Thursday, November 27, 2008

Something to be Thankful For

A while back, my video producer friend Matt made a 3-part series of Heinz commercials on youtube for a competition. They include a meticulously recreated miniature '80s sitcom set, and are pretty amazing. I'm posting them here in an attempt to turn "dis a bunch of gaaahbage" into a meme. check it:

Why the folks over at Heinz didn't pounce on these, I'll never know. Just thinking of the injustice causes a burning falcon of rage to burn in my breast.

If you liked these (and you will), check out his series on the employees of Madison Square Garden:

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The All-Hearsay Holiday Buyers' Guide

The Gang of Four neatly summarize my experience of the winter release schedule:

Most of it's passed me by, since I've spent all this time playing Fallout 3. Forty-Nine unstintingly virtuous hours later I polished off the main quest. I am duty-bound to tell you, as a consumer advocate, that it is a fine game. It has very high playtime-to-dollar and brainworm-to-soundtrack song ratios.

Aside from this Fallout binge (it is less a game than a subtle form of hypnosis) I've played some of that LittleBigPlanet game (verdict: I am just not this game's intended audience) and some Left 4 Dead (verdict: brilliant.) Since I have never allowed my ignorance to get in the way of having an opinion, however, I've decided to conduct a whirlgig tour of the conventional wisdom on this season's notable releases. Call it all-hearsay game reviewing (A near cousin of Mitch Krpata's “User-Submitted Previews”). As a games enthusiast writing on the internet, I'm going to hew to the policy of having my consumer choices decide my critical evaluations: Fallout 3 is the game of the year.

Fable II: Apparently, you can surmount most of the lifestyle-simulator elements by farting repeatedly in the town square, or playing Links for a few hours in the smithy, and this is rather disappointing. But in the end, whimsy carries the day.

Dead Space: David Ellis sez: “Now That's What I Call Survival Horror!” Not so much a game as a compilation, excepting the stuff with the HUD. All the merits and demerits that go along with this description.

Mirror's Edge: An inspired set of core gameplay mechanics in search of a game. Call it Assassin's Creed '08. The mixed critical response to Mirror's Edge led N'Gai Croal to come out of his hiatus and write a great piece on the place of innovation in game design. (Good to see you back, N'Gai!)

Here's my take: First, the fact that most professional reviewers have to assign numbered scores to their reviews (not that they like doing this) feeds into the idea that elements like innovation, graphical design, controls, and the narrative are things that can be assigned specific weights and that the merits and demerits in each area are being weighed against each other to produce an evaluation. And sure, sometimes it's like this, but in most case a critical take is a matter of how these elements work together in an organic whole. Second, there's a reason Portal and Resident Evil 4 are both landmarks of innovation, rather than false starts. It's because their designers built a tightly constructed game around their novel mechanics. Often, but not always, doing this comes down to level design.

Far Cry 2: Apparently, it's what we call a “grower.” Like when I listened to Sea Change the first ten times I wasn't impressed, but then the 11th time rolled around I was like “Whoa, this album is off the hinges, permanently.” You spend all this time wandering around the savannah and trying to repair your jeep and dying of malaria, and you think you hate Far Cry 2, but then at some point it all clicks and you decide it's total genius.

Valkyria Chronicles: This is cheating, because I've actually played the demo, but I have to say that this game is a total sleeper hit. Had I not spent the last 49 hours of my gaming life playing Fallout I would probably be frittering away my latenight hours conducting manoeuvres. Why couldn't this game have come out in March? Sheesh.

Gears of War 2: Over the last few years, the folks at Epic Software have been hard at work building a better meatgrinder. Like Super Mario Galaxy, it shines in the areas that expertly constructed Nintendesque entertainments shine: level design, control, funness.

