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August 3, 2007

Filed under: gaming»design

Reaping the Consequences

If permadeath in RPGs is anything like Fire Emblem, don't ever sign me up with the hardcore.

Permadeath--the idea that a video game character gets one life, ever, and must start completely over in case of fatality--is generally restricted to gung-ho online gamers, who can usually be considered insane in the first place, or the Steel Battallion series, which is unquestionably mad (sure, I'll pay $200 for a video game that comes with a fake cockpit for the giant robot and deletes my save game if I die. Then we can practice home trepanation for fun). But it's also a "feature" of the Fire Emblem series, a series of cute wargames that permanently removes from play any units that fall on the field.

If I were trapped on a desert island (one that somehow had power generators--what kind of desert islands are these scenarios, anyway?) with a single game, it'd be Advance Wars, so I figured I'd like Fire Emblem too--same company, same basic gameplay with a few twists. I could handle the death thing, I figured. I was wrong. When a character gets wiped out, they make this little speech about how they'll never see Paris or something, and it hits me right in the perfection reflex. I can't help it: I immediately restart the level from the beginning and try to get through it without losing any of the main characters. I have to start the battle over, actually, because the designers have anticipated that I might just save a game while everyone is alive and then reload it, so they added backup autosaves after every turn. I appreciate the idea, but I wish they'd just let me cheat.

This wouldn't be so frustrating if it weren't the astonishing weakness of some of the troops. Of course, if the player doesn't use them, they won't get any stronger, so you've got to take them out--at which point the enemy AI will probably also take them out, if you know what I mean. I've played through the fifth level at least twenty times now, and this Ross kid keeps biting the dust. Which means I keep starting over. I've about reached the limit of my patience with it.

If I just let the virtual grim reaper carry off the odd straggler, I'd probably have a much easier time. But games elicit a powerful impulse to do things perfectly and minimize loss. I'll only play through this thing once, probably, so I don't want to miss out, and I don't want to get slammed in later levels because I let one too many units pass on. Instead, I may just pass on the game. I am not this hardcore. I've got better things to do.

Indeed, if the permadeath experience is indicative of anything, it's how little tolerance for mistakes that games instil in players, and how players react to that. The people who are the biggest fans of permadeath are not really interested in realism, I'd guess. They're interested in perfection--they want to force players to play a completely clean, rational, sterile strategy. Perhaps it appeals to their heightened sense of order. Maybe they're just jerks. Either way, their obsession is unnatural compared to other media. While my other hobbies--music, writing, a rare sketch or two--can find new opportunities or inspiration in mistakes, I'm not aware of any game that rewards errors, other than the sense of recovering from them. That's too bad. Mistakes add richness to life. They're at the heart of scientific progress, and the inevitable byproduct of any creative endeavor. We should be encouraging mistakes in interactive media. I just have no idea how to do it.

I know how I'm not going to do it, and that's playing through level five again. It gets one more try, and then me and Fire Emblem--and permadeath with it--are quits.

June 11, 2007

Filed under: gaming»design»story

Me Me Me: Interactive Entertainment and Narcissism

So there's the story behind an acclaimed niche game, taken from Mobygames:

In an ancient time long past, a young man travels to the ends of the Earth, a place that is said to be forbidden to enter. He carries a young woman, who died from a terrible curse. He seeks the Dormin, a strange and God-like being that resides there. The Dormin is surprised that the man carries an ancient and magical sword, and speaks to the man. The man pleas for his help in bringing back the woman's cursed soul, however the being says it is the law of mortals that a dead soul cannot be brought back. He does say though, that if the man is willing to accept some heavy consequences, that there might be a way to revive her. But it will not be easy.

Our hero must embark on a quest to slay 16 colossus, giant creatures that tower hundreds of feet above the Earth. Using his ancient sword and his horse Argo, he must travel across the immense landscape seeking the colossi to save his love. Taking the form of various animals and other bipedal creatures, these colossi are tough and fierce. Their skin is tougher than leather, and the armor they wear is literally rock. However, by using his ancient sword, the man can penetrate the weak spot on them and destroy the towering beings and free his love's soul.

And then there's the plot summary for an acclaimed niche movie, taken from IMDB:

A dealer in outsider art threatens the equilibrium of her middle-class in-laws in North Carolina. Madeline is a go-getting art gallery owner from Chicago, recently married to George, a near-perfect Southern beau. When Madeline needs to close a deal with a reclusive North Carolina artist, George introduces her to his family: prickly mother Peg, taciturn father Eugene, cranky brother Johnny, and Johnny's pregnant, childlike wife Ashley, who is awe-struck by her glamorous sister-in-law. Madeline's presence exposes the fragile family dynamics as hidden resentments and anxieties surface.

