Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On Visibility

Steve Gaynor reminds me of a stock character from my college years. If you went to college you probably know this guy too-- he sat in the back of the class and kept his thoughts to himself; wasn't the kind to chime in on every discussion. And then once every three weeks, he would open his mouth and out would come some absurdly articulate point about Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and you'd be like, “who the fuck is that guy?” And then you wouldn't hear from him again for a while. While the rest of us had been chattering on in order to stave off the section's inevitable slide into dread silence, he'd been, you know, thinking. Choosing his words.

The sense I get is that he's developing a view. Like, in his spare time he's been thinking about what makes games tick, what kind of art they are. And then he's decided to invest some effort in staking out a position. In games criticism there's a surfeit of cool one-off ideas, trenchant analyses of particular games, and clever riffs, but there's not many views to be had. I wrote a bit about Gaynor's piece “Being There” in late July, and his new post reads as a companion-piece, which expands on one of the central ideas he proposed there: abdication of authorship in video games.

Gaynor takes renaissance visual art as a model for the kind of creative ethos proper to video game design. Unlike other forms of art (say, romantic poetry and post-impressionist painting), whose object is to convey the author's personal vision of the world, renaissance aesthetics sought to eliminate all traces of artifice in order to achieve a maximally realistic rendering of nature-- a painting you could mistake for a window. This striving after lifelike representation led to technical innovations like linear perspective, which creates the illusion of depth in two-dimensional painting. In the case of video games, where rules are the medium of expression, this drive towards realism consists of the attempt to simulate the laws governing the world around us. So, we might say a physics engine is to game design what linear perspective is to visual art.

From this perspective, the designer's goal is to hide the artificiality of the game-world's rules to the greatest extent possible: “Every time the player is confronted with overt rules that they must acknowledge consciously, the lens is smudged, the stage eroded; at every point that a simulated experience deviates from the Holodeck ideal, the designer's hand is exposed to the player, drawing attention away from the world as a believable place, and onto the limitations of an artificial set of concrete rules governing the experience.” The designer's role, on this view, is to construct a world governed by realistic laws and then get out of the way. You put a world in front of the player and let nature take its course. He has some insightful practical advice on how to execute this program with regard to several basic design problems like level design and interface-- what sorts of choices “[set] up the game as a more perfect stage for others' endeavors-- the player's self-expression, and the writer's and visual artist's craft.”

On one hand, I think much of what Gaynor says squares well with my experience of certain games, like GTA4. The pleasure of that game comes from the sense of being dropped in an uncannily faithful simulacrum of New York and from the way that GTA's open structure puts emphasis upon the ubiquity of each player's experience. And he has never claimed that the game design philosophy he forwards here is the only valid one; he's only saying that, to his mind, this is the design path that best exploits the creative potential of the medium.

But I have some reservations about the desirability of the Holodeck ideal. First off, I have this belief that the fun of games comes from the uptake of unfamiliar rules. Stephen Johnson floats this hypothesis in Everything Bad is Good for You, that the the reason we enjoy video games is that our brain's evolutionary hardwiring rewards us for gleaning order and logic in the confused heap of our experience. And though I'm not sure about this idea as an empirical claim, I've always thought that he's onto something: what I enjoy about games is this sense that I am learning a set of novel rules, and that I am rewarded by the game for mastering them. Perhaps this is the sign of an overly slavish temperament, but if you throw an arbitrary condition my way I leap at the chance to satisfy it. This is just fun to me.

What frustrates us as players isn't so much the fact that game-worlds don't faithfully simulate the real world. Rather, I think we are frustrated by inconsistency-- game design that thwarts our reasonable attempts to follow out the logical implications of the rules that the game teaches us. (Like, “how come I can destroy pile of rubble A but not identical-looking pile of rubble B?”) A game like Braid totally confounds our expectations about the rules that structure time and substitutes a wholly arbitrary set of laws in their stead. But that is the very reason why we enjoy it-- Braid creates a world that is totally artificial and yet logical and coherent. The pleasure we take from Braid comes from ferreting out its beautifully idiosyncratic logic.

My second problem with the holodeck ideal is that it seems to force a false choice on us regarding the nature of artistic expression: either games are a stage for the player's self-expression, or they're a forum for the designers to impose his vision on the player. This choice is a counterpart to the dichotomy at the heart of Gaynor's account of visual art: it's about the artist or it's about nature. But I guess I don't think art is about making a choice between the two. My feeling is that the world is more interesting when told slant-- inflected by a particular sensibility and animated by a set of personal understandings. Though it may seem contradictory, there is a way that the world is more meaningful to us when it is made strange to us, seen through the prism of another consciousness.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote an essay on the post-impressionist French painter Cezanne that beautifully illustrates these contradictions inherent in the nature of expression. The aim of art shouldn't be to furnish an unalloyed window into nature, he argued, because it is the hand of the artist that makes nature alive to us: Cezanne wrote that “The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.” He didn't express nature by removing the traces of his consciousness from the painting, but by laying bare the way that the mind shapes the lived world: this is expression. “Art is not imitation... it is a process of expression... Words do not look like the things they designate; and a picture is not a trope-l'oeil. Cezanne, in how own words, 'writes in painting what had never yet been painted, and turns it into a painting once and for all.' We, forgetting the viscous, equivocal appearances, go through them straight to the things they present. The painter recaptures and converts into visible objects what would, without him, remain walled up in the separate life of each consciousness: the vibration of appearances which is the cradle of things.” Merleau-Ponty's point is that expression is something born from the collaboration of two minds-- the spectator and the artist. By imposing arbitrary form on the material of the experience, the artist reveals a third thing that the both he and the spectator share: the world.

I think this vision of artistic expression as a form of collaboration is a truer description of the nature of game design than of any other medium, because video games are inherently interactive. And this is why the holodeck ideal has never appealed to me. What Merleau-Ponty says of Cezanne could serve as a blueprint for game design as well: “It is not enough for a painter like Cezanne, an artist, or a philosopher, to create and express an idea; they must also awaken the experiences which will make their idea take root in the consciousness of others. If a work is successful, it has the strange power of being self-teaching. The reader or spectator, by following the clues of the book or painting, by establishing the concurring points of internal evidence and being brought up short when straying too far to the left or right, guided by the confused clarity of style, will in the end find what was intended to be communicated. The painter can do more than construct an image; he must wait for the image to come to life in other people. When it does, the work of art will have united these separate lives; it will no longer exist only in one of them like a stubborn dream or a persistent delirium, nor will it exist only in space as a colored piece of canvas. It will dwell undivided in several minds, with a claim on every possible mind like a perennial acquisition.”

Monday, September 29, 2008

I am Just Good Enough for PixelJunk Monsters

I've been trying to enjoy real-time strategy games for much of my life, despite my ethnic handicap. I spent a lot of quality time with the genre back in '97, shepherding orcs around on my 486, and since then I've picked up a RTS once every few years-- Age of Mythology, Rise of Nations and the like-- to see whether I still had some chops. The answer to this question is no.

Anytime I venture within 30 feet of a network connection I can hear my laptop composing a concession speech. My RTS strategy (such as it is) is too parasitic on my substandard Civ game: I spend most of the game growing my economy and amassing a huge stack of units, and then I hurtle them en masse into the nearest enemy compound when the time seems right. This never succeeds against human opponents, and when it comes to the campaign missions or in-game skirmishes I am useless against all but the most doggedly cretinous AI settings.