Ah, making all these uninformed asessments makes me want to buy certain of these games. Alors. I'm off to finish making creamed corn gratin with bacon and onion rings (aka “dishfull o' cononary”) for the Pliskin family Thanksgiving festivities, here in the Cleve. I wish you all a hearty meat coma!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My Adventures with The Turk

I owe my discovery of “The Turk” to Walter Benjamin, who uses him to weave a dizzying thesis about the interrelation of Theology and Marxism: "The story is told of an automation constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet's hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called "historical materialism" is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight." Despite my reservations about the metaphor itself-- it trades on attributing a degree of whimsy to the supreme being that is difficult to square with the tradition. But it turns out that the story of the automaton is the real deal-- it was an ersatz chess-playing Turk made in the late 1700s and pawned off as an authentic robot until it was revealed as a hoax in 1857.

We imagine that there are hunchbacks inhabiting our machines all the time-- many people will swear that their iPod shuffles designedly, calculating its mix in order to pump them up during their workouts. Valve Software's recent zombocalypse shooter, Left 4 Dead, has a feature called the “AI Director,” an algorithm of some kind that dynamically alters the quantity and distribution of zombie attacks in the level based on your performance. When I was playing through L4D last week, my fellow survivors and I quickly fell to speculating about whether the AI director was capable of pity, whether our collective suffering would be sufficient to propitiate his reptile heart. The answer was no, though he can be swayed by turning the difficulty to “easy.”

Evolutionary psychologists have this theory about human consciousness, which holds that the human mind has a “hyperactive agency detection device” (Pithily, HADD) At some point in our emergence from the grasslands we acquired a propensity to perceive the world in terms of agency-- we see the world as if it were guided by an intelligence, as if every change in our environment was caused by an agent of some kind. By keeping us minutely keyed to the environment, the HADD may have helped the first homo sapiens avoid predators. Some philosophers of religion speculate that this evolutionary spandrel may be responsible for the belief in ghosts and spirits. Follow the misfires of our HADD long enough and you can explain why humans came to offering up goats to the big AI director in the sky.

I'm even more dubious of this theory than I am about the marriage of historical materialism to lurianic Kabbalah. However, to bring it back to games, we don't need any barely-empirical brain science to explain our dogged feeling that games put us in contact with a human mind. As Michael Abbott recently noted, the pleasure we get from gaming-- interacting with systems of rules-- is that playing a game is a kind of communication between the designers and the player. Games are an expressive medium because their rules are structured towards an end, because they have certain designs on the player. The reason the AI director seems like a merciless sonovabitch is because some brilliant people at Valve wanted to scare the bejeezus out of us, and keep us playing the same levels over again, and they created a set of rules fit to that end. It's their minds that are hunched inside the base of the robot.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Art-Games, Twitterlurking, and Poetry

A confession. I am an inveterate twitterlurker. My personal life is banal too document, (“There's loose weed on top of the hand dryer in the Peet's bathroom. Ah, Berkeley!”), but I enjoy eavesdropping on other peoples' twitter feeds, largely because I am hungry for more internet when my google reader runs dry, and I like feeling privy to the happenings of certain games-writing paragons. It's sad, I know. But every so often you run across something great, like the Esquire feature on games designer Jason Rohrer I found on Shawn Elliott's twitter feed.

The article is an exemplary piece of games writing. It is economically written. It talks about rules. It explains the artistic dimensions of game design in a clear and straightforward manner. And it talks about games-as-art without any of the exoticism that plagues most treatments of the idea in the mainstream press. (“Game are art? Well, whodathunkit! Here I wuz, thinkin' it was all about shootin' aliens!”) The article also links to Rorher's new game Between, which was commissioned by Esquire for its feature on the Best + Brightest 2008.

Rohrer himself turns out to be an interesting case. He's off living a Thoreauvian existence in a scarcely electrified shack in upstate New York, eating nonstandard cereals and designing art games. (Favorite detail: Rohrer has a renaissance-style patron, a silicon valley captain of industry who's helping keep him in quinoa between paid speaking engagements.) There is a certain earnestness and ungainly romanticism in his portrayal which bespeaks genuine artistic purpose-- like he is making games as part of a larger attempt to come to terms with the world. It's a marked contrast with the recent New Yorker profile of Cliff Blezinski, which implied that his inner life consists of driving cars very fast on the freeway.

