Thursday, August 28, 2008

I Discover what Kind of Gamer I am, and Praise the Summer's Crop of Short-Form Games

I woke up today and found two pieces of good news on the internet: Rush's Moving Pictures has been delayed, perhaps for months, and Stevie Ray Vaughn's Texas Flood is on the way. I love me some white-person blues, and this will keep me happy and my housemates amused 'till they get that Creedence Clearwater Revival Track Pack up and running.

I've been reading Mitch Krpata's excellent “New Taxonomy of Gamers” series this week (which I neglected, criminally, in January) and it's got this knack for informing me about the lineaments of my essential nature: I'm a tourist with perfectionist tendencies. I prefer singing and playing Baba O'Reilly with my friends to whaling on Through the Fire and Flames on expert. When I hit Raining Blood on Guitar Hero III's career mode I decided to stop rather than dedicate irreplacable hours of my life to beating it. I played through Ninja Gaiden II on the normal difficulty setting (this is a task for the perfectionist's masochistic streak), because I really love flipping out on voracious packs of ninja dogs, but I didn't go back and try to complete it on the hardest difficulty. I try to complete games because I want to see everything they have to offer, and once that's accomplished this I move on to the next one. Krpata had a great quote from Gabe over at Penny Arcade that captured my attitude pretty well: “I don't need or want to be punished by a game for making mistakes. I play games for what Ron Gilbert calls 'new art'. I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don't play games to beat them, I play games to see them.”

Age is a big factor in this; when you're in middle school you have countless hours to sink into honing your Metroid speedruns, and because you can't afford to buy any other games that was the best way to squeeze entertainment out of your gaming habit. But once you get older you have the financial wherewithal to move onto the next new game, and non-gaming related commitments encroach on your life (read: doing your job, hopefully interacting with women). If you're lucky you have an hour or two a day to dedicate to gaming, and frittering away that hour chasing down agility orbs, or losing forty minutes of progress between save points, or watching Otacon weep piteously doesn't seem like the best way to optimize that time anymore. Your ideal is sitting down/strumming up for thirty minutes and making some progress on something and having a good time.

As Krpata argues, how you fall on the tourist/completionist/perfectionist taxonomy also has a big impact on how you feel about game length. As a tourist, I'm not always looking to squeeze 40 hours out of every game I buy. I wouldn't get to play anything else for months, because my perfectionist side doesn't like to leave things unfinished. Your completionist gamer will regard a game's 5-hour length as a deficiency, because her brain is wired into the reward-structure of the $60 retail game, but not I. For the hardcasual gamer, the limiting resource on your gaming habit is time, not money.

This is why this summer's bumper crop of top-shelf downloadable games has been so great. Braid, Geometry Wars 2, The Who's Greatest Hits, Bionic Commando Rearmed, Castle Crashers, Pixeljunk Eden: all summer, PSN and Xbox Live Arcade have housed the games most worth playing. (This includes you, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Too Human) As a hardcasual gamer, you want a game you can get something out of by playing it for less than two hours at a time. So if you can get your hands on a game that's novel and fun to play, which you can finish in 6 hours, you thank your lucky stars. I've never played the Ratchet and Clank series, though I would love them. But I don't think I would 30 hours love them. So now there's a Ratchet game I can play in 4 hours? Sign me up. So many disc-based games present innovative gameplay ideas and then proceed to dilute their impact by attempting to stretch a few good ideas into 30 hours of content (Or several sequels). We should judge games relative to how long they manage to make their basic gameplay elements arresting, and Portal and Braid show that you can craft a superior product by being compact and economical.

Come late October the gaming companies will roll out their new, horrifying enticments to the neglect of sunny days and dissertation chapters, but for now the tourist in me is grateful for the existence of a harvest of games which are lovable in 30 minute increments. Big ups to digital distribution for saving this summer from drought.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Two Kinds of Progress

As I've said before, I think the feature that differentiates video games from regular games and sports is the fact that you do not know the rules of a video game in advance. Not all video games are like this, but the thing that makes video games unique is that you are learning the rules of the game on the fly as you move through the environment and work towards surmounting all the challenges the game throws at you. I think that this dynamic gives long-form video games unique narrative possibilities relative to other, non-participatory forms of art, so I'm going to take a shot at explaining how this is so.

My basic idea is that when the player inhabits the role of a protagonist, there are two kinds of progress that are going on in the course of a game

The first is what I'll call gameplay progress. When you begin a game you usually start off with a meager set of capabilities. You usually begin by familiarizing with the basic play mechanics and controls-- how you hit A to jump and push the left thumbstick to move around and pull the right trigger to whale on a chicken.

The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, the Odyssey and Aeneid of console gaming, set the basic template for gameplay progress by tying your access to new parts of the world to your acquisition and mastery of new skills and rules. In Zelda, for example, you acquire one new skill per dungeon, and then you earn the right to move on to the next chunk of the world by using that skill to reach and defeat the dungeon's boss. (I was playing Phantom Hourglass last spring, and by the time it was over felt this formula had become too rigid and had degenerated into mannerism. Don't get me started on the last few Castlevanias.) By the time you finish, both you and your character are more capable than when you began, because you've learned a bunch of new rules. That's progress.

Alongside gameplay progress-- the narrative of your mastery of new skills and capabilities-- there is also the venerable narrative progress native to storytelling. In a story, progress consists of the way its protagonist matures as he goes through the world and is transformed by his new experiences. Literature provides the standard models for this kind of progress. Telemachus begins the Odyssey as a faint-hearted boy tormented by his mother's suitors and ends the epic by helping to vanquish them and claim his birthright. As Huck Finn goes off on his journey up the Mississippi, he becomes caught between a conscience that tells him that slavery is right, and a heart that tells him it's wrong. By making his way through the hazards of river life and becoming friends with Jim he learns which one he should listen to; the moral drama of the novel comes from watching a good heart win out over a bad conscience. These are classic forms of narrative progress: the development of character that transpires as the protagonist is transformed by experience.

Games have unique expressive capabilities because they can superimpose and juxtapose these two distinct forms of progress in the course of their narratives. Games are great at telling coming-of-age stories because the implicit logic of gameplay already tells a story about the player's development towards maturity. Zelda has a purchase on us that outstrips its narrative sophistication because our identification with Link is different from our relationship to a character in a novel: when we begin the game, we are the powerless boy on an island who must learn about the world in order to live up to our destiny. The reason Half-Life 2 is so compelling is that you begin as a faceless nobody and spend the game becoming the efficacious person-- Gordon Freeman-- that you see reflected in the other character's eyes. Bioshock (putatively) offers the player a choice between becoming powerful and becoming morally corrupt, and this choice has significance because the empowerment you are offered is uniquely your own.

I think games have only begun to exploit the narrative possibilities of the empowerment inherent in gameplay progress. In most games we become good by becoming powerful, and while there is much to love about this story there are so many other potential experiences that can be created by playing these two forms of progress against each other, like Bioshock's Faustian bargain. We've seen a many a gaming Bildungsroman that ends in triumph, but we still haven't seen gaming's The Red and The Black. Life and literature abound in stories about the perils of maturity and the ambiguities inherent in our drive to master the world around us. Games can be too.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Better Not Tell You Now

I never imagined that I would have any “back in my day” stories, but here is one. When I was in fourth grade my family moved to Vevey, Switzerland for my dad's job, and each Sunday we would bike from Vevey to neighboring Montreaux in order to procure American and UK gaming magazines from the one English-language newsstand in the area. I read Gamepro and Computer + Video Games cover-to-cover every month, even though I didn't own the majority of the systems in them. All I knew about the Amstrad, Amiga, and Spectrum was that you could play Rainbow Islands on them, and that Rainbow Islands was the shit. 1989 was a lean year of my gaming youth, and reading about games became a great substitute for playing them. It's crazy to think that at one point during my lifetime it was necessary to bike to a different city in order to obtain coverage of video games. Such were the days of print.

