Friday, December 26, 2008
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
The close of 2008 is upon us, and it's appropriate if not obligatory to bestow laurels on the exemplary products of the year past, preferably according to some schema. Though I can't hope to rival the Spike Video Game Awards when it comes to cheerful misogyny (I'm fresh out of both diapers and metallic body paint), I thought it only natural to fabricate some categories and bestow some distinctions. Astute readers of VCCL (I'm led to believe they exist, God help them) will notice that several categories are cribbed from my piece on “three methods of game design.” And so, without further ado, I present Versus Clu Clu Land's first annual awards for excellence in game design:
The Min Riker Award for Excellence in Immersion, ultraboosted by strategychocolate.biz
Goes to Far Cry 2. Beyond the generally awe-inspiring attention to graphical detail manifest in the flora and fauna and climate of Leboa-Sako, CLINT HOCKING's Africa-set magnum opus abounds in the small touches that communicate an authentic sense of place: patches of leaf-filtered sun on the floor of your safehouse, bugs on your windshield, the golden luster of the savanna grass at sunset. And having to look down at your map while driving so uncannily replicated the hazards of real-life vehicular navigation that you forgave the frequent mishaps it caused.
Most Honorable Mention goes to Fallout 3, whose ammunition-and-wonderglue-laden Capital Wasteland was among the most impressive landscapes of this or any other year. Gamers are unlikely to forget the gorgeously barren vista that greeted their first steps out of the Vault 101, or their first glimpses of those blasted monuments to an extinct nation. The seamless integration of RPG menu-shuffling into the world via the Pip-boy wrist computer removed another barrier between the character and the environment, and the unparalleled explorability of the game-world was remarkable: it was a world that continually outstripped the player's thirst for discovery.
The Wassily Kandinsky Synaesthesia Award, fueled by Mr. Pibb
Goes to Castle Crashers, a game that looks like Frank Zappa sounds. Dan Paladin's gleefully depraved character art stole the show (nobody's likely to forget the catfishsubmarine anytime soon), but the electric-guitar-drenched soundtrack is almost as good. Every nook and cranny of the art was awash with memorable details, and the sheer visual awesomeness of the game demonstrates what four years of adoring labor will get you.
Very Honorable Mention goes to Pixeljunk Eden: more than any game this year, Eden created a cohesive and beautiful union of sound and vision. Bayion created a visual and musical aesthetic for the game that echoed the breezy organicism of the gameplay perfectly.
The Hideo Kojima Award for Innovation in the Field of Gameplay
Goes to World of Goo. Sure, it didn't invent physics. (Physics was invented by our risen Lord, Jesus Christ.) But goo-based bridge construction was such a novel mechanic that the progressive introduction of imaginative variations on the basic formula was gravy.
Honorable Mention goes to The World Ends With You, whose dual-screen-scribble-and-blow skirmishing breathed new life into one the area of video game design most in need of renovation: JRPG combat. Square-Enix, the company least likely to innovate, introduced countless fresh ideas into a genre notorious for creative stagnation, and their risks paid off at every turn.
The Shigeru Miyamoto Award for the Doing of Fun Things with your Hands
Goes to Boom Blox. The genius of Nintendo's console resides in its unique access to the joys of movement, and the developers at the beleaguered EALA were one of the few third-party developers who grasped the potential of the interface. Boom Blox founded its world on play, and its physics-puzzle-based gameplay turned vigorous wiimote-chucking (plenty fun on its own) into an intellectually compelling exercise. Like Wii Sports, its only credible rival on the hardware, it succeeds by capitalizing on the endless fun inherent in its core mechanics.
Honorable Mention goes to Pixeljunk Eden: the raw, kinetic fun of its grapple-and-swing mechanic, the appealing sense of momentum and grace it created, was such that it drew my non-gamer housemates into the feverish pursuit of trophies.
The Fumito Ueda Award for Achievement in the Integration of Gameplay and Narrative
Goes to Braid. Competing interpretations of the elliptical text-fragments proliferated on the Internet post-release, and though creator Jonathan Blow never anointed a “correct” decryption of the narrative, it was clear that the thematic resonances of the time-warping gameplay were the fundamental to the game's meaning. (Let us not a forget: we had an extended argument over what a video game meant! This is progress.) Braid subversively interrogates the cerebral attitude its complex and inventive puzzles demanded, investing the player's conquest of time and space with layers of emotional depth.
The Edwin Q. Goaty Prize, funded by the Edwin Q and Frances T Goaty Foundation
Goes to Grand Theft Auto 4. Yes, really.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
I greedily devoured James Wood's new book of criticism, How Fiction Works, over the two days I've spent here at the Pliskin family seat in Cleveland. Like his other books, it's compulsively readable and inexhaustibly perceptive. How Fiction Works is many things: a treatise on the representation of subjectivity, a short history of the novelistic form, a meditation on the elusiveness of realism. But above all it is a primer on literary technique, with examples.