Rohrer's games are repeatedly likened to poetry-- “a superb and tightly crafted sonnet,” for example. The choice of poetry trades on the idea that video games will constitute art when they evoke deep emotional reactions. (viz. Wordsworth's definition of poetry: “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings... recollected in tranquility”) I've never bought this “games will be art when they make you cry” argument. (It's taken to an extreme: Rohrer is the first to cry over his game Passage because he sobs while programming it.) Maybe this is one of my idiosyncrasies, but I don't cry during movies that often. The last movie I wept over, I think, was Princess Mononoke on DVD. (I cry during the same scene every time I see that movie, it's just one of those things.) Part of me just distrusts sentiment as a criterion of artistic value. After all, people have been weeping over shabby melodramatic novels and Final Fantasy VII for some time now.

However, the poetry metaphor is sound. The reason is that poetry, for all its emotional directness, is also a relatively abstract form of representation in comparison to prose. Because the use of meter overlays an added degree of form on the syntactical relations of the grammatical phrase, poetry possesses a heightened compression in virtue of its formal complexity. In order to understand a poem you have to take it a part and get a grasp on how it's constructed, how the arrangement of words in metrical form works to evoke a particular feeling or idea.

The same goes for Rohrer's games: their meaning only becomes legible when you reflect on how the various elements of the game relate to each other. (Like, when I played Gravitation, I said to myself, “Why is it that sometimes I could jump really high, and other times I couldn't? And why is it that i could jump higher after playing ball with that other person-shaped block of pixels? Furthermore, what does that mean?” These are the sort of questions you need to ask if you want to get the message.) The visuals are intentionally sparse, just barely representational, and their underlying meaning only begins to take shape when you grasp the deep grammar of the game and think about how the pixelated figures work in concert with the underlying rules of the game.

One theme of the piece is that we lack any models of real artistic success in interactive art. This is only mostly true, but it raises a good question: Is the artistic potential of games best exemplified by abstract tone-poems like Rohrer's work, or by long-form narrative games like LMNO, the EA-backed Spielberg project he's working on? And what if it's neither? What if the pinnacle of game design doesn't consist of using interaction to grapple with life, death, love, hate, poverty, and racism? What if it's all about creating a perfectly tuned death machine?

Despite my resistence to the latter scenario, I've never been as compelled by the five-minute art game as I have been by Shadow of the Colossus, or Bioshock. It's not that Rohrer's work isn't fascinating and thought-provoking; it's just that as an exercise, it stays far from the core pleasures of mastering rules. By the time you learn the rules there's nothing left to do with them. (Games are about doing things with rules.) This is why Braid was such a success, to my mind-- it spun a satisfyingly ambiguous narrative around the core experience of rule-mastery.

So check out the article and patronize your art-game developer of choice. As always, the main obstacle to art is the profit motive, and these men will only make games if we support them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stickin' Together is What Good Waffles Do

Competitive gaming was a staple of my gaming youth. I had a little brother, and we lived through the heyday of the 2-D fighting game together. He quickly outpaced me in any real-life athletic contest, despite the fact that he was two years younger. (I'm fairly certain he was beating me in one-on-one before he hit pubescence) Video games were one of the few fields left where we were equal competitors, and though we were both pretty fierce (The “Detlef Schrempf” incident remains the last recorded instance of physical violence between us), competition was always a source of bonding.

But when I look back at the last few years, many of my best gaming experiences have been cooperative: playing Rock Band with my old roommates and a broad assortment of intoxicated guests (including my esteemed associate Dr. Toaster), beating Gears of War and Halo 3 with my roommate Galen, playing Pixeljunks with my girlfriend.