All this is just a roundabout way of getting to the point that I really love reading about games. One of the best things about being someone who likes games these days is that there's such a wealth of smart and entertaining commentary on games out there in the internet, some of it unpunctuated. If you're in fourth grade, and you only own a Sega Master System, and you don't mind reading about games and systems you'll never own, the pool of content is now endless. You don't even have to bike to the next town to find this content, and be forced to live the rest of your life with the memory of that one time you toppled an elderly woman on the bikepath near Lac Leman while she was bending over to clean up after her Bichon Frise.

So even though it is churlish for me to complain in the midst of such bounty, I have an issue to raise with the games press. It's the previews.

Coverage of games in the enthusiast press is about evenly split between three areas: previews, which describe games at some point in their development; reviews, which evaluate a game on release, and everything else. For me, the last two areas are golden. I want reviews, because I want to know which games are worth playing. And I want the “everything else” because it's here that people have interesting discussions about matters unrelated to camera behavior. But the proportion of games coverage given over to previews drives me insane.

First off, game development takes a really long time, and on the current model you begin to see a proliferation of articles on a title some years before it's ever released. To take an extreme example: for a title like Silicon Knights' Too Human, which was in development for ten years, you can see dozens upon dozens of articles in the enthusiast press before that game is in any shape to be objectively evaluated. If you want to know if the game is any good at all, there's really no way to tell three years out.

Take the Super Bowl. That's a really important game. They run previews of the super bowl for two weeks and the general consensus is that it's really tiresome. After three days you run out of storylines and just spend the next eleven days wildly speculating about how the game is going to turn out. Sure, you can make some intelligent predictions about what the make-or-break elements of the game are going to be, but beyond that commentators just spend a lot of time on television and websites and the radio speculating that it's going to come down to the Colts' linebacker play. The truth is you really don't know how it's going to be until the game is played.

Secondly, if a game is going to be good, you really don't want to hear a lot about it beforehand. As a general rule I think one is best off playing games with as little advance knowledge of their contents as possible. Imagine playing Bioshock for the first time if you went in cold; you just fired up your console and found yourself plunged into an underwater Randian dystopia. That game would just knock you flat on your ass. It's that unique and beautiful and atmospheric. When I finished Bioshock I wished there was a way to erase my knowledge of the whole affair and just relive that experience of seeing it for the first time. (Maybe other people have this feeling too-- you have to systematically avoid getting any foreknowledge of Fallout 3 whilst being bombarded with information about that game for months prior.) So previews also make your experience of the finished product worse.

Finally, the games industry-- by which I mean the economic interests that bankroll the creative process-- is in full control of the media access that generates the preview cycle, and this is a bad thing for journalism. Once a game is released it belongs to the world; but before then it belongs to the publisher. And because the enthusiast press is reliant on access to pre-release versions of the game to drive page views, this is a situation that is rife with temptations to the transgression professional ethics. The ability to manage access to previews gives the financial interests an unsavory degree of leverage over the press. And rest assured: the companies will not shy away from using this leverage if they can get away with it: preview coverage has this odd effect of determining which games are the “AAA,” “can't-miss” games on their release, and this status is far too valuable to be left to the untutored judgment of games journalists.

I don't agree with Too Human developer and Silicon Knights head Dennis Dyack often; when it comes to issues even tangentially related to the creative success of his products he loses what little sense of proportion he possesses. If electing a chimpanzee prime minister of Canada would move units of Too Human, rest assured he would be out on stumping for Nim Chimpsky. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Scaling back preview coverage would leave up more room for talking about other important issues, and eliminate all the problems that come with them. I'll go half way with you, gaming press: just let me know three months out that late October is going to be amazing, and we'll be square.

Monday, August 25, 2008

I Pay Tribute to the Master Chief

A whiles back I made some hollow promises about justifying my love of for Halo 3's multiplayer. And while honoring my pledges runs contrary to my principles, I do want to extol the game's many excellences. I've been playing the game a bit on and off since I wrote that post and now that it's lost the near-shamanic command over my soul that it once had, I feel like I can discuss it in terms of appreciation rather than addiction. I should add the few caveats: I am not an expert on shooter games. Prior to Halo 3, my only experience with multiplayer shooters came from a couple rounds of 56K dial-up Doom 2 with my friend Erik. (I lost. Badly.) So don't take this as a declaration of Halo's superiority to all other shooters. Also, I am not terribly good at Halo 3.

For me, the real bedrock of Halo 3's appeal is the controls. I think the central design problem in making a shooter for the console is getting the feel of the controls right, and to my mind Bungie's main accomplishment is communicating a real sense of movement and physicality through an Xbox gamepad. A lot of shooters can make you feel like you're just a viewpoint floating in space, and Halo 3 has all these small touches that give your character a sense of substance and weight as she moves through the world-- the way the perspective shudders subtly to suggest the Spartan's gait, the way you hang in the air at the apex of a jump. Each of the weapons also has a really distinctive feel-- even if you couldn't see or hear the TV, you could tell an assault rifle from a battle rifle from a shotgun in a second just by holding the controller in your hands as you fire them. I've heard that Japanese developers, who have traditionally held American game development in low esteem, have a great deal of respect for Bungie, and you can understand why. Bungie has done for shooters what Nintendo did for platformers: they've turned the visceral joys control and motion into the centerpiece of the game.

Maybe a point of comparison will help clarify. I finally played though the Half-Life 2 saga last fall when I picked up the Orange Box (which is, officially, the greatest game bargain of all-time), and that game also has really visceral and thrilling combat. But in Half-Life, all the physicality comes from the the realistic behavior of the enemies and objects in the world: I'll never forget the way a Combine solider crumples when you hit him at close range with a shotgun. The physics model of Half-Life 2 is unparalleled when it comes to conveying realistic explosions, but when it comes to control I never quite shook the feeling that I was just gliding over pieces of the environment rather than walking on them. Unlike Halo, I never felt that I was holding a person in my hands.

So, on top of its excellent controls I feel the real strength of Halo lies in the variety and refinement of its combat mechanics. The driving idea behind Halo's combat is to create engagements at three distinct registers: long, medium, and short-range. Succeeding at each of these three distances requires the mastery of a different set of weapons and tactics; lobbing your grenades well is one of the essential skills in the game, and using them effectively is a different proposition at each of these three distances. Bungie did a great job of balancing the various weapons such that there are a variety of plausible weapons and strategies at each register. For me, honing my skills with the battle rifle until I was good enough to have a competent long-distance game kept me engrossed in the game for hours and hours. (My short game is pretty subpar, and I still can't snipe to save my life.) Because the range of distances and range of weapons, there's just a lot to learn and perfect and refine as you play.

While certain maps favor different types of combat, the map design on the whole uses its geography in order to encourage combat at a variety of distances, so there is always an opportunity to work on different parts of your game regardless of the map you end up on. Despite my uneven mastery of the various weapons and skills I always felt like I could be effective on any map if I strategized well enough, and this is a testament to the quality of the map design as a whole.

