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October 23, 2009

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

What Sharp Teeth

Tale of Tales' The Path tells an old story: a girl dressed in red walks through the woods to an elderly relative's house. The path through the forest begins at the edge of a paved road, with a large city off in the distance. It ends at a bridge crossing the moat-like lake around the grandmother's cottage. Your choice, as a player, is to either proceed directly to the end of the path, or to wander off into the woods in search of novelty (and, ultimately, The Wolf). In either case, a significant piece of the storytelling and gameplay takes place after the "end" has been reached--the denouement, as Corvus puts it in this month's Round Table.

The Path features a lot of really... interesting gameplay choices, but one that stands out for me is the control scheme. It's the essence of minimalism: the only keys are for turning and movement. To interact with a scene in the forest, you simply stop near it--the girl will move into position and begin the scene, but you can cancel by simply choosing to move again. Combined with the translucent, dreamlike fog, the effect is a feeling of inevitability. While the game warns you not to leave the path, the real story only happens when you abandon its purposeful motion for something interrupted and inconsistent--it only advances when you stop.

Where it gets interesting is when you finish the game, either by going straight to the end of the path or by finding the "Wolf" (metaphorically speaking--it's something different for each of the characters, but each time it deposits them outside the cottage in a state of visible pain, limping to shelter from the sudden downpour of rain). At that point, the girl opens the gate, crosses the bridge, and enters the house.

Now we're in the denouement. The view switches to a first-person view, and the controls don't seem to respond. After a few moments, you work it out: pressing any of the movement keys will move a single step along a predetermined path through the house while a wolf growls and barks somewhere out of view. Tapping a key repeatedly, your trip through the house takes detours into different rooms along the way, depending on the encounters found in the forest, and ends in an unsettling sequence of flashbacks related to each girl's Wolf. (If you didn't find the metaphorical Wolf in the forest, you'll end up in the grandmother's bedroom instead, with a literal beast staring at you from the corner. This is considered failure.)

Although it's tempting to stay in one place in the house and give yourself time to recover, remaining motionless causes the screen to darken and the wolf sounds to become louder and more aggressive--it's extremely unnerving, and I've never actually managed to stand still long enough to find out what happens after that. So now the dynamic has changed, even though the gameplay remains similar: elements from the forest are recontextualized inside the house, but now stopping is a source of dread and movement is... well, not rewarded, exactly. Less uncomfortable, I guess. It also mimics a kind of nightmare logic: no matter what direction you try to go, your viewpoint drifts grimly forward.

As a game, The Path is a distinct oddity, but I generally like it, and one of the reasons is this two-act, post-'victory' structure it's got going. In a way, the cottage tour is really nothing more than a twisted version of the Mega Happy Ending that concludes most JRPGs and Nintendo games, where they revisit each character and location encountered during the game as a form of wrap-up. But Tale of Tales uses a few audio cues and a simple gameplay change to turn a linear cutscene into something a little scary, with a lot more implied agency than actually exists. I'm not entirely sure what it means--I'm not sure I'm supposed to--I only know that the combination of structure and interaction makes for a pretty unforgettable experience.

February 28, 2009

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Tithe

In his follow-up to January's round table, which invited participants to reinvent literature as a game, Corvus has asked us to take someone else's proposed design and elaborate on it, disposing of strict ties to the original literary source, but continuing on the themes and rules inside.

If I hadn't put this off until the last possible day, I would have actually written the Flash version of "l(a" sketched out at Discount Thoughts. Instead, I want to take a closer look at Nerje's Super God Delusion 64 at Ludic Thoughts, which is a riff on Dawkin's book of (almost) the same title.

To summarize: in the design laid out by Nerje, the game is a kind of Animal Crossing filled with both believers and secularists, where players are rewarded for acts of skepticism and science. The game also regularly states that a secret score is being kept for the player's actions--but in a final twist, the end of the game is simply a blank, and the only reward is the feeling of accomplishment. (I am, of course, already a sucker for bizarre Animal Crossing variations.)

It's a fun idea, but the problem with making a game that satirizes religion is that it's easy to be betrayed by the medium. Of course there's no God in your software, players might respond, you programmed it that way! In fact, aren't you a kind of Intelligent Designer for the whole scenario? Perhaps we would be better served by setting our sights a little lower, at the behavior of religion instead of its belief system--and in doing so, we may be able to make the original point, albeit more indirectly.

I propose changing both the player's role in the game, and adding a new influence: Dungeon Keeper (we'll also change the title of the game to reflect this--I like Tithe, personally). In this version, the player character arrives in town as the seed of a nascent religion. Setting up a small house/worship center, your task is to grow your flock and your influence over them.

