Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lasering Dudes is a Sport

(The photo above is an illustration of the author's vaunted lasering skills)

Last fall I bought Halo 3. Before I picked up the game I had never played an online shooter. I was certain that I was not one of those people. I was in it for the single-player game, which was fine but not earth-shaking. But one day I decided to give the whole multiplayer thing a shot. After several straight days of getting my ass handed to me by twelve-year-olds on Snowbound, I got the hang of it. The multiplayer game unfolded its splendors. Then, Halo got its hooks into me in the worst way. It proceeded to devour whatever time I dedicated to playing video games and much of the time that was traditionally allocated to my other important life activities: playing in the snow, kissing girls, and the like. While this was unfortunate for all other aspects of my life, I developed an appreciation for a new type of play.

I think the genius of Halo 3 really lies in the wellneigh absurd refinement of its basic combat mechanics, but that is a story for another post. I want, instead, to talk a little bit about some other reasons why I think the game is so compulsively enjoyable.

If you've been reading the blog for a while you know that I've been arguing games are fun because it's pleasurable to learn and master the rules of a game-world. I think this is basically true, but I think I should also make a distinction. So here's some crude taxonomy: All video games lie on a continuum between two extremes: on one hand you have games where you are discovering new rules and play mechanics almost constantly as you progress through the game, and on the other hand you have games where you discover most of the rules at the very outset, and the challenge comes mastering those rules and perfecting your use of them. Games that fall in to the latter category, like Halo's multiplayer, are sports. You have to evaluate these two categories of games differently. While the fun of the first category originates in our innate desire to master the world through experimentation and planning, the fun of the latter comes from our equally innate love of competition and storytelling.

The human thirst for identity is such that we are willing to submit ourselves to any set of rules that offers us a chance to distinguish us from our fellow man. I can attest to this, because while growing up my brother and I could take any activity-- eating dinner, peeing, jumping on the couch, anything whatsoever-- and turn it into a contest by slapping a few extra rules onto it. This not only enriches our regular day-to-day habits (If you ever watch the timbersports on the ESPN2 it will dawn on you that they are just lumberjacking with some extra constraints. ), but also gives us a way to match ourselves against others, because the artificial standards created by a sport offer a public and objective measure of our prowess. This is half the fun of Halo.

Here's the other: One of the reasons that sports have a such a reign over our imagination is that they feed into our love of storytelling. Sports are made to create situations with narrative significance: last-minute reversals, falls from grace, chances for redemption. It's why you can't talk about our national love of sport without talking about The Natural or Hoosiers or When We Were Kings, and it's also why sports talk is such a big part of sports culture; half of the fun of following sports is cooking up stories with the other fans about the games and the players, spinning a common narrative about what it all means.

In multiplayer games like Halo, the fun of the game comes from the stories that you tell to yourself using the tools you have acquired by mastering the rules of the game. The stories you get out of playing Halo usually lose something in the telling (“This was 'ought-seven... the red team had me pinned down outside of Zanzibar. I was down to my last plasma grenade, so I had to make it count.”), and this is why Halo 3's saved films feature is, to my mind, such an important step forward for the multiplayer genre as a whole.

Halo 3's theater allowed you to go back into any recent game and rewatch the action you had just played. The feature gave you the ability to replay and make saved film clips of your personal highlight reel, in order to narrate them for your Halo-playing friends. This enabled a more rich type of storytelling; you weren't limited to just telling people how it went, you could show them and add you own myth-making on top of it.

The theater also created another type fun native to sports. After you played with your roommate, (or clan, or whatever. I never personally knew more than two other people who played Halo), you could go to the theater and break down the film together. I know this sounds absurd, it was just wierldly fun for my roommate and I to sit down with a mess of breakfast cereal after a match and walk through the games we just played. Since the game records the action from every player's perspective, you could observe someone who had just schooled you and piece together the tactics that had laid you low. Or you could just walk through the last game from your own perspective and discuss how you tackled certain situations. This was not only fun in its own right, but it also made you better at the game, which was a bonus; it gave you a chance to do some second-order reflection on how you had made use of the game's rules and maps, and think about how to use those rules and maps to your advantage.

This is why we don't need a Halo movie. Let the idea languish and die. The real Halo films are being made every night, by the kids.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Compact

We might say that all works of art trade on an implicit bargain struck between the audience and the artist. It goes like this: we agree to take some time out of our days, paying attention to whatever it is the artist has to say, maybe suspend our sense of disbelief, and in exchange the artist promises to take us somewhere. Different forms of art have different tools at hand to accomplish the artist's side of the bargain.

In an interesting and well-thought out piece on his blog Fullbright, Steve Gaynor of 2K Marin (the developer of Bioshock 2) makes a persuasive case that the tools of games as a medium are uniquely suited to accomplish a particular kind of transport. He says “video games excel at fostering the experience of being in a particular place via direct inhabitation of an autonomous agent.” One of the things I took away from his post is that the bargain struck between the player and designer in a game is quite different from the sort of bargains stuck by other media. Game design is, to a greater degree more than other media, a form of collaboration between the designer and the player, since the transport-- the sense of “being there”-- provided by games is crucially linked to the player's sense that their choices are a meaningful part of the experience. I'm going to summarize Gaynor's argument by rephrasing it as an agreement of this sort, with the aim of comparing it to another type of agreement that is central to the history of moral philosophy.

The setup is like this: the designer and the player have a certain common goal--transport-- but they each must play a different role in the realization of that goal. The designers have to make the rules for the world that the player is going to inhabit, and the player must accept the limitations on their choices that come along with being in a world governed by certain artificial conventions. While the designer's ideal aim is “verisimilitude,” the player will have to accept some restrictions on their arbitrary liberty-- the player just won't be able to accomplish all the interactions with the world that he is capable of in real life. (We have to suspend our disbelief and accept the bizarre conventions of games all the time-- bodies that disappear after 30 seconds, the narrow range of manipulable objects, exploding barrels, and so on.)

The aim of these rules, Gaynor says, is to enable the player to make their own story with the rules given to them: “the core experience of playing a video game is itself unique to each player-- an act of realtime media interpretation-- and the most powerful stories told are the ones the player is responsible for.” The function of these rules is the transfer of power from the one who makes the rules-- the author of the game-- to the player. “Video games at their best, “ Gaynor says, “abdicate authorial control to the player, and with it shift the locus of the experience from the raw potential onscreen to the hands and mind of the individual.” By participating in the game and learning the rules laid out by the designer, the player realizes the common goal that governs their relationship: giving the player a sense of “agency and autonomy.”

When I was reading Gaynor's piece I was struck by the fact that the agreement between the designer and player he depicts there shares some interesting structural features with the social contract described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to Rousseau, a “social contract”-- an agreement made among citizens, which creates a political community-- was the basis for the legitimacy of the laws created by a King or other political leader. What the “social contact” and the agreement I described above have in common is that they are structured around a mutually held end-- the freedom and autonomy of the people to be ruled by the laws established by the contract. The sovereign has the authority to make the laws that govern those subjects, but on Rousseau's account this authority itself only comes from the fact that these laws are appropriate given the common goods, particularly agency and autonomy, realized by social life.

Now, I don't think we can make too much of this similarity; I don't mean to suggest that the collaboration between player and designer that occurs has the same sort of moral and political significance of the social contract. I just think that these two “agreements” share a certain texture deriving from the fact that they are both guided by the value of agency and autonomy.