Wood gives a good deal of attention in this slim book to the importance of detail in literary representation. For Wood, the modern novel comes into existence with Flaubert and his obsession with the selection of detail. Flaubert's prose is not just a lucid camera passively turned on reality. He knew how to focus the lens of his prose on just the right elements of the manifold of experience: “Flaubert seems to scan the streets indifferently, like a camera. Just as when we watch a film we no longer notice what has been excluded, what is just outside the edges of the camera frame, so we no longer notice what Flaubert chooses not to notice. And we no longer notice that what he has selected is not of course casually scanned but quite savagely chosen, that each detail is almost frozen in its gel of chosenness.” (40) It's this devotion to the variegation of detail, the spatial and temporal dynamism of the selection, that creates the impression of reality in all the savage artifice: “The effect is lifelike-- in a beautifully artificial way. Flaubert manages to suggest that these details are at once important and unimportant: important because they have been noticed by him and put down on paper, and unimportant because they are all jumbled together, seen as if out of the corner of the eye; they seem to come at us 'like life.'”(42)
These conventions can't be transposed from literature to video games, as they are different mediums. Unlike the novelist, the game designer doesn't have license to manipulate the focus and the tempo of the represented experience, because the player ought to have control over these elements. They should control how the world appears to them-- what they see and how long they notice it-- and this is a devilish problem in game design. But the use of detail is no less essential to reality-effect of a simulated world.
Niko Belic doesn't scramble headlong down the stairs of the Hove Beach rail station; he descends with a stiff-legged sidle. You can tell from his carriage that he doesn't have a young man's spring in the knees. It's not just that the animation captures one of the subtle particularities of human movement; Niko's gait incarnates his durability, the steady world-weariness that defines him.
There's a hole in the roof of my safehouse, in Leboa-Sako. There's a tree interposed between the sun and the roof; and when the wind catches its leaves their tangled shadows flit across the smear of sunlight on the dirt floor. I've half a mind to sleep for a couple hours and see if the little yellow tache of sun moves its way across the floor. When I visit other safehouses I keep an eye out for this same patch, and am cheered by its absence. This is what it's like in real life: each roof is different in its irregularity.
The most credible element of the courtship between the Prince and Elrika is the gracefulness of their bodies moving in tandem. When they have to switch places on one of the innumberable wooden beams, they link arms and pirouette around each other. It looks like they've been practicing this move all their lives, it's done with such quickness and ease.
All of these moments were are impossible without the great leaps in technology we've seen over the last two decades. There's no denying that the lexicon has expanded greatly. But my feeling is that the barriers to verismilitude in video games aren't technological-- lighting effects, texture work, mocapping-- but technical. They're matters of technique, mastering the extant toolset in order to produce the novelistic details that make for the feeling of authentic transport. Game design doesn't need a better camera, or a holodeck. What it requires is old-fashioned artistry and imaginativeness, an obsessive and nerdish Flaubert who will come along and show us how games work.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC Developer: Ubisoft Montreal Publisher: Ubisoft
Box Quote: “Like one of those rides at Epcot Center, but in a good way.” -- Iroquois Pliskin, versusclucluland.blogspot.com
Full Disclosure: Even though I'm awfully good at video games, I'm what Mitch Krpata would call a tourist. If I wanted a gaming experience founded on the systematic humiliation I would just go out and play golf. Though death is a fine tool for teaching the player the rules of a video game, I think that the course of civilization has brought forth effective pedagogical alternatives to routinized cruelty. People forget that if you remove the soulcrushing frustration from golf (the putting-the-ball-in-the-hole part), you still have walking around outdoors drinking with your friends for a couple of hours. Nobody complains that strolling around manicured hillsides and sipping on malted hops is too easy.
Gameplay: Despite appearances to the contrary, Prince of Persia is not a character action game. Think of it as “Parappa the Rapper meets Aquanaut's Holiday” and you're getting in the right frame of mind to appreciate what it's trying to accomplish. The series' trademark acrobatic platforming has been reimagined as an exercise in rhythm-based gameplay: you hit various buttons with correct timing to transition from wallruns to bar swings to longjumps. By eliminating death from the scenario (your magical companion swoops in every time you fall into an abyss and cheerfully deposits you on the last bit of stable ground you touched), the game encourages you to traverse the game-world without stopping to think about your next move. And this is how Prince of Persia goads the player into pursuing its core experience: falling into a rhythm, sight-reading your path on the fly and losing yourself in the simple joys of motion. The legibility of the environments (there's always clear visual cues-- scratched-out patches on the wall, woodlined crevices, blocky hooks-- that indicate the right course through the world) removes the “puzzle” from “puzzle-platforming,” but your compensation is the fact that the world itself is a shimmering, colorful treasure. It's the closest approximation of an inhabitable painting yet seen in video games, and over the eight hours it took me to complete the game its relentless beauty never wore on me. It's a world that exists to be seen, not beaten. Bits of rhythm-based combat and simple lever-pulling puzzles interrupt the platforming at points, and while both are diverting, these elements seem to exist in order to punctuate the platforming segments rather than compel in their own right.
Story: Much like Sands of Time, the newest entry focuses on the flirtatious relationship between the reluctant hero and his fetching consort. The female lead this time around is Elika, the princess of a corrupted kingdom whose moving plight slash diaphanous clothing attracts the attention of the roguish protagonist; you spend the game healing her cursed realm and letting the dalliance marinate. Prince of Persia's designers took an unusual tack on the delivery of the narrative: instead of mandatory cutscenes, they allow the player to initiate a brief conversation between the prince and Elrika by hitting a shoulder button. While I thought this technique was a step back from Sands of Time's seamless integration of voiceover narration and conversation into the action itself, the quality of the voice acting and scripting are both noteworthy for their competence. The prince has a chuckle-worthy wisecrack or two in him, and this was incentive enough to take a moment for reflection between wallruns. But really, all the romance is in the charming physicality of the platforming itself: the way the Elrika clings to the Prince's back as you scramble across vines, the way they swing around each other in order to exchange places on a beam, the way that Elika's jump-extending fling becomes a natural part of your own movements. These kids dance so well together that their falling for each other seems inevitable, and this is as it should be. The unexpectedly poignant finale was a fitting counterpoint to the breezy, swashbuckling tone of the narrative and presented the player with the one of the few real ethical dilemmas of the holiday season: turn the console off, or finish the game?
