Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I Was on a Podcast!

About a month ago, loyal VCCL reader, eminent game scholar, and beard enthusiast Charles Pratt agreed to have me onto his gaming podcast, Another Castle. If you don't already listen to this podcast, you really should: given the roster of game development luminaries and accomplished scholars that have already been the show the presence of this semidefunct games-blogger is, er, pretty incongruous. Me, I was just pretty psyched to get a free Kirin and appear in a forum whose previous two guests were Eric fucking Zimmerman and Heather fucking Chaplin. Holy Christ!

I really enjoy arguing with Charles, and this podcast is pretty representative of the class of things we like to gab about, such as the nature of reality. Check it out!

King of Aughts: The Shock of the New

Never forget: Somebody invented Tetris. In June of 1984, a new light dawned on the world. Tetris was not a simulation of some extant human activity; when those blocks descended from the top of the well, something theretofore unimagined came into being. Especially in 2009, a year defined by its parade of ocassionally-ingenious incremental refinements, we must celebrate the new. This is no time to cheer retrenchment.

Grand Theft Auto III
Even now, it is not difficult for me to summon up the wave of awe that I felt on first playing this game. One representative detail is burned into my mind: there were radio stations. Not only could you walk on a street and get into a car, but that car was connected to a wholly fictional radio network. While the later games in the GTA series better achieve the perverse environmental sensibility that the first open-world GTA groped towards, there is no downplaying the fact that that wonder, the thrill of jumping in and out of cars and driving around a populated cityscape, was the maybe the most impressive thing that happened in a video game this decade. All I know is, I wasn't playing much during late nineties, and it was putting this game into a rented playstation 2 in winter of '01 that got me thinking: I should keep an eye on these video games. So, GTA 3 was my personal road to Damascus moment when it comes to computer generated entertainment. Feel free to allot blame accordingly.

Katamari Damacy
God bless Keita Takahashi. Seriously. Katamari Damacy is a game of only one idea. But what an idea! This game would have been revelatory for its wholly unique mechanic and playful manipulation of scale, a work of genius even without the dadaesque sensibility that informed the gameplay: the panicked shrieks of innocent children and livestock, the batshit crazy king in the sky, the continuous splendid parade of visual nonsequitur.

Rock Band

To think: how happy we were in '07 to be onanistically plunking away at plastic guitars. Perfecting our run at Buckethead's Jordan. Make no mistake, I loved that shit. We just didn't know any better. Rock Band wasn't the mere accretion of supplemental prosthetic enjoyments. It took the core pleasure of Guitar Hero, participating in the creation of music, and brought a wholly novel feeling of collective achievement. It unlocked in me a previously unknown, burning desire to croon in a semipublic forum. It added drums. It was the most fun I had with a video game this decade. Just watch the video. Look how happy these people are! And the they are right.

WarioWare: Twisted!
I am continually amazed by Nintendo's uncanny grasp of the basic elements of play. When it published its first collection of microgames for the GBA, we confronted a shuffled deck of primordial gameplay elements, sheathed in an absurdist casing and revealed under duress. WarioWare posed a novel challenge to its players: "figure out what this game is! You have three seconds!" Twisted!, the second game in the series, gets the top nod for the way it expanded the number of verbs at hand. Furthermore, physically rotating a gameboy is the way that world 1-1 of Super Mario Brothers was meant to be played.

Boom Blox
To me, Boom Blox is the first and maybe the only Wii game that made optimal use of the gestural possibilities afforded by its hardware. An accelerometer bestows myriad potential actions, and it just so happens that hurling objects with physics at blocks and cubical beavers is the best among them. Layering puzzle elements and a marvelous version of Jenga into this formula only heightens the impressiveness of this seemingly obvious discovery.

World of Goo
I must admit that I had not given much thought to the gameplay potential of adhesion. The virtual representation of physics was a mainstay of this decade's games, but World of Goo stands apart for the way it devised an innovative game around the pedestrian idea of structural engineering. If that were not enough, the game spins a delightfully indirect yarn throughout the course of the game and continually introduces novel gameplay wrinkles into its basic recipe. As the game develops, you are always doing something new with your brain, and that is a mark of great design.