But what also intrigued about both of these contracts is a certain paradox: they both work off the fact that submitting to rules can feel liberating. Even though these rules place artificial constraints on how we act in the world, we can feel that we are more free when we work within them. This is certainly the sense that we get when I figure out how to get around in the world created by a game or overcome the challenges it throws at us. Games can abuse us or humiliate us by imposing limitations that feel unfair and arbitrary, but when these rules are well-crafted they can create the terrific feeling of agency. (This is even true of games, like Half-Life 2, that are a great deal more structured and linear than Gaynor's ideal.) Rousseau offers some interesting perspective on this idea, because he also believes that the regulation of our conduct by laws makes us more genuinely autonomous agents; it is only when we consent to being governed by just laws “that the voice of duty succeeds physical compulsion and law succeeds appetite; man, who up that that point had only regarded himself, sees himself forced to act according to other principles... Though he loses, in this state, many advantages that he had in nature, he wins much greater ones back. He exercises and develops his faculties, his ideas flourish, his sentiments are ennobled.”

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Trash, Art, and the Games

“Art is the greatest game, the supreme entertainment, because you discover the game as you play it.... We want to see, to feel, to understand, to respond in a new way. Why should pedants be allowed to spoil the game?” -- Pauline Kael, Is There a Cure for Movie Criticism?

When pressed to justify our leisure we run the risk of disavowing pleasure. Because games are almost universally associated with puerile amusement, because they are seen as frivolous where they are not seen as corrupting, the ludologists and the games-as-art crowd are quick to run to the defense of games with the standards of respectable art in hand. Surely a good many games are about nothing more than engineering some empowering bit of badassery, we say, but their potential lies in their expressive capacity for making us reflect on agency, identity, and control. Look past the genre exercises-- your headhopping cartoons and your space-marine operas-- and you will find a medium groping towards works of moral imagination. Games aren't just trashy fun, or at least they won't be forever.

As Andrew Doull argues in a provocative recent article on GameSetWatch, our rush to defend games in these terms betrays a certain “fear of fun.” As a card-carrying member of the games-is-art crowd I am doubtless as guilty of this as anyone. I want games to aspire to the narrative complexity and technical self-consciousness I associate with high art, art for adults. When driven to defend gaming I will cite the pleasures of discovering and mastering the rules of a game-world, an activity which shares a great deal with the sort of learning we do in other contexts. And I believe that games can use the tools of their medium-- control, interaction, and narrative-- in order to interrogate these very pleasures. Games like Bioshock and Shadow of the Colossus have suggested, each in a different way, that our desire to master the world and turn it to our uses is shadowed-- as The Dialectic of Enlightenment warned us-- by a covert desire to conform and yield to the rules imposed on us by others. We're not in Citizen Kane territory yet, to be sure, but clearly these games are waypoints on the medium's journey towards maturity.

Doull's piece reminded me of the essay Trash, Art, and the Movies, written by legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. What Kael says can be read as a counterpoint to the aspirations I mention above, so I am going to use this post to present her view. She has some interesting points to make about justifying pleasure, and though they are meant to describe the state of film in 1969 they are just as applicable to gaming in the present day. Her response to the demand for justification is to question our very desire to justify ourselves: “Does trash corrupt? A nutty Puritanism still flourishes in the arts, not just in the schoolteachers’ approach of wanting art to be 'worthwhile,' but in the higher reaches of the academic life with those ideologues who denounce us for enjoying trash as if this enjoyment took us away from the really disturbing, angry new art of our time and somehow destroyed us. If we had to justify our trivial silly pleasures, we’d have a hard time.”

In short, Kael counsels that we are best off to overcome our misguided scruples-- divest ourselves of the idea that there is something ignoble about the pursuit of pleasure. Pleasure she memorably remarked, is “something a man can call good without self-disgust.” Even a cheap and mindless genre exercise can be redeemed (as trashy movies are) by the presence of some glimmer of real vitality: “The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line.” The plot of Ninja Gaiden is insipid, the character design tawdry, and the level design pedestrian. But the combat-- the combat is genius. It shouldn't matter that virtually everything else in the game is trash.

The upshot of her view, then, is that the price of acquitting ourselves of the charge of infantilism is the disavowal of what is vital and compelling about the games themselves. What Kael says of film one can also say of gaming: “Movie art is not the opposite of what we have always enjoyed in movies, it is not to be found in a return to that official high culture, it is what we have always found good in movies only more so. It’s the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings.” If Kael is right, we do violence to the excellences of games when, in search of respectability, we try to turn Resident Evil 4 into Middlemarch. We are better off celebrating the subversive gesture-- the vengeful and methodical beheading of the undead-- with unabashed relish. As Kael wrote, “we shouldn’t convert what we enjoy it for into false terms derived from our study of the other arts. That’s being false to what we enjoy.” The challenge of games criticism is one of becoming articulate about what we enjoy. Fun is what we have always enjoyed in games; but saying interesting things about having fun cannot mean leaving it behind.

But I do wish that games tried to be the “really disturbing, angry new art of our time.” As Louis Menand notes in an excellent review of Kael's work, she forged her critical consciousness in reacting to the cineastes and the directors (Bergman, Kubrick) who were contemptuous of the audience's desire to be entertained. In games we face the opposite problem: game creators are too complacent about their ability to entertain us. They know what we like and they know there is money to be made by giving us more of it. And while I don't think there is anything unethical in this, this attitude reeks of cynicism and laziness. I'm not worried about games falling into the hands of pedants, I'm worried it falling into the hands of people who would be willing to exchange creative stagnation for profit. The more this happens the less fun we'll have on our hands.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I Talk with my Roommate about Glider Et Al.

The new breed of console owner created by the success of the Nintendo Wii remains shrouded in mystery. In the past year Nintendo has pulled off the astonishing feat of marketing a game console to consumers who have not played games since youth. They've won this generation's console war by delivering uncomplicated fun to masses. To their chagrin, Nintendo has largely abandoned the hardcore consumer to the Xbox and Playstation 3; instead they have created a new consumer whose tastes are different from those of lifetime gamers. But the tastes of this consumer are still pretty much unknown, aside from the fact that they love Wii Sports. How do they go about buying new games? What sort of things are they looking for from their games, and are long-form narrative games among them?

In search of some answers I interviewed my roommate Christine, who got a Wii this spring as a graduation present. She's the model for the new Wii owner: she's never owned a console, she doesn't follow games in general. Most of her exposure comes from me. So I got her to take a break from studying for the New York bar exam today and sat her down for some questions.

Q: So, did you have any game consoles in your home when you were growing up?
A: Um, we had a Mac classic. Does that count? A Macintosh. We had this one game I used play obsessively, it was called glider. I tried to find it few years ago.

Q: What was glider about?
A: You take the place of a paper airplane and you glide around this house--- it's not haunted but there are appliances on. You had to stay away from open flame, and you were propelled by all these vents and fanss. The object was to get through the house without crashing into furniture or being overtaken by a propeller or balloon. Not only did I get through the entire house every time (it takes about and hour and half), but then when I got to last room I would intentionally not finish the game and go through backwards.

Q: How long did it take you to work up to this level of skill?
A: I played it for years. If we found glider right now I could do it today. I still know the location of all the mystery vents. There were these dark rooms and you would have to fly over the light switch. Sometimes you had to knock a can of grease over and slide over a table. I didn't have a lot of friends growing up. Just my friends from viola camp.

Q: Were you exposed to any violent games on your Macintosh SE 30?
A: Ummm, no. But glider was fucking awesome. What about Mac Ski? Does that count?