I'm not blind to Halo's faults. Unless you happen to hate all ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, the Xbox Live experience can be pretty abysmal at times. Because of this I've never really gotten a the sort of collaborative team-play experience out of Halo that you can get from Team Fortress on the PC . Maybe I just need some friends who play on Xbox live who are not sociopaths or 14-year olds. There's also not a lot of variety to the game modes, and so far as my experience goes you have to squeeze all the fun you can out of playing Slayer over and over again. But for me, that well's never run dry.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Death, Liberty, and the Purusuit of Happiness

*** Coletta Factor: GTAIV plot spoilers below***

About a week ago, Leigh Alexander wrote an interesting post about the of boom-and-bust cycle that surrounds the release of critically lauded titles like Bioshock and GTAIV. The game releases to rapturous acclaim, then the backlash and the nit-picking set in, and then the nomadic gaming public moves on to the next AAA game and forgets about it entirely: the four-month bell curve. And the odd thing is that my personal four-month bell curve with GTAIV came to an end this week, when I made the final push and finished the game after buying it at a midnight launch. And my dominant thought after witnessing the game's tragic finale was: we should still be talking about this game. Why aren't we?

Well, it seems to me that everyone who had to play and finish the game within the first week (most members of the game press who had to play through the game for review) got a bad deal in terms of being able to appreciate what the game has to offer. I don't think anyone is going to forget their first taste of Liberty City. The first hours of GTAIV are likely to be burned into the collective subconscious of a generation of gamers, because the world of GTAIV is by any reckoning the most detailed and visually impressive environment ever created in a video game. And I spent quite a few hours at the start simply marveling at the details of the environment, enjoying the narrative, and appreciating how so many of the inconveniences of the previous iterations had been eliminated.

However, there was a distinct break about halfway through where the honeymoon ended. After a while you quit slowing down to appreciate all the architecture and you get sucked into completing the missions, and around the same point the ludonarrative dissonance sets in and you become disenchanted with the way your character is compelled to act during the missions. And this was the point at which I (like many others, I think) came to a dead stop and moved on to other things.

In retrospect it was a good thing that I stopped there, because I got a different perspective on the game when I returned to it a few months later. On one hand, the world impressed the shit out of me all over again, and on the other hand I found I had new stores of patience with the social-networking structure. And it was only after re-thinking the game from the perspective of these elements that I came under the sway of the game's thesis.

To my mind, the felt disconnect between the peace-loving Nico of the cutscenes and the unrepentant bloodletter of the missions, while disenchanting, is an element of the narrative itself. So many of the narrative pieces (especially his relationship to the mafia and police) explicitly play on the idea that Nico's plight is living a life chosen for him by others. The only role available to him is this weird hybrid assassin-janitor; like many other new visitors to our shores, he spends his time cleaning up other peoples' messes for money. Everyone in power also has some nasty history that they are unwilling to deal with themselves, and it falls to the newcomers to keep the gears of capital turning smoothly without staining the reputations of its controllers. As a player, you don't have any choice in this; to keep the narrative progressing you must resign yourself to piling up corpses for your handlers regardless of how you feel about it.

One piece of meaningful liberty the game's narrative affords the player is the option to cultivate relationships with Nico's crime associates and girlfriends. There's no denying that ferrying your friends and paramours across town is a chore, but the slim gameplay rewards of this efforts are compensated by the narrative rewards. Not only do you get a greater sense of Nico's character and motivations by having him discuss his life with his peers, but I also fell into the grip of the idea that cultivating these friendships (particularly with Kate McCreary, who offers no tangible gameplay rewards at all) was my one chance to write my own script for Nico. As the missions pulled Nico inexorably towards corruption, with few defining choices along the way, I was given a chance to redeem the protagonist through my own agency.

And like a sucker I took it. During the final mission you are given a decision that offers a choice between the two opposed values in the narrative: accumulation and honor. You can make money by working with a character who had betrayed you, or you can take revenge on him. Just as I was given a choice between the two, Nico calls Kate and asks her for advice. And since I had come to regard Nico's relationship with Kate as his one chance for happiness, I took her advice and went for revenge. And the game's reward for this choice was killing her off at Roman's wedding in the very next scene, setting up the final bid for revenge and the conclusion of the game.

This finale made a deep impression on me. By offering the player a chance to define Nico's values and character in the context of the gameplay, GTAIV gives the player the illusion that her choices make a difference. And then, perversely, the game eliminates the thing you choose to value the most. The message I took from this is that it doesn't make a damn bit of difference what you choose. You may think you are in control, but you're not making the rules. The rules were set long before the player arrived, and Nico's happiness is not in the cards.

When Halo 3 came out last Fall, Daniel Radosh wrote that in order to attain maturity, “games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance. They will need to stop pandering to the player’s desire for mastery in favor of enhancing the player’s emotional and intellectual life.” As G. Christopher Williams noted, GTAIV humiliates the player in order to convey a message about the systematic corruption America visits on its influx of human capital. The structure of the gameplay contains a paradox at the heart of its vision of America: it inspires an unprecedented sense of freedom and open possibilities, and then this very sensation is shown to be a trap. The game's final achievement is labeled “You Win!”, and as it rolled by I knew the joke was on me. I had mastered all the rules, and it had gotten me nowhere. Welcome to America.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Foucault on the Pleasures of being Subject

First off, more good news for the good ship Clu: our exchange with Michel Abbott and Corvus Elrod garnered a mention on N'Gai Croal's Level Up blog, which means that now I can die in peace.

Second, we continue a weeks-spanning tradition of giving big ups to GameSetLinks. Thanks for reading, Simon Carless! I am going to name my first-born Simon Carless Pliskin in your honor.

And now to business. Michel Foucault was one of the most important and influential philosophers of the 20th century. Foucault's main subject was a historical development of social and cultural phenomena he came to call “discursive regimes,” and the theory of pleasure that grows out of his inquiries into these regimes illuminates many different cultural practices, including play.

The easiest to way to think about a discursive regime is to think of it as a set of rules that govern practices in sphere of life-- civic government, economics, medicine or even hygiene. These rules specify which sort of behaviors count as “normal” in that sphere and which actions count as “abnormal.” So in the case of medicine you have all sorts of practices that are used in order to determine who is (psychologically and physically) healthy and who is unhealthy, in the case of law you have a bunch of rules and procedures that determine who is a criminal and who is a functional member of society, and so on. Foucault thought that analyzing the history of distinctively modern practices like clinical psychology cast a good deal of light on the nature of modern society. (For example, he was interested in how the idea of mental diseases like hysteria and schizophrenia supplanted the old, theologically-based idea that mental illness was the result of a damaged or possessed soul.)

One of the main theses of Foucault's later work was that many other interpreters of these phenomena had failed to understand these aspects of human cultural life because they had a mistaken understanding of power. There is a temptation to think that the way these regimes operate is purely punitive: those in power, who make the rules, coerce the populace into compliance with them, purely through violence and sanction. On this line of thought, removing these artificial systems of control would allow our natural desires to find their full expression. Marxists, for example, often though that once the populace was free of the ills visited upon them by the political and economic regimes of capitalism, a type of social cooperation inherent in our species-nature would reassert itself and come to govern our social lives.

Foucault thought that there was a good deal wrong with this picture, but one of his main points is that discursive regimes to not just function negatively, through punishment, but also positively, through pleasure. This is why these regimes are so powerful: not because they terrorize us into conformity, but because they create new forms of pleasure through the imposition of discipline on our lives and bodies. As he once said in an interview: “If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it? What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn't only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.”

Thinking about regular and well-understood cultural practices, like ballet dancing, illustrates his point. Learning ballet requires the imposition of all kinds of arbitrary and physically unnatural rules on one's actions and body. You have to learn to tailor your bodily movements and to manipulate your feet in a way that is painful and difficult. However, by doing so you develop the capacity to use your body in a way that is elegant and pleasurable.

To take another example, think of Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero is a regime of power: it induces me to play the correct notes with the correct rhythm, and it punishes me when I fail to do so. The game poses problems I would not have otherwise in my life. But it also creates a certain type of pleasure that would not exist otherwise: the pleasure of playing all the correct notes in the correct rhythm.