My most recent defeat came at the hands of Company of Heroes. I had high hopes for this game, because I had heard Shawn Elliott enthuse over it on countless GFW Radio podcasts and because I hoped its deliberately small-bore scale would meet my incapacity for unit-micromanagement halfway. Unfortunately, whenever the game asked me to keep track of more than three squads at a time I would end up losing a unit somewhere, and by the time I hunted him down one of my other units would end up pinned down by Wehrmacht machine-gun fire. Even though I could muddle through the campaign I just never felt like I was in control of what was going on. I realize that this is basically willful impotence on my part: the game's designers have given me these things called hotkeys for the purpose of the macro-level army management these games require. But I just couldn't ever get the hang of them.

The thing is, I get the appeal. I've heard people describe what it is like to become proficient enough with the game's systems to employ tactics, and it's even interesting to hear people talk about it. I get this sense that there is a level of remove in their brains of which I am incapable. Like, where I see a confusing welter of unit types and buildings strewn around a headquarters, they see a strategic position, the larger pattern implicit in the details. They work with armies instead of units, economies rather than villagers. And there's this sense of empowerment that must come with the ability to manage a complex tactical situation against another human intelligence-- knowing what unit types to use in different situations, being able to respond on the fly to battles on different fronts. While this kind of strategic competence is beyond my ken, its promise has kept me coming back over the years.

Pixeljunk Monsters, Q games' downloadable title for the PS3, found the magic equation that makes the charms of an RTS game accessible to a managerial troglodyte like myself. They are as follows:

1) Make the player's units stationary.

2) Keep everything on one screen.

Simple, no? Pixeljunk Monsters follows in the path of the excellent (and free) flash game Desktop Tower Defense, which stripped away the genre's complex economic and unit-management aspects and reduced it to a simple formula: the game sends waves of enemies marching across the screen. You build different varieties of defensive towers in their path to kill them, which nets you money to buy more towers and upgrade your current stock. You win if you prevent these enemies from reaching the other end. That's it.

I think that Q games made a few simple design tweaks to this template that invested this style of gameplay with added layers of strategic depth and variety. First, they put the player in control of a specific character-- instead of dropping in towers from an omniscient perspective, you scuttle your masked turtle around the screen-spanning forest in order to erect defenses on various trees. Aside from giving the player a constant focus of attention, which is helpful, the insertion of a discrete character into the equation also changes the economics of the game. There are just three resources in Pixeljunk Monsters: gold, gems, and time. Waves of enemies make conflicting demands on your time-management: your turtle-man has to run around collect gold and gems from slain foes, but you also need him to stand by your towers in order to upgrade them. Putting you in control of a character also makes the cooperative mode really interesting-- it doubles your pool of time by giving you two turtle-men, but forces you to hold your gems in common. If you and your significant other would like to have a presentiment of what it would be like to have a joint checking account, look no further than Pixeljunk Monsters. Playing the game with my girlfriend quickly exposed our different economic philosophies (I'm an impulse buyer, and she is not), generating stretches of enjoyable frisson punctuated by mutual triumph.

Its second change to the tower-defense scenario is the creation of distinct maps on each level; unlike Desktop Tower Defense, where you could arrange your towers however you wish, each level of Pixeljunk Monsters has a different layout of trees which restricts your tower-placement options. This makes each stage unique; the levels vary the enemy types and layout, and these different configurations force the player to make a series of interesting decisions about how to balance her time and resources most effectively in each case. The level-variety creates this a trial-and-error aspect to each level that really got me hooked. Every time I failed, I wanted to try it just one more time in order to experiment with a new approach to the problem. (I must have played the infamous “bridge” level over twenty times before I cracked it) By making well-calculated design decisions like these, Pixeljunk Monsters wrings a lot of depth out of an uncomplicated set of mechanics.

People have been trying to translate PC real-time strategy games to consoles for years, and usually this effort has centered on shoehorning the complex controls of their PC counterparts into the limited real estate of the Xbox controller. Maybe there are ways to do this elegantly. But to my mind Monsters does a better job of translating some of the core satisfactions of the genre onto consoles. There's no denying that the version of real-time strategy that Pixeljunk Monsters serves up robs the genre of many of its native excellences. You lose the fluid back-and-forth between you and your enemies that you get from controlling mobile armies, and the contest of wits that comes with online competitive play. But by keeping it simple Pixeljunk Monsters preserves the things that appeal to me-- coming up with a good build order, managing resources, and problem-solving. If we could only get some breathless commentary into the mix, we'd really be on to something.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Seeing Things in Games


On the new “confab” edition of Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer podcast, which aired sometime last week, there was a lengthy discussion of the fall's coming games; despite a brawny release schedule, smack in the middle of the consoles' life-cycle (usually a plus), the mood of the discussion was cautious. Big promises have been made for this crop of games-- promises of lifechanging technical and ludonarrative innovations, but there was a healthy amount of skepticism about these pledges given the industry's track record of delivering on all of these ambitions.

This wariness gave way to some vivid enthusiasm by the time the assembled sages got around to discussing specific games (and who can resist a 4-player cooperative zombie apocalypse? Not I, for one) and musing on the potential payoff of all these promises. As this console generation has shows, the potential of all these new technical innovations is undeniable.

But what I thought when I heard this discussion is that the challenge for modern game design is not a lack of technical tools-- improvements in artificial intelligence, procedural narrative, and the like. While it's true that the breadth of expressive possibilities in video games is tethered to our technical capacities (especially where it comes to the limits that technology puts on our range of possible interactions with a virtual world) it seems to me that the problem of modern game design is a lack of imagination when it comes to the capabilities we already have.

By this I don't mean that there is a lack of audacious ideas out there. What I mean is this: we haven't done enough with the good ideas we've already seen. As I wrote a while back, I've been playing through Eternal Darkness recently. Though that game has some deficiencies as a entertainment product I can't say enough good things about its sanity mechanic and the way that it manipulates the player's perception of the world. For those of you unfamiliar with Eternal Darkness, there is a meter-- like a life-bar-- that is damaged by certain enemy attacks. But taking “sanity damage” doesn't cause death. Rather, it causes these hallucinatory effects to creep up in the environment. You hear loud banging on nearby doors, see blood dripping from the ceiling. Sometimes you'll walk into a room and some typically phantasmagoric delusion will play out-- your character 's head will drop off and quote Shakespeare, or your body will slowly sink into the floor, and you will be powerless to cast spells or alter your demise. The whole effect is an effective transposition of nightmare-logic into the medium of games, made all the more palpable because the sense of powerlessness is conveyed through the game-mechanics; your spells fizzle and your weapons jam. And there is really something oddly compelling about hallucinating in the third-person perspective. It creates this effect that you, the player, are hallucinating on your character's behalf. This isn't scary, really, but it's interesting. It makes you think of all the things you could do with the idea aside from trying to scare people with it.

From my perspective we haven't even begun to mine the type of creative potential exemplified by Eternal Darkness-- creating different and interesting experiences through the use of basic gameplay elements like the user interface. For some reason, makers of survival horror games have been unusually alert to the ways that the information displayed on the screen mediates of our experience of a game's world, and have made creative use of the user interface in order to deftly manipulate the player's sense of vulnerability. I think they realized that the very texture of the interface plays a huge role in terror; any display element (a meter, a representation of a weapon, anything) is something familiar and sane that the player can cling to in order to stave off dread. Silent Hill achieved this terrific feeling of vulnerability and isolation by just leaving the whole display bare. All you see is your character wandering a desolate world; a radar on the interface would have been a beacon of calm, so instead you are given a radio which emits an unnerving crackle of static in the presence of enemies.

