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About the Archives

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to GAMBIT in the Thoughts category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Reviews is the previous category.

Videos is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Thoughts on Procedural Content Generation

This post originally appeared on Clara Fernández-Vara's blog Vagrant Cursor.

At the end of May, I gave a presentation on the underlying systems and tools that we used to develop the games Symon and Stranded in Singapore at the Procedural Content Generation workshop during the Foundations of Digital Games Conference. Most of the other presenters were computer scientists, as well as my friends. Thus I had a kind audience for this humanist to present the paper I wrote with Alec Thomson (now available online). Feeling a bit of the outsider in terms of background and methods, I also sensed the cultural differences between their approach and my own. In general, the presentations focused on generating the game (including mine). What I found considerably absent was a discussion of human factors: are these games playable? How does PCG transform how we make games? How does it change how we play them?


The workshop obviously had a technical focus, so when it came to talk about evaluating the systems, the discussion focused on how AI solvers / computer players were used to see if the game generated is consistent. Few of the presenters seemed to have used human players (more sophisticated and accessible AIs which you don't have to implement) to evaluate their systems. On the other hand, there were presentations that dealt with the systems exclusively, not really dealing with why this approach was better for games apart from the pre-existing arguments efficiency in creating more content with smaller teams.

I guess that the presentations at the PCG workshop were clear examples of the proceduralist stance in game development, since the discussion of players seemed to be out of the question. Many of these presentations are more hypothetical, and implemented as early prototypes, still far from being actual games. I'm not saying that this is bad, we do need this kind of studies and tools. It was also the nature of this seminar, which was grounded on computer science, and the expectation seemed to be focusing on the systems and not players.

Throughout the workshop it became evident that we also need the space between procedural generation of content and evaluating that content through playtesting. After two years of working on games using PCG, the conclusion is that, in our case, we can generate procedurally generated narrative puzzles. It's a lot of work, but it's true it's only half of the work. The other half is making them playable and fun. For that, I have less faith on AI and more on actual humans designing and playing.

I'm advocating the creation of a research space closer to HCI, where we study how procedural generation actually affects game design and gameplay. There is a need to study how the process helps both designer, the design process and the players. We need to see this in games that can go beyond academic experiments, that are played by people who don't know and probably shouldn't care that these games are part of research. Reaching out beyond the academic sphere is not easy: there's Facade and Prom Night, and my own games Symon and Stranded in Singapore. (If there are more, please let me know in the comments!) We cannot feel snug about creating a system and making a game that our friends will play. If we want to make an impact on game development and design, we must take it a step further, we need to evaluate how games using PCG are played by people who are not those who developed the system.

There are already some easy questions that we can start looking into:

  • If we think of content as something like puzzles, or level design, how do we provide cues for interaction to players? Think of hints to solve a puzzle, or user feedback about where to go. This is a common problem--Gillian Smith had run into these issues as well during the development of Endless Web. We can certainly design a system to provide these cues and feedback, but the best way to do it would be studying how players interact with the game first.

  • What are the aspects of game development that can use procedural generation best? Design? Art? Code? QA? Writing?

  • All the designers I can think of working on PCG come from computer science. How can we make procedural content generation accessible to non-programmers, or at least people who don't have a strong background on CS?

  • What mechanics and fictional worlds fit PCG best? I believe PCG is one approach to game development, but not the only one. After working on Stranded in Singapore, one of the conclusions was that it was really hard to design puzzles to be procedurally generated when they were based on the real world. Dreams, on the other hand, seem to be a good match for PCG, as seen in Symon and Endless Web.

These are the immediate questions that come to mind, based on my experience making games. I have a few preliminary answers for some of these, but we need to expand our thinking on what PCG means with relation to games.

The workshop taught me (amongst many other things) that many of the people working on PCG already take playtesting as part of their process. There were also slides that made my blood curdle, which reduced human behaviour to mathematical formulas. One presenter had a formula for "fun" depending on the type of player (who I'm guessing it's also determined with another mathematical formula). Another presenter called the story "filler" in the context of RPGs, which can be just generated to give you a motivation; when I called him out, he admitted that it may not be the best term. The fact that human feelings and behaviour are reduced to numbers, and that narrative is considered filler, may be symptoms of the subconscious disregard certain computer scientists may have for human behaviour. This is one of the dangers of focusing on the procedures so much: look at the screen for too long and one loses sight of play as a human activity, doesn't question how our brains and hearts fill the gaps so that we don't have to really generate all the content, and stops giving enough credit to players. By approaching fun and storytelling as things that are generated mechanically, negating that fun is an awfully vague concept (and non-quantifiable), and that stories are not only about events but about worlds and the people in it, we're heading towards playing with mathematical formulas empty of human meaning.

I'm probably preaching to the converted--most of my friends working on PCG will talk about their playtests and what they learned from them. This post is calling out a certain type of discourse which, also necessary, also seems to leave out the humanity of games. Rather than complaining (too much) about it, we should see this as an opportunity to opening up a new area of study. The combined study of procedurally generated content and human-computer interaction is waiting to happen.Who's up for it?

Ten Years of Civ II: Why Procedurality is Insufficient yet Critical

The Internet (well, the part of it I care about anyway) practically exploded this morning in response to the 10 year Civ II game.

If you haven't read that article yet please do so now, as I'm going to assume you are familiar with it for the rest of this post.

While I certainly found the story interesting, especially since I've been reading Noah Wardrip-Fruin's excellent book "Expressive Processing," I have been wondering why everyone has found it so compelling. On Twitter Chris Remo called it "breathtaking," and this doesn't seem to be an isolated case of hyperbole.

So what is it about this particular game of Civ II? I think that the answer is pretty straightforward, but is interesting in light of a recent game studies debate.

It seems pretty apparent that we (myself included) find this instance of Civ II compelling because it resonates with our fears regarding our own future. With Stanford biologists recently claiming that the current state of the world is unsustainable, recent economic pressures, climate change and general environmental destruction, in this game we see our potential future. It looks like a real possibility, and it scares us. This fear is amplified by the fact that it comes from a medium so many of us are so attached to, and furthermore, from a simulation that many people don't realize is as ideologically charged as it is. It's a bit like predicting the Super Bowl with the most recent Madden game. As Ian Bogost might say, people reading this story are working through simulation fever, asking themselves what it might mean that Civ II predicted this (feasible?) outcome for us.

What is fascinating to me about the reaction to this game is how it appears in light of recent game studies discourse in the wake of Migel Sicart's fascinating "Against Procedurality." As the argument goes, proceduralists believe that the meaning of a game arises primarily, if not only from, the rules and mechanics driving it. On the proceduralist side, games researcher Mike Treanor has perhaps most openly embraced this viewpoint.

The reaction to the 10-year Civ II game shows one of the major shortcomings of the proceduralist stance: the meanings that people make of games depend heavily on the context in which the games are perceived. I highly doubt anybody would care about the Civ II game if it did not seem so real, so possible, and it only seems this way because of the world we live in and how we understand it. If I played a game of Civ II for ten years and it ended in a utopian paradise, would anyone care?

I don't wish to throw-out procedurality entirely, though. As is often the case, the truth lies in the middle. This instance of Civ II is important to us because the rules of the simulation enabled it to happen AND because of who we are and our experience of the world. It is the sum of what the game is and how it works AND our own selves that make it meaningful. Subtract either and the meanings that so many are finding it, the meanings that make the story compelling, are gone.

From debates on Twitter I've realized this was not as clear as it should have been. I will blame writing quickly, but own it anyway and leave the original unchanged. My goal with this piece was to be a reminder that meaning construction is a collaborative process.

Many say that the "proceduralist" is a strawman, and they could be right. But I've met people who believe the game is everything, and I've met people who believe the game is nothing and it's all on the user. I don't think either viewpoint is correct, and that most people don't hold such extreme views, but even at the extremes both are valuable.

And I forgot to add in the original that Mike does great work, and I highly recommend it.

Board Game Criticism Done Right

Anybody who has spent a reasonable amount of time in the video game world will likely, at some point, have realized our serious lack of thoughtful and intelligent video game criticism. Or if not that, then at least countless people pointing out that lack and arguing about it. Approximately a year ago designer Dan Cook created a bit of an Internet firestorm with his "A Blunt Critique of Game Criticism." I personally do not agree with everything Cook said (especially the need for criticism to be useful to designers), but I mention it to highlight the fact that this is a continual topic. This is not to say that nobody is trying, of course, and collections such as The Well Played journal have been wonderfully helpful in advancing the practice.

As much as the video gaming world lacks solid criticism, however, the board game world does doubly so. However, one of my favorite thinkers and writers on BoardGameGeek, who goes by "Nate Straight," has recently posted an article entitled "What is / are Roads & Boats?--An attempt at ludomorphology.".

This piece is a fascinating look at one of my all-time favorite board games, Roads & Boats, an enormous, impossible game of logistics, route building and resource management. I am amazed it exists at all, the high prices it fetches on the aftermarket are a testament to how small the market is for such a game (and hence how small the print runs have been).

But to return to Straight's piece, it has what I believe to be the three components essential to solid games criticism.

1. A thorough description of the game. Straight does not just describe how it works, but why it works, and the consequences thereof. This naturally leads to a discussion of strategy, which reveals a deep understanding of the game. I am quite familiar with Roads & Boats, but Straight's article lead me to rethink what I thought I understood about it.

2. Context. Straight also puts on his media archaeology hat and argues for a lineage from which R&B was derived. He smartly avoids the intentionalist fallacy by showing where the game fell historically, while implying inspiration by highlighting similar mechanics. As such the article traces a history of route building and resource management mechanics in modern European board games. This is a method I am quite fond of (links to a .pdf), and one that I feel game studies could benefit greatly from.

3. Outside knowledge and information. Straight's piece is not just an analysis based on a deep understanding of play, but by bringing topology into the discussion he helps the reader understand where he is coming from and how he understands the game, while also giving them a new tool for understanding other games.

My one critique stems from the glossing-over of the wall mechanic, which is the major way players can negatively affect each other. Straight does mention it, however this particular mechanic can create situations where the game spirals downward from planning and management to spitefulness and bickering. When this happens everybody's score suffers, but the potential for it to happen (and I have seen it happen) is a defining attribute of the game. In other words, players have the ability to affect a near-collapse of the system by making resources inaccessible and in doing so severely limiting their own progress. That the game enables this sort of petty, very human behavior, but does not at all require it, is in itself fascinating. Your civilization can collapse because of your own greed or spitefulness, and I find that very compelling.

However, overall I find Straight's article to be a deeply intelligent and well thought-out look at a landmark game, and a solid example of effective board game criticism. I do not doubt I will be showing it to my students in the coming years.

Warm Praise for The Snowfield

A few weeks ago our summer 2011 game The Snowfield was chosen as a Student Showcase Finalist at the Independent Games Festival. I was Product Owner on the project, I want to share some of responses we've gotten so far.

Cold, Comfort, Harm: The Snowfield - Rock, Paper, Shotgun
In the Bleak of Winter: The Snowfield - The Nocturnal Rambler
This Week's Best PC Games - PC Gamer
And Then the Whimper: The Snowfield - SPACE-BIFF!
The Snowfield is a Haunting and Mysterious PC Game - GameThunks

There's a lot of good praise here, and a lot of valid criticism. Two things stand out for me.

The goals of the project was to create an open and emergent system, the theory being that this would encourage players to tell their own stories. In the end we weren't able to implement a lot of the depth and complexity we'd planned for, but we did try make the few simple mechanics and behaviors we had as evocative as possible. The going assumption in commercial game development is usually that narrative evokes emotion, but we wanted emotion to evoke narrative, to motivate players to dramatize their experience in the retelling. This quote from the SPACE-BIFF! blog does exactly that:

At one point I brought a soldier the letter he had been muttering about (or was it just any old letter, written by some other sweetheart to some other brave boy?). He stood there for a few seconds with the paper pressed to his face while I trembled and hoped to return to the warmth of the fire. He took so long that I turned away and began to head up to the bombed-out house where a few fellow soldiers had congregated. My conscience caught up to my numbness and I turned back to retrieve him. But he was gone, disappeared into the bitter grey.

I was also heartened by the write-up at The Nocturnal Rambler, for mentioning that The Snowfield reminded him the devastating final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Aside from real historical research, the two main inspirations on The Snowfield were the British sitcom Blackadder and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, both wickedly damning portraits of an especially damnable war. They are the two pieces of popular media that made me aware of WWI as a great human tragedy, and we tried to imbue some of their uncompromising sensibility into the game.

The Snowfield was an overly ambitious project, but that's typical of a lot of experimental games. Even though we accomplished a fraction of what we envisioned, it's nice to see the release version having impact on people. You're always so close to a project you're involved in that it's hard to know whether it works for an audience at all. Though I feel there's still a lot of untapped narrative potential in the project, the feeling evoked is apparently so strong for some it hardly matters. Also context, the fact that The Snowfield is being read against commercial war games, seems to lend it additional impact. It had never occurred to me, as one blogger mentioned, how few games (if any) deal with the aftermath of battle.

Dice Are Fun; rand() Isn't.

I am a longtime fan of Games Workshop's Blood Bowl, an American football-inspired miniatures game set in the Warhammer universe. In the game, each player controls a team made-up of characters from a fantasy race, such as dwarves, orcs, elves and humans, among myriad others. Gameplay is turn-based, and the object is to get the ball into the opponent's endzone, thereby earning a touchdown and scoring 1 point. Each team has sixteen turns, and at the end the team with the most points wins.

The game is almost entirely dice-driven: if you want to do anything other than move a player through empty space, you're going to have to roll dice and deal with the outcome. The rolls are affected by your player's various statistics, skills, and proximity to hostile players. Most of these rolls use standard six-sided dice, with a set of special "block dice" to use when players hit each other. The game is in fact extremely violent: it's not uncommon for a player to die during the match, and some players bring a variety of weapons with them onto the field. The secret to being a successful Blood Bowl coach is knowing how to weight all these random factors in your favor, and when to take risks. Nothing is ever guaranteed, of course, and you have to accept that when you sit down to play.

This mix of randomness and violence leads to a game characterized by tactics and mayhem. Indeed, one of the game's great appeal is its hilariously juvenile world that has been built-up over 25 years. It is both a wonderful satire of modern sport culture and downright funny in its own right. Just mentioning "Blood Bowl" to someone in the know always elicits a smile. This point is especially important: that the game is often fun because it is so chaotic and unpredictable, and most Blood Bowl players I know have one or two great stories about how the dice saved, or ruined, the day.

Luckily for us fans of the game, in 2010 a new digital version came out on multiple platforms. Digital Blood Bowl dates back to the mid 1990's: I mostly learned the game playing an MS-DOS version. Recently I've been playing the PSP version, leading a team of Wood Elves through the campaign mode (and kicking quite a bit of ass, if I do say so myself). Playing this way has lead me to think a lot about the social nature of play, and to realize that how I interpret randomness in a game is heavily context-based. To illustrate this, I offer the following anecdote:

Early in the campaign, there was a moment when the ball was mid-field, stuck in a mess of players and not moving anywhere easily. It was the AI's turn, and while it is not particularly good, it managed to break a hole in my line. One of their players ran through the opening towards my endzone, and blitzed one of the linemen I had left behind for safety. The block die came up "both down," both players failed their armor rolls, and both rolled a 12 on the injury table. Yes, really.

In layman's terms: one of their players got into my backfield and hit one of my players so hard that they both died on the spot.

In some sense, this should have been an epic moment. I'd never seen this particular combination of results. Had I been playing at a table with a friend, this moment would have immediately become legend. We would have laughed and cursed for a good twenty minutes before resuming the game, and we would tell the tale to our friends and fellow Blood Bowl-ers for years. Songs would be song for the brave Dwarf so desperate to hit an Elf that he killed himself in the process. It would have been a truly amazing moment.

But, staring into a small screen by myself, all I could think was, "well, I can't afford to replace that guy," and all I could do was quit out and restart the game with an air of annoyance.

There are two reasons for this.

The first has to do with pace and feedback. Had this event happened in a tabletop game, there would have been a lot of suspense and tension around the dice rolls. Seeing the "both down" result, watching each player fail their armor checks, seeing the first player die, thinking and laughing about how great it would be if the other died, and then watching in amazement as those last two dice come up 6. Describing it now, I wish I could have seen it play-out that way. However, the PSP handles these rolls automatically, and displays a continuous text-based log of all the dice rolls and their results. Practically speaking, this event, which would have taken 2 or 3 minutes in a real game (which includes time to talk about what's happening and hope for a dramatic outcome), was over in 3 seconds.

The second has to do with our relationship to randomness. As humans, we never quite rid ourselves of the belief that we can somehow intentionally influence random outcomes. Every child who plays games believes that he or she has some degree of skill with respect to rolling dice or drawing cards, and as we grow-up we never quite shake that belief. In my gaming groups I'm a notorious roller of 1s. Whether or not I roll badly more often than anyone else I don't actually know, but we all share that belief anyway. In some ways these ideas are superstitious, but with dice there is also the knowledge that we did, in fact, make that happen. There is always the knowledge that if I threw the die a little harder, or maybe in a different direction, a different result may have occurred. The result may have been more-or-less random, but it's still my fault that the randomness went that way.

Playing such a game on a computer, however, removes all of these factors. Randomness was just random, and I really had nothing to do with it. Add in the fact that there is room for error in software - the constant suspicion of a bug somewhere - and the randomness becomes less exciting and more suspect: you start to wonder if bad luck is a bad bug, even though you know it's probably just luck.

In these respects, then, randomness in a game is very human. We find it fun because of our complex relationship to the way we generate these random values, and much of the fun comes in sharing that with other people. Computers dehumanize randomness, and games such as Blood Bowl, which rely heavily on dice, do not translate well into digital media. The Blood Bowl experience is simply better with another person across the table, not across the network.

I enjoy rolling dice on the table: their tactile nature, the sounds, the tension, and my own implication in the result. A random number function removes all of these elements, and leaves me wondering if I can trust it.

Digital Archaeology: Investigating the Spacewar! Source

Here at GAMBIT we've been working on a project that aims to replicate the first computer game written at MIT, Spacewar! In the process we've been learning a lot about the way that games were written for the machines in the pioneering days of computing.

Spacewar!Spacewar! is game of space combat created for the DEC PDP-1 by hackers at MIT, including Steve "Slug" Russell, Martin "Shag" Graetz, Wayne Witaenem, Alan Kotok, Dan Edwards, Peter Samson and Graetz. You can play the game running on a Java emulator here. You can also run the game on the Multiple Emulator Super System (MESS) implementation of a PDP-1 by following the instructions here. The Spacewar! source code we've taken as the base version of the game is also available through that site. Our goal, however, is to make a version of the game that runs on an Arduino that we can demonstrate in the foyer of the lab.

As part of this project we're trying to understand what's going on in the PDP-1 source code that the emulators use. This has meant teaching ourselves the PDP-1 assembly language MACRO from old manuals written in 1962. It's been slow going, because a lot of information is either buried in the technical documentation or was just assumed knowledge that has been lost over time. It's also been very rewarding though and creates a feeling of connection to the minds of those hackers back in the 60s.

Looking around on Google it seems there's not that much information on the Spacewar! source code, and in trying to understand it we've come up with a few tips that might help someone else out:

  1. Get the manuals for the PDP-1 and also for MACRO. They're available from the Bitsaver's archive and are very helpful. We have noticed that there seem to be errors in some of the example code in the MACRO manual, which were very confusing for me at first. The later examples, however, seem to be correct and are helpful in introducing some of the key concepts in the Spacewar! source.
  2. Look at the compiled version of source code. There are two listings of the Spacewar! source code. The spacewar.mac file is handy for reading clean code, but the spacewar.lst file contains translations of every instruction into machine code, which is very useful for understanding exactly what's going on with the layout of everything in memory, which in turn is critical for understanding a lot of the low level memory manipulation that the code does.
  3. MACRO inlines all macro definitions. The MACRO equivalent of functions are (somewhat confusingly) called macros. When you look through the .lst file you'll notice that wherever a macro was used in the .mac file MACRO has gone through and expanded it out inline by introducing temporary variables for each of the macro's arguments. This is what all the strange labels starting with "ZZ" are. Once you know this, reading the source code becomes a lot less confusing.
  4. All numbers are in octal by default. This took us a long time to work out, although we should have realized it sooner. Unless the MACRO directive "decimal" has been issued in a macro definition the assembler interprets all numbers as octal. All the machine code and addresses that are in the .lst file are expressed in octal.
  5. There is no stack. For programmers used to working at a C level of abstraction or higher, this was very confusing for us at first. As mentioned above, macros look like function when you write them, but when they are processed by the MACRO compiler they all get inlined. There is no stack pointer. There are no stack frames. Everything is just one big blob of data and instructions mushed together.
  6. Labels are used both for naming variables and controlling flow. This was very hard for us to wrap our heads around at first. As mentioned before, there is no separation in memory between data and instructions. A coder would just have to make sure that they never let the program counter point to a place in memory that contains data rather than an instruction. The Spacewar! coders will commonly use a label to name an address in memory that they want to jump the flow control to and they'll also use a label to refer to a memory location that they are only going to store data in. As far as we can tell there is no naming convention which distinguishes them. Sometimes data can be stored immediately next to instructions in memory. Thankfully, however, the majority of the game object data is stored in a big contiguous block of memory after the instructions, rather than being completely interleaved.
  7. Including the symbol "i" after an instruction makes it indirect. We never found an explicit statement of this, but I inferred it from looking at the opcodes in the .lst file. Indirect instructions take a memory address as an argument which tells them where to find the real argument. This idiom is very commonly used in Spacewar!
  8. Space delimiters mean addition. So for instance "law 1 3 5" is equivalent to "law 9". Plus symbols also mean addition!
  9. Parentheses define constants. MACRO automatically allocates some memory to hold the constant, stores its value there, and then replaces the constant symbols with the memory address of the constant. For instance when MACRO reads the instruction "lac (2000" in the preprocessing phase, it causes some memory to be allocated, say address 027703, and then stores 2000 in that address, replacing the original instruction with "lac 027703". This is all done prior to execution. We found this very confusing at first.
  10. Get used to seeing a lot of "dap". The instruction "dap x" deposits the accumulator contents into the argument portion of the memory address x. This lets you change the argument of the instruction stored at that memory address. One of the most common idioms that the Spacewar! programmers use is to manipulate the flow of the program by writing "jmp .", which is a command that says "jump to this address" (which would result in a tight infinite loop if it were actually execute) and then to use the dap instruction to overwrite the target of the jump from "." to some other address that they load into the accumulator. This makes it hard to look at the code and immediately tell what the flow control is going to look like without tracing the execution, since you need to know what the "." is going to be replaced by when the program is actually running. They use a similar idiom for loading data, for example writing "lac ." which if executed straight up would load the contents of the current address (i.e. the "lac ." instruction itself) into the accumulator, but they then use dap to conditionally change the target from "." to some other location that contains data that they want to operate on.
  11. Think in bits. Spacewar! is written very close to the machine. The programmers have used a frightening array of bitwise manipulation tricks that you don't often see in modern programming. They rotate bits in memory using bit-shifting so that they can store two short numbers in space normally used for one long number. They shift number representations around so that they're in the left or right side of a memory address depending on where a particular instruction call requires that it needs to be, which crops up quite frequently with the display instruction "dpy". They use clever number representations, such as 2's complement, to do fancy arithmetic tricks. They use MACRO to repeatedly double numbers in the preprocessing stage so that they get bit-shifted to the location in memory that they want before execution. They add together the bit codes of instructions to create combined instructions. These tricks are very rarely commented and working out exactly what this "clever" code is doing and why often requires a lot of poking around and reverse engineering.
  12. Use MESS as a debugger to understand what's going on. The MESS PDP-1 emulator maps ctrl + most of your keyboard buttons to the switches on the PDP-1. You can turn on the "single step" and "single inst." switches and then hit ctrl-p, which will cause the PDP-1 to go into debugging mode and let your step through the code line by line by repeatedly pressing ctrl-p. By reading off the "memory address" lights and converting from binary to octal you can look up where the program is up to in the .lst file and follow the program as it's being executed.

Working on Spacewar! is fascinating. The programming style is unlike anything we've ever worked on before and has certainly made us think about low level programming in a whole new way. For anyone who is interested in computing history and low-level programming we strongly recommend checking it out.

Reflections on A Closed World Criticism

The past month there has been much discussion and press about A Closed World, the summer project for which I served as game director this summer last. The response is overwhelming, by which I mean we are humbled by the attention we have received, and that it is difficult to maintain consistent correspondence with all who wish to discuss the game or have their specific questions answered. Truth be told, this latter burden has fallen harder on Todd than me, as I have been content to remain largely silent regarding my thoughts on the game. I felt that my role as game director afforded me the opportunity to have a voice on a compelling project, but the spirit and heart of the game belongs first with Todd as the caretaker of the goals, and with the talented team of developers we had working on the team during the eight week cycle.

This is in no way an attempt to minimize my involvement with the project. I'm proud of the game, and especially proud of the fingerprint traces I have left all over it. I think, especially when held up against other games I have been involved with at GAMBIT, a pattern emerges that marks my presence in the projects - specifically, the trace of a design approach that tries to emphasize and interrogate player subjectivity.

It is this design approach, and recent specific criticism of the game, that has compelled me to write this post voicing my opinion.

MorF.jpgMuch has been made of the game's opening monologue and the initial question: "are you male or female?" The most common criticism of this specific part of the game is that the question reinforces notions of a gender binary that excludes many for whom the male/female gender dichotomy excludes. Many suggest that they stopped playing the game upon being asked the question, and others couldn't or refused to see much beyond the question and the binary choice presented the player.

The language of the question is important. The game asks, quite simply "Are you male, or female?" The "you" in the question is intentionally obscure. Most players will immediately assume that the question functions as a basic character creation choice, that you are simply choosing a gender for your character. They assume that the gender choice at the start of the game will effect narrative aspects of the game, and specifically that it will shape the romantic relationships in the story of the game.

The question is more profound, and the criticism that transgendered communities are excluded by the binary mechanic speaks to the profundity of the opening statement. The question is asked in an attempt to frame the entire experience of gender in the game. It is meant to ask not only what is your classification, rather, and more importantly, how do you classify? The great challenge for me during the entirety of the project, as a person for whom questions of gender have never personally been at the fore, is how do we, as a society and as individuals, concieve of gender, and how do we present gender in games. The question is masked as a standard game mechanic of character creation, while trying to do much more. In asking the question we were trying to emphasize the players' subjectivity, and specifically, the players' personal notions of gender and identity.

The question works best when paired with the procedurally random assigment of gender to characters in the game. The frivolity with which the program assigns gender held against the boldness of the opening question creates a tension in the game that problematizes socially accepted notions of gender, gender roles, and more specifically how we conceive of and represent gender in games.

metroid_end.jpgAllow me an anecdote. I often reminisce about the surprise with which everyone discovered that Samus from Metroid was a woman. There is so much complexity wrapped up in the revelation that it is hard to untangle. We discover Samus is a woman because she either A) removes her helmet and has long hair, or B) removes her armor revealing her swimsuit. This early depiction of gender raises many questions. Is Samus' long hair and/or swimsuit an adequate signifier of her gender? Why would a community be surprised to discover that the protagonist is a female? To what extent does Samus' gender have anything at all to do with the experience of Metroid? For me, the instance of Samus speaks to the culturally situated notions of gender that we were trying to problematize with A Closed World.

As I mentioned before, a pattern has emerged with games that I work on at GAMBIT. With Seer, and more obviously with Yet One Word, a goal of the project was to cave in the screen and invite players to reflect on their playerness. I am particularly fond of games that do this. Dance Central and B.U.T.T.O.N. remind players of their subjectivity by emphasizing their very corporeality. Sports and many board games do something similar. As the steep incline of technology has driven digital gaming toward an emphasis on photorealism and surround sound, designers have pushed for a specific kind of immersion pinned to the virtually real; forever chasing the Holodec. For me, I am interested more in games that are immersive not because they transport, rather because they reflect and force the players' gaze back on themselves as subjects. Indeed, it seems to me that this is a strength of interactivity, creating meaning by reminding players of how they are interacting.

For many, this has worked. Players have remarked at their surprise when they found themselves making assumptions about gender in A Closed World. The game invited these players to reflect on their own conceptions of gender, and how they were applying their notions to their experience of the game.

We have said, and it bears repeating, to the extent that we could, we wanted A Closed World to raise questions, not to provide answers. For me, the strength of the project is not in the narrative at all. Indeed, many of the accusations levied against the game's story, that it's overly reductive, simplistic, and possibly trite, have some merit. Hey, stories are very hard. For those looking for a game about gender and sexuality power dynamics, about the oppressive cultural hegemony of our heteronormative society, or about the deep personal challenges constantly faced by marginalized individuals, I fear this game may leave you wanting. Some of the expectations for what the game meant to accomplish may have been confused by our paratextual rhetoric surrounding the game, which we are continuing to iterate on and improve. Also, if you are looking for a robust and detailed procedurally profound combat system, you won't find it here.

Where A Closed World shines for me is in how it invites players to reflect on their conceptions of gender. We start the game by emphasizing gender only to deemphasize it procedurally, attempting to turn the tables on the player that they might consider what their expectations were going into the game, and how those expectations may be challenged. The turn may seem simple, but I believe it is elegant in its reflective capability. That people, through playing the game, have been asking these questions, of us and of themselves, suggests to me that we may have accomplished that goal.

What's in a name? Making an #Occupy board game at the Cardboard Jam.

Cardboard Jam pitch board - OCCUPY I was happy to host the second Cardboard Jam at the GAMBIT Game Lab with Darren Torpey of Boston Game Jams (and Boston Indies and countless other Boston game development groups). Sixteen local developers, researchers, and students joined us for two days of rapid iteration of board, dice, and card games. After a few hours of brainstorming and pitching ideas to the group, we coalesced into five teams and spent the remaining 20 hours creating games. By day one's dinner time, we were trading people around to test all of the games. All five games were finished and playtested by the end of the game jam, with rules and pieces that could be picked up and played by others.


The theme of our game jam was Occupy. I emailed Darren the week before the game jam started and pitched the theme to him - I've been keeping up with the Occupy events around the nation, especially OccupyWallStreet and OccupyBoston. He liked it and so it was then presented to the jammers at the start of the brainstorming session. They came up with dozens of ideas; some pitched mechanics for which 'occupy' was a good fit and others pitched fictions and themes based on the word. Having a verb as our theme was useful in that all of our pitches seemed to gel well with the theme.

We grouped the pitches by shared aspects and from there the jammers formed into teams. My team of four chose to explore a two mechanics: Conway's game of life and RoboRally-style programmed moves with cards. We placed these two pitches next a few other cards that were similar and got to work. One of these related cards was a pitch I came up with, where the players could be groundskeepers at a park during OccupyWallStreet and the NPC actors as police and protesters. I never mentioned this theme again to the team, but I think it was in the back of my mind throughout the event.

Continue reading "What's in a name? Making an #Occupy board game at the Cardboard Jam. " »

Knowing When to Compromise

So as some of you may know, or have read or heard about, this summer at GAMBIT I am the product owner of a game design team, in order to do some research on why queer/LGBTQ characters and themes aren't making it into games. If you read "Playing It Straight" in Edge back in October, you probably know what sparked me to want to do this. I am in the weird position of being an ethnographer studying the process of my team (who are all great) and being the person who the team is supposed to be appeasing, if that makes any sense. I often have to quell the urge to get too involved.

An issue came up Wednesday that I wanted to discuss because of its broader implications, which is the nature of our in-game protagonist.

A major inspiration for our game has been old SNES-era RPGs like Earthbound, and so the team has been at work developing enemies, the setting, the main character, and the encounters that make up the meat of such a game. They've had a ton of great ideas, most of which I don't want to get too deep into, especially since we're only halfway through the 8 week creative process, and I don't want to open up my team to critique before it's time. I also can't share any of the assets they've made with you until the game is done. But it is enough to know that they've been working hard on concepting out these ideas.

Part of the challenge of this process is that the GAMBIT summer program is only 8 weeks long, and so we are constantly under that Sword of Damocles; a really common thing to hear ourselves say is "That'd be a great feature! If we have time, let's put it in!" and then quietly we accept that the time probably won't materialize and that's okay. We're going to make the best game we can in the circumstances. Well, one of the features that I asked for in the game but which we really had to give a low priority was selectable gender for the player's avatar.


Sexual identity and gender identity are inextricably linked, and separating them is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. It's also worth noting that, at least in mass media in the US, homosexuality is often conceived of as a white, male, upper middle class phenomenon, though lesbians are increasingly visible. But queer people of color and lower socio-economic status are often pushed aside, and transgendered and bisexual individuals usually get cut as well. There are many reasons for this, and not all of them necessarily appropriate for this post. It is enough to say that we have every reason to want to include a range of experiences in our game, and not contribute to the trend of queer content being mostly about white men with money to burn.

To that end the team decided to design a main character who was purposefully androgynous, so that the player could read whatever gender they wanted into the avatar. This was a decision I was behind; to me it was a compromise that wasn't quite as good as being able to create what you wanted, but which was (unlike that feature) likely to make it into the game in the time we had and which contributed to the ideals of the game. Now, that's the first part of this equation.

The second is that we are also starting to address what is the most critical, and most challenging, part of this process: getting the queer content into the game. Without talking too much about our plans, part of our current thinking is that there will be, at some point in the game, short scenes from the in-game avatar's memories that establish the avatar as a queer character, and that the memories would be resonant with the experiences of queer people... in as much as that's possible, since there is nothing like a "universal queer experience." The best we can offer, I believe, is a series of experiences that many queer people can look at, and feel a degree of empathy and resonance with, but which also involve themes that any player can relate to and understand. It is, as with many decisions about this process, not perfect, but as close as we can get. Creating this game has been, I have found, a series of compromises.

This week we had a very tight deadline, because at the GAMBIT Open House yesterday every team's games were playable by the public for the first time, meaning we were soliciting public feedback. Everyone was under a time crunch to get something that, while perhaps not polished, is enough that we can get good feedback about the game to head into the second half of the program. One of the things my team worked on Wednesday afternoon was creating one of those scenes, describing a time when a queer person's identity might make them feel inadequate somehow.

It's tough to do, especially since for the moment we're trying to use only images, not words, but what we discovered while talking it through is that working within the restriction of an androgynous main character was introducing a particular set of challenges to the process. As I said before, gender identity and sexual identity are very tightly knit. Part of the challenge is that we have to establish the character as queer inside the context of the mini-scene. But how can that be easily done, in a way that is reasonably able to be understood by the average player?

This is a legitimate challenge and I think it's more at the core of these issues not appearing in games than any sort of institutional homophobia among either devs or players. As my game director, the awesome Abe Stein, said during our prototyping work this spring, "Unless they're actually having sex on screen, how do you know? How does it get said?" It's the question that's dogged us. If you want to establish a character as gay or lesbian in a social world, how do you do that without establishing, even in some small way, their gender expression? For bisexuals this is even more complicated, and I would dare say that gender expression and its relation to one's identity is at the core of the issues transpeople face. In short: can we actually accomplish this with an androgynous character?

It's important that the team finds a solution that works for them; the game is as much theirs as it is mine... probably more so, considering they're behind the creative work. I didn't want to say "yes, keep the androgyny" or "no, pick a gender," because I don't want to limit their creativity, nor underestimate their ability to find a creative solution. I want them to go at the problem with all their effort, and find a solution that they're comfortable with. That said, as I left them to think this afternoon, I did say that it might be in order to tell the story they want (and, in some part at least, that I want) to tell, an androgynous main character might be more liability than good. What I asked them to do was weigh the pros and cons of the situation, then decide.

But that conversation haunted me all the way home. I make no claims that my little game is going to change the universe, no matter how incredibly awesome my team is. In fact, I said multiple times during our prototyping phase that if we fail, even that is still "useful" because I am studying the process and not the result, though that is what I call my 'inner ice-cold sociologist persona' coming to the fore. The truth is I want our game to be socially responsible; Abe uses the word 'tasteful' in this instance, and that's not entirely off the mark. If we slip into old tropes just to make a game with some queer content, that's a "part of the problem instead of the solution" scenario.

That said, I wonder where the line of compromise is, because part of this research is to examine how the constraints of the process can affect creating queer content, too. And compromise is at the heart of any text that's produced. My friend, talented writer Karen Healey, had to deal with a very similar sort of scenario regarding the cover of her debut novel Guardian of the Dead. What's the point at which you say "Okay, I am an advocate for [x], but I understand that to make what I want happen, I have to give in and accept compromise position [y]"? It's tough, and any decision you make sort of gives you that pit of the stomach feeling you get when you're forced to give up something you really want, just to make something else work.

Part of me is asking myself, "If our game goes out with a white male protagonist, have I done the community a disservice?" I don't know the answer to that. I want my team to find their own answer to that, too, and as long as it makes sense I will back their play. But I thought that this dilemma really gets at the heart of why I'm doing this research in the first place, and why I think this is a genuinely difficult thing for game designers out there to do right now. If we want to see these characters and themes make it into games, we need strategies to deal with the difficult and often ambiguous issues that come with crafting games where sexual identity is meaningful in some way.

The Conversation Continues: On Disciplinarity

Following up on our previous "digital conversation" regarding design, we felt it would be nice to continue the dialogue by adding a new voice. This time our friend Doug Wilson from IT University of Copenhagen joins the fray as we dissect the notion of "game studies" as a discipline, and explore the interdisciplinary nature of research on games.

Abe:I have been thinking about "game studies" as an academic discipline relative to other, older, more traditional educational departments like Political Science, Anthropology, Sociology, or Philosophy. The fact is, many game studies scholars are approaching video games from different perspectives with drastically different theoretical lenses and research methods. The single unifying thread tying various scholars in the game studies domain is the supposed object of their inquiry: games... no wait, players! Crap... never mind.

While this certainly makes for some exciting conversations, one of my concerns is that with so many scholars approaching game studies from so many different directions, it becomes hard to have a coherent conversation. For example, someone might write a text that is approaching games from a philosophical lens, in the most traditional of senses, positioning his/her argument somewhere in a long history of broader philosophical discourse. To fully understand such a text, one would need to read it within a certain philosophical context. Simply reading the text as a "game studies" document, would be limiting. This is fine for someone who wants to put in the time reading and becoming familiar with Philosophy as a course of study, but what about everyone else?

With so many lenses, so many methods, and so many perspectives, how could anyone be accurately categorized as a "game studies" scholar? Nobody would have the time to familiarize themselves with the entirety of thought necessary to be so broad an academic. Would it not be more useful to be aligned with others who are working in the same discipline, that is to say, philosophers studying games with other philosophers, sociologists studying players with other sociologists, and anthropologists studying games played with other anthropologists?

Is game studies a legitimate "discipline"? And should we even want it to be one? These questions have been addressed many times before, perhaps most famously by Espen Aarseth in his 2001 editorial for the very first issue of the Game Studies journal. For Aarseth, the question seems to be inextricably intertwined with academic politics. He worries that "the fundamentally unique aspects of the games" will be overlooked if left to the analyses of other, already existing fields.

(If I could give stage directions in a blog post, I would write here: cue 2001 era "ludology vs. narratology" dispute).

For me, however, the question inevitably leads back to a more general one: how should we structure interdisciplinary research? And when and why does an interdisciplinary endeavor become its own stable discipline?

On this question, I can only share my own personal struggles. Currently, as a PhD candidate, I find myself immersed in design theory, political science, and contemporary art - three fields which I only grazed in my previous educations (a self-designed BA in "digital humanities" and an MS in computer science). As a result, I worry constantly that I might be misreading a certain theorist, or that I might be naively rehashing old debates. To compound this problem, I do my work at IT University of Copenhagen's Center For Computer Games Research, an interdisciplinary group that houses researchers from a diversity of fields such as artificial intelligence, sociology, philosophy, and interaction design. This means that I have few colleagues who are able to give me thorough, literature-grounded feedback on my work. For better or worse, I find myself in a situation where I am largely on my own.

I do think this constellation of disciplines works well for project-based research. In our department, for example, several computer science and serious games researchers are teaming up on large international multi-disciplinary projects. Humanities-based research, by contrast, still seems to be a very solitary, individualistic endeavor. Or at least that's the prevailing culture. You write your manuscript, solicit feedback, publish it as a book, then repeat. If I can be frank, I'm not convinced that I have the suitable training for that kind of work. I've always viewed myself as more of a "glue" person, amplifying and connecting the ideas of collaborators.

Thus, Abe, I'm inclined to agree with you. As far as "basic research" goes - especially basic research in the humanities - I do think it might be more useful to frame one's work within more "traditional" disciplines. Speaking from personal experience, I do worry that my academic work has suffered from my lack of grounding in a "home base."

Speaking as a practicing game designer, however, my interdisciplinary background has served me very well indeed! It has been tremendously empowering to be able to pull from disciplines as disparate as computer science, design research, and art theory. Moreover, my ability to "speak the language" of multiple disciplines has made it easy for me to collaborate with different types of people (i.e. programmers, artists, musicians, etc). Game development is, after all, a highly interdisciplinary endeavor.

In summary, I don't think it's a coincidence that my PhD research (e.g. here) has ended up focusing so intently on my ongoing design practice. That wasn't the plan when I originally applied for the PhD, but it makes sense that my deeply interdisciplinary background would be better geared to project-based work. As such, I suspect that the answer to your question, Abe, might be: it depends on what kind of research you hope to do!

Interdisciplinarity is certainly a big word around video game development and studies. Comparative Media Studies, the academic department that GAMBIT is affiliated with, puts enormous emphasis on interdisciplinary work. Doug's history is a perfect example of the advantage of this kind of work.

But as Abe has hinted, the multitude of scholars working under the guise "game studies" runs the risk of dilution. Subscribe to the DiGRA mailing list for a weekend (why is it always busy on the weekend?) and you will see many people arguing vehemently from a variety of perspectives, and it's hard to say whether anything is ever accomplished. I think this is at least partially because of the vast differences between subscribers. Hence the importance of indicating where you are coming from and what your perspectives are.

This line of thinking leads me to another point: I sometimes whether now is a good time for the study of "games" generally. The problem is that "games" is an enormous category including, at the bare minimum, both human experience and cultural artifacts, and it is easy for a theory applicable to one game to break down upon application to another. The field desperately needs more genre- and medium-specific studies of games, and those studies need to proclaim their perspective and focus. Interdisciplinarity is certainly valuable, but if I am attempting to describe a board game, and Abe is trying to apply those ideas to baseball, something is going to be lost in that communication. Similar problems occur when comparing games across (or even within) genres. As another example, in response to Abe and I's last conversational blog post, we had an interesting discussion with Doug on Twitter, and it became apparent that we were even operating under different understandings of "rules" - understandings that where shaped by our respective backgrounds, interests, and areas of research.

While this sounds pessimistic, I actually think it represents an enormous potential for widespread investigation, experimentation and research. "Game" is an extremely broad term and there is room for people with all manner of background and interest. I think a simultaneous mix of diversification and specialization - more people studying more games more specifically - would be invaluable in that it would create a stable base for the field.

It may be that I am the biggest pessimist of we three, for I am very afraid of the dilution of a scholastic field like game studies. I am often found asking for some higher standard, some greater sense of rigor in the realm of game studies, one I would be greatly challenged to live up to myself. Indeed, I often find myself slipping into the comforts of lazy analysis or reporting - the comforts of working over ideas without taking the time to dig deep enough into the history of the topic. Shame on me. Perhaps this is why I find myself trying to focus my work on the realm of sports and sports video games from the perspective of cultural anthropology, to have a stronger sense of home.

It comes back to this concern I have that without a well structured, historical and contextual lens, we may not even know in what direction we are looking. I try hard to imagine what a standardized "game studies" curriculum could be: what exacting standards, what theoretical frameworks, and what history would define expertise in the field. Regrettably my thoughts darken and I inevitably envision top ten lists of important video games, that regurgitate the same narrow, fan informed perspective. Can we agree that it is no longer enough to simply like games, or even to eloquently critique them, rather we need to ground analysis in a history of thought? But what history then?

I agree with you both about interdisciplinary emphasis. Starting my work in video games as a sound designer surely taught me the importance of all the constituent parts of game design. That said, I still feel that theory necessarily depends on the works of predecessors. This is the nature of philosophy. I think some of the conflict comes from the conflation of the study, and the creation of games. That, however, is another huge discussion.

Abe, I suspect that some of us game studies people could benefit from examining the history of other academic disciplines. For example, how and why did "computer science" become a stable academic discipline? Why didn't it just evolve as a sub-field of existing university departments like mathematics and electrical engineering? Despite my graduate comp sci degree, I don't actually know enough history to offer a coherent answer.

(More wishful stage directions: cue historians of science!)

But before I defer to the experts, I'd like to ask a leading question: is the professed object of study - the computer game - too narrow in scope? A discipline like biology is quite broad, spanning diverse interests such as molecular genetics, ecology, developmental biology, etc. The discipline of art history studies not only painting, but also a wide variety of different forms and traditions.

Yes, I do think "game studies" has (unfortunately) positioned itself as the study of digital games specifically. But even if we accept that game studies scholars are branching out into non-digital areas like board games, we might still ask why games studies is so socially and professionally isolated from other academic traditions like sports studies, folklore studies, play theory, etc. Can we ever hope to call ourselves a proper discipline as long as we remain so isolated from (and irrelevant to) those other communities that also study play and games?

Gosh, it would be so nice to build some stronger ties to the sports studies community in particular! (Abe, I bet you'd agree here).

I think that in this post we have accidentally managed to identify an interesting tension: dilution and amorphousness versus collaboration and inclusion. Clearly there are benefits to be had from incorporating other fields of inquiry into game studies, but there are also benefits to establishing "game studies" as a concrete discipline.

From whichever perspective one takes, however, it should be immediately clear that citing one's object of study as "games" or even "computer games" is not a very accurate or useful label. Doug, you asked, "is the professed object of study - the computer game - too narrow in scope?" I would be inclined to answer that present studies of computer games does not suffer from narrow scope, but rather lack of focus. The necessary questions of someone who studies "the computer game" should be "which aspects of which games in what context?"

For me, anyway, the take-away from this collaboration is that I now find it hard to have strong opinions either way. Games are a fundamental and ubiquitous aspect of the human condition, and we have barely scratched the surface of understanding precisely what they are, how they work, what roles they serve, and why they even exist. At this point "game studies" simply needs more of everything.

The Knit and Purl of Facebook Games

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.
- The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Migrant.jpegI had the good fortune of running into Naomi Clark, formerly of Gamelab, now chief designer at Fresh Planet at a serious games conference we both spoke at last weekend. Seeing her reminded me of the great talk she delivered with Eric Zimmerman at GDC last March entitled, "The Fantasy of Labor: How Social Games Create Meaning."

In their presentation, Clark and Zimmerman spoke about desire, about Suit's "lusory attitude" about cultural narratives, and specifically about how currently popular social game mechanics are related to a common western narrative about the fantasy of industrial labor - that hard work and determination will lead to wealth, popularity, fame, and success.

I remember hearing them speak and wishing they had pushed the idea just a bit further. They did argue that games could impoverish otherwise meaningful and important human interactions and cultural traditions. Specifically they talked about "gifting" in social games comparing the mechanic to the tradition of the Native American potlatch.

I think social games, as presently constituted on Facebook, often reinforce an all too familiar, and oppressive narrative of rags-to-riches determination in the face of arduous labor, that such work can lead to the "american dream" of wealth and prosperity, even as the chasm between wealthy and needy continues to spread, almost out of sight of one another. It also reinforces the notion that a community of wealth can support one another, driving a larger divide between the "connected" and the "disconnected."


Imagine arriving in a new world, a land that seems to tip with the weighty overflow of opportunity. That very opportunity is why you came in the first place. You start with little, and you don't even know the language: the rules of their particular grammar. You experiment here and there, trying this and that to see what might work. Your work is by appointment, of course - work, rest, work, rest, work, rest, and gradually you begin to build a small little world for yourself, one farmhouse, or tree, at a time.

For some reason, however, the next step ahead begins to seem farther out of your reach. You finger the lining of your pockets for loose change, wondering "could I afford that jacket," or "would it hurt too much to buy that candy?" You look around you and see others with their extravagant, opulent farms. How did they get so much? They must have worked so hard to get where they are, just like I am working. Soon, soon I will have that too.

And yet, with all your hard work and determination, some things still seem, always, out of your financial reach. You begin to realize that you can't join the country club down the road unless you know the right someone, unless you own the right car, or the right clothes. You are excluded on the basis of a class you didn't even know you occupied. You remember all your hard work, you look back at your modest farm and wonder. You try to remember why you came here in the first place.

You discover that there are people willing to loan you the money, whenever you want, so that you can buy what you need. You don't worry too much about it, because it is not money, you see, it is some strange kind of fictional currency. You know you will be held accountable for it in the future, but by then you'll have the biggest, brightest, most luxurious farm around, and you won't need to worry at all about finding money to pay back, that will be easy. Just keep digging, and working, and clicking and you'll get there. You do all this so that your kids won't have to.

But you still cannot seem to afford that next tree, or that next piece of fence. You splurge one day on a magazine, or watch some television, but all you see are beautiful, expansive, well decorated and lavish farms that make your home seem like a dust bowl. Click, click. Just keep clicking, digging, cleaning. Work hard and all this can be yours.


migrantfarmville.jpgA reported 2% of the social game audience accounts for a vast majority of the money made by Facebook game developers. So called "whales" are players with enough discretionary funds, or perhaps a lack of economic discretion, to be spending money on in game items. These players live the Facebook dream, building massive farms and "winning" the games' economic systems. What of those who cannot spend with the same freedom, or worse, those who are encouraged to spend what they do not have?

Please understand that I am not insinuating that there is anything nefarious or insidious about current social game design on Facebook, per se, on a commercial level. I do not intend to suggest that if these developers have a market they should not avail themselves of it.

However, I do have deep concern about how our cultural products can have a tendency to reinforce, or re-tell narratives that may have a negative effect on society. I have a lot of concern about games especially, as I worry that "play" is becoming more and more commercialized and commoditized.

Suffering a failing Farmville farm pales compared to the struggles of poor Americans attempting to scrape out an existence, pushing against an economic and social system that continues to undermine their very survival. However, the rhetoric of hard work as the primary solution to poverty, helping to keep wealth concentrated in the hands of a staggering minority, can be found in many nuanced, even un-intentioned domains, like Facebook games.

Why do games specifically concern me? Besides the fact that I work at a game lab, and study games as a job, I am concerned about how a culture's stories are written. We need look no further than popular sports in America to see how games and the culture that surround them are tightly woven into the fabric of our collective experiences. People argue, evangelize, and hypothesize on the myriad "measured" effects of games on individuals for learning or behavioral change, and regardless of how the pendulum seems to be swinging on any given day, we must wonder how Facebook games may be reflecting or reinforcing a social status quo that has many suffering while few thrive.

No, Facebook games are not responsible for poverty, of course not. But maybe with each mindless click, with each laborious click, we are replaying, in part, the story of so many who wanted to work and could not succeed, despite earnest effort and serious struggle.

This post can also be found at Abe's blog, A Simpler Creature.

A Conversation Regarding Design

statler_waldorf_02_01.jpegBelow is a "digital conversation" between me and Jason Begy. It started as a chat in the GAMBIT lounge and we thought that it might be interesting to concretize our ideas some by writing them down. We took turns writing paragraphs to each other continuing on for a few days. It should be stated that these are ideas we are still working out, and we simply wanted to lay bare some of our recent thoughts to perhaps move them forward. Enjoy.

I think our understanding of "design" with regards to games needs to be looked at more closely. The attachment of games to consumer objects, either packaged board games or software, seems to have skewed our understanding of what the creators of the game are actually doing. We seem to think that the fundamental operations of games are somehow being written by designers, with a direct authorial linkage like that of a painter to painting, a songwriter to song, or perhaps more frequently referenced, a director to a film. However, I stand behind the assertion that a game not-played is not a game at all, which implicates players in authorship. More dramatically, the organization of rules by a designer does not a game make either, which is to say, at best designers are configuring details and assigning symbols to preexisting forms, no small feat, but not wholly authorial. Allow me a parallel: a carpenter doesn't design the use of a chair as an object for sitting, rather she suggests only how a user might sit in it, should the user feel inclined to do so. The user may always place their belongings on said chair instead, thus rendering it a table.