Q: Does your knowledge of the fact that I spent most of my childhood ripping the still-beating hearts from my enemies change your opinion of videogame violence?
A: [laughing] I think it makes a lot of sense. I can picture little Iroquois sitting too close to the TV comparing himself to Beowulf. What was the sword's name? Frumkin?

Q: I'm going to leave in that total non-sequitur. Over the last three years you've seen me playing a lot of crazy stuff on the TV while you're surfing kitten blogs in the living room. Have any favorites?
A: I hate Halo. I don't like the noises it makes. My favorite is Grand Theft Auto. It reminds me of Sim City, which I also played growing up. I love the New York aspect, the world they created, all the hidden treasures for people who play it. Or people who watch people play it.

Q: You bring some considerable legal expertise to the viewing of Grand Theft Auto. Describe some of the intentional torts you've seen me commit.
A: I think the best-case scenario for me on Tuesday is I open up the Bar exam and there's a question with this fact pattern: an Eastern European gentleman who has good taste in clothes commits grand larceny, assault, battery, second-degree burglary (entering a building with the intent to commit a crime), solicitation and conspiracy (those two crimes don't merge in New York). And we're forgetting homicide! You've killed people right? [She shoots the interviewer a pointed look] Felony murder, regular murder, involuntary manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, arson. Basically GTA is a checklist for me if I get a criminal law question on the bar exam.

Q: In general, if you see a game console in the house of an adult, how does this change your perception of them?
A: What game console? Wii? Playstation? Are we talking a couple guys in a frat house with Rock Band, or our apartment?

Q: Let's say it's an Xbox.
A: Umm, do they play Halo with 14-year-old boys on the internet who insult their gamertag?

Q: Let's change the subject. When was the moment when you said to yourself: “The Nintendo Wii... I have to buy that shit.”
A: You and I were talking and you telling me how it was like a remote control. It seemed very doable to me. You guys used the playstaion 2 controller as a de facto remote control for watching DVDs, but the controller makes no sense to me. It has too many buttons. But the Wiimote feels like a remote, it makes a lot of sense to me. And that was really appealing. I wouldn't have to spend an hour. Also, I really really really like Miis

Q: After you depart to become a high-powered attorney, who will you turn to if you want to buy Wii games?
A: You know the answer. Do you think I'm not going to you and asking, “What are the nerds on the blogosphere into these days? Also, you recommend good games, like Boom Blox. You're not going to go recommending something with a lot of dragons or something. I try to avoid slaying.

Q: Wii Fit told me that I was a fatty. Discuss.
A: Wii fit does not know what it's talking about. That said, I don't want to make you feel bad, but it told me that I was doing very well when I stepped on it for the first time in like two months.

Q: I don't know how to put this. How would you feel about me surreptitiously filming you playing Wii Fit in bikini-style underdrawers?
A: You'll be hearing from my lawyer.

PS-- Good Luck on the bar exam, Christine! You're gonna do great. If any readers want to wish her well you can send your regards to I can confirm that she is really excellent at glider. If anyone wants to try unwind after the exam with some glider, it can be found here.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Positive Notice from Poland

My blog got mentioned in Poland! I'm excited to see the word get out beyond our shores:

"New, merely several week's blog, but it is foreshadowed (is presaged) very curiously among others, hitherto existing registration about similarities of games of types with jazz sandbox and about rules of games from the point of view of philosophy of edge ( ) sic. It sounds high-flown, but it is written without complication zbytnich."

My thanks go out to
Marzena Falkowska. Check out her blog!

(Somewhat-garbled translation courtesy

Friday, July 25, 2008

Pacing and Horror

Big ups, GameSetLinks!

Late post today! I was... um... playing video games.

The main culprit was the demo for the PS3 downloadable title Pixeljunk Eden. How would I describe it? The platforming and the vertically-oriented level design puts one in mind, unexpectedly, of a 2-D Jumping Flash; the visuals and sound are an idyllic take on the (syn)aesthetic of REZ, and the game's traversal mechanics—swinging on a line of silk to move from platform to platform-- are pure Bionic Commando. While it's fun to describe the game, none of that will probably do anything to convey what the game is like. As N'Gai Croal says, you understand games with your hands. So run (don't walk) to your PS3 and download it by all means. (The excellent Pixeljunk Monsters is on sale, too.) Your only disappointment will be that you are unable to purchase the full version when the demo informs you that you are out of time. This is wanton cruelty.

I've been playing Silent Hill 2 lately, and the opening stretch of that game got me thinking about pacing. It seems to me that pacing is an essential but missing element of our critical vocabulary in talking about video games. Pacing is a well-known element of movie criticism; in movies, the length of individual scenes and the alternation between tension and release is a crucial component of the film's overall impact. The presence of a well-fleshed out discourse on pacing gives critics a good set of tools to convey to the reader how films handle time and tempo. (When a reviewer tells you the last third of The Dark Knight was overcluttered with action, you know what they mean.) We lack a similar vocabulary for games, whose pacing is both similar and different to that of movies.

Games, like movies, manipulate the time between events in order to produce their desired effects. Because most games are very long relative to movies (15-25 hours as opposed to 2 hours for a film) the potential for the use of time in games is very different than in film. In games, there is a lot more leeway to let the player wander for a long time without doing anything to them. Silent Hill 2 makes great use of this discretion with regard to time: during the opening stretch of the game, Silent Hill just sets you out on the fogswept path towards town with nothing except a map and a nightmarish camera. (When people tell you Silent Hill's camera is scary, they probably mean that it is incapable of providing you a useful view of your environment: every time you hit L2, the camera erratically swoops around your head like a panicked bird. But the effect is also really frightening: it does unintentionally convey the feeling of inhabiting the viewpoint of someone who is really terrified.) By my reckoning, I spent over thirty minutes wandering though the woods before anything overtly violent took place.

But during that half-hour, the game builds tension to an almost unbearable level; the chief engine of fear during this segment of the game is the audio, which is phenomenal. The sounds that issue from the mist are terrifying because they just verge on intelligibility; they suggest that there is something dreadful scurrying and breathing just beyond your field of vision, but you know not what. The score, on the other hand, is deeply unsettling because it is so eerily otherworldly. When you enter some areas you are met by a progression of dissonant and ominous synthesizer chords; the music is deeply unsettling without being abrupt or loud. Played with headphones, in a dark room, the game reduced me to abject terror in short order. When I finally ran into a fleshless monster intent on my destruction I was palpably relieved, because it broke the tension and because killing it was my first successful commerce with the environment. The success of this section was all a matter of using the pacing specific to video games; Silent Hill engages the player by subjecting them to the sort of slow, monotonously sinister build-up that would be impossible on film.

