is the only person I can think of off the top of my head who has ever been a regular performer in pixilation.

His best-known work in this role is in the TV film The Secret Adventures of Tomb Thumb, in which he played Tom's father. But he has appeared in a number of other pixilation projects, albeit some which have been forgotten.

In the eighties, Nick Upton starred in an elaborate pixilated advert for the Manchester Evening News, which I covered recently...

...and he later worked with Frank Passingham of Bolexbrothers to create these linking sequences for Treble Top, a 1992 BBC programme showcasing the work of Peter Lord, Daniel Graves and Ken Lidster.

Back at Aardman, it was Upton's hand that represented the Creator in Peter Lord's Adam. Upton was also involved in the pixilated series Angry Kid, although I cannot confirm his exact role.

And finally, IMDB credits Upton with directing two nature documentaries for television: GrĂ¼ne Insel im Taifun, an Austrian film co-directed by Michael Schlamberger; and Beetlemania. However, as IMDB is prone to conflating different people with the same name, I cannot confirm if this is indeed the same Nick Upton.