What all these experiences have in common is a couch. I'm frankly astonished that the golden age of cooperative gaming (including the reign of the greatest cooperative game of all time, World of Warcraft) has come during the era of the online gaming. Say what you want about the inelegance of the split-screen solution, but it's hard for me to imagine great multiplayer gaming (let alone great cooperative gaming) without the ability to gesture at, cajole, interject, and strike your fellow-players.

I've played a lot of Halo on Xbox live in my days, and I will tell you that it is very difficult to get these people to collude. It's not just a matter of the notorious dogged venality+immaturity+anonymity equation that describes most online gaming. Even where the spirit is willing, it's just difficult to collaborate with your fellows when you're locked into first-person: explain where you think “we” should go on the map, orient yourself w/r/t the rest of your team, and reach a consensus on what to do. Even if my combat skills qualified me for a leadership position (which, as the above-referenced service record testifies, they do not), there is this matter of discussing coordination problems with strangers.

It is a testament to the immense ingenuity of the recently-released Left 4 Dead that almost all of these problems inherent in online cooperative gaming have been addressed. Valve, the game's developer, has approached these difficulties as design problems, and addressed them as such. It's tempting to think that the low quality of common-grade online gaming is the player's fault, and this certainly is true. We're inconsiderate sons of bitches, to a man. But Valve adheres to the “it's not the players, it's you” philosophy of game design, and this shows.

For me, one of the biggest hurdles to collaboration in the first-person perspective is orientation. Sometimes I feel like the first-person perspective itself has an ethical valence; it prevents you from seeing the world from others' perspective in such a way that the challenges of working together can be prohibitive. But Left 4 Dead has elegant solution: you can see the other players' silhouettes, outlined in a glowing aura, through walls. This isn't realistic, but it is a perfect solution to the mutual-orientation problem. The color of the aura itself conveys important information on the other characters' status when they're in a situation that requires your intervention: when they're low on health, when they're trapped by a hunter, when they're trapped by the horde.

And the game is conspicuously rife with situations that force you to look out for each other. Aside from the obvious hunter-and-smoker traps which require others' intervention, there are also setpieces that allow you access to a mounted minigun. The problem with this immensely powerful weapon is that you can't cover the whole range of the scene; in order to use it effectively one or more of your teammates needs to cover your flank. In the short time I played we quickly found ourselves covering the entry points.

The game's vaunted AI director system isn't just there to provide replayability, either; it's an integral tool of the cooperative concept. Each time you run through the level, some covert dwarf chessmaster hiding in the game's code rearranges the frequency and placement of the zombie attacks. Because you can't anticipate where the next attack is coming, from you are reliant on your teammates to cover all the angles. Your weapons are fairly powerful on their own-- the assault rifle is capable of stacking zombie corpses like cordwood if you can anticipate bottlenecks. But the unpredictability of the zombie mob mitigates against the power of the weapons, and this in turn cements your reliance on the other survivors. Much as in real life, the arbitrary hazardousness of the outside world nurtures the connections between individual actors.

What I learned from Left 4 Dead is that a harsh enough world can throw anyone together. When an unforgiving cosmos contrives to unite you all together an admirable esprit de corps can flourish, even on the Internet. (The ten-year olds I was playing with last night suggested that we come up with a “gang name,” and I'm taking this as a testament to the quality of the game's design.) If the Barack Obama presidency fails to unite us as a country, I'm going to hold out for a fast-zombie apocalypse.

Monday, November 17, 2008


So, I heard about this trailer on the Idle Thumbs podcast, which features both original music and the dulcet tones of Chris Remo. Apparently it's from an early-oughts Dreamcast title, which explains the references to "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," but not the inclusion of the word "shit" in promotional material. My ladyfriend and I were having a quarrel about whether this video's humor is intentional or unintentional. You be the judge:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Da Art of Storytellin' (pt. 1)

***Coletta Factor: Tangential plot spoilers for Fallout 3 below***

Modern role-playing games face storytelling challenges different from those of other genres. It's hard enough to craft a one story well in a video game; we have precious few examples of games which make effective use of the narrative tools unique to the medium, telling a story in such a way that the player's actions play a central role in its unfolding. The most successful game narratives have focused on a single relationship established through collaborative gameplay mechanics. This template won't hack it when it comes to creating a role-playing game, because we expect that every town will have its own story, its own cast of characters.

