Video Games that Got Away

As part of a week-long NPR series exploring "the ones that got away," Heather Chaplin reports on three video games released in 2007 that didn't get as much attention as they may have deserved: Portal, Everyday Shooter, and Desktop Tower Defender.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Here at the end of the year, our arts team is helping us catch up on a few releases that we've missed in 2007.

In today's installment of The Ones That Got Away, we hear from Heather Chaplin, a freelance journalist who covers videogames. She points to three games that weren't blockbusters like "Halo 3," but that have made interesting contributions to game design and have won some dedicated fans.

HEATHER CHAPLIN: You could say the mantra of the videogame industry is more is more.

Mr. FRANK LANTZ (Founder, area/code): It's almost like we're in the middle of a period in games that is like high opera.

CHAPLIN: That's Frank Lantz, founder of New York-based game studio area/code and a professor of game design at NYU.

Mr. LANTZ: Everything is baroque, filled with extra details. Everywhere you looked, there are these little rococo embellishments on every surface. And "Portal," by contrast, is minimalist.

CHAPLIN: "Portal" is one of Lantz's favorite games of all time, he says. Although he didn't design it himself.

(Soundbite of video game "Portal")

GLADOS: (Unintelligible).

CHAPLIN: "Portal" takes place in a scientific research facility where you're experimenting with a new invention, a portal gun.

(Soundbite of video game "Portal")

GLADOS: (Unintelligible) is destroyed.

CHAPLIN: You kill anything with it. You blast a hole through one wall, and when you step into it, you find yourself stepping out of another portal somewhere else entirely.

Mr. LANTZ: You stick your foot in over here and you could kind of see it come out over there as it's happening. It feels so tactile and natural and real that you just kind of accept it. And the thing you're accepting is totally surreal

(Soundbite of video game "Portal")

GLADOS: (Unintelligible) is destroyed.

CHAPLIN: It's hard to get your mind around at first. But in "Portal," you're solving puzzles by creating wrinkles in space.

Mr. LANTZ: And once you've been in the space and played with this twisted physics for a while, it becomes intuitive to you. And that's an amazing feeling for something that is impossible to feel natural and intuitive.

CHAPLIN: There are only two characters in the game - you and the artificial intelligence that guides you through the facility.

(Soundbite of video game "Portal")

GLADOS: As part of a required test protocol, a previous statement suggesting that we would not monitor this chamber was an outright fabrication.

CHAPLIN: Her name is GLaDOS.

(Soundbite of video game "Portal")

GLADOS: Good job.

CHAPLIN: At first, you think GLaDOS is a neutral voice dishing out instructions for how to play the game. But GLaDOS becomes more like an overbearing mother figure who simultaneously wants to insult you and feed you chocolate cake.

(Soundbite of video game "Portal")

GLADOS: Now, here's the amateur science from station (unintelligible) to reach the chamber lock.

CHAPLIN: "Portal" echoes with references to "2001: A Space Odyssey," but it's all done with the kind of knowing wink at the audience.

Mr. LANTZ: It actually feels literary in a way. And the strangeness of the setting and the core premise that almost it's like a kind of Borgesian, like this weird metaphysical fairy tale.

CHAPLIN: "Portal" actually started out as a student project before Valve Software hired the students involved to turn it into a commercial game.

Another breakthrough game this year, "Everyday Shooter" also comes from a recent college graduate - Jonathan Mak. Mak's original ambition was to make a totally innovative game that would blow all other games out of the water. It didn't work.

Mr. JONATHAN MAK (Creator, "Everyday Shooter"): And of course, not a lot of people played it and even I didn't like it very much. So I just decided to, you know, simplify and say to myself, listen, you can't handle that yet. Let's just go back to basics and see if we can do that properly. And that's "Everyday Shooter."

CHAPLIN: "Everyday Shooter" is part concept album part videogame. It's an updated collection of arcade-style shooters like "Asteroids" and "Missile Command." Hits explode in a chain reaction of vivid colors and vibrate to the sound of an electric guitar.

(Soundbite of video game "Everyday Shooter")

CHAPLIN: There are no sound effects in "Everyday Shooter," just the guitar tracks Mak laid down himself. With "Everyday Shooter," Mak was determined to make something simple, but that also adhered his own personal vision. Mak himself struggles to describe it.

Mr. MAK: It's a celebration of geometric sexuality. It's geometric shapes, but morphing and modulating in a same way that a synthesizer would morph and modulate mathematical wave forms.

CHAPLIN: Mak followed the classic model of the starving artist to create "Everyday Shooter." He turned down a corporate job and spent a lot of time pacing the floor of his one-bedroom basement apartment. With a cheap electric guitar and an out of date computer, he followed his electronic vision wherever it took him.

Mr. MAK: You know, over the course of a night, a level would go from being having the soccer influence because I thought, hey, it'd be fun to kick a ball around but using shooting mechanics to being this level full of eyeballs. And I don't know how that happened, but it's just following the sort of subconscious stream of thought, I guess.

CHAPLIN: For Mak, who is only 25 years old, game making is about expressing your personality. Figuring out how to translate for the world what's going on inside of you.

Mr. MAK: The game only lives in your head, really. And then when you get to that moment, you sort of see the game and it's running and you can play it. And you realize yourself, wow, I'd sort of gave birth to this thing. And then, you know, the next six hours just pacing back and forth, comprehending what just happened.

CHAPLIN: While most game makers working large corporate teams on projects doled out by company marketing departments, Mak is determined to maintain a solo career. And he's cool with whatever the consequences are because he's made a rule for himself - as long as he's proud of his work, he wins.

Chaika Taddi's(ph) rules for herself are quite different. She's a press officer with the United Nations, disciplined and competitive. Her rules involve how and when she gets to unwind. These days, the rules are mostly about a videogame called "Desktop Tower Defense."

Ms. CHAIKA TADDI (Press Officer, United Nations): So it's the reward when I get home from work and that's often when my parents will call too which is the problem with taking phone calls. And I definitely not answered the phone once people have called and I'm in an intense part of the game.

CHAPLIN: What makes "Desktop Tower Defense" so consuming? Is it's short and easy to learn? Like "FreeCell" or "Minesweeper," it's what the industry calls a casual game. For Taddi, a former "Minesweeper" junkie, the attraction was immediate. In "Desktop Tower Defense," you drag towers onto your desktop and arrange them in mazes to stop creeps from crossing from one side of your screen to the other.

(Soundbite of video game "Desktop Tower Defense")

CHAPLIN: They're cute like the whole game, which looks like a teenager doodled it. When you drag in a new tower, you hear scratching sounds as if someone somewhere were scribbling in a notebook.

(Soundbite of scratching)

CHAPLIN: You can play the game absentmindedly while you're talking the phone, or you can go for seriously deep strategic thinking like Taddi does.

Ms. TADDI: It's this way of constantly testing yourself and figuring out how to eat this thing, you know? It's the same as like playing with the Rubik's cube or whatever. How can you solve this puzzle?

CHAPLIN: Less is complicated, Taddi says, and it's nice to feel a sense of accomplishment every day, even if it's just from a game.

For NPR News, I'm Heather Chaplin.

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