There are two methods for attracting believers. The first is where the Animal Crossing influence remains: being social, trading letters, learning about the community, and performing favors to gain good will. The second, and more powerful, method is to increase the drawing power of your church by adding "attractions" to it. You might start out, for example, with some bargain-basement artifacts, like a magic translating hat or a moldy sandwich shaped vaguely like a saint. Followers who are impressed by a display will donate funds (cha-CHING! goes the animation), which can be used to upgrade further: a state-of-the-art sound system, Creationism Museum wing, or even visits by higher religious authorities in funny hats. The tone of this should be exaggerated and gently satirical--not mean-spirited, but targeted at the extremes of modern superstition and their tendency toward graphic spectacle.

Players can also create their own attractions, using a combination of Little Big Planet-style sandbox and some lightweight graphical scripting. Solutions that play on physics and statistical misjudgement will be particularly effective in growing the flock. Don't expect that the other religious communities in town will take your expansion lying down, though: they'll also begin ramping up their efforts in order to hold onto their members and possibly steal yours. At higher levels of gameplay, a simplified political simulation is even mixed in, giving the ability to form alliances and allowing you to champion rule modifiers that will benefit your organization over the others.

The idea, as I see it, is not to champion secularism directly. Rather, it's to satirize the materialistic and commercial aspects of religion in America. In his 2007 book Shopping for God, marketing expert James Twitchell noted the many ways that branding and advertising have become a part of American belief--at root, perhaps, because this country has always had a unique "marketplace" for religion, although Twitchell himself does not point this out. American churches work hard to maintain their base, using strategies as simple as the now-ubiquitous church sign or as encompassing as the megachurch (or as disturbing as the Jesus Junk described in Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready, which includes "Testamints" and a smiling cross).

At their most basic, video games provide an ideal vehicle for satire of fundamentalist American belief: they're rigidly rule-bound, arbitrarily-constructed, and market-driven. It is difficult to directly critique faith (particularly moderate, relatively harmless faith) given such a system, but easy to mock a worldview that admits no ambiguity or rationalism. By moving from the original's sandbox to a design that puts the player in the position of church leader, we limit the message a bit, but we also sharpen its aim at a target that arguably needs more deflating than the broad concept of God itself.

Who else wants to talk?

January 13, 2009

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

The Perpetual Train

Choosing the literary subject for an imaginary game adaptation in this month's fantastic Round Table topic was difficult, particularly since there are so many great games in fiction that could be adapted. In the end, though, one book caught my imagination more than any of the other options: China Mieville's Iron Council.

Probably the most overtly political of his novels and a New Weird take on the Western, Iron Council returns again and again to the theme of plans that spin into unpredictable motion from hidden beginnings. The "Iron Council" of the title, for example, is a train that becomes its own autonomous society after a crew mutiny, and travels across the landscape on recycled tracks. The parts of the book set in the city of New Crobuzon cover plots within plots, each of which actually serves a very different purpose from its outward intent. And indeed, it's not for nothing that one of Iron Council's central characters (failed messiah Judah Low) is a golemist, who creates lumbering simulacrums of life from whatever materials are at hand.

Mieville's other books would probably make great RPG supplements--something Mieville has probably already considered, since he's an avowed D&D geek--but that's the easy way out. Iron Council, on the other hand, has the vivid central image of the Council itself, which thunders out into the frontier aimlessly before being called back to the city to support a populist rebellion. This concept of a train that charts its own destination, to me, cries out for a physical analog. So, while I'm not a game designer and will not be going into specifics, I'd love to set this up as a board game--but one where the path is created during play, by the players.

Before the start of the game, the board is an empty cardboard frame, which the players will fill with hexagonal tiles as play continues. In one corner, a tile showing a cityscape is pre-placed--this is New Crobuzon, where the game begins and ends. Also before the first turn, each player is issued a set of tokens: a large Role card, a pile of board hexes, and a set of Intercession cards. Finally, there's a single playing piece: the Iron Council itself, which is used to keep track of the end of the path (this isn't technically necessary, since usually the path doesn't double back on itself, but it's handy and a nice visual touch).

In theory, Iron Council: The Game (or ICTG, for the sake of expedience), is won by returning the Council to New Crobuzon successfully: everybody wants that to happen. But each player's Role card, representing a character from the book, dictates a certain set of conditions (time frame as represented by tiles on the board, cards in play, and position of other players) for that particular player to "win the game." For example, a player who draws Ann-Hari, the prostitute who becomes a revolutionary leader, wins if A) the Council remains intact and B) returns before the Mayor can crush the Toro rebellion, but not before C) a certain number of Intercession event cards with her name on them are brought into play. Role cards also come with a special ability that's spelled out on the card unique to each role: Judah Low can play Golem tokens to bolster the Iron Council's position on Intercessions, Weather Wrightby can look through other players' cards once per game, and Qurabin can permanently reduce his hand size by one to counter some events.