Virtually every traditional RPG has conveyed its narrative through either cutscenes, dialogue trees, or both. When you enter a new town, the player knows that her job is to wander about querying every dude in sight, wading through their menu of responses until they hit upon the significant bit of information they are supposed to discover. This approach can pay off: Planescape Torment, for example, had a dialogue-tree system wordy and dense that your interactions gradually coalesced into a thick description of the world, one that pleasingly verged in interactive fiction. Nearly every character had a different narrative register and a different perspective on your character and the events around you. But this strategy hasn't been successfully replicated, because the limits on graphical power and voice acting favored Planescape's brand of text-centric storytelling. And beyond this, there's no getting past the fact that your interaction in the dialogue-tree model still inevitably boils down to clicking boxes, and the artificiality of this mode of interaction is fundamental to the dialogue-tree model.

Fallout 3 has staked out the rudiments of a new solution for storytelling in role-playing games. While the game still uses the old dialogue-tree model for conversations (replete with the wooden animation, fixed camera angles, and pre-scripted dialogue choices, conventions that Mass Effect should have rendered archaic), its innovations lie in the potential of its to environmental storytelling.

I wouldn't have anticipated the seeming inspirations for this technique: two first-person shooters. Valve's Half-Life series pioneered the participant-observer model of video game storytelling. All the events of the plot unfold in front of the player's eyes; all you know of Gordon Freeman is what you see mirrored in other characters' reactions. Without any player-initiated dialogue and without any cutscenes, you learned about the world and other people through active observation. The animation and voice acting were so well-executed that you would pick up on elements of the story by paying attention at the nuances of body language and delivery. (Because the game was in first person, you would even follow a conversation by turning your head from person to person, the way you would real life.)

Bioshock took this idea further by making greater use of the environment to suggest a story. While the game's audio logs are its most powerful storytelling device (Fallout smartly borrowed this idea as well), Bioshock also managed to convey a with its spaces. You would walk into a room, and just by looking at the tableau you could tell what had happened: a mass suicide, an aborted new-year's-eve bash, a lethal domestic dispute. The mere placement of objects in a room would lead you to draw the desired inference. This style of storytelling puts the onus the player-- you have to actively look around, observe and interpret in order to apprehend the narrrative. Observation has a dynamism and feeling of discovery to it that mere text, for all its expressive capacities, can't produce.

The most memorable moments in Fallout 3 come from these episodes of environmental storytelling. While I mentioned some examples in a recent post, (christ almighty, this is turning into the all-Fallout blog. Apologies all around.) I'll give another here: while I was wandering the wasteland I stumbled onto Vault 108. In the Fallout series, every vault has a story, and the story of Vault 108 was told without any dialogue. There was bloodstained walls, the corpses of some unlucky wasteland interlopers, a cloning lab, and a pack of identical, jumpsuited men named Gary. You could hear Gary 43 call to Gary 32 in the halls before they both set upon me with knives: “Gary. Gary? GARY!” I missed the holotape with a recording of the backstory until my final round of the premises, but even without this explanation I knew the deal: I had stumbled upon the revolt of the Garys.

We complain a lot about the dominance of shooters on the consoles, but I think the narrative design lessons from the first-person-shooter golden age are beginning to cross-pollinate. The first-person perspective has its own unique storytelling capacities, its own way of involving the player in the unfolding of a narrative, and Fallout 3 is a step towards its fruition in the RPG genre.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gaming and Money

Gaming is an expensive hobby. If you're like me, and you have a innate thirst for variety, it's difficult to keep up a gaming habit without beggaring yourself. Leaving aside that console hardware is muy caro (does anyone remember that the PS3 was five hundred dollars at launch?), every other item involved in gaming is ten dollars more expensive now than it was the previous colsole generation. And if you've been paying attention, real wages haven't been keeping up with inflation for some time now.