Friday, November 27, 2009

King of Aughts: Preamble

I am a believer in lists. And not just the exuberant catalogue-- no, I am a believer in rank. A lot of sane people will tell you that pleasure in general and the pleasure of videogames in particular is an irreducibly private phenomenon, and that definitive judgment has no place in our commerce with art. De gustibus non disputandum. I am not one of these people. I think that video games are things, and that there is a difference between good things and bad things. This is why we make lists about them.

However, I also believe that it's madness to affix numbers to a decade's worth of creative effort. Why? Well, it's because I am a pluralist, and I have think there is more than one kind of excellence in this world. Just as there are diverse virtues that belong to human beings-- one can be a good soldier, or a good scholar, or a good politician, or a good husband, though rarely at once-- there is more than one way to be an excellent work of art. The heterogeneity of goodness is one reason we are inclined to think that artistic taste is only subjective.

This heterogeneity is especially critical when it comes to games. The video games are a hybrid medium-- they're both systems of rules and systems of representation. It's entirely possible for either element of this alloy to be independently magnificent. While I think the happy marriage of these two members is the manifest destiny of the artform, as critics we should find it our duty to appreciate both artistry and design.

So, in the name of these principles the good ship Clu is going to steam out of drydock and praise the shit out of some video games over the next few weeks. I've been thinking about doing an end-of-decade list for a while, and I've ginned up some categories designed to capture the manifold ways that games are good. At this point, I am also prepared to promise some blurbs. Blurbs as far as the eye can see.

Bear in mind: I am a total charlatan when it comes to video game criticism. For about four out of ten years in this decade I didn't play many video games at all. I don't own all the console systems and I've probably played less than a dozen PC games to completion this decade. (Baldur's Gate II? I barely knew 'er) My frame of reference is not to be trusted.

Finally, dear readers, I entreat to you distrust anything anybody ever says about art. Stephen Deadalus advised us rightly: “Beauty is a blank wall with Post No Bills.” Play, in particular, is the most anarchic of human pleasures. What kind of fool goes about trying to yoke joy under laws? Iroquois Pliskin, that's who.

Monday, June 22, 2009

So Close!

Mirror's Edge is a curious case: the game that gets exactly one thing right. I may have spent some time in the past prattling on about the idea of a Gesamtkuntswerk, but the bald truth is that in most circumstances a video game can get by, critically speaking, through dogged adherence to just one successful gameplay concept. Take Crackdown. That game has almost nothing going for it: no narrative to speak of, a charmless and weirdly depopulated open world, janky driving, mediocre graphics etc etc. But then, there is the jumping around on buildings and shooting. That is all it takes, folks.

The cardinal achievement of Mirror's Edge is how effectively it creates the feeling of inhabiting a fleet human skull, rather than a steadicam. While so many first-person games give this dogged feeling that the smooth arc of a camera boom is being made to simulate animal locomotion, Mirror's Edge just nails the feeling of momentum, the sensation of weight in your movements, the subtle but increasingly palpable bob of the head as you gain speed. First-person platforming has been attempted before, and effectively at that (remember Jumping Flash? 'course you do!), but it's never been done in a way that does justice to the particularities of embodied vision. Mirror's Edge shines in these small gestures towards perceptual realism: the way the world swirls around your head when you make a tumbling landing, the way it swims in front of your eyes as you plummet to your death.

To me, it is astonishing that the designers of Mirror's Edge apparently managed to mistake these core pleasures that their game offered. Prince of Persia's no-death mechanic (actually an unusually dense checkpointing system) was maligned at release for being a sop to the noobs, which it was, but it also had a positive function: the impossibility of failure incentivized throwing yourself headlong through the environment as fast as you could. Prince of Persia is most successful when you fell into a rhythm and were able to whip past the lush scenery in top gear.

The heights of Mirror's Edge are even better: you're booking across the rooftops, looking around for the next legible piece of the environment, navigating the world at a such a terrific pace that you lose the habit of conscious reflection. While the path through its roofops are almost as linear as Persia's consistently funnelish pathways, your elevation and the breadth of your field of vision in Mirror's Edge lends a unique feeling of grandeur and freedom to the business of running and tumbling and losing the fuzz.