Each turn, players go around the circle laying down hex pieces to guide the track being laid for the Iron Council. The pieces have a picture of a track on them (either straight or curving to a different hex side), and the track has to form a contiguous line, although it can "overlay" old tracks if the path curves back on itself. After placing the track, each player can play a card from their hand, with varying effects depending on the card and sometimes which Role card the player was assigned. Track tiles are also tagged with a number, which is used as a random number generator for certain cards.

Here are some sample Intercession cards:

  • Attack of the Inchmen: This card is a MONSTER ATTACK Event. Choose a player to be the target. That player draws a hex tile at random from their pile. If the number is greater than 6, the player puts this card in play (places it in front of them) and must skip their next turn. "Colossal and grossly tubate, a caterpillar body studded with tufts, ventricles opening and closing sphincters, dun and specked with warning colours. The man torso congealed into the front of that yards-long body, hip bones into larval flesh. The inchman moved."
  • Runagate Rampant, Track's End Supplement: Play this card to force a single player to show their hand and discard any events for TRT, Weather Wrightby, or The Mayor. "You stupid lackeys. Your order is built on sand. Tomorrow the Iron Council will move on again, and to your horror it will proclaim with its whistle blaring: We say: We were, we are, we will be."
  • Women's Strike: This card is an event for: Ann-Hari, Judah Low, Thick Shanks. For the next turn, players can either play an Intercession card or lay down a board hex, but not both. "--We'll not do it no more for promises, she says to Judah. --No pay no lay."
  • Drogon, the Whispersmith: Weather Wrightby can play this card at any time. All other players can play this card if the most recent track hex is an 8 or a 9. You may look at the current player's hand before they have played any Intercession cards and choose one to play for them. "It was a petty field, subvocalurgy: the science of furtive suggestions, a rude footpad technique. But this man had made it something more."
  • Other possible cards: Spiral Jacobs, Sisterhood, The Weaver, New Crobuzon Militia, Judah's Time Golem, Stiltspear's Gift.
As I've said, I'm not a designer and I don't pretend to be, so the full deck would need to be tweaked and considered. The goal is to simulate, if only faintly, Iron Council's focus on the lifecycle of social movements--how they grow from disparate sources, develop, become potent, and then fracture or are defeated. To that end, players should be pushed to cooperate up to a point by common goals, then be increasingly tempted in the endgame (as the Iron Council approaches New Crobuzon again) to betray one another, either in self-interest or out of the character's principle.

Iron Council is a rich story covering a wide set of characters and locations away from the perpetual train--surely a video game could tell its story far better? Perhaps, but two caveats make the narrower focus of the board game more appropriate. First, Mieville's imagery would be, I think, ill-served by fixing it into polygons. Take his description of the Bounty Man, for example, or the creation of the time golem:

It could not always clearly be seen. The crude rips in the temporal from which the golem was made gave it edges like facets, an opalescence of injured time. From some angles the train was hard to see, or hard to think of, or difficult to remember, instant to instant. But it was unmoving.
You know how that gets translated into a game engine: some translucent polygons, a volumetric fog, and a stylized blur effect. I can see that in my head, and the pleasure of the prose is lost.

Second, the group dynamic of a boardgame makes it more suited to the spirit of the novel, if not the letter. Mieville says in an interview with The Believer:

...one of the things that I think as a socialist is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with humans wanting to intervene in the world, wanting to exploit the world, wanting to change the world, wanting to bend the world to their will. What goes wrong for me is not that people want to do that, but that they do it under conditions of capitalism, which they don't control.
The interaction between players isn't formalized in a board game the way it would probably be in an electronic program. Under what conditions will they choose to operate? And more importantly, how could the game make them think about those conditions? I don't know for certain that my game would do it--but I doubt that video games, the mechanics of which tend to be steeped in capitalism, would have a chance. And it certainly couldn't compete with the assembly of a physical board in the same way, a process that evokes the spirit of intervention and exploration that Mieville's trying to portray.

Who else wants to talk?

March 31, 2008

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Vox in Socks

Here are three steps to better voice acting in games:

  1. Stop repeating yourself. I only want to hear a line of dialog once. After that, it's annoying. So if you're thinking about having someone say something every time I click a button, or select an option--don't.
  2. Fire the guy who does Mario's voice. He sounds like a weird mafia pedophile. It's creepy.
  3. Write better dialog.
The first two are highly recommended, but optional. The third is not.