Ah yes, and there's also the matter of that global economic meltdown we've been hearing so much about on the news. (Okay, okay, the one I would be hearing about on the news, were it not for the fact that all my knowledge of national affairs comes from what I can glean by watching Oprah.) But even if your employment prospects aren't getting snookered by the liquidity crisis (the term hiring freeze is destined to be part of the spooky campfire tales that graduate students tell their children), odds are you would benefit from some belt-tightening. So, I have some words of wisdom on this front.

1) Make a Spreadsheet: I don't mean to get all Suze Orman on y'all, but financial planning is only path to spiritual wholeness and reconciliation with your estranged father. But seriously, make a spreadsheet, stick to it. I've budgeted myself $45 bucks a month for games and I've stuck to it, I don't think I've missed out on anything.

2) Play Old Games: I loves me some new games. Fresh, topical games. But buying every new release on launch day is a one-way ticket to penuryville (population: you). If this season's ridongculous release schedule has taught us anything, it's that noone has the financial or temporal resources to navigate the release calendar. I've made some tactical forays into the new releases (Fallout 3, LittleBigPlanet, and Rock Band 2 made the cut), but beyond that I've seen that holding off can net big discounts. The big outlets like Gamefly always have too many copies of the AAA titles, and if you hold off for a six months or so you can get these games at 1/3 their cover price .

And those old games aren't getting any less good. They're only getting cheaper. I've been playing Killer 7 the last few weeks; it set me back 8 dollars on ebay. Ditto with Fallout 1&2. If you're at all like me, there's scads of top-shelf titles you've missed out on during their four-month bell curve; odds are that many of them are laying in that pile next to your gaming system already. Summon this pile of shame to mind next time you are within purchasing distance of new games. Imagine that your mind is a deep, still pool of water.

3) eBay, not Gamestop:I can't think of a suitable metaphor for Gamestop's conduct w/r/t the consumer that does not involve sexual assault. Never sell them your games. Gamestop's used-game trade-in business is a racket that would make Jimmy Hoffa blush like a Lousiana d├ębutante. Selling your old games and systems on eBay, on the other hand, is a good deal.

Fellow video game collector, your fetishism is understandable. To this day I remain compulsively attached to nearly every book I own, even the ones I actively despise. (I'm looking in your direction, Tropic of Cancer.) I tell myself I will want to reread them in the future, to but this is patent mauvaise foi. The benefits of self-overcoming in the case of your video game collection fetishism are substantial. Selling off games after you've completed them on eBay goes a long way towards defraying the cost of new stuff. I was intimidated by selling stuff online but the people at eBay have conspired to make it extremely easy. Hit up Staples for some padded envelopes and you're in business.

4) Don't Frequent Places Where you Might Purchase Games: My girlfriend is really into the food industry, and she reads all these books about how food industry conducts psychological warfare on the consumer by subtly manipulating the disposition of products in the supermarket-- the size and shape of the packaging, the placement of the products on the shelves. I am 100% certain that these same scoundrels who embarked on this program of hypnotism-through-product-arrangement have unleashed their reams of empirical research on the arrangement of game stores. Basically don't enter the places unless you have something specific in mind. Idly perusing the shelves gives the mind-control gas time to take effect.

5) Credit Card Debt is Deadly Poison: That is all.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The World's Your Oyster

Whatever your opinion of Bethesda's hit fantasy role-playing game Oblvion (and it is an immensely divisive title), there is a moment in the game that is indelibly etched in the memory of everyone who has played it. After being confined to a narrow, and rat-strewn prison in the game's first hour (fulfilling the industry-mandated quota on first-hour rat-slaying in RPGs), you step out of the dungeon and into the the most impressive vista created in a video game. A glimmering expanse of grassland and forest stretched in all directions, as far as the eye could see. Even though the game would never live up to the immense feeling of promise that greeted your first steps out of the prison, to this day I have an unshakable conviction that Oblivion had achieved a wholly new experience of space in a video game, one that justified the technical leaps necessary to its achievement.