Which all makes it, again, so baffling that the game's mechanics seem to actively deter you from falling into this insanely pleasurable flow. The “runner's vision” environmental color-coding is an excellent technique for making the environment instantly readable, but the platforming is too finicky to engage in without the prospect of failure. Chris Dahlen put it best: “I’d say that its core problem is that it looks like Rock Band 2 but plays like Mega Man 9; you want to settle in and enjoy the thrill, but imagine if Rock Band stopped the song every single time you hit a bum note.” While Prince of Persia was too generous, rewarding you if you jumped in the general direction of the next platform (which gave rise to the otherwise-curious comparison of the game to an extended quick-time event), Mirror's Edge is too exacting: lining up your jumps requires too much precision. (This is doubly the case when your destination is a vertical pipe or horizontal bar.) It's too hard to make the tricky jumps on your first try, which brings the game to a grinding halt; this turns the game into a frustrating trial-and-error affair and ruins the best aspects of its gameplay.

As for the elements of the gameplay that do not directly involve running and jumping and shaking the fuzz, the less said the better. I think the game's Spartan visual aesthetic is praiseworthy, but the bleached fascism of the environments is so uniform that the individual spaces lose any feeling of specificity (the “shopping mall,” for example, looks like another deserted skyscraper atrium). The gameplay elements that are meant to modulate the basic platforming are atrocious: the combat is an abomination, an active deterrent to enjoyment. (I recommend the “easy” setting, which reduces, but does not eliminate, the frustrating interactions with law enforcement.) The narrative is forgettable and poorly delivered. Despite frequent stabs at variation (an absurdly simplistic battle with an enraged wrestler, a “sniper” mission, and a surprisingly uninteresting battle against a posse of fellow "runners."), Mirror's Edge never succeeds in creating any satisfying variety in its gameplay. The level design deserves a special dishonorable mention: the spatial arrangement of the environments often makes it difficult to distinguish makeable jumps from impossible ones, and the “jumping puzzles” in the interior levels were uniformly tedious and unintuitive.

All this is a shame, because Mirror's Edge is very close to being a fantastic video game. The failure of Mirror's Edge reminded me of an interview that Shigeru Miyamoto gave to Steven Totilo, in which he said the only revealing thing I've ever heard Miyamoto say about the craft of game design: “I liken it almost to cooking. There are certain elements of cooking where if you’re able to find a very delicious ingredient, all you have to do is put a little bit of salt on it. Then you cook it and it tastes amazing... 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.” To follow up on the analogy: the designers of Mirror's Edge drowned fresh sweet corn in the awful sauce. Maybe they'll get it right next time around.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Review

Gears of War II

Platform: Xbox 360 Developer: Epic Software Publisher:Microsoft

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

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

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

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

The Takeaway: Are you not entertained?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Courtesy Gruntzooki's flickr

GDC09: Casting a Pod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 2, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under Construction

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

Monday, March 30, 2009

I Went to the GDC and I Learned How to Make Broad Cultural Generalizations

Hello and welcome, loyal VCCL readers! I apologize for the unprecedented period of radio silence over here, I spent the last week attending the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. I've got all manner of reportage I'm working on, and I can promise you that this reportage is simmering in an aromatic broth even as we speak. I'm gonna give that GDC coverage a nice braise until the connective tissue loosens and it slides right off the bone. I have copious notes. Stay tuned.

The GDC was my first time encountering game developers in the wild. I've read some fantastic blogs written by developers-- Steve Gaynor's Fullbright and Clint Hocking's Click Nothing-- but otherwise I haven't heard many actual game creators discuss their practice.

My impression was that while game designers are a generally whimsical bunch-- irreverent, enthusiastic, irregularly clad and ill-shaven-- they exhibited a clear-eyed sobriety when it came to the craft of game design. They could describe the process of design in clean, functional terms: in this game we wanted the player to feel this way towards this character; we wanted the player to cooperate with his team members; we wanted the game to have a certain pacing. With these aims in mind it came down to knowhow and trial-and-error: we tried this and it didn't work, we tried this other thing and it worked better. The game makers I heard speak often showed an impressive command of how to manipulate the various elements of the game's design-- lighting, game mechanics, level design, sound, controls, UI-- in order to achieve the desired effect.

