Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Against my Better Judgement, I Discuss Citizen Kane and Maybe Art

The video-games-writin' set has an odd set of preoccupations, and many of them hinge on the question of legitimacy. The is-games-art debate, the Citizen Kane o' games question, they're all about the stature of games in the cultural marketplace, where they stand in the artistic pecking order. (Here's a hint: pretty fucking low. It's lonely at the bottom. Hence the contest between video game and comic book enthusiasts, the “Saddest Fight on the Internet.”)

One of the major problems with this discourse is that the are-games-art conversation almost never goes anywhere. I'm not denying that some good work has been done in this line (N'Gai Croal's reply to Roger Ebert is maybe his finest piece), but I've never felt the conversation produces much. As soon as you pose the question the whole issue becomes a definitional wrangle over what art is; one party or another begins lobbing stipulations at the other and a substantive issue becomes a semantical one. Comment threads allover the internet are overstuffed with useless arguments of this very form.

The pervasive error here, which Wittgenstein warned against, is the presumption that there is one or more properties-- authorial intent, emotional depth etc.-- the possession of which unerringly discriminates art from nonart. The Philosophical Investigations (supposing you try to understand it, which I cannot in good conscience recommend), will disabuse you of this misguided idea that there's a criterion to be had when it comes to applying concepts like “art.” There's a wealth of interesting historical and anthropological observations to be made about how we use the concept of art-- what it means for us to treat some portion of our culture the way we treat Pride and Prejudice, say-- but we're not going to unearth a metaphysical truth, an occult rule, that will magically decide the question for us.

Leigh Alexander, in partnership with games-crit mandarin Ian Bogsot, recently launched a salvo in a neighboring dispute, the Citizen Kane o' Games question. Their point is that we should put the whole issue to bed, as the dynamics of cultural legitimacy presupposed by the question are outdated and irrelevant in the new-media landscape. “we think that having a Citizen Kane will prove our artistic legitimacy,” Bogost remarks, “but masterworks are not how artistic legitimacy is proven anymore.” There's a lot of truth to this; the critical discourse on games, like all other cultural discourse, has become more and more fragmented and specialized since the advent of the internet. The scattered condition of our critical polis is ill-suited to king-making. Artistic legitimacy is a social phenomenon, something that we create ourselves-- a fiction, as Bogost says. It's necessarily bound to the forms of media that sustain and disseminate it.

The problem with all this is that we're asking the wrong question. The “are games art?” question is boring. The “will there be a Citizen Kane of games question?” is equally so. While we can make some more-or-less intelligent prognostications about the the new economics of cultural capital in the internet era, even this is a purely speculative.

The interesting question, to me, is what kind of art games are. That is, we should be asking ourselves what kind of formal dynamics and pleasures are inherent in the medium, and be able to identify when these formal capacities are used well. (This is another way of posing the question: how are games fun?)

And this is one area where thinking about what Citizen Kane achieved (rather than what it represents) is genuinely important. The reason that Kane has the kind of cachet it does is because it displayed such a consummate command of the formal capacities of cinema, as a medium. (I think Alexander and Bogost do Kane something of an injustice; the article reads as if its cultural status is an accident of history, and underplay the role of its superb artistry in its achievement of that status) It wrought a novel marriage of form and content by creating a visual language that complimented its thematic preoccupations.

There's a brilliant bit in Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay that captures this. They've just come from the movie, and Joe is trying to explain to Sammy that Welles' masterpiece holds the key to their own nascent, illegitimate medium:

It was that Citizen Kane represented, more than any other movie Joe had seen, the total blending of narration and image... Without the witty, potent dialogue and the puzzling shape of the story, the movie would have been merely an American version of the kind of brooding, shadow-filled Ufa-style expressionist stuff that Joe had grown up watching in Prague. Without the brooding shadows and bold adventuring of the camera, it would have been merely a clever movie about a rich bastard. It was much more, than any move really needed to be. In this one crucial regard-- its inextricable braiding of image and narrative-- Citizen Kane was like a comic book

Now, cinema is much more akin to comic books than games. Let's lay this aside. It's this braiding we should be thinking about. We should ask ourselves whether a game can achieve a relevantly similar kind of synthesis.