Towards the end of his career, Foucault came more and more to regard the ancient Greek and Roman practices of self-discipline-- their forms of care over their own conduct and bodies-- as a model for liberation. Unlike self-sacrifice undertaken for the sake of God or for the State, the Greeks were disciplinarians who assumed these regimes for the sake of pleasure. The Olympics, in a way, are a paradigmatic product of this Greek enthusiasm for creating pleasure by submitting one's body and conduct to rules.

Many game designers think that that long-term goal of design is to bequeath real freedom on the player by removing all of the arbitrary limitations on the worlds they create which are necessitated by the limitations our technology, giving her the same liberty of action she enjoys in real life. And to be sure, the pursuit of verisimilitude, especially when it comes to expanding our modes of interaction, is a worthy one. But it seems to me that over the long term you cannot remove the rules without removing pleasure. Games are systems of rules, and you cannot make more fun by taking rules away. It is the limitations on our action imposed by systems of government that lends significance to our behavior. And they also make for all of the pleasure we get from flipping out and killing ninjas.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Michael Abbott Offers some Concluding Reflections on Braid

Michael Abbott posted the final installment of our conversation about Braid over on the Brainy Gamer today. Thanks go to him and Corvus Elrod for engaging in this conversation, it's been great. I still have some ideas about Braid's narrative and gameplay, but I'm going to let those thoughts marinate for a few days, as the internet appears to be saturated at the moment.

And also, if you have not purchased Braid, I really encourage you to buy it. It is a game that could change the way you think about games forever. It is a game with uncommon aspirations, and more games will aim to achieve the sort of emotional and thematic depth it strives for if we (as a gaming community) support it and reward Jonathan Blow's efforts financially.
I live with one foot in a gaming world and the other in a non-gaming world. Most of my local friends are academics who teach art, theater, music, rhetoric, philosophy, etc.. Without exception these people are curious about the world and eager for an intellectual challenge or exchange of ideas. They're sensitive to the nuances of human communication; they love the arts; and they're genuinely curious about new ideas and forms of expression.

And none of them can play Braid. Not one. Most of them can't even figure out what they're supposed to do. I know because I've put the gamepad in their hands and watched them. Sure, these folks aren't gamers like me, but they're also not senior citizens or video-game-phobics. They're mostly people in their late 20s to mid 40s who may play games now and then, but could never be described as gamers. And they're all pretty smart.

The tragic thing is they want to play. The music, the visuals, the opening text - all hook them and pique their curiosities. They didn't know games aspire to explore the human psyche. They didn't know games can look like paintings. They didn't know game music can feature a cello. Braid invites them in, and they willingly enter. Then, just as quickly, Braid boots them out and slams the door in their faces. They discover that the game is as inaccessible to them as an unknown foreign language.

The tragedy of Braid, to me, is that it bars the door on what might have been its most receptive audience. I understand that one game can't be all things to all people. I get the fact that Braid is, in many ways, a gamer's game with homages to iconic aspects of gaming history. And I'm sensitive to the fact that Braid relies on our collective sense of games and our experiences playing them as part of its meaning. But when you consider how small that audience really is - and when you subtract from that number "hardcore" types like me who found the game severely unyielding - what you're left with is a relatively small group of devoted gamers who truly love the game and find it meaningful to them. That's great, and I don't mean to diminish that experience in the least.

But is this what we want? Why must we so often isolate ourselves in this way? It's a shame to me that a game with Braid's narrative, artistic, and aesthetic aspirations is inaccessible to so many people hungry for exactly those things. I have an agenda here, and I make no effort to conceal it. I want my friends - the painters, poets, musicians, and philosophers I work with every day - to experience for themselves what video games can do and say and mean. I believe they will meet us halfway if we offer them a reasonable hill to climb and a meaningful experience for their efforts. I wanted Braid to be that game, and I'm disappointed and a little sad that it wasn't.

This is my last post on Braid. It's been a terrific discussion, and I'm terribly grateful to Iroquois, Corvus, the commenters, and the designer himself, Jonathan Blow, who have made this multi-post cross-blog conversation so vigorous and thought provoking. I greatly appreciate your interest. Now I'm gonna go play me some Madden.

Monday, August 18, 2008

I Trade More Blows with Michael Abbott on the Subject of Braid

Michael Abbott and I are continuing our blog-exchange on Braid. Corvus Elrod has also joined the conversation over on the Brainy Gamer, and his comments are well worth reading. Michael and I set out to start a lively and civil discussion on Braid with this exchange, and if you go over to the comments section on his site you will find just such a conversation underway.

Hi Mike,

I noticed that your astute readers picked up on the fact that we lovingly pilfered the "vs. mode" idea from Croal/Totilo's exchanges in no time flat. It bears mentioning that we stand on the shoulders of giants, etc.

It's funny to me that you described parts of your experience as drudgery. I was on a console-less vacation last week and one of the first tasks for me when I got back to my 360 yesterday was finally cracking the last few segments of Braid-- my girlfriend was my sidekick and puzzle-solving assistant as I played through the latter half of the game, and we were joking that it was my "homework." I think part of this feeling comes from the way that blogging colors my experience (maybe you felt this too, where there is this pressure to finish the game in order to become well-informed), but it also speaks to the ethos of the game itself-- puzzling my way though Braid was onerous. Blow himself is quasi-puritanical about making the player work hard to figure out things on her own, and this attitude is reflected in the game's design.

The positive side of this, as I see it, is the sense of earned satisfaction you get from mastering the new rules and teasing out the diverse logics of the game-worlds. And it as it happens, this is exactly the sort of thing I appreciate. With a the exception of few puzzles ("crossing the gap" on world 5, for example), which I couldn't have gotten through without just stumbling onto the right solution, I felt that the demands Braid makes on the player are reasonable-- uncompromising and rigorous, but reasonable. Braid is an imperious mistress, but she is rarely fickle.

The negative side of this, as your experience illustrates, is that Braid just lacks any immediate sense of fun. It does not set out to entertain you, and with the exception of some pretty aesthetic moments it makes you earn the pleasure you take from it. (Portal, which makes for a good point of comparison, wants the player to like it and desires to be understood in a way that Braid does not.) I think part of this is that the feel of the platforming is kind of stiff compared to contemporary platformers-- the fact that it was sometimes difficult to execute the proper solution to a puzzle because you couldn't jump properly is a design flaw, in my opinion, and imposes needless barriers to the core enjoyment of experimenting and problem-solving. (Part of the problem here is just that Nintendo makes everyone else look bad when it comes to making buttery-smooth and tactile platforming controls.) This is too bad, because I liked the fact that the rewind mechanic removed the need for the frustrating-controller-slamming-repetitive-death and platform-pixel-length-estimation that is endemic to platformers (indeed, I think this idea of removing player death from the rule-learning scenario was one of the best ideas in the whole game design); it was unfortunate that some of the unrewindable elements in the later puzzles made the easy "redo" impossible.

You're right that the deep concentration and tricky jumping you have to perform to solve the puzzles pulls you out of the narrative. I'm not sure if I would say it "clashes" with the narrative-- as you say, there are some interesting and complex thematic connections between the the texture of Braid's play and the narrative elements. (I have some theses-- crackpot theses-- on this front, which I will inflict on the internet at some future date.)

So I feel where you're coming from Mike, and I understand your disappointment. I thought there was something really refreshing, even respectful about the way Braid makes a set of stringent demands on the player. It shows a certain confidence in the player's capacities. But while meeting these demands can feel ennobling, it can also be alienating to play a game so rigorously governed by the intentions of its author. Braid offers a very specific type of fun, and if this sort of puzzling doesn't suit your temperament it's a game that's easier to admire than to love.