Video games are b-movies. There's nothing wrong with that. I love b-movies. At their best, the point of a b-movie is that it's inclusive. It says: the people who made this are a lot like you. Remember when you thought that a fight between a werewolf and a cyborg leprechaun would be awesome? We thought so too. And because we only had $20 in our budget for it, we need a little help from you to make it work: if you can suspend your disbelief for an hour or so, this is gonna be great.

B-movie dialog is not good, in any kind of objective quality sense. But it's written with a kind of hard-edged desparation. For most b-movies, the only reason to have dialog is to find a way to either explain or lead into the next fight (werewolf vs. mutated shark! awesome!). Perversely, this singlemindedness often translates into less padding, fewer monologues, slimmer storytelling. Again, it's not good. But it knows why it's there, and it suffers no illusions of its own brilliance.

And that's the point. The typical video game operates on exactly the same goals as the b-movie, except that you get to choreograph the fight between the werewolf and the alien motorcycle (yes!). "Better" dialog doesn't mean exposing universal truths. It just means that if it ever gets in the way of the viewer/player/reader who just wants to enjoy some irritable lycanthropes, it needs to go.

I've spent a couple of years now recording non-professional voice talent for multimedia projects, and it's been educational. I've learned the little tricks to getting a decent, inoffensive performance out of people who have no real business being in front of a microphone. It's not usually great. But it's not terrible, either. I don't think there's much excuse for bad voice-acting. But I suspect the real problem is not that the voice talent is bad, so much as they're being forced on you through an excess of terrible writing.

Who else wants to talk?

February 27, 2008

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Out on the Dynamic Range

For this month's Round Table, Corvus has written about using ambient noise in a game. Basically, he raises two points: first, the perfect silence of silences in a video game is a flaw in their ability to suspend belief because the real world contains no perfect silences; and second, few games have used ambient noise as a gameplay mechanic.

As I mentioned in the comments, this is not really restricted to gaming--it's a variant of arguments over dynamic range that audio producers have been having for more than 20 years. Ever since people realized that heavy compression (of volume, not data) made songs on FM radio sound "louder" (because our ears actually hear the average amplitude, and not its absolute level), people have been complaining that dynamic range has been abandoned--a debate that became even more bitter with the advent of digital media, which has a hard-coded maximum dB level.

Indeed, the decision to go softer instead of louder is something that any form of media can--and no doubt has--use to accentuate a critical moment for the audience. You can even take it to extremes--on both With Teeth and The Downward Spiral, Trent Reznor includes a section on several songs that drops to barely a fraction of its previous volume, which is quite a shock when it returns to full blast. And The Wire is notable for its diegetic sound, meaning that any music or sound effects have to come from the environment around the characters. The lack of "sonic cues" means that the audience isn't constantly being told how to feel about the onscreen events, which fits in with the show's "all grey areas" mentality.

So while I agree whole-heartedly with Corvus' second point, that silence or ambient sounds could be used far better, it's hard for me to agree with his first: that ambient sounds should be explicitly modeled, or even used for crucial gameplay cues.

Many of the reasons are technical. It may be impractical to model environmental white noise for entertainment, for example, just due to the uncertain hardware on the player's side. There's already a lot of noise possible there--do you really want to add more? On many built-in soundcards, which is what most people will use instead of having an add-in card, the internal processing often takes place at 48KHz instead of the more widely-used 44.1KHz, so all sounds get resampled up and down during playback--not a high-fidelity process. Most soundcard amplifiers, which raise the level to full line-level for output, are noisy and terrible. The amps in speakers or most low-end sound systems are hardly better. And who knows how someone will listen to your audio? I once had a roommate who ran his laptop into a tape adapter plugged into a cheap Sony boombox. Few living rooms are great acoustic environments, and few consumer headphones are a decent replacement. And of course, all of this applies to consoles, which are just as likely nowadays to use the same kinds of components as a PC.

Now it's true that the magical "HD era" is upon us, and more people are using digital sound output and other solutions for moving audio from one place to another. But it's also true that not everyone--not nearly--has a nice HD set. And even when they do, who's to say that sound receives the same attention as video? I have an LCD TV that will run up to 1080i, but I still listen to my DVDs through its built-in speakers--in stereo, no less--and while they're certainly adequate they're also nothing special. It's a sad truth that audio doesn't get nearly the attention that video does, from either the consumer or the manufacturer.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's simultaneously a movement taking place that can't leverage high-def audio--namely, downloads. It's a funny thing--going 3D meant that art assets actually got smaller for a little while, and with procedural tricks you can do quite a lot visually with a little. But you can't make something out of nothing in audio, unless you're going fully synthesized--which is an intriguing idea, but unlikely to occur for a very large number of reasons (latency, processor-drain, and lack of specialized hardware, to name a few). This leaves anyone who is aiming for a download market to consider their audio options carefully, and more than likely means choosing from compressed audio.