Maybe this is a cultural thing, because the talks given by Japanese developers displayed none of this pellucid clarity. Mike Abbot wrote about a panel with marquee Japanese designers Fumito Ueda and Goichi Suda, and his overriding impression was that these men were fundamentally inarticulate about the magic of the creative process: “Watching Ueda today, I saw a designer who struggles to articulate his philosophy of design, as if he were being asked to elaborate on something that requires no elaboration. At various points in the discussion he appeared at a loss for words, often deliberating on a question before finally answering it with a few basic and seemingly obvious observations.” Keita Takahashi, the designer of Katamari Damacy and now Noby Noby Boy, gave a talk that was a celebration of whimsy-- a catalogue of his creative frustrations, unusuable ideas, and miscellaneous opinions. (His description of his recent opus: “Noby Noby Boy' is a ticket to go to a festival to change the solar system.”)

Perhaps this is not a matter of geography so much as sensibility. Suda Ueda and Takahaski were artists-- sculptors, painters, conceptual artists-- before they were game designers. Like Shigeru Miyamoto, who seems incapable of describing his creative process except through an occasional gnomic utterance, they gestured towards the irreducible mystery of inspiration when asked to describe the task of game development. Suda's explanation that "I go the the bathroom to poop, and I get ideas." seemed like a reductio ad absurdum of the mysteries of artistic inspiration. The challenge is about translating this bathroom vision into code rather than engineering a player response.

Their North American counterparts seemed far more practically minded when it comes to heeding the Muses. Perhaps this is because they tend to enter game development through programming or software design; they seemed more inclined to think of a game as a piece of software that will be used by human beings, human beings with certain known propensities, than their Japanese counterparts. They tended to view the game as a functional object-- so much so that Randy Smith drew on Donald Norman's “The Design of Everyday Things,” a book about door fixtures, stovetops, and teapots, to illuminate puzzle design in games. While they were palpably excited about the idea that games can rival other arts when it comes to delivering emotion and narrative and memorable experiences, these same designers were also conscious of the fact that these marvellous experiences hang on the creation of an uncluttered and intuitive user interface. In short, I got the impression that you couldn't be a good artist without also being a good technician-- for any given project there is a right and a wrong way to accomplish your goals and technique is the matter of knowing the difference.

Obviously I'm speaking in generalities here, and I clearly have a limited sample. Maybe the Japanese nuts-and-bolts dudes can't afford the trip. But after spending this weekend fighting Resident Evil 5's grabasstical interface I am somewhat persuaded that there's a real divide when it comes to eastern and western design sensibilities, and this divide has everything to do with the design-centric and productivity-centric tendencies of North American tech culture.

More to come!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I Caved

If, for some unfathomable reason, you would like to read more of my occurrent thoughts, you can now follow me on twitter. Here Comes Everything! Everything that I am thinking!

The Game About Nothing

I've been meaning to play Yakuza 2 ever since I heard Steve Gaynor enthuse about it on the Gamer's Confab in late December. Steve has this running theory about the nature of games as a medium: what they're best at, he says, is presenting the player with an immersive world-- creating a convincing and responsive environment in which the player can cultivate a sense of agency. He's much better at articulating this view than I am-- make sure to read his articles on the subject, as they're pellucid. What follows is clumsy abridgment slash application.

As I see it, there's two sides to this design philosophy. On one hand you have this imperative to make the narrative structure responsive to the player's choices-- the player should shape the plot and their character. It should matter whether I kill that special someone or let him live, because it's being able to make that choice that makes him my character. Having this choice is what separates an interactive medium from a didactic medium like film or literature.

Yakuza 2 is not that kind of game. Its plot is a linear narrative-- a Sonatine-cum-One Life to Live-style gangester melodrama-- told through cutscenes. So far as I can discern, nothing you do in the game makes any difference to the love and death that transpires in those scenes.

But there's another side to the immersion model of meaning. Immersion is also about conjuring up all the specificities of lived space. Gaynor sometimes says that a really good game can feel like visiting a foreign city, and this is where Yakuza really shines.

When it's not compelling you to pummel legions of suited gangsters and starving tigers, lets you loose to explore simulated versions of Tokyo and Osaka at your leisure. And this is the paradox: the game is most compelling when nothing is happening.