The Takeaway: If you're like me, you've spent a lot of time the last few months wandering from one bombed-out warzone to another. Why not let a game transport you somewhere you want to be?
Thursday, December 18, 2008
I can think of no other explanation for the political and moral tone-deafness in the reviews of Far Cry 2. I've trawled metacritic for assessments of the game, and while these trained professionals have an excellent eye for lighting effects and improbable AI, the fact that the narrative revolves around setting Africa ablaze for fun and profit seems to have passed without notice. Maybe I have some unusual sensitivities when it comes to doing violence on African soil, because I spent a bunch of time in college reading Franz Fanon. But I had to turn to Mitch Krpata's review in the Phoenix to get a take that did justice to the game's comprehensive moral unease. Maybe the the adjective “gritty” is supposed to capture the edge of moral horror that tinges many of your actions in the game.
I think this tendency to associate gameplay-progress with moral rectitude is what blinds us to the ethical messiness of Far Cry 2. The game's buddy system is a good example: your fellow mercenaries will come and save you from dying, help you upgrade your safehouses, and give you missions. So they must be pretty good, right?
The thing is, your buddies are not good people. After spending a small amount of time with my best buddy Paul Ferenc, I came to the conclusion that the man was in line for a severe beating . He may have pulled me out of a scrape once or twice, but those facts doesn't paper over the fact that Paul is a callow douchebag, the feckless backpacker type satirized in The Beach. I'm supposed to help this man achieve his lifelong dream of kicking back in Thailand for six months and getting high every day.
My contempt for Paul led me to the next logical question the game poses: how is it that you're any different? Every game makes you feel like you're the moral center of its cosmos, and this is misleading. Seeing yourself in the other mercenaries (you can actually choose them as player-characters) just reveals what you would know if you weren't locked into seeing the world from the first-person: you're part of the problem. The player is just another well-heeled Western interloper looking to capitalize on the political chaos for his own ends. Nobody's welfare seems to factor into the equation.
To its credit, Far Cry 2 doesn't beat you over the head with this stuff. Everything is done with a subtle hand: a doctor in town almost calls you a “foreign mercenary”, before stopping himself and calling you an “altruist.” But early on, I held a knife to an aid worker's throat to get the location of some medical supplies, which I then destroyed in an effort to get some leverage. After threatening to slit another man's throat I heard him mutter “This life!” as I walked away. The moral tenor of the game doesn't come through elaborate speeches and grand gestures: it's all in his tone of voice as he utters the line. It's all there if you're paying attention.
Maybe you're a well-meaning imperialist: you're be looking to take down the man who's fueling the conflict by dealing arms to both sides. But in the meantime you're just another asshole with a gun playing the political mayhem to your advantage. And if, at the beginning of act 2, this involves some arms-proliferation to break a cease-fire between the factions, so be it. The game told me I had to do it, anyway.
And while we're talking about the game making you do things, it's important in closing not to overlook the most important point: it's incredibly fun to kill people. The gunplay is expertly tuned, and the armory offers you an absurdly diverse array of tools with which to discharge your animal strength; because the combat scenarios are so open-ended, the game encourages you to try a wide variety of those weapons and strategies. I have no idea what kind of alchemy is going on under the hood that creates this urge to murder downed enemies with a machete (I have this feeling it's a combination of the way the perspective mimics your head-movements and the prominence your hands in the visual frame.), but I find myself doing it at every opportunity. I shot a man in Pala, just to watch him die. And the fire, the fire is awful pretty when it ravages the plains. And so, I guess the real message is that killing people is its own reward. Does it matter why?
Monday, December 15, 2008
I have a diagnosis. Back in July, I wrote a piece on the similarities between Jazz and video game design which might shed some light on the indefinable manque in question. Its comparison of improvisational music to video games was a felicitous stalking-horse for my effort to posit a defining conflict between structure and freedom in modern game design. In retrospect this conflict seems more and more important, and fortunately for me the comparison of 2008 to 2007 yields an elegant illustration of this contrast.
A look at the defining games of 2007-- Bioshock, Portal, Call of Duty 4, and Half-Life 2: Episode Two-- betrays a common theme. Each of these products delivered a expertly paced, varied and linear experience. They empowered the player by giving them the opportunity to make the correct choices, to discover their role in the epic that unfolded in concert with their actions. They compensated the player's acquiesce to a preordained path by supplying them with a well-crafted narrative arc and many-sided gameplay.
The best games of 2008-- Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, and Grand Theft Auto IV-- are the fruit of an opposing design aesthetic, a philosophy which prizes experiential immersion in an open gameworld over closely authored design. Steve Gaynor, one of the best advocates of this philosophy of game design, argues that video games best exploit their native potential when they provide a seamlessly simulated world in which the player can exercise their own agency and autonomy: games should “[provide] a believable, populated, internally consistent, freely-navigable gameworld for the player's avatar to inhabit, and robust tools of interactivity that allow the player to build a personal identity within that gameworld through his own actions.” The intrinsically interactive nature of video games, as a medium, ought to be brought to the fore through the creation of game-worlds which allow the player a sense of “being there”-- being transported into a dredible world in which their choices matter.
To me, the above-cited games represent some of the most powerful examples of this conception at work. From the standpoint of sheer density, we've never before seen worlds like Liberty City, The Capital Wasteland, or Far Cry 2's Africa before: chewier, more granular, lavished with yet-unseen devotion to specificity. The astonishing detail and dizzying scale of these games (especially the first impact of the environments: stepping out of vault 101, driving into Algonquin for the first time, the first African sunrise) marked a qualitative leap over the worlds of games past.