I won't go into the whole process of psychoacoustic compression (you could read my AudioFile article for that), but here's the basic idea: MP3 and almost every other audio compression format actually work by figuring out exactly how much noise they can add before you'll notice it. It's not impossible to compress a file containing nothing but ambient sound, but you kind of have to wonder why you'd bother. You'd be better off trying to generate it, or try to produce it from the environment (Creative's ill-fated EAX was a first step towards doing so with modeled reverb), either of which would probably be extremely hard to do more convincingly than just relying on the trope of silence. After all, the brain actually filters out ambient noise most of the time--if you make it noticeable enough to overpower the existing noise floor of hardware and compression and the listening environment, it's probably going to sound pretty terrible--like a load of static hiss over all your samples.

It is funny, in a way, that we're having this discussion about actually adding noise, because most people don't realize how important noise is to even the "cleanest" of sounds. How does analog-digital conversion overcome rounding error in its samples? How does MP3 shrink file size? How do delta-sigma DACs turn those numbers back into sound? The answer to all of these questions is the manipulation of noise. Without noise, your digital audio would actually sound more distorted.

While we could argue whether I'm correct about all this from a purely technical standpoint, and heaven knows I've been wrong plenty times before, I think there are also practical reasons to not rely on soft audio cues for storytelling--urban living and accessibility. For the former, remember that a lot of people live in apartments or townhouses, and can't crank up the sound. These days, plenty of gamers have kids, or irritable spouses, or other assorted wildlife which (in the name of continued coexistence) means that they can't listen as carefully as they might like. Likewise, while deaf gamers are not a cohort that's going to drive a lot of sales, they do exist, as do audience members with differing degrees of hearing damage. What are you going to do, subtitle the ambient noises?

This is not to say that it's not a good idea to incorporate more realistic dynamic range into entertainments of all kinds. Subtlety and realism are always welcome, and if we really are going HD, then by all means let's do it right. Likewise, as someone who often feels that video production is overstressed compared to the audible element in almost all forms of media, I really do love having these kinds of questions raised. I'm pointing out reasons why they might not work, but it's also entirely possible that they might. I hope someone will prove me wrong.

I'll leave that point with an anecdote: a while back I wrote another one of these posts about how I'd always wanted to play a shooter that worked just with audio--forcing players to orient themselves using the stereo field. Soon after, I think someone referred me to AudioQuake, which tries to do exactly that. There's just one problem with AudioQuake: it doesn't work very well. Turns out that stereo isn't really enough information to place objects in space (at least for me, and I'd guess most other people), and the cues it uses to represent level geometry aren't exactly user-friendly. I mean, I know the first level of Quake pretty well, but I couldn't find my way around with my eyes closed at all.

Does that mean no-one should have made AudioQuake, that it was a waste of time? Not at all! It sounded like a good idea at the time. And it might still be. I can think of a number of additions that might make it feasible--comb filters and delays to mimic the actual response of sounds travelling past a person's head, for example (read more) but we won't know until someone (not me) actually tries it.

Who else wants to talk?

February 19, 2008

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Why We Hummed Along

This is a Round Table post, but it's kind of late: I started out thinking about low-fi sounds and it spiraled away from me, with the result that it's more in line with January's topic (soundtracks) than February's (ambient sound). Sorry about that.

An NES sound chip has 5 channels, says Wikipedia. That's two pulse wave synths at set duty cycles with pitch bending, a triangle wave, a white noise generator, and a delta pulse-width modulation (PWM) synth capable of doubling as a crude 7-bit PCM sound channel. These capabilities are not particularly extravagant. The noise generator is primarily good for special effects and simulating snare rattles or cymbal hits. The PWM channel is also usually used for the bass half of the groovebox. That leaves three melodic channels--and not three polyphonic MIDI channels the way that most modern synthesizers understand, but three monophonic (single-note) instruments to carry the tune.

As a result, there wasn't a lot of variation in the "tone" of the NES from game to game. There were occasional attempts to broaden the palette--mimicking flutes by taking the triangle wave up a few octaves, for example, or the chimes from the now omni-present Final Fantasy theme--but for the most part the instrumentation was static. Imagine that every rock band had to use the exact same equipment for making music, and you have some idea of what this is like.

So it's honestly impressive, if you waste an afternoon listening to NSFs ripped from old Nintendo cartridges (who, me?), how very different a game could sound, and how much composers managed to do with such simplistic tools. Metroid and Mario may share the same hardware, but they are radically different soundtracks. The former embraces the artificial sounds produced by the NES chip. It broods like a Moog Mini that's just had its lunch money stolen.