To tip my hand a bit, I think this would involve exploiting the fact that games are both rules and fiction, form and content. The game creates a certain space of possibilities for the player to inhabit and the fiction invests those choices with meaning. The genius of Bioshock, for instance, was the way that the game's upgrade-mechanics (acquiring ADAM, a scarce and morally hazardous resource) played off against its thematic concerns with the costs of untrammeled self-interest. It lost its way on this point, but Bioshock offers (along with Portal, and maybe Braid) something of genuine use: not a cultural monolith, but an example of what videogame art might look like.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Review

Gears of War II

Platform: Xbox 360 Developer: Epic Software Publisher:Microsoft

Box Quote: “This game will INVITE you over to its house and let you bang its sister!” – Iroquois Pliskin, igndotcom

Full Disclosure: The reviewer played through the coop campaign, but didn't do much with the multiplayer component. The original Gears of War was my first experience “playing” competitive online shooters over xbox live. The scare quotes are there because there are vast stretches of nonconsentual sodomy between picking up the controller for the first time and playing a game, an activity one would do for recreation. My dominant memory of this experience was when some frenchman shrieked “Putain!” and lodged a torque bow bolt into my side. Then, I exploded. Word on the street is that the Horde mode (like Resi 5's Mercenaries mode) is the best portion of the entire product, but I wouldn't know.

Gameplay: Maybe because of its doggedly generic trappings, it's easy to forget what an innovative game Gears of War was on its release in 2006. The cover-based gameplay exchanged twitchy run-and-gunning of the classic FPS for tactical firefighting. Gears' novel integration of co-op into the campaign dovetailed perfectly with this shift in emphasis; success in the pitched battles often hinged on coordinating with your partner to execute flaking maneuvers on the enemy positions, flushing your enemies out of cover. The challenge for Gears II is the following: the bloom is off the rose of cover-based combat. So many of its predecessor's gameplay tropes have become de rigeur in modern shooter design. Where does the series go? The marketing runup for the game basically conceded that the sequel was going for a quantitative leap rather than a qualitative one, and after playing Gears II you'll recognize that “more badass” means “more of the same.” Not that this is a bad thing. Epic is simply better at this thing than its competitors; they've done a great job, again, of using clever level design to concoct memorable, tactically interesting firefights. The most creative moments in the sequel come when you're forced to deal with living, moveable, and otherwise unreliable cover. They've devised some fun new weaponry for this outing as well (I dig mortaring fools), and the complement of weaponry at your disposal gives you the means to vary your tactics in the individual encounters, switching between long, medium, and close-range murder-tools. Unfortunately, the game's other stabs at injecting variety and novelty into the gameplay fall flat. The game is never really enjoyable when you're not hunkered behind cover. A lengthy sequence inside of a colossal worm tries to integrate some platformer-style gameplay into the formula, but your character's movements are too lumbering for this segment to be much fun. The primary function of the numerous re-skinned turret sequences the game throws at you is that they make you pine for conveniently placed sandbags.

Story: You have to give them credit: their unironic devotion to the hoariest action-movie conventions is so total that the whole affair begins to verge on the intended iconicism. To sum up: you're a grim marine. You're toting a metric ton of arm and a blithe attitude towards carnage. The actions the game demands of you save the world, somehow. (The reviewer is a little hazy on the causal nexus) This unflinching adherence to caricature is certainly a discredit to the imagination of the game's creators, but in their defense, it's virtually impossible to recall the central events of any shooter game; even in great shooters like Half-Life 2, it's the texture of the world and the atmosphere that sticks with you, rather than the plot beats. And this is what Gears is really about: when you charge an enemy with your upraised chainsaw, you unseam them from the nave to th' chops, spraying gouts of ichor allover the camera lens. Everything about this gesture is gratuitous, down to the camera lens, but Gears of War II achieves a kind of lunatic grandeur that's hard to dismiss. It's the gore that gives the game its personality. When you walk away from the game you're likely to forget about the emulsion and the purpose of the research facility and the tearjerking zombificaiton of the protagonists' loved ones. You will remember all the the cheerful vivisection.