So what went wrong? Why are these games flawed masterpieces or “near-misses” rather than monuments? On one hand, I think it's a matter of diminishing returns: given the length of modern videogames, the spell cast by those environments can't help but dwindle over the course of tens of hours of play. Maybe the first dozen times you pass some jaw-dropping panorama or meticulously detailed cityscape and you are arrested by its sheer gorgeousity. But games demand a long investment of time, and by the tenth hour that lush gameword becomes another place you drive by on your way to killing some dude. It's almost like Gaynor's video-games-as-travel metaphor went over-literal: Liberty City is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.
The progressive waning of the player's astonishment would be less of a problem if open-world games managed to engineer a well-paced experience with variegated gameplay. But non-linear games also have difficulty establishing taut pacing over a twentyplus hour narrative. Because they give the player discretion over the unfolding of the core narrative events (the more-scripted “missions” that make up the main quest or storyline), the situation that they find themselves in-- the world itself-- has to be “seeded” with points of interest in such a way that the player will be sufficiently engaged if they take off on their own. Because the prime mode of interaction in these games is combat (even Fallout 3 has little non-combat interaction outside of towns), the core gameplay tends to become repetitious even if the basic combat mechanics themselves are satisfying and patient of a variety of approaches. As Suellentrop wrote, “Don't I have the right to expect something more from this marvelous new medium? Something more wondrous than beautifully and impeccably crafted worlds filled with enemies for me to kill?”
The storyline that the player can create for themselves by traversing the world at their leisure has to be at least comparable in its pacing and variety to that of a more tightly-scripted game, and this is supremely difficult to achieve. This is partially a matter of execution-- GTA has an overlong third act and repetitive mission structure, Far Cry 2 has a few too many guardposts, Fallout 3's environments have this feel of procedurally-generated uniformity to them-- but these corrigible flaws point to the unresolved challenges inherent in open-world game design.
Setting all these difficulties aside, there is an element missing in all of these games that is perhaps even more important. One of the benefits of linear game design-- steering the player towards a particular set of actions and scenarios-- is that it allows the designer to freight these specific gameplay elements with a narrative signficiance. That is, the more you can shape the gameplay the more you can work towards a synthesis of gameplay and narrative.
In the Slate exchange, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal contrasted Gears of War 2 with God of War, noting that the latter better exemplified the marriage of gameplay to narrative:
Compare [a sequence in Gears] with the sequence in the first God of War, in which our hero Kratos, trapped in Hell with the wife and child he inadvertently slaughtered, must now protect them by alternately holding them to him (using the game's grab mechanic to share his health bar with them) and fighting off an army of Kratos doppelgängers. It's gameplay, not a cutscene, and nearly four years after God of War's release, it still stands as one of the best examples of how narrative and interactivity can be synthesized to create, well, art.
Gears' deficiencies in this respect are (from what I gather) a failure of creative nerve rather than a structural problem, but the felt disconnect between gameplay and narrative that Croal highlights is common problematic in the year's best games. It's nowhere more dissonant than in GTA4, where the gleeful sociopathy of the gameplay clashes with the putative moral decency of the protagonist. Fallout 3 lacks any such jarring clash, but at the same time it also fails to forge any memorable connection between the game-mechanics and the story itself. My sense is that most of the mechanics (the reward scheduling, the level progression, the quest structure, and the morality system) are well-tuned RPG conventions that could be transposed into any any other story and into any other world. They're mercilessly compelling and well-crafted in their own right but they don't reflect the kind of artistic impact that is possible through the mating of those mechanics to story.
What is missing, then, is the meaningful fusion of story and gameplay, form and content, that made games like Half-Life 2, Bioshock, and Shadow of the Colossus so memorable. The exception is Braid, a game in which deprived the player of choice in order to invest its time-scrambling gameplay with thematic and emotional resonance. It was a shining example of the potential of narrative synthesis in this year of immersion.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
“Procedural Rhetoric” is an analytical framework for video game criticism developed by Ian Bogost, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a prime mover in the nascent academic field of videogame theory. Bogost's 2007 book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames is a long-form implementation of this analytical framework to video games concerned with matters political, commercial, and educational. It aims to show how video games, as a means of persuasive expression, might transform our understanding of these various domains.
So, what is Procedural Rhetoric? A wise man once told me: “Pliskin, whenever you face a complex problem, chunk it out.” And so I will.
The “procedural” piece tags how games express ideas. Games are procedural because they use rules to represent things. When you interact with a game, there are a set of procedures, or rule-based systems, that define what your tappings and wagglings mean in the context of the game's world. So, there's a rule that says your character will jump if you press A, and another rule that says you die if you run into an enemy, and a rule that says you advance to the next level if you reach a certain point without dying. As Bogost writes, “Procedural systems generate behaviors based on rule-based models; they are machines capable of producing many outcomes, each conforming to the same overall guidelines” (4); every computer game is a complex, nested system of rules whose structure designates certain outcomes in view of the player's inputs.
One of Bogost's main points is that procedurality as a phenomenon isn't native to games. Human beings inhabit a variety of worlds-- natural, social, economic, and political worlds-- whose basic contours are rulish in nature. There's the law of gravity, the law of supply and demand, laws against regicide, and so forth. What video games do is represent the logics of these rule-bound systems through processes and procedures. This is what makes them different from other media; unlike visuals or text, games represent systems of rules by using systems of rules, and this makes them particularly adept at representing how complex systems work: “only procedural systems like computer software actually represent process with process.” (14). So where a textbook might represent gravity by using equations and pictures, a game can represent gravity with a physics engine: a system of rules which manipulates objects in accordance with certain physical laws. Guns, Germs and Steel and Civilization both express visions of the developmental logic of human civilization: one with words, one with rules.