Other modernist and post-modernist art forms have made works of depth and subtlety by probing the nature of perception. From Rashomon to The Waves, modernists have been obsessed with finding techniques to represent the perspectival nature of our access to a shared reality., and they've created all these fascinating widows into the structure of our relationship with the world and other human beings. And in games we have a medium with unique capacities when it comes to representing perception-- like a movie, a game can show you how same world looks different from viewpoints, because it can place you in the heads of different characters. (Like in Indigo Prophecy or Call of Juarez.) But games also have a unique capacity to represent how different characters inhabit a world, how they interface with the world, how they invest it with significance through their thoughts and actions.

It strikes me that there's a set of tools here already at hand, waiting on technique. There have been games that have shown real creative vision, like the way Metal Gear Solid 2 knowingly twisted the player's access to the game in order to represent the pursuit of a hostile AI, or the battle in the original Metal Gear Solid that flashed the video screen-cut (as if the TV had been turned to another input), and required the player to plug his controller into a different port in order to defeat the boss. I don't think we've begun to scratch the surface in terms of using the already-existing elements of game design in order to create new sorts of narrative effects.

At times it seems like we have been so caught up in refining the successful research programs-- the Halos-- instead of looking to the possibilities of the offbeat and unusual design ideas like those in Eternal Darkess or Metal Gear Solid. We've spent so much time trying to create a fantasy of what the world looks like with a high-powered assault rifle in your hands. And I'm not going to lie to you, it's pretty great. But we have a medium that can put us in different roles and show us the world from so many perspectives-- I'd like to see something new and strange.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Feisar is More Than Fair


Wip-capital-E-out-capital-H-capital-D came out for the PSN today, and you would do well to cop that shit. My girlfriend asked if it was like Mario Kart when she saw me downloading it today, because it is the only video racing game she's ever played. And actually it is like Mario Kart 'cept that your karts fly and everything is very futuristic-like. I played a shit-ton of the original WipEout back in my Playstation-One salad days, and it is a game ideally suited for the HD treatment-- the original's pleasingly spartan visual aesthetic (created by The Designers Republic) benefits from the clean lines and increased visual detail.

The new version also lets you make your own custom playlists, and though the in-game music is pretty boss I cobbled together a custom soundtrack from my collection. My knowledge of electronic music is wildly uneven, but I spent some time scouring my library for tracks that sounded suitably zoom-y. I think the results are hit-and-miss, but I can say that when you're madly careening down the track and Justice's Genesis hits the :30 mark, the effect is downright pleasant.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Review


Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise

Platform: Xbox 360 Developer: Rare Publisher: Microsoft

Box Quote: “Your children will ask some uncomfortable questions concerning breeding.”-- Iroquois Pliskin, Versusclucluland.blogspot.com

Full Disclosure: To me, the commercial failure of the original Viva Pinata is the greatest crime against art in America since the theft of eighteen priceless dutch master paintings from the Isabella Stuart Gardiner museum in 1990. My fondness for Viva (as the hip kids call it) had this tinge of cheerful psychosis about it that I associate with my love for Civilization. The dirty secret of Viva was that it was not intended for children but for graduate students, a population with a boundless thirst for planning, ready access to caffination, and a healthy disregard for sleep. Viva is also tailored to my own habits regarding collection: I will not waste my time collecting a hundred of the same things (exception: agility orbs), but I will gladly devote my life to collecting sixty different things. It's a crucial difference, which also explains my fever to catch 'em all.

Gameplay: Tony Montana put it best: in this country, first you get the corn, then you get the quackberries, then you get the cocoadiles. Like the original, Trouble in Paradise is a gardening simulation; the player does not control any of the pinata animals directly, but shapes their fate by cultivating their environment in particular ways-- providing them habitat and food. Your long-term goal is to attract wild pinata animals to your garden and then breed them with each other to make more pinata animals, which you can then feed to the other wild pinata animals in order to swell your garden's ranks. If that sounds complicated, it's because it gets pretty complicated. There is an element of progression built in the game play-- as you level up by successfully growing new plants and attracting new species, you get access to more acreage, new gardening tools, and new seeds-- but the basic structure of the play is pretty open-ended. The fiendish charm of the gameplay lies in its resemblance to Civilization: there is always some new objective just out of your reach, and every time you think of putting the game down, you tell yourself “I'm just gonna go romance those squazzils and then I'll be done.” Next thing you know it's 3AM. Trouble in Paradise builds on the original by adding more species to collect and also does a good job of streamlining the interface (you can scroll through your population by hitting the bumpers, and purchase seeds without going to the store), which facilitates the task of managing your garden and is greatly appreciated. It also adds cooperative modes (which is great) and a “just for fun” mode; the latter will be necessary if children under the age of 18 want to play, since the game mechanics are too complex otherwise.

Story: There is the usual nonsense by way of framing: “Professor Pester is up to his old tricks, so it's up to you to take control of the loveable pinatas!” But like the Sims, the real story of the game is the story you tell yourself using the herds of adorable pinata animals at your disposal. The game mechanics encourage you to give each pinata a unique name, and you'll find yourself imposing a personal stamp on your menagerie by coming up with clever naming schemes for your favorite species. The attachment to your animals this creates poses some heady ethical dilemmas when it comes time to feed your beloved bunnycomb Mr. Hopsalot to predators. The animal kingdom is a savage theater of sex and death, and if one was looking to illustrate this to a disillusioned child one need look no further than Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise.

The Takeaway: Far and away the most addictive and deep animal husbandry simulation available on the Xbox 360 platform.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Goodbye to GFW Radio

It's kind of hard to describe the podcast thing to a layperson. Whenever I tell an average citizen that I'm voluntarily listening to an online radio show in which members of the enthusiast press talk about video games, I get some confused looks. It's harder still to explain why those shows are something I look forward to every week. But nearly everyone who is into games these days listens to them: the kids, the fanboys, the bloggers, the aspiring game scholars, we all love them. Duncan Fyfe over at the “Hit Self-Destruct” blog said that “Over the past year the GFW Radio podcast quickly became my favourite gaming-related thing but also one of my favourite anythings across every form of entertainment,” and I felt the same way. GFW Radio had its last podcast this week on the heels of Jeff Greene and Shawn Elliott's departure from Ziff Davis Media for new careers in games development.

Why does this bum me out so much? For me it has a much to do with the fact that I'm not close friends with any gamers. When I got back into gaming in grad school (I took a long hiatus from gaming during college), I got this inchoate feeling that something terribly exciting was going on, a fuzzy sense that games were beginning to becoming increasingly sophisticated and were trying to become a kind of art. I thought all of this was really interesting; but since none of my friends were regular gamers, I had nobody to talk about these ideas with.

That's why I loved GFW Radio so much; listening to it each week was like sitting in on a conversation about games with some really smart people who understood what it was all about. When I played a game like Bioshock or Portal I had someone to talk about it with. I came to look forward to hearing the cast's take on the new games that I was playing because they always managed to say things that enriched your experience-- they noticed little wrinkles in the game's design, came at it from unexpected angles, came up with creative ways to describe what it did to the player.