Super Mario, on the other hand--well, here's the thing about Mario: it's a victim of its own success. We've heard it so many times, either through the game series or through the many pop-culture references, that we're a little dead to its charms. But listen again to it again, and really listen this time:

I mean, that is a genuinely funky theme. Hear how the noise channel isn't being used to emulate drums, but instead creates something more like beatboxing? That's a distinctly NES-friendly move, and it also sounds to me like it pulls inspiration directly from the contemporary hip-hop of the early 1980's. But note that the rest of the arrangement would easily fit onto a clavi or a piano, with the left hand starting out in unison with the right's chords, then wandering off into a laid-back bassline before returning. I don't think it's a stretch to hear a little Stevie Wonder in there (even more so in the slap-bass riff of World 1-2). Sure, when he plays it live nowadays, composer Koji Kondo adds a little swing. Still, this is a far cry from the "beeps and boops" stereotype of 8-bit music, a reputation that the platform hardly deserved (and was primarily assigned by people who had hardly ever really sat down to listen to a game).

These are songs that have really stuck in the heads of people my age, whether they were really hardcore gamers or not. They became a standard. When Belle picked up my copy of New Super Mario Bros., practically her first comment was that they never have managed to get the music right again. Which is a funny comment, since the music capabilities of the DS, while still primitive, are leaps and bounds better than the older games. So why the nostalgia? Why the feeling that the new wavetable interpretations of the songs are somehow less appealing?

I think part of it has to do with the instrumentation, for both the listener and the composer. For my parents' generation, Switched-On Bach may have been the first real experience with electronic music, but for Gen X and younger it was the NES that introduced us to synthesizer tones. And while they may be rough and low-fi, the NES chip's channels have a kind of pleasing weight to them--when I hear analog synth junkies rhapsodize about the sonic characteristics of a Moog or a Prophet 5, this is what comes to mind. I think you really have to understand the NES platform as an instrument with its own distinct sound, compared to today's sample-based consoles.

For composers on this bare-bones hardware, it was clearly a struggle to translate their traditional music chops to such a spare set of sounds. And many of them failed, leaving us with a legacy of generic techno music that lasts to this day. But the successes fused great songwriting onto a new palette, one that was as much defined by its constraints as by its capabilities. It forced the music to pull in new influences in order to overcome those limitations. I think you can hear the tension in the best examples of NES songwriting--that is, in those earworms that have stuck with us, and which become less exciting when they're allowed to stretch out on higher-fidelity platforms.

Who else wants to talk?

Another reason why this post is late is because initially I thought I'd already written a Round Table post about soundtracks: SKU'd Perspectives, which discussed P.N.03 and Jet Grind Radio, and how I want an action game with rhythm.

December 26, 2007

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Woman's Touch

I generally like the Round Table, if for no other reason than that it gives me a topic to write about, as opposed to my increasingly common writer's block. But this month's topic, gender, is a tough one to discuss fruitfully. What are we to do? Talk about how bad depictions of women in gaming continue to be? Lament the fact that this hasn't changed? Make fun of Barbie Adventures? Dissect Tomb Raider? Mock Chris Crawford again?

As fun as those might be, they make me tired. I'm not saying that someone else shouldn't do them. They are important roles to fill, all of them. But I'm not going to fill them. I've got nothing new to add there.

So let's talk instead about a gender-related success story that few people have played/will play, the Touch Detective games. I mentioned a while back that the first game has a lot of issues, but some genuinely funny moments, and I finished the second one about a week later. They are not good games, in the way that classic adventures like Monkey Island are good games, because the designers were more interested in setting up the story scenes than making it easy to figure out how to trigger them. So I don't necessarily recommend them to people, unless you're able to suppress your guilt reflex from using GameFAQs, at which point the two titles become a lot more enjoyable--particularly the second, which has much sharper writing than the original.

In an earlier link post, I referenced The Rule, originally from the comic Dykes To Watch Out For. The Rule is a standard for movies: does a movie contain two or more women who have a conversation together about a topic other than men? I don't recommend actually following The Rule (your entertainment options will be pretty barren), but it's sometimes helpful to think about it, and realize how few movies actually qualify.

Or how few video games. I think Half-Life 2 is a pretty great piece of work, and the character of Alyx Vance is certainly a step up from Elexis Sinclaire. But the designers of HL2 have also been remarkably transparent about the guts of these games, so we can't avoid knowing that Alyx is not just a character: she's a whole set of game design mechanisms, tweaked to provide feedback to the player according to a set of psychological principles. In other words, Alyx intrinsically breaks The Rule. Much of her primary purpose is to talk to, and talk about, the player (who, even if female, is virtually embodied in the male Gordon Freeman).