The “rhetoric” piece tags why games express ideas. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Bogost's interested in how games persuade their users through rules, since he thinks that they have unique persuasive capacities relative to other media.
There are many rhetorical techniques, not all of them kosher, but Bogost is especially concerned with a rhetorical figure he traces to Aristotle, the enthymeme. An enthymeme is a rheorical technique where you present a piece of inferential reasoning but omit one of the premises of that piece of reasoning. For example, I could say “Of course this guy dude loves first-person shooter games. He's a fourteen-year-old racist!” The suppressed premise of this figure is: all fourteen-year-old racists love first-person shooter games. I think the reason Bogost hones in on the enthymeme idea is that it contains a kind of proto-interactivity-- in order to understand the point, the audience has to piece together the logic of the statement and discover the missing premise.
So, to re-chunk the matter at hand, Bogost proposes that video games are particularly adept at creating procedural enthymemes. As the player interacts with the system of rules by learning to play the game, they also gain a grasp of the deeper logics that shape its surface-logic-- what deeper rule-governed forces account for the way the game behaves. For example, let's say that when I start playing SimCity, all I know is that I'm out to build a city on a hill. And so I might start out by just zoning willy-nilly in a bid to attract a tax base. But when I've played the game for a while, I come to realize that the layout of the residential zones relative to the transport systems, power grid, police stations, fire houses, and industrial zones is the key condition for economic and population growth.
Bogost says that discovering this deeper layout-logic is like discovering the suppressed premise of an enthymeme. And this is one important way that games can be used as arguments; they can make an argument about the way things work (the way economic, commercial, and political systems work, for example), by having the player discover the underlying logics of its systems. Maybe you play another game-- a simulation of being a freshman house member in the US congress-- and as you play it, you discover that the key factor in “winning” the game (getting elected) is voting for legislation that favors big-pocketed donors to your reelection campaign. Making that game would be a way of persuading the player that the campaign-finance system is in need of repair.
So that's procedural rhetoric. I have a bunch of inchoate thoughts on the merits and demerits of this approach and Bogost's execution of this paradigm, which I'll save for later or possibly just spare the public. But I will say this: at first blush, I'm entirely on board with the procedure and wary of the rhetoric. What I like about the rhetoric idea is that it places the accent on how the work operates on the player, and this is essential for an interactive medium. What I don't like is that it's a resolutely utilitarian framework for critical analysis: it focuses in on the way that games might change our opinions for good or ill at the expense of the way games might transport, entertain, humiliate, and ravish their users.
I'm not saying that there is a hard-and-fast distinction between art and propaganda. Surely, a great work of art says to its audience: du muss dein leben andern. But we value beauty because reveals a transfigured world to us, and persuasion has a way of trivializing this transfiguration. This isn't a knock on Bogost's approach. At least in the context of Persuasive Games, he's not in the pursuit of beauty. But for those of us who entertain the idea that games might be art-- art which might (in time) become important to humans in the way that Homer and Battlestar Galactica are important to us-- stand in need of an aesthetics rather than a rhetoric.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Here at Versus Clu Clu Land, our motto is “Come for the Guitar Hero flamewars, say for the Brechtian analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2.” But I also want to do justice for the people who didn't mean to be here at all. I spend a lot of time checking the trackbacks to my blog, which shows referrals from other sites-- it's always heartening to see this modest venture make it on a blogroll or find someone who has an opinion about something I wrote. But the most colorful discoveries are the google searches, which reveal a legion of wayward souls who mistakenly clicked this site in the honest pursuit of deathclaw pornography. Deathclaws pornography searcher, your quest was not in vain; you will achieve posterity, as a trackback. A sampling:
"pictures in iroquois of there land" #3
"Foucault hermeneutics of the subject" #5
"ROLAND KEY .GAMES" #3
“if you were an iroquoi learning in an iroquois town” #6
“sexy mystery woman picture “ #1
“rock band guitar controller doesn't play fast notes” #1
“i have not told my garden yet thesis” #2
“why use pronoun she instead of he” #13
“mark frumkin dreadlocks” #6
“brechtian the expectation of the rule” #1
“intrinsic desire versus self discipline are both compelling” #1
“boys games from seeing their stuff” #1
“deathclaws porn” #2
“player piano video for children” #5
“how to get fizzle bear on viva pinata” #6
“i have money world oyster” #4
“why i cant use my head while playing games” #4
“what does vault means” #1
“im really bad at this whole goodbye thing” #2
A special shout out to the author of twitter.com/powermobydick, who apparently spends his time compliling every mention of Moby Dick on the interwebs. Yours is a brave and noble calling.
There's two worst-of lists in my google reader today: Leigh Alexander over at Gamasutra and L.B. Jeffries both posted their year-end roundup of the worst in gaming, which are nearly as enjoyable as the best in gaming. Their mutual bête noire? The holiday game-release funpocalypse, which has made holistic analysis of the current gaming scene impossible to all save heavily medicated twelve-year olds. Seriously guys, when you're releasing these games, think of the critics. There is only so much fun that we can take.