The regular cast of GFW Radio-- Jeff Greene, Shawn Elliott, Robert Ashley, and Anthony Gallegos-- brought an unusual set of skills to the table. They were entertaining storytellers and determined scatologists, but they were also palpably literate. They could be startlingly articulate and perceptive about the medium, and they had an uncommonly sharp handle on the craft of game design. They had a set of principled convictions about the role of game criticism that they put into play week after week. Simply put, they gave a shit, and it showed. They were uncharacteristically serious about the importance of quality writing, and they were passionate about the task of games criticism-- they wanted to critique games in the same way we critique other works of art, and they had the knowledge and literacy to pull this off.

They did all this without every being stuffy or precious; Greene and Elliott in particular had a gift for putting complicated ideas about game design and art into clear and straightforward language, and even the earnest attempts at critique and analysis were leavened with low humor. The show managed the difficult task of being incredibly highbrow and lowbrow at once-- half literary salon and half bullshit session. The conversation could easily ramble from talking about the ethical implications of war games to talking about the most disgusting filth imaginable (the last episode had a lengthy anecdote involving human feces, star wars memorabilia, and Taco Bell). It was always hilariously crude but never boorish.

So, now it's over. There will be other podcasts to listen to but I can't shake the feeling that the loss of Elliot and Greene is a huge loss. It's a shame to see some of the few people in the industry who were truly disciplined about games writing, journalists who took the time and effort to create legitimate criticism, leave the profession for good. I don't think I knew how it was possible to talk intelligently about games until people like Shawn Elliott and Jeff Greene showed me how it was done. When I started this blog and was trying to figure out what kind of conversation about games would be worthwhile, their work on the podcast was an inspiration to me.

It's like the nerd Cheers has gone off the air-- I'm going to miss spending some time with the characters each week. Raise a glass.

Monday, September 22, 2008

An Attempt at a Creed for Game Reviews


A while back, Scott Jones posted a review of Bionic Commando: Rearmed, a recent remake of the NES classic Bionic Commando, on the Onion A.V. Club. In the review Jones made a point of faulting the game for not allowing you to jump. For him, frustration set in when Without a jump button—an unfortunate homage to the original—Spencer [the hero] drops like a stone if he steps off a ledge.” Now, I don't mean to bag on Scott Jones here. (I'll leave that to the A.V. Club's commenters, a colorfully malicious crew who neatly illustrate Rousseau's theory that the cultivation of wit and love of the arts breed moral degeneracy.) But dispraising Bionic Commando because you can't jump strikes me as wrongheaded: it's faulting the game for not being some other game it's not trying to be.

Jones' basic issue is that the game too slavishly imitates its 8-bit predecessor, and this is at least a more defensible position to take. But in my opinion Rearmed is, if anything, a good example of a remake whose creators gave careful thought to the merits and shortcomings of the original and made uniformly smart design decisions with these in mind. Eliminating the one facet of the game that distinguished it from a legion of similar platformers-- its total reliance on the grapple-and-swing mechanic for traversal-- would not have made Rearmed a better product. As Nathan Rabin said, you can't blame a five-touchdown game for not being a no-hitter. As usual with Rabin, this statement gleams with sound critical sense. For me it is a creed worthy of our avowal.

My larger reason for taking issue with Jones here is that his mistake points the way to Rabin's valuable critical principle. When we get about debating the merits of various games we run into all sorts of intractable problems with game reviews stemming from the critic's background: have they played all the previous iterations of the series, are they fans of the genre, are they competent enough games-acumen-wise to enjoy it, and so on. Since games are a participatory medium, the critic's personal frame colors their experience to a degree that is different from other media. In addition, years of playing Wii shovelware to completion on a deadline might turn anyone in to a soulless husk of a human being, incapable of honest pleasure. And this is all on top of the usual differences of taste that typify human beings as a species. (Some people like dill, and I'd prefer to eat regurgitated grass clippings.) Given all these problems, how can games criticism aim for anything resembling objectivity, so as to be useful to the public?

On one hand your own sense of fun will never lead you astray. You can be misguided or wrong about a lot of things in this life but it's difficult to be mistaken about whether you're having a good time. And if you're an average person with a decent range of previous experience, this sense of fun alone can be helpful to the public at large. But I don't think we need to stop at this.

The lesson to take from Rabin is that critical standards-- what makes a game good, in this case-- are relative to the game itself. The interesting thing to ask of a game is whether it is good as the kind of thing that it is-- does it succeed at what it tries to do. When you play a game, I think you can get a pretty objective handle on what its intentions towards the player are, and when we talk about a game's goodness we're talking about how well it achieves them.

I don't go in for the whole procedural rhetoric idea, but you do get the sense after playing a lot of games that they are structured so as to persuade you of something-- in tycho's words, a game has a thesis; a certain intention with respect to the player, something it is trying to get you to do and to experience. In most cases this thesis is just a point about what would be fun. Take Boom Blox: the game says, “we have this controller that is uniquely capable of translating physical throwing into a virtual world; wouldn't it be fun to destroy block towers by tossing shit at them?” And it is. It's really goddamn fun.

Reflecting on how different kinds of games go about making fun, scouring them for theses, is way to get a better handle on how different design decisions conspire together to create a certain experiences. In the case of the now-classic Xbox game Ninja Gaiden, the game's intention might be put thusly: unlike most character action games, the standard enemy encounter in Ninja Gaiden is almost always potentially fatal. The player just can't survive by mashing buttons, and so she is forced to master the game's incredibly deep combat system to progress. The resulting experience is difficult and tense throughout; you feel constantly vulnerable, and this gives the player a unique sense of accomplishment when they surmount the game's challenges. God of War, on the other hand, is designed to empower the player from the get-go. The player is made to feel like Muhammad Ali in 1975 for just mashing on the square button, or pressing X then triangle with proper timing. God of War doesn't want to humble you, even though it is appropriately challenging at points. It wants to convey the sense that you are a demigod let loose in a land of mere mortals, and it does just that.

The comparison of these games shows that there isn't one ideal of “good combat” that floats above all of these games, the adherence to which makes a game good; good and bad design decisions are relative to the way they fit into the overall form of the game itself. As my girlfriend found out, you can get pretty far in Castle Crashers by just alternating your weak and strong attacks really quick. And this isn't a deficiency; the combat is about as deep as it needs to be, and the depth comes in through other elements of the design. (In the same way, it wouldn't make sense to say Castle Crashers has unimaginative level design, but this is true of Ninja Gaiden.) I think reviewers go astray on this point and begin to hold other games liable for duplicating the exact successes of other games they superficially resemble-- they have this set of abstract “review categories” in their head, and then they go about reviewing by running down the list.

When you can articulate how well a game succeeds in its immanent intentions I think you have done the reader a service (when we talk about “consumer advocacy” I think we're just talking about how well the game does on this front) and also advanced the critical discussion. Because once we have a way to talk about how games go about creating certain experiences we can have the interesting conversation about whether the game's goals are worthwhile. Like: do we need another game that just tries to make me feel like just a little bit more of a badass? Don't get me wrong, I love this research program, but as a critic I'm always on the lookout for games that are trying to do new things, and creating new experiences.