Iroquois Pliskin

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Letter from Michael Abbott Concerning Braid

Michael Abbott has posted a response to my first missive over on The Brainy Gamer, which I have reproduced below the break.

The game is officially afoot! Stay tuned.

This is a tough one for me, Iroquois. Before I played it, Braid looked like a game targeted directly at me and my tastes: thematically ambitious, artistically rich; an homage to genre-defining games I love. As I've written here previously, I want to play games that explore emotions rarely found in video games, like sadness and longing. I'm eager for games that don't fear ambiguity; games that offer open space for interpretation and rumination.

Braid is all these things. So why don't I like it very much?

I admire the game Braid wants to be, but I see a fundamental disconnect between the game's narrative ambitions and the mechanisms Braid relies on to deliver them. Essentially, it's a platformer/puzzle game with story elements interspersed throughout, separating each of the worlds. In this way, it's a fairly conventional structure, with what appears to be a purposefully thin story attached.

But as others have suggested, the real story of Braid is delivered via gameplay. Its thematic through-lines, such as memory and regret, are said to be manifested in the player's experience of turning back time and other activities. Intellectually, I understand this melding of form and content, and it resonates with me as an exciting approach to game design. But my experience playing Braid was nothing like this at all.

Maybe I'm simply not skilled enough as a gamer, but I found playing Braid a thoroughly frustrating affair. The process for accomplishing things can often be terribly fussy, requiring repeated attempts (for me, sometimes 25-30) to overcome a single obstacle or special reverse-time maneuver. At one point, I found myself perched on the last pixel edge of a moving cloud waiting for just the right moment to jump from my time delay circle to catch the next cloud. After 50 or so unsuccessful attempts, I consulted a video walkthrough (more on this in a moment), and even with that running next to me, I found it incredibly difficult to reproduce what I was seeing. At this point, any allegorical meaning I was meant to derive from this experience was destroyed.

Some players complain about single-path "guess what the designer is thinking" puzzles, and I confess I'm not crazy about them myself. But if they're cleverly designed and fun to execute, they can hit that "sweet spot" you describe. While I admire Braid's various chrono effects and the clever ways they're implemented, I found myself repeatedly stymied by the puzzles. Worlds 4 and 6 were only possible for me with multiple cheats. Perhaps if I had devoted more hours to each, I might have overcome them. But I made an earnest effort, and at a certain point it began to feel like drudgery. I understand the game plays on a certain narrative parallel between the player's difficulty making sense of things and Tim's uncertainties about the world. But for me, the frustration negated any possibility of this sort of engagement.

Anybody making the ironic connection between the name of my blog and the fact that I simply may not be smart enough to play this game?

You mentioned the writing in the narrative vignettes and wondered if such text might be considered "retrograde" in a game like this. I don't necessarily have a problem with games relying on text per se, and in the case of Braid it seems part of its spare, ambiguous aesthetic. I just wish the writing were better crafted. This is all terribly subjective, of course, but I personally found it awkward and bit mawkish. I wish it were more poetic or evocative than it is.

So it sounds like I really hate this game, doesn't it? I'm troubled by that impression because so many people I respect have written so enthusiastically about Braid. Perhaps this game just isn't for me. Despite all that I want to admire about it, it just feels like Braid doesn't like me very much, and that's pretty hard for me to overcome. I consider myself a skilled gamer, so maybe I'm just a little embarrassed that this game was too much for me. I don't know.

I do know this, however. Braid is the bees knees and the talk of the town at the moment, and I'm feeling very much like the odd man out.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Letter to the Brainy Gamer's Michael Abbott Concerning Braid

Hi Michael,

I've been looking forward to Braid for a long time now, because I've been listening to Jonathan Blow, the game's designer, talk and critique modern game design for about a year now. Blow really interests me, since he strikes me as one of those quintessential modernist avant-gardistes who is avid to declare that everything being done with the art form is wrong, and that his own magnum opus is going to point the way the future. He's wrong about the tradition, of course, but his mere existence and the viability of his game is a sign that the creative ecosystem for games is healthy and flourishing, as it ought to be.

So I proposed that we conduct this correspondence about the game, and you-- being both gracious and unaware of what you were getting yourself into-- agreed. In the interim, the Internet has been rife with intelligent commentary on the game, so let's move things forward.

When I was racking my brains for something interesting to say about Braid, one of the first things that came to mind was your “narrative manifesto” post last week, which included some comments by Blow. All of the designers you mention seem to recognize a common problem with realizing narrative in games: The player is a creature of whimsy, an “agent of chaos,” and the choices they tend to make with their freedom in the game's world are not usually conducive to narrative coherence. In order to convey a narrative with specificities of character and plot, the designer needs to devise scenarios that take control over the narrative out of the player's hands-- through cutscenes, slow-to-open doors, elevators, and other devices. And by doing this they remove the feature-- interactivity-- which gives games their unique potential as works of art.

Most of your subjects said that their solution is to abdicate the role of author: they put the scriptwriting tools in the player's hands in the form of the game's rules and then give them responsibility for crafting their own interpretation of the world and characters devised by the designer. This approach goes hand-in-hand with a particular gameplay aesthetic, the open-world game genre exemplified by GTA and Oblivion.

Since I've played Braid, I've come to think that Jonathan Blow is the odd-man-out of your examples, Mike. Braid is not about the player's creation of a narrative from the game's rules. It's about finding the one way to get each puzzle piece-- choice doesn't enter into it. And at the level of game design, I think the game is a masterpiece. The time-manipulation mechanic is both innovate and easy-to-use (this is no mean feat), and I liked how each level introduced new wrinkles into the manipulation of time.

The creation of these puzzles is an art in itself, and I thought Blow's design choices on this front were just superb; each challenge struck me as both unobvious and logical. (When I was playing I remembered your recent game-club discussions of Grim Fandango, which illustrated how important it is to strike this balance.) For me, it hit that sweet spot where I found myself mentally navigating some sticky puzzle before I went to bed, and I had to restrain myself from crawling out of bed and firing up the console when the pieces dropped into place just before I went to sleep. (The last game to do this to me is Portal, and this is good company indeed.) When I finally figured out how to get that one piece, I felt like I was being rewarded for doing something genuinely praiseworthy, and for me this sensation is the one experience I wish all games aspired to create.

Blow could have rested his laurels on the quality of the fundamental design. But Blow isn't a man to settle. The little story-vignettes between levels aren't there to tell a story, really, but are there to color the player's experience of how he navigates all the ingeniously-designed puzzles. These vignettes are modest devices as bearers of the game's whole plot, but they are appropriately suggestive-- I really thought they transformed the basic gameplay and invested the mechanics with a sort of allusive depth and significance. I think that Blow's attempt to wed form to content by transforming our experience of the game's mechanics into something with a definite narrative texture was brilliant. It's gotten me thinking about how games themselves (all our other games) alter our experience of time and give free rein to our fantasies about perfection and repeatability. (Maybe you're like me and you just find it satisfying to run across games that have something to say about what games mean to the players, what their ethical significance is. Perhaps it's because they facilitate coming up with blog posts.)

So I love Braid. But I'm wondering what you thought of the artistic package as a whole. I had some reservations about the aesthetics, especially the writing of the narrative vignettes, which carry so much weight. Am I being curmudgeonly for feeling that text is a really retrograde way for a video game to convey its framing themes? Gameplay of this caliber covereth a multitude of sins, but do I give the man a pass on appearing (in some places) to have torn some pages from a high-school journal and pasted them into the game?