The Takeaway: Are you not entertained?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

GDC09: Wot I Asked Will Wright, and What he Said

One thing that's always struck me about games is the contrast between the messiness, confusion and plain fuckedupness of our actual life and the clean, unfailingly rule-guided, perfectly revocable nature of a game-world. A game is the one place where everything really does happen for a reason-- everything can be understood and everything can be put right. This is one reason, I think, why we become so attached to games during adolescence-- as our emotional and social lives becomes exponentially more bewildering, these games offer a preserve of clarity and control. (See also that fascinating athropological phenomenon that is the dating sim) And to me, this is also why it's so difficult to imbue games with narrative complexity-- what we want from gameplay is a respite from culpability and failure and tragedy, the very things that make stories important.

And this is what struck me about Clint Hocking's remarks about the the relationship of intentional play (using our knowledge of a game's rules to achieve goals) and domination. As gamers, we have this inherently agonistic relationship to the game: we don't just want to understand the underlying dynamics of a game, we want to leverage this understanding in order to conquer it. Gamers tend to be maximizers of utility; we're always one the hunt for ways to break the game, find the loopholes in its underlying systems that allow us to surmount its challenges without real effort. And as Hocking argued, the moment we dominate a game, we destroy it. Hocking suggested that improvisational play-- the kind of gameplay that incorporates elements of structured unpredictability-- offered an alternative to this destructive struggle between designer and player for dominance over the game-world.

I still had this idea in my head when I went to see the panel on “Beyond Entertainment: Games and Social Change” at the GDC. The poorly-moderated had an all-star cast of developers (Peter Molyneux, Lorne Lanning, Ed Fries, Will Wright, and Bing Gordon), who were generally enthusiatic slash hyperbolic about the positive social effect and educational power of the medium. (Bing Gordon straightfacedly suggested that kids learn more about storytelling from playing World of Warcraft or The Sims than by attending school or reading Dostoyevsky in the original Russian. People actually clapped for this kind of bullshit.) I remain skeptical.

Look, I'm quite willing to say that games are an excellent teaching medium when it comes to certain subject matter: they're much more effective at representing the dynamics of complex systems (things like the ecology of forests, cities, and civilizations), than other media. With a game, students learn about these systems actively, by interacting with those systems and interrogating them, and this is a great thing.

But it bears asking: if games teach us things, if they inculcate certain habits of thought and action, what about Hocking's point that traditional gameplay is narrowly focused on domination? When we spend our free time subjecting these virtual worlds to a perfect administration, purging their systems of the unpredictable human element, what does this mean when we turn back to the world?

So, I came up to Will Wright after the panel and I asked him this question. Is this urge to dominate these fictional systems just human nature, or is it something we've learned? Have years of 8-bit humiliation at the hands of games designers turned us into this kind of gamer, or is this just how the third chimpanzee is wired to behave?

This is what he told me: firstly, the urge to master our environment through the use of systematic thought to map concepts onto our environment is as old and as instinctual as language. And this seems right-- indeed, I think it's one of the key insights when it comes to explaining why games appeal to us. We enjoy apprehending rules because apprehending rules is one of the things that allowed us to hunt better than the other animals and plant crops and get civilization off the ground.

His other point was to question the vocabulary. Optimizing our behavior by learning the rules of an environment may be essentially empowering, but maybe the term “domination” is prejudicial. You could just as well say that gamers have this drive to understand their fictional worlds, and there's nothing ominous about that.

I thought these were both pretty good points-- I'm just replicating the substance of his response here but it bears repeating that Wright's a palpably thoughtful and articulate man; his responses we more cogent than my questions were, if you catch my drift. Still, I walked away with a couple reservations. First, whenever I play these games where I'm in charge of a dynamic system-- a simulated city, a pinata garden, a bourgeois household, whatever-- I have to fight this urge to turn everything into a sterile utopia. Infinite resources, neatly tended yards, the whole bit. One of the reasons we all find games interesting is because they create of this terrific feeling of progression and empowerment, but I still have this feeling that this craving for technical mastery stands at odds with the kind of attitudes and habits that we need in order to live a full life with our fellow humans.