Yakuza 2 is all about the local color, the needless frittering-away of time, the pointless minigames. The random guy in front of the Club Sega who wants you to find his cat, and the random guy inside who asks you to fish a robot out of the crane machine. The guy at the bar has a spiel about every whisky you order. I just sat there drinking one after the other, just to hear the guy wax poetical over Ballantine's 17 years. You can while away precious minutes of your life at the batting cages, or chatting up the dames at the hostess bars. Men on the street will stop to discuss the virtues of Osakan cuisine or decry the drinking habits of the modern woman.

All this is just to say: the real story of Yakuza 2 lies in all these unnecessary sidepaths. The virtues of the game don't lie in its clumsy brawling, its clumsier camera or even its byzantine melodrama-- they lie in its offbeat brand of cultural immersion. It presents a field of inessential, supplementary, specific actions to the player. Games should do this more often.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Hotness

From the department of good ideas: they got MF DOOM and Ghostface back together to do a track for GTA: Chinatown Wars:

As a bonus, I recently found this video for Quasimoto's Rappcats pt. 3, it's pretty fantastic:

(courtesy of

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Local Dialect

I had no idea this stuff was going on:

Ohai, Annipuss, and conga-rats for teh tawp spot!

Cin I hi-jack this spot for a liddl nouncemint?

Munday is Princess Mu’s burthday. She and I has planned to meet in teh Mu Meadow to check on teh progress of teh bulbs we has planted there last fall. We is meeting there at noon Eastern U.S. time. (I has nawt dun teh maths to tell whut tyme that is awl arownd teh whurld.) I duz nawt noes if she wuld mynd owr mayking a fuss over her beeg day - but awl of yoo is welkum to joyn us ther to see teh posies.

Oh, and as teh Mu Meadow is teh playce where we brings owr hart-kittehs and hart-goggies (those that has passed over teh brij) and lets them owt to play, and then puts them back in owr harts agin - I fings yoo wuld be welkum to bring yor hart-kitteh or hart-goggie along to meet us there. I has nawt thot abowt noms but mebbe I kiin tawk Maus into sorprising Mu with a liddel array uf sortmints frum teh NOM menu. Kthxbye!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Ah, the PS3. That sinusoid black box is damned expensive, but once you have it ensconced beneath your television, I have some good economic news: 60 bucks will get you very far with this thing. I still haven't played a single disc-based exclusive I'd kill my grandmother for, but that PSN runneth over with affordable ubiquity. The Pixeljunks were some of the of the finest games of 2007, and Everyday Shooter is one of my favorites of all-time. (Full disclosure: just as Flower got Chris Suellentrop to buy a PS3, it was hearing about Everyday Shooter on the 1up show that sold me on the PStriple. Je ne regrette rien.) And then, there is the fact that you can download Burnout Paradise. When you boot up the PS3 and start up your medialess copy of Burnout Paradise you are playing the future.

This isn't the only way that Burnout Paradise is forward-thinking. Criterion's decision to periodically dole out content updates gratis, long after its initial release, has already earned it well-deserved praise. Its integration of simple and elegant multiplayer functionality into the open-world structure should be emulated by other titles.

But what I really appreciate about Burnout Paradise is that its innovative take on open-world game design addresses some of major complaints with open-world gaming and the racing genre at once..

One of my major problems with the sandbox games is that they often don't give the player all the tools they need to set the pace of their own experience. There's two ingredients to open-world cookery: scripted missions you initiate by appearing at certain points on the map, and scattered incentives towards exploration. The idea is that the player can mix these two to suit their own tastes. But the mixing isn't always easy. I love to wander around and get lost in the scenery every once in a while, but when I'm tired of playing the flaneur and get the yen for more structure, the mission node I want to find is often a long slog across the map. This turns exploration into business travel, and that's a problem. (This was a huge problem in Far Cry 2: often there were 10 minutes of thickly murderous transit between you and your next desired objective.)

It's surprising enough that the exploration side of the open-world recipe works at all using a car as your main character. Matt Gallant's friend said that Paradise is “a platformer whose dude just happens to be a car” and that's totally right; it's kind of incomprehensible that this conceit functions at all. But the genius part of Burnout Paradise, to me, is that the moment you get bored of wandering around-- getting new cars and looking for stunt jumps and smashing billboards-- there's always a variety of structured events to do right where you are. More than any other open-world game I've played, it succeeds in offering the player everything they need in order to tailor the pace of their experience. I never feel like I'm more than a block away from whatever I want to do.