No, that's not entirely fair--but I'm not trying to be fair. After all, I could nominate any number of movies to take the place of that latter description. They might not have the exact same theme as Junebug, but films with shaded or outright unlikeable characters, open storylines, and no clear sense of resolution are a dime a dozen. Whereas you'd be hard-pressed to find a game that doesn't put the player into the position of being a Hero in the classical sense, complete with journey and bold nemesis to be defeated. You almost certainly can't find an interactive narrative that centers around Southern family dynamics.

This isn't about the violence, per se. It's about the kinds of stories that these media can tell. See, I'm just not sure that you actually could make a game that doesn't put the player into the position of an active, heroic force. Interactivity grants agency, and agency for most people means trying to make "better" choices. Even assuming that someone could make an interactive version of Sherrybaby, for example, who'd want to play it? Would it honestly have the same impact?

The form of the medium shapes the stories that it can tell, and I wonder if we are reaching the limits of that for interactive entertainment. Maybe that's a good thing--that it is ultimately a hopeful medium. But it is also a narcissistic one. By necessity, it casts its audience as someone who can Make A Difference, and sets aside any of the smaller stories about people who can't. That might even encourage a false hope--we don't all grow up to be President, you know.

Netjak put up an editorial that scooped me on this a little, but I think they're ultimately addressing a more limited problem. Healey is asking for more than just "save the world" plots--I'm hoping for a plot that doesn't save anything at all. What do you think? Is this an inherent lack of depth in interactive entertainment? Is hopelessness part of the button-pressing palette?

Answers that we are better off without the angst in the first place will not be accepted. A little angst is good for you. It builds character.

* * *

Apparently this is now a Round Table post. Who knew?

March 8, 2007

Filed under: gaming»design

Sound Games

These experimental games from GDC sound incredibly cool. They use sound input, either from a music file or live from the player, to generate and control the game. I'm especially intrigued by this:

Designer Sean Barret created a Tempest style game, where the player has two shooters representing the bass and treble. As enemies come down the field, your shoots created the notes according to the row you were at (the bass blaster had five or so lines reserved, while treble had eight or nine). In this scenario, the game was forcing you to play the song. To prove this point, we witness the horrible sounds made when shots are fired randomly or targets missed.

I once thought it would be cool to make a rail shooter that worked in a similar way, but where the environment was generated from the wave--bass sounds might create the ground landscape, while treble would create enemies or obstacles. Barret's take is more interesting, because it lets the player trigger the music from a landscape generated from the sound file, thus giving the player a real investment (similar to the incentive of finishing a Guitar Hero song, not because of the score, but because you want it to sound good).

November 14, 2006

Filed under: gaming»design»learning

Street Sense

The World Bank Institute's Urban and Local Government division is holding a game design competition. Designers are asked to submit proposals for a board or card game that will teach the concepts and benefits of street addressing, and the winner will recieve a $6,000 consultancy contract to fine-tune the game before publication. Runners-up may receive short contracts to discuss their concepts if there are interesting aspects for consideration. If you're interested, you can find the call for proposals here, but hurry: the competition closes at the end of November.

Why street addressing? For Americans this sounds like a silly assignment. My manager stood up at the meeting and explained that it's actually a huge economic drain in lesser-developed countries, including places we typically think of as mostly-developed. For example, she said, when she worked in East Germany during its transition from communism to democracy, the street signs had been removed but new ones hadn't been posted. Finding the firms for which she was consulting on any given day without clear addresses took a great deal of effort, and harmed productivity. Convincing local governments of the benefits of street addressing, as well as the methods for implementation, can be really important.

My thought, and feel free to steal this, is a card game where each player is trying to reach their destination in a fictional city. By playing street sign and address cards, they build a set of directions and move closer. Other players can play obstacle and inefficiency cards that represent a lack of good orientation, sending opponents off course and moving them farther away. The first player to reach their final destination, say by assembling 20 "direction points," wins the game. It's like Magic: the Gathering, but for street addresses. I can just see myself trying to explain that to my colleagues. "Magic: the Gathering? Thomas, you are such a dork."

November 2, 2006

Filed under: gaming»design

Difficulty Spike

Psychonauts is a pretty funny game. It's one of those games where, if you could cut out all of the game-related bits like jumping and solving simple logic puzzles, it would make a funny cartoon. Sadly, it is not a cartoon. It's a platformer, and those parts of it are not nearly as clever as the writing and voice work. So I've visited GameFAQs at least once, because I'm less interested in proving how well I press buttons and more interested in jokes. I refuse to be ashamed of that.