Other than the use of time and tempo, which games share with movies, there is an essential type of pacing to games that is lacking in any other medium, the pacing of the introduction of new mechanics and types of gameplay over the course of the game. Several of the best games that I've played are memorable for the rhythm with which they introduce and vary their basic mechanics. In Half-Life 2, you are rarely stuck repeating the exercise of the same skill over and over-- though much of the game revolves around shooting, the series does a superb job of varying the basic elements of the gameplay and mixing up the combat scenarios; there are periods of driving, puzzle-solving, quasi-platforming, pitched turret battles, and so on. (Half-Life 2 also has excellent pacing in the previous sense-- it does a good job of alternating periods of stress and release as you move through the game.) Super Mario Galaxy does many of the same things-- it progressively introduces new wrinkles to the game's planet-physics as you move through the galaxies, and also mixes in totally new mechanics and skills-- manta-ray riding, ball-balancing, and the like-- as you go. The changes in the underlying mechanics that evolve over the course of these games conveys a sense of progression to those games that is entirely unique to video games, and this progression is key to the fun because it keeps you engaged in mastering the new rules the games throw at you. Silent Hill 2 produces fear in the player by withholding almost all of the game's mechanics during those opening scenes, which feeds the player's sense of vulnerability and helplessness in the game's opening segments. You desperately want to master the world around you in order to gain some sense of security, and the game systematically humiliates that desire. The pace of your empowerment is the key to the game's success, and I've been enjoying that sense of profound helplessness the game provides.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Step-Ladders and Demon-Traps

Edgar Allen Poe once wrote a piece about his “Philosophy of Composition,” in which he describes the principles that shaped his poem The Raven. He explains that his poetry is not (as many think) the result of the attempt to render some private visionary experience but a matter of carefully constructing a piece that will produce the desired effect on the audience: “Most writers- poets in especial- prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy- an ecstatic intuition- and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes... at the wheels and pinions- the tackle for scene-shifting- the step-ladders, and demon-traps- the cock's feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.” The business of crafting a work of art is all about the prosaic business of jiggering the poem's mechanics-- inserting certain turns of phrase, discarding others-- in order to create the desired impression. The effect of Poe's description is kind of disenchanting: “I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length... Having made up my mind to a refrain... such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant... [in] such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word "Nevermore." In fact it was the very first which presented itself.” I couldn't help but feel disillusioned to learn that the meditation on death and loss-- even the character of the raven itself-- are all there ultimately just to provide an excuse to repeat the sonorous “o.”

I had the opposite reaction to the developer commentary included in The Orange Box, which gives a revealing look at the wheels and pinions behind Valve's classic games. If you enjoy Half-Life 2 or Portal, it is worth it to return to these games with the commentary turned on-- as you play through the game you can activate audio clips in which the game's creators describe the creative process of making the games.

One of the real strengths of these games, as Shawn Elliott has remarked, is the subtlety with which they communicate the solutions to their challenges. The commentary abounds in descriptions of how small environmental cues-- the color of a panel, the placement of a cube-- had been designed to draw the player's attention to the significant elements of a puzzle. In the Portal commentary, designers reveal how they structured the introductory levels in order to gradually teach the player the different aspects of the game's physics that would be necessary to solve the complex later levels. The importance of playtesting is a running theme-- the designers constantly return to how running average players through the levels allowed them to fine-tune the design of the levels and achieve the right level of nuance. All this sheds a good deal of light on how these games achieve their characteristic effects, especially those “aha” moments where the scales fall from your eyes and the perfected shape of a solution comes into view. Because of Valve's dedication to being patient with the player-- their approach to the player is downright courtly-- their games provide a distinctive sense of earned satisfaction when you tease out the underlying logic of a situation. Zelda may have invented these moments, but hearing the commentary you get the feeling that Valve has refined the art of their manufacture to near-perfection.

I feel like these commentaries amount to a sort of master-class in game design (Valve's philosophy of composition, maybe), and they supplement the game's existent pleasures with feeling of recognition that I associate with good games criticism. So much of making your way through a game is a matter of this subterranean sense of things you get-- you know the space under that panel is important, but you don't know why or how you know it-- and the retrospective making-explicit of all this implicit know-how adds something to the experience as a whole. There's just something satisfying about getting a glimpse of the way these excellent games were organized and structured in order create the memorable experiences that they provide.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

O Tempora! O Mores! (pt. 2)

Yesterday I talked some about Benjamin R. Barber's Consumed, and took him to task for having a laughably antiquated understanding of games and for willfully misconstruing the work of Stephen Johnson. But games and the business of gaming are as much a part of American consumer culture as any other medium, and Barber's analysis sheds light on how this culture shapes games for the worse.

There are some obvious targets for Barber's charge of infantilism, of course: The message board culture is famous for its its impatience with civil dialogue and its tendency to reduce conversation to name-calling. Designers of team-based shooters have often complained that it is impossible to get individual players to subordinate their private goals in service of cooperative play. Kid-targeted MMOs are making a killing on turning children into consumers of in-game goods. Spend even a brief amount of time on Xbox Live playing certain games and you are likely to get a dispiriting object lesson in juvenile self-aggrandizement.

But the more interesting implications of Barber's analysis lie elsewhere. His account of branding in modern commerce is an instructive example. As he explains it, there are two different ways to cultivate consumer desire for a product. The first is to offer a product that is functionally different and better than that of your competitors in the market. When capitalism functions this way it fosters competition, and the consequent diversification and improvement of products benefits consumers. However, you can also create consumer demand through branding-- forging a connection between a product and a larger identity or lifestyle through advertising.

The aim of branding is to make the consumer feel that they are choosing their identity when they choose a product: “consumerism has attached itself to a novel identity politics in which business itself plays a role in forging identities conducive to buying and selling. Identity here becomes a reflection of 'lifestyles' that are closely associated with commercial brands and the products they label.” (167) When you walk into a Starbucks, everything that you see and hear in the store-- the music, the furniture, the look of the cups, the decor-- conspires to communicate your selection of a particular lifestyle in your choice of which coffeehouse to patronize. Dunkin' Donuts just as consciously cultivates the counter-lifestyle: you're the kind of person who doesn't go in for all that Starbucks shit. This is branding at work. Another example: I know that the Advil and the cheaper Wal-Profen on drugstore shelves are exactly the same product, and I buy Advil because I have seen it on television.

Branding is a spot-on as a diagnosis of the blight on gaming culture that is the console wars. We all know that there are functional differences between the consoles. They deliver some different games and they have different interfaces and controllers. But we also know that some folks have lost sight of these real differences long ago and forge on because they believe that their choice of console reflects who they are as a person. Such is the power of branding when allied to that innate human tendency which Shaftesbury and Hume called the "spirit of faction." Even though most games critics and reporters chafe at hashing out the minor differences in cross-platform games, and would like to be talking about something interesting instead, stories about these minutiae dominate gaming coverage. The growing consensus is that the biggest story out of E3 this year is that Final Fantasy XIII will be multiplatform. Now, this was a big surprise and there's no denying that this move reveals a lot about the changing economics of game development. But at the end of the day the biggest story out of E3 involved a game that showed absolutely nothing new at the conference: no gameplay, not even a new trailer.

Barber also explains how branding homogenizes the marketplace. Branding stifles innovation and product diversity because it allows companies to spur consumer interest without changing the underlying product for the better. If it is possible to exploit the consumer's brand loyalties in order to sell the same product on a year-to-year basis it is smart business for the companies to do so. The economics of consumer capitalism favor the proliferation of brands around a functionally similar product, and one result is creative stagnation in the arts: “the infantilist ethos tends to homogenize taste and narrow rather than expand variety.” Michael Abbot recently decried the overabundance of shooters at this years' E3, and although I think the genre is in the thick of a golden age (and I sense that both Michael and I are “let a hundred flowers bloom” kind of people) I think he is right that the growth of the industry as a whole has been accompanied by a paradoxical decrease in the range of genres represented. Abbot is right: this represents a misallocation of resources. For every Bioshock there are four or five by-the-numbers shooters released-- the same set of weapons, the same level design-- and the people who made these games could be out trying something new.

I think Barber's analysis of the film industry may point the way out of this situation. The economics of consumerism lead to conservatism and creative stagnation in cinema, but Barber also talks about “Hollywood's capacity, as old as the industry itself, to respond to demands for more challenging and socially or morally engaged films whether or not they are profitable or popular.” (304) Perhaps, like in film, we will see an economic climate where the expertly crafted genre entertainments (the Ocean's Twelves and the God of Wars) will finance the innovative and creatively risky projects (the Solarises and the Heartlands). I hope that the expanding base of adult game-players will create this environment.