As much as I enjoyed the mind-boggling expansiveness of Oblivion, my enthusiasm for exploring its world eventually foundered on the game's patent schematism. Oblivion had an respectable variety of locales-- cities, caves, ruins, forts, castles and the like-- but once you had spent a good amount of time in the world you came to recognize that the world had been created by continually recycling a set palette; once you had seen one goblin-infested fortification you had seen them all. Even though you could walk for forty-five minutes in any direction, you eventually ran out of novel scenery. The designers' decision to scale the enemies to the player's level was a necessary hedge against the player's eventual exhaustion of the game's assets.

For me, Fallout 3 finally fulfills the promise of those first steps out of Oblivion's prison. Even though Fallout makes the same liberal (re)use of generic items (it's impossible to shake the feeling of deja vu when you unearth abraxo-cleaner-and-wonderglue-strewn room # 438), I have been continually impressed by how the game nurtures a sense of boundless possibility, a feeling that belies the palpable limits of the game's suite of in-game objects. For every cookie-cutter factory or sewer (and there are more than a few), there is something genuinely new and interesting-- a mercenary camp, an abandoned school, a decrepit power station, a high-rise full of prostitutes. Even the generic Metro stations (whose uniformity is excused by the fact that they are well-wrought simulacra of the actual D.C. Subway system) are strewn with small of unique content-- faux vampires, deranged clowns, and inexplicably well-defended wall safes full of scanty nightwear.

And due to my aversion to the main quest, I haven't even run across the truly ubiquitous features of Fallout 3's postapocalyptic D.C., like the crumbling, debris-strewn National Mall. For all its expansiveness and sheer density (I'm still impressed by the fact that you could read every book), the world of Oblivion was fundamentally uninteresting to me on its own terms: the races, creatures, and environments were such regulation Tolkienesque-fantasy fare. The wedding of the Fallout series' distinctive design aesthetic to the open-world design ethos of Bethesda is a happy one-- the signs, the style of the ruined automobiles, the radio stations, the whole faux-retro cultural imprint taken as a whole is just more compelling to me, and the sense of place is reinforced by innumerable apt details. Unlike a goblin fortress, it offers me something I haven't seen before.

The designers, seemingly inspired by Bioshock, have done a good job of telling a story through the player's mere experience of space. I went down into a shelter in the downtown area yesterday, and though it was barren of life, the disposition of the objects in the bunker spoke volumes: the head of a statue, a garishly illuminated flag, a set of female mannequins covered with plungers, a dessicated corpse on an operating table.

It's true that the character animations and voice acting are not the game's strong suit, but harping on this point too much obscures the fundamental fact that the game's most memorable character is the world itself. If the interactions with other people fall flat at times, my desire to interact with the irradiated landscape has yet to run dry; indeed, I'm beginning to wonder if there is any real upper limit to my desire to aimlessly wander the wastelands with my trusty pup Dogmeat, aiding the weak, scavenging ammunition, and gorily shattering the crania of the odd raider. For now, there's no end in sight.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Consulting the Oracle: Miyamoto on the Flavor of Fun

The New Yorker ran a profile of Cliff Blezinski, designer of the game Gears of War, in a recent issue. I wasn't fond of the piece; in its zeal to show the artistic merit of the medium, it ends up casting Gears of War as a wistful meditation on the ambiguities of homecoming. Gears is a fine game, but it's no Rachel Getting Married. We're not doing anyone any favors by pretending that our smartly constructed mass entertainments are think-pieces. A sample of its routine overpraise: “The world in which the action takes place is a kind of destroyed utopia; its architecture, weapons, and characters are chunky and oversized but, somehow, never cartoonish. Most video-game worlds, however well conceived, are essenceless. Gears felt dirty and inhabited, and everything from the mechanics of its gameplay to its elliptical backstory was forcefully conceived, giving it an experiential depth rare in the genre.” Gears is pretty, to be sure, but “elliptical” is an incontestably generous descriptor for its narrative, especially when "cartooish" and "essenceless" lie a mere sentence away, readily at hand.

