"A Yule Log? You watched a Yule log on TV on Christmas Eve?" they ask, without a smidgeon of wonder. How do you explain to these moderns that WPIX devoted the entire night before Christmas to the log purportedly burning in the city Mayor's mansion? I don't know if that really was Gracie Mansion. But I do know a milestone of my media sophistication came when I realized as a kid that this was just a short film loop run throughout the night. Until then I always thought that if I watched long enough, Mayor Lindsay would pop in and poke the embers a bit. What most people don't know is that by around three hours into watching a Yule Log on TV you start hallucinating in a pleasant sort of way.
And so it is the simple, nostalgic pleasures I turn to on my mobile phone, since the big TV is being occupied by the girlfriend's "Battlestar Galactica" marathon on the SciFi Channel. Let them mock my fondness for the monotony of the Yule Log -- but I fail to see how the Sci Fi Channel is any better. I firmly believe that every program on that cable channel is in fact the same show, just put under different names. The heroes all wear the same one-piece jumpsuits and the aliens all look like rocks with lips. Thankfully, mobile gaming is starting to settle into a kind of nostalgia I find satisfying. If you have been around this platform as long as I have, then you may remember the 15 minutes of fame that 3D mobile gaming enjoyed a few years back. New handsets popped onto the market with itsy-bitsy graphic accelerators that were supposed to open the gaming market to more console-like experiences, where mobile racing games and first-person shooters had the smoothness of a low level Playstation.
It turns out that few people really wanted their phones to behave like Playstations. While there is a nice niche market for hard-core mobile games, surveys revealed that even dedicated console gamers preferred lighter and more casual fare on cell phones. Truly gifted game designers, like id Software's John "Doom" Carmack, ran with this insight to develop a game like "Doom RPG." This turn-based action game got things just right: it alluded to the deeper gameplay of the PC platform without actually demanding it on the phone. You could feel like you were in an action game without the frustration of trying to make a phone keypad respond like a mouse and PC keyboard. "Doom RPG" was the engine on which "Orcs & Elves" was built, which I singled out in my last column. These two titles, along with "Snoopy's Flying Ace" and "Phoenix Wright" (a port of a Nintendo DS lawyer adventure) are about the only mobile games I have seen in the last year or so that suggest the platform has a future beyond endless Tetris, Bejeweled and Zuma clones.
Both the innovative designs and the familiar puzzle genres get simplicity and low-tech right on mobile, but at the same time modern phones do have multimedia strengths that few games are leveraging. Namco's conversion of the DVD hit series "Scene It?" is a surprisingly good example of porting a game from another format. Basically a trivia game that uses images and video clips as clues for quiz questions, "Scene It?" exercises the rudimentary visuals of the phone. The format is simple. You get a video clip, a section of a movie poster, screen credits, etc. and then answer a multiple choice question about it. Some version of this electronic media trivia has evolved in bars for a few decades now. On phones it is pared down to brief "rounds" of five or six questions. The game is made more interesting with little tidbits of information that supplement the questions, like back stage information about the movie or TV show involved.
There is nothing very novel about "Scene It?" but its mix of simple elements - image, video, trivia - make it accessible, simple and interesting at the same time. You can come at it for the contest or the pop culture tidbits. It offers mobile multimedia entertainment that activate otherwise passive material. PC game veterans will recall the "You Don't Know Jack" series of trivia game also succeeded by wrapping a touch of fun multimedia around the most basic gameplay. Because the delivery mechanism can be dynamic, "Scene It?" can update itself with fresh content, which also means it is one of the few games that really deserves a subscription model.
Although I am still looking for a developer who has the wit and daring to offer a streaming mobile Yule Log. Then I really would have something to watch this Christmas Eve. Because if given the choice between that and watching yet another sci-fi series starring Scott Bakula, I will opt for staring at a log on a phone.