Iroquois Pliskin

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Review

Final Fantasy Tactics A-2: Grimoire of the Rift
Platform: Nintendo DS Developer: Square-Enix Publisher: Square-Enix

Box Quote: “Final Fantasy Tactics A-2: Grimoire of the Rift is as needlessly convoluted as its title!”-- Iroquois Pliskin,

Full Disclosure: It is difficult to express my lifelong affection for the tactical turn-based RPG genre without drawing on my rich storehouse of boner-stroking imagery. I frittered away countless, irreplaceable hours of my youth on Shining Force 1&2 for the Sega Genesis. X-Com: UFO Defense was, so far as I can recall, designed to replicate the effects of crystal methanphetamine addiction on my brain. I did not play X-Com: UFO Defense so much as go on X-Com: UFO Defense benders; I would start up a session, and by the time I had my next coherent, non X-Com: UFO Defense-related thought would occur, several days had passed and the back of my throat would taste metallic. Should Al-Quaeda ever distill the fiendish magic of that game they will no doubt bring Christendom to its knees within weeks by putting it in the water. Advance Wars: Dual Strike is among my favorite games of all time, as its sorcerous, time-telescoping properties have gotten me though many a redeye over the last few years. I never played the original Final Fantasy Tactics for the Playstation too much, but I was fairly certain that this potent mixture of two of my childhood obsessions would lay me low, if I gave it a chance.

Gameplay: There is no end of joy to be got from strategically positioning chocobos in a ¾ isometic perspective. It's a good thing, because the design goal of the game seems to have been the imposition of as many menus as possible between the player and his strategic positioning of chocobos in ¾ isometric space. The game's basic mechanics are woefully under-explained-- it seems to have been designed, as many Japanese sequels are, to cater solely to the consumers of the previous games in the franchise who are familiar with the game's basic mechanics. Without this background it's hard to figure out how you achieve the most basic objectives, and the number of steps you must go through are almost never explained. For example, getting your individual party members to acquire the weapons necessary to new abilities, one of the most basic tasks in the game, requires about 6 steps and 11 menus. While other turn-based strategy franchises have used sequels to refine the basic combat mechanics, it seems that the crew behind FFA2 has just decided to agglomerate more and more mechanics onto the original gameplay-- an irritating “laws” system that governs each battle, a bazaar system that mediates your access to items, a clan system that acts like a meta-game, and an auction system that relates to the clan system in some way I cannot make out. Perhaps the abuse of Ritalin confers the necessary patience to navigate this dizzying array of sub-systems, and the game will no doubt furnish limitless depths to its devotees, but my basic attitude towards all of these systems is that they are standing between me and upgrading my dragoons, and I don't like it at all.

Story: Your protagonist's been imprisoned in a book and transported to Ivalice, a setting within the Final Fantasy cosmos that heretofore has been distinguished from the rest of that world by the quality of its storytelling: Ivalice has been a safe harbor of well-wrought political intrigue in a sea of emo nonsense. FFA2, however, holds nothing of narrative interest to those over the age of twelve. I would find it easier to sympathize with the hero's plight were it not for his hideous red crushed-velvet beret. He spends most of the game poncing around in his hideous vest and being tirelessly chipper. It's not as if narrative richness is a really needful thing in this genre, but the quality of the story relative to the other Ivalice games I've played (particularly Final Fantasy XII) was a letdown.

The Takeaway: Only if you really like this sort of thing.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Minigolf with a Story

There's a running joke on the GFW radio podcast about turning games into narratives. Shawn Elliott and Robert Ashley say: Thrusting a narrative onto any game at all is like trying to tell a story with a minigolf course. Video games are no more a narrative medium than minigolf; their basic contours are defined by the demands of play, not storytelling.

Why modern game designers are so bent on throwing a thin veil of story over the most innocuous and self-explanatory forms of play-- Tetris, Bejeweled, and what-have-you-- is an interesting question in itself. When I played Boom Blox, I never required an explanation of why I was hurling balls at block-towers, and still less one that involved saving a townfull of block-beavers. There is something willfully perverse about devoting man-hours towards concocting a narrative excuse for tossing virtual bowling-balls at towers. Throwing shit at towers is its own reward.

But on the other hand, I think that the whole argument does too little credit to our intrinsic human craving to turn every experience into a narrative. Case in point: When I was at Cedar Point this summer (America's Roller Coast!) I rode a roller coaster with a story. Last summer, I actually played a mini golf course with a narrative. If you watch a lot of sports coverage (and the Olympics is a good case of this) it dawns on you that every aspect of competition is covered by subjecting it to a narrative logic: a runner's struggle to overcome the obstacles of his troubled youth, the gymnast's last shot at redemption.

Narrative, like play, is one of the most basic tools we posses as human beings for coping with experience. And just as play can be fundamentally empowering, there is something distinctly empowering about using the tools of narrative to throw a net of meaning over our lives. It is by spinning out stories and engaging in play that we get our most distinctive sense of our selves as people, come to understand who we are, understand the natural and social world around us, and turn that world to our ends. Games always find themselves getting arbitrarily transformed into stories because the play and storytelling have a common function in human life.

I was reading Joseph O'Neill's excellent novel Netherland earlier this summer, and that book stuck with me when I was thinking about the function of narrative outside of literature. Netherland is about a lot of things-- immigrant experience, cricket, the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, friendship-- but it is most fundamentally about the protagonist's need for a narrative capable of tying his shattered life and family back together. During the novel he meets Eliza, a woman who professionally arranges photo albums for clients, culling piles and piles of photos and pasting them into leather albums. Her comment on the practice could serve as a statement of the book's mastering idea:

“Eliza put away the albums. “people want a story,' she said. “They like a story.”...

“A story,” I said suddenly. “Yes. that's what I need.”

I wasn't kidding.

Photo arrangement is a metaphor for the basic business of making sense of our lives. The American moral philosopher David Velleman proposed a conception of moral reasoning that develops this idea in fastidious detail. On Velleman's view, moral reasoning is fundamentally about making sense of our actions-- past, present, and future. When we are deliberating about some act, our fundamental impulse is to think of how that act would cohere with the story we have been telling ourselves all along about rest of our behavior. Sometimes this narrative is just about the principles that underlie our action-- altruism, autonomy-- and sometimes this is more literally a story, a tale we tell ourselves about our lives. Eliza does this very thing when she constructs an album from photos of the narrator's child:

“She'd done a good job. The story of my son, as she put it, was now gathered in a single leather-bound volume inscribed with his initials.

Eliza flexed a bicep triumphantly. “What did I tell you?”

“You've got the knack,” I agreed. I didn't tell her that while her work gave me joy-- who can resist images of one's laughing child?-- it also documented my son's never-ending, never truly acceptable self-cancellations. In the space of a few pages his winter self was crossed out by his summer self which in turn was crossed out by his next self. Told thus, the story of my son is one that begins continuously, until it stops. Is this really the only possible pagination of a life?”

If photo-arranging serves as an embedded metaphor for literature, then what we need is some new guiding metaphor for making narratives within the medium of games. Elliott and Ashley don't mean to demean narrative as an activity. What they are really getting at is the fact that we don't know how to make a narrative out of play, instead of grafting a superfluous narrative onto the doing of fun things. We need some new way to make a story out of our desire to master the world by learning its rules. When we begin to figure out how to do this, we will be on the way to creating an art form.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Nightmare Scenario

Here's the thing: I love comic books. I grew upon them. While my mother gave me life, Marvel comics was my official wetnurse. I subscribed to the Fantastic Four during the mid-ninties (that period was not a high-water mark for the series); like most comic book nerds, I spent my pubescent years attaining a fine-grained recall of the history of the X-Men and admiring the colossal and statuesque slab of womanhood that was She-Hulk. (The Beatrice of my adolescence was a heady amalgamation of Stephanie Seymour and She-Hulk) I left off the habit during high school, not in order to acquit myself of nerdery entirely, but just to seek out other forms of nerdery (read: musical theater) that led to more promising (read: female) forms of social engagement.

