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.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Unmissed Connections

You: I saw you out on that crowded news aggregator I frequent on wednesdays during my lunch hour.  You were hauling down so many clicks that I couldn't work up the courage to ask you over to my blog.  Me: the swart fellow in the cardboard box, with the lame rounders 3 default template and faux hip 8-bit references.  Now I'm kicking myself for not working up the courage to ask you your html address.  I was thinking that you might want to give me another chance to make a first impression, maybe I can take you out to meat bun?  
Lord knows I listen to too many damn videogames podcasts as it is.  But while there are plenty of good ones, all of them hew to the same basic format:  they're sports talk for nerds.  A bunch of dudes gather 'round and jaw for a while.  It's fantastic when you get the right mix of personalities.  But former GFW Radio contributor Robert Ashley is doing something new with his show A Life Well Wasted.  He's switched up the basic template by interweaving interview segments with original music and a mellifluous voiceover. 

Speaking of people doing something new and original related to the video games, Duncan Fyfe has been crafting an idiosyncratic approach to games writing on his blog Hit Self-Destruct.  It's less a blog than a collection of essays whose approach wavers between fiction and non-fiction.  He's been posting a series of pieces called "Domestic City" on the blog over the last few weeks and they're my favorite thing he's written so far.  They begin here.  Read them, for god's sake.

Oh, and then there's this:  

Good night and good luck

Game of the Fortnight

I say unto you: screw the other games that are being released this fortnight. Halo Warz, Tom Clancy's Hawkxz, Killzones 2, whatever, those games are total garbage. (Disclaimer: the author has not actually played any of these games and he is neither qualified to comment on them nor spell them correctly. The author hasn't even gotten around to playing Fabled Deux.) The new best game on the earth is the Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble album Texas Flood.

It's been a looong time since I've played the Rock Band solo. It's weird: because playing Rock Band with your friends is exponentially more awesome than playing solo, standing alone in front of your television plinking away at a prosthetic guitar, which I did on an almost-daily basis throughout 2006 and 2007, feels-- less than; intercourse robs masturbation of its charm.

And this is the great thing about Texas Flood: it's a guitar album. It will hold no interest for your drummers or Bon-Jovi-lovin' social set. You'll never get a group of friends over on Saturday night to belt out Lenny, it just isn't that type of experience. What it will do is transport you back to late 2005, when you were huddled in front of your Playstation 2 with your headphones on at 3AM, playing the title track on repeat and feeling your newfound guitar skills converge on the ludicrous fretwork. (Speaking of which: how did we ever play Texas Flood with the utterly broken hammeron/pullof system of the original Guitar Hero?) And you will think to yourself: making great guitar music by tapping away fisherprice guitar is damn fun. Someone should make more of this game.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Games Journalism Needs Games Journalists

There's a saying which goes, "everyone's a critic." By which we mean, everyone can find something scabrous to say about another person's creative labors. This was true even before the Internet added anonymity to the mix and turned humorous savagery into a national pastime.

But the expression also indicates the plight of professional arts journalism in the Internet era. Everyone can be a critic; we all see the same object and we can, in principle, offer our thoughts on that object to the world. While few have the writing chops or judgment to be a good critic, the traditional barriers to broadcasting your opinions to the world have fallen. Because brick-and-mortar distribution is limited, print publication used to confer authority, testify that the professional critic was a cut above the layman w/r/t aesthetic judgment. No more. Moreso than institutions, it's personality and wit that makes for critical authority in the web era.

However, there is a world of difference between being a critic and being a journalist. Games crit has never been better, but actual games journalism is in a pretty deplorable state. Creating professional-grade coverage of the games industry, unlike mere criticism, takes skills that the average Internet person is not in the position to have: making contacts with industry figures and asking the right questions, tracking down leads, developing stories. And this is one place where the democratization of games coverage has been a bad thing.

What you gain by reading good industry reporting is an appreciation of the sheer contingency of the path from inspiration to retail sale . The truth is that corporate structures and executive personalities inevitably shape the content we receive. Many a game perishes for lack of creative vision, but many games also perish because they fail to catch the eye of the captains of industry.  Games developers will tell you: "the difference between a mediocre game and a great one?  Six months."  The people deciding who gets those six months are the ones responsible for the quality of the games we play.  

That is to say: if you want to know why creative triumphs are hard to come by, follow the money. Every innovative, trailblazing game needs a good business model to succeed, and that's why it's interesting to know something about the vicissitudes of the various publishers, and to get an understanding of why they make the choices they do. This is what journalists can provide and critics cannot.

Which makes it all the worse that so much sogenannte industry reporting consists of press-release transcription (I'm looking at you, preternaturally successful blog aggregator). Many of the newsites see industry news as a way to oil the gears of the console wars industrial complex, not as a way to shed light on the workings of the companies involved. (Why would any sane human being huddle over his internet, crying “Let 'em all go to hell, except corporate megalith B!” My only explanation is vestigial tribalism. On the other hand, the console wars is a recession-proof industry: not being able to afford the other consoles is what breeds irrational hatred of them.)

Fortunately, there are a few sites that offer enlightening peeks into the machinery of the games industry. There's Gamasutra, for one (Leigh Alexander has been doing great things over there, including breaking this great story about salary-fixing in Montreal), but my favorite as of late has been the Cut Scene blog over on, superintended by the redoubtable Ben Fritz.

What I love about the Cut Scene is that it doesn't leave out the analysis: any website can post a figure or two, but there's a world of difference between citing a statistic and explaining what it means. And beyond this, the Cut Scene abounds in interesting and unique angles: how Rock Band is losing money, and why THQ is different from EA despite their equally dismal earnings reports. There's also some great interviews and an amazingly thorough and often-hilarious expose on the collapse of Brash Entertainment.