I'm not an objectivity queen-- I don't want to eliminate the rich panoply of human responses to art, or lord my opinions over others under a thin veneer of impartiality. (okay, well maybe some of the latter) All I think is that if we can get around to talking about the excellencies of games in a way that is as shareable as possible we'll have more and more interesting things to say. The more public our language is the better chance we have of having interesting conversations with each other.

Friday, September 19, 2008

I Interview the Profile-picture Mystery Woman


There has been some confusion amongst the readership concerning my gender stemming from my profile picture, which depicts your author being scrutinized by a lissome security guard. Some drew the conclusion that I was that guard, and not the man in the box. All I can say is: I should only be so lucky.

No, the guard is my girlfriend's sister, Cristie. Since I have an enduring interest in what the other tribes think of the game-playing set, I convinced her to do an interview about games. She is an inveterate theorizer, and I knew good things would happen if I could persuade her to direct her beam towards our curious pastime. The results follow.

Q: What kind of video games did you play growing up?

A: The earliest I remember involved something like a green cursor that you gave commands to, to make it draw things. I'm not sure, in retrospect, that it was a game; I think it may have been something meant to teach me math, or basic programming, all on the sly. I think I thought it was a game because they told me the green triangle who did my bidding was called a "turtle," but it's not like it had anything remotely like characterological traits, aside from obeying my commands (which is a great characterological trait, just really admirable). God the more I think about this game the more I feel taken advantage of. Anyways, then there was a lot of Stickybear Bop and some Glider, later Mavis Bacon which was just another one of those nefariously game-like trojan horses for educating me unawares. Then came the game console era-- we got Nintendo and Sega, and I played the usual games and liked them, but soon after this I turned 15 and was much more interested in the higher stakes and more sophisticated rules-system involved in the game of being a high school girl. After this point, games got relegated to a once-yearly xmas-to-new-years binge in which bff Liz and I would play whatever game we got for christmas from beginning to end (myst, monkey island, indiana jones, basically the LucasArts oeuvre), committing several hours a day for several days straight, fueled by microwaved nachos and hot chocolate, and never speaking of it to anyone. Sorry for outing us, Liz.

Q: Those Lucasarts games were a the hardtack of my own childhood. I loved the everloving shit out of them. Why did those survive the onset of adolescence, for at least for a week or two yearly?

A: For one thing, it's amazing I survived--its amazing anyone survives--adolescence, so let's all do ourselves a favor and accord it the dread it deserves. So. You want to know why I still played Lucasarts games after the collapse of my faith in the benevolent and blue-skied world I had loved as a child? I don't know; it's too cold to leave the house in Boston late December, plus maybe I liked the excuse to eat only nachos? I like a good mystery? I couldn't imagine not playing Myst to the end to find out what happened to Atrus, but I never had much invested in demonstrating to my nonsentient video-adversaries just how much alien ass i could kick. Also, part of the fun was the collaboration—me, Liz, and my sister would crowd around the computer and think through puzzles together, snark about bad dialogue together, plus did I mention all the bubbling-hot nachos?

Q: What is the deal with Myst? I never played it, and all I know is that everything was super mysterious.

A: Are you asking me to give away the mystery? Would Coletta approve of this question? Myst was the first game i played in which the task was really about figuring out what the task of the game was--how the world worked, what was going on, what my role in it was. It was the first game i played that seemed to have a theory of itself.

Q: I've noticed that a lot of my female friends, even the ones that think games are icky, loved playing those point-and-click adventure games at some point in their youth. Why did games lose those people?

A: In my case, I started losing interest as the games got, at least in theory, actually better. That is, the draw for games like Myst was the completeness of the world it had created. But with all the improved verisimilitude—e.g. the minutely detailed renderings of everything, regardless of importance to the game, the fleshing out of spaces so that there is, if this makes sense, more world than game (i.e. not every room you walk into will ultimately prove to have some relevance to your quest)--meant that the game/tasks became increasingly submerged in the plenitude of the world. I just know I spent more and more time aimlessly wandering around islands, methodically picking up every damn shell on the beach, hoping something would turn out to be significant. Liz had way more patience for beachcombing than I did, and she kept playing the games (still does, now and then). But I lost interest. Games were supposed to be entertainment, give me a sense of accomplishment. I want my escape worlds to be more tightly plotted and exciting than my real world, so I'm not likely to "play" a game in which walking around and finding shit to do is as plodding and frequently fruitless as it would be if I'd just got out of my chair and looked for realtime adventure as the licenseless, dateless, underage 15 year old that I was.


Q: It's funny you say that, because speaking from personal experience, the dateless 15 year old boys spent this time clamoring for yet-more-realistic ways to bloodily decapitate of their enemies and blow up some robots. Do you think that girls would love that stuff too if they played it, or would they need to come up with some more, um, gender-appropriate adventure? Like in Japan, they have all these really fascinating games that are basically being-in-high-school simulations. You know, like they cope with the crushing anxiety of pubescence by representing it as a system of rules you can interact with and master. That kind of stuff never caught on stateside but it's totally legit overseas.

A: But see the thing about a convincing arterial spurt is that at least in theory those boys don't actually want to decapitate anyone; the game lets them simulate a scenario that lets them exorcise the scary side effects of their testosterone surges, without it being real. But even a convincingly premature hockey team captain/date rapist could just never stack up to my desire for the real thing.

Moreover--and first let me put an asterisk on the following by saying I have some major reservations about the way we're even talking about gender differences here--I think the thing that might make a game "gender-appropriate" game for girls or boys isn't really going to be the content. Navy seals vs. baby seals, weapon selection vs. accessory selection--these aren't where the divergence happens, it happens somewhere earlier, somewhere more structural. If pressed I'd say that the kind of rules-systems that games trade in, that you're so interested in, might just appeal more to a male than a female mind ("female mind!" god help me). The game world is so much simpler and more reliable than the real world, and that's why it always seemed like exactly that--"just a game," an escapist fantasy, no substitute for "real" life--to me. I don't want a high school game that pretends like high school operates by an ultimately ascertainable set of rules. I need that time to study the much more dynamic and open-ended complex of forces actually shaping my life in high school. And I think that's why some gamers do strike me as pathological--they can seem outraged that the real world doesn't seem to reduce to a set of rules the way they want it to, and so they prefer their video world with its reliable, discoverable rules, where they can hide away and feel like masters of their universe. just... get over yourself. Men, you know? Sheeesh.

Q: Is there any game, right now, that you would purposely seek out for the purpose of leisure?

A: Is there one that looks like a game but is actually secretly getting me to write my dissertation? That would be cool. I don't know what's out there, anymore. I suspect I've missed, like, several boats and if I tried to pick one up now I'd be way out of my league, I'd look like mom trying to upload pictures to Facebook ("but i dragged it over the album, where did it go?" "how do i hang pictures on my Wall"?)

Q: I don't know about you, but I would kill for some Mavis Bacon teaches dissertation writing. When you see a game console in the house of a childless adult, what kind of thoughts go through your head?

A: What consoles tell me is that this person likes to spend downtime at home, possibly alone or with one or two good friends, instead of out and about, seeing and being seen. In my experience, there's a range of different kinds of (let's face it, statistically) adult guys with consoles. If I had to get all typological, I'd say they break down into two broad, untenable categories,--those who have the option of socializing but actively like hanging out at home, and those who stay home because they don't feel comfortable (but otherwise might be happier) going out. In the first, healthier category there are the stoners, and their related but more lawabiding cousins, the homebodies. In the second, more pathological category, you have your peterpan-don't-want-to-face-adult-reality types and, yes, your 40-year-old-virgins. It's not like I see an xbox and instantly think social pathology, if that's what you're fishing for. That said, I guess I've never dated a gamer, though in my defense no gamer has ever asked me out either.