I'm trying to make a rule for myself: if I'm stuck for more than half an hour on a puzzle, and I don't feel like I'm enjoying the process, I cheat. My time is valuable, and if I drag on for too long, I'll lose interest in the parts of the game that I do enjoy. I know that I'll forgive myself, and if the writing is good, I'll forgive the game for making me forgive myself. Something like that.

What I find, however, that I can't forgive is a game where cheating doesn't help, and where it is literally out to waste my time. I recently started and stopped playing Killer 7, all in the space of a week. It's the game equivalent of a David Lynch movie--lots of bizarre events, no overt explanations, overwhelming levels of gore (albeit in a strange kind of cel-shading that actually highlights the blood). When the game is playing with logic puzzles, it's a lot of fun--the shootout with two undead executives, who can only be defeated by disturbing their immaculate ties, is funny and just right in terms of challenge. But too much of the other puzzles simply revolve around picking up items, collecting random objects, and conducting glorified key hunts.

It's not just ridiculous, in this day and age, that we're still playing games with puzzles that were old when Zork came out. It's a little insulting. Killer 7 is written with a story that is confusing, thought-provoking, and challenging--whether or not it's any good, we can agree on those items. Why burden that story with drudgery? I am sick of having to work to get to the good parts. If the designer isn't interested in being as clever with the non-cutscene parts of the game (Hey, Squaresoft!), I'd rather just watch the movie version.

Which, of course, the makers of Metal Gear Solid and Halo have done or are planning to do. Good for them.

October 15, 2006

Filed under: gaming»design»learning

Serious Play

The B-SPAN podcast this week is a presentation from "Serious Play and Urban Planning," a seminar held by the World Bank Institute on using games as training tools. In the podcast, Dr. David Shaffer, professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of How Computer Games Help Children Learn, talks about how he's used games as city planner training, and explores some of the ways that they create an "epistemic frame" for the user. It's fairly interesting stuff. The full video of the seminar should go up later today, and I'll update with a link.

UPDATE: Find the complete videoconference, including Scott Osterweil from MIT's Education Arcade, here. As usual, be warned that it is encoded using the Bank standard of Realplayer. No, I don't like it. No, I don't have a choice about it. Yes, I'm trying to get it changed, but you know how large institutions are.

March 7, 2006

Filed under: gaming»design»story

...And a helpful talking falcon!

Dear people who make or write about games,

When you have a roleplaying game, set in a bizarrely clean and well-decorated medieval kingdom, and a lone boy must gather a group of charming misfits before saving the world from a heartless evil character of some kind or another, nine times out of ten this is not a workable plot. It is a cliche, a terrible tragedy of melodrama, and I am just a bit tired of being told that I can look past it.

Look, I read terrible science fiction and fantasy. It's comfort food--not good for me, or even particularly tasty, just filling and familiar. But I recognize it for what it is. I'm not trying to convince anyone that the output of, say, Mercedes Lackey, is a work of art--in fact, given half a chance, I'd probably try to talk you out of reading the kinds of pulp I browse on a regular basis.

So let's not have any more talk about how Magical Sword of Phantastic Phire: My Kingdom for a Plot Device is a "charming, well-executed" wrapping for plots that were threadbare when Adventure hit the shelves. A typical Japanese-style RPG is going to eat at least 20 hours to complete. You could read at least three formulaic paperbacks in that time, maybe pick up a little vocabulary or a nice turn of phrase, and help keep a struggling writer afloat.

Believe me, I'm all about keeping struggling writers afloat...

March 3, 2006

Filed under: gaming»design»story

Cape of Good Hope

Big news in superhero games lately. Jim Lee of DC fame intends to create a massively-multiplayer competitor to City of Heroes--I don't know who he is, but I'm assured that he's important. There's a trailer for the next-gen Superman Returns license--although it's prerendered, so it's about as revealing as fundamentalist fashion ("Becky's elbows were clearly visible, that slut"). But I remember reading somewhere that they're planning on playing up the invulnerability that makes Superman a pretty boring character. Instead of protecting yourself, the real goal is to protect as many lives in Metropolis as possible. It's an interesting take. It'd be amusing if they made you do that while you were trying to hold down your reporting gig at the Daily Planet.

But you know what? When it all comes down to it, you're still just fighting off big angry monsters, and scaring the occasional mugger or carjacker. I hate to keep referencing Warren Ellis, but he's really beat this theme into the ground: superheroes are, frankly, useless. They don't change the status quo. They can't do anything that would actually affect the living standard of the citizens, because they're too busy making sure that said citizens aren't flattened by the Villain o' the Week. Superman doesn't feed the hungry or clothe the poor. Spiderman's a great guy, but he doesn't take out corrupt politicians. Even the X-Men--they're fighting for mutant rights, obvious stand-in for the civil rights movement, but they largely restrict their advocacy to beating up on Bad People with Guns.