Previously on this blog I have referred to a board game as a mnemonic device: whatever "state" it can be said to contain only exists in the minds of the players; the tangible pieces are there to lighten the cognitive load. Any meaning the boards and bits have is assigned and maintained by the players enacting the game; the "rules" as-writ are suggestions for a method of play, and the pieces facilitate that method. This is a key ontological distinction between video games and non-digital games. In a video game the rules are enforced by the underlying code: they are much more rules than the suggestions accompanying my copy of Carcassonne. I cannot chose to interpret Mario's in-game function in a way other than that dictated to me by the game. And yet your objection fits equally well: a board game in its box is just a collection of pieces, and a program not running is just lines of code. All of these points and ideas beg the question: What exactly is a rule?

Recently, casually around the lab, on twitter, and on my blog, I've been referring to rules and rule systems as "non-things." By this I mean to suggest that the idea of a rule does not exist until it is initiated. I fully acknowledge the playfulness of the language I am using here by calling a rule a "non-thing;" on one hand dismissing it and simultaneously reinforcing its existence through reference. However, I think it is important to distinguish the difference between an abstract understanding of a system, presumed cause and effect, and an actualized system that has been engaged, especially in the field of game design. In the digital realm this asks us to examine the relationship between computation and the user, to examine our understanding of the space of play, and to perhaps rethink what a designer actually creates. Some people making games are doing really interesting work in this area. The Copenhagen Game Collective's great game B.U.T.T.O.N. comes to mind. The space of play is radically expanded, rules are opaque rather than transparent, and the value of the game seems to reside in the liminality of computation and performance. Then again, board games seem to have done this sort of thing for a long time. Are video games actually so radically different? I'm reluctant to submit to "platform studies."

If a rule is a non-thing until enacted, can we talk about potential rules? Or our understanding of the rules we would follow, if we were to play a particular game? It seems logical to say that a rule of football (any kind) is that players must not step out-of-bounds, or at least there is a consequence for doing so. If I am not playing football right now, is this still a rule? The dichotomy is akin to the difference between a note as indicated on sheet music and as performed in some fashion. Not being one myself, I would imagine that most musicians recognize there is a difference between a written note representing a perfect instantiation of a given tone, and the subtleties of that same note performed. I am currently unsure of to what extent this dichotomy has been theorized, but it seems to me to be a promising and relevant parallel.

Another entry point into the vagaries of "rule" is to ask of a non-digital game or sport, Is a given rule a do or a do not? For example, in football the rule could be "always stay in-bounds" or "do not step out-of-bounds." Either the positive or the negative communicates the idea. But some rules are not susceptible to negation. In Monopoly, that Boardwalk costs $400 is a positive rule, and it is difficult to effectively describe this rule as a negative. In baseball you must hit the ball with a bat, in hockey you cannot throw the puck into the net, and so on. Once again video games are not susceptible to these tricks of language, as the rules are hard-coded. Perhaps the un-debatable nature of video game rules is where the idea of "rules-as-designed-things" comes from.

At the risk of positioning myself lest I be accused of being a social constructionist, I think that rules, hard-coded or not, necessarily depend on the society that adopts and engage them, even in the case of a video game systems.

One of my favorite things to watch is when Matt (the lead designer at our lab) plays a game for the first time. He is always looking for ways to "break" the game - immediately pushing on the boundaries of the game's affordances to find "something else to do." Matt's play is discursive. He may fall into patterns eventually, but he is first exploring the vocabulary and grammar of the system and finding ways to "play" with it. He creates a network between himself and the game (as code, platform, text and context), through play, that defines the game as played. Even a game that has minimal coded affordances can invite creative play. Again, this is one reason why I think B.U.T.T.O.N. is brilliant. It calls the relationship between player and game to our attention.

That musical note comparison is very interesting. What does that written note really represent? If I am playing the score on a piano tuned a half step down, am I expressing the same piece of music? Do the relationships between the notes matter more than the relationship between the written note and its physical manifestation? What role does the listener have in this mode of communication?

Something tells me we are having a discussion that is part of a larger philosophical discourse that extends far beyond just game studies. I only wish I could somehow know it all, making my writing more thorough.

I also think it's problematic to throw-out the role of the video game designer entirely. Playing against the rules of the game to see what works and what does not is certainly possible, but it only functions in the context of the system's affordances. Everything you can choose to do is in some way enabled by the code running the game. Certainly unexpected and unplanned behavior crops up, allowing the player to do things the designers never intended, but this is still a result of how the system functions.

One thing that continually returns to mind here is the MDA framework, which posits a high degree of designer control over player behavior. That such control is possible becomes apparent in very simple video games, such as Don't Shoot The Puppy. Here the player only has two possible actions: move the mouse (thereby shooting the puppy), or do not move the mouse. In the context of the game, the designers have a high degree of control over my actions simply because they have not given me many choices. Video games are deterministic in a way that other, non-digital games are not.

I do agree with you in that this is clearly part of a larger discourse that neither of us are particularly well-versed in at the moment. However, these are important questions to ask, especially when working in an environment that privileges the designer by default. Furthermore, this line of thinking reveals some of the problems with lumping all game-like activities under one banner. Clearly video games, sports and board games have a lot in common, but they are also clearly different, and there is room in game studies for more nuanced inquiries into all of them.

On Object Orientation: An Antapologia for Brian Moriarty

This is an antapologia for Brian Moriarty. Antapologia is greek for a formal counter argument to an apologia, which is greek for a formal defense.

ebert.jpegAt GDC last March Brian Moriarty delivered an impassioned, and now infamous defense of Roger Ebert's even more infamous claim that video games are not, and could never be, art. Moriarty built a somewhat circuitous and dare I say specious argument that drew many cheers and contrarily much ire from the game development and game studies community. He invoked philosophy and faith, Shoepenhauer and Dylan (Bob), to argue that with the exercise of free will exhibited by players engaged in play "sublime art" is necessarily precluded. "Sublime art," Moriarty incanted, "is the door to a perspective of reality that transcends Will." His diatribe reached its philosophical climax with the seemingly simple, albeit nonsensical utterance, "Sublime art is the still evocation of the inexpressible."

I will resist the urge to poke at his house of cards. I will not, in this letter, suggest that he engaged in "pretentious rhetoric" to the point of philosophical obfuscation. I will not argue that he unabashedly rejected wholesale the last 100 years of philosophical discourse about art, intertextuality, mass media, and the collapsed distinction between high and low culture. I will not intimate that in mocking Duchamp, declaring The Fountain to be nothing more than a piss pot, he unwittingly stumbled into Duchamp's magical urinal, reiterating for the entire audience, the artist's brilliant statement. No, if you want to read the myriad ways his argument has been dissected and scrutinized, read twitter transcripts. Better yet, read his apology yourself and make up your own mind.

I am far more concerned with how Professor Moriarty framed his argument. I am disturbed by the distorted lens through which he is looking at games, and I am noticing that his vantage is shared by many in the game community. I cheekily call it object orientation, with the full pun intended.

Game designers have become obsessed with the artifacts of their supposed creation. I blame digital games. Games have become commodities, not as constrained performances, rather as obscured or even invisible systems, executed by machines, and operated upon by players. Best Buy, Amazon and Game Stop sell them to us as disks and cartridges or even downloaded software, and we engage them on a superficial interface level while far more complex rules and operations act as the Wizard to our conference with the great and powerful Oz.

Don't get me wrong, I am grateful for the explosion of interactive possibility afforded by computation. However, I am concerned that our understanding of what a game is and is not has been distorted by an obsession with the "game" as object or artifact, rather than the game as performance.

I know, by heart, the rules of chess, and I buy chess sets as a matter of convenience, not necessity. One can play chess with almost anything so long as the parties involved agree upon the signification of the play objects and the space. I dare not even attempt to count the number of times I've played soccer with t-shirts for goals, baseball with a stick and rock, or even charades with nothing but the people with whom I shared some space. Games are not the objects that afford their engagement, they are defined by the engagement itself. A game not played is no game at all. Software does not a game make.

Moriarty spent nearly 7,500 words pontificating on the lack of expressiveness in video games. He argued about the imagery, and the sound, and even waxed philosophically about engagement and interactivity, choice and will. All the while he ignored the most expressive act of the medium, that which defines it, which is the playing itself.

mikhail_baryshnikov_3.jpegMoriarty said "I'm here because of this sentence: 'No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.'" He repeatedly illustrated his obsession with the auteur and art as artifact. Was Mikhail Baryshnikov not an artist? Is the choreographer of a dance the only artist to whom we owe appreciation for the performance? What about those engaging in the act itself? Does Moriarty look at the score for Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, without listening to it, and in reading the notation unperformed experience a "still evocation of the inexpressible?" I'm guessing not.

The art of dance and music and theater is performance. Sure society has established conventions by which we value and measure that performance, which subsequently gives value to the rules or constraints by which the performance is enacted (sound familiar).

However, the act of engaging, of playing, that willful and practiced activity is, in fact, the dynamic evocation of the sublime expressed.

For many who make and study games, the artifact of the creation is the essential component to their livelihood. I understand why, especially in our exceedingly commercial and material culture, we want to value the object in hand, and deify its supposed "creators." However, a video game not-played is no game at all. Rules unrealized are not enforced, and cease to exist. Systems uninitiated are chaotic non-things. Designers have grown attached to the perception that they are creators of artifacts. In truth the act of game design is more like composing a musical score or choreographing a dance; the "object" of the creation is not fully realized until it is engaged through performance.

This post can also be read at Abe's blog, A Simpler Creature.

The Sublime Joy of Flight

Playing Pilotwings Resort this past week has reminded me why I love flying games so much... at least when they get out of my way and let me fly. I never liked flight sims, an unwieldy genre that's more about dials and switches than the joy of aviation. The flying games I love are the ones that strip away all that techno-fetishistic noise and just let you feel how amazing it is to actually fly.

My first real encounter with this sort of game was the original Pilotwings on the SNES, and the new Pilotwings for the 3DS is a similarly pleasant love letter to aviation aimed at a mainstream audience. Both games have extremely simplified flight controls, minimal UI, and breezy music that creates a deliberate mood. In the 3DS version you can't even control the throttle. The game controls it for you, and you can only temporarily boost or break.
Pilotwings Resort  is quite nice, but it also leaves me craving for a deeper, more textured exploration of humankind's romantic obsession with flight. To date the only game that has really satisfied this craving was Sky Odyssey, a little known PS2 launch title that everyone seems to have forgotten, but which, to me, represents one of the best, most complete expressions of Man versus Nature in a video game.

Sky Odyssey is one of the most exciting games I've ever played - a superb action game. It also has a oddly spiritual dimension, a thick sense of human smallness at the edge of an expansive Unknown. It is not, in this sense, unlike two of my other favorite games: Demon's Souls and Shadow of the Colossus, both games that achieve a phenomenal sense of scale and use it to evoke the sublime. It is absolutely no coincidence that the composer for Shadow of Colossus also wrote the music for Sky Odyssey, as the share the same sense of awe for the tiniest of warriors squaring off against Nature's Fury.

The first time I got this feeling is when I saw The Right Stuff as a kid. There is a scene in that movie when a (heavily mythologized) Chuck Yeager, played by playwrite Sam Shepherd, steals a conventional aircraft and tries to fly it into outer space. In spite of its hokiness (mostly thanks to Bill Conti, who also scored Rocky) this scene does manage to express something unspoken about humanity's (not just America's, as the movie seems to suggest) inherent, sub-rational desire to break free of Earthy limits.
The shit you do in Sky Odyssey all feels similarly reckless, extravagant, and irrationally irresistible. Each level is about trying to survive horribly exciting things, like having to perform a daring mid-air refueling from a speeding train as it's going through a tunnel. Or flying your plane through an underground cave as its collapsing. Or attempting to slingshot your plane over a mountain twice the height of Everast by dropping your fuel at the summit and then coasting on air down the other side. Or catching air currents to shoot your plane through the heart of the lightning storm. Or, to top it all off, flying right into the eye of a fucking hurricane.

The developers of Sky Odyssey do everything in their power to try and convince you that nothing could be more exciting than flying. They throw every conceivable exciting thing that could possible happen to a plane at you, and the earnestness of their romantic vision is so desperate it's almost heartbreaking. They even concoct an elaborate framing narrative to justify their whimsy, something about the last unexplored island on Earth in the twilight of aviation's golden age, when (at least in the minds of Sky Odyssey's makers) there were still some legitimate mysteries left on this planet... and aviators - those amazing men in their flying machines - were the lone explorers of the last frontier.

This brand of nostalgia feels a lot like Hayao Miyazaki, in that it is a Japanese evocation of a romantic 1930/40s centered around flight technology of the era. Porco Rosso is probably the most direct expression of this in Miyzaki's canon, showing a particular love of the pre-war era, an exotic fascination with the West, and a transcendental sense - present in all his work, but most directly expressed in this film - of what it means to fly. I am thinking of the moment when, after being separated from his friends in battle, the protagonist encounters them again above the clouds only to realize they didn't survive after all, but are in fact spirits ascending - still in their planes - to join the rest of the dead in heaven.

Aviation as a concept holds the promise of transcendence, of somehow being able to reach heaven through creative use of technology. Those who know me know I like Kubrick, so take this as you will, but I can't help but think "Sky Odyssey" might be a riff on "Space Odyssey". 2001 is a movie about God made by an atheist. The desire for spiritual transcendence, to commune with forces we don't understand, seems to be a hard-wired human need. Secular attempts to grapple with this, I suppose because of my own atheism, feel a lot more interesting than religious ones... perhaps because religious mythologies are "known", whereas scientific rejection of them lands spiritualism squarely back in the realm of the unknown.

What does flying mean to us? In Pilotwings Resort (and in most conventional flight sims, I'd wager) it's a fun way to relax, but in Sky Odyssey it can be a serious encounter with our own existence. There are times, somewhere in the clouds, when the you seem to leave Earth entirely and enter another world, a world of unfamiliar colors and lights. What is that place?
On Failure: Baseball's Theology of Redemption

Boston vs. New York Polo Grounds 1912.jpeg

In a chapter on games and cultural rhetoric, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman write about the symbolism and cultural significance of soccer. They posit "Soccer, like all games, embodies cultural meaning."(516) Invoking Sutton-Smith's understanding of rhetoric, they articulate the discursive meaning making of game play; with signification both depending on and informing the culture in which the games are played. They continue:

Another way of saying that games reflect cultural values is that games are social contexts for cultural learning. This means that games are one place where the values of a society are embodied and passed on. Although games do clearly reflect cultural values and ideologies, they do not merely play a passive role. Games also help to instill or fortify a culture's value system. (516)

Religion scholars and social anthropologists conceive of religious ritual in a similar way. While necessarily specific to the cultures and communities that practice them, rituals are meaningful, often symbolic activities that reflect and inform the values and ideologies of the community of practitioners. Religious rituals apply dogma to practice, often instantiating abstract principles or ideas in objects or actions. Rituals serve as portals to the divine, experiential access points rife with meaning. Without delving into the complexities of sacrality, and acknowledging that there are myriad nuances to religious life that invite the separation of sacred ritual from profane experience, for the sake of this piece I would like to accept that religious ritual and sport have similarities in the domain of cultural rhetoric and meaning making.

I consider baseball as I consume it. More so as spectator than player, I am, from April to October, immersed in the culture and experiences of Major League Baseball proper and the game of baseball in general. Working in the field of game studies, it is no surprise then that I am often wondering about the game I love so much, questioning how its formal properties and context inform the game as such.

Recently I have been interested in how repeated failure in the game of baseball, established through the formal properties of the game and understood by a community of parishioners, invigorates a common Western rhetoric of redemption. Additionally, we might ask how a community of baseball understands this redemption theology through the ritualistic performance of the game played.

Baseball is a game composed largely of failure. Ted Williams had the most successful hitting season in the games history batting .406 in 1941, failing in almost 60% of his 456 at bats. Christy Matthewson, one of the greatest pitchers ever still allowed 2.13 runs for every nine innings he pitched, winning 67% of his games. These players were exceptional. In 2010 all the pitchers in Major League baseball averaged 4.08 runs per nine innings while batters hit .257 over the year, meaning all hitters failed 3 out of 4 times they hit. Naturally the sophistication of the game allows for degrees of success even in these failures. It is understood, however, that the game of baseball is very hard to play.

The rules of baseball mandate repetitive failure. Largely a defensive game, each at bat has nine players on one team working together to stop one player from succeeding in scoring, by controlling a small ball in a very large field of play. Even in the repeated one on one conflict, pitchers hold a tremendous advantage over the batter. Only in baseball does the defensive player control the ball, and therefor has the advantage of knowing what they are going to attempt to throw as a pitch. Only the defense may handle the ball, the offense forced to attempt a crude bludgeoning of it with a club. The violent nature of offense in baseball demands further investigation, but for our sakes here it is enough to recognize that to win one must score runs, and to score runs one must overcome severely difficult circumstances and repeated failure.

Out of constant failure emerged a rhetoric of redemption in baseball. A long game, usually played in long seasons, batters will often get 4-5 at bats in a game and at the professional level as many as 500+ at bats over the course of the season. Baseball is a game of second, and third and fourth chances. Many of the mythologized histories in the American game are about redemption.

Take for example the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1940's and 1950's. Known for their vociferous and loyal fans, the Dodgers won five pennants from 1941-1953, only to lose in each World Series to the dominant, Bronx based New York Yankees. The slogan "Wait 'til next year!" became a cry of solidarity for the Dodger faithful, expressing both the pitiful frustration of repeated failure, and the pride of a communal misery. Similar circumstances emerged in cities all over America where teams suffer droughts and unique patterns of failure: Boston's curse, Chicago's goat, The Curse of Captain Grant, all circumstances and mythologies that created communal bonds in misery and in the promise of redemption. Baseball players invoke this promise regularly, eagerly anticipating the next opportunity even as the stale wind of a strike out silences a crowd. Baseball players are taught to yearn for those redemptive moments, to strive for them as a road map to excellence. To succeed in baseball, you must fail often, for all do. You must be ready for the next chance, for the shot at redemption and salvation.

andreadelverrocchio_thebaptismofchrist.jpeg Redemption and salvation are central themes in Western Judeo-Christian, and Judeo-Muslim theology. Notions of atonement, baptism, repentance, salvation, sacraments, and Christ's salvific grace helped shaped the course of Western religion and culture for millennia. The values emerging from these rich religious histories permeate America's dominant cultural rhetoric, even as the country expands, and populates, absorbing more diverse cultures and heritages. Redemption is a core value in American culture, and the foundation of a common meta-narrative of achievement in the face of adversity. Americans esteem achievement in the face of adversity in the highest light, regarding such narratives as more valuable than success through support, or out of luxury.* We might argue that a twist in this common narrative emerges when the cause of adversity is of one's own making.

It would be no great leap to suggest that a long history of redemption narratives in Western culture has effected the creation and culture around the game of baseball. It would seem too that baseball's unique resonance in American culture may in fact be connected to the thematic symbolism of its play. Sure other countries in Asia and Latin America have embraced the sport in their own way, however their cultural relationship to the game is different that that in America. Though perhaps no longer the most popular, baseball remains America's past-time; a ritualistic performance that permeates and tints the very fabric of the nation's cultural narrative.

*It is of course important to note that cultural rhetoric and meta-narratives have a complicated relationship to cultural practice, and I do not intend to suggest my own valuation of these common themes. If you want to know, go ahead and ask me.

Games: Necessary Non-Obstacles

One of game studies' fundamental gaps is the lack of a solid theory of meaning. That is, how games can mean, represent, signify, etc., anything at all. This problem is immediately apparent in Jane McGonigal's new book, "Reality is Broken." Early in the book McGonigal adopts Bernard Suits' definition of a game as "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." While I am only through the second chapter, so far the book has relied heavily on this definition. However, as this post aims to demonstrate, this definition of "game" is both fundamentally flawed and illustrates the kinds of problems that arise because we do not understand how games can mean.

McGonigal cites several examples of games that fit this definition, notably golf (which is one of Suits' examples). Indeed, sports seem to fit Suits' definition extremely well, as every sport I can think of is about adhering to arbitrary rules in order to accomplish some ordinary feat. In golf the unnecessary obstacles are the various rules that prevent us from merely walking to the green and dropping the ball into the hole. Similarly, ice hockey would be much easier if players could pick up the puck and throw it into the net. Everyone would be an expert player of darts if they were allowed to walk up to the board and simply push their darts into the sixty-point segment. In these cases it is true that players are choosing to try and overcome obstacles that seem quite unnecessary, if your goal really is to arrange particular objects in a particular state.

However, this definition does not make much sense when we apply it outside of sports. While McGonigal makes an effective argument for its application to Scrabble, I would like to apply Suits' definition to Monopoly. In Monopoly the goal is to be the last player in the game, which happens when you have money and your opponents do not. The necessary question that arises here is: what does it mean to "have money?" How does a Monopoly player have money, and what distinguishes her from the other players that do not have money? One answer might be location: players typically signify their possession of game money by placing paper slips in front of themselves. Seen through the lens of Suits' definition, one might argue that the goal of Monopoly is to place the paper money in front of yourself, while preventing others from doing so; the "unnecessary obstacle" in this case is the game itself, the processes one must undertake before being "allowed" to put the money in front of oneself.

I hope I am not alone in finding this phrasing deeply unsatisfying. When explaining Monopoly to a new player, would you ever tell them that the goal is to put the money in front of yourself? Rather, the goal is a particular configuration of the game state. The physical aspects of Monopoly--the board, pieces, money--are mnemonic devices that allow players to keep track of the state. To "have money" in Monopoly is not to position it in a certain way (like positioning a golf ball), but rather to perform a series of processes that then give meaning to the money and define its state. These processes create the meaning of the money. Without them, Monopoly money really is just slips of paper; its physical location is meaningless. Thus the game is the opposite of "unnecessary:" it is entirely necessary in creating the meaning required to satisfy the goal. Without the game the money has no meaning.

I would argue, then, that in this sense games are not obstacles at all. The OED defines an obstacle as "something that stands in the way or that obstructs progress; a hindrance, impediment, or obstruction." If your goal is to "have money," then the game is the opposite of an obstacle: it is the enabler of that progress, that goal. Without the game that goal does not exist and cannot be fulfilled. As an analogy, games can be thought of as modern, highly technical modes of transportation, such as a car. Cars, like games, are complex to operate and handle. They require some degree of learning before they can be used effectively. However, they are often necessary to reach our destination (goal). It makes little sense to refer to a car as an obstacle when we so often depend on it to reach an end state. The car, like the game, is needed to reach the goal.

If we think in terms of the goal, as both Suits and McGonigal do, then the game is the opposite of an unnecessary obstacle.

Of Rockstars and Revolutions

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

A few years ago I wrote blog post comparing the graphic novel Persepolis to the video game Just Cause, lamenting that while a revolution would be a great setting for an open world-style AAA game we would likely never see it, because AAA developers seem to have neither the interest for nor the balls to treat the subject as anything other than a GTA-style violence-fest. Persepolis, a touching and complicated personal account of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, is closer to what I wanted to see in a game that dealt with such potent concepts. Just Cause, while fun, was - like GTA - a joke when it came to addressing the topics it raised.

Four years later it seems like someone is trying to make my dream come true... at least in theory. To my amazement this person is former Rockstar writer/designer Navid Khonsari, an Iranian-American who is apparently putting his full weight behind a commercial video game based on the 1979 revolution, called simply 1979: The Game.

I'd never heard of him before, but Khonsari was apparently one of the driving creative forces behind the PS2-era GTA games - GTAIII, Vice City, and San Andreas. So not only was he at Rockstar, he was specifically involved in the initial birth, evolution, and maturation of GTA as a mass-cultural phenomenon, setting the tone for all Rockstar's subsequent creative output as well as their public image as the badboys of the industry.

Given my sour stance on Rockstar (I find their use of irony more evasive than genuine, rendering their supposed "social commentary" insincere in most cases.) I admit that I didn't want to believe Khonsari might be making my dream game: a sophisticated political statement, occupying a space outside America's dominant narratives, with a AAA budget behind it, and made by an articulate visionary who is also a good game designer. Yet I have to admit... this interview comes close to creating such an impression.

It's interesting what he says about fiction versus non-fiction. This, I guess, explains how the same mind that (partially) produced GTA: Vice City can also produce 1979: The Game. I don't agree with what he says. The mercurial relationship between fact and fiction is not so simple. Myth shapes reality and reality shapes myth. I don't believe that labeling something 'fiction' is a free ticket out of treating social, political, or whatever content with subtlety or complexity.

Khonsari seems to be arguing that GTA's pseudo-ironic vapidity was justified by the fact that it was "in the crime genre", which is how he distances 1979: The Game from it in terms of social outlook. Yet if we look at the crime genre outside games we see a massive swath of approaches and styles, from shallow and cartoony to mature and serious. GTA didn't have to be Scarface. It could have been The Wire, and the fact that Khonsari glosses over this fact seems calculated.

That said, his over-simplified construction that non-fiction demands social responsibility seems to serve him well as a mass-cultural stance. It's certainly an easy way to justify both GTA and 1979: The Game at once. A more complicated stance would certainly be harder to explain to his rather skeptical interviewer, which makes me wonder whether Khonsari himself believes it or whether it's something he just tells journalists. Either way, if it helps him get such a game made and distributed I can't fault him too much for it... though it could be a problem if such rhetoric became commonplace.

There are virtually no gameplay details, so who know if this game will ever even see the light of day. It is significant though, I feel, that a former Rockstar designer is taking a vocal stance on such a game, chatting it up to the international press and making an impassioned argument about the value and place in the AAA market for such games. It really makes me reconsider my take on Rockstar, considering that perhaps not everyone there is satisfied by the company's approach to controversy. If so we'll hopefully see more Khonsaris in the future.

Shinobido - The Lost Ninja Simulator

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

I am embarrassed to say I was unaware of Shinobido's existence until a few months ago, when the design lead of Fallout: New Vegas recommended it to me over drinks at Austin GDC. I was mildly shocked to learn it was by Acquire, the makers of the original Tenchu, and that it continued that game's more open-world approach to stealth that the later Tenchu sequels abandoned.

I had no idea Acquire had lost the Tenchu license, and that after they lost it they created Shinobido as its spiritual successor, combining its open level design with the choice-driven narrative structure they pioneered in Way of the Samurai, their other main series. Given my love of TenchuWay of the Samurai, and open-world experiments in general I was flabbergasted this game somehow got by me... until I discovered it had been localized for PAL regions only. Apparently it was too experimental for us yanks.

After searching for several weeks (and being shipped a Norwegian copy by mistake) I managed to procure the U.K. version of Shinobido. To me this was the "real" Tenchu 3, the game that continued to build on the design agenda of Tenchu and Tenchu 2. The latter had actually expanded on the open-world aspects of the original, added a level editor, but was marred by the fact that the PS1 hardware couldn't quite handle the size of its world.

Shinobido looks a bit like Tenchu 3 at first glance, only unlike From Software's PS2 sequel it isn't just a streamlined version of Tenchu 1 with prettier graphics. It's a crazy, ambitious experiment that feels more like a "ninja simulator" than a game. It's over-arching structure reminds me a lot of Deus Ex (though it obviously comes from Way of the Samurai) with three opposing warlords all seeking your service in their quest for political power.

Each "phase" of the game involves a series of opposing job offers, only one of which you can take. What really makes this interesting is how elegantly the high level politics connect with the low level gameplay. You can accept missions against lords who like you, and they will be none the wiser if you are clever enough not to get caught. This is, in fact, how a faction system should work: as a matter of NPC perception, not global switches.

Failing a mission does not mean death in Shinobido. I means humiliation, the loss of reputation with a lord. In fact, you can only "die" during certain boss fights, something which the game warns you about beforehand and gives you the option to opt out if you aren't confident you will survive. Although you can cheat this system with save/loading, it is extremely tedious to do so, making Shinobido a game about weighing the political consequences of every moment.

You have to be very good at being silent in order to navigate the politics effectively, and the way the game brutally punishes any form of grandstanding reinforces this. Taking on multiple opponents, martial arts movie-style, is quite impossible. A group of startled guards will simply rush you, screaming into the night for anyone in earshot to help. Soon the whole damn neighborhood is awake, your lord will be furious, and you feel like the worst ninja ever.

Though Shinibido nominally follows a Tenchu-like mission structure it's really an on-going simulation of faction politics, with the missions serving as on-the-ground reflections of the current political climate. High level goals have low level consequences, like when, having delivered a box of weapons to a lord in one mission, you find all his soldiers equipped with them in the next... making him harder to betray, should you feel so inclined.

To me this is a much cleaner, more interesting variation on the faction politics of Deus Ex 2, in which faction decisions didn't seem to effect the core gameplay as directly or as obviously. I love the idea that a faction is a living organism with persistent features that change based on your story decisions, and Shinobido deserves credit for showcasing this idea well, even if it doesn't explore the idea fully.

Other points of interest: Shinobido one of the only stealth games I've played where guards will actually pick up and carry dead comrades away, something which seems like it should be addressed a lot more but somehow never is. The game also does a brilliant job of incorporating its level editor (one of the clear hold-overs from Tenchu 2) into the fiction, presenting it as the "garden" outside your house that you "decorate" it between missions, adding straw dummies for training but also traps to ward off invaders, who appear periodically in the form of a fortress defense mini-game.

Physics are a big part of Shinobido's gameplay, which is usual for a Japanese game, and is the source of some of its flaws. In a game with consequences this steep, the unpredictability of collision at times can be very frustrating, though it does contribute to general sense that being a properly elegant ninja takes real dedication (the animation for when you trip over a dead body, for example, seems designed to humiliate).

I haven't finished Shinibido, but I like a lot of its design conceits. The way it connects its faction system to its moment-to-moment experience makes a lot of sense, at least conceptually. I think it would be more interesting of the simulation aspects were more persistent, less branchy... meaning that it would be nice if characters and events would exist in the world whether or not you accepted a mission about them. I would have liked to have been able to simply decide for myself to assassinate Sadame, attack a shipment of weapons, etc., and watched the political fallout from the shadows.
2010 Retrospective - Part 3: Taxidermy, Porn, Politics

Another of 2010's critical darlings, Amnesia is a game I felt I had to play given my interest in horror. It's certainly good, but the sheer amount of praise it's gotten alarms me. It has been called the first great survival horror game in years, one of the scariest games ever made, etc. It isn't any of these things. What it is is a polished, well-made, extremely reverent fan work... so reverent it borders on fetishism. The makers of Amnesia clearly love survival horror. A bit too much.

Amnesia cannot be a "great" horror game to me because it does not possess an imagination of its own, like Silent Hill or Resident Evil once did. Outside of its clever interface design (and an admittedly phenomenal encounter with an invisible monster) it brings nothing new to the genre... unless mid-90s point-and-click horror games are so old they qualify as new again. I understand that people lament the death of survival horror, of the days before action gameplay creep reduced the genre to a thematic subset of third-person shooters. But I've played plenty of games recently that evoke those lost tensions and manage to be original. Demon's Souls, Deadly Premonition, and Hell Night were all superior "survival horror" experiences to me. Compared to such fresh experiments, Amnesia's strictly lock-and-key puzzle design and effective-yet-monotonous atmosphere feel like calculated exercises in fanboy taxidermy. It enshrines, rather than reinvents, the genre.

Other M is a game I liked quite a lot, in spite of its gag-inducing gender politics. It's a bit unfair how the game design itself drew criticism from a lot of people, who seemed loath to consider its gameplay and story separately, heaping them both into the same sour judgement. In a world of God of War clones, Other M's novel 3D gameplay was refreshing to me, re-capturing the excitement of mid-90s 3D experimentation. The story though was rightfully considered shit by almost everybody. I am not the sort who demands Japanese games conform to an American liberal standard of what women should be (Celes is still one of my favorite game characters), but Other M had me choking with disgust... not only for how it portrayed Samus, but for just how pointless it was to the series.

Samus relationship with Adam, her former commanding officer, had been explored in Metroid Fusion, and Other M hits virtually all the same story beats, even though it is supposedly a prequel. Really it's just a thinly veiled remake of Fusion (right down to the reappearance of certain bosses) only with the melodrama cranked up so high it could shatter glass. Metroid was never exactly a feminist manifesto, but it also never portrayed Samus's gender as a point of weakness. Other M does, saddling her with a band of macho marines that call her "princess" and -- I swear to god -- have to save her when her suit (her only source of power, apparently) luridly evaporates off her naked body any time she suffers a crisis of confidence. It's like a porn-parody of Iron Man.

Raging fans tended to blame Team Ninja, given their penchant for bimbo characters. As far as I know though, they were mostly tapped for visual design of Other M, which may explain why all the women in the story (not just Samus) look like 9-year-olds who've just found their mother's make-up case. The writer of the actual plot was still long-time series helmer Yoshio Sakamoto, and I'm sure this was his honest attempt to "humanize" a character he felt responsible for.

It's a shame because, after the macho (read: American) militarism of Metroid Prime 3, I was keen to see the series given back to a Japanese developer, who have always treated the militaristic aspects of the mythology with more ambivalence (the military turn out to be the villains in Fusion). The medieval sexism of Other M however had me missing Prime 3, a game where the military seems to A) employ women and B) allow them to wear normal clothes. Between the two games, Metroid has the worst aspects of both cultures covered. Maybe the next game should be Swedish.

Silent Debuggers is a game I had never heard of until last year. It was on a list of overlooked Turbografix-16 games, and the description intrigued me. It is, in fact, one of the better variations on the film Alien I've ever seen in a video game, nailing a lot of elements that later variations failed to get right. Especially good is the game's modeling of the motion-tracker from the film, which emits an audio pulse when a creature is close. Because of the game's primitive "fake 3D" approach, which is just a bunch of static 2D images of 3D corridors that it flips through as you move, it creates the impression that each move is a "step". Hearing the motion-tracker go berserk when you take a single step into a room and hearing it instantly go silent when you step back out achieves a crisp clarity of cause-and-effect that even the Alien vs. Predator games didn't really have.

I also really liked how the game, which came out in 1991, prefigures the brutal resource management of survival horror, forcing you to constantly ration ammo and health, both of which can only be replenished from finite supplies located in the core "safe" section of the ship. (Use them up and you're fucked.) This, combined with the fact that the whole game is on a single timer, and you must find a way to escape before the ship explodes, creates a surprisingly tense experience, in some ways akin to the white-knuckled thrill of System Shock 1's final sections. I didn't finish Silent Debuggers, because it got rather hard and somewhat repetitive after a while, but that didn't diminish my impression of just how effectively it captured a particular kind of suspense, a kind many games try for but few achieve.

I played Bethesda's Fallout 3 like everyone else, and enjoyed it like everyone else, but it still felt like a watered-down version of Fallout to me--the bloated Hollywood remake to Black Isle's lean, sassy original. This could be seen primarily in terms of the writing, which was cartoony and obvious compared to the sharp satire of Fallout 1 and 2, and in terms of the game's general moral view, which was much more binary. Fallout 3 was definitely a post-KOTOR Fallout, tending to view the wasteland much more in terms of obvious heroes and villains. (Thanks Three-Dog, for letting me know which ghouls are "okay" to kill.) New Vegas, thankfully, is a return to the more murky moral universe of the original games, and not coincidentally given that Obsidian is partially made up of refugees from Black Isle. To my mind this makes New Vegas a more "legitimate" Fallout sequel, with a stronger continuity of tone and attitude.

I didn't even come close to finishing New Vegas, but I didn't have to to feel refreshed by its less jokey, more complex take on post-apocalyptic politics. Its faction system, while more "top down" than I'd prefer (I don't like how factions magically know you killed their members, even if no witnesses survive), presented an intriguing tangle of opposing world views, all of which seem to have their own logic and potential for corruption. One person's hero was always another person's villain, and the way New Vegas repeatedly asks you to make political decisions based on incomplete or distorted information is commendable. Like Alpha Protocol, it stubbornly insists on seeing the world in more complex terms than the majority of triple A games do... and that's easily worth the price of a few bugs.

I have a longer post about Shinobido waiting in the wings, so I will not go into great detail about the game here, aside from saying it was a game I'm very glad I played. Released outside Japan only in PAL regions, it was an obscure and original alternative to the Tenchu series, made by Aquire after they lost the Tenchu license to From Software. For anyone who's a fan of stealth, non-linear narrative, or faction-based politics Shinobido is a must-play, if only to see a completely original take on these ideas.

Up Last!
Shalom: Knightmare III
Deadly Premonition
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow & Legacy of Darkness
Epic Mickey
Spy Fiction
2010 Retrospective Part 2 - Nostalgia, Sin, Editing

I originally passed on Retro Game Challenge but picked it up after I heard it wasn't just a compilation of retro-style games but actually used 80s game culture as a framing device, even to the point where you have to consult "game magazines" to make progress. This seemed rather charming.

I got through most of the game, and found it to be a consistently clever, if slight, experience. I say "slight" because the 80s cultural aspects are indeed more of a framing device than something explored thoroughly. (I could never figure out why you or your friend didn't seem to age between 1982 and 1987.) Also, perhaps more importantly, I felt there was a big missed opportunity in the localization. American, European, and Japanese 80s game culture were all distinctly different, and the way the game coyly wants you to pretend otherwise is disappointing.

The best thing about Retro Game Challenge is how well it demonstrates how creative goal design can give a lot of depth to supposedly "simple" mechanics. The meta-game involves becoming an adept "gamer", not just finishing games, which means you have to play the same games over and over in order to perform esoteric tasks that make creative use of each game's mechanics. This aspect of the game is very well realized, and actually does a good job of re-creating the mindset of what it meant to be a young gamer in the heyday of the NES. Of course, one could easily imagine this sort of game also being a cutting commentary on the self-serving propaganda machine of Nintendo and the Stalinist grip it maintained on the culture... but I don't suppose we'll ever see that on a Nintendo platform.

Sin and Punishment: Star Successor I played because it is a shooter by Treasure, and two of their previous efforts in this vein, Gunstar Heroes and Ikaruga, are among the sublime game experiences of my life. Not that I was expecting this from Star Successor, which was a sequel to one of their more obscure, experimental shooters, an early 3D effort on the N64 that I'd only played briefly.

I didn't finish Star Successor, but my deep respect for Treasure inspired me to play it a fair amount, in spite of the fact that I'm not a big fan of its mechanics. It's basically a rail shooter where you control two avatars: your target reticule and your character, who floats around freely via a jet pack. Games where the main concept is "move a cursor around the screen and shoot things" always feel tedious to me (which is one of the reasons I can appreciate, but never really enjoy, Rez). Star Successor mitigates this tedium somewhat with melee attacks and a charge shot that, if used cleverly, do not require the player to hold down the 'fire' button the whole game. But still... like Geometry WarsSpace Giraffe, and other shooters in which liberal swarms of seemingly chaotic elements flood the screen endlessly, you inevitably feel that you're fighting a losing battle against entropy.

To some people this may not seem much different that the harsh bullet-hell challenges of Ikaruga, but, to me, there is something so logical about what Ikaruga throws at you that falling repeatedly in that world feels like a failure to master order, not a failure to master chaos... which, to a personality like mine, constitutes a very big difference.

Aside from Red Dead RedemptionHeavy Rain was probably the triple A game last year that left me the most thoroughly unimpressed... at least in terms of artistic ambition. Yes, it's much better than self-proclaimed game auteur David Cage's previous effort, Fahrenheit, but that's hardly saying anything, considering what a train wreak of interface design and pretentious bullshit it was.

Heavy Rain is an incredibly misguided game, with an utterly bone-headed philosophy of how to create narrative engagement, but with production quality so slick and expensive (though, I would argue, still not very "good") it managed to hoodwink a lot of people into thinking it was somehow what interactive narrative should be. Predictably, the best moments of the game are the ones that are the least cinematic, like when you find yourself with a whole evening to kill, and you have to responsibly manage dinner, your son's homework, your work, and relaxation, all while time ticks away.

Heavy Rain isn't a bad game; just a stupid one. Its interface design is interesting, doing a decent job of marrying symbolically gestural controller actions to on-screen character actions. This is the game's only real contribution (and the big improvement over Fahrenheit), since everything else it does has been done before, mostly in the mid-90s "interactive movie" craze that almost killed videogame storytelling. It's as if Cage got bonked on the head in 1995 and woke up in the era of the PS3. His approach to narrative design is basically "cinematics" that you can control the speed of because they are rendered in real time, and require pressure-sensitive controller actions to make the "film" run through the projector. The game is basically the experience of being David Cage's editor, more than it is anything else.

I would feel a lot kinder toward Heavy Rain if all its stumbles, indulgences, and genuinely clever moments weren't hamstrung by Cage's dull imagination, whose idea of "good writing" is on par with a mediocre X-Files episode. His notion of "gritty reality" seems to come entirely from American television, the sort where everyone's hair and teeth are perfect and everyone wears designer clothes but we as viewers are instructed to believe they represent "average" people. Only if you buy into this kind of Hollywood ruse daily will you buy into Heavy Rain, the first videogame to really nail the depravity of bourgeois cinema.

I wrote a rather long post about Shattered Memories months ago, so I won't bother to recount my thoughts in detail here. My feelings about the game are primarily positive. It doesn't deliver what it (absurdly) promises: a psychological horror experience tailored to the individual user. But it does deliver a well-realized, agreeably fresh take on survival horror, and one that surprisingly manages to demonstrate an nuanced understanding of the original classic upon which it is based.

One of Shattered Memories' best features is its excellent interface design, which uses the wiimote modesty and intelligently, not overreaching the hardware's capabilities. Also, it's one of the few games I've played that seems to achieve the right level of graphical fidelity in the environment to forgo the use of superimposed text. This really makes one examine the environment, not just look for hotspots and items, which subtlety encourages a measured, more detective-like approach to basic navigation. This was one of the few games in recent memory that I actually played twice in a row, and enjoyed doing so.

I actually enjoyed Obsidian's much maligned "spy RPG". The game did have polish issues, but a lot of the design conceits it received heavy criticism for (like the way your pistol stat dictates the speed of your aiming reticule) were identical to other, well-respected Action/RPG hybrids. One wonders what these reviewers would have said about Deus Ex ten years ago.

I didn't finish Alpha Protocol, mostly because its world and plot got so complicated it was hard for me to re-orient myself when I failed to play it for more than a week. Also, my interest waned after I realized how the game was less of a simulated world and more of a heavily-scripted tree that just happened to have a ridiculous amount of branches. Obsidian isn't unique in defining "choice" this way (it's basically the way Bioware, Bethesda, and virtually every other Western RPG developer has for the last decade) but in the case of Alpha Protocol it began to bother me since, being used to espionage-themed games that take a more simulation-based approach (Metal Gear, Hitman, Deux Ex, etc.), I increasingly found myself unable to do fairly basic things, like backtrack or explore to gather my own intel. The missions are surprisingly linear, with your "choice" exclusively relegated to how you dispatch people based on how you've built your character. I suppose this is true to the ads that said "Your weapon is choice.", but I guess I was expecting it to be more than just a weapon.

Still, Obsidian deserves credit for doing what bigger companies seem consistently unwilling to do: create a murky, morally complex world. Not that Alpha Protocol reaches the level of daring political statement (alas, Fallout 2), but it does manage to make you feel like the U.S. isn't particularly better than every other corrupt government... which is always nice.

Next Up!
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Metroid: Other M
The Silent Debuggers
Fallout: New Vegas
Shinobido: Way of the Ninja
2010 Retrospective Part 1 - Sex, War, Religion

It's 2011 and many have already posted their "Top Ten of 2010" lists. Every year I find it hard to take part in such list-making, mainly because I spend my year playing whatever the hell I feel like, regardless of whether it is old or new. So here's my rather unconventional list for 2010. These are the games I played last year, why I played them, and what I thought of them.

2009 was the year of Demon' Souls, one of the best games of the decade, so naturally I decided to explore its roots. By the new year I had got as far as the original King's Field, though not the one you might remember. The "King's Field" we got in the West was actually King's Field II. King's Field I never came out here, but was fan-translated some time ago.

Though I never finished it, I played King's Field a good while, enough to see that it was even more like Ultima Underworld than its sequels. Demon's Souls reminded more of Underworld than any game had since Looking Glass Studios went out of business, and it was surprising to me how much its spiritual predecessor felt like a "Japanese Underworld", right down to the color palette, making it an interesting alternative to the actual Japanese port of Ultima Underworld, a game that was strangely (if fascinatingly) crippled by its cultural transition.

King's Field held my interest for a few reasons. It's a rare example of early 3D gaming (circa 1994, two full years before the Playstation hit non-Japanese regions) and, even more rarely, a Japanese first-person game, something that is uncommon even now. I'm not sure if there even is an earlier example of a first-person game by a Japanese developer, which gives the game historical value. It also, like many pre-millennium games, isn't interested in holding the player's hand. It just drops you into a (mostly) non-linear world and let your exploration alone be the shaping force behind the experience. If not for the fantasy setting, it would be a survival horror game in the most classic sense (much like Demon's Souls) which made it absorbing despite its crude simplicity.

Bayonetta I think was the first triple A game I played last year, and I don't have much to say about it other than I thought it was not terribly deserving of the controversy it generated. A videogame crassly objectifying women isn't news, and I personally didn't find Bayonetta's deliberately outrageous attitude towards its own indulgences as unique as many bloggers and critics seemed to.

As a game I found Bayonetta more interesting that your average brawler, with a rich move-set and more expressive strategic possibility than, say, God of War. I also found its world extremely beautiful, and its vision of Purgatory--in which normal humans are oblivious to the demonic battles going on around them--a rare example of interesting metaphysics woven into incidental level design. The writing however, in spite of being somewhat self-aware, was mostly clumsy, and the gameplay was samey enough after a while that I finally lost interest.

If anything, Bayonetta made me think a lot about what a much smarter, more daring game could do with similar ideas. I actually love the idea of using sex as a weapon, and positioning that against Christianity as an opposing force seeking to snuff it out has extremely rich--and exquisitely controversial--potential. Of course, being a Japanese game, Bayonetta is either unaware of or uninterested in making any statements about the connection between Western religion and sexual repression, but I can't look at the game without imagining how one might transform it so. I'd love to play a game where you were a witch beating the shit out of male Puritans, who were so stunned by your naked body they literally would stand agape as you pummeled their self-righteous faces into mush. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that I was reading His Dark Materials while playing Bayonetta as well, and wondering why a game about a war between Heaven and Hell couldn't have... well... more balls, so to speak.

Another game I played mainly because of its tenuous connection with Demon's Souls. (It was also by From Software, but in collaboration with an outside developer.) It was nice, but I remember losing interest when I realized Zelda was its only real reference point. The art style, somewhat misleadingly, presents the game as a love-letter a much broader range of 8-bit games, including Dragon Quest, and I think it would haven been more interesting if the gameplay had been a similarly eclectic mish-mash of styles. As is, Dot Heroes is essentially Zelda 1 re-skinned, with a lot of jokey dialog about 8-bit game conventions, but with no challenging of those conventions within the actual game design.

If you want to know what I think of Rockstar's current best-seller and critical darling you can read my previous posts on the subject. Suffice to say, I was not as taken with Redemption (or John Marston) as most people were, though I do admit that, for a blockbuster game, I enjoyed it a fair amount. This will no doubt be remembered as the game of 2010, but for me it was the game that proved that the audience Rockstar insists on pandering to will forever prevent them from generating work of moral or political sophistication.

Over-reliance on RPG conventions aside, Peace Walker was a refreshing return-to-form for Hideo Kojima. MGS4 was a bit of a travesty, an unfocused mess that's conceptual sloppiness and dearth of imagination was obscured by its stellar production value. Peace Walker, however, is a clear, confidant, and clever game that knows exactly what it's going for and achieves it with elegance... primarily in terms of gameplay but also, with a few caveats, in terms of story as well.

The first half, in which Kojima and his co-writers weave together myth and politics in Cold War-era South America, is pretty great, but then again I suppose I'm partial to a game where the Nicaraguan Sandinistas are portrayed as good guys. (Suck it, Reagan!) The second half, which suffers (though not greatly so) from the same navel-gazing Metal Gear mythology fan-wanking that destroyed MGS4, isn't as sharp or interesting, but still manages to crash-land into a semi-intriguing meditation on the symbiotic relationship between peace and war.

Gameplay-wise Peace Walker is note-worthy for how it brilliantly condenses 20 years of game design into a single, streamlined gameplay system, hacking off time-honored conventions left and right (no crawling?) but somehow retaining the essence of the franchise. It's the game that people who think Kojima isn't a game designer (or, at least, doesn't employ them) should play... though they obviously won't.

How RPG Elements Hurt Good Games

Peace Walker is the stupidest boss in the history of the Metal Gear series. It takes 30 minutes to beat, has a reoccurring instant fail phase, no weak points, and approximately a gazillion patterns that are impossible to avoid. The only way to kill the thing is to just pelt it with endless missiles while absorbing as much damage as possible before your healing items run out.

I know this is a type of boss design (most commonly found in Japanese RPGs) but it is one I personally hate. It is the polar opposite design philosophy of what Metal Gear used to be, which was more puzzle-oriented, like Zelda. Metal Gear bosses used to be about learning patterns, exploiting weaknesses with specific weapons, crippling the enemy to give yourself an advantage, etc. The bosses in Peace Walker swing completely in the opposite direction, into stat-driven endurance battles. This is where the Monster Hunter influence goes too far, reducing Metal Gear to a straight-forward grind-fest.

I love the Pokemon stuff, the kidnapping and army building, but in some ways it was better in Peace Walker's predecessor, Portable Ops, when these elements were simply a meta-game laid over a core game that was still recognizably derived from classic Metal Gear. While it's true that Portable Ops marked the first time bosses lost some of their puzzleiness (mostly as the result of letting players design their own arsenal) they never required grinding to win.

Unlike in Peace Walker, weapon and tool development in Portable Ops was holistic, not incremental. In other words, items did not have various "levels" of power or effectiveness. You didn't have to "upgrade" your rocket launcher to make it do more damage. A rocket launcher was a rocket launcher, and you either had one or you didn't. Sure, there were the RPG-ish elements of needing scientists to build weapons, and what they created and how fast they created it were based on a rudimentary stat system, but once you had an item in the field stats didn't matter. It was about which weapons/tools you had, not what "level" they were.

I can't stand the way Peace Walker scales difficulty by scaling enemy statistics. This essentially means the only way you progress in the game is by scaling your own statistics. It's less about how good you are and more about how many fucking rations and supply markers you have, so you reach a point where you simply outlast the enemy simply because you put endless hours in the game. It's the kind of game design that devalues learning and skill in favor of not having a life.

If there was any doubt about Peace Walker's "damage sponge" difficulty philosophy it is proven by how the game omits any and all permanent effects that might give players a strategic upper hand. Setting anti-tank mines or blowing up a fuel tank only stops land vehicles "temporarily" even though they should in all rights stop them permanently. It's clear each boss is designed not to be "too easy" for players who want to pound away on it with their snazzy guns. Since everything has hit points now it's just a matter of hitting bosses--anywhere--until they go down. This is a far cry from the tank battle in Metal Gear Solid 1, where one grenade would disable its treads and another down the top hatch would finish off the gunner. The main challenge was getting close enough to the tank to do this, and the fight was perfectly interesting, logical, and satisfying.

Given how excellent the simple puzzle-logic of Metal Gear boss fight have been in the past, it feels dumb for Peace Walker to simply abandon all of it in favor of straight-up RPG stat-grinding. The better fights in the game--the PUPA, the ZEKE fight, and if you choose to try and stealth the vehicle bosses--retain some of the old Metal Gear strategic thinking. When it comes to the later bosses, though, it's so stat-heavy and grind-necessitating the game feels more like Dragon Quest than tactical espionage.

I always loved Metal Gear's reliance on tools with discrete uses rather than stats with incremental effects. This is what put the series in the same category as Thief and Hitman--all superb games about using sharply-defined tools to make decisions in a richly simulated world. Peace Walker takes a disturbing turn away from this, sort of like when Irrational "improved" System Shock by adding stats... taking a richly simulated world and reducing it to a mere RPG (albeit a good one).

This isn't to say stats always work against strategic decision-making. It depends on how they are implemented. When they seem to exist only to augment things like health or damage they do. But when used in other ways they don't. Metal Gear Ac!d, the short-live Metal Gear spin-off series released on the PSP some years ago, indulged RPG conventions without undercutting this sort of tool-decision-making. It's hard to imagine anything more RPG-ish than Ac!d's turn-based, card-based combat system. Yet I have to confess that--when put side-by-side with Peace Walker--both Ac!d games manage to express the strategic thinking of classic Metal Gear in a way Peace Walker seems to totally lose sight of.

Even though Ac!d featured a "card deck", in which actions could only be "played" based on which cards happened to come up in your "hand", all these actions had discrete functional values, not arbitrary incremental values. Drawing the card of a particular tool or weapon meant you got to use that particular tool or weapon. Pistols, rocket launchers, etc. all had specific strategic values. It wasn't just about how powerful they were. There was no rocket launcher "+1" or "+2" because challenges did not scale primarily in terms of how much HP enemies had (like they do in Peace Walker). Like any true turn-based strategy game, the Ac!d series was all about, well, strategy. It was about how well you could out-think your opponent by seeing several moves ahead of them and using your resources accordingly.