Q: I should steer away from this dating-a-gamer question, since I still haven't lived down that time I invited your sister over seven years ago and then played Final Fantasy X for several hours straight. I guess what I'm getting at is that consoles have this stigma about them in certain quarters. Do you just look at games as one kind of entertainment among others (like obsessively updating facebook and watching DVDs and the like) or does the presence of a console lead one to draw certain conclusions?

A: Um, yes and no. Since I love movies, I'll probably be more excited to see a bunch of netflix lying around some new friend's apartment, than a console. Since you're a gamer, and you're also a totally charming and entertaining, if often room-clearingly gassy, kind of fella, I've been willing to withhold judgment when I see a console. It's all about how you play the games--obsessively? Do you ignore your girlfriend for three weeks when a new game comes out? Do you play games instead of looking for a job while your girlfriend pays both of your rents? Do you and your friends only talk about games when you hang out, to the exclusion of nongamers in the room? I have first-hand experience with grown-ass men with these gaming tendencies, and that's how the stigma gets earned. Consoles don't make you a dork; only you do.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How Game Design is like Architecture


When I was talking about Too Human last week I tried to make this point that game design is more craft than art. I've been thinking on this idea for a while now, and I'm going to try to make some sense of it by comparing games to another art form, architecture.

Some kinds of art have a basic functional aspect. Because buildings, as objects, have this function of providing shelter from the elements and serving all these other practical needs, there are certain constraints on their form that precede any expressive capacity. You have to make sure no water pours thorough the roof, and that it doesn't fall down. Windows are probably a must, along with doors.

In functional media like architecture, the craft consists in finding elegant responses to the engineering challenges posed by the role of buildings in our lives. So if you're in Manhattan and you need to maximize the floor-space-to-ground-rent ratio, the steel-frame skyscraper is a graceful solution to this problem. When you get into more specialized spaces, you have to account for the fact that people will be viewing art, listening to music, or watching topless women dance in your edifice and build to suit. Because we've been constructing buildings since the dawn of man, most of these basic design problems have been ironed out long ago.

This isn't to say that architecture is mere craftsmanship, and the visual aesthetic appropriate to buildings mere ornamentation. The form we impose on our living spaces reflects, like other arts, our ideals concerning human culture-- our ambitions, our obsessions, the whole form of our common life. (John Ruskin wrote this great piece in which he said that the predominance of wrought-iron fences told you everything you needed to know about the degradation of Victorian England at the hands of industry.) Architects are often consciously guided by their convictions about beauty, or domesticity, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. Sometimes the demands of function go by the wayside, but the pursuit of significance is generally constrained by the need to keep the weather out.

I think the demands of interaction make games an intrinsically functional medium too. One of the things that makes games different from most other media is that they are intrinsically objects you have to interact with. You do things to them, they do things back to you. It's how they work. Some other forms of art are like this to some degree-- even paintings have this way of drawing your eye along a certain path through the scene. But in video games it's more extreme; you have to do something to them if you want any art to happen.

This is why I think that the craft of game design-- by which i mean mostly this whole business of finding elegant solutions to the problems posed by interaction-- is so important, maybe even predominant, compared to the more artistic or expressive aspects of game design. Before a game can set about saying something interesting-- narratively or otherwise-- it has to hold the roof up. Producing a non-buggy code is only the first hurdle (though I'm assured it consumes great proportions of development time). There are a suite of basic questions: How am I going to optimize the real estate offered by the controller so that the player can get around in the world with ease? How do I convey the mission-critical gameplay information-- her life, her ammo, the map, whatever-- to the player? What do you do about the camera? How long does the player need to play at a stretch, and when do they get to save their progress? Coming up with good answers to these questions is a prerequisite to doing anything else, and since we haven't been making games for millenia, and the basic structure of games is incredibly diverse, we still see many games with shaky foundations.

A great many games-- like Too Human-- are the story of innovative ideas dashed by the neglect of craft. I wanted to love Dead Rising (open-world zombie apocalypse set in a mall? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes), but the save points were so far apart and the hordes of zombies so thick that I could barely make any progress. The suicidal pathfinding AI made escort missions nearly impossible. Aiming guns introduced a barely usable first-person perspective. I know a lot of people made it past these issues and ended up loving the game, but for me I could never get past the obstacles posed by these design problems. (As a fan of the Metal Gear Solid series, I am capable of overlooking a litany of insane design choices; I don't even want to imagine what it was like to play MGS3 without the Subsistence camera.)

In a post last week, Michael Abbott compared the new game Spore to the iPod, which “put an immaculately designed and easy to use system in the hands of people and let them have fun with it,” and I think this is high praise indeed. Well-designed games make us forget the technical impediments to the enjoyment of art, and this is more than half the battle.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Seeing Games in Things


I've been mostly taking a break from games over the last week to enjoy some totally unearned vacation time. There's been some heavy flirtation with Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap and Metroid Zero Mission, both of which are delightful and non-habit-forming. I've been avoiding any serious engagement with my copy of Fallout in the interim, and I wisely avoided slipping my copy of Civilization 4 into my laptop. We all know where that leads.

But I did happen upon an antique Neo-Geo cabinet at Cosmo's Pizza in Kill Devil Hills, and was pleasantly surprised to find it sported a copy of Samurai Showdown IV. I'm not one for nostalgia, as a rule, but putting my old hand Ukyo Tachibana through his tubercular paces today was like slipping a madeleine into tea: it transported me back to the many hours of my teens I joyously squandered at the Eastgate coliseum in Mayfield Ohio, shoveling my coffeeshop wages into Samurai Showdown II while disregarding the cigarette-smoking kids who mocked my boy's-school uniform. Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdu, indeed.

Games have a weird way of infiltrating our perception of the world. The experience of seeing bathroom tiles swim with colored pieces after abusing Tetris is universal at this point. Back when I was hitting Katamari Damacy pretty hard, it was difficult to see the neat lines of parking meters peopling our streets without fantasizing about their incorporation into a rolling, squealing heap. Whenever I've been playing GTA for too long, I begin to think that I shouldn't be walking the city streets like a schnook when I could just violently seize transport from unsuspecting nearby citizens.

All these phenomena are just phantoms of an overstimulated mind, to be sure, but as games have become a mass medium they're beginning to have this real effect on how we perceive rest of our culture. During the Maryland-Cal game on ESPN last Saturday, one the commentators started talking about how a running back's spin move off the right tackle was “straight out of NCAA 09... he just hit the X button there and bounced off.” Maybe I'm just unnaturally attuned to these sorts of offhand remarks at this point, but it got me thinking about the way that a generation of gamers has come to view real-life sports through the prism of their simulated counterparts.