The other is this: I've always been drawn to Dave Hickey's idea that Jazz and other improvisational artforms embody a kind of democratic sentiment. If Adorno et al are right, and our artforms are ways of dramatizing the relationship between individuals and the social order they find themselves in, then the idea of improvisational gameplay has added dimensions of relevance. In Jazz, structure exists in order to allow the player to exercise their individual artistic vision. I think this ethos has interesting parallels with the immersion-school-of-game-design represented by Hocking and Steve Gaynor, who have argued that the purpose of gameplay systems is to allow the individual player to assume authority over the shape of their own experience.

Image Courtesy Gruntzooki's flickr

GDC09: Casting a Pod

***Coletta Factor: Spoilerish Discussion of Resident Evil 5 ensues***
So, the always-gracious Michael Abbot had me on his podcast last weekend to chat 'bout the GDC with some eminent bloggers-- Ben Fritz of Variety's the Cut Scene blog and Duncan Fyfe of Hit Self-Destruct. I don't exactly remember what I nattered on about into my USB rock band microphone (it was 11 AM on a Saturday and I was, naturally, quite drunk), but if for some unexplainable reason you'd like to hear it you can pick it up here.

One thing that came out of the conversation is that we all took very different things from the conference, though we were all people who write about games on the Internet. Ben's one of the very few really good industry reporters, so a lot of his time was devoted to interviewing publishers and publicists and gamesmakers-- hunting down the newsworthy. And Duncan talked about how the main business of the conference-- the panels and the awards-- weren't really useful to him given the way that he writes about games.

For me, the real benefit of an event like the GDC (aside from getting to meet all these great people from the Internet) was coming into contact with a new language. All of us games writers who hanker after a better critical discourse on games stand in need of more vocabulary-- if not a common set of concepts or a shared jargon, at least a common discourse that we can draw on when we talk about the kinds of irreducibly subjective things that games do to their players.

And it turns out that game developers are fellow partisans in this struggle. For the betterment of games, they've faced down the formidable task of explaining their practices to their fellows. They've salvaged elements of their craft from inarticulacy, because they need to explain to each other what makes a good level and what makes for satisfying combat mechanics and how to encourage cooperative play. All this is pretty downstream from the user-end experience of the game in motion, but my fond hope is that I can poach some of these ideas and use them to explain how and why games are fun.

The value of this language for the ordinary games-player is that it would allow you to see things you didn't see before. We can spill a lot of ink asking the function of criticism, but one thing that this secondhand enterprise can do is offer insight into how artworks function. You can go back to the same thing you've experienced and appreciate it in a different way.

This is one thing I mentioned on the podcast-- when I came home and played through Resident Evil 5 with my ladyfriend, I felt like a had a more expansive grasp of what the game was doing. Randy Smith's talk at the GDC was about the design of environmental puzzles, but when we ran into some crazy frustrating boss encounters later in the game his talk was the first thing on my mind.

Just like puzzles, your classic Zelda-style boss encounters in Resident Evil 5 require the player to exercise a new set of techniques. They require a different tack than the inexplicably-multiethnic African zombie mob. And this is why it's so important for the designer to provide the player with some tools to understand how that puzzle works-- what its moving parts are, how they operate, when the player is on the right track and when they're not. (My all-time shortcut for this idea is this character in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time who just screams admonishments at you as you navigate a complicated disc-sliding puzzle)

A late boss encounter really illustrated one of the main ideas from Smith's talk. To simplify, one of his central points is that the moving parts of a puzzle should have clear affordances-- that is, you should be able to understand how the elements of a puzzle can be used by looking at them. Like, if you need to sever a dragon's head by dropping a portcullis, that portcullis should be jagged and mean-looking as hell; the rope that's holding it up better look very severable.

It's a fundamental unclarity about affordance that had us stuck on some of the later boss battles. RE5 leans heavily on its context-sensitive button prompts to inform you about the environment-- whenever you're in the vicinity of something that can be used (pulled, pushed, operated, swung, cut, uppercutted), the X button appears at the bottom of the screen. That's how you find out something is usable.