I remember spending hours on some screens of Ac!d, just trying to figure them out like puzzles. I specifically remember a screen full of snipers perched on ridges, and having to figure out how to use my current card deck to sneak past them. It was hard but rewarding once I developed a successful strategy, the way any turn-based strategy game is. In this sense Metal Gear Ac!d recalled Front Mission, Vandal Hearts, or even the original X-Com--all turn-based strategy games where cleverness was more important than how high you had grinded your characters.

Metal Gear Ac!d was a PSP launch game, and at the time I remember Hideo Kojima claiming he was skeptical as to whether the real-time tactical stealth gameplay of Metal Gear would "work" on a portable platform, hence Ac!d's "experimental" turn-based approach. Ac!d was predictably criticized at the time for "not being a real Metal Gear game" even though most people admitted it was quite good turn-based strategy game. Portable Ops, in obvious response to this, was intended as the the first "real" Metal Gear game on the PSP console, and Peace Walker was even more hyped as a full-blown main series installment, even though in some ways Ac!d was more true to the concept of tactical espionage action.

Thinking about Ac!d again makes me wonder if Peace Walker's more frustrating battles would actually be fun if they were turn-based. Even if they were they probably wouldn't be as fun as Ac!d, because they'd still be just endurance tests, which is the least interesting type of strategic problem I can imagine. Two opponents hit each other until one of them dies. Brilliant. If I wanted that I'd play...

...well I wouldn't play Metal Gear, that's for sure.

Deadly Premonition Is "Interesting" with GAMBIT Lead Game Designer Matthew Weise: Video

On Friday September 17th, 2010 GAMBIT Lead Game Designer Matthew Weise spoke before a packed house during a Friday Games At GAMBIT and proclaimed that Access Games' new offering "DEADLY PREMONITION" is "interesting" and even during one verbal frenzy describes the game as ..."good". The game has received wildly mixed reviews from variety of websites. "Destructoid" describes the game as such: "Deadly Premonition is like watching two clowns eat each other." Matthew Weise vigorously scrutinized this game during this 45 minute entertaining rampage at the GAMBIT lab which is now here for you to watch on glorious video! Video Produced by Generoso Fierro , Edited by Garrett Beazley.

Continue reading "Deadly Premonition Is "Interesting" with GAMBIT Lead Game Designer Matthew Weise: Video" »

Sexual Nightmares in Silent Hill.

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven and contains spoilers for Silent Hill 1, 2, and Shattered Memories.

I just finished my second play-through of Silent Hill Shattered Memories, studio Climax's remake of Silent Hill 1. As much as I dislike the developer's pretentious claims about their game "playing you as much as you play it" I have to admit it wasn't too bad. After their mediocre Silent Hill: Origins I had Climax pegged as a bunch of Silent Hill 2 fanboys whose idea of "improving" Silent Hill 1 was to turn it into Silent Hill 2, i.e. to make it about the psychology of a sexually troubled protagonist. Sure enough Shattered Memories does this, but in a more original and thoughtful way than I expected.

The idea of Silent Hill becoming the "personal nightmare" of people who have past traumas connected with it was actually invented in Silent Hill 2, not 1, and since everyone seems to agree that Silent Hill 2 is the masterpiece of the series its "formula" has become highly fetishized, especially by Western gamers. What people forget, though, is that the "it's your nightmare!" twist of Silent Hill 2 was originally surprising because it was someone else's nightmare in Silent Hill 1. It was the nightmare of a girl named Alessa, a poltergeist who had been horrifically abused by her mother and whose latent psychic power had exploded in adolescence and transformed Silent Hill into a living manifestation of her pain.

Harry's search for his daughter Cheryl (whom you eventually discover is a phantom projection of Alessa) in Silent Hill 1 wasn't about him at all. It was about him baring witness to Alessa's anguish, and Alessa was in a sense the real main character. Virtually every screen was symbolic of some horrible thing that had happened to her, making her interior psychology the literal subject of the player's exploration. Silent Hill 2 revised this slightly. It suggested the town itself had a quality that caused reality to take the shape of people's trauma, which was necessary to explain why you were in a nightmare other than Alessa's. This revised explanation defined the Silent Hill mythos from then on--which is fine because it was quite good--but a downside is that a lot of people seem to have forgotten that Silent Hill 1 was just as "personal"... and in some ways more tragic and harrowing.

The guilt James suffers from murdering his wife in Silent Hill 2, for me at least, does not compare to what Alessa went through. She was abused by her religious fanatic mother, burnt to a featureless husk, and then imprisoned in a hospital basement for nearly a decade, tied to a wheelchair, in a straight-jacket, with nothing to do but lose her agonized mind. Alessa's trauma might have been less everyday than James', but it hardly seemed unreal to me. On the contrary it seemed to be the sort of unthinkable fate we don't allow ourselves to imagine most of the time, because it would shake the foundations of our belief in civilization... that humans are more than just animals.

Alessa in Silent Hill 1 was for me an Ann Frank-like figure, a case study in what happens when the sickest shit human beings are capable of collides with the everyday trivialities of growing up. The astonishing contrast of Silent Hill 1's imagery--an elementary school that turns into an Auschwitz-style prison, dolls and children's toys scattered about rusty syringes and barbed wire, endless bodies in straight-jackets trapped in cages--touched on something unspeakable. They never talk about it in school, but as a kid it's hard to read Ann Frank's diary and not imagine what it was like when people like her died in death camps. The world you explore in Silent Hill 1, to me, is very close to what I imagine the wrecked mind of a young Holocaust victim would look like if it were captured in their final, tormented moment.

Shattered Memories, somewhat smartly, doesn't try to address the same set of ideas. It isn't about horrific abuse. It isn't about disfiguring burns, imprisonment, wheelchairs, straight-jackets, or rusty metal. It is, though, still about the interior traumatic mindspace of a teenage girl, and the vehicle used to explore it is still her father. You still play as Harry looking for Cheryl in a snow-swept Silent Hill, and the world still oscillates between reality and a nightmare version of itself. But the nightmare imagery is different (snow and ice, not rusty medical torture) and appears--at least initially--to represent Harry's mind, not Alessa/Cheryl's.

The impression that you are in Harry's nightmare stems largely from first-person "therapist" scenes. Periodically the story stops and a sleazy therapist appears, urging the player to do little "exercises" before continuing. They range from answering questions about sex and family to taking Rorschach tests and drawing pictures. What they are supposed to do is "tailor" the nightmare imagery and narrative to reflect your--meaning the player's--psychology. Since Harry is the player's avatar, all this manifests in-game as if your sexual, social, family issues were Harry's. If you tell the therapist you sleep around, all the women around Harry dress sexier, seem more seductive, and in the nightmare world disfigured naked women chase you. However... the ending you discover you're not in Harry's mind at all. You're in Cheryl's. The game ends when you finally reach the mental health clinic, thinking you'll find Cheryl. You run down the hallway, burst into the room, and you're in the therapy room you've been seeing the whole game. The camera finally cuts--for the first time--to a reverse shot of who the therapist is speaking to. It's Cheryl. Harry, you discover, died in a car crash years ago, and the whole game has been a waking dream Cheryl's been describing to her therapist.

This ending is unexpectedly touching. The therapist explains Cheryl has constructed a heroic fantasy of her father trying to "find" her, because she felt so abandoned after he died. He postulates that she blames her mother for her father's death (since he left because of a divorce) and that as a result has developed an honest-to-god Electra complex--seeking out surrogate "fathers" in all her sexual relationships with other men and seeing all competing women as surrogates for her mother. This is actually foreshadowed throughout the game, with Harry being constantly seduced by a teenage, slutty version of Cheryl's mother Dahlia, and through rumors of a nameless teenage girl (obviously Cheryl) who is ridiculed for pursuing older men.

In the first ending I got (just one of several) Cheryl stares at the phantom father, the idealized male of her subconscious, and says goodbye to him. In that moment he crystallizes into a statue of ice, a rather horrific event you've seen happen throughout the game to other people, much to Harry's astonishment. To see it happen to Harry himself--you--is pretty striking. You're already reeling from the shock that you're not Harry but Cheryl, and the wave of melancholy she feels at saying goodbye to her father feels like an echo of you saying goodbye to your avatar. It's "letting go" of a phantom surrogate, a decoupling of yourself from a fantasy construct you have affection for but know isn't real.

This twist is in a lot of ways a very good one. It feels dramatic, satisfying, surprising, and functions nicely as a metaphor for the player's relationship with the game (Harry is, after all, Cheryl's "avatar" too). Where it perhaps falters is in its implied mechanics of human psychology. The twist that you're not in Harry's mind but Cheryl's is clever, but it also requires you to believe that the psycho-sexual dreamscape of a middle-aged man is interchangeable with that of a young woman. If the game "creates your own personal nightmare" based on how you answer the therapy questions, doesn't that diminish it as an expression of Cheryl's personal nightmare? Is Cheryl just an empty vessel for the player? She doesn't seem to be, since there are lots of hints in the game as to specific things which happened to her and specific traumas she has, so whose mind is it?

The obvious answer is both, but I wonder if the developers at Climax have a subtle enough view of sex and gender to give such duality proper breathing room. If I'm a man who "tailors" my dreamscape to involve a lot of extremely male-driven sexual anxieties, what does it mean that I'm revealed to be a woman in the ending? Is that what women are afraid of? Skimpily dressed cops and naked booby monsters?

I suppose you could argue that Cheryl isn't directly afraid of those things herself, but that she imagines (rightly or wrongly) that those are the sorts of things that might distract her father away from her. There is possibly some credence to this, especially if you view the story as a series of seductions--some literal, some figurative--that Harry/the player narrowly escapes... rather like what Tom Cruise's character goes through in Eyes Wide Shut. I wonder, though, how absurd Kubrick's film would have seemed if in the end you discovered Tom Cruise was just a figment of Nicole Kidman's imagination? Would anyone have believed his fantasies were in reality the product of her subconscious?

The somewhat cavalier view Shattered Memories takes to dream logic is arguably the result of its "adaptive" narrative system, in which dream images and symbols are interchangeable based on the player's choices. I am not convinced this system helps the game. One reason Silent Hill 1 and 2 endure as artworks is because they have consistent, meticulously designed dreamscapes worth studying and interpreting over multiple play-throughs. Shattered Memories may be trying to do too much by wanting to create a similar experience that dynamically changes. The big "innovation" of Shattered Memories seems to be that the nightmare is the player's nightmare, but it possibly makes a fatal mistake by assuming it can be the player's nightmare and someone else's nightmare at the same time. As an experiment in interactive narrative it's interesting, but as a portrait of a fictional character it may have been stronger had it been entirely static.

My second ending wasn't as satisfying as my first. Cheryl seemed more bitter than bittersweet about her father, watching stoically as he turned to ice. Afterwards there was a clip of a sex video Harry apparently made with Michelle and Lisa (two characters encountered earlier in the game) which assumedly Cheryl saw at some point. This explains their presence in her dream as "seduction obstacles", and may also explain the "TV static" motif of the interface at times. There are many other examples of videos too, and Kauffman (the therapist) suggests that Cheryl watches home videos obsessively. In any case, my new answers to the therapy questions apparently turned Harry into a womanizer and an adulterer, which made Cheryl resent him. Oddly Kauffman still talks about her "idolizing" him, inventing a fantasy where he is coming to save her.

In my first ending instead of the sex video I got a video of Harry leaving and Cheryl being sad. Not only do I like the ending a lot more emotionally, it also frankly seems to make a lot more sense. Choosing more sexual and/or cynical answers seems to make the story reflect this in a rather literal fashion. In my first game Cheryl seemed like a nice, if a bit introverted, girl who idolized her father in ways that (unconsciously) lead her into unheathly relationships with men, which made her bitter-sweet "letting go" of her father sort of touching. In my second game Cheryl seemed to be a slut and a criminal whose "positive" fantasy of her father was less easy to explain.

I don't mind the choices you make changing things, but one thing I had (incorrectly) assumed is that the player's choices simply change how Cheryl's psychology is expressed, not what Cheryl's psychology is. Playing again therefore isn't even exploring the same mindscape, but a different mindscape... which is sort of interesting... except that this requires the "meanings" of the dream imagery to be so interchangeable they fail to feel as subtle or as purposeful as those in the original Silent Hill games. The genre swap of the ending "twist" is a variation on this problem, and is further complicated by the fact that the player may be male or female, in which case it would be possible for the game to be the nightmare of a woman (the player), role-playing a man (Harry), who is secretly a figment of a woman's imagination (Cheryl).

The paint-by-numbers dream logic and dime store Freudianism Climax adopts in order to make their adaptive narrative workable does not seem able to embody such complexity, at least not to me, yet it's unclear whether Climax themselves are silly enough to believe they do. The beginning "psychology warning" feels tongue-in-cheek, but on the other hand the story clearly wants to be taken seriously as a psychological thriller. This leads me to believe the writers and designers of this game actually expect the player to take some of their more absurd constructions--like Kauffman--seriously, as if he weren't obviously an awful therapist and a fucking asshole and a maniac. He  leers at you the whole game, makes constant sarcastic comments, and blows his top at the end, smashing his wineglass and screaming in a fit of rage over Cheryl's inability to "get over" her fantasy. This sort of ludicrous Hollywood crap makes you think no one at Climax has ever even talked to someone who's been to therapy, let alone gone themselves.

Overall I found Shattered Memories pretty interesting, in spite of its over-reaching pretension and occasional bad writing. I really liked the first ending I got, which seemed to quite cleverly pay homage to Silent Hill 1 (it's all about Cheryl) while simultaneously paying homage to Silent Hill 2 (it's all about the protagonist), while still maintaining some of the pathos associated with the series' best moments. Maybe one of the reasons the ending affected me is because I still have this lingering sympathy for Alessa as a character, and I like the idea of her overcoming her past in order to live a normal life. Silent Hill 3 sort of dealt with this idea, as a direct sequel to Silent Hill 1 in which Alessa is reincarnated as a girl named Heather and given the opportunity to take revenge on the cult that abused her.

Shattered Memories feels more touching to me though, especially when read against Silent Hill 1. I like the idea that life can still be scary and difficult even if you were never the victim of horrific torture. Cheryl in Shattered Memories doesn't know how lucky she is, to have her skin, all her limbs, to be able to walk, to run, to speak. But that doesn't make her happy... anymore than it makes the rest of us happy who take such things for granted.

Defining Characters in Games

A few weeks ago, Kate Finegan from Kotaku contacted me for an interview, asking questions about videogame characters. Instead of responding to her questions one by one, I found it easier to address her questions in the form of a short essay, which she then quoted in her piece. I was glad to have contributed to such a fine article, so I encourage you to go and read it.

Kate sent me many questions, so my response was rather wide. Since only a few ideas made it to the article, here goes the original response that I sent to Kate. Thanks to her for letting me post it here.

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What Metroid Other M Can Teach Us About 3D Game Design.

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

Metroid Other M has problems, mostly revolving around its badly-conceived integration of narrative and its dopey gender politics. But one thing I do like is its unorthodox take on 3D game design, which is conceptually very good. The game offers a fresh take on what it means to navigate and interact in 3D space, hearkening back to the days before developers had 3D "figured out", when it was common for every game to experiment with 3D differently.

I like how Other M takes place in 3D space but "pretends" to take place in 2D space. At a glance it looks like a "2.5D" game, the sort where the world is 3D but the player is confined to a 2D plane. Last year's Shadow Complex, which was an unabashed (and quite decent) Metroid clone, was basically a 2.5D game, though it did offer limited ability to shoot into the background. This is where Shadow Complex ran into problems however, since its manual aiming system was fidgity when it came to deciding whether "up" meant "up" in 2D space or "back" in 3D space.

Other M solves this problem by providing a genuine 3D world, with full three-axises of movement, but retaining a 2D-like level design and camera system. Movement into the background or forground is constrained not by some invisible wall but by actual level architecture, which is made up of long narrow corridors and sharp right-angles. The camera always remains at an orthogonal angle to Samus, with obscuring structures becoming transparent as the player runs behind them. The effect is somewhat like being trapped in an ant farm, but a slightly wider ant farm than normal, giving the player some limited room to move laterally.

This is an interesting idea for a 3D navigation system. It seems designed to utilize the simplicity and clarity of 2D controls while boasting actual 3D gameplay. Other M controls with the d-pad, which might seem limiting but makes perfect sense given the strong orthogonal logic of its spaces. You don't miss analog movement simply because the level design doesn't require it, and the problem of aiming at enemies--which can come from any direction--is solved by an extremely good auto-aiming system.

In some ways the ballsiest thing Other M does is take aiming almost entirely away from the player and hand it over to Samus. All the player has to do is tap the button and Samus will automatically blast left, right, up, down, or where ever enemies happen to be. The only thing she won't do is turn to blast enemies directly behind her, so it is up to the player to position Samus so that she has a clear shot. This mostly consists of moving her to one side of an enemy swarm so the autoaim can do its trick.

What I like about this is it turns combat into more of a navigation problem than an marksmanship problem. In a sense the player is the driver and Samus is the gunner, which reinforces Other M's navigation-focused design philosophy. Combat is not a trivial element (even with Samus's smooth moves it still requires some player skill) but primarily Other M is a game about moving through space, not fighting things. This is why, in spite of whatever other problems it has, it still feels like a proper Metroid game, because at its core the ratio of combat-to-exploration is similar to classic 2D Metroid.

I find this approach pretty clever, especially in how it solves the problems so many other 3D Metroid clones run into, most notably Castlevania. That series' big mistake, I feel, was to become more combat focused in the switch to 3D. Those games also kept the orthogonal level design of their 2D counterparts, but they went with traditional 3D cameras and analog movement, presumably because it would be difficult to fight enemies otherwise. What this did, however, was turn Castlevania into almost a straight brawler, in which exploration felt like a tedious afterthought.

What 3D Castlevania seemed to misunderstand about its 2D predecessors (and the Metroid games that inspired them) was that combat was never the center of the experience. It was merely something you did along the way, something which--in games like Symphony of the Night--seemed to exist primarily to make you feel cool as you glided elegantly through space. Alucard remains one of the most absurdly overpowered protagonists in videogames, and the sense that he could do incredible (and beautiful) things easily--i.e. with minimal input from you--was part of the appeal.

Samus in Other M is similar. It is slightly thrilling the way she responds in a complex fashion to minimal input, like when she appears to catch a glimpse of an enemy out of the corner of her eye and twist her body like some combination ninja/ballerina/gunslinger to blast it just before it gets her. I like moving Samus around just to see how she'll "handle" the situation. It's this sense of surprise that makes a player/protagonist relationship interesting, a fruitfully ambiguous fusion of self and other. When Samus does something cool, I feel cool, even if it was primarily her doing it.

Other M's design is refreshing ultimately because it demonstrates a willingness to re-think 3D as a problem. In this way it reminds me a lot of early 3D games like Fade 2 BlackMega Man Legends, and Metal Gear Solid--all sequels to 2D games that deliberately preserved the orthogonal logic of 2D game design. Other M, however, benefits from a decade of 3D gaming, which allows it to mix-and-match 3D techniques that weren't around during the heyday of 3D experimentation. My favorite is how it switches to an off-set, over-the-shoulder camera (similar to Resident Evil 4) in certain rooms. In these rooms Samus slows to a walk and Other M suddenly controls like a conventional 3D game, but if you walk out of the room the camera and the controls switch back to orthogonal.


Other M uses this primarily to create suspense, or when the player enters a room too small for running. It feels nice and logical, like Samus has "decided" to have a closer look at a space. Unfortunately Other M doesn't really capitalize on these moments to build itself into a rich fictional world. Not that it has to to be a good game, but environmental narrative depth was one of the things Metroid Prime--Other M's single 3D predecessor--did exceedingly well. Other M borrows certain elements from Prime, like its 1st person camera with a "scanning" function, but it doesn't seem interested in using it to impart narrative information to the player, only gameplay information.

The only scannable objects in Other M are game items, whereas in Prime virtually everything in the environment--gameplay-related or not--was scannable, and would yield information that fleshed out the gameworld as a coherent fictional space. Other M has nicely detailed environments that easily could have supported a deeper scan function, but the team chose not to tell the story this way, instead opting for absurdly overblown, unskippable cut-scenes and a fairly linear game progression.  When things like the over-the-shoulder camera and first-person scan function are used for narrative effect, it is always in highly controlled (and highly frustrating) ways that quickly degenerate into "find the pixel".

Other M doesn't really follow through on the rich possibilities suggested by its fresh 3D paradigm, but I want to stress that the paradigm is very good, and I feel the game deserves credit for showcasing it. With better narrative design the game's elegant combination of first-person, over-the-shoulder, and orthogonal 3D schemes could have been shaped into a dense and rich experience on par with Metroid Prime, while simultaneously recapturing the fast-paced acrobatics of classic Metroid that the Prime series played down. The fact that it's crippled by bad narrative design, unnecessary linearity, and (towards the end) an over-reliance on combat makes it a less-compelling final product but not a less useful experiment. It's willingness to rethink 3D as a problem gives it a freshness many better games lack, and in many ways it generates the sort of experimental excitement 3D games haven't in over a decade.

Amnesia - Adventure Gaming in the Age of First-Person Shooters

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

I spent a few hours with Amnesia: The Dark Descent last night, and what strikes me most about the game so far is not its atmosphere (which is excellent) but its controls, specifically in relation to the game's somewhat nebulous genre. It's billed as a "horror game", and that it obviously is, but it's also a 3D first-person game that's not a first person shooter. What it reminds me of most are old first-person point-and-click adventure games like UninvitedShadowgate, and Deja vu. What Amnesia really feels like is an update of these types of games, and what's clever about it is how it reverse-engineers adventure game verbs out of what is essentially a post-Half Life 2 physics-based FPS.

Part of what defines adventure games are their "verb + object" interaction scheme. In classic adventure games players chose these verbs from a list, and later games found ways to reduce and consolidate verb sets (though there were both pros and cons to this reduction). Amnesia has only two verbs--grab and throw--but the developers use these verbs to "create" most other traditional adventure game verbs on the fly with game physics and traditional WASD controls.

Since there is no "open" verb the way you open doors is by "grabbing" the knob and moving backwards or forwards, which pulls or pushes the door open. Because it's physics-based, you can do this slowly or quickly, or you can slam the door shut with a right-mouse click. Left mouse is "grab" and right mouse is "throw". If you are grabbing a doorknob, "throwing" means you slam the door. If you are holding an object, it means you throw the object.

The world of Amnesia is designed around puzzles and exploration, not combat. There are monsters and it is possible to die, but the way you progress is by solving puzzles, puzzles that more or less emerge out of game physics. They are traditional adventure game puzzles--like stand on a box in order to be able to reach the lever that opens the secret passage--but since all these things are governed by physics, not hard-coded cause and effect, they contain the subtle possibility of alternate solutions which (in theory) gets you out of the common adventure game trap of "guess what the desginer is thinking".

What impresses me most about all this is how logical, minimalist, and intuitive it all is. I can easily imagine someone who's never played adventure games easily understanding the controls and logic of Amnesia. It almost feels like a deceptive experiment to corrupt modern FPS gamers into liking adventure games, which I am all for. Anyone familiar with Half-Life 2's physics and "grab" mechanics will easily understand how Amnesia works, and they'll have no idea they're really playing Shadowgate.

I am still very early in the game, so I'll be interested to see if my initial impressions stick, or if the game transforms itself into something else along the way. Regardless, Amnesia has already proven it is possible to adapt certain conventions of adventure games to modern first-person 3D gaming, and do so intuitively and fluidly, which is itself a minor achievement.

Why I Didn't Like Scott Pilgrim.

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

I am 33 years old. I grew up on the NES, and yes, I remember Clash and Demonhead and Crash and the Boys Street Challenge. Those were my games; that was my generation, and I walked out of Scott Pilgrim unimpressed. I feel it's important to explain why, since the gamer community seems to be going hysterical about the film, even as it's failing at the box office, putting it on the fast-track to cult status before it even hits DVD.

There doesn't seem to be much room to be down with gaming but not down with the film. It's almost as if you have some cultural duty as a gamer to like the film, since it is one of the first films by a director who "gets" gaming culture. The problem for me is that Edgar Wright's SPACED, which he made with his Shaun of the Dead co-writer Simon Pegg and actress Jessica Hynes, and which he made over a decade ago, was a thousand times better than Scott Pilgrim as a look at gamer culture. A kind of dream-like mediation on what it meant to be a 20-something Londoner in the late 90s (during the height of the Playstation 1), it was more real, more clever, more complex, and far more intelligent. By comparison Scott Pilgrim is a pantomime cartoon that confuses caricature with character in ways that seem below Wright's directorial talents.

Sometimes I wonder if Sin City "ruined" comic book movies, since nowadays people seem to have this idea that the proper way to adapt a comic is to simply mimick it on-screen in a grotesque combination of special effects and slavish, puppet-like acting. Although certain actors in Scott Pilgrim handle this better than others (notably Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jason Schwartzman, who aren't "real" but seem to find the right note for their stylized performances) it largely results in a kind of wacky, sustained phoniness, as if you're watching a sketch comedy stretched out to the tedious length of a feature film. I am not against stylized craziness, but content of this sort needs a strong undercurrent of emotional and psychological reality to ground it, to make all its flights of fancy feel like poetic expressions of something real, and not just empty exercises in pop-cultural chic. One way to achieve this is for the actors to behave naturalistically, to provide a counter-balance to the unreal style. Suspension of disbelief works when we believe actors believe what's happening to them, and by and large the performances in Scott Pilgrim are way too telegraphed, way too controlled, to achieve that.

If you compare Scott Pilgrim to Wright's previous work, you'll see this is a big difference. SPACED, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz all are about the mundane reality of real people colliding with fantastic genre worlds, and in each case the acting and dialog provides a clear counterpoint to the highly stylized world of the genre. The thing that makes Hot Fuzz not a Michael Bay movie is its deliberately down-to-Earth (though still comedic) acting and dialog, and the reason Shaun of the Dead is, in a lot of ways, superior to the George Romero films that inspired it is because the level of dialog and acting is far above Romero's ever was, making the characters frankly a lot more believable. SPACED, which is more about the imagined worlds of genres (including those of movies, science fiction, and videogames) colliding with the everyday life of Londoners, has a similarly dialectic approach to fantasy vs. reality. The fantasy largely comes from Wright's direction, in his stylistic references to Quentin Tarantino, Sam Raimi, and various Playstation games. The reality comes from Pegg and Hynes, who wrote the dialog and play the two leads. Though Hynes wasn't a writer on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Pegg was still a co-writer. Scott Pilgrim marks the first time Wright has worked without Pegg as a grounding influence, and one has to wonder if the monotonous fantasy overload of Pilgrim isn't the direct result.

I don't mind if other people like Scott Pilgrim. I'll admit the film is clever in certain ways, and I am not above feeling a small thrill at some of the references. Still, I must stress the thrill is rather small, and I would never confuse this kind of thrill for nuanced writing, acting, or storytelling. Gamers are still, in certain ways, a marginalized culture, largely misunderstood by the mainstream, which is why we often embrace whatever meager representation comes down the Hollywood pipeline. But a movie isn't good just because it validates your culture, and I personally find my aesthetic sense of film is too strong to accept a movie like Scott Pilgrim based purely on such criteria.

You know what would be better than seeing a Clash and Demonhead reference in a movie? Seeing one in a good movie, the sort which I know Wright is capable of, and which I hope he'll do again if given the opportunity. Until then I'll still be recommending SPACED to anyone who wants to know what being a gamer is like.

Revisiting Riddick.

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.


I just played Starbreeze Studios' Chronicles of Riddick for the first time in several years, and I was struck--yet again--by how good the game is. In general I dislike "macho" games, so when one cuts right through my disdain for testosterone-fueled bravado I sit up and take notice. The only game in recent memory to have this effect on me was last year's underrated Bionic Commando, which I found genuinely thrilling, nuanced, and superbly designed in spite of its meat-head protagonist. One might imagine it's the sheer polish and professionalism of these games that makes me gladly overlook their juvenile swagger. But if that were the case I'd also like God of War, Halo, Gears of War, Call of Duty, and just about every other AAA game that features men unironically kicking ass. Such games tend to bore me, so why does Riddick make being a bald asshole in a wife-beater seem interesting?

Some of it is undoubtedly Vin Diesel's voice performance, which is so humorless and dead-pan it easily qualifies as camp. Camp alone, though, doesn't save a game for me. Mad World was similarly campy yet bored me to death in the first hour, probably because it was about nothing but smacking people around. Starbreeze's Riddick, however, is about a hell of a lot more than that. It is a surprisingly subtle game that combines stealth, shooting, boxing, and conversation more elegantly than most other 3D games I can think of--easily better than Deus Ex, which is one of the more historically famous examples of such genre-bending. (Although, to be clear, when I say "better" here I mean it strictly in a usability sense, not in the sense that Riddick in any way approaches Deus Ex's ethically complex narrative universe.)

This is perhaps the big difference between a game like Riddick and many other "macho" games. The obvious production quality of most of them is in service of game design goals I have no real interest in, goals that seem to grow out of their macho attitudes. God of War is a brawler, and Gears of War and Call of Duty are both shooters, which we might include under some uber-genre of "Men Breaking Shit". No matter how good these games are all their quality is squarely aimed at trying to make punching, shooting, and eviscerating people more fun... as if there weren't enough of this in games already.

I was at GDC the year God of War 3 premiered at the Sony keynote, and I remember--to my astonishment--the audience going bonkers when Kratos ripped a griffin in half in mid-air. The same thing happened at E3 a few years earlier, at a presentation when duel-wielding in Halo 2 was revealed. People just went nuts. It's not so much that gamers like this sort of thing, but that so much time, effort, and money goes into advancing it. Should I be impressed that ripping off heads is more fun now than it's ever been? Am I supposed to believe this is some sort of important frontier in game design that we need to direct millions and millions of dollars toward?

I don't see how such things advance the medium. They seem to advance only their own genres, which are both static and narrow in the experiences they are hell-bent on providing (again). What lessons, for example, could a developer trying to make a narrative game aimed at senior citizens learn from God of War? Games that have more eclectic design goals--even if they involve men breaking shit--tend to be more useful to the ongoing advancement of game design. Riddick might be about male rage, but it's also an experiment in the complexities of immersive role-playing, of what it means to "feel" like a certain kind of person in a certain kind of situation. An experiment of this sort feels more potentially useful to me than figuring out yet another way to skin a hydra. Starbreeze's game remains one of the better examples of how developers can combine elements from various familiar genres to create a game that doesn't seem to be dictated by genre logic but by fictional logic--the logic of story, character, and world.

Viewed in parts Riddick's various game systems are obviously ripped-off several famous games--including Punch-Out (for puzzle-like boxing), Thief (for light-based stealth), Deus-Ex (for conversation and choice), and Half-Life (for non-cinematic narrative devices)--but viewed as a whole none of its influences feel derivative since they are all so artfully combined. Take for example the brilliant tutorial sequence, where Riddick escapes captivity and blasts his way to freedom so you can learn the basic game mechanics. Most games come up with with lame reasons as to why you are stripped of all your badass abilities after the first 20 minutes, but Starbreeze's choice to structure this as a daydream--a pathetic fantasy you are having before you go to prison--was a small stroke of genius. The contrast between the agency felt in Riddick's fantasy and the brutal lack thereof in the following credit sequence, in which the player (in handcuffs) is only allowed to move the camera as they are marched into prison, is quite effective, and shows a synthesis of familiar conventions into a cleverly expressive whole. The "on rails" opening is of course lifted from Half-Life, but it's actually much better than Half-Life, because here it is more than a formal experiment in delivering narrative information. It is being used to illustrate a point about freedom and agency, of fantasy versus reality, that eases the player smoothly into the challenging "prison" of Starbreeze's game design.

I could go on about the various unoriginal game conventions Riddick expertly bends to its will, a will that seems to have little in mind besides making you feel like you are Vin Diesel. That I don't particularly want to be Vin Diesel is mitigated by the fact that this game makes you feel like Vin Diesel so well it is hard to play the game without wondering why more games don't achieve a similar level of protagonist-player fusion. Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the few games in recent memory to really follow Starbreeze's example, ripping off other games left and right but arranging their familiar elements in such a way so that they cease to feel like "parts" of other games and instead blend into a sharp procedural portrait of an iconic protagonist.

I guess my ideological view of game design is that we should be spending our time exploring how to shatter genre, not reinforce it... but we don't have to start from scratch if we want to create a particular effect. Lots of individual game conventions have been experimented with in literally thousands of games over the past few decades, and lots of them create specific effects rather well. It's is a shame, then, that so many of them have become arbitrarily grouped together in the prisons we call "genres" when they can be mixed and matched to achieve cohesive, expressive effects. Developers should not be thinking "lets make an RPG" so much as "lets make a game that makes you feel like a knight"... or a firefighter, or a grieving parent, or a professor, or anything really. Most of all developers should be aware that they have a massive palette of design tools to achieve these things, not just those arbitrarily bound together by formula.

An artful combination of the right game conventions--even familiar ones--will achieve their own expressive coherence, a sum much greater than their respective parts. It would be nice if there were more games that did this well. Then I might not have to settle for one starring Vin Diesel.

What does researching adventure games mean?

The editors at Adventure Classic Gaming invited me to write an article about research in adventure games. This was my opportunity to explain adventure game fans what I do and, more importantly, why they should care too. What I explain in the article, although focused on adventure games, is my understanding of what games research may be (we games researchers are still figuring that out).

An excerpt from he article:

The academic study of videogames has become an interdisciplinary research field. Game studies scholars come from a variety of disciplines, such as education, sociology, game studies, and computer science. The objects of their studies are just as diverse: specific genres (e.g., casual games (1) or role-playing games (2,3)), players, formal aspects of game design, to name but a few. Adventure games are also part of this rich research landscape, and their status in the field of game studies remains to be defined. This article is an introduction to the study of adventure games and how research can inform not only scholars but also game developers and fans of the genre. [...]


There is much that can be learned from adventure games and their long history (by videogame standards). Developed between 1975 and 1976, Adventure (Figure 1), also known as Colossal Cave, is commonly cited as the first adventure game (6). Decades later, adventure games are still released both commercially by development studios and non-commercially by dedicated enthusiasts. Computer technologies have evolved, and adventure games along with them, going from text to mouse input to touch screens. The evolution of the genre has not been linear, but rather has branched into different subtypes of adventure games. This has led to new interactive fiction (also known as text adventure games) being released along new point-and-click adventure games, both by commercial developers and by aficionados of the genre.

You can read the rest of the article at Adventure Classic Gaming.

What does researching adventure games mean?

The editors at Adventure Classic Gaming invited me to write an article about research in adventure games. This was my opportunity to explain adventure game fans what I do and, more importantly, why they should care too. What I explain in the article, although focused on adventure games, is my understanding of what games research may be (we games researchers are still figuring that out). My own work with Rosemary is one the examples of hands-on research on adventure games.

An excerpt from he article:

The academic study of videogames has become an interdisciplinary research field. Game studies scholars come from a variety of disciplines, such as education, sociology, game studies, and computer science. The objects of their studies are just as diverse: specific genres (e.g., casual games or role-playing games), players, formal aspects of game design, to name but a few. Adventure games are also part of this rich research landscape, and their status in the field of game studies remains to be defined. This article is an introduction to the study of adventure games and how research can inform not only scholars but also game developers and fans of the genre. [...]


There is much that can be learned from adventure games and their long history (by videogame standards). Developed between 1975 and 1976, Adventure, also known as Colossal Cave, is commonly cited as the first adventure game. Decades later, adventure games are still released both commercially by development studios and non-commercially by dedicated enthusiasts. Computer technologies have evolved, and adventure games along with them, going from text to mouse input to touch screens. The evolution of the genre has not been linear, but rather has branched into different subtypes of adventure games. This has led to new interactive fiction (also known as text adventure games) being released along new point-and-click adventure games, both by commercial developers and by aficionados of the genre.

You can read the rest of the article at Adventure Classic Gaming.

Metal Gear: Game Design Matryoshka - Part 4: Soldiers Are People Too.

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

MGS3 was the moment when the Metal Gear series transformed from refining its core concept (military espionage) to expressing new concepts (mortality, survival, etc.). It did this by taking the ever expanding system of actions, goals, and behaviors built up over the course of four games (MG1, MG2, MGS1, and MGS2) and re-organizing them along the contours of a particular theme (surviving nature) which grew out of a particular setting (a sprawling wilderness). The following games in the series follow the same basic design exercise, of choosing a setting and theme and allowing them to guide the rearrangement of familiar elements into a new system of meanings that make the game "about" something new.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (PSP 2006) looks almost identical to MGS3 at first glance. A budget sequel made on a portable platform, it reuses a large amount of art and gameplay elements from its immediate predecessor. Yet the way these things are reconfigured makes the ultimate experience quite different. MPO boasts almost all the same core actions as MGS3, including interrogation. In this game however interrogation takes on a whole new meaning. Interrogated soldiers now give two kinds of information, expressing either loyalty or disdain for their commander. If they are disdainful you can knock them out and drag them (like in MGS2/3) to an extraction point. Once extracted, they will "join" your cause, becoming playable characters in future missions. You can recruit loyal soldiers as well, but they take longer to "convince" to join your cause.

Time, unlike in previous Metal Gear games, is an important part of MPO. Instead of a single, on-going "mission" MPO is broken into several smaller "missions" accessible from a map screen. Going on a mission shifts the clock forward 12 hours, turning day to night or night to day. This day/night cycle has implications for many traditional Metal Gear mechanics, including sneaking and stamina. The camo system from MGS3 is gone, but now visibility is determined by time of day. Night missions provide better cover than day missions, and stamina is replenished not by living off the land but by resting. Players can choose to "wait" a 12 hour cycle in order to replenish stamina. (After all, running three missions in a row means you just went 36 hours without sleep.) The same low-stamina effects from MGS3 remain (shaky aim, etc.) but they require different strategies to deal with. Food can replenish stamina, but since MPO takes place in primarily urban environments there are no animals to hunt. Food must be found in storerooms or other buildings, and there is simply not enough to sustain one indefinitely.

Another major change in MPO is the radar, which replaces MGS3's dual radar system (itself a split-in-two version of the radar from earlier games) with a general aureal sensor. Clever players will recognize that this sensor is basically a visualization of the directional mic from past games, showing which direction sound is coming from and how loud it is but nothing else. This makes navigating around MPO's urban environments fairly tricky, as great care must be taken to guess where enemies are based on sound. In true Metal Gear fashion, however, MPO alleviates this anxiety by adopted another special case mechanic from past games and blowing it up into a core game system.

Both MGS2 and 3 allowed players to done disguises at certain key points, which allowed them to walk freely among the enemy provided they did nothing "suspicious" (like, for example, wave a gun around). MPO approximates this mechanic by considering all uniformed ex-enemy soldiers "in disguise" when they are on a mission, blending in with enemies of the same uniform. When playing this way a chameleon icon appears on the screen, indicating your cover is intact. In this state you can walk around at your leisure, explore areas, and find items all without having to sneak. Do something "suspicious" though, like skulk around a corner or crawl into an air vent, and your cover is blown. These tensions are further alleviated by "field data", dots that show up on your map telling you where items and enemies are. This is the exact same data that was procured in MGS3 via interrogation, only now it is gather by dispatching "spies" into the field. Unused recruits can be assigned to several jobs of this sort, including weapon development and medical research. These jobs have various effects on how you perform in the field, making them essential to mission planning.

At its simplest MPO is a game about the tensions and logistics of kidnapping, the way MGS2 was a game about the tensions and logistics of murder.  It's about winning the hearts and minds of the enemy and building your former foes into your own guerrilla army. These logistics, which existing Metal Gear mechanics are reconfigured around, grow out of a theme, this time derived from the overarching Metal Gear mythology. Snake/Big Boss's transformation from a solo operative into a great military leader, which had long been part of the Metal Gear backstory, doesn't just guide the narrative of MPO but the entire game design, a design where every "enemy" is just an ally you haven't made yet. In the next installment, we'll see how this increasing focus on soldier behavior leads to a procedural model of the psychological effects of war.

SCUMM: The Joys of Exploration


I had the chance to write about the Lucasfilm / Lucasarts SCUMM games (e.g. The Secret of Monkey Island, Loom, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road) for Design Aspect of the Month. The article is a defense of these games in terms of their game design, which encourages the player to explore the world. The writing in these games is certainly excellent, but it would not be as enjoyable or famous if it weren't supported by the design.

You can read the article in two posts: Part I and Part II.

Why Red Dead Redemption Is Disappointing

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

In a previous post I praised Red Dead Redemption for almost being a great world simulation. Really what I meant is that it looks like one if you squint hard enough. Although what I said before basically holds, I would like to elaborate on exactly what it does that keeps it from being a genuinely robust simulation of real emergent consequence.

First of all, there are different rules for different situations. Shooting someone in the leg or arm is non-fatal... except when the game arbitrarily decides otherwise. For example if someone steals your horse and you shoot them in the leg to knock them off, it is for some inexplicable reason always fatal. The same goes for large scale shoot-outs, the kind where several dozen enemies are shooting at you from behind cover. In these situations shooting people in the arms or legs simply kills them, apparently for no reason other than in such circumstances you're "supposed" to kill people. This is made clear by an omnipresent, ever-helpful on-screen prompt, which pops up from time to time to inform your what your goal is. "Kill the outlaws" is a typical prompt, which makes unambiguously clear what sort of behavior is expected (and allowed). Even though Redemption supports a much wider range of behaviors than killing, the game frequently flips certain ones on and off like a light switch in order to force the player into a singular challenge with a singular solution.

Having a voice "tell" you your goals is of course a way of preventing you from developing your own. A real world simulation would simply have consistent rules and let any emergent outcome they support be fair game. If Rockstar had the balls to rely on this consistency, to trust that it in and of itself is interesting enough to carry a game, they'd be making more than just virtual theme parks. Historically they seem to back away from any emergent possibility that might not cater to their juvenile audience, which is why they promise richly simulated worlds but then always cop-out by forcing the player into canned situations. Because what kind of wild west sim would it be if you could go through the whole game without getting into a single gunfight? A great one, obviously. Or, to be more accurate, an actual one.

It's ironic that a game which promises and even bases its narrative on the concept of "freedom" offers so little of it. This is why Redemption is best when it gets out of your way and just lets you solve problems according to consistent world rules. Missions are uniformly awful, boring affairs where you are ordered by a voice from the sky to kill people en masse. One can expect shoot-outs in a Western of course, but by the standards of  any Western film the amount of people you kill in Red Dead Redemption is ludicrous. Any given mission qualifies you as a mass murderer, as you kill literally dozens upon dozens of people all by yourself--more than Clint Eastwood ever did in every Western he ever appeared in combined. This is made possible largely by the way the game approaches difficulty design. John Marston is an indestructible tank, who can be shot endless times in the chest, face, or where ever and still pop heads with his winchester like he's the fucking Terminator. It's Westworld alright... except you are Yul Brynner.

It's both interesting and disappointing how games like Red Dead Redemption create painstakingly simulated worlds built on recognizable genre logic but intervene the moment any emergent consequence falls outside the "normal" borders of power fantasy. It says much about the gap between my sensibilities and Rockstar's that being an indestructible killing machine ordered by God to kill people seems, to me, entirely at odds with the game's surface image of being a "serious" and "adult" game experience. Rockstar typically likes to project this kind of image, as if they were somehow the vanguard of "mature" videogames, though I personally find it to be a ruse most of the time... both in terms of their instant-gratification / zero-consequence game design and their conveniently nihilistic narratives. The frontier in Redemption is arbitrarily sick, featuring cannibalism, bestiality, grave robbing, etc. While I'm not against such content on principle Redemption exhibits the typical Rockstar trait of exploiting such ideas for simple shock value, or as sick jokes, without really dealing with them.

The game is filled with the usual Rockstar gallery of meaninglessly grotesque crazies. Major characters are taken seriously, but minor characters feel more like the punchline of a dirty joke than actual people. (A guy who has sex with his horse? Hilarious!) The professionally done, decently acted cut-scenes seem calculated to obscure this, and it's only videogame culture's maturity complex--which tends to define "maturity" the way a teenager would--that allows such content to historically pass for "serious" work. It's interesting to think how superficial our concept of "seriousness" is, when something that simply looks and sounds like a real movie gets lauded regardless how morally simplistic it is underneath, whereas something that has cute characters or lower production values gets ignored even though it might be suggesting much more complicated and ambivalent things about heroism, violence, etc.

Rockstar's dime-store cynicism comes out even more in Redemption's total lack of variation in world events. It might  have felt different if the behavior of the people you encounter was randomized (as in sometimes a hitchhiker might not want to rob you, etc.) but they aren't, which means you get cynical about people really fast. This could be seen as a sort of commentary, but after a point it feels so shallow and simplistic it's yet another example of the petty nihilism that permeates all Rockstar's efforts. "The world is ugly and everybody's bad" might be a kind of social commentary, but it's a very cheap, childish kind... the sort you might expect from a high school emo poet. This is why Rockstar at the end of the day tends to feel like the Coen Brothers at their worst: people for whom ironic distance is not a mode of thought but a substitute for it.

Rockstar's worlds are stupid, ugly, and weird for arbitrary or petty reasons. They seem more about the narcissistic pleasure of feeling repulsed by (and therefore superior to) other people than trying to understand them. You see this pattern again and again in Rockstar games--in Vice City, in San Andreas, in GTAIV--of a snarky, aloof protagonist encountering weirder and weirder people, all of whom seem crazy and whose craziness seems to exist for no other reason than to give the player something to chuckle at. It's entertaining, but it's hardly nuanced, mature writing... it's precisely the opposite.

This is all not to say that Redemption has no redeeming aspects as a world simulation or as a serious treatment of the topics it raises. At times, when the Rockstar-ness of the game recedes into the background and you are just left alone in its beautiful frontier world, it's quite nice. The best parts of the game, of course, are those that least resemble Grand Theft Auto, notably the hunting, trading, cattle rustling, etc. The combat can be interesting, but only when the game gets out of your way and lets you try to solve problems on your own, and when it gives you the leverage to do that by not changing the rules on you. As I said before, it has all the pieces of a great Western simulation. They are just crippled by the fact that it's a Rockstar game, which traps it in a definition of "maturity" that leaves much to be desired.
Joga Bonito

Much of our work at GAMBIT focuses on digital games. This is not unreasonable given the long history of digital game innovation at MIT, and it is important for us to stay on the leading edge of this rapidly emerging mode of communication.

However, we would be remiss in not pausing for a moment today to reflect on the event that will put a stranglehold on the collective conscious of the entire world for the next four weeks.


As the world's greatest footballers, and greatest football fans descend on South Africa, I am reminded of the power of elegant game design to unite people - under the banners of nationalist pride, and in equal measure, by showing and sharing their (com)passion for a truly beautiful game.

There is some irony in the world's most popular sport being one that forsakes the use of the evolutionary tool that helps set us apart as a species. The simplicity of the rule has enabled the sport's dominance as the world's most popular game. You don't need much to play. A simple ball can be found or fashioned from many things. You don't need official goals, or uniforms, or bats, or pads. You don't need bases, or uprights, or wickets, or even a stadium. You only need some space, and the most abundant available resource, some people. No wonder the sport thrives.

jozy-altidore.jpgThis simplicity, I think too, serves as a reminder of our unity as global citizens. No amount of dollars, or ready-made suburban homes, or skyscrapers, or cable television rights can be divisive enough. Some of the best players' skills are honed barefoot in the sand. Everyone can play, and many millions do.

So my spirit is invigorated this morning as the first ball is kicked-off. Amazing that a simple game can stir so much passion in so many, and can serve as a reminder of the basic humanity we all share. Joga bonito everyone, and enjoy the momentary pause in the earth's rotation as we all hold our breath in expectant pause before the exhale of triumphant jubilation - goal.

And I can't leave this without declaring my support, blood orange since my youth:
Hup Holland Hup!

Rockstar's Westworld.

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

I am currently having more fun playing Red Dead Redemption than any other open world game in recent memory, and certainly more fun than I've had with a Rockstar game in several years. The last Rockstar game that felt similar was Grand Thief Auto: San Andreas, largely because of its heavy emphasis on role-playing elements. Grand Theft Auto IV was marketed as if it were a role-playing experience, but it didn't have San Andreas's benefit of a clear genre reference to build its various game systems off of and give them coherence. The clarity with which Redemption identifies itself as a Western, and the surprising extent to which it allows that to inform its world design, puts it head-and-shoulders above every other Rockstar game. Though it suffers from some vestigial design conventions inherited from GTA (mostly having to do with GTA's open world strategy of being a theme park rather than a holistic world simulation) it offers the player more choices, more expressive ways of behaving, than many open world games.

What's striking about Redemption is how unlike GTA it is, in spite of following a lot of the same conventions. It's pretty ironic, considering the associations of Westerns with guns and violence, that Redemption is one of the least violence-centered open world games I've played... even less, I feel, than RPGs like Fallout 3 or platformers like inFAMOUS. The fact of the matter is in the world of Red Dead Redemption there is a whole hell of a lot to do that doesn't involve killing people. I spent the first several hours of my game simply hanging out on a ranch, learning to tame horses, herd cattle, hunt, trade, forage, play cards with the locals, and in general just enjoy the beautiful countryside. I've heard the first few hours of the game criticized as "slow", but I wonder if this is just because no one asks you to kill people until a good while in. The only violence I engaged in (not counting hunting) in my first few hours was night watchman duty for a small ranch, where I was delighted to discover that killing was only one tool in my toolbox of available actions. All it took to scare off some cattle rustlers was pointing my gun at them. More belligerent trouble-makers could easily be disarmed with a well-placed shot, and if they still didn't feel like running they could be wrestled to the ground and knocked unconscious. And this was before I was given the lasso, which is originally for breaking in wild horses but works just fine on people too. Folks can be intimidated, knocked out, humiliated, scared, tied up, carried, untied--all without being murdered. Any combination of these things usually gets the job done, and the job is usually trying to maintain some semblance of order in an already fairly civilized (by video game standards) world. Probably the biggest irony of Red Dead Redemption is that its vision of a frontier civilization feels more peaceful and less violent than most video game worlds. The countryside isn't overwhelmingly hostile like it is in virtually all other open world games. Animals largely mind their own business, and most of the people you meet are friendly. You will occasionally encounter a hungry pack of wolves or some bandits, but these are always the exception, not the rule. You'll hear gunshots often in the distance, but you can simply mind your own business and go along your merry way. Life's too short, after all. And the open sky too beautiful.

The world of Red Dead Redemption is more indifferent than hostile. It isn't trying to kill you by default, and this may be why your range of responses to it involve a lot more than killing. When violence erupts, you know there's a range of ways to respond, depending on what sort of person you want to be and how you want others to regard you. The social simulation aspect of Redemption fits nicely in with the rest of the world. Murdering someone in the street is considered a crime, even if it was part of the duel, as is hogtying or assaulting random citizens. I once shot dead a man threatening a prostitute with a knife, and I was promptly run out of town by the authorities. Murder in defense of the weak or even in self-defense is frowned upon... unless you happen to wear a badge, in which case you basically have a license to kill anyone considered an "outlaw". Bounties always pay better if they are alive, but most gangs refuse to come quietly, so killing tends to become a natural consequence of law enforcement in practice. Of course, you can try to shoot everyone in the leg, hogtie everyone, etc.--and you may even get a few of them--but when you're pinned down in a canyon by seven snipers who have no qualms about killing you where you stand, pacifism becomes the quick road to suicide.

As a simulation Red Dead Redemption isn't as nuanced or as consistent as it could be, which hinders role-playing at times. I blame this primarily on the game's adherence to the "Rockstar formula" for how it attempts to integrate story and world design. Rockstar games have always been more like theme parks than proper world simulations. Story missions and challenges are like rides in a theme park, and the open world mostly serves as a fun space to explore while traveling from one "ride" to another. The rules that govern the open world are built on the story's theme, but they cannot be very complex or have very serious consequences because that would inhibit the players ability to experience all the "rides". There has always therefore been a disconnect between story and world in Rockstar games, and Red Dead Redemption is no exception. As an experience I feel the game would be a lot stronger if your behavior in the game world actually effected the story. For example, it would be nice if the sheriff of Armadillo wouldn't talk to you if you were an outlaw. Likewise it would be nice if all your actions in general had more lasting consequences. The fact that the game responds to you killing everyone in a town by having the town become a ghost town is great, but the fact that everyone respawns six days later is silly... just like the fact that a killing spree gets you in jail, but only for a week or so. Rockstar still doesn't want to prevent players from basically doing whatever they feel like at any given moment... like any paying customer at Disneyland.