...Which is why I can't weigh in on the question raised by Chris Suellentrop in my favorite year-end tradition, Slate.com's year-end critical roundtable with N'Gai Croal, Stephen Totilo, and Seth Schiesel. Chris asks if 2008 was the best year ever for games; since I've yet to play Far Cry 2, Fable II, Gears of War 2, or Imagine Babiez Pony Party 2 (possibly an actual game), I have no right to weigh in on this question.
So instead I'm going to make an end run on the whole discussion, evade the calendar year, and declare a Tiger Slam. The following games were released between August 14, 2007 and August 14, 2008 in the United States.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The World Ends With You
Super Mario Galaxy
Grand Theft Auto 4
No More Heroes
There are others that could go on this list: Burnout Paradise, Wii Fit, Mass Effect, Boom Blox, Assassin's Creed, and Metal Gear Solid 4. All I'm saying is, I left deserving stuff off the list, merely for dramatic effect. Discuss.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
Friday, December 5, 2008
I hate the term “ludonarrative dissonance.” It sounds needlessly florid, and it's the sort of thing that gives aid and comfort to the people who think that games writin' has gotten too fancy. Though it exactly describes the phenomenon in seeks to explain, it's the kind of phrase that stands in the path of common human understanding, and this is never a good thing. I wish I had a good substitute neologism at hand, but the plainer “story-game conflict” lacks zazz. Maybe the readers have a pithy and non-latinate alternative.
In a recent speech at the Montreal International Games Summit, Blow described ludonarrative dissonance as one of the three ways modern games are “conflicted.” (He calls it a conflict between story and “dynamic meaning”, but it's basically the same idea.) Here's the conflict: the game's mechanics lead you to have certain attitudes towards a character or situation, and the game's story tells you (or your character) to feel a different way. Because these two elements of the design pull in different directions, the game fails to achieve what it wants to communicate in either case. Hence the dissonance.
We might say: mechanics don't tell you anything. Mechanics are just sets of rules that define what you can do in the game: jump, run, shoot, whale on ninjas. This is right; textbook cases of dissonance revolve around a smaller subset of rules that define “progress” in the game: how it rewards you for doing certain actions by giving you new abilities and allowing you to progress through new terrain, and how it punishes you by forcing you to replay certain segments and preventing you from getting further. Blow advances the idea that these elements of the game's mechanics have a quasi-moral significance that is ultimately significant w/r/t the narrative. By giving and taking progress from the player, a game communicates a message about what is right and wrong to the player. Blow critiques World of Warcraft, for example, because he thinks that it showers unstinting rewards on the player's unpraiseworthy drudgery.
In the original case of ludonarrative dissonance, Clint Hocking's critique of Bioshock, the point of conflict was the player's decision to save or harvest the “little sisters”, a well-defended posse of bioluminescent poppets with a monopoly on a crucial resource which the player needs to upgrade their abilities. From the standpoint of the story, this decision is crucial; it's cast as a harrowing moral choice between virtue and self-interest, a decision that resonates with the story's larger thematic concern with the costs of untrammeled self-interest. But from the standpoint of the mechanics, either decision is more-or-less equal over the long term when it comes to progressing through the game. And this tells the player that the decision isn't as important as story says it is.
Almost all of Blow's examples focus on conflicts between narrative elements and the reward-structure of the gamplay. But there's a different kind of dissonance in games as well, which is as important to thematic coherence but is but harder to articulate. It's the way that game mechanics, the controls and movement and gameplay alltogether, invest your actions with a specific texture. Game mechanics (the controls, but also the structure of the levels and the enemy design) can create a certain tactile impresions to them that's hard to put into words. The way a game controls, the way it feels in you hands, can speak volumes.
An example might help: Mitch Krpata recently wrote a post on Gears of War 2, and said that he felt that there was a disconnect between the gameplay and the story. As a cover-based shooter, the gameplay centers around holding down a defensive position and keeping distance between yourself and the hordes of locust. But “The storyline... puts the COGs on the offensive for the duration. It's all rah-rah, take-it-to-'em stuff. You get all geared up to fight, pardon the pun, and then spend all your time with your head down. That doesn't make sense.” Krpata found the defense-based gameplay was satisfying in the context of the first Gears, where humanity was up against the ropes. But now that the story licenses the player to go out and get some, it seemed unsatisfying to spend your time cowering behind sandbags.
It's also worth noting where this marriage of narrative and gameplay goes right. I've been playing the most recent Prince of Persia game this week, and one of the things I like about it is distinctive feel of the platforming. Both the platforming and the combat have been likened to a rhythm game, and this is a strange-but-appropriate comparison. Because you don't control your momentum in midair, traversing the world is mostly a matter of timing your button presses correctly. The jumping and climbing has this nice tactile rhythm, and because the game is so forgiving, it allows you to focus on charting a fluid path through environment without worrying overmuch about death frustrated. With practice, you get the point where you can read the terrain like a row of glowing gems in Guitar Hero. The feeling of lightness you get from conforming to the tempo of the terrain complements the narrative, since the hero is depicted as a of carefree gadabout in a consequence-free magical kingdon. The banter, the visuals, the pace of the platforming, the supernatural aura, all these things work together to create this feeling of freedom and careless heroism. These gameplay systems wouldn't work in every game, but they function wonderfully in the context of the world and narrative that Prince of Persia attempts to create. Call it ludonarrative harmony.