There is a final aspect of Barber's infantilization thesis, one which troubles me than the others. Shawn Elliott has complained that game design over the last few years has increasingly favored handholding; that is, the whole architecture of game design-- the structure of opening levels, the invention of “achievements”-- is centered around constantly doling out rewards to the player that indicate that they are doing the right thing, that they are making progress. Jonathan Blow (in a must-read interview with Stephen Totilo), in a similar vein, has said that the constant trickle of rewards given to string the player along in Mario Bros or in MMOs like World of Warcraft is an instance of “unethical” game design. What Elliott and Blow both fear is that, by stringing together “first-order” desires for loot and approval, these games train us to be passive pursuers of one desire after another rather than engaged critics. I have talked a lot on this blog about how I think games turn us into inferential reasoners-- recognizers of patterns, users of rules-- but maybe Barber is right that the underlying aim of the game business is to turn us into consumers.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

O Tempora! O Mores! (pt. 1)

I've been reading the book Consumed, by Benjamin R. Barber, on the advice of Shawn Elliott. I thought the book had a lot of provocative things to say about the culture and business of gaming; some of its criticisms are uniformed nonsense, and some of them not. I want to deal with the former in this first post; I'm going to talk a little bit about its main thesis and then explain how he misunderstands games. In the next post I'm going to talk some about the things I think he gets right.

Barber's central argument is that modern culture has been corrupted by consumerist infantilism, a phenomenon he attributes to late capitalism. Capitalism requires the creation of desires for unneeded products in order to fuel the growth of the market, and infantilism is a cultural mechanism for the manufacture of those desires. In a nutshell, “infantilism” is the tendency of consumer culture to turn children into consumers and consumers into children. It transforms children into consumers by targeting them with advertising, with the aim of making their economic behavior resemble that of adults. It arrests the psychological and moral development of adults by subjecting them to forms of media that inculcate puerile attitudes, primarily thirst for easy, simple, and fast pleasures. It doesn't take much imagination to see where gamers fall into this picture: “consumerism urges us to retrieve the childish things the Bible told us we had to put away, and to enter into the new wold of electronic toys, games, and gadgets that constitute the modern digital playground for adults who, the marked seems to have concluded, no longer need to grow up.” (14)

I have to admit there is an aspect of this argument that hits a little close to home. I have a bunch of plastic instruments in my living room, for chrissake. Like many others of my generation, I've delayed assuming many of the responsibilities of adulthood like marriage and childrearing in order to pursue schooling or our careers. I think many of us worry that that the lives that we have cultivated in the absence of these responsibilities deprives us of the virtues of self-discipline needed to cope with the demands of maturity. These are the anxieties exhaustively cataloged in Judd Apatow's movies-- the challenge for the men in his films is not escaping the world of adulthood (like in The Graduate) but attaining it.

Barber casts himself in the mold of other cultural-jeremiad writers of the last 20 years, most notably Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind reached similar conclusions about the state of American culture from an avowedly conservative standpoint. Like Bloom's book, Consumed has an avowed debt to Rousseau, who had been raising worries of this very kind since the beginning of the modern era, supposing that “The progress of the arts and sciences has added nothing to our real happiness... it has corrupted our morals; and... that corruption has vitiated our taste.” Barber's book is at its best when he draws on the civic republicanism of Rousseau and De Tocqueville in order to articulate his worries about the fate of democratic culture in an economic system built around the unlimited satisfaction of private desire. His advocacy of this tradition is clearly presented and persuasive; he presents the complicated philosophical ideas at work in this critical tradition in a great depth without sacrificing accessibility, which is an achievement.

The long pedigree of his arguments about modern culture, however, also points to the most telling point against them: arguments of this exact form have been raised against nearly every distinctly modern art form. The novel, modern popular music (both jazz and rock), and cinema were all accused of undermining the fabric of society by instilling sensual lassitude in the audience. (The jury is still out on the other great society-destructive medium of the 20th, century, television. But not for long.) Twentieth-Century Marxists of Barber's intellectual stripe, in particular, have a deplorable record on producing unprejudiced views of postmodern cultural forms: Adorno, in a personal nadir, called Jazz a form of ritualized castration.

Barber resembles no one so much as the neo-Marxist cultural critic Herbert Marcuse, whose Freudian analysis of consumer culture as a form of infantile repression he adopts wholesale. Much like Marcuse, Barber makes a set of provocative and insightful observations about the cultural dynamics of capitalism and then proceeds to overstate those observations to such a degree that its makes those original insights look unappealing. Barber also resembles Marcuse in his shrill, humorless tone and his slipshod and uncharitable treatment of his intellectual opponents. Barber's paean to the hard-won pleasures of civility and mutual understanding would be more convincing if his work exemplified these virtues.

His critique of Stephen Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You, is a prime example of this. Barber derides Johnson as a modern-day Pangloss, but Johnson's central thesis that modern forms of media require a relatively high degree of cognitive engagement on the part of the audience is not even seriously considered, much less refuted. Because Johnson's claim runs counter to Barber's central argument, he owes the reader a refutation; instead he asserts that Johnson's work is illustrative of the dangers of critical slumming: basking in the transgressive thrill of shallow consumerist entertainments. There are good criticisms of Johnson's work to be made, but this is not one of them. Johnson's account of fames is, if anything, excessively cerebral: he resolutely stresses the problem-solving element of games over against their immediate aesthetic pleasures.

Because he dismisses Johnson's work without bothering to understand it, Barber rehearses the antiquated criticism that games are exclusively about developing reflexes: “Video games too depend on rapid neurological response and instant reaction to stimuli. Such games are intrinsically tied to the perpetuation of childhood and represent turning adults into consumers of children's commodities... But even as measured by speed alone, intelligence in the world of digital games is associated with rapid firing of extant synapses rather than the forging of new synapses that constitutes traditional associative intelligence.” (100) Leaving aside that fact that Barber offers no evidence for the latter claim (which I might find justifiable had Barber not specifically criticized Johnson for inadequately supporting empirical claims), the conception of games advanced here is just antiquated: it trades on a knowledge of games that begins and ends with Pac-man. Place him in front of the game Civilization (which gets an unearned swipe on page p.7) for a bare three minutes and Barber's argument will begin to look silly.

The ironic thing about all this is that Barber approvingly cites Erik Erikson's description of the function of play, “Play is the infantile form of the human ability to master reality by experiment and planning,” and then goes on to equate this exercise with art: “Adults invent and create by transforming child's play into a grown-up tool, which is an aspect of what artists do, for example.”(84) This is as good a description of what goes on in video games as you will find.

Tomorrow: What Barber gets right.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Gamers are Maximizers of Utility

-- Coletta Factor AKA Spoiler Warning: GTAIV--

Most modern games tell a story by superimposing a narrative logic on the logic of gameplay. The latter consists of the rules in the game-world that define “progress” in the game: how you control your character, how you get to the next level, how you defeat enemies and avoid dying. The former consists of the conventions of storytelling: making characters with cogent motivations and giving them a plot with includes difficulties to be overcome. Because these two governing logics work side-by-side in most games, the player can give two sets of explanations for why she is doing what she does in a game. On one hand you are flipping out and killing hordes of ninjas because it will allow you to clear the next door and move further in the level, and on the other hand you are flipping out and killing hordes of ninjas because those ninjas stole your girlfriend.