I don't know how long the Cut Scene will remain at Variety (Fritz has been working on a temporary basis since the economic downturn claimed his editorial position), but make sure to check it out. The world is an unsafe place for journalists these days.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Flower is Pretty, and Also Pretty Rad

Leigh Alexander wrote a three-part series detailing her misgivings with Flower slash with the critical reception of Flower, and I have to give her big ups for having the courage of her convictions and articulating some criticisms of a game so beloved amongst the game-blog set. I've already said my piece on the game, albeit indirectly, but there were aspects of her critique that bothered me, so I'll try to sort them out here rather than writing an absurdly long comment on the excellent Sexy Videogameland.

Let's hit her discontent with the critical reception first. Her central idea, in the last of the three posts, is that games critics have pressed Flower into playing a role for which it is unfit:

We play Flower and find that it is beautiful -- "oh," we sigh, "here's the one, here is our latest ambassador to legitimacy."... We are waiting, always waiting, for a game that can send us running to the blogosphere to discuss -- "here, here's one," we gasp, prizing Flower closely, thumbing through the indices of academia to find quotes about art, cracking our thesauruses for synonyms of narrative, homophones for wind. Poor Flower, unpermitted to simply be a good, thoughtful video game. We did this to Braid, too.

I think this is a fair cop. (“homophones for wind” is a good line too) Maybe us in the serious games network of pretension have a slight messianic complex when it comes to the self-consciously artsy console titles. I think there's little disputing that the average games blogger wants games like Flower to succeed, because we do want games to move out of their current thematic ghetto.

What I don't like about this tack is the accusation of bad faith. It implies that we're lying to ourselves, being unconsciously dishonest about the object at hand, out of a desire to legitimize gaming (and perhaps, by extension, our obsession with writing about gaming) to the culture at large. And sure, we all spend some segment of our existence lying to ourselves, sometimes on the Internet. But I don't think you need to appeal to our legitimacy-complex to explain the rapturous reception of Flower; one needn't be desperate to authentically love this sort of thing. I think it's plausible to say that for a certain consumer, Flower just is their cup of tea.

Which brings us to her substantive critique of Flower itself. In her second article, Alexander begins with the statement of an excellent critical principle: “I suggest that one of my aims in discussing games is to try to evaluate them according to what the developer's intention might have been and how well the game achieved it.” As I've said before, this strikes me as an eminently sane way to approach the translation of an inescapably private experience into something communicable.

The problem, sez Alexander, is the very fact that Flower sets out to cultivate an emotional response in the player. To her, the relentless serenity and simple narrative contours of the experience felt artificial: “the deliberate intention of creating emotion is manipulative.”

I disagree. How does the intent to create a particular mood or though visuals, sound and play mechanics vitiate a game? All good games are consciously designed to evoke something in the player. Silent Hill sets out to create an excruciatingly sustained unease. Mario aims for whimsy. And what could be more deliberate than that episode in Metal Gear Solid 4 where the player desperately mashes the X button to haul Solid Snake's disintegrating frame through an irradiated corridor?

What Alexander means here, I think, is that we all dislike it when the devices a game uses to gain an emotional purchase on the player are excessively transparent. That is, we feel that the emotional resonance of a piece of art should emerge from the way it presents a compelling vision of the world and the people in it; we don't like the feeling that elements of the work-- cheap sentiment, melodrama, weeping-- are put in there for the purpose of tugging at our heartstrings. (This is a great paradox about beauty, which Kant made central to his aesthetics: great works of art please us, without seeming to be designed for our pleasure. This is what natural beauty and artistic beauty have in common)

And this is where games like Flower have to walk a certain tightrope: onesidedly pleasant artworks run the risk of being veering into kitsch. There's no denying that Flower trafficks in oversaturated colors, plinky strings, limpid harmonies. One's tolerance for audiovisual splendor tends to be a matter of taste: what appears charming to some will come off as cloying or precious to others. But if the overabundance of these patently emollient touches ruins the aesthetic effect, this is precisely where it has failed on its own terms.

The root my disagreement with Alexander, I think, is that we have different assessments of what Flower aims to be. To me, Flower is a simple pop song, not a concept album. A few of the critics have found it to be a profound, emotionally transmogrifying experience, but I don't think it's fair to say that the game tries to be an existential asskicker, like a Mahler symphony. It doesn't strive after metaphysics, and it doesn't have a particularly deep philosophical point to make about the relationship between man and nature. Saying it aims to be merely lyrical does it any discredit. (N'Gai Croal said it has the emotional sophistication of a Pixar film, and this seems about right.)

What is impressive to me about Flower is the way that its achieves this lyricism through the design of its core mechanics. While the audiovisual grandeur does a lot of the heavy lifting, I think the real genius is all in the implementation of the motion controls, which give the game its unique feeling of lightness and freedom. The contrast between the total impunity the player enjoys in the first few levels and the sudden emergence of punitive gameplay elements in the fifth level makes for a good contrast; when you regain your impunity and bring down the military-industrial complex in the sixth, it feels genuinely empowering.

Alexander says that these elements are “design principles, not transcendental philosophical threads, not transporting narrative elegance” -- but this seems really wrongheaded to me. It implies a gulf: game design on one side, profound art on the other. But it seems to me that genuine artistry in game design resides in how you use these mechanics and design principles to create emotion. I don't think the artistry on display in Flower is totally original (it leans heavily on the template carved out by REZ), but it succeeds in what it sets out to do-- create a lovely, enjoyable synthesis of gameplay mechanics and verdant panoramas.