The dissonance created by Red Dead Redemption's theme park structure, along with its occasional bugginess and thematic verisimilitude, makes it feel at times like a computerized version of Westworld, that old sci-fi movie from the 70s about a Western theme park populated by robotic cowboys. When the spell of Redemption breaks down, when the simulation suddenly feels shallow or the narrative inconsistent with my personal player behavior, it feels suddenly like I'm a customer in a Western-themed amusement park, not a carefully role-played persona in a richly simulated world. However when the spell holds, when the stars align and none of the various elements contradict each other, it's the wild west simulation I've waited my whole life to play.

There is No Magic Circle (in Video Games)

(This post originally appeared on Jason Begy's blog, Game Bitiotics.)

Video games have no magic circle, but board games do.

The difference between these two media is, essentially, one of reaction and proaction. If I may be allowed to indulge in a McLuhan-esque theory for a moment, video games are a reactive medium. As a player, I am continually reacting to the game state as-defined by the computer. The computer communicates the current state to me (the means by which it does so varies considerably from game to game). I then process this information, make a decision, and the feedback loop continues. This is of course the same regardless of the nature or genre of the game: in this sense Farmville, Grand Theft Auto and Quake are all the same thing. In multiplayer games the situation is only slightly different: a varying number of people are affecting the state, but the state is still processed, maintained and communicated by the computer.

Board games, however, are a proactive medium. In these games the state is essentially a mental construct shared amongst the players. Each will have (approximately) the same idea of what the state currently is, and when the state is altered each must update his or her own construct accordingly. The actual bits, cards and so on can be thought of as reminders that communicate the state, used so that we do not have to keep everything in memory. These games are fundamentally proactive: as a player, it is up to me to process and update the game state, in addition to choosing how I will alter it when my chance comes. Without the player's shared understanding of the rules and the state the game breaks down. As such, everyone must actively maintain the information in the system that both defines the state and the rules.

With this in mind, I want to address Huizinga's famed "magic circle." Recent scholarship agrees (seemingly unilaterally) that the magic circle is porous at best. While Huizinga implies that a game is somehow set apart from reality, in practice this is never the case. Anyone who has ever intentionally lost a game, bragged (or annoyed by bragging) about winning, or bet on an outcome knows this firsthand. In short, our real lives permeate the games we play, and they cannot be cleanly separated.

As such, it seems that as a theory the magic circle as-described is incomplete, or even incorrect. However, I propose that we should view the magic circle as the information feedback loop maintained by the players of a board game. The magic circle implies that something special and distinct from ordinary reality is occurring during a game. When we play a board game this is exactly what happens: the objects we play with are imbued with a special significance. Paper money is "worth" something, flat discs can "jump" over each other, placing a token in a certain place earns "points." The meaning and information we attach to these objects belongs to the other half of the information feedback loop, a loop drawn between the players-as-players and players-as-processors. This loop is the magic circle, a circle that transforms random cubes of wood into bits of information that we are then somehow able to act upon in a meaningful way. When the game is over the paper money still has value, but it is of a different type.


Six victory points.

With video games the feedback loop is fundamentally different. We do not need to attach any special meaning to Mario, the computer provides it for us. We see and interact with the objects in a video game without any special manipulation of our own cognitive processes. There is no magic circle here, only reaction to a state that is just partially under our control.

I want to conclude by noting that this is not an attempt at a value judgment that privileges one medium over another, despite whatever connotations "proactive" and "reactive" might have in today's business-jargon-infused world. Rather, I believe that board games and video games have some fundamental differences, and this short piece represents a first stab at delineating them.

Letting the World Be - The Inherent Politics of Stealth?

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

This phrase appears if you pause Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. It appears in English under a bit of Kanji, the same Kanji that appeared on ads before the game's release. It also appears in-game on Snake's suit. I'm not sure how diegetic it's supposed to be, if the implication is supposed to be that it's been consciously chosen by Snake and Co. or if its just so supposed to be a symbolic statement by Kojima, but it clearly is important in light of the game's narrative arc... or, more accurately, the series' narrative arc. "Let the world be" is a variation on what Big Boss (the supposed "villain" of the series) tells Snake at the MGS4's end, which sums up his (and assumedly Kojima's) entire world-view, the sum-total of everything he's learned over the course of his political and military career, which spanned most of the major conflicts the 20th century and involved as its principle enterprise the creation of a country in opposition to (among other things) the United States' military hegemony over the world.

This phrase is, at the end of the day, probably the biggest problem I had with MGS4 (and I had many). I felt it was a disappointing cop-out to the provocative 20th century counter-mythology Kojima and his collaborators had developed over the course of 20 years, but which flowered primarily in the latest three installments (MGS2, MGS3, and MPO). I realize Kojima doesn't want to advocate war or revolution, but going so far as to have Big Boss--the series' fascinating ideological enigma--flat out say it's categorically bad to try to change the world was to me a betrayal of every interesting moral/political contradiction the series had previously (and boldly) reveled in.

Not change the world? Let the world be? That's always the right political choice, huh? That's what you've got to say to Gandhi, Malcolm X, and anyone else who ever felt injustice demanded change? Maybe not "by an means necessary", but surely there is change worth fighting for, and surely the means are up to each one of us to either support or denounce based on what we personally consider necessary. Surely the lesson cannot be "fighting for anything is bad". Or am I misunderstanding the phrase "let the world be"?

"Letting the world be" may be the absurd ideological resolution MGS4 attempts to force on otherwise rich material, but it interestingly mirrors the ideological resolution of another great stealth series, one that isn't nearly as absurd. Thief III (or Thief: Deadly Shadows, as it was publically known), the final if little played installment of the (mostly) brilliant Thief trilogy, actually had a similar kind of thematic arc. The Thief series was about Garrett, the greatest thief in the world, rejecting the way of his mentors, the Keepers. The Keepers used stealth to observe the world and be its chroniclers, sort of like historians. But Garrett chose to use the skills they taught him to steal rather than learn. The Keepers have a philosophy of balance, which manifests politically as a strict policy of non-involvement, which is why they practice stealth. Thief III was about Garrett realizing how corrupt the Keepers had become, about how they really were meddling in political affairs, and how he activates an ancient fail-safe designed to wipe out their age old store of knowledge. Garrett does this not out of altruism or a conscious belief in their values (which he thought he had rejected) but out of a desire to keep the Keepers from messing with the delicate political balance he profits from by stealing. (Wars are bad for business.) In doing so he ironically was the one true Keeper left, because he wanted balance, and achieved it through stealth.

The Metal Gear and Thief series both feature central villains whose original intentions to change the world for the better become hopelessly corrupted, which necessitates their destruction by a reluctant, stealthy (anti)hero. "Leaving the world as it is" (to uses Big Boss's phrasing) has an interesting resonance in both cases, especially when one realizes this concept is fundamental to the gameplay DNA of the stealth genre. In stealth games players must ask themselves at any given moment "do I interfere?". Sometimes intervention is best. Someones it is not. But it's not coincidental, I feel, that both these series are stealth-based, which means that "to let the world be or to not let the world be?" is a political question the player answers in microcosm every time they make a decision during play.

Are stealth games fundamentally about the morality of covert versus overt intervention in any given circumstance? Is it worth killing someone to steal something? What about to save the world? Am I just the ultimate non-interventionist if I play Thief or Metal Gear without touching or altering anyone? Have I agreed to "let the world be"?

Funny that I find doing "pacifism runs" of stealth games so satisfying, such an exquisite test of my obsessive-compulsive moral conscience, but still I find the ideological conclusion at the end of MGS4 so infuriating. Maybe it's because MGS4's story is stupid in about 20 other ways, or maybe it's because I feel the real world geopolitical problems Kojima mythologized demand a less bone-headedly sentimental resolution. Thief took place in a steampunk-ish medieval fantasy world, but it still managed to generate a resolution that was subtle and complex, not silly and reductionist. If Big Boss's final lesson had to be that "stealth" is the best political strategy for a war-torn world filled with suffering, that could have been an interesting notion had it been treated as the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of one, as a question rather than (absurdly) an answer.

Part of me thinks Kojima was just so intent on ending the series in MGS4--in tying up all its loose ends, even its thematic ones--that he reached for easy solutions more out of desperation than any genuine ideological agenda. Big Boss's weird apoliticism at the end of MGS4 seems to have been thrown totally out the window, for example, in Peace Walker, which is about Big Boss defending a seemingly defenseless country (Costa Rica circa 1974) from covert U.S. military occupation. Of course, one might assume this just represents a step on his road to regret (he doesn't see the "error" of his ways, according to MGS4, until 2014), but on the other hand it's really hard to imagine Kojima suggesting that letting a super power walk all over a smaller country is the "right" thing to do. Indeed, all advertising for the game seems to suggest precisely the opposite.

The stealth genre may be the ideal one for posing political questions surrounding use of force to the player, precisely because it is the only game genre where violence is always a question. Is violence necessary? Do I really need to kill this person? What if I sneak past him? What if he tries to kill me? Then do I kill him, or do I run away and sneak by him later? I know there's a way to do this without killing anyone, but I also know it's the hardest possible way to do things. Every time I take the easier way out, or try to rationalize my mistakes, and the resulting bloodbath, as inevitable (and therefore justified), have I done what politicians, generals, and soldiers do when they make the decisions we pay them in order to not make ourselves?

It's a question worth asking, and one that the player (not the developer) should be answering.

Tipping Point Mini Post-Mortem and Updates

With the (now only semi-) recent press coverage I was asked to put together an update about the Flash version of Tipping Point and talk a little bit about the board game.

Over January 2009 I was asked by the lab to pull together a small team to design a board game for Sloan professor Nelson Repenning. The design goal was for the game to demonstrate the pitfalls of "firefighting" in project development. Also known as "crunch time," Repenning et al.'s research shows that when companies divert extra resources to a project that is running behind, other projects suffer and will eventually require crunch time themselves. Although companies that regularly engaged in this process were often proud of their firefighting ability, the overall result was a gradual downward spiral that was difficult to escape without drastic measures. This is of course an extremely high-level summary, but it was this general behavior that we tried to recreate in the game.

The game that resulted was Tipping Point. While I am happy with the overall design, there are a few problems that we are aware of but lacking resources (mostly time) to address.


The board game.

First of all, the game is very abstract, and the link between mechanics and fiction is tenuous. In the game each player "owns" one or more projects, and the players must all work together to finish a set number of projects in order to win. Projects are represented spatially: each exists as a growing cross on a grid. Each turn players grow their own projects one space in each direction. If any project grows to the edge of the board it is game over for everyone. If projects collide they combine into a single project that grows faster and is harder to complete. To combat this players place "concept work" or "production work" tokens on the board, preventing project growth. Once a project cannot grow it is completed.

Projects then can be thought of as becoming larger and more unwieldy over time, so in a sense the game represents time spatially. While that is not unheard of (see analog clocks), the link between stopping growth (what the work tokens do) and getting something done (what they represent) is non-obvious. In playing the game it feels like you are just containing the projects, not actually accomplishing something.

The projects themselves are also somewhat strange. As I said before each player "owns" one or more projects at any given time. Ownership is only used to control project growth: projects grow on their owner's turn. While in testing players tend to prefer finishing their own projects there is no real incentive to do so. In other words there is no competitive element, which at this point is the first thing I would add. If players received a score based on when their own projects were finished it would add an interesting competitive dimension on top of a cooperative design.

Additionally, because of how the work tokens function the best strategy is often to delay finishing projects for several turns. Procrastination is generally not considered good project management, and is at odds with the research the game is supposed to support.

All of these issues are related to the aforementioned weak link between mechanics and fiction. Simply put the game could easily be about anything at all (or just remain totally abstract) and it would play just as well, if not better. While we were certainly thinking of the research during the design, there was a certain amount of shoehorning: the way the tokens function feels right for what we were going for, but the names "production work" and "concept work" are pretty awful and obviously forced. As a result the documentation for the board game is very difficult to follow. Part of that is the terminology but also just a lack of time here as well: the rules could certainly be improved but during the semester resources are scarce. I hope to return to them at some point but right now there is no clear opportunity to do so on the horizon.

(If anyone out there is having trouble understanding the rules please email me at I will be happy to answer your questions, and knowing what was problematic will help me fix them in the future.)

At this point I personally find the tension between the play experience and fiction just as, if not more interesting, than actually playing the game. As it stands I think the game feels more like being in school than working for a company, which is a result of the way the difficulty progresses. At the start of the game each player only has one project, so there are four in total. After every other project is completed (after the second, fourth, etc.) another project is added to the mix. By the end of the game there will be seven projects on the board at the same time. This works well in that it motivates a certain behavior, but feels more like being in school: as the semester closes the work load ramps up, just as in the game. During my various stints in corporate America I never had quite that experience. Certainly there were busier times than others, but never the same type of extreme ramp-up (adding projects / final exams) followed by a complete stop (winning the game / end of the semester).

Having said all this, I do think it is an interesting game. It is something more of a puzzle than most board games I am familiar with, and the gameplay creates an interesting group dynamic. Because new projects are placed semi-randomly much of the time playing is spent in discussion and planning as players try to determine who should be doing what and when as players balance between focusing on current projects and preparing for the placement of new ones. Discussion becomes such a focus it caused us to include a "turn token," basically a piece of paper the players pass around so they can remember whose turn it is.

I personally still enjoy playing it and am proud of the game and the team. Reactions around the lab were generally positive as well, which lead to the development of the Flash version over the Spring 2009 semester.

Designed as an exact replica, the Flash version attempts to recreate the four-player experience via hot seat multiplayer. As a result it is simple to play by yourself, but at the cost of the group dynamic. We had initially hoped this version might be a way to play with fixes for some of the problems mentioned above: we had many discussions about including a scoring mechanism and changing the fiction to something else entirely, but with an even smaller team than the board game there simply was not enough time. (If at this point you are wondering why you should take time management advice from people constantly running out of time you are probably not alone.)

As it stands the Flash version is much more abstract, using very iconic graphics designed more with usability in mind. For example, in the board game concept work tokens are pencils and rulers, while in the Flash version they are just black circles. This version has not been playtested outside of GAMBIT's QA department, so what difference these graphics will make is currently unclear. I personally am looking forward to seeing player reactions, as my thesis research concerns abstract games and how they are interpreted.

Despite the game's shortcomings, overall I am happy with the design. While playtesting I never got tired of playing, and would find myself forgetting to look for bugs and instead focusing entirely on my strategy. I hope you find it just as enjoyable.

Cold War Punk.

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

Hideo Kojima's political mythologizing, which was so frustratingly absent from Metal Gear Solid 4, seems to have returned with a vengeance in Peace Walker. Returning to the Cold War era seems to have energized him and his team, with a game that looks to be more colorful and focused than MGS4's mish-mash of half-realized ideas. A lot of this might have to do with the fact that Peace Walker is clearly a game he wants to make, not one he thinks fans want him to make. No one asked for a euphoric, philosophical, Wagnerian extravaganza set against the backdrop of Nixon's resignation, but Kojima and Co. seem determined to deliver a bizarre, science-fiction version of the politically-charged 1970s whether you want it or not.

Cold War Punk. What else could you call it? MGS3, with its strange James Bond-inspired retro-futurism, certainly was this, and now that we have this label we could easy include things like the Fallout series. Such works exploit the iconography of that era to create fantastic worlds, alternate 20th centuries whose familiar symbolic landscapes are reconfigured into operatic counter-mythologies of world history. They mythologize the 50's, 60's, and 70's the way Sergio Leone mythologized the American West, turning it into a larger-than-life fantasy world that comments on the real world through exaggeration.

The symbolic universe of Peace Walker already seems a thousand times richer than MGS4. The use of television as a visual motif, of using what I can only assume is a riff on the emergency broadcast system (the TV images that was supposed to show if there was a nuclear attack), is instantly evocative. And the modification of the peace symbol, so that it looks like a bomber jet, perfectly embodies the contradiction at the center of the game's story, that war and peace are inseparable.


This is expressed in a Kant quote that presumably begins the game, that peace is an "unnatural" state, that the natural state of human affairs is war, that peace must be "created" by war. This doesn't seem to be a conclusion Kojima agrees with so much as a terrifying philosophical position that explains the madness of the Cold War. The title of the game is a reference to Metal Gear, the walking nuclear deterrent. By threatening war it ensures peace, thus it is the "peace walker", a walking machine that creates peace out of war. It is a monster that embodies the Kantian contradiction, just as the modified peace symbol does, as does the visual motif, seen in the Maurice Binder-style trailer, of one finger versus two fingers.

One finger extended can press a button and end everything, but raise another finger and you have "peace". The way the trailer ends, with the emergency broadcast system image, with the modified peace/war symbol at its center, being "pressed" by a single finger (as if it were a launch button), only to have a second finger at the last moment extend and create "peace", right before the TV image violently cuts and the world is plunged into  (nuclear?) oblivion... this all represents a marvelously coherent appropriation of pop-cultural symbolic language to express what the game's about. It's the madness of nuclear brinkmanship distilled to a single, potent image.

It's because of this trailer that I did a little reading and realized that the peace symbol is, in fact, a direct reference to nuclear disarmament. It is an iconic abstraction of "N" and "D" in semaphore code, so the attempt to also associate "fingers" simultaneously with nuclear destruction and nuclear disarmament seems a fitting extension. If the difference between peace and war is one finger, how hard is it to extend that extra finger? But even then, what would it mean? One finger can press a button, but does two fingers necessarily mean peace? Kojima mentioned in an interview that even 'v' is ambiguous. It could be 'v' for victory. Is victory the same as peace? Is peace only created through victory, through war? Peace Walker layers all these double meanings on top of each other, so that they become a haze of contradictions we feel lost in.

It is a very Kubrickian view of war, and indeed Kojima seems to be drawing from Stanley Kubrick in both subtle and unsubtle ways. Not only is there a character in the game called "Strangelove", everything about the game seems to suggest war's absurd duality, a view that was most directly expressed in Full Metal Jacket, in the scene where Matthew Modine's character is questioned by his commander as to why he would wear a peace symbol on his helmet. His response is ""I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, the Jungian thing..."

"Jungian" would be a good way to describe the insane symbolic universe of Metal Gear, with its bizarre characters, technology, and iconography that seem to rise out of our (or at least Kojima's) pop-cultural unconscious. Kojima's graphic design team is incredible, and they seem fascinated by collecting symbols and icons that elegantly capture the big ideas they want to explore.

Unfortunately, Kojima doesn't seem able to capitalize on these rich symbolic systems--to really back them up with content--as well as you'd hope, the way people like Alan Moore do in Watchmen (another work we might call Cold War Punk). This has especially been a problem lately. MGS4 was more about oogling tits and teary reunions than really examining in detail the socio-political implications of  a war-driven global economy. Kojima sometimes seems to make the mistake (which, I'd argue, is a common pattern among fans-turned-practitioners) of confusing symbolism with content. At his best moments, his symbolic labels and operatic exaggerations serve to reinforce an underlying depth (The Joy and The Sorrow in MGS3) but at other times they insistent on a depth that just isn't there or--at worst--blatantly contradicted by crass presentation (the Beauty and the Beast Unit in MGS4).

What Kojima and his team are consistently excellent at is showmanship. What he's really promising with such ads is that his games will be about these ideas, and he has delivered enough in the past (mostly in MGS2 and MGS3) to still make such hype genuinely exciting. Most game makers don't even seem interested in promising such things. And even if Kojima doesn't keep these promises, maybe somebody inspired by his tantalizing sound and fury will.


It has been brought to my attention that what I thought was an artistic riff on the U.S. emergency broadcast system was, in fact, a PAL test pattern. The color bars that I showed above (known as the "SMPTE color bars") are the NTSC test pattern. The  black and white image to its right, known as the "Indian Head test pattern", is what the NTSC test pattern was before the color era. Both test patterns have vague connotations of nuclear disaster in the U.S., because the Emergency Broadcast System used to show the test pattern on television and state that this is what would show in the case of a nuclear attack. I have personal memory of this, having grown up in the 80s in the U.S., which is perhaps why I and other American game makers associate the SMPTE color bars with national emergencies.

I had originally assumed that Peace Walker's test pattern was some combination of the SMPTE color bars and the Indian Head circles, but it's actually just a copy of the PAL test pattern. This makes me wonder if the theoretical practice of showing test patterns in the case of nuclear attack was as strong in PAL regions during the Cold War as it was in the U.S. Peace Walker seems to suggest it was, although I'd be interested to hear if this was (or still is) indeed the case.

Another possibility for the choice of the PAL test pattern is the association of "P-A-L" with "Peace At Last". PAL stands for "Phase Alternating Line" but when it was first introduced industry insiders sometimes joked it stood for "Peace At Last" or "Perfect At Last" because of how superior they felt it was to NTSC. Though somewhat oblique as a reference, it seems possible that this was one of the main reasons for the choice of the PAL pattern, since it would give Peace Walker's television motif the same contradictory connotations as the rest of its symbols. If the PAL test pattern simultaneously suggests nuclear attack and "Peace At Last" that seems to fit right in line with Kojima's dualism.

PAX Pox vs. Pipe Cleaners

gambit booth.jpg I have been a part of the PAX Pox team from the beginning. I was there to witness the game in its earliest stages. Back in the day, the game wasn't initially about spreading quirky infectious diseases. At one point it was about stealing access codes from evil GAMBIT scientists bent on taking over the world. At another, it was about stealing ID numbers and taking over territory from other players. Later on, the game abandoned thievery and domination all together and evolved into a competition to build iconic game characters out of LEGOs. Oh, those were the days! Overly complicated, resource-intensive, how-will-we-even-make-this-work-for-500-people, frustrating days...

It took a lot of time and failure to come up with a presumably straightforward game that could attract at least 200 dedicated players. Many of the earlier iterations really could have been developed into interesting party games for maybe 10+ people. However, the complexity of their systems could not be properly explained without at least 3 pages of rules -absolutely unacceptable to use for a game at PAX East, or any convention for that matter. Because these games couldn't be explained in less than 2 minutes and required a lot of materials or GM time, there was no feasible (or cheap) way to scale these for a large convention space without removing major components of the game.

These conclusions drove us to focus on creating a game where simplicity would be absolutely required. From this and other critical ideas, PAX Pox was born! It has one core game mechanic. It can be explained easily without a pamphlet. Most importantly: it's simple! PAX Pox was quite possibly the most straightforward game I've ever helped to develop. We infected over 4000 people and attracted at least 500 infectors. It was beyond satisfying to walk around the expo hall and see badges covered with infection stickers. PAX Pox was a success! This is why I was so surprised to find out that even with all of our hard work developing a simple and interesting game for PAX convention goers there was an even easier alternative: Pipe cleaners.

Yes, pipe cleaners. pipecleaners.jpg

PAX East was made of lines - lines to get in the convention center, lines to go to concerts, and lines to get food. The higher ups at PAX East thankfully were aware of this and designed "line games" to keep the crowd entertained during a 2+ hour wait. One of their games turned out not to be a game at all and just involved giving a large group of adults tons of pipe cleaners. I can't express the sheer joy and excitement people showed when they got their hands on a pack of pipe cleaners. Of course, I shouted with glee like a 5 year old girl when I saw Enforcers tossing them into the crowd. People really took to the pipe cleaners and spent time meticulously weaving head gear, making Companion Cubes, or whatever their imagination called for.

At one point, collaboration entered the mix and we started to trade for different colors. Though, the biggest collaborative event had to be joining together to make an extremely long pipe cleaner chain that stretched to the corners of the waiting room. These cheap artifacts from kindergarten were tapping into the creative conscious of a group of adults and giving them an outlet to interact cooperatively with one another. However, no matter how much fun it was at the time, the pipe cleaners didn't have staying power. Many people left behind their creations once it was time to leave or threw them out later. I packed mine away with the thought of playing with them later, but "later" still hasn't come.

I'm bringing up the pipe cleaners because they present an interesting concept when thinking about designing convention games. Compared to PAX Pox, this was the simplest form of play: hand them out and let the players define their own rules or game. No need for GM-player interaction, score tracking, or even explanations. The problem is that a game which tries to follow this is only as fun as the player allows it. Without a clearly defined goal or structure, there is no incentive for the player to continue with the game or even retain interest. This is where PAX Pox succeeds because even though the awards were buttons and stickers, they still provided some kind of attainable goal for the players. The rules created a space for players to explore and test strategies, while the achievements gave them a way to track personal progress. PAX Pox may not have been as simple as a pack of pipe cleaners, but it was able to create dedicated players that were willing to play the game for all three days of PAX East. This is where PAX Pox succeeds as a convention game. This resilience among players, I have now learned, is something that should be considered as equally important as simplicity when designing convention games.

Worst case scenario, GAMBIT could invest in buckets of Play-Doh and hand them out at the next PAX East...

Metal Gear: Game Design Matryoshka - Part 3: Man versus Nature

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

It may be fair to say that all Metal Gears up to and including MGS2 had similar design agendas. They were attempts to model, at increasingly levels of complexity, the core concepts of military espionage. Basic things like sneaking around, taking down enemies silently, and what to do when they found you were the main things being experimented with and revised. This all changes with MGS3.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2 2004) on the surface seems much like MGS2. It has the same basic controls, the same mechanics of sneaking, of holding enemies at gunpoint. It has the same enemy alert phases from MG2, with their expanded enemy behavior from MGS2. It has the choking from MGS1, and (in a fashion) the same radar system. MGS3 reshuffled these familiar elements, however, giving them new meaning in a different context. A lot of it grew out of a decision to partially remove the radar, by breaking it up into two separate radars that (thanks to finite battery life) could not be used indefinitely. The radar first introduced in MG2 and revised in MGS1 showed enemy position, movement, and terrain with 100% accuracy. The radars in MGS3 showed neither terrain nor enemy vision. One showed moving life forms; the other stationary life forms. And since screens in MGS3 (thanks to its wilderness setting) were filled with animals as well as enemy soldiers, using these radars became a game of detective work, one that required cross-referencing with the player's knowledge of the current terrain and its wildlife. If the difference between soldiers and animals could not be determined, the player's directional mic (which could hear footsteps) was often the only way to definitively tell. The directional mic was introduced in MGS2, where it had limited, special-case application. In MGS3 it became part of the player's core gameplay vocabulary. Unlike MGS2 the player began the game with the directional mic, which made listening a new core action at the player's disposal. By limiting the player's ability to see, but enhancing their ability to hear, MGS3 made the process of simply finding enemies a major aspect of play.

Fighting an invisible enemy--of finding them before they found you--became the defining tension of play, which gave the expanded enemy interrogation mechanics a whole new value. Interrogation went from a cheap way to get items (in MGS2) to the primary mode of gaining gameplay-related information in MGS3. The choke action from MGS1 was retooled to be non-lethal: now a grabbed enemy could be squeezed for info. A chatty enemy could give away the positions of his comrades, which showed up on a sub-screen map. This effectively recreated the same radar information enjoyed in past games, though only after significant thought and planning. Discovering enemy positions in order to avoid (or subdue) them was much more important in MGS3 because the alert phases were much, much longer. Enemies would now search for a matter of minutes, not seconds. Even if the player escaped with their life, they were punished by having to wait for an agonizingly long time for enemy units to perform their sweep-and-clear patterns. Impatience could result in endless chases and gunfights over a wide variety of terrain. And although the player could sometimes call off an alert using the enemy's radio frequency (another useful bit of info that could be procured through interrogation) the only surefire way to achieve your objectives was patiently shaking down soldiers for field info, until you were 100% certain your imaginary map of the situation matched reality.

Interacting with these re-tooled old systems were MGS3's new systems, namely its camouflage and stamina systems. The camo system allowed the player to change Snake's outfit at any time, into a variety of patterns and colors. The closer the pattern and color was to the texture Snake was currently on (grass, gravel, tree bark, mud, sand, etc.) the higher the "camo index". An index of 0 was total visibility. An index of 100 was total invisibility. What was interesting about this system is how it reconfigured the entire game map in an instant based on the player's chosen camo. Similar to Ikaruga, which involved as its principle player action the inversion of hot (dangerous) and cold (safe) space, MGS3 offered players the strategic affordance of deciding for themselves what spaces would be hot or cold. A tree trunk was as perfect hiding place in tree bark camo; a horrible one in snow camo. In past Metal Gear games the configurations of hot and cold space were always fixed, and this fluidity made MGS3 a different strategic animal than other games. It wasn't about finding safe spots so much as creating them, something which was only made possible by its organic (and often vast) wilderness environments. Although there were a few indoor locations that required the symmetrical, ordered thinking of past games, most spaces in MGS3 were messy and sprawling. Some screens contained acres of chaotic, tangled undergrowth, where textures and colors mixed and swirled together in crazy ways. Learning to read and exploit the potential of the natural world was really the main challenge of MGS3. Both you and your enemies were at its mercy, rendered obscure by its twisty madness. Using nature better than your foe (who were also somewhat camouflaged but, unlike you, couldn't change their camouflage) was the order of the day, and it meant the difference between success and failure.

The theme of wilderness survival reached much farther than just manipulating visibility (and therefore combat advantage). It was also woven into the mechanics of health, which departed sharply from past Metal Gear games. Health was no longer replenished by healing items. The player had to wait for their health to recover naturally over time, which was essentially an expansion of the bleeding-recovery mechanic from MGS2. Like bleeding had previously, overall health in MGS3 would recover faster if the player lied still. Lack of stamina would also impede health recovery, as well as cause a host of other ill conditions. Like the directional mic, MGS3's stamina meter was a core game system generalized from a past game's special-case function. It was essentially a re-tooling of the grip meter from MGS2, which governed how long a player could hold onto a ledge. Unlike the grip meter, the stamina meter was on-screen at all times, and would deplete for a variety of reasons. Running, swimming, fighting, hanging, or just natural hunger: all these things would make stamina deplete. Low stamina caused not only slower health regeneration but also diminished aiming ability. The screen would shudder while in first-person mode, making it harder for the player to perform effectively in battle. All this necessitated catching and eating  the live animals littered throughout MGS3's wild world. Only by eating the right animals (and avoiding the wrong ones) could the player maintain their health and their physical combat performance.

Far from being just a localized mechanic, eating and stamina in MGS3 was a global system that governed all human behavior, not just Snake's. All enemies had stamina, which depended on stores of food rations scattered throughout the wilderness. Sneaking into and blowing up one of these store houses would cause all enemies in the nearby area to starve, giving them all the same low-stamina effects you would suffer under similar conditions. Their aim became worse, and a single punch would cause them to fall unconscious. Destroying the enemy's non-food resources was another way to manipulate their behavior. Blowing ammo stores made them less likely to waste bullets unless they had a clear shot. This, combined with the fact that enemy soldiers would not shoot a comrade you were holding, gave shrewd players enormous leverage should they find themselves cornered by an group of numerous--but tired and under-equipped--enemies. Taking a hostage, backing towards an exit, and then making a break for it as the few bullets your opponents had missed you by a mile was just one way to bend these logics to your ever improvisational advantage.

Metal Gear Solid 3 is a great example of existing game mechanics reconfigured to create a different game from its predecessors. With the core mechanics of military espionage more or less solidified after MGS2, MGS3 feels like a conscious experiment to explore new flavors of (rather than just better or more complicated) stealth gameplay. It does this by focusing on a setting and a theme, and allowing that setting and theme to both inspire new mechanics and reshape existing mechanics. As a result MGS3 is a game about wilderness survival as much as it is a game about sneaking behind enemy lines, a fact that can be felt coherently in every aspect of its design. This man versus nature conflict, embodied globally in the game system, might explain why enemy soldiers seem a bit more human than before, for now they are unambiguously subject to the same forces as the player. In many games the rules that govern non-player characters and those that govern player-characters are different, but in this game they are the same. Understanding this, that your foe contains all the same human frailties you do, is your key to to defeating him in MGS3's unforgiving world. As we'll see, this gradual humanization of the enemy will only increase as the series progresses.

CSCW 2010

Following up on my post about the workshop, there was this whole rest of the conference there too. Most of it didn't have a very game-oriented agenda. Fair enough, it's supposed to be a conference about work. That's really broad. I would not expect the specific topics of the work of making games nor the work of completing games to take up a large portion of the conference.

By the by, if you ever want to eavesdrop on some lecture I'm attending, give me a follow at I tend to tweetcast, though I warn you, I don't tend to check twitter other than when I'm tweetcasting. And speaking of, anyone know of a tool to archive one's twitter feed?

These days, CSCW (which stands for computer supported collaborative work) seems to mostly be about large-scale social media. Twitter has risen to join Wikipedia as the cliche thing to study, though there was surprising representation from online dating sites as well.

Anyway, there were three gaming talks that I knew of.

Neunundneunzig Zehn Luftballons

The first one was a panel about the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge, where 10 balloons were anchored throughout the US and $40,000 went to the team that found the most, the implication being that teams would use crowdsourcing and social media to win. I actually hadn't heard about this at the time. Pity, because it sounded fascinating. The panel was from MIT (winners, hooray my alma matter!), Georgia Tech (second place, hooray my other alma matter!), and Penn State. MIT used a pyramid scheme for incentive. Anyone who found a balloon got $2000, the person who recruited them got $1000, and the next two people up the ladder got $500. It encouraged you to have as big a network as possible. They also learned it's really hard to give away money, what with taxes and all.

Another interesting finding reported by the MIT team was figuring out malicious false reports. Some were easy to spot (report of a balloon in California coming from an IP address in Montana), but language was another clue. Since reports were in the form of free text, people who actually were in the location tended to refer to nearby landmarks (e.g. "by the libaray," "near the statue.") Fakers had no such references. The Georgia Tech team also had problems with false reports, but much less than MIT did. The Georgia Tech team was giving the prize money to charity, so they figure people felt bad about scamming them.

Amy Voida, yo mama plays Wii
The second gaming talk... I was lame and didn't go to. I'm sorry, there were all those overblown snowstorm reports about Boston, and I was trying to figure out if I was getting stranded. Anyway, it was by Amy Voida, who does ongoing research about console gaming as a social group activity. Luckily her paper "The Individual and the Group in Console Gaming" is online, though has the usual problem of academic papers, which is that it's pretty opaque to people not used to reading academic papers. Pity I missed the talk, the twitter feed reports "amy voida on trash talking during gameplay. she claims it reinforces power relationships and is, basically, bad. like yo mama #cscw" Does that not sound like an awesome talk?

Norman Makoto Su: "HADOKEN!"

The last gaming lecture, I did get to see. Norman Makoto Su is a rather adorable PhD student over at UC Irvine who spends all his free time playing violent video games, Street Fighter IV in particular. See kids? Playing video games makes you graduate!

What? It makes as much sense as most of the other arguments about what video games make you do. Ahem.

Anyway, the talk was called "Street Fighter IV: Braggadocio Off and On-Line", and was delivered with an insider's knowledge and a researcher's eye. Basically it looked at the social, competitive culture that had grown up around Street Fighter II and how it changed with the introduction of Street Fighter IV, which is basically an online console game you play from home. It was especially interesting to hear as a designer, since I could immediately see things to try if one wanted to transfer some of that culture over. Introduce guilds to create rivalries. Allow games to be automatically recorded and downloadable, so people can mash them up to add soundtracks, obscene gestures, whatever. In game taunts that take dexterity to execute ala Mortal Kombat, so players can humiliate rather than just defeat... Really, when one stops to think about it, there are many ways to make this rather off-putting game even more appalling.

Yeah, this culture is clearly not for me. But I did enjoy his discussion of it.

Fun at CSCW? Seriously?

Last week, I attended the conference for Computer-Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW) in Savannah, Georgia. Mmmm... shrimp and grits.

I was there mainly to contribute to a workshop called "Fun, Seriously?" Yes, for those who follow this blog, this is where the wacky Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure paper I cowrote with Philip Tan was for. Here we are at the conference, dressed up for a roleplaying segment organized by Henriette Cramer and Helena Mentis called "Player's vs. Haters," exploring various attitudes toward fun in the workplace. I'm wearing a genuine Dutch Girl Scout uniform provided by Henriette to represent the military. Words cannot describe how much I covet that shirt.

Players vs Haters

My segments went ok, I think. I did an overview of some video game literature that I thought would be relevant, which were Nicole Lazzaro's "Why We Play Games: 4 Keys to More Emotion", Mahk's "MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research", and the four page redux of Jenova Chen's thesis, applying Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory to video games. There was also an extra bonus rant about the concept of the magic circle of games as a safe place to play, where we digressed into an extra extra bonus rant about Ender's Game, which I cannot properly convey here without spoiling the ending. Fun times.

My second segment did not go as well. I was trying to use an actual problem I was having at work about people mistaking playful behavior for a lack of seriousness to frame a debate about social cues, but we got bogged down in the details of my particular issue. Which was fine as a therapy session, but not really the goal. Ah well.

Beyond that, Andrew Sempere guided us through a bit of Second Life, thus creating the first positive experience I've ever had with the system. I made a glowing pink ellipsoid! All by myself! Henriette and Helena, besides the dress-up activity, asked people to bring examples of papers and presentations and such where the format was fun. We all seemed to show up with objects with high production values, which is sort of a difficult way to incorporate fun. I wish I could draw; I'd love to submit academic papers in comic book form. And last but not least was Zach Pousman, skyping in to talk about using data from print queues to be playful, not creepy.

The big takeaway is that I need to hang out with the IBM Research guys more. Besides Andrew, organizers Li-Te Cheng and Sadat Shami were there to represent the cooler side of IBM. Seriously, they're like four blocks away. We should be having lunch together and stuff.

We're also doing a blog now, so if you want to follow our thoughts on the subject of fun in the workplace, get over to the Fun, Seriously? blog. I've promised to be the wacky one with the fringy ideas, and Andrew's promised to make snarky comments. Should be good times.

Metal Gear: Game Design Matryoshka - Part 2: A New Dimension

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

For me the Metal Gear series doesn't fit the franchise model of "same game plus one new feature". It feels more like a 20-year-long prototyping exercise in espionage dynamics. Rules are reshuffled from game to game to create different flavors of emergence. Sometimes the same mechanics dropped into new kinds of level architecture creates a different experience. Unlike most videogame sequels the Metal Gear games are actually different games. Well, except for one.

Metal Gear Solid (PSX 1998) is notable in that shares more with its immediate predecessor than any other game in the series. MG2's additions of crawling, the radar, and enemy alert phases remained unchanged in MGS. Even the wall-tap, which MGS added as a way to distract enemies, was functionally the same thing as the wall-punch from MG2. One thing it did add was camera manipulation. Being the first Metal Gear game in 3D, Solid essentially took MG2's design and dropped it unchanged into a 3D space. Hiding under things now forced the player into a low angle view. Pressing against a wall caused the camera to swing down into a landscape view, allowing players to see down long hallways. And at any time the player could enter "first-person view mode" which allowed them to look at the surrounding environment through Snake's eyes, although in this mode they could not punch, shoot, or otherwise interact. Certain weapons, like the sniper rifle, allowed such actions in first-person, but they were the exception. By and large combat and movement happened in the same top-down perspective as in the 2D Metal Gears. The camera was pulled much farther in on Snake, giving the player a more limited view of the surrounding space. This is what necessitated the various camera actions, to approximate (albeit with some new cinematic flair) the kind of spatial understanding that was effortless in earlier games.

Gameplay-wise the only new core actions MGS added were in hand-to-hand combat. Players could now grab, choke, and throw enemies. These new moves were useful because of another big change: punching was no longer lethal. Fisticuffs now simply knocked enemies out temporarily, which necessitated alternate silent take-down methods. In MG2 players could always punch enemies into oblivion if weapons failed. In MGS the same behavior would only delay a threat, not eliminate it. And since choking was a lot harder than punching, attempting silent take-downs in MGS generated a lot more anxiety. There were more possible outcomes, more ways to both succeed and fail than before. This, combined with the stronger need to observe before acting thanks to the camera limitations, gave the system largely inherited from MG2 a higher-stakes kind of tension.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2 2001) added a slew of elements that changed the core experience. New kinds of environmental architecture prompted the existence of new moves, including hanging off ledges, somersaulting over obstacles, and hiding in lockers. More significantly, all guns could now be aimed and fired in first-person, which made marksmanship a key factor in play. Precision was necessary because enemies now responded differently to being shot in different locations. Leg shots hampered movement, arm shots hampered aim, and head shots were fatal. Another big change was enemies would now respond to threats of violence rather than just violence itself. Pulling your weapon on an enemy would make them surrender, at which point training your weapon on different parts of their body would terrify them into revealing items or information. Disposing of these soldiers once at your mercy became another new aspect. For the first time players had the option non-lethal take-downs, in the form of a tranquilizer gun. Enemies could be put to sleep for long periods of time (as opposed to briefly dazed, like in MGS). Bodies now needed to be hid before other enemies saw them, which players could do by dragging them to lockers and other hiding places. Soldiers responded to fallen comrades with complex group tactics. Enemies now functioned as units rather than individuals, performing complicated sweep-and-clear maneuvers. Enemies on the offensive would try an flank the player, cut off exits, or call for reinforcements.

The stealth basics of MG1 and the expanded palette of MG2/MGS did not prepare you for the dense and subtle world of MGS2, which required a very different approach to problem-solving. You couldn't just run around killing everybody anymore, even if you did so quietly. Your strategy had to include removing evidence of your encounter. This catapulted Metal Gear into into a new realm of Hitchcockian suspense, as the game was now basically about the logistics of murder and not getting caught. Bodies were not the only evidence to be dealt with. Snake would now bleed when shot, leaving telltale trails of gore for soldiers to follow. Bandages would stop bleeding, but the easiest way was to simple stop moving for a period of time, further reinforcing the value of tactical stillness. The collective fury that would be unleashed on the player if caught made covering your tracks imperative. Engagements had to be kept on an individual level, to prevent group tactics by any means possible. The highest moments of tension were those between when the player was discovered and when the group was alerted. Unlike in MGS, where public alerts would sound the moment anyone saw you, enemies in MGS2 needed to communicate with HQ before the group responded. Killing an enemy just as they reached for their radio was a crisis averted, just as disabling a radio with a well-placed shot was a free ticket to make mistakes.

MG1, MG2, and MGS were fun little cat and mouse games, but MGS2 was really where the series opened wide as a possibility space. The number of dynamic outcomes involved in any given encounter, based on the various cascading levels of enemy behavior, was huge. More importantly, MGS2 required different types of thought and problem solving than previous Metal Gear games. Just because you were good at MGS did not mean you were good at MGS2. Enemy soldiers were different behavioral animals, ones which demanded private attention to be dealt with effectively. MGS2 is when your relationship with the enemy became intimate. "What do you do with enemies once you have them?" increasingly became the key question of the series, and as we'll see many of the big design changes--at least in the next two games--revolve around this idea.

Metal Gear: Game Design Matryoshka - Part 1: The MSX Years

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

I just finished the demo for Peace Walker, and I am struck by how streamlined its game design is compared to previous Metal Gear games. The number of core actions available to the player have been significantly reduced, at least at first glance. Some have just been made context-sensitive, while others have indeed been eliminated. Given that Metal Gear is basically a 20 year old game design, one where the core mechanics can still be traced with impressive fidelity back to the 1986 original, its interesting to chart how they've mutated over the course of roughly eight games.

Metal Gear (MSX 1986) had a fairly small set of core mechanics. The player could move, punch, and shoot various weapons. Enemies would patrol around and attack if you crossed their line of sight, which was pretty straightforward since they had no peripheral vision. Levels were simple affairs where each room was a single screen, and all level design architecture was in right angles. (There was no diagonal movement.) Escaping to the next room/screen meant escaping your pursuers. Enemies could be dispatched up-close and quietly, via punching, or from a distance and loudly, via weapons.

Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (MSX 1990) added quite a lot of new elements. The biggest was probably the radar system, which was really several new design elements working in concert with each other. Unlike the first game, enemies in MG2 would follow you from screen to screen. Thanks to a 3x3 grid radar, the player could see which of the adjacent screens had enemies and which did not. If an enemy spotted you, they went into high alert and gave chase. If you managed to break their line of sight (usually by escaping to the next screen) they would begin searching for you. Since moving to the next screen no long constituted "hiding", new hiding mechanics were introduced. Crawling allowed you to hide under tables and sneak into air vents, which was now the only way to shake pursuers.

MG2 still contained all the same core player actions established in MG1, only now some of them were given additional meaning in the context of the new system. Punching, which before was only useful as a silent take-down technique, became a mode of distraction. You could punch walls to make noise, which would lure enemies towards you. This example of appropriating old mechanics and given them new meaning in the context of a larger dynamic system is primarily what makes Metal Gear an interesting case-study, an on-going game design matryoshka in which each new design encapsulates the last but still manages remain a distinct experience.

Now on TechTV: Picopoke with Kevin Driscoll

Last year, my assistant Claxton Everett and I sat down with Kevin Driscoll, a recent graduate of the Comparative Media Studies Master's program and the product owner for Picopoke, one of our Summer 2008 prototype games and a finalist in the 2009 Independent Games Festival. Kevin has since gone on to become a Ph.D. student in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, but his memory lives on around the lab in the form of our five-part interview, which has just gone live on TechTV.

The first of the five video interviews with Kevin Driscoll.

In it, Kevin explains what his group was trying to do with Picopoke, who plays Picopoke, whether or not Picopoke can actually be considered a game, and why they chose to build it on Facebook. The videos aren't very long (the longest is just over two minutes, the shortest is less than 45 seconds) and they're all very informative, so go check 'em out!

I'd like to extend my warmest gratitude to Kevin for sitting down with me for the interview and for sharing his insight, and to Claxton for all his hard work and much-appreciated assistance! Oh, and Kevin, if you're reading this, appreciate the weather out there in sunny LA. Right now Boston's a big, sloppy, melty mess...

Tracing the Design Heritage of Demon's Souls

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

My fascination with Demon's Souls has spurned a quest to discover where the hell its brilliance came from. Most people say it's a descendant of King's Field, the cult first-person RPG series Demon's Souls developer, From Software, did some years ago. I have only really played one King's Field game, King's Field: The Ancient City for PS2, and not for very long. Although there is some resemblance, I think another series, one that isn't as well-known outside Japan, may be the real ancestor. 

Shadow Tower was another first-person RPG series by From Software, one I'd never heard of until I began poking around the Internet. Some descriptions I read made them seem a lot more like Demon's Souls than King's Field, so I tracked them down to see for myself.

There are two games in the series: Shadow Tower for the PS1 and Shadow Tower Abyss for the PS2. I managed to grab them both off ebay and played each for a few hours. Shadow Tower is available in English. Shadow Tower Abyss isn't. This a shame because Abyss is by far the superior game, and the one that is, I feel, much closer in style, atmosphere, and gameplay to Demon's Souls.

The first game is okay. The controls are the clunky non-freelook ones common to many Japanese first-person games, but otherwise Shadow Tower does feel like a somewhat slower, awkward Demon's Souls. Weapon degradation is a major aspect of the game, and encounters with minor enemies can be pretty epic. And, of course, you upgrade weapons by collecting souls, although in Shadow Tower you actually have to pick them up as items. The importance of blocking is also another big similarity, with you being able to map a weapon to one hand and a shield to the other. It doesn't even remotely approach the sublime combat system of Demon's Souls, but you can definitely see the template being set.

The world is rather non-linear and rewarding of exploration. While I am not one to bash PS1-era graphics for being what they are, I do feel that the ones in Shadow Tower are somewhat repetitive. Like Demon's Souls there is no map, but unlike Demon's Souls a lot of environments look the same. This can make the game pretty tedious unless you are prepared to make a paper map as you play. From what I played the game seems actually less linear than Demon's Souls, with more alternate paths available.

The story for Shadow Tower is extremely minimal. There is a tower that is, er, forbidden. You go in. That's it. The games does contain some of Demon's Souls's brooding sense of silence and loneliness. (Like Demon's Souls there is no music.) The environment does seem to be imbued with some elements of narrative. There is writing you come across from past explorers, which looks a lot like the player messages in Demon's Souls, only here they are just baked in as part of the story.

One of the biggest arguments for this game being an ancestor to Demon's Souls is the intro cinematic, which features a knight getting the crap beat out of him by a variety of monsters. The game really seems to suggest a similar sense of mortality and exhausting on the part of the protagonist that was one of Demon's Souls main distinguishing features. People familiar with Demon's Souls's non-U.S. box art will remember the knight riddled with arrows, ambiguously either dead or battle fatigued to the point of collapse. One gets the sense that Shadow Tower was an early attempt to create a player experience shaped around similar ideas.

Shadow Tower Abyss is very similar to its predecessor, except that it has superior art direction, narrative design, and usability design. The real good news is that it has an option for dual-analog Western-style controls, which is something King's Field never had. In this mode the weapon buttons are the trigger buttons, and players can switch back and forth on the fly between weapons in the right or left hand. (I didn't get a shield in Shadow Tower Abyss, but I'd be surprised if there aren't any.) This makes it almost identical to Demon's Souls's control scheme, which makes the gameplay nice and fluid.

Shadow Tower Abyss has firearms, which is probably the biggest thing which makes it feel different from both Demon's Souls and the original Shadow Tower. It takes place in the present day, and you begin the game with a gun. It isn't designed at all like an FPS though. Guns are useful, but they run out of ammo, which is why you need to deck yourself out with the knives, swords, and other melee weapons you find. It feels like you are an FPS-protagonist who somehow wandered into a Demon's Souls-like game, which is interesting. Functionally speaking the game is not that different, since firearms basically take the place of bows, but it's still an intriguing twist.

The story and world in Shadow Tower Abyss really makes me wish my Japanese was better. The thought and detail put into its environmental narrative is much closer to Demon's Souls than the first Shadow Tower. It's use of sound, light, and color is also closer to Demon's Souls in terms of establishing a mood, and suggesting danger around the next corner. There are a fair amount of NPCs, all of whom you can kill for no reason if you wish. I wandered around for a while just trying to figure out what the fuck was going on, where I was, and just what all these creepy tunnels were built for. The game has a fairly Lovecraftian vibe, with you basically thrown into this scary cave which leads you deeper and deeper into a complex netherworld. In this sense Shadow Tower Abyss really reminded me of Hell Night, another (wonderful) game I played recently that also achieved a similar effect, what I'd called the 'Ultima Underworld Effect'. These are games that really make me feel like I'm a normal human being trapped in a cave or some other such subterranian world, which is where a lot of their elemental power comes from. The lack of load screens helps this feeling a lot, as does the non-linear space design. You really feel like an explorer, not some videogame badass who's just in it for the asskickery.

If I had to recommend one of these games, I'd obviously recommend Shadow Tower Abyss. It can probably be played and completed without understanding much Japanese, and the world and feeling it creates is thick and memorable. It's no Demon's Souls, but it's recognizably similar and effective in what it does. If you want to trace the design heritage of From Software's towering masterpiece, Shadow Tower Abyss is a great place to start, possibly a better place than King's Field.

Games That Made Me - Part 3: The 00s

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

There's only one game released this past decade that made the sort of impression upon me that earns it a place on this list. I've loved plenty of games in the past 10 years, but only one that really changed my idea of what videogames can be...

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Playstation 2, 2001)

My feelings about Metal Gear Solid 2 are intense to the point of incoherence... much like the game itself. A lot of why I love the game has to do with when it was released, which was right after 9/11. For me the game served a function that must have been similar to the film Dr. Strangelove when it was released at the height of the Cold War. As daring, irreverent political commentaries in games go, there is MGS2 and then there's nothing. Okay, well maybe there's Fallout 2, the game that ends with you wiping out the last remnants of a fascist, genocidal U.S. government. But that's just the end of the game. MGS2 is a balls-out 'fuck you' to America's worst dystopian impulses from the moment you press 'start' to the moment the final credits roll. That it seemed to be about America's post-9/11 nationalist hysteria was, of course, an accident of its release timing. But that doesn't change the fact that it functioned so well as a bombastic parody of Bush's new world order.

Because of MGS2 I still think of the people who run my government as "The Patriots": the faceless, powerful elite that are just out of democracy's reach. Whereas games like Deus Ex gave me the same old international conspiracy theories I'd seen in the X-Files, MGS2 gave me a deliciously national conspiracy theory: a horrifically corrupt U.S. government with a puppet democracy and a global censorhip agenda. The Patriots were responsible for everything in MGS2, including the game's intentionally linear design. You follow their instructions and do everything they ask you to, and thereby prove you are willing to be controlled. It's the same game design-as-mind control metaphor Bioshock would use years later, only MGS2 never contradicts itself by pretending rebellion from within the constraints of a designed system is possible. As the authors of your "game" The Patriots' stranglehold on you is absolute, a fact which they rub in your face by the end. A videogame is not a democracy, because the player does not have the ability to rewite the rules. But you don't really want a democracy anyway, do you? Not if you're being sufficiently entertained...