On the other front, I love the way that this same mission-density in Paradise overcomes the fail-and repeat cycle you find in so many racing games. Even the previous games in the Burnout series, despite falling on the more arcade-y end of the arcade/sim racing-game spectrum, often forced you to commit to trial-and-error memorization of each course in order to proceed. (This is a problem I have with videogames in general: the only way that the designers know how to teach you to play the game correctly is by forcing you to repeat the same identical task.) I happen to love wipEout, too, but in the end the gameplay often amounts to rote memorization-through-constant-repetition. In order to pass the higher ranks, it comes down to always hitting that one speed arrow on the left side after the third turn. If you miss that one speed arrow on the left side after the third turn, you might as well restart the race and save yourself the time.

I think a lot of racing game fans, and those on the fringes of the OCD spectrum, enjoy the experience of perfecting their lines (lord knows, I even did this in the original Mario Kart when I was 15 years old, so the idea is not alien to me), but I squander enough of my life already. After a while the grinds down the experience for me.

Burnout Paradise doesn't have this problem, because by the time you fail you're usually on the other side of the map and ready for something new. Scott Frazier recently wrote that “Failing in racing games has never been fun before Burnout,” and I feel the same way. The thicket of new challenges awaiting you just past the finish line takes the sting out of defeat. Criterion patched in a restart option in the last update, but it goes against the spirit of the whole experience, which incentivizes novelty and experimentation over memorization; like Flower, it's essentially non-punitive. Why impose punishment on yourself?

Burnout is such a gorgeous, smartly-designed racing game that we are likely to lose sight of the fact that it's a gorgeous, smartly-designed video game. I hope that other developers will swipe its many good ideas.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Don't you Wonder Sometimes 'bout Sound and Vision

One of the interesting things about first-person shooter games is their marriage of vision to power. If you're out to kill some dudes, your primary task is to look at them directly. The protagonist of a first-person shooter game is essentially a murderous, swirling vision cone. Maybe this is why games in the genre occupy the front lines of the battle for visual supremacy.

And this is why I think the sound design of Halo 3 is so ingenious: it uses sound, rather than vision, to expand your hegemony.

Let me explain. One of the big challenges when playing multiplayer first-person shooters is that it's essential to expand your spatial awareness beyond what's going on withinin the frame in front of you. Even when you get acclimated to the maps, and develop this ingrained lizard-brain consciousness that there is a wall behind you and to your left, you must understand where your enemies are in order to succeed. And this is possible when you learn to map the blips on your radar into your lizard-brain wall-consciousness. Once you have all this under you belt, there's still a last thing to consider, which is what weapon your opponent has. You have a split-second to gauge how you're going to approach this encounter-- whether you're going to charge them, or let them come to you, or whatever. These tactics all turn on how your available weapons match up. Often you have to make these calculations before you even see the person you're about to encounter.

The brilliance of Halo 3 is that you can get some of this information by listening. I play with headphones sometimes so as to avoid waking up the housemates, and one thing I notice all the time is that every significant aspect of Halo's gameplay has a distinct and differentiable sound. Each weapon, each piece of equipment, each vehicle is instantly recognizable. They even have different dynamics; some are loud and some are relatively quiet. It's really remarkable once you notice it. I remember once, when I had been playing Halo for about three months, I heard the tic-tic-tic of a minigun in the distance. And I thought “Holy crap, I don't just know that there's someone using a turret, I know how far away they are from me now. They're on the opposite side of the map but that one gun is louder than the rest.” You can use sound to get spatial information that your eye's can't give you.

On an encounter-by-encounter basis this information is often tactically invaluable. (This is why the game also visually represents sounds using yellow arrows at the edge of your field of vision.) Like, you'll hear that the guy in the room below you has a shotgun, a deadly close-range weapon. Which means: for god's sake, don't just drop in there. Engage from a distance. Or you'll come out of a base and you'll hear a Warthog joyriding around nearby and slaying your teammates well before it appears on your radar. Which means: do some cowering inside the base until you figure out how to take it down.