Note: perhaps this is not entirely true. I'm not a devout comics reader, so if Aquaman #258 had the Justice League starting a chain of shelters for battered women, I wouldn't know. But I'm making a point. SILENCE.

One of the nice running gags from the Batman animated series is that you saw Bruce Wayne going to charity events all the time. They sold the millionaire playboy/philanthropist angle at every opportunity--and we never saw Bruce do any kind of actual work. I like to think that Batman, being a down-to-earth kind of superhero, was trying to attack the crime from its results and its causes. But it also makes you wonder--Batman's a superhero because he trained his body and his mind, but he's really a superhero because he's rich (See an estate tax post where I contradict myself at Philanthropica). Would anyone else like to see a Batman simulation where you have to play cutthroat exploitation capitalist in order to afford gas for the Batmobile? Where you have to beat down the poor so you can afford to save them from the Joker? Does Bruce Wayne ever lie awake at night, wondering which of the workers he just laid off is going to find a magical ring in the dumpster and use it to massacre hundreds? Other writers have touched on this, of course, but it's still a valid question.

Ethics in video games are largely the same as ethics in comic books, which is why theoretically they work very well together. Stop that crime! Kill that villain! Follow that car! In part, this is because gaming began as a medium with limited available expression, and that established a tradition of flat objectives even as the simulation aspect became more complicated. It also has roots in its perspective, which generally focuses on one character. Everything else in the world exists to help or harm a single protagonist or small group of protagonists. As Lance Mannion pointed out (although discussing movies instead of comics or games), these characters are heroes because they're standing where a hero is supposed to stand. People are trying to kill them or hurt them, and they fight back. (See Creating the Innocent Killer, re: Ender's game, for similar thoughts)

I'm not trying to say that this is causing some sort of grave ethical crisis. Our youth are not being corrupted. Grand Theft Auto should not necessarily have an internal debate on welfare underlying its criminal methodology (although.... no, never mind). What I am saying is that we need context. More specifically, we need a perspective.

I refuse to be ashamed to admit that I've been watching Project Runway, Bravo's fashion designer competition. One of the constant themes that the judges harp on is perspective--have a perspective, say something with the clothes you make. And in the end, you see their point, because the designers who do have a strong point of view on how clothing should feel and what it should mean are the ones that consistently make the most interesting designs. Their clothes exist in a context. They hold opinions.

When is the last time that you could really give me a perspective for a game, that wasn't limited to an internal view of its system? What does it have to say about who we are? Take this article from the Escapist by Patrick Dugan. I'm not trying to pick on Patrick here, because he was under no obligation to address any of this in his article, which was completely unrelated to my cynical viciousness, and he seems like a nice kid. I'm just using it as a convenient example, because it struck me. Patrick is discussing challenge, which is fair enough, and he mentions a few artifacts that don't fall under the typical conception of challenge (or even "games," but that's another discussion entirely). He mentions September 12th, an interactive and explicitly political display about Bush's now-legendary War on Terror.

Now, again, I'm not complaining about the article. Patrick set out to write about challenge, and he does it, and I think he makes some good points about the systems of the games themselves. But I remember reading that part and thinking, wait a minute: you've got this game that aims to undermine existing justifications for military action against terrorism, and what we're discussing is whether or not it's challenging? Back up the train a minute, because I want to spend some more time on its message. Is it effective? How do people react when they realize what it's doing?? Forget about the game-as-a-system, amateur designer perspective. What does September 12th mean? What could we learn from it, not as gamers, but as people? You can't understand it from a four-color comics perspective. Whether you agree with what the artist is saying or not, it's asking you to consider something about your reaction to the perceived threat.

All of this is really a long way of explaining part of what I find so frustrating about games lately. I see a lot of focus on discussing the mechanics of these games, and not whether they (like the Project Runway kids) have a strong point of view. Trying to create dynamic, open worlds for generated storytelling, that's all very well and good, but it doesn't give the designer a lot of room to say anything because they're trying to say everything. The opposite end is the safe route, the comic-book morals of glorified vengeance against attackers and aggressors.

I want to play something with an opinion.

March 2, 2006

Filed under: gaming»design»story

While I'm At It

P.S. In addition to the post below, I would like a pony.



May 8, 2005

Filed under: gaming»design»art

Behind Blue Eyes

I can't help it: every time I go into an EB Games now, this box is staring back at me, and I find it oddly hypnotic. I'm not really attracted to it, per se, it's just a very striking character design. I think it's the eyes--she's like a sultry emo girl of doom.

Too bad it's one of those crazy online fantasy timewasters, so I'll never actually play it. But kudos to the art team anyway.

Future - Present - Past