But I developed a newfound respect for the medium during college, when I went back and read the work of Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and the critic Scott McCloud. This respect turned partially on my appreciation for the versatility and narrative depth possible within the confines of the traditional superhero genre, but also on the inherent formal possibilities of the medium: the way that the arrangement and organization of images in sequence could be used to reinforce, undercut and shape the meaning of the words and images themselves. There were self-conscious artists, like Moore, who were using these formal tools to expand the expressive range of the medium and tell different stories, stories that aspired to the complexity of characterization and formal rigorousness I demanded from other forms of art.

I could probably tell a similar story about my love of games, which I left off playing during my college years and rediscovered as a graduate student. Games are a young medium with a lot of potential-- maybe even a greater porential than comics-- but they've been shoehorned into catering into the narrative and experiential needs of the teenage male. But like many gamers of my age and tastes, I hope for a future where video games break out of the historical path laid out by comics. The hoped-for scenario goes like this: the audience for video games expands to the degree that the public comes to regard them as one form of entertainment among others, and begins to become economically viable to make products that reach beyond the teen male demographic. There will be, as there is for cinema and television and literature, a creative space large enough to sustain a wide range of games with different sorts of artistic and narrative ambitions. The development of the medium so far offers grounds for hope on this front, especially as gamers mature and come to demand this sort of thing.

But there is also, in the form of the cultural history of comic books, what I call “The Nightmare Scenario.” A confluence of factors (craven self-censorship brought on by public hysteria over the effect of violence and sex on children, lack of nerve on the part of the artists and writers and editors, a business environment that favors creative conservatism) led comic books down the road to ghettoization in popular culture.

Psychonauts developer and writer Tim Schafer offered a well-fleshed out synopsis f the nightmare scenario in an excellent interview with Playboy magazine: “The thing that scares me most about the games industry is what's happened to the comic book industry. Comic books are an incredibly powerful art form as well, but they've been relegated to kid stuff for so long that now the comics that aren't kid stuff are called "underground" comics. So the comic books that are mature and have adult themes and are about emotional issues and are really powerful, those are underground? Those are the ones that should be the most mainstream because they apply to all people, not just the plots that are supernatural or fantasy oriented. So I feel comics is a medium that hasn't found its whole potential because it got locked into a limited corner of popular culture. Games could be teetering on the edge of that. And the problem is that very few publishers want to go in the directions that I'm talking about. A lot of the fans do, but there is no publisher in the world who is saying right now they believe games are art. They just want to go after where the money has been so far. And that's exactly the kind of thinking that killed the comics industry”

I wish I knew how games are going to find a different path; from the perspective of cultural history, they share so much with comics. Even if they have all this potential as a medium, it will matter naught if the audience for the games that realize this potential are a niche within a niche. Shafer's comments are primarily directed towards the business side of things, and as I've written before I think a lot of the responsibility for the creative narrowness of games lies at the feet of the publishers. But as the audience we share some of the blame as well. Who's to blame for Psychonauts being a colossal, developer-bankrupting failure? How about Okami? It might be promotion-- these games have an audience who would love them if they only knew they existed-- but at the end of the day the reality is that there isn't an audience for these games, at least not yet. And where there is no audience there is no economic wherewithal to support creatively ambitious games. Gamers are the only ones who can save the future of the art form from the nightmare scenario, and so far we haven't done much to sustain any optimism for that future.

Addendum: Steve Gaynor has a great article on the comics versus games issue, which raised some hackles and put forth some great points I didn't touch on here. It also led to some good commentary and exchange, so check it out.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Three Methods of Game Design

The author received another positive notice from the blogs today. Dear Ms. Bauer: Thank you for your kindness. As Shakespeare wrote, “Fear not, 'till the Reese's Fast Break do come to Dunsinane” Now our kingdom is overthrown, but we can't say that we didn't have a good run. Hopefully I shall require your legal services in later life. Thank you for being a friend. Yours, Iroquois Pliskin

I was listening to the GFW radio the other day, as is my wont, and something Robert Ashley said really stuck with to me. He was comparing the game design methods of Will Wright (the creator of The Sims and head of the studio formerly known as Maxis) and Shigeru Miyamoto. He related this anecdote to raise a point of comparison: When Miymoto was creating Mario 64, it turns out that the very first thing he did was have his programmers design him an open garden environment in order to put Mario through his paces. He spent the early stages of development tuning and re-tuning Mario's controls until they were perfect, by nailing down the feel of Mario's jumping and movement.

I feel like there were few moments of my gaming youth that I remember vividly, but the very first moments of Mario 64 stand out in crisp definition against the indistinct welter of childhood games. The tactile quality of the interactions and the indescribable kineticism of the movements had been refined in a way that I had never experienced before. Everybody remembers this moment, how thrilling it was just to jump around the environment. The story illustrates the core of Nintendo's distinctive method game design. Nintendo's hallmark as a developer is the refinement of the controls; even their subpar games control well, and their greatest games (Wii Sports, Mario 64, WarioWare) transform control itself into a form of revelation.

As Ashley eloquently put it, Nintendo creates a world out of play. Wright, on the other hand, operates by making a game out of the world. His studio has always taken a complex dynamic in the world-- the social development of cities, or the course of evolution, or human social life-- and then turned the laws of that phenomenon into rules in a game. Wright's games are, in an odd way, an attempt at scientific description: each of them purport to describe how some aspect of the world works. (Civilization is like this, too, except it's offering an interpretation of the determining forces in world history.)

Having to be a game that is fun to play puts some limits on this procedure. But Wright shares this basic method with the great number of game designers that strive for realism. They just put the accent of the idea a little differently: what they're trying to do is to capture all the minute details of the empirical world and create virtual worlds that have all those features. Whatever its problems as a game, GTAIV shows that the pursuit of the detail necessary to create a more visually believable world is worth the time and hardware. It informs us that there are new things still to come from this direction.

While the other current-gen consoles have pushed the technical capacities required by visions of this sort further, the Wii's bequest to posterity is its introduction of a new form of play into the home. Nintendo's staked its empire on the joys of mere motion a few times already, and won. Now, it's funny to remember how we doubted that this was a winning proposition.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Why WarioWare is Game Design DNA

Strip everything else away, and all videogaming is about hitting the correct buttons on a controller with proper timing. When you hear David Jaffee discuss his dream-game, sometimes you get the idea that the holy grail of his game design theology is the production of what he once called “pure play”-- his aim is to mine all the pleasures of hitting buttons in the correct rhythm. But for my money, Nintendo's WarioWare games are the closest anyone has come to this goal.

I think that the distinctive pleasure of gaming comes from the enjoyment we get in learning rules and putting them to use in problem-solving. But I'll make a distinction in that motto and add some definitions, because it'll help me explain why I love these games so much. There are two sets of rules that govern a game. “Interaction” is governed by a set of rules that describe how movements made with the controller are translated into movements on-screen. So one set of rules is basically all about how you manipulate your controller in order to get your representative in the game to jump. “Gameplay” is governed by a set of rules that describe the macro-level goals that count as successful progress the game-- what sort of jumping will keep you alive, what sort of jumping will kill your enemies and get you to the end of the level. Now, in my opinion most of the fun of long-form modern games comes from on the enjoyment of learning the gameplay rules. Usually you just want to learn the interaction-rules as quickly as possible so you can turn them to your advantage and get about conquering the world, fragging noobs, saving the princess and so on.

But the makers of WarioWare had a genius idea: Why don't we make a game that's 90% figuring out how to interact? Instead of constructing up a longer game that continuously elaborates on a basic set of actions and offers a series of more complex goals-- making another Zelda, say, or even a shorter game-- why don't we just make scads of miniature games that each have their own new and different conrols, and then challenge the player to figure out their rules in five seconds?