I think a lot of people in the critical-blogging line don't particularly like what Halo represents. It's a totem for the kind of game (maybe even the type of gamer) us we'd like to see less of. At the very least we'd like to see fewer games attempting to be what Halo is. Hell, even I hate Halo some of the time. But the basic truth is that good design conquers all, and this is where the game shines.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

La Comedie Post-Humaine

I finally downloaded The Lost and the Damned a few days ago, and my first thought was thank God they didn't let this thing go to waste.

Though it sounds like a cliché at this point, I'll say it again: the city is the best character in Grand Theft Auto IV. It's not the most eye-assaultingly sumptuous environment ever created (In fact, it has this distinctly abstract quality in comparison with, say, Far Cry 2 or Crysis), but GTAIV doesn't trade in visual density, it trades in cultural density. Which is to say, it teems with the sort of details that make it feel like a place civilized people inhabit. There is TV, Radio and internet: all the things you need to fictionalize if you want to render the cultural life of a modern city. The brownstones might not be photorealistic, but they do look different from the ones on the previous block. This is progress.

Which brings me to Balzac. As a novelist, he's known for a few novels: Pere Goriot, Lost Illusions, Cousin Bette. But all these individual novels are just episodes in a ninety-five-work strong über-novel, which Balzac called La Comedie Humaine. (“The human comedy,” a callback to Dante's divine comedy-- which is now, implausibly, a video game) La Comedie Humaine is a panoramic satire of French (usually, Parisian) life during the restoration period. One of the basic conceits is that all of the characters in the comedie inhabit a common fiction: for example, the young and idealistic parvenu Eugene Rastignac appears in over a dozen novels. He's not always the main character-- sometimes he just makes a quick appearance-- but his persistence across the work gives the imagined world a feeling of coherence. Balzac saw each work as an opportunity to bring another perspective to bear on the phenomena that drove French society: money, sex, and status.

Now, let's be clear: Rockstar games is no Honoré de Balzac. Their preferred register is low satire, which means that your trenchant portrait of consumer society comes with a dick joke in it. However, Rockstar are men with credible ambitions when it comes to narrative. To play The Lost and the Damned is to be reminded that their dialogue and voice acting are professional grade. (It is unusual, even striking, to hear video game characters say the sorts of things that human beings say to each other, in the way that human beings say them to each other. On this front Rockstar is peerless.) Here is an outfit that is demonstrably capable of representing human interaction.

And this is why the episodic model exemplified by Lost and Damned has so much potential. While they stuck to the shooty-shooty bang-bang template here, Bully demonstrated that Rockstar can vary their gameplay while sticking to the open-world genre. Making a game where mayhem is not the core value proposition would actually be a better fit for the types of stories they've been trying to tell with Liberty City-- it would allow them to create a protagonist who is potentially not a sociopath.

Sam Houser, Rockstar's president, says that he likes the low cultural esteem of games because it gives developers license to do whatever they want. And since DLC have a higher profit margin and lower development cost than full retail games, it is a place where some experimentation might be financially feasible. If you keep the city and concentrate on putting more world into it, imaginativeness becomes the primary obstacle-- you can add things into this city without having to add much physical space and new assets. There's legions of empty storefronts and empty buildings, waiting to be filled. And media-- web sites, radio stations, tv shows-- don't take up space either. Think of this cheap empty space as a place to tell new stories, because as a developer, you are good at this.

Now that they've done so well with Lost and the Damned, why shouldn't Rockstar keep layering narratives into a consistent fiction? Tell a story in Liberty City from the perspective of a policeman, or a politician, or a dockworker, or a street kid. A city is a big place; there is no shortage of interesting people to simulate.

And you could switch up the gameplay: GTAIV already has a murder mystery in it, so why don't you try something on those lines? The short-form model would make it easier to accommodate the tentative experiments with player choice Rockstar tried in GTAIV proper. They could build on the player's familiarity with the world and its characters instead of making a headlong rush for the next graphical iteration.

I think GTAIV's graphics will look good enough for quite some time, and Rockstar has the clout to innovate in the console space. I hope I'm still driving around Liberty City for years to come. I don't know what Rockstar's long-term plans are for Liberty City, but I hope that they'll see it as a chance to establish a new genre of video game: the serialized post-human comedy.