I don't agree with all of Blow's arguments (and I take some issues with his examples, which I'll spare you out of an unusual dispassion for pedantry) but I do think he does an unusually good job of articulating the the problems and tensions in so many modern games. The challenge is finding ways to meld form and content, gameplay to story. These elements in modern game design have had one shotgun wedding too many, they deserve some happy nuptials.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Sometimes, my response to this conflict is to doubt that challenge is necessary to game design, anyway. Penny Arcade's Gabe once said that as he's grown older, he's become less interested in beating games and more interested in seeing them, and I feel the same way. Though I'm pretty adept at jumping and shooting, I don't feel the urgent need to demonstrate my expertise in these areas outside of multiplayer games. In certain moods I'm tempted to make the same complaint about all games that I make about Rock Band 2: Why should I have to sweat in order to see all the content? I bought all that game from you, fair and square, and I shouldn't have to demonstrate my entitlement to it by pressing some buttons with proper timing.
But Blow makes a persuasive argument for the importance of challenge to game design. Challenge, he says, is a way for a game designer to invest the player's actions with significance. Punishing a player is a way of showing that their choices matter. It's failure that gives a player a unique feeling of agency and empowerment, because the possibility of death creates a context in which your conquest of the game's world is meaningful.
I think Blow is right. The problem isn't challenge itself. It's the nature of the punishment that matters, the way games compel you to repeat the same sections of the game over and over again. Repetition of this sort is worthwhile when it tests your abilities (I once wrote that death is the stick the designer beats you with in order to teach you the game's rules, and this seems right), but almost every game tests those abilities by forcing the player to rehearse an already-learned set of actions. This was why the AI Director in Left 4 Dead is so important: it frees the game from the shooting-gallery syndrome that plagues many shooters. Even when you are forced to repeat a scenario over again you can't fall back on memorizing previous run-troughs to get you through.
Merely executing a game plan you've already plotted out doesn't count as a good exercise of your faculties. It's coming up with a solution to a challenging problem that's enjoyable, which gives you an authentic sense of mastery. This is why Braid was rewarding despite its elimination of player death-- Braid challenges you to imagine the world in a particular way, rather than challenging you you memorize the width of a platform.
Tilting the challenge on the conception side of the conception/execution dichotomy also explains the core appeal of the Prince of Persia games. Sands of Time allowed you to erase your mistakes by rewinding time, and this freed you to relish the gracefulness of your movements, experiment with different solutions to the jump puzzles, and avoid the frustrations that come with the occasional execution misfire. The puzzle-like construction of the rooms transformed the gameplay into aesthetically elegant problem-solving, and the game succeeded in spinning a well-paced and clever narrative around this core experience.
They've followed this approach to its logical conclusion in the most recent Prince title by completely eliminating death. If you miss a jump or muss up a battle your partner Elrika saves you, every time. It is literally impossible to fail and get sent to a menu. This decision to eliminate frustrating repetition shows an attempt to shift the burden of challenge away from execution. As Tycho of Penny Arcade wrote today: “I think they wanted to make a lyrical, organic world that the character flowed through. They had an aesthetic goal, and the extent to which Prince of Persia succeeds as a game depends on how well they draw you into that.” This is exactly right. And it's not just the world that is lyrical: your movements themselves are effortless and elegant. Both the combat and the traversal have a careless fludity and unhurried tempo, which that fits with your character's casual approach to gallantry. The challenge comes from discovering a navigable path through the gorgeous environments, not from repetitive death.
This just all right with me. Almost every review of the new Prince game has complained about the difficulty, and this seems to be one of those cases where the game is guilty of nothing save violating the reviewer's expectations. As Mitch Krpata said today, the critic's job is to illuminate what the game is trying to achieve and how the game's various elements contribute to that goal. Prince of Persia isn't Ninja Gaiden, and this is OK, because it's not aiming for the same tension-filled experience. It's a game that wants to be lyrical. It wants to be an musical instrument rather than a crucible, and it succeeds in this goal.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
We all know why video games suck in '08. It's the money.
When critics ask why games aren't realizing their potential as a medium, we are all are pretty comfortable saying that the basic problem is that somebody has to write the checks. In a capitalist society that somebody is suited men helming publicly traded publishing companies. These men answer to shareholders, and shareholders prize stability. More than anything else, the one thing stockholders want to know is how much money a company will be making three years from now, and the way for the suited men to put their minds at ease on this score is by assuring them that their franchises are ripe for continual exploitation. The critic's ideal is as a genre-defining feat of ingenuity, and the shareholder's ideal is a revenue stream. Sometimes these two ideals coincide, but this is somewhat accidental.
So it's easy to get down on the market for making everything more terrible. But I was rereading Dave Hickey over the weekend (this is a good idea), and reminded me that art is a field of value governed by the market too.
Karl Marx based the value for goods on labor. Understandably, he thought that forging a foundational connection between economic value and labor at the basis of his economic theory was the way to make human misery a factor in the workings of the post-industrial economic order.
While classical free-market economists like Ricardo and Smith also openly advocated a labor theory of value, Marx argued that holding this position within the framework of post-industrial production rested on some dubious propositions. He thought that classical free-market economics amounted to an exchange theory of value. Because exchange value is determined by the interaction of supply and demand, and demand is a psychological phenomenon, the perception of value plays a crucial role in an economy where the value of goods is regulated by market forces; on this view the study of economics is the study of incentives. (This is why wallstreet panic is literally panic-- the value of some assets in market economies are conditioned “by the imagination of man (or sometimes, so it seems, madmen)”, as Warren buffet said of the now-infamous Credit Default Swaps. And let's not forget that, in his off-hours, Adam Smith was an acute moral psychologist). And at the base of everything, Marx aid, is the commodity fiction, the more-or-less reliable faith that fellowmen will continue to give us certain goods in exchange for intrinsically worthless slips of paper.