When games are evoked in popular sports culture, they are used as shorthand for transcendent, physics-defying excellence. The athletes that play football these days all grew up with Madden, and as a result you have colorful monikers (like Dante “The Human Joystick” Hall) that equate on-field brilliance with its on-screen cousin. I get this sense that the idol of many an aspiring running back wasn't Barry Sanders, actual dectuple pro-bowler for the Detroit Lions. It's Barry Sanders, the whirling untackleable ubermensch of Madden NFL '93 for the Sega Genesis. (My personal ego ideal was Phoenix Suns power forward Tom Chambers, he of the unstoppable triple-pump dunk.) A lot of the fun of these mid-nineties sports games was reveling in their brokenness and the attendant superhumanity. As Madden has “matured” it has converged on football, eliminating these imbalances and adding passing cones. (Who ever wanted to punt on fourth down? Why is the fact that we're unable to fake every field goal anymore a point of pride?) This is fine, I guess, but in dropping its penchant for simple, appealing absurdity Madden has also lost its distinctive place in our collective imagination.

Back when I saw the IMAX version of 300, I had this feeling that the logic of video games had begun to work its way into movies as well. The visual style, virulent anti-catholicism, and xenophobia come straight out of Frank Miller's original graphic novel, but the structure and pacing seemed to have been pilfered from God of War. Watching 300, I couldn't shake the feeling that the level had supplanted the act as the basic narrative increment. The heroes lay waste to a preposterous number of foreigners, kick back for 15 minutes to exposit, and then head back to the fight. Maybe Roger Travis is right that this whole narrative rhythm (battle-cutscene-battle), along with many other game conventions, were cribbed from Greek epic in the first place; maybe if we went back and watched '80s action films they'd strike us the same way. But it seems to me that some film directors have begun to key in on the way that games engage their audience and have tried to reproduce that structure in cinema. I don't think this effort makes for good film-- 300, like many a game, is grossly deluded about its essential silliness as a representation of human action-- but I do think we're going to see more of this kind of thing. Games have been aping film, with mixed results, for years now; turnabout is fair play.

I kind of hoped that these stray aperรงus about the place of games in our cultural zeitgeist would assemble themselves into a thesis in the course of writing this post, but I've had no such luck. (All I'm coming up with is “things that boys like-- war, sports, video games, action movies-- all begin to resemble each other over time,” and this is a stupid and obvious thing to say.) Since I've been writing this blog, I've been worrying these various notions about what our enthusiasm for our new medium says about us. Maybe games are just one receptacle among others for our myriad empowerment-fantasies. Well, they're definitely that, but they have to be something else too, right? The McLuhan in me says that the way we engage with games is qualitatively different from the way we've engaged with other media, and our culture is going to change because of it-- It's already happening, but I'll be damned if I have any good ideas about what it means. What I do know is that I actually turned up the volume when I heard the Edgar Winter Group playing Frankenstein on the car radio this week, and I could see rows of gems unfurl in my head as I listened. Is this progress?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

There's a Thin Line Between Love and Hate


I spent my two pre-vacation weeks in California splitting my solo-gaming time between two Silicon Knights projects: the recent Xbox 360 RPG Too Human and the critically beloved Gamecube survival horror title Eternal Darkness. The juxtaposition was illustrative.

I'll begin with Too Human. Two hours in, I thought that Too Human had been unjustly vilified. Four hours in, I was dedicating a lot of energy to thinking of ways to wittily deride it. How did this happen?

As befits a developer whose last project was an adaptation of Metal Gear Solid 2, Too Human bears the unmistakable stamp a Japanese design sensibility. Potentially pathbreaking innovations in basic game design are offset by a barrage of minor, stubbornly inconvenient design choices -- cumbersome menus, lengthy and unskippable death animations, an unreliable camera, stultifying “puzzle-solving” elements. Though the novel control scheme and combat mechanics clicked for me, whatever enjoyment I got from them was progressively eroded by dozens of misfires on the level of execution. The reward scheduling is too dense for the menu system, which quickly becomes overburdened and serves as a deterrent to the enjoyment of loot. (And the since the enjoyment of loot is the game's raison d'etre this is a major problem.) Whoever decided to give the enemies powerful ranged attacks ought to be lashed to the mainmast and flogged. In Too Human, powerful ranged attacks beget frequent player death beget lengthy unskippable death animations beget frustration. I'm told the gameplay is satisfying as a cooperative enterprise, and this may well be true, but as a single-player experience it swiftly descends into tedium by the middle of the second level.

Unexpectedly, the cyberpunk-Norse-pantheon-cum-Michael Clayton conceit works. But there's a world of difference between having a good conceit and a good narrative, and Too Human is an object lesson in this distinction. While the plot is interesting, the characterization, dialogue, and acting are uniformly cringeworthy. The grunt soldiers of the game's first two levels are apparently graduates of the Halo 3 school of generic-sounding soldier-ey jingoism, and every time an Aesir spoke I began to feel a little embarrassed with myself for playing the game. The liberal mixture of mock-epic oratory and tough-guy posturing that pervades the narrative as a whole is grossly offputting-- it's as if you brought in the screenwriting team from Con Air to come in and punch-up your adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Too Human wants to convey these sweeping ideas about the way that technology shapes modern life and society, but every time it opens its mouth to say these things it becomes clear that its only means to this end is portentous speechifying. (Sound familiar?) After some time, it becomes apparent that Too Human's creators operate under the idea that the games medium is just one really badass cutscene away from new heights of artistic achievement, and this mistake casts an unappealing light on the deficiencies of its cinematic execution. Even if the narrative were more slickly executed, there would still be a deep disconnect between the gameplay and the narrative itself, and this essential heterogeneity made me question the whole game design philosophy as I questioned the game itself.

Playing the critically beloved Eternal Darkness in parallel revealed an interesting fact: it suffers from many of the same flaws. Much like its maligned cousin, it has pedestrian and repetitive level design. It has about four nearly-indistinguishable enemy types. (Excluding the camera. Zing!) It has a core mechanic (the rune-spell system) that is too dense for its menu system. Its narrative is wholly delivered via leaden portentiousness. It's the same game transposed into a different genre.

So why does Eternal Darkness succeed where Too Human fails? It has a few really great ideas. The nested, Cloud Atlasesque structure of the narrative was really refreshing, and the one-note (“Macabre!”) narrative tone works better in the context of Lovecraftian horror. (Hey, Lovecraft only has one narrative register too, and it worked out pretty well for him.) The spell system is fresh, and it is creatively integrated into the puzzle design. And the sanity-meter mechanic is really an inspired idea-- it creates all these superb moments that mirror nightmare-logic: “I was walking down this hallway, and as an enemy bore down on me, I suddenly couldn't speak. I was abruptly helpless, consigned to witness my own demise.” The novelty and freshness of these few, great ideas balance out the fact that the narrative is kind of dopey on the whole, and redeem the whole enterprise.

My takeaway from playing these two games in tandem is that games really walk a razor-thin line between success and failure. You can have some really phenomenal ideas (I really do get the sense that Dennis Dyack thinks big, and I root for him for this reason), but it all comes down to polish and execution. Making a few player-unfriendly design choices can ruin the affair, even if there are a lot of revelatory new gameplay ideas at work in the rest of the game. For every bad design decision you make, you are putting more stress on those innovative ideas to bear the load of keeping the player engrossed. We're often tempted to think of game design as an art, but it is more fundamentally a craft: games have to function correctly before they can do anything else. They have to be things we can use without frustration.