The article takes its title from one of its more effective passages: “Growing up playing games, [games designers] absorbed the governing logic of the medium, but no institutions existed for them to transform what they learned into a methodology. Gradually, though, they turned a hobby into a creative profession that is now as complex as any other. They have established the principles of a grammar of fun.” I like the idea of “grammar” as a metaphor for the practice of game design, if only because it accords so closely with my own sense of what makes games fun.

Sometimes I think that the grammatical form of games is essentially interrogative: games pose problems to us, and the fun comes from figuring out how we're going to solve it. It's a testament to the richness of modern game design that the question “how am I going to kill this dude?” has lost little of its original luster. I think this is because this query always points to a deeper question, which is (unexpectedly) more compelling than the first: “what are the rules of this world?” To me there is something elemental about the feeling of discovery that goes along with learning rules, because in disclosing its rules, a game also discloses a world to the player.

But this whole fun-as-the-discovery-of-grammar idea runs aground on an inescapable counterexample. Aside from creating the two greatest series in the history of games, Mario and Zelda, the designer Shigeru Miyamoto has also overseen the development of the Nintendo Wii platform and was the lead designer on Wii Fit. Simply put Miyamoto can lay claim to knowing more about video-game-fun than any other human being on the planet.

Stephen Totilo ran a great three-part interview with Miyamoto last week, and what I learned from Miyamoto is this: fun is not a form; fun is a flavor. When he was describing his design philosophy he made an analogy with cookery: “There are certain elements of cooking where if you’re able to find a very delicious ingredient... often times the chefs are more interested in finding the most delicious ingredients they can find and cooking those in a way that really highlights the inherent deliciousness of the ingredient. And that, I feel, is our job in game design.” As Robert Ashley once said, Miyamoto creates a world out of fun. they build an entire world out of jumping, like they did in Mario 64. This is also, I think, why so many Wii games have managed to create short, fun activities (your WarioWare model) but utterly failed at what the other consoles excel at: creating cohesive, compelling worlds.

That “how does it move you?” tagline from the ads isn't all marketing cant. It's a guide to Miyamoto's philosophy of game design. I wrote a while back about how the joys of Nintendo's games are irreducibly kinaesthetic, and I think that the company's recent path shows their fundamental commitment to thinking of fun as a bodily event, something that happens to you when you pick up the controller. Nietzsche wrote that “we listen to music with our muscles,” and it's a description that works just as well for the kind of art that Nintendo creates: closer to music, or poetry, than to literature. (N'Gai Croal hit upon much the same idea when he wrote that we understand games with our hands.) (This is why Sony went to wrong with the Sixaxis motion control on the Playstation 3: they took the input device without understanding the design philosophy that goes along with it; as a result their games fundamentally lack the immediacy of their rivals'. In their defense, Boom Blox is to my mind virtually its only successful third-party implementation on the Wii itself.)

The near-absence of Nintendo's imprint from the holiday game season has been a curious phenomenon to me. Wii Music looks to be a misstep; it seems that the fun of Rock Band is equal parts music and movement, and Wii Music only realizes the latter. But when I look back on the games I've enjoyed the most this fall I keep coming back to Pixeljunk Eden, a game that is the quintessence of Miyamoto's ideal. You can't play Eden without participating in the momentum; it's the fundamental contagiousness of its motions that make it so compelling. This isn't grammar, but Miyamoto reminds us that fun is more than syntax.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Brief Interruption

We interrupt your regularly scheduled Lacanian analysis of Ninja Gaiden for the following message:

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