Although HL2 should make a fascinating post at a future point in time, today I wanted to talk about Touch Detective instead. And the reason is that while these games were not marketed as "for girls," almost all the characters are female. And perhaps more importantly, they're female without making their gender the defining characteristic of their personality.

So when Mackenzie, the "Touch Detective" of the title, wanders around her Tim Burton-esque town to solve cases (most of which involve her flighty friend Penelope), those interactions don't usually revolve around the fact that she's a girl. It's not that Mack is genderless: touch one of the dresses in the town boutique, and she'll note that she thinks it's cute (but wouldn't suit her). But when she's forced to find a way around a barrier, her age or size (she's still in middle-school, I think) is much more likely to be the sticking point.

It's astonishing how much this changes the dynamic of the game. I know we're all tired of talking about Tomb Raider, but contrast it with Lara Croft, who even in the Legend reboot and Anniversary remake faces an almost entirely male cast. Granted, not the best example, and I'll admit that. Still: when Lara trades lines and gunfire in cutscenes with male opponents, at best there's almost always a reference to her sexuality or appearance. At worst, there's sometimes a weird, quasi-rapist vibe to those scenes that makes them painfully uncomfortable to watch. Even if these were meant to show Lara triumphing in the face of chauvinism, they can't help but grate given the heroine's presentation and the cultural context surrounding the franchise.

In other words, what Touch Detective accomplishes that Tomb Raider does not is create a safe space for its female characters--this is the essence behind The Rule. Of course, in order to do so, it only had to remove almost all the male characters, put its protagonists in middle school, and embed the story in game mechanics that actively frustrate the player. If this is a success, it's a pyrrhic one.

May 22, 2007

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Ends and Means

Corvus's gaming Round Table this month asks about goals. I'm guessing he's talking about goals inside games. I'm more interested in the ones outside.

I just finished writing the documentation for Basin IT, a water policy simulator that the Multimedia Center put together for some clients. As a game, it's not terribly captivating--the primary aim was to provide a more accessible front end to the existing river basin model. But the goal for the designers was to teach a certain skill and let people explore a situation. The goal for players is to learn how to effectively manage their water policies. To some extent, although it is (as far as I know) factually based, Basin IT expresses a judgement about what management is effective, and that too is a goal.

This may be true of so-called "serious games," that they have a real-world goal, but it is also true of entertainment to a greater or lesser degree. We discuss fictional movies and books not only in terms of their story, but also the worldview that inspires them. Spielberg's War of the Worlds is not just a movie about Tom Cruise and his alien friends (no easy jokes! we are classy joint here!), but is also (supposedly) a comment on our reactions to September 11th. Snow Crash (like much science fiction) is stuffed full of opinions on religion, libertarianism, and private enterprise. Do these works say how the world is, or how it should be? Probably that's why they're art.

It's hard to get past the initial impressions of a video game to even ask the question of its worldview. You might be tempted to ask if Super Mario is Nintendo's expression of hatred for turtles. I suppose that's possible. But I was thinking more along the lines of the Crackdown review that PeterB wrote a while back, where he refuses to excuse its racist point of view just because the mechanics of the game are enjoyable. In fact, it raises the question of whether the subject matter is even more despicable because the designers have made it fun to be a fascist supercop.

I am hard on games that waste the player's time or give simple answers to simple questions. But I think we should be. Even if it's condescending to state that violence in games causes violence in real life, it isn't improper to ask what the violence is trying to say about the real world. Nor is it impolite for design teams to come out and place both their gameplay and storylines into a real-world context, as has happened before (Metal Gear) and may be increasingly common (BioShock, by all accounts, is partly a satire of Ayn Rand's capitalist Utopia).

But it is also to remember that popcorn entertainment is not devoid of goals and implications. Michael Bay's movies may be vapid and anti-intellectual, but that doesn't mean that they don't present a desired worldview--they most certainly do, evoking goals of misplaced machismo and derision for the weak or the cooperative. It's unclear whether this is how Michael Bay sees the world, or (more likely) how he wishes it could be. It is clear that something of the same worldview does dominate in electronic entertainment, although to what extend it has been either percieved or critiqued by its audience, I couldn't say.

Who wants to talk?