The way MGS2 positioned videogames, with their coyly disguised limits, as metaphors for similar kinds of deceptive government was, in a word, brilliant. It really did have a lasting effect on how I think about both games and government, which to this day is rather cynical. I suppose I feel as incredulous about Warren Spector's utopian notions of "shared authorship" as I do about Obama's promises of hope and change. They are nice promises, but really what does it mean to say a choice is "meaningful" when it is someone else deciding what "meaningful" means? Is the choice between the Left and Right in America a meaningful one? Is the ability to choose between path A or B in Mass Effect a meaningful one? Both game companies and politicians would like us to believe so, but it is important to recognize that these "choices" have been pre-defined within limits we, in fact, have no ability to influence.

MGS2 darkened my view of games forever, and it still remains a remarkable example of astonishingly irreverent political commentary in a mainstream videogame. My demand that games be controversial on political subjects as well as hijack massive commercial budgets for the sake of naked personal statements is due entirely to MGS2. Splinter Cell, Call of Duty, and even Fallout 3 are inferior versions of MGS2 by this metric. In fact, nearly all games are inferior by this metric.

Final Thoughts

There are many, many games that remain important to me that I have not included on this list. Stuff like Super Punch-Out, Gunstar Heroes, Ikaruga, Snatcher, Symphony of the Night and many other of my favorite games are not ones I can really trace back to a "taste genesis", a prototypical game experience that I feel prepared me for loving these games. Looking at the games that influenced your taste is not really an exercise in listing all the games you love, but listing the games that determined the types of games you love. That's why Ikaruga is not on the list in spite of being one of my favorite games ever: because my love of it in no way lead to a love of shmups.

While I like games of all sorts of genres, there are certain types of games I keep coming back to, certain groups of aesthetic choices I tend to look for my enjoyment in. The games I listed--Frantic Freddie, Super Mario Bros., Ultima: Exodus, Bionic Commando, Ultima VII, System Shock, Thief, and Metal Gear Solid 2-- are not necessarily even my favorite examples of the game types they represent. But they are the ones that helped me developed the road map by which I found some of the best games I've ever played, and, more importantly, the tools to understand why I like them.

Ultima VII --> Arcanum, Fallout 1/2, Majora's Mask, Planescape: Torment
Final Fantasy VI --> Suikoden 1/2, Odin Sphere
System Shock --> Metroid Prime, Demon's Souls, Silent Hill 1/2, Hellnight
Thief --> Metal Gear Solid 3, Hitman 2
Metal Gear Solid 2 --> Killer7, Eversion, Passage, Shadow of the Colossus
Games That Made Me - Part 2: The 90s

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

Ultima VII: The Black Gate (PC, 1992)

Ultima VII was the reason I got into PC gaming. For a 13-year-old who had been weened almost exclusively on Nintendo, the deep dark world of The Black Gate was transcendental. It was clearly for adults, but not in the crass, pandering way most games are now. Blood and sex is all handled in a witty fashion, and you don't get the sense the developers were impressed with themselves simply for having it. It was, just like everything else in Ultima VII, just part of an astonishingly rich world. Ultima VII was the first time I'd ever seen a game with no loading screen, with characters who weren't just signposts, and with party members who responded dryly and dynamically to many of your actions. My love of persistent, seamless game worlds and witty, complex dialogue comes entirely from Ultima VII. Any Elder Scrolls, Grand Theft Auto game, and, yes, most Bioware games are inferior versions of Ultima VII to me.

Final Fantays VI was the first game I played that really moved me. This probably had something to do with the fact that I was an emotionally sensitive teenager, but I think it also had something to do with the game's delicate (and arguably unique) sense of loss and tragedy. Unlike all other RPGs I know you don't stop the end of the world in FFVI. It happens, and it has a devastating effect on the group of characters you have gotten to know. The completely non-linear final sections of the game, in which the player has to slog through a dying world in an effort to pull their friends (kicking and screaming if necessary) back towards hope, remain some of the most emotionally intense hours I've spent with a controller in my hand.

It may be nostalgia talking, but I feel that FFVI's melodramatic indulgences have aged a bit better than many other Japanese RPGs, largely because of the pixel art graphics and understated nature of the characters. Very few games in my experience earn the right to engage in the sort of emotion Final Fantasy VI does, and it's probably the main reason I like melodrama in games but hate it when it's done badly.

System Shock (PC, 1994)

System Shock is probably the most immersive experience I've had with a game, period. To me System Shock isn't so much a game as it is a place, a place I remember going. Though I had a very similar experience with Ultima Underworld (a game which System Shock is basically a cyberpunk re-skinning of), System Shock still looms larger in my imagination as the game which made me consciously realize what a first-person suspense story set in a virtual interactive environment could be.

The implementation of a rogue A.I. as a metaphor for the game's designers was a masterstroke which made otherwise pedestrian use of game conventions (puzzles, power-ups, etc.) into a secret engine which fueled the narrative. Matching wits with the game became matching wits with SHODAN, which allowed for all kinds of devious reversals and thwarted expectations without the player's suspension of disbelief so much as shuddering. This all built towards a sublime final moment in which you literally lock wits--as in, you lock consciousnesses--with SHODAN via a cyberspace terminal connected directly to your brain. Having failed to destroy each other physically you face her on her home turf: as software. SHODAN attempts to overwrite your mind--which is expressed visually as her face overwriting your computer screen, pixel by pixel, while you desperately try to delete her mind from the inside out. It's stuff like this that not only makes System Shock a phenomenally memorable game, but also one of the best game-based examples of cyberpunk fiction that I am aware of.

System Shock also did wonderful things with keeping physical space coherent without resorting to putting the player on-rails. There were no load screens that weren't disguised, no cut-scenes that weren't explained as either remote surveillance footage or recorded messages. None of the games which later borrowed these devices (with the possible exception of Portal) used them as holistically or as consistently as System Shock did. My demand for complete coherence in fictional 3D spaces as well as my taste for environmental narratives--real ones that require detective work, not ones that are handed to you on rails--comes from System Shock. Games like Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Bioshock, and especially System Shock 2 are all inferior versions of System Shock as far as I'm concerned.

Thief: The Dark Project (PC, 1998)

Since stealth games are the closest thing I have to a favorite game genre, I suppose I should include Thief: The Dark Project. Also by the makers of System Shock, Thief was great for a lot of the same reasons, but several new ones as well. The biggest thing I took away from it, I think, was the idea that stealth games are in a sense nerd revenge fantasies. They are about a smart weak person taking down a bunch of strong dumb people. Garrett's internal monologue in Thief is about how I imagined my own internal monologue in high school: full of smug superiority, mute rage, and ample wit. This might be why the dumb A.I. (still smarter than a lot of game A.I.) never registered as a flaw to me: the opportunity to taken down idiotic meatheads was clearly a feature, not a bug.

Aside from this Thief impressed upon me, subconsciously perhaps, the notion that violence in games doesn't have to be a foregone conclusion. The stealth genre is one that is basically predicated on the idea that violence is a choice, which might explain why I find its natural contours so appealing. Violence is after all a brutish solution to any given problem. But Thief wasn't boring enough to suggest alternatives based on moral grounds. Rather it suggested that pacifism can be more about narcissism than morality... an intriguing notion that probably speaks more closely to the real reasons behind the behavior of players (such as myself) who obsessively refuse to kill. It's not about right and wrong. It's about one drop of blood ruining my masterpiece. An artist like Garrett--like me--is clearly above such a thing.

Thief is one of the reasons I'm not particularly impressed by many stealth games, but why I try every one I can find in hopes they will generate the complex set of feelings and ideas that it did. Certain games in the Hitman and Metal Gear series approach this, but none of them quite achieve Thief's sense of exquisitely smug empowerment.

Games That Made Me - Part 1: The 80s

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

There is a theory in psychology that we go through life looking for surrogates of our parents. Similarly, one can imagine that many of the games we encounter early in our lives are the standards by which we consciously or unconsciously judge games afterward. We perhaps look for the games which shaped our tastes in every new game we play... and are usually disappointed when we don't find what we want.

Looking at the games which shaped us helps us understand why we like certain games and dislike others, or, to be more specific, why we see certain games as inferior versions of other games. I don't think this is anything to be ashamed of, as long as one doesn't pretend there's any objectivity to be hand in this process. We like what we like for complex reasons that were formed reflexively and unconsciously, by our natural gravitation towards certain works of art. Discovering why we gravitate towards some things and not others is a process of self-discovery, and one that is arguably required to intelligent criticism.

Frantic Freddie (C64, 1983) 

The first game I remember playing for any significant amount of time. I have no idea how it shaped by gaming tastes other than being the first time I became genuinely obsessed with a game. I never did finish it.

Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985)

The fist game I can remember that pulled me into a fictional world. I remember going to Chucky Cheese with my parents and dropping endless quarters on a Play Choice 10 just to play the first level of Super Mario Bros. I don't know why I found it so captivating, but I distinctly remember reality dropping away and be being only aware of what was happening inside the arcade cabinet. It was like reading a book or being underwater.

Ultima: Exodus (NES, 1987)

My first RPG and, interestingly, a twice-translated port of a port. Ultima: Exodus for the NES was a surprisingly faithful re-creation of Richard Garriott's pioneering original. All the Japanese developer (Pony Canyon) did was make it cuter. I didn't think much about it at the time, but my experience with the NES Ultima: Exodus--which was, ironically, my first exposure to "Western"-style open-world RPGs--may have profoundly altered the course of my taste development as I got older. I probably wouldn't have gotten into PC gaming if I hadn't first experienced a taste of it on the NES. I wouldn't have known what Ultima was, so I wouldn't have gone crazy when I saw the Ultima VII box in a PC store a few years later. (VII?! Holy shit! It was like getting a game from THE FUTURE!) To this day I am one of the few people I know who loves both Japanese and Western game design aesthetics about equally, who gets just as excited about Final Fantasy as Ultima, who doesn't regard one as an inferior version of the other. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that my first "Western" game was filtered through Japanese sensibilities.

Bionic Commando (NES, 1988)

Bionic Commando was the first game with a story and characters I really loved. They weren't complex at all, but for some reasons the game's presentation--with game design logic being totally dictated by dramatic logic (and not, as is usually the case, vice versa)--enthralled my friends and I to no end when we were 11. This game is still the reason I never mind an irregular difficulty curve as long as it makes sense story-wise. If the last boss is flesh and blood and I have a bazooka... well... he shouldn't take more than one hit, should he? Certainly not if he's Hitler.

Character and Author Intent

At a recent open playtesting session I had the latest build of Pierre: Insanity Inspired running, hoping to get an idea of just how hard the game is and whether anything should be done about that (with only six levels your difficulty curve can easily become a wall). During the course of the night I had a rather interesting encounter with one tester in particular.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Pierre follows the adventures of an eccentric artist cat who may or may not be insane. The gameplay takes place on a rotating disc. The titular character, Pierre, is moving around on the outer edge of the disc, which is being bombarded by various falling objects. Some of the objects must always be avoided, and others must be collected at certain times. The game's research goal is to investigate how different types of failure communication can affect player performance. In other words, does the way we tell you that you screwed up matter?

To emphasize the failure feedback, we created a secondary character who pops onto the screen to yell at the player when he or she is hit by a hostile object, or collects an object at the wrong time. The aforementioned tester asked me what the relationship between the two characters was, and I answered honestly: I really do not know. Said tester informed me that my lack of knowledge was "inexcusable," which I found to be a rather intriguing - if slightly hostile - response.

The question is an interesting one, though I had only considered it in terms of authorship and intentionality. Playing the game, it seems to me that the unnamed character does have a relationship with Pierre: in some instances it would seem he wants Pierre to succeed, otherwise he would not get so angry when the player does something wrong. At the same time, when the player fails a level, the character is seen in the background, laughing at and taunting Pierre and the player. Sometimes he is frustrated by Pierre's failure, sometimes he relishes it. So what is going on here? One might point to the title, noting that Pierre himself is probably what "insanity inspired" refers to, hence we cannot take any of his perceptions at face value. But the unnamed character is often addressing the player, not Pierre, and so cannot be a product of Pierre's mind.

During the design of the game our focus was on addressing the research question. Adding a secondary character was merely a way of emphasizing the feedback to the player. Given our intentions, are questions such as "what is the relationship between Pierre and the unnamed character?" even meaningful? A better question might be, "what do you think that relationship is?" Or more importantly, "why do people infer or desire a relationship?"

Although it was never stated outright, I always felt that we were relying on what Scott McCloud calls closure - letting the player fill in the gaps with his or her imagination. There is a lot of space in the game's plot and world, space that - I would hope - the player feels free to complete for his or herself.

To return to the aforementioned tester, then, I wonder what they think of other games with light characterization. Certainly Miyamoto had his characters in mind when designing Donkey Kong, but what are we to make of the relationship between Pac-Man and Blinky? Or Q*bert and those spring-like snakes? Did Mario and Luigi fight a lot growing up? Why are the Black and White kings trying to kill each other? And do these relationships even matter?

In analyzing any work - be it literature, film or games - we tend to think about who the characters are, why they made the choices they did and what might have happened differently. But characters are not people. They do not have agency and they do not make choices. Characters are just devices, like metaphor, irony, or game mechanics. Pierre's unnamed antagonistic cheerleader serves his function, and I am happy to leave his existence at that.

You are free to come up with your own interpretation.

(Everything I Do) I Do it for You

Thumbnail image for gotw_emailsize.jpgWe Belong

I cannot recall with any certainty when precisely the Game of the Week idea was born. That is to say, I cannot pinpoint a singular moment where the idea for a running web series of behind the scenes content from our 9 week summer program came about, which likely speaks to the fact that it was not a "pop" into your head idea, but one that developed from a collection of conversations and ideas at the office.

I do remember that I was thinking about web traffic, and how we could draw more attention to our GAMBIT web presence. A good friend of mine, when talking to me about personal fitness, told me that doing the same action, everyday, for thirty days will make that action habitual. I am not sure of the scientific merits behind this statement, it may be the equivalent of Cosmopolitan science (lose 50lbs in 1 week with these 5 tips), but the core idea of doing an action repeatedly for an extended period of time, leading to a habitual continuation of that action, seemed like what we needed for our website.

I have a daily Internet routine. I check my email. I read the same news sources for the game industry. I flag particular articles that are of interest to me for reading later. Depending on what season, I check my fantasy sports team(s). I am a single hit to these sites, but more importantly, I am habitually hitting their sites. A primary goal for the GOTW series was to create habitual visitors, like me, to our site.

The Search is Over

We had huge coffers filled with content from the summer. We had digital coffers and hard-copy coffers. Even in a relatively short 9-week production cycle, the absolute glut of concept art, prototyping materials, game design documentation, production documentation, sound assets, concept music, etc. is impressive. At no point in the entire GOTW process was there any concern that we would "run out" of material to present. We knew we had the goods, there was some question as to how to present them.


I have an unrelenting fondness for 1980's power ballads. Maybe it is the Roland Jupiter-8 String patch. Maybe it is the soaring vocal lines. Maybe it's the hair.


It was a late afternoon at the lab, and while playing around on the keyboard, I started hammering out "Separate Ways" by Journey. Why? I don't know, cause it is awesome!?! A few hours later plus a ridiculous vocal session, and the parody, "This is the Game of the Week," was born. I was simultaneously proud and ashamed. It was somewhere between a moment of greatness and downright absurdity. I couldn't stop giggling however whenever I listened to it.

We concocted some hair brained schemes to replicate the hilarious original video for the song. It involved an abandoned train station, jean jackets, mullet wigs and Ms. Pac Man. Like many brilliant ideas, we released it to the ether, where it continues to haunt and inspire us to new levels of ridiculousness.

Video Killed the Radio Star

The lab had begun taking steps to keep video records of our work, and to publish small video podcasts about the projects here at the lab. This coincided nicely with the GOTW series, so we took the opportunity to interview each embedded staff member from each game to get insight on the projects. This was, to me, the greatest success of the GOTW series. I was learning things about the projects that I never knew from these interviews, and more importantly it put live faces and voices on the great people who make this lab churn out great work all the time. It is tremendously important that we are not singularly defined by what we've done, rather, we should also be known for the efforts and passions of those who are doing the work. I think the video podcasts presented that voice fantastically.

Digging in the Dirt

Calendar.jpgWith the tremendous quantity of material available for the series, the next step was to organize, collect and schedule the posts for our blog. This is where the project began to hit a bit of a logjam.

Each team had some organization to their materials, but no single team had their work meticulously archived for later use. This is not the fault of the interns from the summer, for we had not asked them to do such archiving work, but as we worked to submit these posts for publication, digging through all the data and even literally thumbing through all of the hard copy concept art and documentation became time consuming and difficult.

I felt there were times when I missed documenting important parts of the design process for some of the teams simply because I ran out of time to look for the artifacts or simply couldn't find them. I knew there were earlier builds for many of the projects complete with temp art and important design steps to acknowledge in the GOTW series, but they may have been left out simply because the artifacts of their existence were not properly archived.

Take Me Home

I wish I could tell you that our web readership jumped to youtubian levels as a result of our efforts. I wish I could point you toward the handful of news sources that picked up the series and gave us a mention. I really wish I could tell you that. I can't because it didn't happen, and if I did, you would call me a liar.

However, I do believe that what we learned from the process is most important, and moving forward we have tested and proved the concept of a "Game of The Week" series on our website. We have also learned to improve the organization of our archiving process across the board.

I do hope some of you had the time to read through some of the content from the series, and if you have not seen it yet, I encourage you to head over and look at some of the work our student-interns created over the summer. I hope it inspires you to do some great work of your own, or maybe just stop to play for a little bit longer during your usual day.

After all, we made these games... for you.

Confessions of an Impatient Cheater

I have a confession. I never beat The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past without infinite magic. I used infinite lives to finish Hyperzone, Thunder Spirits, or any of the other SNES scrolling shooters that I loved. My first full play-through of Final Fantasy 6 was made a little easier by starting the game with four of the most powerful weapons and accessories. Game Genie made it all possible. Did I miss out on some of the fun by cheating my way through challenges?

"Some of the puzzles will be hard. But when you manage to solve those hard puzzles, you will feel very good about it. The game will feel very rewarding. Don't rob yourself of that feeling by reading a walkthrough! Please do not use a walkthrough." That bit of advice is from Jonathan Blow's official Braid "walkthrough." He even encourages the player by confirming that "All the puzzles can be solved. Some of them might take an hour or two, but you will get it. If you try. And you will feel cool and smart." Of course, this is assuming that the cool and smart feeling you get as a reward outweighs the two frustrating hours you spent staring at a single-screen puzzle. For some players I'm sure it is a sufficient reward. I'd compare the feeling to that of players spending hours memorizing enemy patterns in Ikaruga to get a high score or making a record speed run of Super Metroid. This hard fun results in an emotion called fiero.

The key distinction between a high score or speed run and finishing Braid is that mastery is a choice. The player chooses how much time they want to devote to perfecting their play, but will already have experienced all of the game's content. Braid requires 100% mastery just to progress to the ending. If the player wants to see the mind-blowing twist at the end, they are supposed to just tough it out.

But what if the player isn't as affected by fiero, if it isn't their personal "ultimate Game Emotion"? What if their biggest emotional reward is curiosity or relaxation or excitement? That player wonders what happens in Tim's quest for his princess, wants to see what the next puzzle's twist on time manipulation is, or finds the art direction fascinating. Wouldn't their net enjoyment of the game be increased if they used a walkthrough to avoid some of the frustration? Wouldn't it be nice if they could press a button and have the avatar automatically progress through the next puzzle so the player could still see the solution? That's what a feature in New Super Mario Bros Wii can do, and it has been faced with very mixed reactions.

A major element of the argument against such an automated walkthrough is that it promotes accessibility over engagement. Leigh Alexander claimed "History has also never disproven... the principle that any medium and any message degrades the wider an audience it must reach. Art was never served by generalization, nor language by addressing all denominators. Entertainment for the masses ultimately becomes empty." Well now, dissecting that argument can fill a blog post in itself. But in the case of Braid, the casual player won't be able to experience some of the most artistically challenging content. It's not that the art is difficult to interpret; the art is in fact hidden behind a barrier. Anyone can look at a painting and see every detail. They can read every word of a novel or watch every second of a movie. Understanding or appreciating the art is a different matter. Imagine if halfway through a novel you had to take an SAT-style verbal skills test to unlock the second half.

What Game Genie allowed me to do was complete the game. I was playing SNES while in elementary school and didn't have the skills or patience to memorize attack patterns, but I really wanted to see what happened in the next level. In some cases, I was able to play around more freely with the mechanics when aided by cheat codes. For instance in Link to the Past, magic is limited such that some of the more powerful items can only be used sparingly. I remember using infinite magic to turn the Cane of Somaria into my primary weapon since creating a magic block that explodes in four directions was a fun twist on combat.

One of the reasons I feel the quality of my experience playing games with Game Genie was preserved is that the game didn't do everything for me. In Zelda I still had to solve puzzles (though I did use a strategy guide occasionally). Even in shooters where I had infinite lives, I would try to kill as many enemies as possible and would be disappointed when I died. I determined my own level of challenge by choosing not only what cheat codes to use, but how to approach my play experience. The automated walkthrough still allows a player to be challenged by puzzles; it is a choice whether or not to use the feature. If a player doesn't want to their experience to be "spoiled," then they could just not use the walkthrough. Or they should only use the walkthrough on puzzles that have them completely stumped. It's only different from including an easy mode if you think the challenge of the gameplay trumps the desire of a less skilled (or less patient) player to continue forwards.

Tim Schafer's Metal Metaphysics.

NOTE: I wrote the following immediately after finishing Brutal Legend for the first time. It contains complete story spoilers, so be warned.

Okay, I see how the story works now. Yes, Eddie is from the future. His demon mother traveled to the future--which is apparently our present--and died soon after she had him there. Eddie's belt buckle was a originally a talisman intended to return her to the past if it ever touched her blood. This is, apparently, what we see happening in the opening cinematic. Eddie is crushed by a stage prop, blood splashes on his belt buckle, and suddenly the metal god Ormagoden appears to bring him back to the past (and apparently heal him in the process). This is why Eddie sprouts demon wings during battle scenes, why he wields demon weapons with ease, etc. It all makes sense, was clearly thought all out, and, yes, was foreshadowed from the very beginning. Yet...

My problem with Brutal Legend is that it tries too hard to justify a romantic logic that needs no justification. I see now that I was mistaken, but my original impression of the gameworld was that it was basically Eddie's fantasy. Either his dying fantasy of a heavy metal paradise--the world as he wanted it to be--or some future version of Earth which had been destroyed and remade according to his musical tastes. At first I felt the legends you find all over the gameworld, which say things like "In the Beginning...there was Ormagoden...", were suggesting that Eddie's love of metal had been so powerful that his death created an actual god. I thought the legends were explaining what happened between the moment the opening cut-scene faded out (with hundreds of fans cheering the newly created Ormagoden as he screamed fire into the sky) and when Eddie woke up in the temple. I thought that 10,000 years had passed, and his love of metal--personified as a giant metal god--had shattered and rebuilt the world according to what Eddie thought was cool. This is why all the silliness of "And God created... Tailpipes! And Said they were... Awesome!" felt genuinely funny and clever to me. I thought Tim Schafer had come up with an ingenious way of explaining how a world that functioned on the logic of heavy metal album covers could exist: by suggesting that a roadie's true metal-ness had spontaneously granted him the power of creation. Because, I mean, come on... that's the only explanation that could possibly suffice, right? Heavy metal album covers are funny precisely because their logic is so nakedly inexplicable, that you simply have to surrender to the knowledge that there is no possible organizing force at work other than their makers' love of leather, cars, bikes, the occult, and musical equipment.

Near the beginning it felt to me like Brutal Legend understood this very well and had its tongue placed firmly in its cheek. The only organizing force for all its absurd imagery seemed to be Eddie's love of metal. Why do all these things exist and the world work this way? Because Eddie thinks they're awesome, obviously. This was explanation enough for me, and I felt the game gained a lot of charm from expressing the romantic logic of metal fandom with such uncompromising clarity. This was only enhanced by the implication of an either morbid subtext (Eddie's actually dead) or apocalyptic subtext (the world was actually destroyed) which kept the fantasy from seeming mindlessly fetishistic.

To find out I was totally wrong, that Schafer actually expects me to believe that this world--this world of tailpipes, leather, mudflap girls, choppers, giant stereo speakers, and 1980's hair-styles--actually existed thousands of years ago on our actual planet Earth? I find that explanation less believable than no explanation at all. But then I suppose if I start asking such questions and saying it doesn't make sense, I'd simply be told it was like questioning the logic of a metal album cover. You could easily make that argument, that if I'm okay with it begin Eddie's fantasy, I should be just as okay with it being Tim Schafer's fantasy. But somehow I'm not... maybe for the same reason I prefer the outright fantasy of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 to the absurd pseudo-science of Metal Gear Solid 4. There's a quote I remember from a film critic criticizing the Midichlorians in Star Wars: Episode 1. He said "Adding physics to the metaphysics doesn't work." By trying to explain something magical too much you run the risk of making it seem both less magical and unsatisfactorily scientific.

Metal obviously needs no explanation. If Schafer had the conviction to really base the foundation of his entire story on this assumption it would have carried his vision all the way through to the end. Instead it only carries about half way, when explanations of the world's complex mythology begin to dilute a simple, compelling truth: that the best and only reason to do anything in Brutal Legend is because it fucking rocks.

Platforming and Politics in Shadow Complex

I finally finished Shadow Complex, getting 100% of the map and items. I enjoyed it a fair amount, though it does get samey after a while. The game is, in the end, more similar to Metroid than I first thought. While it begins like Out of This World or Flashback in terms of exploration and combat, it steadily becomes more like Metroid as your character becomes powered-up with various sci-fi gadgets. Running on water, triple-jumping--you name it. By the end you're zipping around the 'shadow complex' like a super-bouncy rubber ball, spraying bullets in all directions and punching people into oblivion with your bionic fist. Environments blur past. And although the gun-based combat is still at its core very un-Metroid-like, the super-powered-ness of your character eventually causes it to blur past as well.

The way Shadow Complex gradually morphs from a tentative, tactical exploration game to a run-and-gun shooter is interesting, though it betrays the fact that its visuals are not ideally designed for either style. As I mentioned in my previous blog post Shadow Complex's environments seem mostly designed to be taken in slowly, with lots of localized detail. Yet as the game gets faster the carefully nuanced nature of each screen becomes easily ignored, causing most environments to leave the same gray/brown impression. I had to constantly check my map in Shadow Complex, since often that was the only way to tell where the hell I was.

I never had this problem in Metroid, which always manage to separate each chunk of the game world with nicely distinct visual styles. Shadow Complex's more "realistic" visual aesthetic may look cool and more 'next-gen' than the 2D games that inspired it, but the net result is geographic distinction eventually stretches into incoherent mush. This is something nearly every other Metroid-inspired game does better than Shadow Complex. All the recent 2D Castlevanias, for example, have very clear environmental differences between map sectors. Leave it to the Japanese, I guess, to understand the value of iconic visual design and how it supports gameplay as a user feedback system. This is something that our Western obsessions with poly-counts and dynamic lighting get in the way of frequently, and it's one of the main things that, I think, separates Shadow Complex culturally from other Metroid-clones.

As for the story, I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed that the right-wing ideology I was bracing myself for didn't come off as strongly as I'd hoped. The only real evidence of it is fairly subtle, based on a few lines of dialogue you overhear at one point. It is between two enemy soldiers talking about "The Restoration", which is what they call their secret plan to take over America. The first step apparently involves "liberating" San Fransisco and New York, which one soldier says makes sense because those are two big cities "with governments that will want to hop on board as soon as we surface". The soldier goes on to explain how the rest of the country will probably have to be conquered by force, but that they first want to be seen as liberators and win some popular support. While most reviewers of Shadow Complex seem to have either missed or ignored this small detail (most people seem to think that The Restoration wants to nuke San Fran, for some reason) I took it to mean pretty obviously that The Restoration is some group of left-wing extremists, for whom the full cooperation of left-wing American cities (such as San Fran) is a foregone conclusion.

Unfortunately, none of these hinted-at politics fully surface in the end. Instead the game retreats to a highly generic characterization of its villains which feels more like a grab-bag of rotten politics both the (American) Left and Right can agree on... rather than anything which could coherently be called a political point of view. At the end, when the main bad guy gives his Big Speech, he rattles off a bunch of hogwash about America falling from grace and that it will be a great country again, thanks to The Restoration. He makes several references to imperial Rome and says America will be a great empire after they take over, sounding--and looking, thanks to the black uniform and red armband--more like a Nazi than anything else.

My first impulse is that referencing Nazism so heavily represents a retreat from any anit-liberal stance the game might have... though considering how both the Left and Right in the United States have appropriated Nazism to attack the other side, my assumption may be misplaced. Shadow Complex could easily represent for conservative players a typical right-wing fantasy scenario: the heroic fighting off of a left-wing conspiracy to take over the country in which the Left, finally, shows their true totalitarian colors. There is certainly nothing in the game to contradict this.

Hold on...

I just read the Boston Phoenix review of Shadow Complex, and listen to this...

There's not much to say about the paper-thin plot, but I should mention that Shadow Complex takes place in the world of Orson Scott Card's Empire series of books, a bizarre critique of the dangers of liberal political thought. Its antagonists are part of a left-wing organization called the Progressive Restoration whose aim is to overthrow the government and, it would seem, institute a policy of mandatory gay marriage and strict recycling laws.

Well well. Hardly politically neutral, is it? I'm quite disappointed, actually, that Shadow Complex couldn't have been more out-of-the-closet, so to speak, in terms of its right-wing ideology, even if it is merely inherited from Card's books. I think I would have been tickled to death by playing an unabashed right-wing Metroid-clone. That, at least, would have been less boring.

What bothers me more than anything is the seeming inability of commercial video games to address any political controversy head-on, to be upfront about advocating any political point of view. I mean, why not come right out admit what The Restoration stands for? Why tip-toe around what the book doesn't? Are they worried about alienating liberal gamers? They didn't alienate me. I still played it. I got 100% items, for godsake, and I had a ball killing endless streams of lefty no-gooders. Hell, if Shadow Complex taught me anything it's that the Left have some seriously cool robots, and that socialism is, apparently, functional enough to fund a terrifyingly advanced techno-army.

Even the most rampant homophobe would have to admit that shit is pretty badass.

(Some) Games Are Media: A Response to Frank Lantz

At the end of August, Frank Lantz of Area/Code posted a really intriguing thought piece to Game Design Advance that asserts that "Games Are Not Media", which is an expansion upon a similar thought grenade that Lantz lobbed into the audience at last year's Game Developers Conference. Here's how he sets up the piece:

I should start out by explaining the purpose of the claim. It's meant to be a provocation. I want to challenge certain habits of thinking and talking about games. I'm not attempting to clarify a small point about our critical language or clean up a detail about our conceptual framework. I want to give these things a rude shove and shake us out of a bunch of comfortable and familiar assumptions so that we can look at games with a fresh eye.

I'm not going to present a carefully constructed definition of the word "media" and try to show that games don't fit. Instead, I want to point out some common associations the word tends to conjure up and show how games challenge them. I know it's difficult to talk about games as a subject without using the word media. I find it hard myself, and I'm sure there will be many situations in the future where I'll use the term. But when I do I will feel an uncomfortable twinge that will remind me of the ways in which the word is a poor fit, and I hope to instill a similar impulse in you.

As it so happens, this is something that GAMBIT US Executive Director Philip Tan and I have been going around and around about since before GAMBIT opened its doors. (Philip prefers to describe a game as a single session of constrained play, like a baseball game, whereas I prefer to describe a game as the thing that has rules, pieces, players, instruction manuals [or not], discs [or not], and so on as required.) Philip and I have finally come to some more or less common ground on this topic, partly due to a long conversation at lunch over Lantz's provocation. So some congratulations are in order – Lantz certainly achieved his goal of getting people to talk about it. The only problem is, how Lantz addresses what he perceives as common assumptions which lead us to believe that games are media is brilliant, but it's those common assumptions he's perceiving which I'd argue are incorrect.

As a matter of fact, I will now spend the next several thousand words arguing that very thing...

Continue reading "(Some) Games Are Media: A Response to Frank Lantz" »

The Death of Survival Horror

It's tough to say, but I think I actually prefer the story of Resident Evil 4 to Resident Evil 5. Yes, I know how that sounds. RE5's story is, in a lot of ways, much better than RE4's. It's far less cheesy and far more coherent. But... well, I suppose it comes down to the fact that RE4 at least didn't reduce the entire series to a Michael Bay movie. RE4 eventually became like an idiotic action movie, of course, but only near the end... and even then it in no way reflected on the rest of the series because the plot was essentially self-contained. RE5, on the other hand, does a good job of giving the franchise a sense of closure, but the sort of closure it gives is pretty underwhelming. So everything--the whole saga--was just a build up to Wesker's doomsday plan... and that all ended when Chris shot him in the face with a rocket launcher? Yay. I guess... I guess that's the end of Resident Evil. And I only waited 13 years for it.

I imagine most people would wonder how someone could care about the overarching storyline of Resident Evil, and for good reason. It's inane and moronic, and I wonder myself why it bugs me when it is especially bad, as in the case of RE5. My guess is that I had such a powerful experience with the first two games--before the backstory became silly--that I still harbor some frustrated fascination with the narrative possibilities of the franchise, though they have been repeatedly unrealized. I'm not naive enough to hope each new game will satisfy me, but for some reason I never tire of charting the ever expanding, Byzantine stupidity of the storyline, as well as noting whatever flickers of inspiration it may have along the way.

RE5, to my astonishment, made me miss RE4, mostly my virtue of how seriously it took itself. I guess Japanese developers are beginning to get really good at making games for Western audiences, which is depressing. RE5, with the possible exception of Wesker, is almost indistinguishable from a Hollywood action film. Chris and most of the other characters are so goddamn sober you get the feeling that the game is taking itself way too seriously. RE4, by comparison, has a lot more tell-tale signs of Japanese-ness. The story in RE4 was moronic Hollywood pap as well, but its Hollywood tone was undercut at several moments when you could see the playfulness of the designers winking through. The way Leon could sit in Saddler's throne, the hilarious laser hallway sequence, the skirt gags with Ashley, the giant clockwork Salazaar... all these things made it feel less like a Hollywood movie and more like a Japanese distortion of a Hollywood movie. In RE5, unfortunately, it seems like they've finally gotten it right. It feels like a real Hollywood movie, with none of that weird cultural dissonance that normally makes Japanese games interesting. It doesn't feel playful design-wise like RE4 did. It is dead-fucking-serious about giving kids reared on Gears of War and Halo exactly what they want and expect: wave after wave after wave of dudes to shoot, giant bosses to kill, and an uber-macho hero.

I never thought RE4 could seem subtle or reflective, but it is by comparison to RE5's stripping away of every element that didn't fit the design paradigm of Western multi-player co-op games. Virtually every screen in RE5 is a variation on the same concept--fight off hoards of enemies in an arena-like map--whereas RE4 had a lot more variety in its level design. It had long stretches where you were alone, being hunted by just one enemy, bits where you just explored, and even parts where you played as Ashley and could not use weapons. And RE4 was still what I'd call an over-the-top action game. It apparently wasn't action enough for RE5, however, which pulls out all stops, dispenses with all variation, and gives you head-popping hysteria from beginning to end. Given the fact that the main protagonist is now a steroid-guzzling meat head, rather than a slim pretty boy, I suppose this is all just part of the same cultural shift.

Of course, it's not unusual for Japanese games to harbor a fetish for Hollywood action cinema. Resident Evil has had it since the very beginning, but it was always redeemed somewhat by its total failure to be what it obviously wanted to be. The series was always at its best when combining the colorful characters of anime/manga with the apocalyptic horrors of George Romero. It was always at its worst when attempting to imitate Michael Bay and cater to the action market. In RE4 Michael Bay seemed to be on the offensive, but there was still a lot to like about the series. In RE5, however, the transformation is complete, rendering the series dead to anyone who ever loved it for its odd combination of Japanese character design and storytelling and the existential terror of Western zombie cinema.

The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Dying Alone

I recently decided to give Resident Evil: Outbreak, the franchise's first and much maligned foray into online multi-player, a second chance. I'm glad I did, because there's actually a lot to like in Capcom's messy little experiment.

As a multi-player experience Outbreak remains hopelessly broken, but as a single-player experience I've come to realize it has certain unique merits. Most interesting to me, it marks a return to stories of average people struggling to survive as opposed to the super hero bullshit more recent RE games indulge in. Just the fact that it is comprised of mostly average locations (a bar, a hospital, a hotel, the city streets) and involves normal people as playable characters (a waitress, a doctor, a reporter, a college student) automatically makes it a hundred times more intriguing than the Michael Bay swill Resident Evil 5 crammed down our throats a few months ago.

What I love about Outbreak is how it explores many of the more unglamorous actions readily found in zombie cinema. Instead of kicking zombie ass you spend most of your time bracing doors, hiding in lockers, crafting makeshift weapons out of rubbish, and prolonging your inevitable zombie infection with various drugs. Outbreak has so many interesting ideas that it might have offered players a perfectly nice single-player experience... that is, if the option of playing solo was unlocked from the very beginning. There is a solo mode, I discovered, but it can only be unlocked by finishing the game. This is absurd, because it's what the default offline mode should have been. Tragically the default offline mode saddles the player with a set of broken A.I. companions, who do very little besides ruin the atmosphere by acting like imbeciles and screaming random canned phrases.

Tantalized by the prospect of playing Outbreak single-player, I decided I was going to slog through the game with the broken companions in order to be able to access the solo mode. However, even playing it with companions is proving to be more compelling than I expected. The companions are broken, mood-shattering, and idiotic... but all the same I sort of missed them once they all died and I was the only one left. I played the second scenario as Yoko, the college student, and I really began enjoying the game once all my companions were dead and out of the way. This is the solo mode experience I wanted, and it was pretty evocative. I was trapped in the underground research lab from RE2, and I was trying to escape. I made a few serious mistakes along the way and ended up falling to the ground on the top level. Unable to stand, I crawled in desperation towards the nearest exist. But the virus rapidly overtook me. I finally turned around near the door and awaited my death, thinking that if only one of my friends were alive they could have helped me up and through the door.

I died there on the floor, just an anonymous citizen of Racoon City. I wasn't a hero. I wasn't one of the protagonists of the main games who gets to kick ass and do flips. I was just a normal girl whose greatest asset was a backpack... and that wasn't enough to save me in the end.

Spending an hour trying to survive, only to have it all end in a lonely whimper, was an intriguing experience I haven't had in many games, let alone Resident Evil games. It was satisfying precisely because it was frustrating and awkward. The frustration and awkwardness had an interesting existential dimension all other RE games lack. Even the fact that I couldn't save my game was a plus in this regard, since it made me truly afraid for my life. If one views Outbreak as a series of Racoon City short stories--all short enough to justify the lack of saving--in which the point is to force the player to face their own uncomfortable mortality... the game is not at all unsuccessful. I think if it had been marketed as such, as a collection of survivor stories in which the muli-player aspect was optional and the single-player mode was the default, it would have been received quite differently by both critics and players.

Harmonix rocks! (but you knew that)

After many, many months, we're finally retiring our Rock Band 2 drums. We showed them a lot of love... probably too much love. I mean, look at those drumsticks! Did someone chew on them?

Some folks from Harmonix came by our lab to chat, and I guess they were impressed by our obvious devotion to their game. The hacked-together plastic-tape solution was less impressive. (They still work!) So yesterday we found a whole new set of drums, shipped from the west and on our doorstep. Thank you, Harmonix!

Let's not forget the good times we've had. Here are a couple of pics of the old GAMBIT drums to remember them by, next to the the shiny, new ones taking on the mantle.


This is actually the fourth set of videogame drums in the office. The first one was a knockoff set for Drummania, and it's still sitting around just in case Bemani fever breaks out again. The second was my kit from the original Rock Band, which has a dead red pad but probably just needs a little solder. The white drums were a gift from David Nieborg of fame, and we never properly thanked him either. (Thanks, David!) This doesn't count all the various drum machines that have come through the lab. We've got a real percussive thing going on here.

Rosemary UI Design Sketches

I was thumbing through my notebook the other day and noticed some old design sketches I did for Rosemary. Thought I'd scan them in and make a blog post for posterity. Posterity. That would be you, dear reader.

The backstory is that in late fall 2008, Clara Fernández-Vara asked me to help with her adventure game project, Rosemary, which was having significant usability problems. In particular, the memory mechanic wasn't getting across. Since that's the big twist of the game, having it not work was a major problem.

Starting Point: Memory Palace
This is a mockup of the design I was given, the Memory Palace. It was named after a method of memorizing things by remembering them spatially. Memory objects would appear at the bottom as you played, and then could be placed in the room. If a group of them were placed correctly, new information was revealed.

It had a few problems. The method of interaction was different than the rest of the game, the 3D nature of the space made placing 2D objects within it sort of odd, the fact that a group had to be placed at a time was unclear, what happened if one object was placed correctly and the rest incorrectly, where would the new information appear, adding and removing memory puzzles from the game required redrawing the art asset, yada yada. On top of that, Rosemary already has a few kinds of physical space, the present world and the past world. Adding another set of functionality that also had a spatial representation got confusing quickly.

I asked Clara if it was alright if I tried to rework the interaction from the ground up, and she said yes. Clara is awesome. I then proceeded to brainstorm, which I mostly did in my sketchbook. I'm going to cheat and show these out of order, leaving the idea we ended up implementing for last. In practice, it was the first one I came up with, but I wanted some more ideas to show Clara and the rest of the team. It's pretty rare that the first idea is the best one, and I didn't want to commit to one concept too quickly.

Discarded Idea: Fortress of Solitude
If you've seen the Superman movies, you probably already know the idea. I was playing with the idea of memory crystals like they had in the film. You have a hole and a set of crystals. Whichever memory crystal you put in first determines what grouping you're going for, and the right additional number of holes appear for you to put more crystals in. When you get the combination right, the crystals are absorbed and the new information is displayed.

Discarded Idea: Block Toy
Riffing off the Fortress of Solitude idea, I wondered if having any memory fit into any slot was too much, and we should restrict the number of combinations. This reminded me of one of those toddler toys where you have shaped blocks that the child puts into the right hole. By using shape this way, we can help the user understand what she's missing---e.g. a star-shaped memory---without being too heavy-handed. The shapes could correspond to the type of memory as well, like people, objects, places, whatever.

Discarded Idea: Clay/Oozerts
I would say this was my weirdest idea, despite a lack of comic book references. The inspiration was one of those Play-Doh extruder things I had as a child. A sausage grinder would be a similar albeit ickier metaphor. Memories were clay objects. You put some of them into a press and the new information was squooshed out as a new object, which could then be fed back into the press for yet more information, etc. In order to help understand which objects go together, each squooshed object takes a certain amount of space in the press, sort of like in our fractions game, Oozerts. Glancing at it should tell you whether the press is overfull, underfull, or just right. Or you can use the press anyway and see if your new object is missing a leg or has an extra head or something.

I'm telling you, it could totally work.

Discarded Idea: Fill in the Picture
A book full of holes. Put the right objects into the right holes, and it turns into a completed picture. A fine idea, but not too original.

Implemented Idea: Photo Album
What's not to like? You've got this photo album with photos missing, you collect photos as you go, you put the photos back in the album which tells you more stuff. Easy interaction, ties in with the memory theme nicely, doesn't require much in the way of new art assets, and easily scalable if a puzzle is cut from the game at the last minute. And for hints, we have captions.

Captions were part stories, part Mad Libs. They were some sort of description which went with the pictures but with blanks. As you put a picture in the slot, the blanks filled up with words. The story would make sense if it was the right photo, or be nonsense if it wasn't. In the example in the sketchbook, switching the photos would reveal, "Bob played with his movie poster. 'Arr!' he said in a torn and tattered voice." So you either get success or you get silliness, a win either way.

Photo Album Mockup Draft
Clara and the team really liked the Photo Album idea, so I sketched it out a bit more clearly. I like fine markers on regular letter paper for this sort of thing, since the it photocopies easily. Always keep the original and make copies to take to meetings. Then you can cut them up or mark them up on the fly, but still be able to go back to the original.

Photo Album Mockup Final
I switched to Adobe Illustrator for my final mockup, since it's easier to do layers and stuff there. Notice how I still just scanned my draft mockup for the main window rather than redraw it all in Illustrator. The point of the mockup is not to be fancy. All it needs to do is communicate the idea. That last image was the printout that was hanging on the wall of the Rosemary development room for the artists and designer to reference.

And there you have it. To see the final implementation, go play Rosemary.

Fascism is so much better in 2D.

I've never read Ender's Game, in spite of having been given a copy by a programmer friend of mine nearly a decade ago, so I've got no idea on how well Shadow Complex embodies the writing and ideas of Orson Scott Card. The game was recommended to me solely on the basis of its similarity to Super Metroid, long hailed as one of the greatest 2D exploration-based games ever made. Shadow Complex is a recent attempt by an indie developer (Chair Entertainment) to resurrect this supposedly long dead style of game. Of course, it's difficult to say this style is dead when Konami releases a new 2D Castlevania--all of which follow the template of Super Metroid so completely they've been affectionately dubbed "Metroidvania"--virtually every year. This is why if Shadow Complex were merely a Metroid clone, like Castlevania, it wouldn't be worthy of note. Thankfully it's much more than that.

I played the game for about an hour last night, and already I've had a dream about it. In the dream I am swimming in the murk of an underground lake. The lake is dark, but I can see some shadows, which I make out to be debris from a man-made platform. The platform is to the left of me, and I am swimming underwater so as not to be seen by the soldiers on the platform, who are looking for me with flashlights. As I swim forward I have the desire to turn left, to move around platform, near where the debris are. But I can't. As I swim toward them my vision darkens, as if the darkness of the water, itself compounded by the darkness of the cave, were weighing on me, pushing me down into the Earth. I can't move to the left. I can't move to the right. I can only move forward, being content to simply watch the mysteries to either side of me pass beyond my sight. I turn on my water-proof flashlight to better see these places I cannot go. The murk is illuminated and I'm in a bubble of feeble light, far beneath the earth, underwater, surrounded by a quiet darkness. For some reason I don't need air. I just float there, in the strange womb of rock and water, thinking to myself quietly, wondering what lies beyond, but equally content just to stay put, feeling my surroundings, until I am ready to explore.


Shadow Complex

Such are the pleasures of a game like Shadow Complex, and I have not felt them in a long time. They are pleasures I would not necessarily associate with games like Super Metroid, which feel to me less about reflection and more about moving through space. Shadow Complex reminds me a lot more of older exploration-based 2D games, most notably Out of this World, Flashback, and Pitfall II. These games had a sense of stillness that I feel Shadow Complex captures rather well. I'm not entirely sure where it comes from, but I think it has something to do with how the game divides itself into "screens" with discrete challenges, rather than long winding tunnels and paths. Both are fine ways to design a spelunking game, but the former encourages players to parse their mental image of the game world into focused sections, with each representing a single coherent idea. The "underground lake" I dreamed of is just such an example. It is an individual screen the player comes across instantaneously after walking through a door. Like Pitfall and Flashback (and unlike Metroid) screens "cut" between each other in Shadow Complex, creating the decisive impression of leaving one finite space and entering another. The lake, therefore, feels like a single area, not part of a larger area. The fact that I am faced with such a specific space with such specific boundaries encourages me to regard it as a destination rather than a pathway to other places. It is of course a pathway as well, but I'm much more likely to stop and take note of my surroundings, to think "Wow. I just found an underground lake!" than allow my environment to blur past me as I hurry along. Metroid seldomn encouraged this sort of mental orientation towards one's environment, which I think has not only to do with its seamless spacial transitions (which pan, as opposed to cut) but also its tile-based visual design. The environments in games like Flashback or Out of this World were not created out of tiles but were each totally unique pieces of background art. Shadow Complex exhibits the same sense of personality, which gives it a much different psychological atmosphere than a mere Super Metroid clone.

There are no doubt elements cribbed directly from Super Metroid, most obviously the map system and tool-activated backtracking. The gun-based combat, however, seems taken directly from Flashback or Blackthorne and in general has very little to do with the alien-squishing distractions of Metroid. The discreteness of Shadow Complex's spaces has a lot to do with this, for most combat-oriented screens feel like a single playfield in which players are encouraged to think, plan, and execute a complex strategy. Failing because I didn't get my gun out fast enough or because I stuck my head out from behind cover at the wrong moment feel right out of Flashback, as does the stealth-like aspect of enemies not noticing you until you let them. Again the keyword is 'reflection'. Finite playfields in which enemies don't notice you encourage reflection before action, as opposed just barreling forward and reacting to threats as they arise. Unlike the spelunking aesthetics of Metroid, which have remained alive and well in Castlevania, Shadow Complex's more reflective, screen-based approach is one that hasn't been explored in a while. The Prince of Persia remake on XboxLive Arcade that came out a few years ago is the only thing that comes close, and it certainly didn't innovate on this style of game in any significant way. Shadow Complex really seems to be picking up a thread that's been lying dormant since Delphine Software chose to go 3D with their Flashback sequel (the regardlessly excellent and underrated Fade 2 Black) rather than 2D.

Pitfall II

The prospect of playing a game where every room is a discrete new space, where every challenge is a two part problem of thought followed by action, where I can stop and think and feel and reflect on each new idea the game presents me; all these things are what make Shadow Complex a welcome experience. Any game that can make me feel that dense feeling of habitation that Out of this World did is alright by me, even if the story is filled with things that give me pause. I have no idea how things are going to turn out in the plot, but so far I'm not crazy about the kidnapped girlfriend (Really? That's the best idea you got?) or the implications that the protagonist's journey will be one of submitting to his militaristic father's worldview. Knowing what little I do about Card, but having heard more than a few times about his allegedly fascist tendencies, I really wonder where such elements are going, even if the game isn't written by him. I doubt, though, that any power-worshiping ideology the game might have would turn out to be something other than amusing to me. You can throw a rock and hit a game of questionable politics, after all. I'm just surprised and delighted that one of these games would let me stop and smell the roses on my way to becoming a superman.

The Pangs of Game Studies

Being a games scholar is being a pioneer in undiscovered countries. It's exciting and adventurous, but it's also difficult and painful. Maybe it feels more of a pain because I'm in the middle of re-writing my dissertation, getting it ready for my committee to review before the defense.

At times, I miss Literature, I miss Film Studies, I miss my Shakespeare. They are established fields, and coming up with a significant contribution is really hard. But they have a set of established materials and tools. Research is like furnishing your house, and studying Literature is like going to IKEA--you go and select your pieces, and put them together following the instructions. In Game Studies, we have to come up with our own design, go to the forest, cut down our trees, make our boards, and assemble them. Thank goodness we can borrow the saws, hammers and nails of other academic fields, from Media Studies to Computer Science, although it is becoming evident that we need to make our own tools as well. We can also take some boards from IKEA and build something completely different. We shouldn't abuse it, however, or else we won't be using the materials that are inherent to our field. So far, the contributions of IKEA to game studies have been rather strange.

This metaphor is the result of having re-written my introduction and the methods section of my dissertation, and still not being happy with it. I find myself talking about foundational concepts that are still debated and in flux. How are games a type of performance? What do narratives have to do with games? What is a gameworld? What is a simulation? All I want to do is get around to talk about adventure games, which is the bloody topic of my thesis!

Don't get me wrong--it is because I like challenges that I'm in this field. The moment a theory or an idea clicks and makes sense is wonderful, precisely because one has to go through all these pangs. Perhaps I just want to figure too much out; I want the answer to life, the universe and everything, while I should just write "42" and talk about Monkey Island to get it over with. Or perhaps I'm just pissed off because I'm missing out on a gorgeous summer and working on my dissertation on a Saturday night.

Rant over. Back to dissertation toils.

Train of Thought

Brenda Brathwaite's TRAINI found myself, most uncommonly, at a loss for words.

I had convinced myself, before we even sat down, that I knew what I was getting into - this was a game and I was the one in control. I listened to the chittering skeptic, the grumbling cynic latched on to the inner lining of my stomach that has been there for so many years, and I said aloud "I'd like to see the other game if we could..." having already started crafting the clever ways I would politely tear this horrifying, and dangerous idea to proverbial shreds. As we began playing, the layers of meaning unfolded, and the indigestion of my doubt began to quiet. With each roll of the dice, with every turned card, with every tiny forward lurch grinding wheels against tracks, my eyes and heart opened, I sank deeper into my chair, and a gaping wound was fingered. Most uncommonly:

I found myself at a loss for words.