The problem is, when you're faced by some homicidal ex-partner who's flipping around and unloading clips into you, getting some proximity is the last thing you want to do. Nothing signals to the player that this enemy can be used in a totally novel way when you're both at close range. We spent a lot of time hung up on the wrong solution-- shooting from a distance-- before we accidentally ended up at close range. And it was only then that the context-sensitive menus popped up and the game telegraphed the correct solution to us.

This basic issue recurs in a suite of late-game boss encounters-- these enemies have unique affordances that you need to know, but the only way you discover them is by approaching really close under select conditions and seeing the X button pop up at the bottom of the screen. This is bad puzzle design.

Anyways I could nerd out about Smith's talk at length-- it was strangely appropriate and fitting that a talk about how you teach things to players was a model of pedagogical clarity and insight-- but you can hear me nerd out on this very subject on the podcast.

Oh, and I was about to tell you what I asked Will Wright...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

GDC 09: Just Remember All Caps When You Spell the Man Name

Time has conspired with the internet to make my efforts at reportage gratuitous. You see, my favorite talk at the GDC this year was given by CLINT HOCKING, the creative director of the intermittently brilliant Far Cry 2 and the man responsible for the term Ludonarrative Dissonance. If you've read his blog you know he's a frighteningly clearheaded man when it comes to thinking about games, so much so that he's forged the (admittedly florid but nonetheless indispensable) critical vocabulary. I loved his talk, and I'm wholly dedicated to hashing it out here, but in the intervening time Chris Remo has posted a crisp and accurate recap on Gamasutra. Furthermore: Hocking, that articulate and witty sonuvabitch, has put the entire talk and slides up on his site. Which means: not only can you read a professional synopsis, but you can also recreate the talk itself, complete with powerpoint jokes (a GDC staple), in the comfort of your own home. Thereby cutting out needlessly loquacious middlemen like myself. Alls I can promise you: I have an angle towards the end.

Hocking began by revisiting the idea of intentionality, a concept he introduced in a talk given to the GDC in 2006. “Intentional Play” is when the player uses their knowledge of a game's mechanics and systems in order to achieve set goals. Hocking cited an example from his previous game, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, to illustrate intentional play at work: in the clip, the player drew on a suite of interconnected gameplay systems, objects, and behaviors-- sticky cameras, traps, enemy AI -- in order to blow an enemy soldier down an elevator shaft.

Hocking went on to break down the idea of intentionality a little further. Intentional play has two elements: “composition” and “execution.” Composition is the planning-element of an action and execution is the active realization of that plan. Hocking used the example of travel to illustrate the differences between different sorts of intentional behavior-- travelling by car requires little composition and a lot of execution, while travelling by plane requires a lot of composition and little execution. To take an example from games, a stealth game is composition-heavy and a linear shooter game is execution-heavy. The former requires meticulous planning and the latter requires rapid action and reaction.

He explained that the development team initially conceived Far Cry 2 in the vein of Splinter Cell: the game would facilitate a high level of composition-centric intentionality on the part of the player. When faced with the task of eliminating an enemy encampment, they expected the player to utilize their understanding of a host of gameplay systems-- fire propagation, scouting, weather, the day/night cycle, enemy AI, weapon loadouts, and so on-- in order to orchestrate an assault.

As development on Far Cry 2 progressed, however, Hocking found that some of these systems really didn't work out the way he hoped. Originally there was a complex enemy morale system and a more fulsome reputation mechanic in place, but the developers eventually eliminated them.

But the developers discovered a funny thing: as they eliminated these systems, and the balance between composition and execution tilted away from the composition-heavy game they had originally envisioned, the game became more and more fun. That is, the developers found that the game was at its best when the players carefully-laid-out plans went haywire and they were forced to reformulate a strategy on the fly.

Hocking explained this change in the fundamental design as a shift from a game that facilitated “intentional” play to a game that inspired “improvisational” play. This game was neither a composition-heavy game ala Splinter Cell or an execution-heavy game ala Call of Duty: what was happening, Hocking says, is that the player was being compelled to periodically bounce back and forth between the “composition” and “execution” phases. This experience-- being forced to recompose on the fly and under uncertain conditions-- was what made the gameplay fun and memorable.