September 25, 2006

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Radio Killed the Video Star

Corvus' Round Table this month is on conventions in gaming. And I'm playing a platformer lately, so my first thought has been DEATH TO BOTTOMLESS PITS AND SPIKES! One could make the case that bottomless pits and spikes are the crates of platform games. Why are Mario and Sonic surrounded by deadly holes? Why would someone put big metal spikes on the ground where people could get hurt (besides the obvious gameplay reason)? It's like Evil Martha Stewart did their landscaping design ("Now I've made these lovely stainless steel impalement devices out of ore that I machined myself. The etching is a simple but homey touch.")

But we could be here all day if we wanted to talk about the gentle surrealism of vintage games. The holes exist for you to jump over them, just as the spikes appear for you to avoid them. These are not admirable reasons for a simulated existence, nor are they at all realistic, but they have a certain Zen appeal.

The convention I really want to discuss is removing the video from video games.

Not in terms of stopping the emphasis on graphics, or advocating for text-based interactive fiction. And I don't mean disavowing the electronic foundation. I like gadgets, and we should keep them around. Tendencies aside, I'm not a luddite.

Basically, when we think about video games, as the name implies, we usually assume that they involve moving images on a screen. Other elements are often remarkably flexible--they might use a non-traditional controller, or the images might just be text, the audio could be marginal or muted, but there's always a screen at which the player stares and interacts.

So what if we got rid of the screen instead?

I'm interested in this partly because I work in an office, watching video or using a computer all day long, and sometimes my eyes hurt. I can't look at another screen some days. And I'm also intrigued by it as a musician and an audio producer. I was thinking the other day about making some fiction podcasts, like 30's-era radio shows, as practice for my production skills, and then I thought: those shows presented stories and drama without visuals, just with creative sound design. Why couldn't they be interactive?

Think about all the Metro riders with white iPod earphones. Digital radio. Podcasts. Brian Eno creating system sounds for Windows 95. Napster being sued by Metallica. Digital audio is here to stay. Yet it's an odd fact that while digital video and interaction have become increasingly sophisticated, audio has actually become more primitive--MP3 and other lossy formats are more portable, but they're steps backward in fidelity and quality. Even as it surrounds us more completely, it's less enjoyable to hear.

I don't know what kind of form you could use. I have these ideas in my head about using acoustic processing (whatever happened to EAX? remember when that was supposed to be a big deal?) to make a bat-like echolocation shooter, but I'm guessing that's probably unworkable. Choose your own adventure? Conversation-based RPGs? Music-based? Bit Generations? Who knows? I just know that from the crowd of solitary, iPodded pedestrians out there, I think there might be a market.

Note: this is not my first audio-related round-table entry. I sense a theme!

Who else wants to talk?

August 14, 2006

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Keep it Casual

The topic of the Round Table this month is casual gaming. And that's a surprisingly hard term to pin down, because as other panelists have noted people can get pretty deep into other "casual" entertainments, like crossword puzzles or office softball or thermonuclear engineering.

But this is not ultimately different from other hobbies. I watch very little television. We could say that I am a "casual watcher." It's an entertainment of last resort, usually. But I have a few shows (Battlestar Galactica, Project Runway) that I follow fanatically. Are those just not "casual shows?" (Perhaps not. Don't think about this example too hard.)

I think (and half-remembered comm texts seem to back me up on this) that we seek out media that fills a specific need, much the same way that we look for "confirmation bias" in political sources. If our needs are filled by a game more strongly, then we might play it more seriously, even if it is technically a casual game. If we don't feel that craving often, or if other options are competing for time (explaining my fluctuating habits), we might play harder games in a lightweight, fleeting fashion.

It's not that games have become more casual, or that they will do so in the future. It's that they've gotten better at accomodating both types of playing habits. The Pokemon design trend means there's more to do (although arguably it's just more tedium) with any given title, for the hardcore players. For the less obsessive, save points have become more accommodating, levels aren't necessarily as long, and difficulty curves have flattened.

The first step in the trend was the tutorial level, which nowadays both introduces the game and its controls/mechanics. You didn't have to read a manual anymore. Then there's context sensitivity (hopefully displayed with onscreen prompts) so that I don't have to remember what button does what, if I pick up a game months after the last time I played it. Alternately, there's a buttonmashing approach, where the controls are easy and forgiving enough that a new player could just mash their way through--see: Tekken. I can't stand Tekken personally, I think it's the easy reader of fighters. But for a friend of mine, it's perfect, because he doesn't need to learn any combos or special moves. He starts a game every couple of months, maybe, has fun just reacting to the events onscreen, and then shelves it again. My friend is dismayed to learn that there are high levels of Tekken play, where people do learn combos and strategies, but at least he never has to learn them.

The point is that it's not an either-or proposition. There's the potential to play many games in casual spurts, or in long, dedicated sessions. The real development has been the fulfillment of that potential.

Who else wants to talk?

Future - Present - Past