Play Brenda Brathwaite's Train and forget what you think you know about "games." Play Brenda Brathwaite's Train and remember why, in the grandest of senses, we are here. Play Brenda Brathwaite's Train and remember because remembering, the very act of first knowing again, is our most important human faculty.

I wanted to tell Brenda, right then and there, why it was important, though I suspect she already knew. I wanted to articulate clearly and eloquently what I felt, to the person who so clearly articulated to me, through the power of her work, what she obviously felt and continues to feel. The academic in me was still able to craft logical arguments stating, this lead to that, and this assumes that, and if this then that therefore this and subsequently ta da. Tidy. But standing there, shaking her hand, or perhaps holding it, the only clear word I could muster, the word that was formed by my thumping, pulsing engine not my ticking jolting nerve center, seemed then, not quite right, but today, the best I could find. The only word that could try to say "thank you" and "how?" and "why?" and "I know" and "It's ok, is it ok?" and "I'm sorry" and perhaps most resoundingly "never again" all together in one massively, all-encompassing, super-powered word; it was the king of all words, the meteoric explosion of meaning in the singularity of one word:


Writing it now on this page it again seems insufficient. I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that it is very hard, nay impossible to make real with words what exists in the domain of feelings. How can it possibly compare to experience? These shoddy symbols, these crossed t's and dotted i's, cannot assume the overwhelming responsibility of making manifest my emotions. The unspeakable cannot be spoken, and so I apologize, to you Brenda, to you the reader, to any who have not yet enjoyed the true privilege of experiencing what I experienced a few days ago, for at this point I am again, quite uncommonly, at a loss for words.

Why I Like Stupid Game Stories.


In a previous blog post I explained why I felt Grin's Bionic Commando was a well-designed 3D update of an old school classic, in spite of getting a bum rap from critics. Now that I've finished the game I feel like defending another aspect that's gotten pummeled by the gaming press: the story. While I'm not about to claim the story for Bionic Commando isn't silly, I don't find it to be nearly as random or meaningless as critics have claimed. While it seemed disappointingly slight for most of the game, I have to confess that the ending--while abrupt--did have a certain, unexpected dramatic logic that put the rest of the plot in perspective.

I had read several reviews that cited the ending as being sudden, stupid, and meaningless. So I was preparing myself. Although I disagreed with most critics about the gameplay, the criticisms of the story as being adolescent, techno-futuristic military nonsense didn't seem so off. A certain level of kitch was undoubtedly intentional (this is a sequel to a game that featured purple Nazi's and an undead version of Hitler, after all), but I can't say I cared for the overtly and seemingly un-ironic tone the game was striking as a macho power fantasy. It's hard to use kitch as your alibi when your protagonist is constantly screaming like a roid-raging jock ("Yeah, suck on that!") in a way that is obviously meant to be a "reward" for the player. That's never how I imagined Spencer when I played the original NES game as a 12-year-old, so playing Grin's update was a mixture of pleasure at seeing the world and characters extended but also frustration at seeing them fall victim to modern video game stereotypes. It also didn't help that the actual plot seemed to involve very few meaningful events and in general advanced very little over the course of the game. Basically the whole game boils down to you finding and stealing this weird canister that Super Joe wants, and then being betrayed by Joe who defects to the terrorists and uses the canister to initiate some weird master plan--called Project Vulture--which is never really explained.

Given the thin narrative set-up and obnoxious protagonist I wasn't holding out for a very satisfying ending, but I found myself liking it. It was indeed abrupt and the twist with Spencer's wife was goofy, but... I dunno. I guess what I liked was how the game built up to a simple, emotional moment and then just ended. I was thinking the whole game that the plot seemed strangely in the background, like there was all this complex stuff going on but it never really seemed to manifest in any coherent way. Although I'm sure lazy writing and a "game first, story second" development mentality probably contributed to this feeling, it all suddenly seemed to make sense given the climactic final moment.

If you look at Spencer as someone who really doesn't care about a goddamn thing except finding out what happened to his wife--not about what Project Vulture is, not about who the mysterious sniper is, not about Mag, not about saving the country--then the final sequence, where he chases Joe into the sky for apparently no other reason than to force him to explain his wife's death, makes a certain amount of sense as a narrative climax. The fact that Emily was somehow "used" to create Spencer's arm had been obviously hinted at, and in light of reviews I'd read I expected the reveal of this plot point to be a big, cheesy display. But it wasn't. I liked how Spencer screams at Joe to tell him what happened, how Joe refuses, and how Spencer smashes his face into putty and crushes the mysterious canister in a selfish rage, causing a massive explosion. You get the distinct impression Spencer killed Joe and wiped out his army not for any greater good but because of sheer personal hatred. It's an unexpected moment that almost makes the goofy story feel character-driven.


Spencer's sole motivation is to confront Joe.

I like how they never say straight out what happened to his wife, and I like the implication that, in the end, Spencer knows but doesn't want to face it, which is why he kills Joe. One of the reasons this seems like an interesting ending, rather than a cop-out ending, is that it isn't twisted into some feel-good Hollywood resolution. The only resolution is Spencer finding out what happened to his wife and then losing his mind as a result. It's not even clear whether or not he lives in the end. The final shot is of him falling silently to earth, assumedly not caring whether he lives or dies anymore. For such a macho game, which tries so hard to ape the feel of hyper-masculine Hollywood cinema, the sudden nihilism of the ending is striking. Most video game badasses don't end up being consumed by their own hatred and committing suicide an instant before the credits roll.


The End?

If I were to give the writers more credit than is due (and I probably am, but what the hell) I'd say that Spencer's relationship with his bionic arm--and the player's relationship with the arm--is intended somewhat as an expression of his relationship with his wife. One thing that stood out for me was how Spencer's characterization in-game was different than in cut-scenes. In cut-scenes he's always sullen, but in-game he's always screaming his pleasure any time he does something amazing with the arm. For a guy who hates his life he clearly loves to swing around, take giant leaps, and soar through the sky. The first time he sees the arm he smiles, suggesting that--even though he doesn't give a shit about Joe or the mission--the thought of being with his arm again is enough to win him over. As both the cinematics and gameplay constantly remind you, his arm is the only thing that makes him feel alive, which, in light of the final plot twist, appears to be a subtle kind of foreshadowing.


Spencer's last memory of Emily.

I feel moderately embarrassed defending the narrative and thematic virtues of Bionic Commando. On the surface the story is both slight and silly, and the game's muscle-bound macho-man attitude is not something I'm a fan of. However, I do think the ending is weird enough, and the story decisions probably deliberate enough, that it's fair to take the story (just like the gameplay) on its own terms and accept that perhaps there's a method to its madness. I'm not arguing for it being art so much as I'm arguing that the story and themes are not devoid of logic or purpose, as many reviewers have suggested.

I think, ultimately, what I liked about the ending is how, in its overwhelming of gameplay logic with dramatic logic, it hearkened back to the original Bionic Commando, moreso than Rearmed did. Rearmed was a great remake in many ways, but one thing I didn't like is how it turned the emotionally-fueled finale of the original into a series of "proper" gameplay challenges. The original Bionic Commando's ending was great because it wasn't hard, but because it gave the player a series of easy challenges that seemed motivated by nothing more than the dramatic momentum of the story. Destroying the Albatross, killing Master D, and escaping the complex were all easy, hence there was nothing to distract you from the dramatic feeling of the moment. The final sequence of the next-gen Bionic Commando, with you soaring into the sky after Joe, dispatching winged goons on the way in marvelously epic fashion, offers the same sort of dramatics-over-gameplay thrill. There is no "proper" last boss fight in Bionic Commando like there (disappointingly) was in Rearmed. There is just the final confrontation with Joe, in which all of Spencer's pent up angst--quite literally--explodes.


The final, thrilling flight to the heavens.

One last thing: the stuff with Spencer's wife's brain (or brain pattern--it's kind of unclear) being "used" to make his bionic arm is indeed silly, but I suppose I don't find it as shatteringly dumb as some people do because it seems derived from the metaphysics one often finds in Japanese science fiction (remember, although Grin is a Swedish developer, Bionic Commando is originally a Japanese franchise, and Capcom was involved in the production). Specifically it reminded me of an anime I saw a long time ago called Roujin Z, about a medical robot "possessed" by the dead wife of the old man it is caretaker of. The notion of the mind, the self, or the soul being embodied in a machine and connecting with another person's "soul" through some technological interface is common in anime/manga sci-fi. It's the entire basis for Ghost in the Shell, the seminal Japanese cyberpunk that Grin's Bionic Commando owes more than a little to. I'm not claiming that it's brilliantly written, but this plot twist does not seem like random bad writing to me so much as a symptom of the East-meets-West genre cross-pollination that, in general, makes Bionic Commando more interesting and quirky than your typical Western action game.

A Guy's Defense of Guy-Bashing Game Criticism.

I don't read game blogs as much as I should, which is why I was not fully aware of the backlash Heather Chaplin got for her GDC rant this year. It seems that several prominent bloggers gave her some real shit about what she said, and I want to pipe up and defend her a bit. I understand how one could be upset by her fiery rhetoric and judgmental attitude, but I really feel like a lot of her critics missed her point.

I took Heather's point to be that game developers have no one to blame but themselves for the preponderance of male power fantasy-oriented game culture, and that hiding behind the popular excuse that the medium somehow "isn't there yet", either technically or artistically, is both cowardly and disingenuous. This was all summed up in her opening statement: the medium isn't immature; you are.

I didn't find this offensive in the slightest, mostly because it jibes pretty easily with my experience of working at a commercial game company. I didn't feel Heather was talking about me personally. I felt like she was talking about a certain kind of person who works in games, the sort who likes to disguise the bankruptcy of his own imagination with lame excuses, the sort who would say "Hey, I had no choice but to make a bloody game with floppy tits! The medium's not art yet! It's not my problem!"

People with this attitude I feel deserve all the smackdown Heather can dish out. Not because they enjoy male power fantasies, but because they don't take any responsibility for enjoying them. I didn't take her to be saying that all men who enjoy such fantasies are hopelessly childish, but that it is childish to enjoy such fantasies and pretend like they are not childish. The male-dominated games industry needs to own up to the sort of culture it is perpetuating and not try to weasel out of any debate that would hold them responsible for facilitating and maintaining these cultural norms. They need to call a spade and spade and understand that this is a choice they are making in design meetings, in marketing meetings, etc. It isn't some mystical phenomenon they have no control over. They have complete control over it. At the end of the day our current game culture is what they've created. It's didn't create itself.

Simply admitting that, owning that, acknowledging that responsibility--that's what I felt Heather was really calling for in her angry rant. That's maturity. That's what "real men" would do. It's not that creating or indulging in male power fantasies is somehow inherently wrong, but nurturing a culture based around them as the dominant form of gamer culture and then turning around and saying "Hey, it's not our fault!" is cowardly. It's a patronizing slap in the face to anyone who feels under-represented by the current culture. Mature adults (male or otherwise) should have more integrity than that. And when you're dealing with people of integrity - who enjoy blowing shit up but realize that's not what everybody wants - you have the possibility for real dialogue and real change.

Peanuts: The Game

Last winter, I participated in the GAMBIT Video Game Adaptation Workshop. After a short lecture on transmedia adaptation, participants were broken up into two teams and given the task of creating a game based on an existing IP (intellectual property) within a couple of hours.

Charlie Brown and LucyOriginally, my team's ideas were vague. We knew we wanted to create a game based on the Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, but were having problems honing in on what aspect of that universe to focus on. Our initial idea was to have a series of mini-games, but this solution seemed to just multiply the amount of games we needed to make. We decided to focus on a mini-game that reflected the psychological struggle between Lucy and Charlie Brown. For those not familiar with the comic, Lucy runs a psychiatric advice stand. Charlie Brown comes to Lucy for advice and usually ends up getting insulted and ridiculed.

The game is card-based, and only the hearts and spaces of the deck are used. The hearts represent positive, or happy, points, while the spades signify negative, or sad, points. The higher the face value of the card, the greater the emotion that the card represents. In the game, one person takes on the role of Lucy and the other of Charlie Brown. Lucy's goal is to make Charlie Brown as miserable as possible. Charlie Brown's goal is to stand strong and not end up an emotional wreck.

At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt 5 cards. A round begins by each player choosing one of the cards in their hand and placing it facedown in front of them. These cards represent the conversation between Charlie Brown and Lucy. Both players turn their card over. Whoever has the card with the higher face value is winning the round. Let us assume that Lucy has the higher card. The emotion that she is able to place into her words overpowers the strength of Charlie Brown's words. Charlie Brown now has the option of bringing up a counterpoint that has more emotion behind it than any statement previously presented that round, i.e. placing down another card with a higher face value than Lucy's. If Charlie Brown takes advantage of this opportunity, he becomes the current winner of the round. Lucy has the option of countering this counter-argument to regain her position as winner. The round continues in this manner until no one can, or wants to, present a stronger argument. Let us assume that Lucy wins this round. She gathers the cards that have been played and places them in her emotion pile. This pile represents her current emotional status. If the sum of all of the face values of the spades is higher than that of the hearts, then she is sad. If the opposite is the case, then she is happy. If the numbers are equal, then she is in a neutral state. The same is true for Charlie Brown and his emotion pile. Both players draw cards until they have 5 again and another round begins.

The game continues until the players cannot draw cards so that each has the same number of cards in his or her hand. When everyone has run out of cards, both players' emotion piles are summed. Whoever is happier wins the game.

One of the challenges of creating this game was to make the experience of playing as Lucy and Charlie Brown distinct, while making sure there was no clear advantage to being one of the characters as opposed to the other. For example, it would make sense to have the winner of the game hinge purely on Charlie Brown's emotion pile. If Charlie Brown is unhappy then Lucy must be happy about his misery. If he is happy, then Lucy must be upset that she was not able to mess with his psyche. However, we felt that this placed an unfair burden on Charlie Brown's player. The differences between playing as one of the two characters arise when a tie occurs. If there is a tie at the beginning of a round, then Charlie Brown is considered the winning character. This aspect of the game allows Lucy to present a counter-statement. Lucy wants to make Charlie Brown sad, so she doesn't want him winning the conversation. If there is a tie at the end of the game, then Charlie Brown wins. Lucy can't stand having Charlie Brown be as happy as she is, but Charlie Brown is content with the position.

I was genuinely shocked when we did a test-play of this game during the workshop. When we were coming up with the rules, the game felt too simple. There was too much that went into luck and not enough into strategy. However, as I watched others play, I realized that a lot of the fun of the game came not from the technical aspect, but the emotional one. It was about trying to read your opponent's next move and act accordingly. The challenge that this task presented was enough to entertain the players. Choosing the card that they could play provided enough control over the game for them to feel like they had a say in who won the round, even though luck was probably the greatest factor. However, the players still seemed to realize the level of luck involved, so every small victory was something to celebrate. I believe that this level of emotion as opposed to strategy was key to tying in the game with the comic strip. Perhaps this is a direction more games should go in: less strategy, more emotion.

(Peanuts, Charlie Brown, Lucy Van Pelt and representations of the characters are copyright United Feature Syndicate, Inc. and appear here for educational, non-commercial purposes only. For more information on Peanuts and Charles M. Schulz, please visit or the Charles M. Schulz Museum.)

Bionic Commando: Old School in Disguise.

I broke down and finally decided to get Bionic Commando last Sunday. I'm really glad I did. The game isn't without problems, but honestly: what is wrong with the critics? It's not bad at all. I'm finding it a hell of a lot of fun, frankly. I could barely pull myself away from it Monday and played it almost the whole day.

The only way I can explain the reviews is that people were expecting something else. They were expecting something across between Gears of War and Spider-Man 2, and what they got was... well... what they got was a 3D version of Bionic Commando. God forbid there'd be a game you actually have to get good at before you begin to feel really empowered. Being a bionic badass is not easy, I'm sorry. It takes some skill and practice, but once you get the hang of it (pun intended) you feel all the more satisfied because it was you who performed that amazing stunt.

I only really began to master the arm last night, and it was immensely satisfying to intentionally execute a complex strategy that required absurd acrobatics. It was the part where you fight your first flying machine, which looks like some weird futuristic hover-bot. I realized that my arm--which was capable of smashing the robot to pieces--couldn't reach it, and my other weapons were useless. I noticed that it was hovering high above and in the center between four connecting catwalks. I knew the only way to get to it was to back flip off one catwalk away from it, spin around in the air, and use the momentum to slingshot myself around the catwalk and up directly into reach the machine. Everything went smoothly and for a moment I felt like a ballet dancer--albeit a muscular one with a rocket launcher--gliding in zero-gravity.


Yes, the radiation zones are a little annoying... although not nearly as annoying as the reviews suggest. Yes, the story is goofy... but no less goofy than the original (although the dialed-up macho-ness is moderately aggravating). But seriously, overall Bionic Commando is a very satisfying experience, with design elements noticeably derived from the classic original. Of all the criticisms levied against it, I am especially baffled by the common complaint of it being "linear". Unless you were expecting GTA, it's not linear. It basically follows the same format as the original game of progressing through levels, finding hacking points, weapon drops, etc. The levels have a progression, but they are hardly linear in the strategic sense. The way you approach new enemies are always improvisational, and there are very few obvious paths in the platforming. I would say it has big, wide-open levels that progress along a loose "path" confined by some constraints. I actually prefer this, because it allows for more focused level design, more meaningful level architecture. It's not the random free-for-all you'd find in a GTA-style world. I like the idea that I have a specific problem, like 10 soldiers on the top of a building, and I just have to deal with it using whatever I can find in one square city block. The mechanics and affordances feel perfectly balanced and suited to environments of this scope. It's all intentionally designed this way and it works.

I'm sort of fascinated by games like Bionic Commando, games that on the surface seem like they are following the lead of modern triple-A games but in fact hold secret allegiance to their classic roots. I think it is similar to ExciteTruck in this way. ExciteTruck was also a game that critics seemed lukewarm to, but I thought it was fantastic. To look at it and even to play it for a bit it seems like it has very little in common with its NES-era original. But after a while, the more you play it, the more you realize that, as a system, it is really expressing the same experiential concepts as ExciteBike. ExciteBike was all about managing your engine heat so that you can jump as spectacularly as possible in order to get ahead of other racers. Guess what? That's exactly what ExciteTruck is about. Once I realized that I saw the game for what it was: a marvelous update of a classic game that shrewdly targets and preserves certain key aspects of the original game experience. This is also a good description of what Bionic Commando does.


It is interesting to think what it means to update a classic game, as a design problem. It seems like many developers express their fan-love for a classic game through mechanics, even more-so than through story and visual aesthetic. Bionic Commando, of course, has a "modern" visual aesthetic targeted at today's market. The hero is badass by the standards of 2009, not 1988, and the world is full of brown tones and brooding characters. But under all this Bionic Commando does its damnedest to make you feel like the original game did 21 years ago. It's all about precision swinging, near-death drops from absurd heights, and surprising enemies from behind only to leap off into nowhere for a daring escape as you reach for something--anything--to save you from falling. Unlike Spider-Man 2, in which falling is not very deadly, Bionic Commando is about making you fear the ground. Rad Spencer is a super hero of sorts, but one who's far more mortal than Spider-Man. One missed swing and its over. "Death defying" is a term often used when describing game experiences, but it seldom means anything in the literal sense. Mistakes in Spider-Man 2 are not fatal, so the player isn't really defying death. In Bionic Commando they are... and that gives the experience a certain thrilling edge that more forgiving games lack.

Apparently I'm not the only one who feels this way about Bionic Commando. If you want a really excellent review of the game, try this. I think the reviewer sums it up well when he says:

Bionic Commando improves when you do, and you've got little choice but to improve. It's one of a startlingly few games out there which drives a real wedge between newcomers and seasoned players - not because the latter have levelled up a thousand times, or bought a cannon that fires electrified African Elephants, but because their skills have actually developed through practice, allowing them to soar and tumble through Ascension City's architectural thorn bush with an ease that is entirely self-made.


Warren Spector, Hideo Kojima, and Player Choice.


Warren Spector doesn't update his blog often, which is why I was surprised to discover he had actually written about Hideo Kojima's GDC 2009 keynote a while back. He says:

In describing his creative process, Kojima talked about identifying a problem (e.g., Get a Character Over That Wall) and then coming up with a bunch of ways the problem could be solved. Eventually, he settles on the coolest solution and executes that solution. I was dumbstruck that he goes to the trouble of thinking up all those answers but then limits the player to only one. In other words, the concept of choice belongs to developers, in Kojima's world, not to players!

I was at the keynote as well, and this is a wild misrepresentation of what Kojima said. The metaphor of "getting over walls", which Kojima used as a visual aid to his talk, was an illustration of his development process, not his game design philosophy. The talk was strictly about how he and his team approach production challenges. Kojima didn't even mention his personal theories of player agency, let alone explain them.

Spector's willingness to misread Kojima this way concerns me, because it is indicative of the way Kojima is often misread by Western game designers. It makes me wonder whether the people who pick on him for his supposed crimes against interactivity have ever spent a decent amount of time with his games. Spector goes on to say:

My thinking is, if you're only going to offer players one way to solve a problem, well, for starters, maybe you really want to make a movie... But, if you're going to go to the trouble of thinking up a bunch of ways to "get over the wall," as he put it, why not attach some consequences to different wall-climbing approaches and let players in on the fun?

Why not indeed? Kojima must have asked himself the same question, since there are about about a dozen ways to tackle any given problem in Metal Gear, with Snake Eater and Portable Ops offering the player especially rich possibilities. These two games are on par with the dizzying emergent complexity found in Thief and Hitman, which puts them among the best stealth games ever made in my opinion.

I am seriously beginning to think that very few of Kojima's critics have actually played his games in any significant capacity. (And by "significant capacity" I don't meaning having played MGS1 11 years ago when everyone else did. I meaning having played and finished at least a handful of the other dozen or so games he's made over the course of his career.) Kojima's got lots of problems, but choice-driven emergent dynamics isn't one of them. If criticism of Kojima's work were a little more informed we might be having useful discussions about his virtues and vices as a game designer instead of taking cheap shots.

Have Adventure Games Forgotten the A in MDA?

I like adventure games. I'm referring specifically to the traditional point-and-click graphical adventures. The first one I played was Torin's Passage way back in elementary school. It was the funniest game I had ever played and had the most sophisticated plot (but keep in mind that the next closest was probably Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time). Torin's Passage was developed by Sierra and written by Al Lowe of Leisure Suit Larry fame. As a simpler and more accessible variant of the typical adventure games, it was perfect for a kid new to adventure games. There were no verbs to select, generally straightforward puzzles, and even an in-game hint system. What really drew me in were the elaborately animated characters, full voice-overs, and hilarious dialogue. The world of Torin's Passage was a twisted fairy tale that was light-hearted with an underlying dark edge. I fondly remember the mountain-top guru with a yiddish accent, the slapstick shapeshifting of Torin's pet Boogle, and the emotional revelations during the final encounter. The intriguing characters and plot-twists made me begin to realize that actual stories could be told through games.


But what do I remember of the puzzles and various interactions? There was the hill where I had to hunt way too long for just the right blade of grass to click. There was a frustrating sound puzzle whose solution seemed arbitrary. There was a puzzle where I had to give a bag of rosin to a man with a violin without any prompting, and I didn't know what rosin was. To remind myself of any other puzzles, I had to look at an online walkthrough. In typical adventure game fashion, most situations boil down to clicking on the right objects and using the right inventory items. And in typical adventure game fashion, the actual playing of the game is a whole lot less memorable then the non-interactive writing and art. I never think "Oh man, it was so cool when I clicked on the shovel and then on the wall and a secret passage opened! I'm so good at this!"

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of memorable in puzzles in other games. The Secret of Monkey Island's insult battle springs to mind. Then again, that was a break from the standard mechanics. Hearing people talk about the lack of new adventure games, they frequently say they miss the complex stories, the humor, the interesting situations. Who misses the actual interactions? Are the point-and-click mechanics merely the most convenient method to tell the story? I'm sure many readers would take issue with my assumptions (or even better, are yelling indignantly at their monitors), but bear with me: We're getting to the good stuff.

The MDA framework for analyzing games has been gaining recognition and is featured in the annual GDC Game Design Workshop. MDA gives us a lens to see the relationship between players and game mechanics. Mechanics are rules and low-level processes that govern the game. Dynamics are the behaviors that emerge due to the mechanics. Aesthetics are the emotional responses the player experiences as a result of the dynamics. It's important to note that "aesthetics" in the context of MDA are solely based on mechanics and interactions, as opposed to art, music, writing, etc. Here we find one of the shortcomings of MDA. It must be understood that MDA only accounts for one facet of "fun." That being said, the fun that arises from mechanics and dynamics is certainly vital. This interactivity distinguishes games from all other media.


Let us consider how the MDA framework may shed some light on adventure games. Typical point-and-click adventure games have one of two sets of primary mechanics: either the player must select a verb before clicking on an object, or the game assumes a verb depending on context. The challenge is similar in both cases, involving discovering what to click and in what order. The resulting dynamics involve logical reasoning, recalling an earlier clue, or frequently trial and error. Think about the aesthetics that follow. The player is proud of themselves for coming up with the right solution. There is a sense of discovery as they find new objects or learn new information. While we can come up with more types of "fun" for this, notice how the non-mechanical elements of the game still are central to these aesthetics. Discovery is much more exciting when the object is visually interesting or important to the narrative. Puzzles (using the primary point-and-click mechanic) rely on the narrative and context. Abstracting an adventure game by removing art and story could still be an interesting puzzle, but much less appealing. In fact, would you be able to tell the difference between adventure games?

Adventure games seem to have been astonishingly stagnant in terms of mechanics. The interface for selecting verbs has changed, but adventure games released in the last few years function the same as they did 15 years ago. From a purely mechanical standpoint there is more difference between Super Mario Brothers 3 (1988) and Super Mario World (1990), or Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) and Majora's Mask (2000), than there is between The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) and the Sam & Max Save the World (2006). Adventure games are almost less of a genre than a single game with different stories and puzzles. But it's the emphasis on story and puzzles that frequently set point-and-click adventures apart.

There has been plenty of evolution in adventure game mechanics, it just has occurred in other genres. Survival horror games frequently have puzzles requiring item acquisition and usage, but that mechanic is usually paired with real-time combat. Action-adventure games like the Zelda series have adapted similar elements. Role-playing games feature fully animated sequences with spoken dialogue. Each of these genres use elements of adventure games in conjunction with other sets of mechanics that form the primary interactions. I'm currently playing through The Longest Journey, and while I'm very invested in the story and am amazed by the visuals, the game mechanics just feel old. Point-and-click adventure games haven't faded away by accident, though the proud few continue to be some of the most humorous games available. They still have a place in the game industry, but it's like listening to vinyl records. Records have their own charm and many people would argue that their sound has more personality than CDs. Once in awhile I get a kick out of listening to my parents' old Beatles album, but I have 6500 songs on my computer that I can play instantaneously. There is still a market for albums to be released on vinyl, but it is a niche market that shows little signs of changing.

"Do you know what day it is today?"

April 30th 2009 is the date Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty takes place... or, more specifically, it's the date the final boss fight takes place, in which a katana wielding ex-president of the United States battles his adopted son atop the ruins of Federal Hall in New York City. MGS2 primarily takes place on April 29th 2009, with the events of the story lasting through the night and into the early morning. At daybreak on April 30th a giant submersible fortress, secretly built in New York Harbor to be the nerve center of a government censorship operation, surfaces and smashes through Manhattan, finally grinding to a halt on Wall Street.

Hideo Kojima's research is always meticulous, but he was off by 30 years in the case of April 30th 2009 being the 200th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration. Washington was sworn in as the 1st president of the United States on April 30th 1789, which would make the 200th anniversary 1989, not 2009.

The date could be a mistake, or maybe Kojima simply fudged the facts so his story could have thematic coherence. April 30th 2009 is extremely significant in MGS2. The reason Raiden pauses, mystified, when Solidus questions him is because his girlfriend, Rosemary, has asked him the exact same question over and over again: do you know what day it is today? She asked this because April 30th is the two year anniversary of their relationship, which Raiden has forgotten. When Solidus reveals that it's also the date the United States was born, and that he had chosen this day to overthrow the corrupt government and begin anew, it brings two seemingly unrelated aspects of the story to a single, devastating conclusion.

The connection between Raiden's relationship with his girlfriend and his relationship with his government, between the personal and the political, is the hook off which MGS2 hangs all of its ideas about video games, gamers, citizenship, and society. Raiden is a soldier who does what he's told, but he's also a gamer who's learned to follow orders by playing video games. Rosemary is his girlfriend whom he met two years earlier, but their chance encounter was actually orchestrated by the government in order to manipulate Raiden. Rosemary is a spy for The Patriots, the secret government body which dictates all American policy. Through Rosemary they control Raiden's life, observing him and shaping him into the perfect citizen: one who is easy to manipulate by appealing to his self-interest. Raiden never realizes Rosemary is lying to him because he's too interested in himself to notice... much in the same way he is too interested in himself to notice the government is lying to him. Raiden is just concerned with his own sense of elation, with his own sense of accomplishment, of achieving his objectives, of being rewarded... much in the same way the player is.

mgs2_16_4c8.jpg mgs2_112_396.jpg

Raiden's performance (and, by extension, the player's) is so perfect, his ability to be manipulated so complete, that his behavior pattern is used as the basis for the government's censorship program. Who is the model citizen any police state would want? Someone who does everything they are told with Pavlovian precision, who goes through every room, collects every item, activates every cinematic, defeats every boss. Gamers, in their endless desire for gratification, are the perfect citizen. They just want to be told what to do, and they'll be happy.

Complacency as a player versus complacency as a citizen, selfishness in a relationship versus selfishness in a society: all these distinctions melt away in MGS2, leaving the player disgusted with one's self for wanting to be entertained. That's why MGS2 is a great game, and why every April 30th gamers should be reminded what utter tools we all are.

The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Hollywood Infection

Resident Evil: Code Veronica is not Reisdent Evil 4, although it is the fourth game in the RE series. In some ways (like the way in which it actually continues the story of RE2) I prefer it to a tepid narrative exercise like RE3. In other ways I find it undercuts the apocalyptic anxiety that even RE3 managed to maintain. Code Veronica is the point in the series where the shift from horror to action--at least in terms of characterization--happens most clearly. It is when the protagonists cease to be normal people and become action heroes.

I find it significant that Code Veronica was the first Resident Evil to be released after The Matrix (in March 2000). Claire, whom we last saw as a modestly skilled biker in RE2, inexplicably behaves like Chow Yun-Fat in the opening cinematic, dodging helicopter bullets and obliterating a room full of security guards with her powers of slow motion. Of course, it wasn't until RE4 that these sorts of action hero acrobatics made it into gameplay, but they are first introduced into the fictive universe of RE in Code Veronica, causing an unmistakable tonal shift. The shift moves the series away from the horror film roots of George Romero and towards the big Hollywood action of Michael Bay or the Wachowski Brothers. It's not about regular people trapped in a horrifying zombie outbreak anymore. It's about secret islands, villains with master plans, and ass-kicking heroes taking them down. Oh, and there are some zombies in there too.

Thumbnail image for WooClaire.jpg

Claire, fresh out of John Woo school, gets serious in Code Veronica.

To be fair, Code Veronica only embodies this in the cut-scenes, with the gameplay remaining the slow, Romero-esque suspense of earlier RE games. This gives the game a weird tonal contrast, between the action movie plotline and the horror movie atmosphere and pacing. This is partially what makes Code Veronica more interesting (at least story-wise) than RE4, since it seems to exist in some awkward purgatory between Hollywood gloss and indie grit.

It's true that RE has never been fully an imitation of Romero. There has always been a layer of Hollywood action mixed in with the more Romero-esque elements. Both RE1 and 2 end with "escape before the explosion" sequences, both which seem lifted directly out Aliens. Both RE1 and 2 tend to leave their zombie movie conventions behind at their most climactic moments as well, opting for spectacular last boss encounters with creatures that are anything but zombies. But still, it's worth pointing out that even in these moments the feeling in RE1 and 2 was of more or less normal people being set against these odds. Claire is just a biker looking for her brother, and Leon is just a cop. Neither of them know kung-fu, neither of them can jump or flip--in short, they are only as good as the weapons they have... much like we might imagine ourselves in similar circumstances. Chris and Jill in RE1 are similar, even through they are the members of a supposedly "elite" police unit. The S.T.A.R.S, at least in RE1, are not super heroes. They are basically no different than the S.W.A.T. team in Romero's Dawn of the Dead: real people without super powers. The only difference between them and zombie food is the fact that they still have some bullets left.

In the early Resident Evil games zombies were the great equalizer that brought everyone down to the same level. RE2 suggests there's not a damn difference between a biker and a cop when it comes to being trapped in a city overrun with zombies. It's exactly this sort of humanizing subtext that gets gradually eroded over the course of the series, until we finally arrive at Leon in RE4 who can dodge lasers like Neo.

The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Political Shenanigans


I suppose I'm just a sucker for politics, but I find the backstory in Resident Evil 3 pretty interesting when it touches on the machinations of the Umbrella Corporation and their dealings with the U.S. government. Almost everything else about the story--in which a group of survivors attempt to escape zombie-infested Raccoon City--is forgettable. RE3 works best when it functions as a world-building exercise, least when it functions as a zombie survivor story.

Jill, whom you play the majority of the game, is a motivationless cypher in a ridiculous outfit. Carlos, the other character you play, is both a stereotype and a moron. Nemesis, the boss monster who chases you throughout the entire city, is just a rehash of the far-scarier Mr. X from RE2. On the other hand the world of RE3--the destroyed city you get to explore with all the fragmented narrative information it contains--is quite interesting. Ironically, the written information one comes across in RE3 (in the form of diaries, journals, reports, and pamphlets) is better written than in most of the other RE games. One of the big reasons RE1 remains the scariest game in the series is the fact that the various documents strewn throughout the Arklay mansion were effectively cryptic, forcing the player to piece together information. RE2 was a major step backwards from this suspenseful storytelling, featuring a collection of journals and notes that left little room for interpretation, often referring to "zombie attacks" like everyone already knew what they were. There's a reason Simon Pegg in Shawn of the Dead admonishes his best buddy not to use the "zed word". Why, his friend asks? "Because it's ridiculous" is the answer. It is ridiculous, because it reminds us that "zombies" are movie monsters ingrained in our pop-cultural consciousness, and casually acknowledging the fact diminishes their impact. RE1 never crossed this line, but RE2 was lazy about it. RE3, however, seems to consciously avoid using the term "zombie" as well as return to a deliberately cryptic backstory. The result is that the backstory feels like the real story of RE3, a story in which Raccoon City is the main character and Jill, Carlos, and Nemsis are simply vessels to reveal this story to the player.

RE3street.jpg RE3talk.jpg

This would be a fine storytelling strategy, provided the forestory involving the characters wasn't lame to the point of distraction. Unfortunately, the care with which the Raccoon City backstory has been crafted clashes greatly with the crassness of Jill's hotpants adventure. I don't need a great forestory. I don't need RE2's story. But Capcom could at least have the decency to give me something on par with RE1, where the characters are little more than witnesses but at least believable ones. Jill seems like she's fallen into RE3 from out of a summer wear modeling photo shoot, which gives a subtle sheen of "you've got to be kidding me" to even the best moments of RE3.

Regardless, the political aspect of RE3 remains interesting. If I remember correctly, RE1 implied that one of Umbrella's main clients was the United States, and that the zombie outbreak was merely an accidental byproduct of research concerned with creating military bio-weapons. RE3 seems to be the only other game in the series which picks up this thread, suggesting that Umbrella lobbyists in Congress are trying to stall government intervention in the Raccoon City disaster, assumedly in order to salvage as much of their research as possible. These ploys fail and an atomic bomb is dropped on Raccoon City in the closing cinematic. It's the government, and not Umbrella of course, which makes the decision to blow Raccoon City off the face of the Earth. If you take RE1 into account, the subtle implication is that the government dropped the bomb simply to cover its own ass, so that no evidence would remain of their involvement and Umbrella alone could conveniently take the fall.


Well, that's one way to deal with a zombie outbreak.

Even though RE3 is a side story, this one event--the destruction of Raccoon City--is in many ways the most interesting piece of world-building in the whole series. It contains all sorts of fascinating implications, none of which are ever explored by subsequent Resident Evil installments. My biggest disappointment with Resident Evil 4 was how the old politics of RE were forgotten in favor of what felt like a sudden rash of Bush-era xenophobia. Gone is the idea that you are somehow up against both corporate and government corruption. Next thing you know you're the loyal servant of Uncle Sam, in whose name you gladly exterminate the biohazard-infected locals of various foreign countries. They deserve it because, it turns out, they plan to use their biological weapons for world domination. Never mind that Umbrella was selling biological weapons to the U.S. government just a few years earlier, and for God knows what purpose. Apparently it's okay if the U.S. has them because... well... they're the U.S. It's just not okay for anyone else to have them.

In retrospect I am amazed (although I obviously shouldn't be) at the complete moral blindness the series has exhibited towards Umbrella's clients. Who are they? Aren't they partially responsible for the horrors of Umbrella's research? One of the things that was so scary in the original Resident Evil was the fact that the perpetrators were, shockingly, a pharmaceutical company. What's scarier than a monolithic corporation motivated by nothing but greed, to whom a zombie outbreak is a tragedy only because it might affect their stocks?

This is what made Umbrella so chilling back in the day. One imagined they were like the Omni Consumer Products corporation in Robocop: a bunch of uptight suits whose disinterest in human life was so extreme it became black comedy. You can just imagine some executive sweating that he'll lose his Christmas bonus over the Arklay mansion debacle, and this is largely what gave Umbrella its terrible ambiance. Unfortunately, as the series continued and the mythology grew more elaborate, the Umbrella Corporation morphed from a simple capitalistic enterprise to a sinister organization determined to do evil for its own sake. The most significant jump in this direction was Code Veronica, which revealed Umbrella was partially owned by a dynasty of sadistic maniacs. Resident Evil Zero pushed this trend even farther, making Umbrella seem more like a cabal of sorcerers than an actual corporation. With Umbrella's motivations sinking ever further into the fantastic, the notion that they were a company with clients (one of which was the U.S.) sank into the background and finally disappeared completely. In the end Umbrella was the villain, not unchecked capitalism... which would have been a lot scarier if you ask me.

Sissies, Musketeers, Street Fighter, and Floss: The Game Design Workshop 2009

The Game Design Workshop at GDC 2009 began with a series of lists. During the opening presentation, the 100+ workshop participants received a crash course in the MDA Framework, eight kinds of "fun," four possible aesthetic goals, and various dynamic models. As a professor here likes to write all over our papers: "Jargon!" Personally, I enjoyed the presentation. Marc LeBlanc et al laid out a solid foundation for the formal approach to game design that would shape the next two days. After reading Rules of Play, a 20 minute lecture was hardly daunting. But not every designer has the same theoretical background. There were plenty of programmers, artists, and others who were just interested in the design exercises and getting their feet wet in another discipline. More than a few participants found the presentation to be too technical and uninteresting. How does this all jargon fit into the actual process of design? Hopefully some of the participants skeptical of the theory discovered the applications along the way.


We spent most of the first day creating variations on Sissyfight. Originally designed by Eric Zimmerman and released on the web (as Sissyfight 2000), a simplified card-based version has become a mainstay of game design exercises. Six players are each assigned distinct colors and have a deck containing a card for every action and a card for every color. Once all the players have placed their selected action and target cards face-down, the cards are flipped and the actions resolved. In the simplified version, the commands are a basic attack (deal 1 point of damage), a team attack (deal 2 damage per team attacker, but fails if there's only one), and defend (receive half damage, rounded down). The game continues until there two players are left with health tokens.

With our 6-person teams, we discussed and analyzed the game before creating our own variation. One of Sissyfight's strong points is how its simple mechanics work to convey the theme of schoolyard girls taunting each other. Without the name, it's still an engaging game, but keeping the theme in mind lends the game a lighter humorous quality. The question we faced was how could we change the mechanics to communicate a different aesthetic. With 20 ideas, from monster trucks to debating, we gradually narrowed down our options. The idea we settled on was a combination of tribal and spiritual warfare. Two distinct conceptions of the theme were playtested. First we split the players into two tribes to make the game 3 vs 3. When that turned out to be too unbalanced without extensive complications, we returned to an earlier idea of converting followers. The result was a pool that all damage went into, which could then be claimed by a player if they were the only one to take that action in a turn. But as we iterated, we focused more on making the new mechanic interesting and balanced than matching the theme.

In contrast, another team did a game about bacteria where every card had a post-it note renaming the actions to things like infect and mutate. Each of their changes also were more geared towards following the theme, though it seemed to have some fairly arbitrary limitations. What was really interesting was how they saw the player interactions during the game. My team generally avoided ganging up on any one person and kept the scheming to a minimum. The other team played with constant discussion of alliances against other players and actually incorporated this as a phase in their game progression. With the same set of rules, the two groups had completely different social dynamics. Maybe this was reflected in our design process too. We tended to listen and discuss every person's ideas and tried to incorporate all input. But as a result, our prototyping process slowed. The other group seems to have made firmer decisions and then had time to incorporate the theme more fully. On the flipside, our team really polished the changed mechanic. The difference here actually brings to light one of my problems with the MDA framework. The A in MDA refers to aesthetics that result from the mechanics and dynamics, separate from any visual or narrative aesthetics. I don't disagree, but I worry that MDA overemphasizes the mechanics influence on aesthetics. Simply renaming the cards and describing the gameplay from within the theme added a lot to the bacteria team. Would Braid have been nearly as effective without its elaborate artwork and music? But thats an issue for a different, and much longer, post.

Following our second coffee break of the day (there was no shortage of caffeine during the conference) we began Elective A. We had a choice of three activities and I participated in Robin Hunicke's Facebook game session. Each team had to come up with an idea for a social Facebook-based game and then present their proposal to a team of producers who assign a sponsorship to the game. The next iteration would then have to somehow incorporate the sponsor. One of my favorite proposals was a collaborative art game where the best results would be printed on Threadless tees. But for such an interesting activity, I left pretty disappointed as did the rest of my team. See, the youngest person at each table was placed onto the producer team. I can see that Robin was trying to give us a special role, but in the end we had very little to do aside from listening to pitches, picking a sponsor, and giving a few suggestions. On top of that, Robin was obviously very excited about the activity and ended up doing a fair amount of the talking for us. Don't get me wrong, she's a blast to work with, her enthusiasm was infectious, and she gave great input. Just next time: Can we play too?


For the second elective that spanned the last hour of Monday and all of Tuesday morning, I chose "The Three Musketeers." Similar to the Sissyfight activity, we were given a simple game that we would make changes to. Three Musketeers is a simple two-player asymmetric board game. Rather than make a thematic change like with Sissyfight, we were asked to preserve the theme while adding a third player (and a fourth if possible). So if you have The Three Musketeers against Cardinal Richelieu's men, who is the third player? Some teams added d'Artagnan or another third distinct side, though most ended up splitting either the Musketeers or the Cardinal into two. With the asymmetric sides, it was particularly difficult to add a player while maintaining a balance. My team, again using an iterative process (moral of Game Design Workshop: iteration is good), where we had two pairs of Musketeers working independently. But the Cardinal's win condition was to have any three Musketeers in a line. This meant that the two Musketeer players had to strike a balance with each other. By the way, is there really no flash implementation of Three Musketeers? Someone fix this!

Next up was a short activity where each team chose an existing video game and create a paper version that conveyed the aesthetics (using the MDA definition) rather than the mechanics. Now this is a fascinating thought experiment. My team chose Street Fighter and we quickly developed a rock-paper-scissors style play. The designers on the team revealed very different conceptions of how the game would actually play. One designer was convinced that the game needed to be frantic and fast-paced, with players throwing dice or placing cards as fast as possible. This proved to be impractical, but revealed how players see Street Fighter in different ways. It's the difference between button-mashing and strategic choice of moves. A less experienced player would throw out whatever moves they could while an expert player would be planning moves in advance. Our version kept a similar distinction by implementing a time limit. Players place three actions (high, medium, low attacks, and directional movement) face-down on the table. Once one player has placed all three cards they count down from three. If the other player hasn't placed all their cards, they have a missed move. The result is that if the player doesn't plan ahead and constantly reorganize their cards, they could fall behind. The actions we specified definitely could use some adjustment (jump and crouch gave no advantage, only added a disadvantage), but the idea was so successful that I hope to make a fuller implementation at some point. After we presented our game, a man came up to me and explained that he made the Street Fighter card game, and it was very similar to what we had done. I guess we were on the right track.

And finally, to close out the workshop, I signed up for Iron Game Designer. Each team was given an identical bag of objects to make a game with. Rather than giving us typical game-related objects, we had rubber pencil toppers, elbow braces, plastic two-pronged forks, floss picks, a comb, and a plastic bag. One group made a board game using the objects to replace traditional pieces, but the others mostly grew out of throwing things. It was certainly fun, and a relaxing end to the workshop, but using a floss pick and the forks as bow and arrows isn't exactly a useful design exercise.

Still, the workshop as a whole was a resounding success, giving us a chance to come up with unique ideas and make some rapid prototypes. I'm not sure how much I learned that could be articulated, but the activities provided plenty of food for thought. Would I recommend the Game Design Workshop for next year's attendees? Absolutely. Will I attend again? Doubt it. There are other summits those two days that I'd like to attend. As far as the Game Design Workshop, I'd be more interested in a workshop held locally every other month or so; essentially a game jam of exclusively non-digital games where go through a variety of small projects.

Games' Social History

In the recent, but not immediate, past, a few devel-oggers were discussing trying to maintain an archive of MUD history. Raph Koster, Richard Bartle and Brian Green (among others) talked about the difficult balance of relevance and authority in trying to get MUD history documented on wikipedia. While there appeared to be (in common Wikipedia fashion) some sort of compromise put together (in the sense that no one left happy), it left me thinking about the enormous difficulties in trying to get a decent, much less accurate, archive of games. I'll only tackle a bit of it, but I had to tip the hat to the source of the concerns, and it revolves around (surprise) us.

Continue reading "Games' Social History" »

The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Narrative Confusion

WARNING: What follows will probably only make sense to people who have played and finished most of the cardinal Resident Evil games. Read at your own risk.

"It's up to us to take out Umbrella."

--final line in Resident Evil 2

In my imaginary alternate universe where Resident Evil remained consistently interesting, the next game would have been exactly that: taking out the Umbrella Corporation, or at least seriously attempting to. This is sort of what Code Veronica did, but beginning with RE3 the series began its side story-obsessed, franchise-milking holding pattern that completely derailed the narrative momentum of RE1 and RE2.

If we can take Code Veronica as the "real" RE3 (which, from my understanding, is what it was originally intended as) then "RE3" and RE4, at least conceptually, extend directly from Leon's line at the end of RE2. Code Veronica picks up Claire's thread as she attempts to infiltrate Umbrella's Paris branch, and RE4... well my suspicion is that RE4 at its genesis was a companion piece to Code Veronica, a game that extended the globe-trotting pursuit of Umbrella established in RE2. That's the rationale for the European location, and I imagine the original story was similar to the final one except that it was Umbrella (and not the locals) who were masterminding things. If RE4 had been released soon after Code Veronica, instead of the endless remakes and side-stories, I imagine that's what it would have been. However, Capcom kept it in development for years and when it was finally ready they had more or less lost the thread established in RE2, hence RE4 feeling more like a reboot than a sequel. This resulted in a strange experience for anyone who actually remembered RE2, since RE4 finally brought back Leon yet dropped Umbrella out of the story completely. Since Leon's entire motivation at the end of RE2 seemed based on taking down the Umbrella Corporation, it left him with no personal motivation in RE4. This is why RE4 felt so frustrating to me. As a follow up to Code Veronica (which felt very much like a sequel to RE2, in spite of its shortcomings) RE4 is almost entirely non sequitur. Story-wise it feels like RE4 should have been a side story, or even another game franchise altogether. RE5, ironically, feels much more like a real sequel to Code Veronica... finally arriving a whopping nine years later.


Not if Capcom has anything to say about it.

Being a story person I tend to want narrative and thematic significance to dictate which games in a franchise are central and which are peripheral. But the Resident Evil franchise, clearly, does not function that way. It seems much more based on gameplay and/or marketing considerations than story. Of course, I wouldn't expect it to be based on story alone, but many game series, like Metal Gear or Half-Life for example, seem to tailor the size and relevance of their stories to the size and relevance of their gameplay innovations, which themselves correspond to the size and relevance of each game's marketing push. Capcom seems to give no shit about this whatsoever in regards to Resident Evil, which is partially what makes the series mythology such a convoluted mess. The result of such a system is that fans have to wait an untold number of years, and be strung along like puppets, while waiting for interesting things to happen in a storyline. And given the frustrating, relatively poor quality of RE's stories, one wonders at the point of even bothering. I certainly do.

Why Am I Jumping?

Jumping is a mechanic so pervasive that we rarely stop to think about it. It has gone from the defining trait of a genre (platformers) to being included in all manner of action games, adventure games, and first-person shooters. As a means of traversing space it is nearly universal in video games, but in every day life it is nearly absent. How often does an average adult actually jump over something? Adult jumping is limited to hopping over puddles, which is a far cry from leaping over pits and on to platforms suspended in midair. How has this mechanic become so ubiquitous in video games?

One potential answer lies with imitation. While they were not the first video games where you jump over enemies and onto platforms (an honor which may fall to Donkey Kong), the Super Mario Brothers games on the NES were hugely successful. This success spawned a wealth of imitators, leading to countless games where jumping over things was the primary means of interaction. That the Sega Genesis came with Sonic and the SNES with Super Mario World only further ingrained platforming in the gaming consciousness. While the success of these games may help explain the ubiquity of jumping today, there is the still question of how the mechanic came to be in the first place.

Because early video games were two-dimensional, they were limited in choice of perspective. For the most part they had to be a top-down view, as in Adventure:


Or a side view, as in Pitfall:


Top-down games had odd perspective issues in that characters were typically drawn as seen from the side, not from above, as in Dark Chambers:


In a side view perspective game featuring a human avatar, you run into the problem of movement. In shooters like Defender the ship can simply fly in all four directions, because (in theory) that's how spaceships move. But a person is bound by gravity, and simply walking back-and-forth along the ground is not terribly interesting. Burgertime solves this by having multiple platforms connected by ladders: if an enemy is approaching, you can spray them with your pepper, or try to out maneuver them by moving to a different platform. The pepper only sprays directly in front of you; doing nothing but would get old fast. The fun of the game comes from the multi-layered levels. On the other hand, in games like Donkey Kong and Pitfall jumping is the main method of avoiding hostile entities. In other words, jumping provides another way for a gravity-bound person to move vertically, hence making use of the limited 2D space. Of course in the real world we avoid things like rogue barrels and hostile mushrooms by simply walking around them, so jumping in a 2D game might also be thought of as an abstraction of depth.



Of course all of this is highly circumstantial and somewhat arbitrary. Besides, board games with jumping long predate video games and have developed all over the world. In his fascinating book The Oxford History of Board Games, author David Parlett devotes an entire chapter to games where one piece captures another by jumping over it (the following information is taken from Parlett's book). According to Parlett, the earliest game known with this mechanic is Alquerque: the game is described in a manuscript written in 1283, and may be the game called Qirkat mentioned in Kitab-al Aghani, an Arabic book of songs and poetry probably written before the author died in 976. Alquerque is largely accepted as the predecessor of what is called Checkers in the United States, and Draughts (or a variation thereof) in Europe. However, similar games have been found all over the world. Games such as Konane (Hawaii), Siga (Egpyt), Dablot Prejjesne (Sweden), Tobi-Shogi (Japan), Kolowis Awithlaknannai (Mexico), and Koruböddo and Lorkaböd (Somalia) all feature jumping capture.

The long popularity and widespread use of jumping indicates that the mechanic itself has some sort of intrinsic appeal. People tend to have positive associations with height, a topic explored by Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff and Johnson refer to such associations as "Orientational Metaphors." For example, in Christianity Heaven is described as somehow "above" the Earth (as in the geocentric model of the universe that long dominated European thought). Our language expresses the same idea, with phrases such as "jumping up and down," "on cloud nine," "free as a bird" or simply "things are looking up." The opposite is true: Hell is underneath the Earth, we feel "down in the dumps" or "under the weather." (There are of course a few exceptions, such as "I'm down with X" or "high on Y," though whether these are positive or negative phrases depends on who you ask.) This psychology is not limited to humans: many dog behavior experts say that when your dog jumps on you she is being dominant, trying to put you in a submissive position within the pack. In season two, episode three of The Dog Whisperer ("Buddy the Animal Killer"), Cesar Milan recommends stepping over your dog to assert your position as pack leader. In his words, "over means dominant."