This line of thinking gave birth to WarioWare: Micro MegaGame$ for the GBA in 2003. WarioWare stripped all the adventitious elements from modern games-- continuity of plot, character, visual style, controls, everything-- and replaced it with just one task: figure out how to do something. Each level is made up of 15 or so “micro games.” In each microgame, the screen flashes a verb at you: “avoid!” “jump!” “shave!” “don't get caught!” “pet”! “feed!”, and then the game appears. You have seconds to figure out how it is that you make this verb happen, or else you fail.

As the verbs indicate, the games themselves present the player an assortment of arbitrary and bizarre tasks; because there is no need to sustain any narrative among the games themselves, the menu of interactions and verbs open to the designers are nearly inexhausible. The art team capitalized on this freedom, and as a result the parade of bizarre gameplay scenarios that whip by at a dizzying pace have this inspired lunacy to them. Because the underlying game play mechanics are just as mutable and random as the madcap collage of differing visual aesthetics-- photos, cartoons, classic 8-bit games, anything. It's a smart marriage of form and content. This is difficult to get across in words so here's an example for the uninitiated:

What I discovered by playing WarioWare is that learning rules can be made even more fun by keeping 'em simple and then forcing the player to learn them fast. Sometimes you happen upon the correct move by chance (when all else fails, hitting “A” a bunch of times is a good policy), and even then your own accidental competence can be amusing.

Since the series has branched out to other platforms, the Warioware team has kept it fresh over various iterations by building the new games around new control mechanics. WarioWare Twisted!, maybe the best of the series, adds new controls into the mix by attaching a gyroscope onto the cart itself. It sounds crazy, but it's amazing to run Mario across world 1-1 by physically spinning your GBA around in space. In this way, the WarioWare games perfectly suit Nintendo's hardware philosophy, which has won this console generation by showing how essential the basic pleasures of control and interaction are. (Don't be surprised if WarioWare: Balance Board Redonkulosity appears in stores this Spring.)

The WarioWare team are also responsible for the Rhythm Tengoku series, which will be making an appearance on DS in America this fall in the form of Rhythm Heaven, unlike its great GBA predecessor. (Still the only game I've ever imported, and worth it.) You should keep a lookout for the game when it comes over, I feel it will fly under the radar unless the critics get some word of mouth going. So, Listen to your friend Stephen Totilo.

The Hardcasualist's Lament

Dear Reader,

I have been up too late playing Braid, and now there is no time to blog.

I offer you the following as a holdover, which turns out to be very apropos:

That's one to warm the hearts of the diehard Viva fans out there, a cohort that numbers well into the teens. It's made entirely from Burger King figurines, from what I gather. Such passion befits its object; Don't sleep on Viva.

If you are confused by this, click here.


PS-- Don't sleep on Braid, either. Listen to your friend Chris Dahlen.

PPS-- To learn more about the plight of the hardcasual gamer, check out Mitch Krpata's new taxonomy of gamers.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

My Name is Nico, and I"m a Law-Abider

I'll be honest with you. I'm not crazy about emergent gameplay. I like to mess around with some high-caliber firearms and the island of Manhattan at my disposal, but nine times out of ten I would prefer to hand sixty bucks over to a designer and have him give me interesting things to do, rather than having to come up with them myself. I'm shiftless and lazy that way. But on the other hand, I never cease to be amazed by the bizarre ways that gamers will use games with open-ended rules to create weird projects for themselves.

For example, I heard once about a group of players who modded GTA: San Andreas to turn it into an MMO and then spent their time in the world acting like normal human beings. Driving to work in the morning. Sitting in traffic. Obeying stop signs. When I heard about this, part of me thought that this was the nightmare scenario envisioned by Adorno: the crushing banality of modern life had reached such a pitch that people no longer fantasized about escaping from their daily lives through culture and narrative. But on the other hand, it had the feel of people yearning for a just and sane society within the context of a game whose primarily associated with hooker-killing in the public mind.

So last week, on a whim, I decided to play GTA IV as a regular law-abiding citizen for as long as I could tolerate it. I didn't abandon a life of hired killing (I conducted a few missions during this time, during which I displayed my usual effortless grace with a carbine rifle), but I decided that in the time between missions I would conduct myself like a normal citizen. I stopped at red lights, and refrained from running over pedestrians to get from point A to point B. I tuned the radio to Tuff Gong and I spent the time between the missions soaking in the sights and sounds of liberty city. The whole exercise was oddly compelling, maybe because it added perversity into the mix. Because I spent some time in the game behaving myself, the misbehavior really had a punch that was lacking all the time I spent plowing through crowds of pedestrians. I felt kind of bad, and it was enjoyable. There was just something fun about blending into the law-abiding citizenry and saying to myself: “Nothing to see here, folks, just another mild-mannered killer among you on his way to work.”

Aside from the inherent perversity of this exercise, one reason I enjoyed this brief episode of sanity was that it accorded with the role I had been crafting for Nico all along as I've played GTAIV. As many critics have noted, the narrative created by the missions that advance the plot has this weird schizophrenic quality to it: on one hand Nico is presented as a sympathetic and sane man, and on the other hand he shows no compunction about gunning down the whole membership roll of construction workers' local #145 if the money's right.

Although the narrative choices you get to make outside the context of the missions are slight and even trivial, I feel compelled (maybe for this very reason) seize whatever small opportunities the game affords to craft a coherent persona for Nico, a role that does something to resolve this conflict. For some time now I've been quasi-consciously modeling my version of Nico after Robert DeNiro's character in Heat. I may be a professional criminal, but in my off-hours I wear expensive suits and treat Kate McCreary like a lady. When I'm not on the clock working as a cool-headed assassin I try to cultivate normal human relationships and avoid breaking the law. I play pool with Dwayne and drive Little Jacob to the airport. This is just the role I got to play in my brief stint as a law-abider.

The experience has also led me to reevalutate the social-networking aspect of the game. I dabbled in friendships for a while at the beginning of the game, and then jettisoned the whole thing mid-game when I set about chewing through the rest of the narrative in search of the end. (I havn't gotten there yet.) Now I'm back to valuing them gain. Let me explain why.

Jonathan Blow, in a recent lecture, said that the social aspect of the game is a sign of a fundamental conflict between the narrative and gameplay in GTA. The gameplay rewards of maintaining a network of friends and girlfriends is negligible-- the rules of the gameplay, in a way, tell the player that these relationships are unimportant. But from the standpoint of the narrative these people are the most important figures in the game; it is only through interacting with them that you get a to see Nico in any other role than that of the hired killer. If the only way a game can signal to the player that some aspect of the game is important is by giving him gameplay rewards, then GTA really is conflicted. I think Blow is right about how gamers are typically motivated, but I also think he is wrong about the conflict in the design; the narrative bits are the reward. The only reason I've stuck with Dwayne or Little Jacob or Kate are to get the few bits of conversation where you hear Nico reflect on all the insanity that fills the rest of the gameplay.

Maintaining the network of friendships is cumbersome. It feels, distinctly, like an obligation. When I agreed to give Little Jacob a lift I didn't have his car full of discount-guns in mind. But I do have this feeling that going through these chores I give Nico his only shot at redemption. The missions are all about Nico's descent into crime and his increasing thirst for money and revenge, but you get a chance to do something else with him outside of that life and the scripting is just good enough to make me care about taking that opportunity. Maybe there isn't a different ending, maybe there isn't some different gameplay or narrative outcome that derives from taking the time it takes to act like a decent human being whenever possible, but even so I feel like it is important to me to make it a part of how I play the game. Maybe there's something to emergent gameplay after all.