It is a good thing that Marxist economic principles don't rule art. If we adhered to a labor theory of value, then each copy of Chinese Democracy would cost 8 million dollars. But it's not. Art is a field of value that is utterly in the hands of the perceivers. (Even those morgage-backed securities are going to get valued eventually, and it's going to come down to what people are able to pay.) The value of art is all exchange-value, pure commodity fetish. And it's a good thing.
As Hickey notes, the value of art comes down to the risks that critics are willing to take on behalf of the things they care about: “Art and money are cultural fictions with no intrinsic value. They acquire exchange-value through fiduciary investments of complex constituencies-- through overt demonstrations of trust (or acts of faith, if you will)... The Whitney Museum may say that Wanda Whatzit is the next big thing, but only the sustained investment of money, journalism, exhibition space, scholarly prose, foundation awards, loose talk, and casual body language can maintain Wanda's work in the public esteem.” Scholarly prose doesn't set the price-- at least not initially-- but over the long term the value of a work of art comes down to its cultural capital. It's us-- and by us I mean both consumers, and people writing on the Internet-- who determine what these experiences are really worth.
There's been a lot of talk about the troubled relationship of the industry to the critical apparatus. Mammon raises his head again. The financial equation for the online mainstream games journal site is well-established: previews=page clicks=profit. This isn't quite payola but it's a situation where the sites stand to benefit from giving positive reviews of a company's releases. (And here, I'm not even going into the whole matter of ad buys.)
But all this anxiety covers up the fact that what critics think of games actually matters. The fact that a critic's is something that someone would want to buy is a testament to the sovereign power of partiality over the realm of culture. The deregulation of opinion come the advent of the internet has loosened rules of the market: there is a flood of ordinary citizens avid to squander hours of their life in advocacy of their “particular marriage of desire and esteem.” is a testament to the democratic possibilities that are at the center of Hickey's vision.
Monday, December 1, 2008
Lord knows I've been looking forward to writing a list of this sort since I started up this doubtful venture. I love to shower hierarchically organized favor and disfavor on cultural objects. We all know the business of affixing a rank to the calendar-year's achievements is the antithesis of criticism, but I revel in the stuff. In addition to entertainment and heuristic values of list-making (for a period of time, whenever I was searching for a new book to read, I would just flip to the Modern Library's list of the best 100 novels of the 20th century on the inside cover of my copy of The Secret Agent and pick something out. I never would've gotten to read A High Wind in Jamaica without this policy), there is a shred of critical function in the whole enterprise. Games are a young medium, a number of things are being attempted, and a year-end list is a way to bestow praise the things we think praiseworthy.
I've had this question in mind-- the question about what I'd like to see more of-- ever since I read Sean Sands' short but pointed assessment of this year's crop of games over on Gamers with Jobs: “I appreciate a fun game as much as the next guy, and this year has been positively choked with safe bets and easy playtime. I walk away from 2008 with some nice memories of time spent happily indulging my pastime, but few moments of gaming that challenged me on anything but a functional and mechanical level.” Now, this is a judgment that could apply to any year in the history of games. There is also a certain date before which such an evaluation wouldn't even make sense. But he's right. We desperately want to see game creators break new ground, make games we could both enjoy and care about. We deserve more than we're getting.
There are exceptions, and chief among them is Grand Theft Auto 4. GTA4 isn't the most fun game this year, and it's not the most compelling game. But it's the most problematic game, the game with the highest highs, and the game I think about the most. Sands concurs: “the most challenging gaming phenomenon of the year was the moral dissonance that is Grand Theft Auto IV... This is about the ways that games can challenge expectations, norms and mores. When I say GTA IV’s moral complexity was challenging, I’m talking about the compelling simulation of a character that both regrets and revels in the violence he dispatches... Though the execution was imperfect credit, has to go to Rockstar for trying to create a morally complex character in a world that simulated a spiral of inescapable violence despite illusions of freedom.”
Make no mistake; as a game, Grand Theft Auto 4 has some significant problems. Far Cry 2's narrative designer Patrick Redding untentionally gave the perfect description of Grand Theft Auto 4 in an interview with Gamasutra's Chris Remo and Brandon Sheffield this fall: “ Clint [Hocking] and I always said, 'Let's fail as big as we can on this." Let's take such a radical swing at this... let's put it all in and bet on red 12. And honestly, if we mess this up, it will be one of the most useful epic failures of all time, because the shrapnel will be useful.” Grand Theft Auto 4 is sublime shrapnel, a monument to creative failure. Rockstar attempted to wed open-world banditry, social simulation, and emotionally subtle storytelling together, but the more the player moved through the game the more they blew apart into fragments. The individual elements (especially, sweet jezus, the city, a city so beautiful that it was enjoyable to just look at it.) were superlative--each of them is well-conceived in its own right-- but they didn't harmonize well. (Miyamoto compares game design to cookery, and this seems a case were the ingredients didn't play off each other in the right way.) GTAIV is less than the sum of its parts. It contradicts itself; it contains multitudes.
But for all of this, GTA4 is a classic, and stands head and shoulders above its previous iterations and nearly every other game released this year. It was compared to The Godfather on release, but a better point of comparison is another internally riven American classic: Moby Dick. Melville was torn between writing a ripping nautical yarn and a metaphysical odyssey, and it shows. Rockstar was torn between constructing a sandbox and a stage, and it shows. The result was a tenuously fused work of genuine Americana: a disorderly paean to the American city, a bit of ultraviolence, a stonkingly beautiful soundtrack, a fable, a simulation, a gonzo critique of capitalism. It's a game we deserve.