When a game piece jumps over another, it is in a superior position than its Earthly (boardly?) victim. The act of jumping your piece over your opponent's has an intrinsic satisfaction regardless of the in-game effect; this simple pleasure is extremely evident when watching beginners play Street Fighter. They jump frequently, almost constantly, relishing the motion: kicking your opponent is less satisfying than leaping into the air and then kicking him. That jumping leaves you extremely vulnerable is fairly obvious yet totally ignored. In his new book Game Feel, Steve Swink presents a picture of Super Mario Brothers tracing Mario's movements: his jumping creates a curved, arcing line. For Swink the shape of Mario's jumps have an intrinsic aesthetic quality: "Whether it's the motion of the avatar itself, animation that's layered on top of it or both, curved, arcing motions are more appealing" (306).

There is more to jumping than psychology and aesthetics, however. In many games jumping is fun because of the associated risk. In a Mario game a mistimed jump will send you into a pit or cause you to collide with the enemy you intended to stomp on. In the old Sonic games your speed increased that risk, as a single jump could carry you through several screens worth of space, leaving you unable to tell where and on what you will land. This may be the reason the new Street Fighter player jumps so insistently: they are playing to have fun, not to win. Jumping can mean power not just over an opponent but over the environment itself: would Master Chief seem so powerful if he could not jump over a small rock or fence? The ability to jump in a first-person shooter gives the player more control over the environment, which makes the game feel less linear: jumping out of a window is more satisfying than backtracking to look for stairs. Jumping was frequently used in later 2D beat-em-ups to create the illusion of 3D space. In these games the player primarily moves in four directions: left and right, towards the player and away. Jumping adds height, so the player now feels like they are playing in three dimensions, as in Battletoads. The same could be said of first-person shooters: without the ability to jump you feel stuck to the ground, as though you are a 2D entity in a 3D space.


That jumping has been a part of games for so long indicates that it appeals to players on a very basic level. When studying video games it can be easy to forget that games have thousands of years of history behind them, and that is a long time for a mechanic to remain fun. Jumping's prevalence also suggests a strategy for inspiration: do other common themes in language, myth and psychology exist? And if so, can they be adapted into a game?

Early Baseball Interface Design: a Leadoff Homer

atari baseballNES baseball

Of all the team sports adapted to computer gaming, only baseball can boast the unrivaled consistency of wearing nearly the same interface for over twenty-five years. As early as 1983, games like Color Baseball for the TRS-80 mapped the cardinal directions of the Tandy Joystick to the four bases of the infield diamond.

Color Baseball, 1983
Color Baseball, TRS-80, 1983

Color Baseball also featured a top-down view of the entire field that persists in today's lastest games. The context-sensitive control scheme follows the movement of the ball around the field. When a hit leaves the infield, the focus naturally switches to the outfielders. And after a player fields the ball, the position of the joystick indicates to which base it will be thrown.

To quote one reviewer, "everything just seems to make sense on-screen."

RBI Baseball, NES, 1987
RBI Baseball, NES, 1987

By 1987, the ideal interface for a 2-player computer game adaptation of baseball is firmly in place, as demonstrated by RBI Baseball for the NES. The primary innovation over Color Baseball is the differentiated pitching and fielding scenarios. Like a typical TV broadcast, much of the game is presented as a one-on-one duel between pitcher and hitter. Various statistics and cropped views of the field adorn the central channel but the perspective does not change until either the batter makes contact with a pitch or the pitcher attempts to pick off a baserunner.

Notably, both views feature the same orientation such that "down" on the gamepad maps to home plate, "up" maps to second base, and so on.

World Class Baseball, TurboGrafx-16
World Class Baseball, TurboGrafx-16, 1989

World Class Baseball for the TurboGrafx-16 improved upon RBI's two perspectives with flyballs that grew significantly larger and left clearly defined shadows on the field as they flew higher, making it much easier for players to judge where and when they might land. Additionally, this title provided fielders with a few fancy leaps and dives without sacrificing the simplicity of the minimal control scheme.

As seen above, multiplayer World Class Baseball gameplay hits the right sense of casual pleasure to approximate the sandlot, alleyway pickup game. And who doesn't like the cool Miami take on baseball stadium organ music?

Baseball Stars, NES
Baseball Stars, NES, 1989

Although visual conventions were firmly established in RBI Baseball and World Class Baseball, Baseball Stars is often remembered as the quintessential 1980's baseball title because of its sophisticated statistical system. RBI, like many games, was the product of a licensing arrangement with Major League Baseball and bore the names, logos, and likenesses of real teams and players. Baseball Stars, on the other hand, maintained a Little League baseball fiction in which gamers created their own players and teams that could be stored in cartridge memory and persist across multiple seasons.

Rumors abound of hardcore Baseball Stars fans who continue to maintain active teams after two decades of play.

Earl Weaver Baseball, Amiga, MS-DOS
Earl Weaver Baseball, Amiga/ MS-DOS, 1987

At the end of the 1980s, baseball game designers began to experiment with the traditional interface. Earl Weaver Baseball, primarily a home PC title, offered simultaneous presentation of both perspectives by vertically splitting the screen. Weaver is also notable for its landmark AI, the product of numerous interviews between legendary manager Earl Weaver and the equally legendary game designer Don Daglow who wrote Baseball for the PDP-10 in 1971, the earliest known computer simulation of America's favorite game.

Bases Loaded, NES
Bases Loaded, NES, 1991

Other experiments were less successful. In particular, Roger Clemens MVP Baseball and the Bases Loaded series broke the persistent orientation rule established by earlier titles in an effort to present a more TV-like, multi-angle experience. In each of these games, the "camera angle" swung around such that they broke the dependable relationship between the gamepad's cardinal directions and the baseball diamond's bases.

(To get a sense for this disorienting new system, fast-forward the above video to about 1:15.)

MLB Power Pros, Wii, 2007
MLB Power Pros, Wii/ PS2, 2007

The contemporary MLB Power Pros demonstrates the durability of those early baseball game innovations. It features an accumulative statistics system like Baseball Stars, major league licensing and cartoonish character design like RBI Baseball, and the simple play style of World Class Baseball.

MLB Power Pros Exhibition Match
by thetanooki

While efforts to adapt other sports continue to struggle to find working control schemes, baseball maintains a calm confidence. What are the characteristics of baseball and early console gaming that made effective adaptation possible? In what ways could it have gone off course?

Sports gamers tend to be an opinionated bunch. What titles did I miss?

The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Battling Rampaging Sex Monsters

While the Resident Evil series has its share of female protagonists, they tend to be less capable than their male counterparts. The female protagonist of RE1, for example, comes equipped with a designated male savior who assists her the entire game. This cycle of the main female protagonist needing to be saved at various points by men is reiterated throughout the series, notably appearing in RE3 and RE: Code Veronica. RE4 doesn't even feature a female protagonist and is instead based entirely around a male protagonist babysitting a helpless teenage girl.

Resident Evil 2, interestingly, doesn't feature any such devices and thus feels significantly less misogynistic than the rest of the series. Of RE2's four playable characters--Claire the biker, Ada the spy, Leon the cop, and Sherry the civilian--three of them are female, and two out of those three are not portrayed as being at all submissive or needing help (Sherry being the exception). The lone male playable character, Leon, is not particularly masculine. He has androgynous features, and his attempts to "take charge" get undercut repeatedly by the women in the story. Claire bosses him around most of the time, and Ada repeatedly ignores his advice. ("Why doesn't anyone listen to me?" he laments midway through the game.) Leon is not portrayed as a joke exactly, but he is certainly not a hyper-masculine hero. The rest of the men in RE2's story--sadistic Police Chief Irons, sleazy reporter Ben, and mad scientist William Birkin--are in general selfish, awful people who meet horrid ends.

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Chief Irons

It's significant, I think, that the antagonists in RE2 are predominantly male, while the protagonists pitted against them are predominantly female. I am not speaking of the zombies, of course, but the male characters who are the real villains of the story. The most significant of these is Dr. William Birkin, Sherry's father, who has been transformed into a rampaging mutant by a virus he engineered. Birkin spends the entire game chasing after his daughter in a effort to infect her with his virus, which he spreads by attacking people with his writhing, telescopic tentacles. This lingering threat--with its thinly veiled implications of incestual rape--is the real horror at the heart of Resident Evil 2, the horror Claire spends the whole game trying to save Sherry from, the horror that is, in certain ways, much scarier than a mere zombie apocalypse.

Dr. William Birkin

William Berkin is more or less portrayed as a rampaging sexual predator in RE2. Frustrated that he can't find his daughter, he chases down every other character over the course of the story and forces his tentacles down their screaming throats in an attempt to reproduce. The allusions to tentacle porn are obvious, although they become more complicated when one considers that Birkin's victims are almost exclusively male. These men (one of whom is Police Chief Irons, himself a rapist and murderer) are "incompatible" with his DNA and therefore explode as they give birth to new, unbelievably disgusting creatures. Birkin wants to impregnate Sherry because, as someone who shares his DNA, she won't reject the virus... but fuse with it and mutate, like he is. In the terms of the story, Birkin's monster rape rampage is not motivated by sexual desire. Yet from the player's perspective (and Claire's) the horror is obviously sexual. The fact that the over arching narrative is about saving a little girl from being impregnated by her own father is upsetting and impossible to shrug off.

I am not arguing that the sexual politics of RE2 are terribly progressive, only that they are effective. It's true that the goodness and strength of the women in the story is more or less confined to gendered behavior patterns: in Claire's maternal devotion to Sherry and in Ada's romantic devotion to Leon. But RE2 gets thematic and dramatic mileage out of these patterns in ways that other RE games don't. It recalls the effective use of gender and sexuality in the earlier Alien films, specifically Aliens. RE2 is obviously indebted to Aliens for the idea of a warrior woman protecting a little girl from a monsterous sexual threat. But it works in RE2 for pretty much the same reasons it works in Aliens, with the added, far more disturbing layer of actual incest. The fact that RE2 pits such likable anime archetypes against such genuine psychological distress is part of what makes it stand out against the trite garbage of later Resident Evil games.

My Minions and I

A successful recipe for flash games has been to break off a piece of the real-time strategy genre. Desktop Tower Defense and its ilk focus entirely on the defensive base-building aspect. Games such as Epic War and Age of War are more offensive with the player creating waves of units that march towards the enemy base like lemmings off a cliff. There are plenty of variations on these formulas, and some games incorporate more direct control a la Scorched Earth or Worms. But a new game from Casual Collective (a pair of developers including the creator of DTD) puts a new twist on the micro-RTS.


Minions consists of brief (10-15 minute) multiplayer matches where 2-12 players are split between red and blue teams attempt to destroy the opposing color's base. Control is fundamentally similar to an RTS, except that each player only controls a single tank. The tanks are chosen prior to the match from 8 classes, each of which has 3 unique abilities. As time progresses and damage is done to opposing towers, tanks gain experience that with each level increases health, damage, and lets a point be spent upgrading one of the three abilities. The time between re-spawns increases with the player's level. Assisting each team are 4 defensive towers in addition to their home tower and uncontrollable mini-minions sent out periodically.

If Puzzle Quest has the scope of a hardcore game with casual mechanics, Casual Collective seems to be attempting the opposite with Minions. Given the single map and relatively small variations between classes (at the mechanics level), Minions is very repetitive yet I can't seem to stop playing. The multiplayer competition ensures that matches are always unique. Although the downside of multiplayer-only is that you always have to deal with other players. And as with any multiplayer game, the players can be a mixed bag. You can't damage players on your own team, but I guarantee there will be times when you wish you could. Sure it's disappointing to be teamed with a noob, but the game is easy enough to learn that they're not noobs for long. The real issue is from players who just don't care.


There are no experience points or rankings that continue between matches. You receive some points at the end of match that increase your account's level on the site, but that's a cumulative point total between all games on the site and doesn't impact the games. Not only are there players that wander haphazardly around the map making friends with the walls or taking a 5 minute break, in a majority of matches at least one player will disconnect. And the balance is such that a team with a player-advantage has an almost guaranteed win (assuming they stood a fighting chance previously). Is there a solution to this? A penalty on a player could take away the casually approachable nature of the game. A better method might be to assist the abandoned team. There could be an increase in the power or frequency of mini-minions, or a reduction to that team's re-spawn times.

The site's forums are filled with such suggestions but it remains to be seen if Casual Collective is going to spend the time to update the game. Within the last two weeks a much-needed "switch teams" button was added to the lobby screen. But that's the sort of basic feature that should have been included in the first place. Adjusting any sort of balance within the game would be much riskier. Adding a balancing mechanism for players that leave probably wouldn't increase traffic significantly. It's something everyone's used to in online games. There's plenty of talk in the forums about adjusting the classes because of perceived imbalances, but are people not playing because of that? Doubtful. Any time I conclude a class is too powerful, a few matches later I'm proved wrong. It's just a matter of rock-paper-scissors type match-ups. Yeah, three Cutters seem unbeatable when against a group of Docs and Shoutys. But throw in a Splodge and a Stinger and watch the Cutters get torn to pieces.


As far as class balance, the only thing that desperately needs to be changed is how extra experience is awarded during a match and how points are calculated at the end. Experience gets a boost from damaging towers, but certain tanks are relatively ineffective against them and are better used to fight back opposing tanks. Points at the end are assigned with some arcane formula based on the ratio of kills to deaths and the damage done to towers. First of all, kills are only measured in killing blows; it doesn't matter if you did 75% of the damage to a whole group of enemies, if you don't land the final blow, you get no credit. Haven't we moved past that in games? Almost all MMORPGs now divide experience among group members based on their contributions, however their class might count that. A healer would even get credit for how much they've healed. But in Minions, the Doc is a pretty thankless class. The Doc is unlikely to do much damage, and has to chase after their teammates who ignore any semblance of formation since the healing ability affects a small radius around the Doc. Adjusting the balance and rewards would be nice, but what the game desperately needs (and should help increase traffic) is more maps. One small map is just not enough. Let's see a brutal maze of towers or a lopsided map for uneven teams. At least rearrange the basic map to create some variation. It can't be that difficult to do.

Flash games have the advantage that they can be updated very easily: the webmaster just uploads a new swf file. Being able to instantly release fixes makes full upgrades less important. Why wait for a whole batch of version 1.1 upgrades to release the second map? If there's a fix or a new addition, it can just go straight up. A simple notice on the site about each fix would keep players coming back. I'm no business expert, but when a developer is hosting their own game (or has easy update access), why not avoid "release" versions and just update bit by bit? It seems to work for Google, and they even keep the beta status.

The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Sherry Birkin


Resident Evil 2 actually has some of the best voice acting in the series. This is, of course, not saying much, since Resident Evil has long been famous for horrid, hilarious acting. But I think it's worth pointing out that there are many subtle layers of badness when it comes to acting, and RE2 at times is so significantly better than RE1 (and, if you ask me, many RE games that followed) it comes as a shock.

The writing is still hammy, but the voice actors do a better job of making it feel believable. I am thinking mostly of Sherry here, the lost little girl you are supposed to protect in Claire's scenario. She sounds more like a real little girl than almost any other character I can think of in a localized Japanese video game. I dunno who they got to voice her, but whomever she is she's really good. Sherry sounds entirely like a natural, native English-speaking 11-year-old. This may not seem like an achievement, but when you compare her to the often grating attempts by English-speaking voice actors to approximate Japanese archetypes she's a refreshing contrast. Steve Burnside in Resident Evil: Code Veronica, for example, doesn't sound remotely like a real English-speaking teenager. He sounds like he's being goaded by a Japanese voice director to match the inflections of a Japanese archetypal teenager. There's not a shred of this sort of arch phoniness in Sherry, which makes her a surprisingly compelling character.

I played RE2 so long ago (back in 1998) I'd forgotten all the subtle touches that make Sherry and Claire's relationship endearing. Sherry has some very simple A.I. that, from the perspective of 2009, at times reminds one of Yorda in Ico. She runs a little slower than Claire, so that if you run for too long Sherry will be left behind. This often happens without you realizing it, not becoming clear until you try to exit a room causing Claire to say "I can't leave Sherry behind". When you go find her, she's always sitting by herself in a corner, arms hugging her legs, staring at the ground. When you get near her, Claire's head will automatically turn to look at Sherry, and Sherry's head will automatically turn to look at Claire. After a few moments of this connection, Sherry gets up and follows again. All the time Sherry is looking up at Claire as she walks, even when Claire is fighting zombies. When nothing is happening, and both characters are standing still, they will just look at each other. If you stand still long enough Sherry will actually run to Claire and hold her hand. I like the economy of this animation, since Claire doesn't change position at all--it is simply Sherry reaching up and touching Claire's hand. She then just stands there, staring up at Claire, until you move again. Sherry will even hold Claire's hand if there's a gun in it, which seems incredibly cute to me, like she's so desperate for contact she'll wiggle her hand in between the gun handle and Claire's palm if she has to.

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This is all ridiculously simple. Sherry's behavior is not some massive feature; just a small detail. But it's a wonderful detail that does quite a lot to suggest a relationship between two characters. This, combined with surprisingly good voice acting, makes the experience of playing Claire in RE2 one of the better examples of an emotionally compelling sidekick I can think of, at least in the game's I've played. One imagines this is what a good game based on the Ripley/Newt relationship in Aliens would be like. I especially like how the behavior suggests particular psychology. Sherry is a neglected, introverted child. You get the feeling (through various story cut-scenes) that her parents don't care about her much. The way she simply "gives up" when Claire gets too far ahead indicates this. She's used to being left behind, and she deals with it simply by shutting down. This makes one feel pretty awful for leaving her behind, even though it has no adverse effect on gameplay. It makes going back to find her not just a simple gameplay hurdle but an act of proving to her that you're not like her parents.

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All this makes me wonder why there aren't more children as sidekicks in video games. Most of the other characters I can think of that function in this way--as sidekicks you have to protect--are grown women being protected by men. Although many of these games are good, they always have to explain away the annoying gender politics through some complex reasoning, like Yorda in Ico being mute or Emma in Metal Gear Solid 2 being drugged. But when you have an adult protecting a small child the relationship feels more natural. Of course you'd have to watch a kid at all times; of course they'd become paralyzed with fear when cornered; of course they'd lag behind; of course they'd become emotionally attached to you. They're a kid.

A lot of the believability problems of a video game protector/protectee relationship are solved (or, at least, given a more compelling explanatory framework) by simply making the relationship one between an adult and a child. That is, after all, the inescapable subtext of any such protector/protectee relationship: that you are an adult and they are a child. Ico, for example, forces you to treat Yorda like a child, which makes it necessary to explain why she would act like one. The explanations can range from the rational ("She's been abused by her mother.") to the offensive ("She's a woman.") The nice thing about RE2 is that it simply avoids this by making the player character a confident, focused adult woman and the sidekick a little girl who, quite believably, is scared shitless by zombies and needs help.


In early January, experiencing the kind of doldrums that readers of an academic blog about video game research are no doubt quite familiar with, I picked up a little expansion to that one game. It took me a while to hit the new level cap of 80. After a few lucky runs, I was in a pretty good spot, and felt up to tackling some of of the end-game content. Poking around a friendly chat channel for a group, I signed up to run a dungeon I’d been through once before, only to be told I was undergeared and unknown, and was bounced from the group. A week later, I managed to connive my way back into the group to tackle a set of the toughest dungeons in the game. By the end of our run, I had managed to upgrade almost all of my equipment, including snagging some of the best gear available for Shamans who specialize in Restoration. This should make my life easier: I’ve got status, I can clear the hardest stuff in the game, right?

Continue reading "LERN 2 PLAY" »

The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Slow Zombies

It's funny that, a few years ago, I passionately hated the Resident Evil formula so much I couldn't imagine ever liking it again. I loved RE back in the day, but by the time 2005 rolled around I'd had it with the fixed camera angles, the clunky tank controls, the endless locked doors, the ridiculous backtracking, and the unbelievable puzzles. This is the big reason I welcomed Resident Evil 4's changes (sans the moronic story) with open arms and vowed I'd never look back. Funny how you never appreciate some things until they're gone.


Cornered in Resident Evil 2

While RE4's more action-based approach revitalized the series and introduced new zombie film-inspired dynamics into the gameplay, it also opened the door for RE to become far more of a generic action game. Playing Resident Evil 1 and 2 again recently has made it clear to me just how slow, methodical, and tense survival horror once was. It's not that RE4 isn't suspenseful, but the old RE's embody an entirely different sort of suspense, one that's more subtle. In certain ways the earlier RE's better embody the George Romero spirit simply by being so contained. This seems counter intuitive, since Romero's apocalyptic visions of average people facing horrific odds seem more suited to bigger virtual environments with more complex dynamics. In a sense this is true, but consider for a moment how the earlier RE games made such small goals feel so big. Getting from the second floor of a single building to the first floor exit is a monolithic undertaking in Resident Evil 1, one that constitutes a major strategic challenge. Doing something as mundane as run down a single hallway or cross a single room requires a level of planning that adrenaline-fests like RE4 are simply not interested in offering. They've abandoned this sort of slow-burning tension along with the "slow" zombies of yesteryear. While I am not down on "slow zombies" as much as Simon Pegg is, I do agree that fast-moving zombies (or parasite-infected people, or whatever they are now) does inherently alter the feeling, dynamics, and meaning of a zombie scenario, whether it be a game or film. In the case of games it seems to translate into the gameplay genre shifting more towards the mainstream, overlapping heavily with the first-person and third-person shooter genres to the point that the two become almost indistinguishable.


Ready to rock in Resident Evil 4

As Resident Evil 5 rapidly approaches, I am bracing myself for a game that feels significantly more like a Hollywood action film than a low-budget horror film. Resident Evil has always had some elements of Hollywood action, ever since RE1 jettisoned its brooding atmosphere at the eleventh hour in favor of a big guns, big explosions finale. Yet Resident Evil always had at least one foot firmly in Romeroland. I am only now realizing how many of its "outdated" conventions helped effectively create that feeling.

The Game of History

Recently I was at a gathering with some colleagues from around the lab. During the course of the evening the discussion turned to some of the more obscure game consoles that appeared in the early to mid 90's. At one point I happened to mention owning a Nintendo Virtual Boy and all but two of the games released in the US (still need Jack Brothers and Waterworld; well, maybe "need" is too strong a word). The response was largely negative: why would anyone pay good money for bad games and bad headaches?


Red Alarm on the Virtual Boy

Certainly a valid question, but when I told the story of a time in summer 2004 when I passed on the chance to buy a Philips CD-i and a bunch of games (including the three Zelda atrocities), there was disappointment, as though the CD-i were somehow less awful than the Virtual Boy. For me, these reactions highlight a frequent conundrum. I love going to independent game shops to see what they have lying around. There is always a certain thrill associated with finding something rare, be it a Wonderswan color or a sealed 3DO. However, the fact that video games are consumer products results in a strange situation where unpopular products become rare. This happens when a system lacks good games, so few people buy it, and hence few are manufactured. In video games, "rare" items can be really good or really bad. So there is this ongoing question of whether an uncommon, albeit crappy, find is worth the money. After all the same money could just as well go towards something I know to be quality. But at the same time there is an almost ethical concern as well.

The problem with video games, especially console games, is their ephemeral nature. Games only become obsolete, but hardware wears out with use, rendering associated games unplayable. Finding uncommon hardware for sale thus carries a sense of gravity: I was fortunate to find this item, and while it may not be fun to play it needs to be preserved (using eBay here is no fun). In a sense, this is part of my heritage, and should go to someone who will appreciate it. Of course, the idea of preserving game history is a paradox: games are meant to be played, but that Jaguar will only last so long before something fails, and does it not also deserve preservation?

If games are your sole concern there is always emulation. Of course emulators are a hot-button topic, and there is a lot to be said. First and foremost I appreciate Nintendo's efforts with the Wii's Virtual Console. This is an excellent way to preserve gaming history, and while there are many titles lacking they are moving in the right direction. Also notable is Classic99, which emulates the TI 99/4a home computer and is apparently distributed under license from Texas Instruments. It even comes with a few games to get you started. While I wish this was something more companies would do as a service to the community, Nintendo has shown that there can still be a market for these games, and any reluctance to release "official" emulators on their part is completely understandable.


The TI 99/4a Home Computer

For the purist, however, emulation is hardly an option, and not just because emulators are rarely completely accurate. While the success of a given platform has at least something to do with the quality of games available, part of the overall experience comes from the hardware itself. Sure the Dreamcast had plenty of great games, but I will always associate those games with the nagging sense that no human being designed the controller. Similarly, the unreliability of the old NES makes for lots of good stories. A good friend of mine is a big fan of Marble Madness, but his NES can barely function long enough for him to finish the game before the hardware crashes. Thus it is both a test of his skill and a race against the console itself. Towards the end the sprites transform into random characters, signaling the imminent crash. It really improves the game.

There is something to be said for playing games on the hardware they were meant for, to have the experience as originally intended. To do otherwise is like watching a cell phone bootleg of a movie: you know what generally happened, but the experience is nothing like being in the theater on opening night. Ultimately I regret not purchasing the CD-i, even though that money went to much better games. A few weeks later I went back to the store but the system was gone, and prices for one now are prohibitively expensive. If you can find one.

Henry Jenkins Meets Michael Nitsche

Late last month, GAMBIT's co-PI Henry Jenkins was kind enough to allow me to guest-star over at his blog Confessions of an Aca-Fan and share with his readers my interview with CarneyVale's artist Desmond Wong. Today we'd like to invite Henry into our blog to share his interview with Georgia Tech's Michael Nitsche. Take it away, Henry!

What Architecture and Urban Planning Can Tell Us About Games: An Interview with Georgia Tech's Michael Nitsche

For a while there, it looked like the debate between the ludologists (who focus on game play mechanics) and the narratologists (who focus on storytelling) was going to define the range of perspectives in games studies. As someone who was falsely labeled a narratologist for a bit, I found this model of the field constraining and distorting. Now, of course, we've seen an explosion of different perspectives in the academic study of computer and video games. One of the most promising approaches emphasizes the spatial dimensions of game design, a topic which was, in fact, the real focus of my own early writing on games (and not coincidentally a recurring focus of the work of Espen Aardseth, a card-carrying Ludologist), suggesting that space is not only the final frontier but also the common ground of many of the first generation of game scholars.

Michael Nitsche, a games researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology (better known as Georgia Tech), has written a significant new book, Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds (MIT Press, 2008) which sums up what we can learn about games by examining them as spatial systems. His writing is informed not only by work in games studies but also from media studies, performance studies, urban planning and architecture. As he discusses in the interview below, this work has been informed by his work with the Digital World and Image Group at Georgia Tech.

I had a chance to visit Nitsche and his colleagues down in Atlanta late last fall and came away tremendously impressed by the spirit of collaboration and exploration which exists within that particular academic community. The Georgia Tech folks are doing cutting edge work across many different research areas. I am lucky enough to have Michael's colleague, Ceila Pierce, presenting the opening colloquium this term, sharing her work on the construction of fictional ethnic identities within multiplayer game worlds.

Here and next time, Nitsche shares some thoughts about the theoretical stakes of thinking about games space.

You come to this book both as a game designer and as a game theorist. How have the two perspectives informed each other here? To what degree do you see your design work as a mode of experimentation with the basic building blocks of games as a medium? Can you describe for us some of the projects you've worked? How does work with games done in research centers differ from the kind of work which occurs within commercial games companies? What value do you think university-based game research brings to the evolution of games as a medium?

Most examples in the book are drawn from commercial video games but it does include a wide range of research projects, too - including some of my own practical experiments. We need these experimental game projects to fill in the gaps left by commercial titles.

Commercial video games have to make money and they often have to be streamlined and optimized to reach that target - university-based games research projects have all kinds of limitations but they thankfully do not have to sell. This allows us to explore some of the more complicated areas that commercial games have to avoid to stay afloat.
My own work has always been a mixture of theory and practice but I have to admit that I somehow lack a single direction in the experiments I have conducted. I have worked on educational virtual environments, procedural game spaces, virtual and mixed media performance spaces, augmented reality prototypes, and these days I start to experiment with location-based handheld applications. In my case these experiments are truly explorative. They start off with a relatively simple question and snowball into more and more challenging test beds. While a commercial game production has to streamline the design at that point and focus on the core, research projects remain free to explore. I like that - a lot.

At Georgia Tech we are used to testing theory and analysis in such an experimental set up. So, shortly after I joined the faculty here, I started the Digital World & Image Group. One of our first major projects was Charbitat, an experimental game that creates a 3D world around the virtual player depending on how you play the game. First, we focused on the question of procedural space generation and how to design for these new and dynamic worlds. But once we had the functional prototype up and running, we moved on to look into procedural quest generation, dynamic camera control and patterns to support spatial navigation in infinite worlds - all based on the original game prototype. Any commercial developer would have cut this additional research, which is why this kind of gradual experimental discovery is only possible in a non-commercial environment. This certainly does not mean that academics should tell developers how to create their games, but it shows that research projects can offer additional information because they are free to explore venues that are locked off by deadlines and budgets in commercial production.

Other areas are not covered by commercial games, yet. For example, I am very interested in game worlds as performance spaces where players do not play to achieve certain high scores but instead to express something effectively. Consequently, some of my projects deal with virtual puppetry or augmented reality performance spaces.

I also have done quite a lot of work in machinima. The industry might recognizes the promise in these areas but it is simply not clear how these ideas might work out in a viable single application. So here the university-based research project can break completely new ground.

Many accounts of game theory have emphasized the tension between ludological approaches, which focus on game play mechanics, and narratological approaches, which focus on story telling. Does a focus on game spaces give us a different way of thinking about the relations between these two approaches?

I believe it does. Space is certainly not the single answer to all of our problems but it surely predates play as well as narrative. We learn how to deal with space before we start to tell stories or play games. If we translate this into video games, space becomes a higher category, one that can include narrative qualities as well as ludic ones.

I started to look into expressive 3D game spaces around 1999, when I began my studies at the University of Cambridge's Department of Architecture. This was just around the time the debate about narratology and ludology heated up. We did a lot of work with video but I felt somewhat shielded from the divide because even in the darkest controversies nobody ever argued against the importance of space in games. From where I was standing, you had to ask whether there is really a substantial divide at all between ludology and narratology. For me, both become part of how we deal with spaces and are not opposites but complementary to each other.

In the book I talk about Story Maps, a form of imaginary map that we form in our mind as we play our way through a virtual environment. These maps are shaped by what we do in the game world as well as how the action it told through various forms of presentation in sound and image. Sure, there is a strong narrative element in these maps but they can only be created when the game is played. So I could never really fully see the divide because my work seemed to be right in the middle of this discussion without conflicting with either.

A key goal throughout the book has been to map the many different devices that shape the player's perception and experience of games space. What value is such a catalog to the game designer? What do you see as some of the under-developed opportunities in the creation of expressive game spaces?

Game Studies has covered a lot of ground and opened up a wide range of approaches, which is good. What I suggest is a combination of different fields. That is why the book references various disciplines from architecture to film, to drama and literature studies.

Game designers very often use these and other references already as they collect ideas and inspirations. They do this often intuitively and this book might help to stimulate this messy process and provide an additional perspective.

Any designer worth their salt is aware of the fundamental role of a video game such as Mario 64 for the way we design games today; this book offers an additional view at some details regarding these innovations specifically for 3D game worlds. It does not suggest a single solution or a unique missed opportunity but instead discusses a range of available options by looking at the underlying basics.

For example, the whole argument of the book is built on the idea that game worlds are not simply polygon masses arranged in a certain way in the engine. Instead, we should look into different layers where game spaces come to life. These include the play space in the living room of the player, as well as the fictional and mediated spaces generated by the presentation and the imagination of the player. The rule-based level is only one of five layers for game space analysis. The task, then, is to find the connections between the different layers. New interfaces such as the Wii remote or webcams are good examples for these connections. They put much more emphasis on the world in front of the screen. But what can we make of this expansion into the physical space? Among other things, the book invites us to think about ways these connections into the living room can be made more effectively.

Throughout the book, you draw heavily on ideas from architecture and urban planning. What do these fields have to contribute to games studies?

There are some obvious parallels, such as the relevance of urban planning for the design of free-roaming game worlds or the way architectural styles are copied in video games. However, I would argue that we have to look a bit deeper to identify more fundamental parallels.

One example for a more direct connection is the way we read large-scale environments no matter whether it is a real world like my hometown or a virtual one like an online world. We gradually form a cognitive map based on certain key features and navigate through the world based on this map. Architectural theorists like Alexander or Lynch have done extremely valuable work in precisely this area and a range of research projects has shown that the same ideas apply to virtual environments.

However, games offer different means to accentuate a players' development of a cognitive map. Designers have full control over the space and the possible actions in it and use it to dramatize the experience. That is why we also have to take theatrical spaces into account.

Most virtual worlds are designed not for a "live-like" experience but for overly dramatic ones. These game worlds would fall short if they would provide "only" realistically functioning virtual cities. Instead, they have to deliver virtual stages, full or extraordinary events and opportunities that are not available in real world designs. That is why we have to add these dramatic functions to the architectural ones and combine dramatic moments with cognitive maps.

Likewise, architecture is very helpful in the discussion of specific spatial structures, such as paths, arenas, or labyrinths. They clearly reflect and reference existent architectural structures but we have to add the game specific elements that usually enhance their dramatic impact. The labyrinths of Doom or Silent Hill are not just navigable virtual architectures but the actively put the player into a highly engaging dramatic situation.

The video game world tells the player where she is projecting her actions. It positions the player via spatial means and uses references to architecture and urban planning. At the same time, it is a dramatic positioning. Players do not enter a game world as a neutral observer or visiting tourists but as cops staged in the middle of a gang war, a superhero with the power to destroy or rescue Metropolis, a lost soul that only tries to escape and survive.

These options are embedded in the game world's architecture, its presentation, and its functionality. Urban planning, architecture and performance studies help us to balance and connect these features better.

You also suggest that the design of games space has been heavily influenced by our shared understanding of cinematic conventions. Which aspects of film form exert an influence on the design of game worlds?

Video games, film, and television are all part of the moving image media family. They share many aspects, differ in many others and continuously add to each other's vocabulary through their shared origins. There are at least two connections that we have to take into account when we discuss game spaces and their visual representation. On the one hand, a large number of games try to remediate cinematic visuals. There is no reason for a lens flare effect in Unreal Tournament because there are not physical optics involved. But the programmer included it. Neither is there any technical reason for suddenly increasing grainy imagery in sections of Fatal Frame. But the images are altered nevertheless. These are rendering effects applied to the game world in order to recreate cinematic visual effects and to achieve distinct dramatic impacts.

Most of the time, we have to read and understand a game world to interact meaningfully with it. That is why visualization is a very powerful form of expression in digital games and not necessarily subordinate to interactivity. Cinematic traditions are built into these games to direct our reading of the world. Because designers constantly develop new visual expressions for their games, we cannot pinpoint a single cinematic reference point for video games. The main visual traditions of 3D game cinematography (following camera, overhead view, first-person point of view and pre-defined viewing frames) have all connections to existent cinematic traditions but they have developed their own specifics over time.

The interactive following camera, for example, changes the way that the main character is visually situated in the game world and often becomes not only a visual but also a action controlling device when the hero is programmed to always run in the direction the player points the camera. Equally important is the question of montage of different viewpoints in video games. Film has developed multiple techniques of montage and games seem to gradually follow with some own concepts that are organized around their interactivity.

In many 3D games players not only control the virtual hero but have also taken on the role of virtual cameramen and editors. Maybe the most surprising fact is how seamlessly audience can accept this responsibility. The camera work in the newer Prince of Persia titles is highly developed and might be influenced by the player in the midst of equally complex game play situations. Nevertheless, players seem to readily adapt to that task. Nowadays, a player not only accepts the role of the virtual hero but also that of the "man with the movie camera." And this transition happened extremely smoothly overall. Maybe because of our familiarity with cinematic techniques.

This points to the second main connection between games and film: players have developed certain expectations towards the moving image. We have been educated by television conventions and cinematic visual storytelling and look at game through this expectation.

This allows players to understand the elegant intro sequences of the Half-Life games as descendents of the classic long opening shots that we have seen in Altman's The Player or Welles' Touch of Evil. Players bring this kind of media literacy to the game and can read it through their proficiency in film and TV visual storytelling. So we expect games to work a bit like movies because film and TV are essential sources of our visual literacy.

This is a two-way street, of course, and with the growing role of games as media for socialization the influences starts to shift. We can see that games start to educate our visual expectations and drive shots in television and cinema productions. So instead of a single influence I would argue for a growing shared ground that is based on the tradition of the moving image.

As you note, game designers rely on a range of spatial metaphors to discuss
their craft -- drawing parallels between games and gardens, sand boxes,
amusement parks, labyrinths, mazes, and arenas or talking about games as being
on "rails" or "tracks." Which of these analogies are most productive for
thinking about games space? Which do you think are confusing or misleading?

The book does not directly pick up the discussion of games as gardens or sand boxes - not because these metaphors are misleading but mainly because to me it seemed that a lot of detail is lost in such an approach. These are very useful approaches and often well applied in other works but a bit too large for the detailed analysis I had in mind. In my case, I tried to look into more precise spatial subcategories - like the path, the arena, or the labyrinth.

So instead of discussing the overall summary of a virtual space, which indeed might work and feel like a virtual garden, the focus is on details that might evoke this impression. I call these details evocative narrative elements and they work like spatialized hooks that affect the way the player experiences the game universe. They support the player to make sense of the virtual world and the situations in it and offers opportunities to connect and contextualize the events in relationship to each other. Finding a item important to the player, defeating an opponent or saving a friendly character, discovering the value of a certain item and overcoming threshold - all these can be evocative narrative elements that are situated in the game world.

However, how the player truly interconnects these hooks is up to her. Evocative narrative elements can add up to a fuller picture of a garden of a sandbox-like world, but in the end this depends very much on the player.

That is why I suggest a different metaphor in the end of the book, namely that of the kitchen. The kitchen caters for the growing role of players in the formation and re-usage of game environments. Following established recipes or gradually experimenting with new ones might be translated in the players' actions in innovative titles from Spore to Little Big Planet to Second Life or MetaPlace. And getting all the set up right might just about decide the fate of worlds like Sony's Home.

Michael Nitsche is an Assistant Professor at the School of Literature, Communication,
and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology where he teaches courses on virtual
environments and digital moving images. Michael heads the Digital World and Image Group, which works the design, use, and production of virtual spaces, Machinima, and the borderlines between games, film, and performance. His work combines theoretical analysis and practical experiments and his collaborations include work with the National Film and Television School London, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Turner Broadcasting, Alcatel Lucent, and others. He is author of Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds (MIT Press, 2008), and has published on Game Studies, virtual worlds, digital performance, games and film, and machinima in numerous publications. In a former life he was co-author for a commercial videogame, professional Improv actor, and dramaturgist.

(This interview originally appeared at Henry Jenkins' blog Confessions of an Aca-Fan on February 6, 2009.)

Desmond Wong and the Art of CarneyVale

The Independent Games Festival recently announced the finalists for this year's Seamus McNally Grand Prize, and all of us here at GAMBIT were thrilled to find our game CarneyVale: Showtime included on the list. Showtime, which was developed by the GAMBIT Singapore Lab using XNA and is available for download now on Microsoft's Xbox LIVE community service, is the spiritual sequel to our summer 2007 prototype game Wiip. We sat down Desmond Wong, a recent graduate of Nanyang Polytechnic who was the lead artist for both Showtime and Wiip, to discuss how art was used to link the growing CarneyVale franchise together.

CarneyVale: Showtime
CarneyVale: Showtime

How was the art style chosen for Wiip?

During the concept stages of Wiip, the team was trying to settle on a suitable theme for a whipping game. We tried all sorts of ideas and eras ranging from cowboy western to jungle tribal. However, none of the themes had that special factor to them, they felt too overused and unoriginal. Eventually, the idea of being a ringmaster settled in. We knew it would be cool to be a raging ringmaster with a ferocious whip, and the idea of a mysterious circus quickly came into play.

My initial concepts for Wiip were very dark and creepy, with outlandish animals and clowns. Although interesting, we knew that we needed something cuter and more approachable. Fortunately, the team had another artist who drew really cute and wonderful things. We had her take a stab at the early concepts, and she came up with her own cuter renditions. Eventually, the final product ended up as something both cute and creepy at the same time, a perfect balance between the two.

Art trailer for Wiip

How did the art style change between Wiip and Showtime?

If Wiip was the growing child, then Showtime is the maturing teenager. For Showtime, the art style took a more circus city feel to it. It was literally a city with circus performances on its streets. With that, we could have all assortments of neon signs, glowing lights and bustling color. The genral rendering of the characters also took a more mature turn. instead of kiddy characters, the characters in Showtime are more proportionate and grown. The style of shading also changed, employing more tones of shade and detail.

Despite all the changes, the art style was generally kept to roughly the same feel. The bright and colorful characters and scenery were still present, and the quirky designs never disappeared. It was just an art style evolving as time went on.

Who or what would you cite as the inspirations behind CarneyVale's art style?

The biggest inspirations for the art style for Showtime were definitely Cirque du Soleil and Las Vegas. I remember the team watching video performances by the Cirque du Soleil troupe, and the costume designs just blew my mind away. Las Vegas was also a huge inspiration to the art style. Being a city circus, I looked to Las Vegas for its neon lights and signboards to give life to CarneyVale. I also used Las Vegas a lot when trying to merge a circus and city together. I would look at photos of that city, and imagine it with circus elements on it, and it would always work.

Artists such as Yoji Shinkawa also give me tons of inspiration. Famous for his work in the Metal Gear series, what I really like about his works is his ability to generate such a distinct style of his own. The way he paints and conceptualises his ideas are what I respect most about this particular artist.

<a href="" target="_new" title="CarneyVale: Showtime trailer ">Video: CarneyVale: Showtime trailer </a>
The trailer for Showtime

How did you consciously use the art style to tie Wiip and Showtime together?

The colors were the main things. When I was working on Showtime, I made sure that my color palette contained all the colors I used with Wiip. This was mainly the reds and yellows, however, I made sure to inject new tones and colors to keep things fresh. I also made sure to include the familiar red and white curtains from Wiip in Showtime as well. This served as a link between the two games, and added a distinct circus vibe to the game as well.

The general details for the items in the world were also kept consistent to tie the two games together. For example, I employed a certain motif in Wiip that I reused on some of the props in Showtime to keep the world whole and seamless. Most importantly, the narrator for Showtime is the main character from Wiip. No better way to tie two games together than that.

What's your usual workflow like? How do you go about creating a piece of art for the game?

Cannon Concepts
Usually I start with an idea. Ideas can come from anywhere. I got the idea for the Grabber prop by walking past those toy machines where you had to direct a hand to grab the toy you wanted. When I have a general idea down, I take it to the paper and pen. I sketch my ideas out and make sure to do as many variations of it as I can. I also find it very useful to get input from the people around me at this stage when the idea is still fresh and at its infant stage.

Around this point, I start choosing the best few concepts and proceed to creating art for the game. I use Photoshop to draw out and color the art, and once that is done, I export it out and get it ready to be put into the game. From here on, it's mostly seeing what works and what does not. For example, the launcher for the missile looked good on paper, but when it was put into the game, it was a little too big and bright. The good thing is that once the art is there, it's mostly just tweaking to strike the perfect balance between making it look good and work well too.

If you were to do a third game in the series, what new types of imagery would you like to explore?

Wiip took place inside a busy circus tent, and Showtime took place in a bustling city at night. For the third installment, I would really like to see how the game would look like in outer space. We initially wanted to bring Showtime into space for the last few performances, but scrapped the idea in the end. What I really want to try is actually put Slinky in a world where gravity is at its weakest. The image of Slinky doing a double back flip in slow motion while floating upwards is too good to throw away.

Being outer space, I could go crazy with the art style. There are just so many quirky things an artist can design when he isn't restricted. Imagine shooting through the stars on a flying comet as you are flung through rings of fire in front of a multi-colored nebula. It would be nothing short of legendary.

The winner of the Independent Games Festival's Seamus McNally Grand Prize will be announced at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this March. Keep an eye on this blog for more details!

(Note: this post previously appeared over at GAMBIT co-PI Henry Jenkins' blog, "Confessions of an Aca-Fan", at For a veritable cornucopia of media studies-related interviews, essays and insights, be sure to bookmark that site.)

I'm Addicted to Alts

My name is Elliot, and I'm addicted to alts. I think my problem began when I was only 12 years old and, giving in to peer pressure from my friends, I began to play Sierra's The Realm.

The first time I opened this early MMORPG, I was overwhelmed by choice. While other games presented you with a character that you could then tweak, The Realm had a level of customization I'd never seen before. You could select your race, appearance, and, most importantly, your class. A Fighter required a big weapon and a simple bludgeoning style of play. A Wizard had 6 different schools of magic to choose from, each requiring different tactics. A Thief wasn't overly effective in battle but had very useful non-combat skills. And an Adventurer was the hybrid reject that wasn't good at anything. Now contrast that with the Final Fantasy-esque Japanese RPGs that were my favorites at the time. In almost all cases, a character was provided for you and it was the story that pulled you through the game. You had much more flexible advancement paths, but multi-character parties allowed you to try out many different paths. Regardless of how you set up your characters, the overall style of play was consistent. Without the story to motivate me to devote time to the game, I quickly became bored with my first character, decided to try a different class, and created my first "alt" (alternate character). I had alts in each of the classes before deciding that there were other games I wanted to spend time on (and that didn't tie up the phones).


Much to this player's dismay, characters do not get a nudity bonus.

Years later, my habit reemerged in greater strength when playing World of Warcraft (WoW). This time there were more classes with more distinct differences. First came a hunter, but the pet mechanic confused me a bit. Not being able to decide on a single character with all the available options, I made a whole set of characters each of whom I took to between levels 5 and 10. I finally settled into a Warlock that became my main until a year long hiatus. But when I resumed playing, I wanted a different experience. Each class had such specific roles in groups that a change seemed refreshing. First I rolled a priest, and then a paladin. Took a break to level a druid to 10, but I got tired of that too. I needed that rush of excitement when playing a new class. My favorite section of the game was the early levels where you would learning an entirely new set of abilities and strategies, while advancing quickly and being guided through tightly organized quests.

Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) gave me my fix. The classes introduced more varied combat mechanics and comparatively ambiguous group roles. Again, I had two phases of playing with a long break in between. Each time I leveled a few characters to 5-10, and then took one farther. But despite my greater investment in LOTRO's world, the same issue occurred. I got past that opening excitement, combat became repetitive, and advancement slowed. And boy did it slow. LOTRO is sort of a "thinking-person's" WoW. The plot is much more involved, the world is less over-the-top fantastical, but boy is it slow.


Two motley crews of warriors face off in Warhammer Online.

Now I've found Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR). LOTRO and WoW had little differentiation between races (beyond the starting area) in terms of gameplay. WoW has 9 classes while LOTRO has 7 (though 2 more will be added in next month's Mines of Moria add-on). But WAR had 3-4 classes for every race! That's 20 different classes! Of course there's overlap and some redundancy, but even the mechanically similar classes have significant aesthetic differences. To make it even better, WAR takes care to let low levels jump right in to both elaborate scripted events involving many players as well as arenas where players from the opposing factions can battle for dominance. Will the game still hold my interest after playing for awhile? Doubtful. But for the time being, I'm enthralled with my High Elf Swordmaster. And my Dark Elf Disciple of Khaine. But a Human Bright Wizard's sole purpose is to blast fire everywhere? That sure sounds like fun too. Maybe I need a Bright Wizard alt. And a Chaos Marauder can mutate his arm into a saw, club, or claw? Oh Warhammer, why must you taunt me so?

Relax after Spore with some GTA

A few weeks ago I made a rather odd purchase: both Spore and Grand Theft Auto III. This was to be my first GTA experience. I had always assumed the series was just lowbrow entertainment riding on shock value. I bought the game because I felt I needed to know about it as an academic, not because I expected to enjoy it. Spore, on the other hand, I fully expected to love. The creative potential in designing your creature, cities and armies, combined with the expanse of time and space contained in the game, made me wonder if you could ever run out of ways to play and things to explore.

Having played both for a few weeks now, I am forced to admit that I don't particularly enjoy Spore, yet GTA3 has been non-stop entertainment. Part of me really feels bad about this (as though I am now a stereotypical gamer), so I have been trying to understand the reason for my preference.

While they seem quite different, these two games are both about exploration. Exploration is the fundamental promise of Spore: a whole universe populated by the strange creations of people all across the world just waiting to be your backyard. Not long after the release of the creature creator EA and Maxis announced that over one million creatures had been uploaded to their servers . The idea of cruising across the universe, encountering creatures weird and wonderful, was an idea that appealed to many. Even your home planet would be populated with these creatures.

There was also the prospect of exploring the system behind Spore. How would other creatures react to me? What strange things could I create, and how would the game handle them?

Crunkmaster Small.png

The Crunkmaster is a carnivorous quadruped known for inventing post-modernism before the chair.

However, Spore does not allow for this kind of leisurely exploration. The game creates an environment where the struggle to survive is just that, and inaction equals death. From the very beginning Spore pressures you to act, as bigger fish in the pond start trying to eat you. At this early stage it's easy to outrun them or quickly evolve some defenses. In the creature phase, the game adds more pressure in the form of migration. After the first time your nest migrates the game does a poor job of alerting you. When you discover your nest has moved, finding the new nest is an immediate priority, otherwise you cannot heal or mate. This happens frequently enough that, when combined with basic survival, you always need to be doing something.

In the tribal phase your nest is constantly attacked, either by other tribes or wild animals. Even tribes you have never encountered somehow know you are there, and will walk across the entire continent to attack you. In order to keep up you must deal with the other tribes to expand your village and your population. The civilization stage is no better. Soon after evolving I was confronted by two foreign boats: the first offered a trade route, the second was shelling my city, and the situation deteriorated rapidly. As with the previous phases, inaction leads to defeat.

The worst case, by far, is the space phase. Almost immediately after blasting off I was confronted with numerous other races. The first two or three were benign, interested in establishing trade routes, buying my spice, and sending me on errand-boy missions to find stuff on their own planets. However, it wasn't long before I started receiving ominous transmissions to the effect that someone hates me and we are at war. I'm not really sure why, maybe it's because Matt evolved racism. I largely ignored these messages, assuming the game would give me a chance to comprehend this new phase.

My first goal was to establish an economy. I started a few trade routes and went about terraforming a few planets. However, it wasn't very long before those ominous threats turned to action, and I soon found all of my planets, and my allies' planets, under attack. I had no time to do anything but run around the galaxy fighting off the invaders, which really isn't what I wanted to do in the first place. Of course I was unable to stop all of the attacks, and before I knew it my allies had been conquered. I was broke and alone in an extremely hostile universe.

Throughout the whole game the only opportunity I had to explore was at the end of the tribal and civilization stages. At these points I had control over my immediate surroundings and was free from hostility. However, that glowing button demands you continue your evolution, never hinting at what awaits on the other side.

Frustrated, I turned to Grand Theft Auto III, and was surprised to find that the game was made for exploration. There is so much you can choose to do even on the first island that just exploring the game space is fun. Aside from the mundane places like the gun store and the hospital, there are plenty of hidden shortcuts and ramps waiting to be found. The game rewards knowledge of such places: shortcuts make timed missions easier, and launching your car off a ramp can result in a monetary bonus.

GTA3 Action Shot.jpg

Just taking a look around. Really.

The game system behind Liberty City is even more fun to explore. I spent quite a few hours just learning the behavior of the police. I learned that shooting at their car usually gets you two wanted stars, while running down a pedestrian or carjacking (within police sight) nets you just one. I subsequently learned that grand theft auto and manslaughter are equal offenses. I also noticed that if the police ram your car into a crowd of pedestrians, subsequently squashing a few of them, nobody stops to help them.

There's also plenty to discover about the civilians in the game. If I steal their car and don't go anywhere, will they take it back? How much can I push them around before they attack me? Answering these questions and finding new questions is incredibly entertaining and rewarding. I have to believe that Rockstar knew this, and that is why the game does not pressure you to move forward.