Improvisational play, Hocking says, is intentional but also formless and dynamic. He described the Big Daddy fights in Bioshock as another model instance of improvisational play: because the helmeted behemoths aren't initially hostile, the player has the chance to formulate a plan and lay some traps before initiating combat. Once the battle begins, however, it usually isn't possible to defeat the big daddies in one go-- the whole place goes bitchcakes as the daddy stomps and roars, and you're compelled to retreat and regroup and find ammo and devise a new plan. This is improvisational play.

On the design side, the key to creating this type of dynamic play in Far Cry 2 was inflicting random, small losses on the player in order to divert them back into the composition phase. Inflicting randomized major losses would frustrate the player, but injecting small incremental setbacks-- like the wounds, malaria attacks, and weapon jams in Far Cry 2-- into the gameplay provides just enough putshback to force the player to revise their strategy. The buddy system, which saved the player from death and allowed them a long period of time to regroup, was implemented as a way to raise the player's tolerance for failure when these incremental punishment systems kicked in at a particularly fateful moment.

So that's what the man said, roughly. I have two things I want to say.

First, this talk was a pretty brilliant explanation of what occurs when Far Cry 2 works. People who love Far Cry 2 love it because it provides all these emergent stories that happen when their plans go haywire: “I was up on a ridge opposite a village and I was sniping dudes, as is my wont, when someone in the town opposite began mortaring my position and so then I had to bounce right in order to miss the falling ordinance which worked fine except the mortar shells set the grass on fire and while I was evading the shrapnel and the fire a bunch of dudes had run out of the town and were on the open plain below and they're peppering me with gunfire and it was now too late to thin their ranks with the rifle so I scampered down the ridge with bullets whizzing past me, I'm throwing grenades every which way and I spot this jeep on the west side of town and I jump into it and I'm madly barreling away as enemies jumped into their own jeeps for pursuit.” (Okay, you kind of had to be there)

The problem with Far Cry 2 is that this kind of memorable scenario doesn't happen enough. I found that certain strategies-- basically, getting a good elevated viewpoint and using the sniper rifle-- worked really really well (distance really blunts the disruptive force of the malaria attacks and weapon jams), and once I had discovered a winning gameplan I was loath to abandon that strategy. Because the mission-structure was essentially uniform throughout the game (assault this enemyladen camp x times), developing a bankable approach tends to ruin the game; the moments of pleasurable uncertainty are fewer and far between. The game gave the player the tools they needed to circumvent the effects of random incremental failures, and it suffered as a result.

Which takes me to a second point. To me, the most interesting point of his entire speech was this point he made about improvisational play at the very end: he said that improvisational play was a way to break the structure of dominance inherent in intentional play. As soon as we, the players, understand the deeper systems behind the game we seek to master them, subject them to our intentions. And when we seek to dominate and master a thing, we destroy it. We deprive it of its beauty.

This lust for mastery is one of the things that sets video games off from the other arts: we'd never say we “beat” a novel or a movie, but we feel comfortable using this kind of terminology to describe the kind of experience we have with a game. We feel that games are a contest with the designer; the systems and dynamics of the gameplay aren't there to be enjoyed or treasured but to be overcome.

Hocking suggested that improvisational play offers a different model for player-game interaction. When we're continually forced to improvise-- when we never quite dominate the system of rules that structures our experience-- we're having a different kind of experience, one that's not a contest for power: the game becomes a field for the player to exercise a kind of grace.

I thought this last point about understanding, power, and dominance was so interesting that I worked up the courage to ask Will Wright about it after one of this panels. Tomorrow, I'll tell you what he told me.

Under Construction

Hay all! I'm working on this one thing, and I meant to have it polished off tonight but it just didn't happen. You can blame Yakuza 2 for having like four fake endings. To tide you over, I offer you the following. How awesome are the Superbrothers? So awesome that they made a music video of a game design lecture. Enjoy!