Games are successful to the extent that they are effective at conveying (with some degree of subtlety) what you are supposed to do (what counts as success in terms of gameplay) and offers you a set of interesting scenarios in which you pursue that end. For this reason, getting through a game-- figuring out its gameplay-logic-- involves some complicated pieces of means-ends reasoning. You know that you are supposed to reach some room or platform, it's all just a matter of how, and reasoning out the means to that end can be tricky. The story logic, on the other hand, is usually not left in the player's hands. The designers and writers give you bits of story in cutscenes between stretches of play that indicate why the player's character is so bent on killing that horde of ninjas or getting to that platform. Because story isn't left in the player's hands, games are very good at inculcating good instrumental reasoning (how to get ahead in the game-world) but are bad at making the player reflect on the exigencies of character and fate that make for a story.

I bring all this up because I read an interesting article on MTV's Multiplayer blog about a central decision in Grand Theft Auto IV. In the course of the game, the player becomes embroled in a conflict between two of the major supporting characters in the game-- an ex-con named Dwayne and an up-and-coming street hustler named Playboy X. The protagonist, Nico, spends some time assisting each of the two characters in some criminal activity during the game but tries to avoid taking sides as enmity grows between them (Playboy had taken the reins of Dwayne's criminal enterprise while the latter was serving a bid, and Dwayne becomes jealous and depressed when he is not given his leadership role back upon his release) Each of the men asks Nico to kill the other, and then the game tells you that you are to make the choice.

What I admired about this scenario is that the choice carries a surprising degree of moral subtlety. Unlike the clear-cut binary decisions in games, which I decried in a previous post, room is left for ambiguity in the game's presentation of this decision. Both characters are portrayed as men with recognizable virtues and flaws as human beings-- this speaks to the general strength of the scripting-- and the game provides you a well-fleshed-out picture of each character's perspective on their conflict. When I was faced with the choice I thought about how I would make sense of that decision in terms of my understanding of Nico's character and motivations. Maybe there is something inherently corny about buying into the game's fiction this way, but Duncan Moore of Insomniac took the same tack: “I felt a certain empathy towards Dwayne and felt that ‘my’ character was a man who upheld a certain moral code. As cold, decisive, and murderous, as he was, Nico was a man who related to the suffering of his fellow man (at least this was the side of his character I chose to relate to). I just couldn’t put Dwayne down.” I thought that the very fact that the game could prompt this sort of reasoning was an achievement.


The game rewards the player for killing Playboy X: after you kill him, you get to use Playboy's apartment as a safe house. Killing Dwayne gets you nothing. I thought this decision to attach a reward to the choice represented a failure of nerve on the part of the designers; by wedding a gameplay-reward to a decision that ought be governed by one's sense of character and motivation, it turned a moral decision into a straightforward piece of instrumental reasoning. As Tim Schafer reported, “My moral choice was corrupted by [gamefaqs, a site that offers how-to guides for games]. I heard that if you kill Playboy X you get his apartment. So I did, and you do. I have no regrets.” Most of the interviewees mentioned that they thought this gold star affixed to the act of killing Playboy X marked an endorsement of their moral choice, and I thought this gesture ruined the game's otherwise laudable attempts at narrative ambiguity. And it also revealed how much gamers, as a class of people, seem to be guided by a purely instrumental imperative: when presented with a narrative decision, gamers find out the consequences of that act by going to the game's walkthrough and then make the choice that helps you win the game. It's what we've been trained to do.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Jazz and American Game Design

A couple of years ago I read Ted Gioia's History of Jazz. One of the interesting elements of that book was Gioia's insistence that Jazz is an “imperfect art.” While Jazz is typified by a common sound palette and a set of harmonic and rhythmic conventions, Gioia argues that the constitutive element of Jazz music is improvisation-- the expressive power of Jazz comes from the soloist's on-the-fly composition of music during improvised passages in the song's structure. While the song's composer dictates (to a greater or lesser extent) the harmonic framework of soloist's composition, the ineliminable discretion of the Jazz artist with respect to these dictates makes for the romanticism and spontaneity are the marks of genius in Jazz music.

Gioia argues that this friction between song-form and improvisation was the prime creative force in the development of Jazz music. Some artists, like Birth of the Cool-era Miles Davis and his collaborator Gil Evans, sought to achieve the restraint, formal complexity, and compositional closure of classical music within a Jazz idiom. Others (like John Coltrane, and Davis' 60's quintet) made music that emphasized the soloists' freedom; the formal structure of their songs had an open texture and impressionistic quality that allowed the soloist to relentlessly probe and attack the song's harmonic framework. Both of these reactions yielded unforgettable music, but Gioia's “imperfect” label reflects his conviction that these two responses are ultimately irreconcilable and placed limitations on the range of song forms that were possible within the genre.

I thought of this book when I saw some of the comments on my post about “rules and fun” earlier this week. When I was trying to flesh out an aesthetic for games in those posts I had placed all the emphasis upon the pleasures of intuiting the a game's formal structure and of grasping the intentions of the designer through one's apprehension of the game's rules.

Several commenters astutely pointed out that there was something classicist about this aesthetic understanding of games. It skews in favor of games (most of them Japanese-designed) that steer the player towards a specific set of choices and enjoyments. As a model it seems to have a hard time explaining the joys of sandbox style games like the Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto series and role-playing games like Oblivion. In these games, the designer furnishes a large group of tools (abilities, items, expansive environments) to the player and gives them the freedom to choose their problems and devise impromptu and unforeseen solutions to those problems. (This dynamic goes by the label “emergent gameplay.” In the terms of one of my previous posts, we might say this is like giving the player a paintbox rather than a script.) I think these commenters have a real point, since these (mostly American-designed) games best exploit the constitutive feature of games-- interactivity. They allow the player to make many of the most significant decisions, and create their fun through the player's free choice. Like Jazz, they celebrate and foreground the subjective and imperfect contribution of the player to the realization of the work.

These two differing approaches to game design point to a creative tension in many of the best recent games that is like the conflict described in Gioia's assessment of Jazz history. The more formally structured approach of games like Okami or Metal Gear Solid allow for the realization of a definite narrative. In order to achieve characterization, it is necessary for the game's figures to have relatively stable dispositions over the course of the game, and this is hard to achieve while placing all the control in the hands of the player. On the other hand, the unique fun of sandbox games, online multiplayer games like Halo and Team Fortress, and World of Warcraft comes from story that the player tells to herself by using the game's wide palette of rules.

I think these conflicting design imperatives of narrative and interactivity are especially conspicuous in the excellent Grand Theft Auto IV. As I said in a previous post, I think that game is a “problem” game, in the most complimentary sense: the ugly clashing-together of narrative and sandbox elements that mars the game at points is a sign of a game's quest for a higher synthesis.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Gaming Tshirts I have Known

It's been in vogue recently for people to wear t-shirts that advertise their unpleasant personality traits. When I was at Cedar Point (America's Roller Coast!) a few weeks ago, I saw a lot of this: shirts that read “I'm high-maintenance” in rhinestones. Listen, I'm all for reclaiming the pejorative language foisted on you by a benighted public. But if you're gonna do that you want to make sure you're going to bat for a trait that is good for human beings to have, and self-absorption is not going to pass muster.

Gamers wear T-shirts for the same reasons that everyone else does: to mark our cultural territory, inform the world at large that we are pro World of Warcraft. But the label “gamer” still has that pejorative tang to it when it comes to the public at large, so when we go out there in public and represent we want to put our best foot forward.