American design has outpaced the Japanese development community on this front for a few years now, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's cross-pollination from the productivity-driven American tech culture that's responsible. Though American developers are often unimaginative in comparison to their Japanese counterparts, they know how to make a functional product. I'm hoping this knowledge will work its way up to Canada by the time of Too Human 2, since it's a few smart design decisions away from being a consistently entertaining game.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Reading List

The Pliskin family vacation falls late this year, so I'm off tomorrow to possibly hurricane-swept North Carolina to spend some quality times with the fam. It'll be a nice isolated spot to get some job materials in order and catch up on reading books. (Might pick up that new novel Home, by Marilynne Robinson, too since Gilead was one of my favorite books in recent memory.) My blog posting might be sporadic over the next two weeks, since I'll be taking a holiday from my gruelling schedule of console gaming. But my trusty companion Advance Wars: Dual Strike will be making the trip, along with a copy of Fallout which I've owned for a year yet never played. And that copy of Planescape:Torment isn't going to complete its last third itself. So I'll probably pop by and try to think of something interesting to say to the internet about them over the next few weeks. I'm hoping my girlfriend won't outlevel my green knight while I'm gone, but I think it's inevitable. Castle Crashing will have to resume apace in two weeks.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Midwifery in the Living Room


One of the widely unrecognized features of video games as a medium is that they are essentially about learning. Fragging noobs isn't on the SATs, or anything; it's more that playing video games is a matter of the player's uptake of the rules of the game-world, which differ substantially from game to game and are disclosed only gradually within the context of a particular playthrough.

Because the player doesn't know the laws of the game-world prior to picking up the controller, effective game design is a matter communicating the salient features of the game-world to her. However, because games are an interactive medium, the designers need to teach these rules through the player's actions. While there are stop-gaps available when it comes to laying out the basic properties of the environment, for the most part the player must learn the rules of the game by doing things themselves-- experimenting and exploring. The player discovers which parts of the colossus she can climb, what differentiates breakable-pile-of-rubble A from unbreakable-pile-of-rubble-B, and which combination of button presses best decimates hordes of spider ninjas by trying things out and ferreting our the different wrinkles of the world's behavior.

Designing a game in such a way that this process is gratifying to the player strikes me as one of the most fundamental aspects of game design as a craft. There are many different factors that have to be balanced against one another: since the player's sense of earned satisfaction when they have solved a difficult problem posed by the world is what makes gameplay compelling, teaching the rules cannot be too obvious. (You make things too blunt and you lose those “aha” moments that make games like Zelda or Braid feel so worthwhile.) You also need to limit the character's actions sometimes to focus their attention on a particular feature of the environment essential to the rule you intend to get across, and this can feel arbitrary from the player's perspective. And of course you can alienate the player by designing unfair challenges which humiliate the player's reasonable efforts to solve them. If you listen to the commentary for the game Portal, one is impressed by how much fine-grained attention to detail is needful in order to make the player's acquisition of rules rewarding.

In an excellent 1up FM podcast interview earlier this week, Rod Humble of EA described this pedagogical back-and-forth between the player and designer as a kind of dialogue, and explicitly cited Socratic dialogue as a kind of design ideal. I've been tempted to appeal to this comparison for a while now, because I have this feeling that there's an aspect of midwifery to the way a well-crafted game draws its solutions out of you. Even though the designer creates all the rules, it is almost as if the game itself is this third thing that stands apart from both player and designer; the designer's role is to engage the player's critical thinking in such a way that they find their way to it. Doing so is a matter of collaboration in a shared project, rather than the authoritarian imposition of an authorial viewpoint on the player's behavior.

Even though games lag far behind other forms of art in terms of their achievement of emotional and intellectual depth, I do think the maieutic quality of games as a medium offers all kind of artistic possibilities. I'm cheered by the existence of designers like Humble who have such an avowed confidence in the potential-- even philosophical potential-- of games as an art form. I'm not sure myself. But we're beginning to see works that give grounds for optimism.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Everything is Better with Levels in it


My only problem with profanity is that after repeated use it is no longer suitable for its original function. You run around in life dropping f-bombs left and right to friends and colleagues, and then when you find a situation that really calls for a wholehearted “Fuck your moms, mutherfucker!”, the desired effect has been diluted. Even a “No, seriously, fuck your moms, mutherfucker!” isn't going to cut it, though it's a step in the right direction.

We face a similar difficulty with praise. The widespread abuse of the word “awesome” has deprived me of the one word meet to describe Castle Crashers. Here's the deal: Castle Crashers is awesome. Not “this icecream is really tasty” awesome, awesome awesome. Hitler's-head-exploding-into-pieces-at-the-end-of-Bionic-Commando-awesome. Ninja-Turtles-when-you're-nine awesome. I could go on and on about all the small details the game gets right, how viciously splendid the animation is, etc., but this game just obviates the need for critical analysis. Go buy it. Buy the trial version if you must, but you're lying to yourself if you think you're going to be able to restrain your desire for this game after a level.

One thing I've been noticing a lot recently is the steady infiltration of RPG elements into nearly every game genre. When I first played Symphony of the Night two years ago (I know, I know, I'm late to the party), I remember this distinct shock when I attacked my first enemy and saw a colored number pop up over their head. Here was a franchise built on the solid rock of whipping medusa heads, and now math was thrown into the equation. It works. Konami had done something pretty revolutionary by grafting leveling up and inventory management onto its side-scrolling action.

What Konami realized, I think, is that people don't love the gameplay of classic console RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest because they love constant random enemy encounters. The basic problem with these games is that the grind is so stultifying that you end up looking for anything else-- the out-of date issues of Survey Quarterly, Anna Karenina, a cereal box, anything-- to keep your attention during the combat. We submit to the grind because RPGs provide a distinct sense of ownership over your character, because you are given all these tools to selectively shape the character's progress and abilities over the course of the game. This aspect of the genre's gameplay is detachable and can be transposed into genres with entirely different game-play structures.

Over the past few years we've been seeing a double-movement towards the convergence of action and role-playing mechanics inspired by this approach. From one side, you have (primarily American-designed) RPGs-- Mass Effect, Too Human, and so on-- that have incorporated more action elements into their design in place of random turn-based combat

And from the other side we have all these sorts of new action games that build persistent developmental elements into traditional action gameplay. There's nary a character action game franchise anymore-- God of War, Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden-- that does not incorporate some element of progress into its combat mechanics. Bioshock and Call of Duty 4's multiplayer have successfully blended leveling into the first-person shooter genre. Even twin-stick shooters, fighting games, word-search games, and Bejeweled have evolved in the last few years by assimilating persistent elements of collection and enhancement into their basic short-form game formula.

Everything's an RPG now, and the clever and selective use of the genre's conventions has breathed a lot of new life into well-worn styles of gameplay-- the constant presence of new meta-goals just out of reach (the next unlockable, the next level, the next item at the shop) keeps you committed to the gameplay beyond the immediate goals of the genre (beating the next boss, winning the next deathmatch, clearing the next screen of gems). The potent compulsion to progress itself, independent of the tangible gameplay rewards, should not be overlooked; show us gamers a mountain and we will climb it. Why else would we want achievement points? Because they are there. We would labor for them even if a dubious sort of social prestige weren't involved.

The conductors of that ramshackle outfit known as the Playstation network have caught on to this and have built “levels” into their gamerscore-aping “trophy” system. It's too late for me, but I can only imagine the fiendish allure of a gaming habit RPG to those not already committed to a competing system of ersatz distinction.