While there are always missions you could be doing, there is no penalty for ignoring them. Early in the game no agent seeks you out and incites conflict; it is entirely possible to play endlessly without any conflict at all. Once a conflict ends, it is forgotten. That guy you ran over? Nobody from his gang comes seeking revenge. Previous arrests? The police don't notice. The people of Liberty City live wholly in the present. Even if you have a one-star wanted rating the police will give up if you just wait it out. This lack of pressure gives you ample opportunity to explore both the game's space and system.

Exploring a game can be a great source of fun and excitement, as seen in one of gaming's favorite traditions: the Easter egg. Hunting for hidden items, techniques, and spaces is essentially the same as the large-scale exploration present in games like GTA3 and Spore. Finding that secret room is like finding the hidden ramp or (I would imagine) the strange new species. It seems to me that the discovery of the unexpected is a source of limitless fun, and in this regard GTA3 is far more successful than Spore.

Damn you, Charles Darwin!

I am playing SPORE, and it is actually fun. I'm surprised because every game that has ever had Will Wright's name on it I have never enjoyed much.

I confess. I am not a fan of Will Wright's games. I appreciated them. I see what's great about them, and I am happy games like The Sims are so popular. But brilliant or not Wright's work has historically not been my taste. God games just don't hold my interest, I guess because I want dramatic situations, and for that I need an avatar. I want to know who I am and why I should care. This is why I never was able to get into Sim City because I just can't care about a city, about crime rate charts and economic graphs. The Sims was a step in my direction, because I do care more about people, about their daily lives, fears, dreams, and heartbreaks. But even then I couldn't bring myself to be that interested, partially because suburbia is something I'd rather forget, but also because I'm still just playing with dolls. The worst that could ever happen is a few of them break.

SPORE is different because for the first time in a Maxis game I am someone. I'm my little creature. I have agency. I make decisions. I'm not a god. I'm just a spunky dude trying to survive. SPORE is all about creating the creature you want to create, about being what you want to be. The key word here is you. It's not about playing with dolls. It's not about managing charts. It's about waving goodbye to your mate and children, walking out into the wilderness, spying some weird creature, going over to it, and wondering if you should try to communicate with it or kill it. The feeling at all times in SPORE is that these things are happening to you, not some silly dolls you are creating. For players like me it is a very different emotional experience when I, me, make the decision to kill a mother and eat her eggs because I am starving and want my own children to survive.

The fact that SPORE takes all the explosive moral, social, political, and spiritual dimensions present in The Sims and Sim City and brings them crashing down into the first person makes it emotionally unlike other Maxis games I've played. I chose to make my species carnivorous just to see what it was like, but I began having second thoughts when I faced the dilemma described above. I made friends with a few races, but when I got too hungry I tried to pick the most alien-looking race to kill because I didn't want to feel bad. (Woohoo! I just evolved racism!) In the process I discovered there is no creature in SPORE that cannot express simple emotions like fear, love, anger, and sadness. Children would always squeal in terror when I attacked their parents. When threatened they would always run and cower behind the nearest adult. Cornering the last members of a species, tearing the last adult limb from limb, and then hunting the screaming children down and ripping them to shreds was more disturbing than anything I ever felt playing Grand Theft Auto.


My child-eating Bozomorph

Any game that gives me this kind of experience is clearly fantastic. It made me feel bad, but hey, that's Darwinism. That's what I get for choosing the path of a meat eater. Welcome to evolution. There's going to be a lot more children dead by the time we get into outer space and bring our culture, whatever it may be, to other worlds.

I've only seen a fraction of SPORE, but so far it's making me think of many interesting things. It occurs to me that the game isn't really about simulating evolution. It's about us, the players, with our supposedly civilized minds, stepping into the shoes of our ancestors and seeing what choices we would make given similar circumstances. The answer is both chilling and obvious: we would be forced to make the same brutal decisions they made. It's sobering to think that genocide might be a prerequisite to civilization. Would we not be here had we not made those choices way, way back in the day? Is it even fair to use the word "we" since we are an entirely different species now? But even if we are different from the uncivilized animals of the past, does the fact that we wouldn't be here without them make us connected in some way? Don't we still, in certain circumstances, act exactly like our animal ancestors?

I'm interested to see whether or not I can shed my barbarism as I aim for the stars in SPORE. Will Wright has said on multiple occasions that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was one of the major inspirations for SPORE, that in a way SPORE is 2001 made into a system that users can play with. 2001 is about alien intervention in the course of human evolution. Highly advanced aliens give primitive humans the intelligence to use tools, which of course these barely sentient animals use as weapons to kill and conquer each other. This is the beginnings of technology, and the film draws an explicit connection between murderous brutality and technological development. Civilization is fundamentally a contradiction, always being built on the corpses of the defeated. This extends to the modern day, when space fairing humans are still poised to destroy each other with nuclear weapons. In the climax of 2001 the humans finally shed their own destructive technology and thus earn the right to join their makers in interstellar, evolutionary adulthood.


The beginning of civilization in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Will there be any such absolution in SPORE? I'm excited to find out. After millions of years will I really evolve? Will I really be more sophisticated? Or will the same might-makes-right logic apply in the age of space as it does in the most primitive, terrestrial life? If so, what does that tell us about the moral value of civilization?

Apocalyptic Videogames!

A truly apocalyptic game should not be confused with a game that merely contains apocalyptic elements. The industry is overflowing with games about "saving the world" which means a great many game stories feature some sort of apocalyptic threat. Most of these games do not qualify as genuinely apocalyptic since the threat never actually materializes. There are, however, games where the end of the world cannot be avoided, where watching civilization go up in flames is core to the experience. Games of this sort are often unforgettable, and if you haven't experienced them you are really missing something. Here are a few of the best ones...

Fallout (PC, 1997)

The apocalyptic nature of Fallout is right there in the title. In this game you are a survivor of the nuclear holocaust, part of a small community of people who escaped into Vault 13, a government-funded nuclear shelter miles underground. There your people have lived for nearly a century, functioning on the knowledge that human civilization has been utterly destroyed. Something goes wrong with Vault 13's automated water system, and you are the lone volunteer whose job it is to brave the surface in search of replacement parts. Thus begins your encounter with the horrors of nuclear devastation.


Fallout's sense of apocalyptic finality is established in the opening credits. They are haunting, featuring a scary Ron Perlman narrating how the world ends against real-life images of nuclear death. Its documentary vibe leaves you with the feeling that everything really is over. Everything you knew about this planet is gone, reduced to ash. And you were on the last lifeboat, with no home to come back to. By the time you reach the character creation screen, the mood is palpable. You feel the death, the hopelessness, the finality of it all. And then you're told to get out of your cave and explore, else the last handful of humans will be snuffed out forever, and Earth with be nothing but a rock, floating silently in space, waiting for the Sun to swallow it.


Of course you eventually discover you are not the last person left in the world, that there were other survivors of the holocaust, and that human civilization is, slowly, hobbling back into existence. But this is up to the player to discover on their own. Much of Fallout is about finding these people, about the player pulling back the veil of hopelessness themselves, piece by piece. Fallout goes to great lengths to ensure that you begin with this sense of hopelessness, that it is a very terrifying part of your journey. I don't think I've ever felt so alone as I have in a videogame as when I stepped out of Vault 13 for the first time, the voice of Ron Perlman still echoing in my head, wondering what out there could possibly be alive.

Odin Sphere (PS2, 2007)

Odin Sphere is one of the most apocalyptic games ever, featuring mass death and destruction on such a fabulous scale that by the time you even reach the last boss the entire world is already destroyed. When you, as the Valkyrie Gwendolyn, fight Levanthan, a dragon so gigantic to twists back and forth across the visible sky, the known world has already been swallowed up completely by the sea. This gives the last boss fight an eeire feeling, since what you are trying to accomplish is not entirely clear. It's certainly not saving the world. You and Levanthan feel like the last two creatures on Earth, and your only choice is to destroy each other. What's left afterwards, assumedly, will be nothing.


Odin Sphere is based very loosely on Norse mythology, with the concept of Ragnarok being central to the game. There are five playable characters in Odin Sphere: a Valkyrie, an knight, a fairy, and a witch. Each of them plays a part in the apocalypse, and for most of the game the player assumes they are destined to avert this apocalypse. But no. What happens is they all play a part in ensuring that the apocalypse happen correctly. Over the course of the game you collect books which cryptically describe the end of the world. If you interpret them correctly, and make the right choices in the final hours, the world ends with a chance of beginning again in the future. If you make the wrong choices, the world ends permanently. But either way, the world ends. The oceans boil. The skies fall. Cities are swallowed. People die by the millions. When they say Ragnarok in this game, they mean fucking Ragnarok.


The desperation of Odin Sphere is summed up by a brief cut-scene* at the end. Gwendolyn's lady in waiting, Myris, whom you've been friends with the whole game, stands atop the last mountain on Earth as it sinks into the boiling sea. She pleads, assumedly to God, that just two people survive so that her death and the deaths of untold millions won't be in vain. Then she sobs as the mountain crumbles into nothing. You only see this cinematic if you make a mistake near the end and get one of the "bad" endings. However, it is clear that this scene does take place, off screen, even in the good ending. As Gwendolyn is flying up to fight Levanthan, she looks down and sees the mountain crumble, apologizing to Myris that she couldn't save her. So there you have it. Even though in the best ending Gwendolyn and her lover alone survive to repopulate the world, civilization still gets wiped out in a wave of unimaginable horror. That's about as happy as Odin Sphere gets, making it one of the most melancholy games you will ever play.

Final Fantasy VI (SNES, 1994)

Every Japanese RPG is about saving the world. Final Fantasy VI is the only one where you don't. Midway through FFVI, when the typical genre elements are coming together, when the ancient power that will ravage the world is about to be unleashed, and you, the lone heroes, stand together to stop it... the unthinkable happens. You fuck up, and the world is ripped to pieces. Cut to one year later. The land is a waste. The sea is an endless brown sludge. The sky is red. All your party members are gone--dead, for all you know--and you are alone on a small island in the middle of a dead world, waiting to die.


Final Fantasy VI has balls, to say the least. I remember opening the package for the first time and looking at the game map. It had two sides. On one was the World of Balance, which looked all nice and green, and on the other was the World of Ruin, which looked like Earth after God used it for toilet paper. I had assumed the World of Ruin was some kind of netherworld, some magical dark reflection of the World of Balance, which you would go to periodically though out the game. It never even occurred to me that it represented a permanent change to the game, that after a certain point in Final Fantasy VI that brown turd of a world would be the only one you had. This reality came as big of a shock to me as it did to the characters in the story. I remember sitting there slack-jawed in disbelief as the continents ripped themselves apart before my eyes, followed by the ominous on-screen text: "On that day, the world was changed forever..."


The rest of the game is about surviving in this horrible world, about pulling yourself up, out of the misery, and finding something to live for. It's not easy. You have to travel around this wasteland, gathering up all your old friends one by one, having to convince each one not to give in to despair. You start with nothing but a wooden raft. The beautiful overworld music has been replaced by the sound of desolate, ceaseless wind. And there isn't a pixel of green color to be seen as you trudge across the desert landscape. None of this ever goes away, making the final hours of the game a painful adjustment process. There is hope to be found, you eventually discover, as well as beauty, in this dead world. But, by God, you have to work to find it. The sense of loss Final Fantasy VI is unlike any other game. No other game so decisively takes everything away from you and simply tells you to deal with it.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (N64, 2000)

How can one of the most apocalyptic games be one in which you avert the apocalypse? Isn't that breaking the rule? Majora's Mask certainly is a game where, at the end, you successfully save the world and avert the impending apocalypse. However, by that time you've experienced Armageddon more times than you can count. Majora's Mask is a game about time travel. In this game the only way to save the world is to witness its end over, and over, and over. Each time the world ends you just rewind time with your magical Ocarina and let it happen again. You have to study it. You have to find the key that will help you, one day, successfully prevent it. But that day is long in coming, and you will fail countless times before you succeed, making this the most brutal, relentless, and numbing apocalyptic experience in videogames.


In Majora's Mask the world is ending in three days, and that is not enough time to save it, even though you are Link, the hero of all the Zelda games, whose saved the world countless times before. This time, however, things aren't so easy. The moon is crashing into the earth in 72 hours, and you've got exactly that long to stop it. Majora's Mask takes place in real time, meaning the clock is ticking. Look up at any moment and you will see the moon inching closer. Your magical Ocarina can slow down time, but not stop it. Either way that moon in crashing, so you'd better hurry up and do your hero thing. Oh, wait. You got stuck in a dungeon and it took you 2 days to get through it? Tough shit, Link. Get ready for the end of the world.


The most harrowing thing about Majora's Mask is the people you meet. They are all in various stages of denial about the end of the world, and as you get increasingly familiar with them, with their daily lives, you become a witness to how they all deal with death. I doubt anyone who played Majora's Mask can forget the story of Anju and Kafei, two lovers kept apart by a curse. Over the course of the 72 hours you see Anju's misery at being away from her lover, how it makes the looming apocalypse all the more horrible for her. You know at 2:00 on the Second Day she will go for a walk and cry by herself in the park, and that she will run for the hills, without Kafei, at 6:00 on the Third Day. If you try really hard you can unite them, although you cannot ever lift the curse that has transformed Kafei. The best you are able to do is lead Kafei, in his cursed form, to Anju in the final hours, so they can share a final moment together before the end. As the moon is tearing the town apart around them they thank you and prepare for death. Such bitter moments are typical of Majora's Mask, and they will haunt you even after you finally solve the time puzzle and save the world.


It occurs to me that all of these games except one are Japanese. The scholar in me thinks this probably has something to do with the stronger apocalyptic tradition in Japanese pop-art. Japan has a strong apocalyptic sensibility, which some say is connected with their shared cultural experience of the atomic bomb. Interestingly, the only game on this list which features actual nuclear devastation is the non-Japanese one. Perhaps for the Japanese nuclear war hits too close to home? On the other hand, you see them dealing with apocalyptic anxiety pretty openly through fantasy. It's hard to find a Western game that forces players to deal with the finality of apocalyptic change, realistic or imagined, whereas in Japan it is a little easier. That's how it appears to me at least, based on these examples, which, I admit, are pretty narrow.

* Unfortunately, the only clip I could find of this cut-scene was in English. The English voice-acting is somewhat hammy, so I apologize. One of the great things about Odin Sphere is that it has a Japanese language option, making it a lot easier to take seriously all its melodrama. Watch this clip with the sound off if you want. It's subtitled.

Hardcore Gaming and The Price of Indie Development

Everyone who's played Braid seems to agree that it's pretty hard. I myself was able to finish it without too much trouble, although there were a handful of puzzles I found frustrating. There are others I've spoken to who are having a much rougher time with it, complaining that it demands too much of the player too quickly.

Braid is definitely a hardcore game. It is brutally difficult at times, both in terms of puzzles and platforming. On the other hand it is a very beautiful, unusual game that one imagines might appeal to a diverse audience. The intro especially seems to suggest a casual aesthetic, with minimal instructions and simple controls that ease the player into the experience. However, it betrays this simplicity quickly by escalating difficulty at a steep rate.

It's not simply that Braid is hard. It's that Braid reverses player expectations so continually and so rapidly it gives less determined users almost no time to build a stable foundation of competency. Put another way, it teaches the player a solution once and then immediately undercuts that solution in the next puzzle. For example, in World 2 there is a puzzle where you must rewind time in order to open two separate doors with the same key. This puzzle is clever and takes some figuring out, but once you get the principle it feels rewarding. However, the next puzzle actually punishes the player for employing the same strategy. In the new puzzle using the same key on two different doors actually breaks the puzzle, forcing the player to restart the level.

The second puzzle is a devious riff on the first, a trap of sorts set by the designer that forces the player to question their existing mental model and adjust. On one hand this is excellent game design, since it keeps astute players on their toes. On the other, it expects the player to comprehend, internalize, and adjust to new mental models with zero iteration.

Whether or not this is a flaw of Braid is an interesting question to consider. From the point of view of my own game experience I can't say that it is, but from the point of view of many players it might be. I certainly don't think a gentler difficulty curve would have hurt the game, but perhaps Jonathan Blow felt he didn't have the luxury of easing players into his puzzles as much as one would in a longer commercial game? I can easily imagine how an indie developer, having lived with a game design for several years, would want players to experience the true depth his core mechanics afford. It would be disheartening to spend all that blood and sweat and then just give players 25% of the complexity you know your system can support. On the other hand, an indie game of modest scope means the game will likely be short, which further means that the ramp up from easy to hard puzzles will be extremely steep. Given that Braid has only 35 screens, it has no choice but to up the ante significantly between puzzles in order to reach its peak by the end. There are only two ways to alter this curve: lower the peak or lengthen the game.

As an indie developer functioning on scant resources, Jonathan Blow perhaps didn't have the option of lengthening the game. It seems fair to assume, though, that he had the option of lowering the peak and chose not to... assumedly to give users the "full experience" of Braid. While I can understand this, it is a decision that may have cost him some players. Some people just can't scale a cliff that steep.

All this makes me wonder whether there is a paradox in indie development. Indie games in some ways can take risks that bigger games cannot, and they can attract game designers who have strong personal statements to make. But these strong personal statements may bump into a wall when the limited scope of indie games "forces" developers to choose between depth or accessibility.

Even if this paradox exists (and I'm not convinced it does, but it's intriguing to consider) I think there are some clever ways around it. Braid in particular I think would have benefited greatly had Blow taken a page from Miyamoto and made only a percentage of the levels mandatory. Mario 64, Mario Sunshine, and Mario Galaxy all employ an excellent system by which players only need to finish about 60% of all the levels in the game in order to unlock the final level. This means that, if players choose, they can skip the harder levels and play mostly the easier ones and still finish the game. Going back and finishing all the levels afterwards becomes a more hardcore task that only players of a certain level of dedication will do. These games successfully appeal to both kinds of players without flatly sacrificing content.

Braid is so modular that it seems like a similar system could have been implemented with virtually no change to the current game. I don't understand why Jonathan Blow felt it was necessary to force players to gain every single puzzle piece in order to even have the option of finishing the game. Braid basically forces players to 100% the game on the first play through, which seems needlessly demanding. To my mind, making some of the puzzle pieces optional for completion would have not only made the game easier on more casual players; it would have enhanced the invitation to interpretation that characterizes Braid, motivating players to go back, after the ending, and find more puzzle pieces to unlock the mysteries of the story.

Perhaps not all these choices were up to Jonathan Blow? I'd be interested to hear what he has to say about why Braid was balanced the way it was. I can only speculate of course. Still though, I think this is proof that Braid is an extremely useful game to analyze. It seems like future indie developers have alot to learn from it, both good and bad.


[WARNING: The below post contains some small spoilers.]

Braid is a very strange game. I just finished it and I'm not sure what I feel. I wasn't expecting something so... lyrical, maybe? I don't know what the right word is. Braid is one part poetry, two parts hard-core puzzle game. I'm not sure how seriously the metaphorical layer is meant to be taken. On one hand the poetic bits feel very "separate" from the game. You can simply ignore all the text if you want. Yet the graphics, the lovely Van Gogh-like art style, is a bit harder to ignore. The music also does much to create an introspective, dream-like mood. Even without the text, it's difficult to take Braid simply as entertainment.


The big mystery of the game, I suppose, is what the gameplay has to do with the story. There clearly is a connection, but it seems deliberately obscure. On the most basic level, Braid's traditional platforming elements and time manipulation stuff seems intended as a loose metaphor for the trials, mistakes, and corrections in a relationship. The "princess" of this game seems like some weird ideal of romantic love that the protagonist is forever in search of. Or maybe she's a metaphor for failed relationships? I have no idea really. Whatever the case, it is clear that she is a metaphor, which, at least, is something Braid seems determined not to let the player walk away from the game without realizing.

I haven't put much thought into interpreting Braid. I finished it after several hours of play, and my immediate impression is one of dreamy confusion. I confess to reading most of the text quickly, without really trying to find a coherent thread in it. I'm not sure if there is one, or if the text bits are meant to be disjointed fragments. The only reoccurring theme is the princess. This is probably why the final sequence, where you finally find the princess, gave me an emotional reaction. I couldn't believe I got so close to her, and even cooperated with her, only to have time rewind, and have her disappear like a phantom. Did I do that on purpose? Why was rewinding the only thing I could do? I wanted to be with her, if only to get some answers to all these bizarre feelings and images. But she just vanished.


Braid makes the most sense if you conclude that everything in it represents a dreamer's waking life filtered through a host of subconscious symbols. It feels like the dream of a gamer, an expression of the collective unconscious generated by a life-time of game playing. This, to me, explains all the references to other videogames, which are all videogames with princesses. Braid may be an attempt by a gamer to make a game that expresses the connection between frivolous game conventions and real life, of how silly ideas like "save the princess" seep into our consciousness and become part of our shared cultural experience. It may be an attempt to reform that silliness, by giving these ideas metaphorical value they normally lack. Braid could be seen as a critique of games like Mario in this way, where "saving the princess" is just some meaningless goal. Here it is meaningless as well, but its phantom nature has been twisted into a meditation on the elusiveness of happiness. The design goal of Braid, in essence, seems to be to reformulate the words "I'm sorry, but the princess is in another castle" as an existential crisis. So that when the dinosaur eventually asks you "This princess... does she even exist?" you honestly don't know. Even at the end, when you find her, she may still just be a phantom... one that you are forever chasing.

Go! Go! Go! Bionic!

Now this is what I call a trailer.

Bionic Commando was, in many ways, the game that made me love videogames. Oh sure, I played Super Mario Bros. and other games excessively before that, but Bionic Commando was the first time I became genuinely obsessed with a game as a fictive experience. Why do I still like games with stories? Why do I still hope every game I play has an epic final sequence that I'll never forget? It's because of Bionic Commando. It's because it set the bar. It's because I was 11 years old and suddenly some dude put a bazooka in my hand and said the fate of the world depended on me shooting Hitler in the face while free falling off a cliff.

Bionic Commando Rearmed is a remake made by fans who, as far as I can tell, had the exact formative experience I did. Their interviews read like what I just wrote in the above paragraph. It's for this reason that Bionic Commando Rearmed will be Rated 'M', even though there seems to be nothing in the trailers that's particularly bloody. It's because Bionic Commando wouldn't be Bionic Commando without this:


My favorite exploding Hitler.

The Real Tragedy Is What Passes For Tragedy.

WARNING: What follows are major spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

There was an article at Kotaku a while ago about tragedy in videogames. More specifically, it was about tragedy in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. The following passage sums it up:

That's what feels so unusual about MGS4 even compared to the other MGS games. This is a sad story, one that feels destined to end in defeat. Snake is aging and dying. He's literally become toxic to the people around him. And his back hurts. (Which you'll see him clutch in pain if you let him crouch too long). MGS4 is the rare effort of video game blues and tragedy.

I find it amazing that people are saying such things about Metal Gear Solid 4, a game where the good guys win, the bad guys lose, the world is saved, and everyone lives happily ever after. Somehow the fact that Guns of the Patriots has a schmaltz-drenched Hollywood ending doesn't stop Kotaku from concluding:

Gamers are used to being asked to save the day and be the hero. Metal Gear Solid 4 is so unusual in that it's the rare game that asks them to be interested in something else: a march toward defeat, an interactive tragedy. That's what feels novel.

Hailing Metal Gear Solid 4 as a tragedy is wrong on so many levels I hardly know where to begin. First of all, MGS4 isn't a tragedy. Secondly, even if it were it wouldn't be an interactive tragedy. Thirdly, Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 qualify as better tragedies than MGS4. And fourthly, there are several other games out there I can think of which are both more tragic and more interactive than any Metal Gear game.

MGS4 may present itself as bleak and cynical, but its ending proves this entire attitude is a smokescreen. The Metal Gear series has grown more and more morally complex with each installment, but all that comes tumbling down in Guns of the Patriots, crushed to death under a mountain of fan-service. The Patriots, the totalitarian puppet masters of America first introduced in MGS2, are dismantled in an instant by a computer virus without the mechanisms of modern civilization so much as shuddering. This is followed by a 20 minute scene where two long-time series characters get married. Then there is another 20 minute scene where even more characters are reunited with lost family members, accompanied by ample tears of joy. Somewhere in the middle of all this Snake decides not to kill himself, at which point his long dead father, Big Boss, shows up thanks to some ridiculous plot magic, gives Snake a 30 minute monologue about the value of life, and promptly dies. Taken all together this is an endless, pummeling assault of mushy sentiment and convenient resolutions. It's all about as tragic as the end of Independence Day.


Metal Gear Solid 4: Everyone Gets Married.

And even if the ending of MGS4 was tragic, even if Snake died, even if destroying The Patriots meant leaving a gaping hole in the world that only anarchy would fill, and even if no one got married at the end, MGS4 would still not be the "interactive tragedy" that Kotaku claims it to be, because it would still not be interactive. There is not a shred of meaningful choice the player is given during the cut-scene strangled final hours of MGS4. Is that what tragedy is? Just a bunch of cut-scenes? Wouldn't tragedy, realized in a procedural way, be a system in which it is impossible to reach a proper win state? Wouldn't it be a game in which the player's own inability to master the system and reach their end goal is cathartic, illuminating, and meant to encourage reflection on the limits of choice and agency a fundamentally unfair world? Wouldn't it be something like Deus Ex, where at the end the player is actually given the choice between anarchy or totalitarianism... and both kind of suck?


In Deus Ex there is no perfect solution to the world's problems.

The frustrating thing is, Metal Gear has historically been quite clever at working tragedy into its gameplay structures. While they never aspired to the clear-cut open-endedness of Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 did some wonderful and subversive things with genre, exploiting videogame conventions for commentary on the horrors of non-agency in the face of corrupt political power. You want tragedy? Try Metal Gear Solid 2, the game where the bad guys win. In the final stretch of that game The Patriots rub your own pathetic lack of agency in your face as you soldier on, their willing puppet, forced to complete the "story" they've designed for you: killing the terrorist and saving America. Is it just a clever excuse for MGS2's own lack of player choice? It certainly is. It's also a very effective metaphor for totalitarian control. You have no freedom to do anything beyond what that game forces you to do, and that's the chilling thought MGS2--quite intentionally--leaves you with: you are a slave. Metal Gear Solid 3 is a variation on this theme. This time the player is forced into a familiar genre, the James Bond film, but the morality is turned upside down. Killing anyone results in their ghosts haunting you. And your final objective, to kill your mentor and friend whom the U.S. government has branded a traitor, must be carried out with cold determination. The game even pauses in the final cut-scene so the player can pull the trigger himself. Metal Gear Solid 4, by comparison, doesn't come close to the bleakness of these two games. Anyone who claims it does clearly has put no thought into the matter.


The Patriots give you a pep talk before the last boss of Metal Gear Solid 2.

Even Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 are not the best examples of tragedy in videogames. They are interesting examples (far more interesting than MGS4) but they still don't come close to what other games have done. I've already mentioned Deus Ex, but there are many others. How about Fallout, where your reward for saving the world is being kicked out of your home and forced to wander a nuclear-irradiated wasteland? How about Shadow of the Colossus, where the player must literally let go and accept the fact that Wander will never be with his lover again? How about Suikoden 2, where you are forced for murder your best friend before the game is over? How about Ikaruga, where the goal of the entire game is to survive to the final boss so you can commit suicide? Or how about the mother of all tragic games: Planescape Torment, the game where the "best ending" is going to hell to atone for your sins? The length of Torment's entire playtime is about discovering what a bastard you really are, how you've hurt all those around you, and how the most noble thing you can ever hope to do is accept responsibility for all your wickedness. How's that for a win state?


Your best friend dies in your arms at the end of Suikoden 2.


Those you've wronged demand justice in Planescape: Torment.

I can't imagine how someone could be aware of all these things and still be impressed by Metal Gear Solid 4. I want nothing more than to see a real watershed in procedural tragedy, but if people think Guns of the Patriots is it we've got a big problem.

Halo Kid slides backwards down the uncanny valley

Already hyped as "the new Star Wars kid" and "the next Tron Guy" by peeps in the know, Halo Kid mania is on the rise.

Using only cardboard and packing tape, the Halo Kid achieves an astonishing level of detail in his work. To date, he has crafted all of the weapons in Halo 3 and built a custom set of armor. More subtle, yet even more fascinating is the way that he uses his body to perform Master Chief, the player-avatar in Halo 3.

After showing off each weapon to the camera, Halo Kid steps back into the frame to demonstrate the weapon's proper use. In doing so, he mimics the body language of Master Chief with surprising accuracy. Slowly spinning on the balls of his feet, he aims a laser, reloads his rifle, kneels down repeatedly, and silently mimes a pistol's recoil. These actions looks strange and unnatural to the non-player because they were designed within the limitations of the gamespace. By removing them from their original context and performing them in his garage, the Halo Kid places the movements of Master Chief in relation to the archetypical human body rather than other computer-generated body-representations.

In-game, we see the best that the dev team could do within an imperfect technical environment. Presumably, Master Chief might move differently were the game able to more finely compute his movement while maintaining a smooth physical simulation. The dance of the Halo Kid, on the other hand, is the result of a sequence of deliberate human choices. By using his relatively more free human body to mimic the constrained motion of an anthropomorphic avatar, the Halo Kid denies compromise in Master Chief's movement. No matter how awkward they may appear, Master Chief moves deliberately. The Halo Kid's imitations permit viewers to see Master Chief move without constant reference to a distracting technical context.

When thinking about the visual evolution of games, I generally assume that developers steadily progress the from left to right along the "uncanny valley". In this case, however, Halo Kid confounds this common understanding by positioning the movement of his own body somewhere closer to the dreaded corpse-pose at the valley's punto más bajo. While developers struggle to bring human likeness to the avatars in gamespaces, fans like the Halo Kid willingly yield a bit of their free movement to enjoy the mild bondage that characterizes life in a 3-D game engine.

The best thing to come out of E3 '08

You need to watch this. The Trailer for Duke Nukem Trilogy:

Watch the whole thing if you can. You don't want to miss the multiple MS Paint guns or the Duke Nukem Crotch Shot.

What you have just viewed is the trailer for a game that will never, ever get made. It's like the people at Apogee are going for the world's longest Shaggy Dog joke, and the punchline will somehow involve bubble gum. I mean, the damn thing has a visual chorus of the three titles flying by. Hilarious!

Rockman Lovers Drivin' Lamborghinis

Over the weekend, I spent some time watching this video:

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What Games Can Learn From Shakespeare: Part One

Everybody can learn something from Shakespeare. Scholars refer to his deep understanding of the human condition as one of the keys to his universal appeal, across languages, cultures, and time. Understanding his plays was a motivation to improve my English when I was a teenager (I'm not a native speaker and no, I didn't learn my English all from Shakespeare, else thou wouldst be reading Early Modern English now). I find what I learned studying Shakespeare during my undergrad and graduate school relevant and useful to what I do now as a videogames scholar. The relevance of Shakespeare does not only have to do with writing, but also with the design of the game, from how to give cues to interaction to how to involve players into the gameworld.

So videogame makers, particularly designers and (obviously) writers, can learn quite a few things from the Bard of Avon. Let me count the ways.

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Throwback videogames, digital distro, and atavistic joy

The relentless march of technological progress burdens game developers by forcing teams to repeatedly spend time and energy learning the idiosyncrasies of the latest gear rather than sharpen their skills on a single toolset. As a result, few gaming platforms are explored to the depth that other creative technologies have enjoyed. Compare the number of DJs still playing vinyl records on Technics-1200 turntables to the population developing new SNES titles.

Mega Man 2 screenshot
Screenshot from Mega Man 2 on the NES.

Keiji Inafune, the Capcom character designer responsible for Mega Man, recently remarked about this constraint:

"[The simple fun of a classic Mega Man game] doesn't fit into the grandiose and expansive world that the consumer gaming industry has become, and so you have to make games that match the current expectations."

The unnamed force here is the cash factor. Consumers paying top dollar for the latest-gen console expect to be dazzled. Developing a title that could have come from that grey box in the closet is incredibly risky. Fortunately, the growth of digital distribution is sufficiently shifting the financial balance to permit long tail niche development to seep into gaming. (Though Geoffrey makes a good point in complicating notions of "niche" in his earlier entry on the subject.)

The latest issue of Nintendo Power reveals that the next installment in the Mega Man series will be a "new NES game" complete with chiptune soundtrack and faithful 8bit graphics.

Mega Man 9 screenshot
Screenshot from Mega Man 9 on the Wii (as printed in Nintendo Power).

According to the article, the popularity of retrographics on t-shirts and other nostalgic bric-a-brac convinced Capcom that it was the "right time" to revive the original Mega Man aesthetic.

This announcement is an encouraging sign that the unfortunate neglect of past platforms by the mainstream gaming industry is beginning to ebb. Free from the need to create playable demos of the latest hardware, studios can nurture a unique language and approach to game design and development.

Innovation along many axes will finally break the brutal linearity characterizing many of the last decade's popular titles (Doom begat Half-Life begat Halo 3...). The beauty of Flash-based titles like Dino Run is an early indication of the potential in joining a persistent platform to yesterday's aesthetics.

In its pursuit of "the upper-limits of 8-bit", I suspect Inafune's team will be surprised to discover a ceiling of considerable height. Let's hope they inspire others to similarly explore past aesthetics, constraints, and joys.

WiiWare, PSN, XBLA and the Long Tail

Ever since I first heard about Nintendo's WiiWare, Sony's PlayStation Network and Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade, I've been excited about the opportunities these services provide for so-called 'long tail' content. We've already seen new inroads being made into episodic gaming by Telltale Games' Sam & Max and Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People and by Penny Arcade and Greenhouse Games' On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode I. All of these games are based on relatively niche properties, but are garnering some real attention despite never appearing on a single Best Buy endcap.

Today I caught word of two more intriguing projects coming to WiiWare, although their 'niche' status is somewhat debatable.

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Sometimes narrative as narrative is the answer

A few weeks ago in Game Set Watch, movie and screenwriter Justin Marks chided the game industry for calling the story in Grand Theft Auto IV "Oscar-worthy". In the article, Marks wondered if gameplay as narrative is the answer.

The adventure of Niko Bellic, complete with its comic assortment of ethnic cliches, is pretty much on par with the rest of the franchise's self-conscious worship of movie archetypes and genre tropes. And there's nothing wrong with that. Rockstar has made clear that's all they've ever wanted to do, and they've done a damn fine job at that (although I do miss some of that charming humor from Vice City and San Andreas).

The problem here is not the quality of the story, but the manner in which it is incorporated into the gameplay. After skipping over countless cut scenes so I could get to the action, I slowly began to regard plot in GTA IV as being something akin to the Clinton marriage: why do they bother with the charade? Is there anyone in this country who honestly thinks these two people still sleep in the same bed?

After all the incredible advances in their game engine, why does Rockstar insist on making its story an accessory – a needless, comparatively inferior element? More to the point, how did narrative become such a side bar to the real point of gaming, i.e. our ability to play out our deepest fantasies in a virtual world?

I found myself nodding in agreement at the start, but then wincing at some old, overworn ideas as his essay continued. By the time the essay started to near the end, Marks was returning to some familiar, obvious claims:

We need to stop thinking about story as a device to make us care about the gameplay (it doesn't), and start thinking about the gameplay as the narrative itself (thus, making us care). Now that the technology has finally reached a breaking point, a place where we can genuinely craft sophisticated worlds, we have to understand that plot is not forced upon those worlds artificially, but grown from our interactions within their environments.

Story design needs to be less checkpoint-focused and more focused on implementing a meta structure that makes us believe we are shaping events with our choices, even if these choices have already been made for us.

The "story on rails" has now been exposed. Game engines are strong enough that we can see the seams in the narrative fabric. It's no longer acceptable that we can take our girlfriend on a date and never once have her mention the fact that we're carrying a missile launcher by our side. We need to believe our actions have consequences within the virtual universe and that the experiences we are living are wholly unique, even if they aren't.

This is all very, very old news. Marks' assertions and observations are fair enough, except that like most generalizations, when extended out to encompass everything it falters and fails.

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GAMBIT Summer Orientation '08 - Singapore

You never realise how blissful it is to have a quiet day just sitting in a chair at the office until you've spent two weeks' worth of very hectic orientation activities with 45 budding game developers.

The official Singapore-based orientation activities for the GAMBIT '08 students have finally drawn to a close yesterday. We ran them through a huge series of talks, workshops and team-building activities, focusing in turn on all aspects of game development - the entire gamut of design, production, art, audio, code, QA, localization, research, audience and genre, cultural differences, professionalism, the various game companies in Singapore, and even how to pass their first hiring interview in the industry. It was insane. It was crazy. It was one of the most enjoyable times of the year.

Actually, now that I think about it, it was way longer than two weeks. It started nearly a month and a half ago, when we first invited the new generation of Scrummasters to sit in on the different meetings we had ongoing in the Singapore lab. They observed and watched as Zul and I, the two producers in the lab here, conducted our Sprint Planning, Daily Scrums, Sprint Reviews and Retrospectives, and design meetings. They asked questions, and we tried to pass on to them as much of the lessons learned over the last year as we could.

Then we turned it over to them.

The Seven Samurai Scrummasters took charge of their teams from Day One of the official orientation period. This time around, everyone's going in thoroughly-briefed. Throughout the entire orientation period, the teams sat together, ate together and worked together. They know each other, they know their project and platform, they know the challenges that lie ahead, and they hopefully know just how intense it's going to be, since we pulled back quite a few of last year's generation to give talks about the various roles which they played.

Already, this generation is forging legends and memories of its own: from the epic Scrummaster vs. Scrummaster showdown during the orientation card games, to that unforgettable night at Hooters, to all the in-jokes about mentors... this generation has become, in just this short period of time, the seed of something great. I can't wait to see what they're all going to come up with over the next 9 weeks or so.

This summer's going to be a blast!


Okay, that's enough effervescence for today. A more detailed writeup, accompanied by videos, will be up as soon as we can make it. In the meantime, you can check out the photos.

Dinos can't survive on bones alone

Run, Dino, Run!

Dino Run is the best game of 2008. The premise is simple: a meteor hits the Earth, sets off a doom wave, and all the animals start running. A light homage to Pitfall, Dino combines the the exhilirating platform sprinter vibe of Sonic with the expressive vector graphics of Another World, the addictive multiplayer of SNES Mario Kart, a terminal micromusic soundtrack, and hats - really nice hats.

All hyperbolic comparisons aside, I had a fascinating experience with Dino Run that has set questions of intimacy and co-presence loose in my mind for the last few days. I was up late the night of Dino Run's release finishing school work. I took a break, found an acquaintance on IM, and convinced her to do the same. We agreed to meet up in "Dino Central" and, after a little messing around, we were running for our lives.

Two Dinos and a Meteor

Having played the game a bit in lab that afternoon, I quickly leapt ahead of my dino buddy. Yet, despite every indication to keep on running, when I saw her little icon falling behind on the race map, I stopped, turned my dino around, and ran left to find out if she was stuck!

Critical moment here, folks. The decision to turn around is counter to the very core imperative, not to mention the driving narrative, of Dino Run: GO TO THE RIGHT.

I caught up to her easily and the two of us ran through the rest of the map within a few hundred pixels of one another. Why didn't I just blast through the level and leave her behind? It wasn't the same impulse that would cause me to go easy on a n00b in Street Fighter or for my sportier friends not to stuff me everytime I take a shot when we play (irl) basketball. I didn't turn around simply because I wanted to make the game fun. I turned around because to run ahead would have been to abandon her.

I Dream of Brontosaurus

I can recall experiencing only one other moment of similarly strong emotional projection. Last year, a friend from my place of work invited me to visit a particularly spectacular build he had completed in Second Life. We met up in-world sometime in the evening and he lead me around his Zen garden, water fall, and tea house. As the tour came to an end, he lead me up a mountain to a tiny notch he'd carved for two avatars to sit and look out over the sea. Clicking on one of the orbs he'd installed on the ledge, I saw my short, gender-ambiguous avatar begin to snuggle up against my colleague's well-dressed male avatar.

I immediately felt like I had made a social faux paus and was compelled to apologize. After just a few minutes in SL, an environment I did not visit often, I had so fully given over my sense of self to my on-screen avatar that the nerves along my skin reacted to the unintended intimacy. Goosebumps (piel de gallina) stood visible along my forearms and my heart sped up. My body was reacting as though it had actually touched someone inappropriately rather than the avatar I was controlling with minute movements of my hands and wrists.

Thank you, Apatasaur

As my friend and I ran along the back of apatasaurus, I felt a similar blurring of boundaries, a sense of screen empathy. My dino-friend and I do not live in the same city and we know each other primarily through our work interests. Meeting up to play Dino Run seemed no different than chatting on gtalk until I actually saw our dinos running around in their pixelated world. It felt unexpectedly as though we were changing the terms of our friendship. Rather than work buddies, we are now friends who get together occasionally for recreational activities, however virtual they may be.

There is something both liberating and frightening about this experience of the projected self. It challenges the perceived edges of selfdom. If my selfness is so quick to jump ship for a cute little pile of dino-pixels, what is keeping it coming back to me everytime I turn the browser to another URL? Or is the self constantly shifting when I am connected to the network? Is my experience with the little dino just a more tangible manifestation of an everyday leapfrog: from username to inbox to avatar to photoshop tool to blinking cursor?

(Cross-posted to Todo Mundo.)

The Pros of Cons

Over the course of the last couple of years, I have been fortunate enough to attend a wide variety of different professional gatherings either as a speaker or simply as an attendee. This list includes SIGGRAPH's Sandbox Conference, the MIT-hosted Media in Transition Conference, FuturePlay in Toronto, South by Southwest (SXSW), the Bethesda Small Press Expo (SPX), the Game Developers Conference (GDC), WonderCon and, most recently, the New York Comic-Con. Most of these events are accompanied by several common denominators: some semi-hectic travel arrangements, some dubious hotels, a number of thoroughly excited and geeky conversations between equally excited and geeky people, and a not insignificant amount of griping about the nature of the event in question.

At almost every event, people complain that this year's isn't as good "as they used to be", that the event wasn't "what they expected it would be", or something along those lines. Of all of them, though, nowhere was that griping louder than at this year's GDC in San Francisco. Speakers and attendees alike groused about how the event was changing after the collapse of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3); while GDC had always been solidly technical, academic and theoretical in nature, E3 had long been the agreed-upon blow-out demofest for marketing types and the public. If GDC was a library, E3 was an amusement park. Following E3's implosion due to ever-escalating costs and increasing ROI concerns, the marketing departments had turned their attention on GDC. The result of this was a huge amount of tension because of an increased confusion about what GDC was supposed to be.

If you look at the list of events I outlined in the first paragraph, almost all of them fall neatly into one of two categories: conference or convention. A conference is typically an event attended by people who largely share a similar profession, gathering in one place to talk shop. A convention is typically an event attended by people who largely share a similar hobby, gathering in one place to buy stuff they can't get elsewhere and geek out. At both types of events people go to hang out with 'their tribe', others who are passionate about the same things, and to listen to (and hopefully meet) people they admire or who do things that the attendees find incredibly cool. Both events are (or at least should be) fun, but they're often fun in different ways. To reuse a metaphor, conferences are libraries and conventions are amusement parks.

I attended GDC for the first time this year, and although this might not be a popular opinion among the old guard, I was grateful that there was some degree of convention involved in the conference. I like my conferences with a dash of convention -- I like it when I can come out of a great discussion about a particular topic and immediately buy some of the books, games, comics or what-have-you under discussion so I can dive right into them once I've returned to my hotel. This gleeful quasi-intellectual consumerism is improved even further when those things can be obtained at a 'trade show discount' of 20% or more. Throw in a cheap branded cloth attendee bag full of freebies and coupons and I'm a happy boy.

That said, even I had to agree that this year's GDC felt incredibly schizophrenic. The high point of this for me was the Microsoft keynote. I went in excited and hopeful that we'd hear some new announcements concerning indie development on the Xbox Live Arcade -- and, to be fair, my wish was granted. However, it was very much a case of "be careful what you ask for" -- while I was hoping for an in-depth demo of how independent developers could build, distribute, market and profit from games on Microsoft's XBLA, what I got was little more than a long, extended sales pitch. There was little to no hard data, no real how-to discussion, and absolutely zero discussion of the business model attached to this SHINY NEW PIECE OF AWESOME that Microsoft was trotting out and expecting the audience to fawn over. Instead of a technical document we got a press release -- or, worse, a total fluff piece. This was crystallized when the so-called 'keynote' ended with a flash of pyrotechnics and Cliffy B exploding onto the stage, chainsaw gun in hand, to announce Gears of War 2.

Now, again, I'm not saying there's no place for this kind of thing. Quite the contrary, in fact -- but that place is a convention, not a conference. With E3 gone, GDC is in danger of ceasing to be a conference and openly becoming a convention, which I think might be a horrible mistake. While at the New York Comic-Con, I found myself thinking that this was the kind of place where those types of announcements might have been more warmly received. Konami had a huge prescence on the trade show floor there, where they were demoing (among other things) their upcoming Hellboy game. The New York Comic-Con and the San Diego Comic-Con have both become increasingly less dependent upon comics and become more all-media geekfests with panels on comics, video games, feature films, television and so on. Even the less high-profile Wondercon, which was happening the exact same weekend as GDC and in the other half of the exact same convention center, had a notable showing of video game-related content. I found myself thinking then, much as I did later in New York, that the overlap in the two events' Venn diagram was huge -- but very few attendees of either conference was aware that the other was going on until they actually got there and noticed the swarm of OTHER nerds doing interesting things across the street.

This is, obviously, a huge missed opportunity. Instead of having developers grouse about Microsoft's convention-like "keynote", why not deliberately organize both events at the same time with a shared ticket option for those who want something from both worlds? Conventions usually offer panel discussions and lectures in classrooms in addition to their trade shows, as well as scheduled big announcements from the most high-profile corporations in attendance. When those are sales pitches, attendees accept that as what they are -- but they aren't being sold as keynote lectures. Similarly, attendees of GDC who had been expecting that kind of big pyrotechnic display would have been deeply disappointed in the excellent-but-dry-by-comparison keynote lecture on far-flung futurism by Dr. Raymond Kurzweil.

GDC is currently trying to court two very different audiences, which can certainly be done successfully through a clearer terminology and a clearer marketing strategy. By delineating which parts are conference and which parts are convention, GDC (and the Comic-Cons, for that matter) can expand their audiences and capitalize on the increased amount of cross-interest between these different-but-similar entertainment industries. The key is simply remembering what parts are libraries and what parts are amusement parks.

Bottom line: no one is happy when someone tries to give a lecture on a roller coaster.

Persepolis for Xbox 360?

Last week I bought a game I swore I wouldn't buy: Just Cause. I swore I wouldn't buy this game when I read that its politcal premise--the overthrow of a corrupt South American regime through guerrilla warfare--would involve the typical American rhetoric that, it would seem, no war-themed game can exist without: the protection of American interest. Thus a game that could have been, provocatively, Che Guevara meets Grand Theft Auto became yet another emulation of Chuck Norris barf bag cinema, the kind where some helpless country needs a swaggering yank to pull it, kicking and screaming if necessary, to democracy. This is why in Just Cause you are some CIA dude, and not just a suffering citizen of the (fictional) country who's finally had enough. One might imagine that a horrific dictatorship would be reason enough to go guerrilla, but in Just Cause we need the threat of WMD's which could possibly be used on America to justify ass kickery. Viva la Revolucion!

The notion fills me with disappointment. I know better than to expect a serious, documentary-like experience from a mainstream videogame, and yes many games are just elaborate power trips. But what's wrong with a power trip in which the indigenous population gets empowered in a way that isn't filtered through America's big brother mythology? Ugh. Still, I bought it last week.

I bought Just Cause because I played it at a friend's house, and it turned out to be pretty fun. The American aspect of the story is more or less in the background. Your avatar is Latin American at the very least, though he does appear to work for the CIA. The story itself is still moronic, full of Hollywood cliches. But those cliches make for fun gameplay at times, like when you perform all manner of ridiculous stunts. My friends and I had a ball riding cars, boats, and even planes like surfboards as we ran from government stooges. After that, I decided to swallow my political angst and pick it up for cheap.

Then, yesterday, my girlfriend and I went to see Persepolis.

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Violence and Games, One Student's Perspective (Part 1)
Boston State House, courtesy of Snurb on flickr

Earlier this month,I went to the Boston State House to witness a hearing on House Bill 1423. The bill would amend Massachusetts law to explicitly include video games as in the list of media regulated with respect to content, and to additionally include violence that is "patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community" as a type of obscenity. Of course, being a public hearing, there was a fairly extensive docket for the Judiciary Committtee that day, including a bill to change access to criminal records (CORI) , judicial appointments, marijuana law reform, and something or other about casinos.

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Game Design Bootcamp@Danube University Krems

Teaching game design workshops is always an experience and I jump at every chance of making another one. So when my friend and colleague, Prof. Michael Wagner from the Danube University in Krems, Austria, suggested to host a biannually Game Design Bootcamp as part of his game studies master course, and that I was supposed to teach it, I was delighted. The three day kick off workshop was in early January 2008. It was fun, it was different. It was an experience I'd like to share with you.

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GDC 2008 Round Up

The Game Developer's Conference, GDC for short, is the annual meeting of the entire video games industry: from studio executives to indie developer to academics, just about everyone who works with games for a living either attends or follows the proceedings. Last year I covered some of the more interesting presentations; this year I'll discuss some of the prevalent themes to come out of the conference.

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The Cultural Myths about First Person Shooters

The teaser trailer of Duke Nukem Forever was released last month, and the anger that makes me rant a bit about First Person Shooters still lasts. I play FPSs on occassion, mostly because it's homework, though I enjoy them most in a LAN party against other people in the same room. But there are a few things about FPSs that really bug me, which have less to do with the genre itself and more with a series of myths revolving around FPSs being the quintessencial videogame genre.

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Product Placement and Gamer Culture

There have been several TV shows this past fall that have included videogames as an important part of certain episodes. I'd like to say this is a symptom of acceptance of videogaming as general cultural practice. Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to explain: product placement. Traditionally this means products are displayed at some point during a show (have you noticed what is the only game console that appears in Heroes?); now games are actually being written into episodes as key plot elements. The challenges of this product placement strategy are how to display the game, as well as how to portray the culture of the people who play videogames.

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Ebert Likes Hitman, Hates Games

Roger Ebert just gave his first favorable review (as far as I'm aware) to a movie based on a videogame. Naturally this doesn't stop him from bashing games. But at least it's a slight variation in his normal behavior.

The [Hitman] movie, directed by Xavier Gens, was inspired by a best-selling video game and serves as an excellent illustration of my conviction that video games will never become an art form -- never, at least, until they morph into something else or more.

He goes on to explain how the story is not bad and that the movie actually has interesting characters. But this is all undercut, he claims, by the scenes of endless shooting in which 47 appears invincible and in which truck loads of people die. These scenes are "no doubt from the video game," he concludes.

Ebert's status as a crank when it comes to videogames is well documented. Yet it's still interesting to see just how ignorant he is of the medium, let alone the genres, he's criticizing. Anyone who's played Hitman knows that it's not about walking down hallways killing endless streams of people. It's about planning a hit for hours, getting every detail right, and then finally striking in total secrecy. A good player will not kill anyone except the person they are supposed to kill, which means the Hitman games often become excruciating studies at avoiding violence in every possible way.

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Hooray for Samus Aran!


The Galactic Federation sure is great in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. They help Samus Aran kick Space Pirate butt and save the universe once again. Corruption ends with a massive, Return of the Jedi style space battle. Samus leads thousands of Federation ships in an assault on Phaaze, the source of a radioactive disease that has been infecting the galaxy for three consecutive games. Yay for Samus! Yay for the Federation! Yay for me, who waited six years for all this!

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Senators Love Games Too!

I met a Massachusetts senator last week who loved games. At first I wasn't sure if he was the real thing, since he kept gushing about how much he liked "Grand Theft Miami." But he did seem to have a basic knowledge of someone who had actually picked up a controller. Even though he got the name wrong, he seemed to understand the difference between GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas. At one point his aide jumped in about how much he loved Halo, Call of Duty, and a slew of other FPS's. Yes, these lawmakers loved games where you blow shit up real good. And they weren't afraid to admit this to people they didn't even know.

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Reflections on a GAMBIT Summer

As a new semester gets going full-swing for MIT students and faculty, with classes and projects threatening to subsume all memory of summer, it seemed an ideal time to reflect on the accomplishments of a group of students that eschewed summer frivolity for nine weeks of hard work. The GAMBIT Summer Program brought brilliant students from Singapore's tertiary education institutions together with MIT students to form six crackerjack video game development teams (and one sound design odd couple). Over nine weeks, we brainstormed, designed, illustrated, coded, argued, redesigned, recoded, and came out the other end with the 6 games we've featured on the site before.

For a taste of what the summer experience was like, check out the video at the following link:

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