First off, you want to avoid apparel that is really hideous. Look at fox hunting. That shit was pretty brutal, but a lot of sharp-looking clothes were involved, so the public let it slide. A lot of gaming t-shirt designers like to take a literal approach by just slapping the game's box art on a black shirt. (Seriously: Why so much black?) I prefer stuff that has some interesting design to it. You gotta nerd out proper.

Second, I try to keep the games message a little subtle. Hey, I love fragging noobs as much as the next man. You, me, everybody. We all do. But ask yourself: is this an element of your character you want to foreground? Tell the truth about your love of games, but tell it slant. When you run into people who get the whole context they will appreciate being in on it. I saw a dude wearing a University of Catan T-shirt while jogging yesterday and I gave him the thumbs-up. That thumbs up says it all: “pretty sweet.” That's what it's all about.

And make sure your collar's not too stretched out.

Okay, so this one breaks the rule, because everyone knows about Mario. But it also contains a Rene Magritte joke in the original French, and that screams class.

This one might lead to some misunderstandings, maybe even a few brushes with the law. (I was totally safe in Arizona until '06!) But since Settlers of Catan is on live arcade it will net you some recognition from both the video- and board-game crowd.

I think Penny Arcade makes some great shirts (they relish the in-jokes and also the creative visual style) and I love that they make Guitar Hero look suitably iconic on this shirt. Also, the guitar is on fire! On BLUE FIRE!

The company that makes these shirts also makes really good Mac software. Apparently t-shirts are a sideline for them. I really love Katamari and the ladies say powder blue brings out my eyes.

I have nothing but love for Shadow of the Colossus and I found this one Canadian guy on a blog who makes his own Colossus designs. The desert-like color scheme and the horseman silhouette create a more traditionally “manly,” wild west aesthetic than your average gamer shirt, if you can look past the ginormous stone-monster.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Three Artists in Okami

Thanks go to Michael Abbot for his kind words about my blog yesterday. Michael was also very generous to me when I was starting up this blog, taking time out of his posting schedule to offer some invaluable and detailed advice to a total stranger. When I began my hope was that I could write something that would be worthwhile and interesting to some of the bloggers and game writers whose own work I enjoyed so much.

Also, thanks GameSetLinks!

In a couple of my recent posts I've floated the idea that the satisfaction we get from many games comes from our sense that we are collaborating with the game's designers by learning the rules that govern the game's world, helping to realize a shared set of intentions. The end that these rules leads us towards is determined by the designer, but he has to communicate these rules to the player through the game's design, and being communicated to in a complex and sophisticated way is enjoyable.

Several recent games (Bioshock, Portal, and Metal Gear Solid 2, to name a few) have portrayed this relationship in a sinister light. They depict a situation in which the designer makes all the significant choices, and is set on manipulating the player by creating a world in which she has the illusion of freedom. But I also played a game this Spring that reminded me that game design isn't all about being imprisoned by a hostile demiurge: Clover Studios' Okami.

I see Okami as a game about three artists. The first artist is Issun, a tiny artist/swordsman who accompanies the player throughout the narrative. Since the player assumes the role of the wholly silent and (mostly) unflappable Shinto wolf-Goddess Amaterasu, Issun provides much of the character by playing the Sancho Panza role; he makes laughable passes at life-size dames, throws jibes at Amaterasu, and preens. His character exemplifies all the virtues of Okami's narrative, particularly its slightly ribald sense of humor and mock-epic grandeur. This story is told in a fairly traditional way (through scripted dialogue and cutscenes) but its reimagining of Japanese folklore as a video game breathes a level of charm and imaginativeness into its story that puts even the recent Zelda outings to shame.

The second artist is the player. While the basic gameplay of Okami resembles that of the Zelda series, the game also introduces a new wrinkle into these conventions with its addition of the “celestial brush” mechanic. At points in the game the player can freeze the action on-screen, bringing the swirling multicolored brushwork of the game's environments to a halt. These backgrounds are replaced by an ink-and-paper rendition of the scene, and the player can manipulate the game's world by drawing on it with a paintbrush. (This is hard to convey, but the effect is like Chuck Jones' famous “Duck Amuck” cartoon, in which Daffy is tormented by an off-screen animator.) The player solves puzzles, fights enemies, and navigates her environment by using these brush skills: you draw bridges across impassable rivers, gusts of wind in the air, lilypads on the water. While there are some hiccups in the implementation of this idea, the celestial brush mechanic is a genuine innovation on the mechanics of action/adventure games.

And the third artist is the designer. About ¾ through the game, the narrative takes an interesting turn as you visit Issun's village and the game begins to center on the role of the artist. We learn that Issun's people, a race of artists, are messengers of the Gods, and that the function of art is to inspire reverence for these gods (and, by extension, the natural world they represent) by telling the audience of their benevolent deeds.

When I hit this point in the story I realized that the game's creators had deliberately accomplished this very aim by making the player inhabit the role of the Gods and shape the world through her use of the game's mechanics. The game communicates a set of values (traditional piety and reverence for nature) by having the player act out the illustrious deeds set out in the designer's plan. Okami is not about player choice or freedom; as a game it is largely about figuring out the script that the designer has made for you by learning the world's rules. But when its story and gameplay come together, the wonderful thing about Okami is that you feel as if you are creating a piece of art by sharing your power of choice with an artist, the designer.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rules and Fun

While most video games appear to be complicated reflex tests to outsiders, from the inside they often feel like exercises in problem-solving. As critics like Stephen Johnson have noted, the feature that differentiates modern video games from other games is the fact that the rules of a video game are learned as one plays, rather than stated at the outset. The player progresses in a game by learning the rules that govern the character's abilities in the gameworld: first “if you press A you will jump,” and then “if you jump you can reach the next platform” and then so on. As Johnson notes, learning to master an escalatingly complicated set of rules and apply them to new situations is often really difficult, but it is also intrinsically pleasurable. Not all games are about producing this kind of experience, but the uniqueness of this type of pleasure to video games raises the question: Why do we enjoy learning rules so much?

Johnson's thesis is that our capacity to comprehend constant (or rule-like) features of our outside world and social world conferred an evolutionary advantage on humanity in our ascent from the primates to humans. His view overlaps with that of another philosophical naturalist, Aristotle: “for the exercise of every sense is attended with pleasure, and so is the exercise of reason and the speculative faculty; and it is pleasantest when it is most complete, and it is most complete when the faculty is well-trained and the object is the best of those that fall under this faculty.” (Nicomachean Ethics X, 4, emphasis added)

The German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant offers another explanation of our enthusiasm for rules. Kant's Critique of Judgment holds that our aesthetic judgments come from our appreciation of the form of beautiful objects. Sweet sounds and colors may make an artwork superficially appealing, but our sense of beauty is keyed to the way that these elements are combined: “the charm of colors, or the agreeable tones of instruments, may be added: the the design in the former and the composition of the latter constitute of the proper object of the pure judgment of taste.” (§14) (We can think of this form as the embodiment of a rule, because what rules do is impose a determinate form on unorganized matter.) Kant further argues that it is not just any form whatsoever that inspires aesthetic pleasure; rather, it is our perception that the form of the object has has been shaped in accord with some end. Kant thought this idea explained the delight we take in natural beauty; when we regard a beautiful scene in nature our sense of its beauty is tied to our sense that this nature has been formed according to a intentional plan: “there is in our admiration of nature which in her beautiful products displays herself as art, not mere matter of chance, but, as it were, designedly according to a law-directed arrangement, and as finality.” (§42) Though we know that nature is not really designed to inspire this pleasure in us, and would not be so beautiful if it was, we take a distinct pleasure-- a “disinterested” pleasure-- in the mere apprehension of intelligibility in the world and in art.

I think Kant's explanation of the pleasure we take in the perception of rules can help explain what makes video games compelling. We do not only learn rules during a game but also find out what these rules are for: our uptake of these rules is also the act of learning the design to which these rules are being put. The pleasure of video games, it seems to me, comes from our sense that we are collaborating in the realization of the designer's intentions by learning those rules. When she makes a game-world governed by certain laws, the designer is inviting a player to share an intention with her and participate in the realization of some end. Our appreciation of these rules is like the appreciation of nature in this way. We enjoy perceiving a world shaped by an intelligence towards a final end.

Sometimes this end is just he sheer pleasure of doing the actions the game's rules allow: killing zombies, flipping out on ninjas, and so forth. Sometimes this end is a story told through the player's actions: saving the Princess or vanquishing the dragon Orochi. Games are at their best when they combine these ends together. As long as games continue to offer such experiences they will have a permanent place in our cultural life, because the pleasure they inspire is as old as our minds.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Letter From my Brother

Wow, this blog is hardcord. Keep up the prose.


PS I beat Dodongo with my thoughts, and did not need bombs

How Long 'Till Stairway?

All was quiet on the western front during last week's run-up to E3, but Harmonix was been slowly peeling the shroud off of Rock Band 2; Chris Dahlen posted an extensive hands-on preview for the Onion A.V. Club. As the finished product has (mostly) come into public view, there have been a number of excellent articles handicapping the upcoming bout between the second iteration of Rock Band and Guitar Hero: World Tour.

Because the two series will be functionally equivalent come the addition of drums and singing to the latter, the emerging consensus is that the contest will come down to content. Rock Band has a huge head-start in this respect, but Penny Arcade's Tycho nailed it, I think, when he argued that the fate of the two franchises may turn on the in-game content creator to be included in Guitar Hero: World Tour: “The message this feature sends is incredibly powerful, because it inserts an Infinite value into the mechanism of comparison. I've suggested in the past that this value presents an almost insurmountable obstacle for the review apparatus, where some ultimate "measurement" must be offered. If one game has infinite songs, while the other has finite songs, the reckoning is clear... I am a Harmonix stalwart to the end, but they've been outflanked.” Dahlen, in a follow-up post expressing his desire to keep the boundary between music-participation and music-creation intact, respectfully disagreed about the potential of the tool, noting the fact that “Except in small doses, user-generated content generally sucks.” This line of argument would have been much more persuasive if I had not seen two men pull some mind-blowing sounds out of the Korg DS-10 the week previous. However, I agree with Dahlen's claim to a point: if I have a choice between a theoretically infinite selection of Bluntr0ll0rz69's complete works for guitar and 15 tracks by The-fucking-Who, I am not being confronted with a difficult decision.

But this choice does not exhaust the possibilities, which is why I think the really important question is: How long until Stairway? As was mentioned on the 1up Yours podcast a few weeks ago, we don't know if there's anything in place that would prevent people from putting the in-game track creator to use in order to make unlicensed versions of all the songs and bands that we've been wanting in Guitar Hero and Rock Band for years. I'm betting it's less than 4 days between the release of GH:WT and the first Stairway to Heaven. I am willing to wager N'Gai Croal dreadlocks on this one.

So, I think the best-case scenario for the Guitar Hero adopter is that its music-creation platform becomes a lawless, piratical outland. It manages to sustain a small cadre of users who will dedicate their lives towards turning out ersatz editions of Physical Graffiti and staying one step ahead of the law. If Activision plays it smart they will intentionally make the content-sharing portal difficult to police and hope that they can avoid any legal responsibility for its users' creations. Supposing that you can eke out a respectable sound palette out of the music creator and that people will figure out how to make the note charts fun to play, (and I have no idea if either of these suppositions is likely) I think Tycho has predicted the Chancellorsville of our rhythm-game civil war.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Final Exam

In the latest episode of the podcast 1up FM, there is a great discussion of the game Shadow of the Colossus that starts around about the 1:26:00 mark. I like this Backlog feature of theirs-- they've been playing through the game over the last month, and talking about it as they go along-- because it offers a much-needed outlet for discussion of games after they've been reviewed. As a result, the discussion moves beyond how fun the game is to play (the standard review assessment) and into the way the game influenced the panelists' views about larger questions in game criticism. A perspicuous and reasoned debate ensues in the last ten minutes about the role of narrative in games and the differences between narrative in games and in cinema.

I found all this fascinating because I think that Colossus is a model for how narrative ought to be done. The capacity to convey narrative through interaction is a constitutive rather than accidental feature of the medium. Every time a designer exploits this ability we get closer to finding out what kind of art games are, and what forms of expression are unique to games in comparison to other media.

All this talk about Colossus also inspired me to write about boss battles, because I believe that the game is the culmination of an interesting design heritage. Boss battles were first thought up in the arcades: at the end of a level (or segment of the level) you would run into an enemy that was just bigger and stronger than the rest of the enemies you faced. The boss could take more damage, had more damaging and harder-to-avoid attacks, and so forth. My dominant memory of boss battles during this era was that they were expensive. (I remember that you always had to have a row of quarters ready when you started to fight Krang.)

The first game I remember ever fundamentally altering this formula was the original Legend of Zelda for the NES. At the end of the second dungeon, you were faced with a Dodongo, an enemy that differed from all your previous enemies in kind rather than just in degree. The rhino-looking bosses could not be defeated by normal sword slashes; rather you had to get him to swallow your bombs by laying them out in front of him. You had to figure this out on your own by experimenting with your various items.

This fight, simple on its own, is the seed of two great design ideas, both of which have been developed to an impressive degree of maturity. The first idea is using boss fights to test the player's knowledge of the existing game mechanics and to teach her to apply them in new ways. (You can think of the Dodongo fight as the discovery of a new “rule” for the use of bombs.) In the later installments of the Zelda series, each dungeon would have a series of puzzles and obstacles organized around the use of an item found in that dungeon. And then the boss would be a sort of “final exam” to test your mastery of the new rule the game taught you in the dungeon: you had to use the techniques you've used throughout the dungeon in novel or more complicated ways in order to damage the boss. This template was perfected Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and descends into mannerism in Phantom Hourglass. This approach to boss battles has been a hallmark of the Metroid Prime series, and Okami used this idea to great effect by applying the principle to many of the game's non-boss enemies.

The second design idea nascent in the Zelda fight was making boss battles into puzzles. Beating bosses became not just a matter of moving faster and inflicting more damage, but fundamentally a matter of problem-solving. Just managing to inflict any damage at all became the central challenge of the fights. In the Zelda games you had to keep an eye on your environment and the boss' behavior in order to discover the trick to beating the bosses those games threw at you. Reasoning this solution out produces these “aha” moments-- moments where you recognize the designer's mind at work-- that are Zelda's great gifts to gaming.

I see Colossus as the consummation of this latter stream of evolution. Shadow of the Colossus introduces a minimalist set of game mechanics: riding, shooting arrows, climbing, stabbing. It eliminates all the levels and battles with regular enemies, and substitutes the exploration of a large and mostly featureless world. (This game has extremely slack pacing; it contains some long stretches of eventlessness that would make Andrei Tartovsky proud.) And finally, it constructs a set of meticulously designed environmental puzzles in each colossus encounter. These innovative design choices (along with its beautiful visual style and its subtle approach to narrative) make Colossus a unique experience, even though its basic gameplay ideas are part of a long tradition. It exemplifies a pattern that is true of other works of art: it draws upon the established forms of its forebears and transfigures them into something noone has ever seen before.