Thursday, August 30, 2007

Shooting Fish in Hell

I've been anti-first person shooter for years. My opinion is turning around, and it's thanks to something else I've denounced for a while: graphics. Well, not just because of graphics, but technology in general.

My first point in this argument is that I love Doom. Love, love, love Doom. So it's not that I don't like the first person shooter genre. I also played Quake. Also played Unreal, Half-Life, Marathon, Medal of Honor, Halo, and Hexen. Couldn't stand any of them (though to be fair it's cause I could never run Half-Life well enough to really play it, so that's not fair). What became frustrating was the way everyone talked about Halo as if it was the greatest thing to happen to video games since...well Doom. I've never thought Halo could hold a candle to Doom. Is that an actual phrase? Hold a candle?

Three games that have recently come out have turned me somewhat. Gears of War, Battlefield 2142, and Bioshock. And you know what, let's throw Metroid Prime in there, though I'm not going to talk about it. I'm sure there are more that are worthy of note, but these are the ones that have started affecting my point of view.

Doom was not the first of it's type, but was nearly, and was definitely the first to do it's type well. Doom has an appeal that I think is really the basic motivation for all first person shooters. Shooting things. I know, I know, that sounds obvious and a little too simplistic. But honestly, that's saying something. For all it's flash graphics and bullcrap, Halo is basically just tracking and shooting moving targets. There's an element of strategy to it, but seriously, I've never seen a game of Halo that was really much more than point and shoot gameplay. It's not like an RTS where you have an actual strategy. Doom's levels were complicated, varied, colorful, expansive, and highly interactive. Many elevations, many, many enemies, lots of variation of enemy difficulty. It had the basic elements of lots of games of its time. It had simple gameplay mechanics applied to complicated game environments and with no story whatsoever. The atmosphere was palpable though.

Future games in the genre basically did exactly what Doom did, but started putting emphasis on weapons, enemy designs, graphics, realistic physics engines, and all sorts of things that really affected gameplay very little. WHO CARES IF HE FALLS REALISTICALLY?! Once he's dead, you can't shoot him anymore AND THAT'S ALL YOU DO IN THE GAME! A lot of money and energy have been put into technology without the fruits of those labors affecting the gaming experience very much.

Explaining what it is about shooting things that's exciting is hard for me to do. It has something to do with power, something to do with destruction, something to do with mechanical telekinesis. All I can really say is that I think shooting things is fun in and of itself. The fun in shooting moving things is in the challenge. Tracking, hunting, aiming, shooting. Combine that with sports mentalities and you have Halo and Unreal. Combine it with WWI backgrounds and you have Medal of Honor. It's still just pointing and shooting at moving objects, combined with avoiding getting shot (which usually consists of nothing more complicated than running away from things shooting at you). Games have made the attempt at "innovation" in the genre by making the guns' discharges more tangible, enhancing the sense of reality with better AI, and impressing us with nifty explosions and lighting. These things alone do not necessarily enhance immersion, and certainly have next to nothing to do with gameplay (save perhaps the AI).

But this may not really be the fault of the newer games. Halo and Unreal are really impressive for the ground the break in terms of gaming technologies. One of the reasons I think I like Doom so much is exactly because it has crappy graphics. Monsters are iconic, knowable, easily recognizable. Levels are geometric, simple, easily memorable. Games with better graphics tend to be more realistic, but in doing so become less easy to relate to, less easy to become immersed in. Characters may sacrifice individuality for realism (the first Quake's monsters were hard to tell apart sometimes). Levels may become visually impressive, but unplayably repetitive or uninterestingly simple. I always felt like, when playing Unreal, there was no point to being on a server with so many people when only a few could fit in a room at a time, and in open spaces where lots of people could be there was basically nothing but a large platform. I longed for the days when I was avoiding dozens of monsters. I wondered why there were so many people playing when I only ever saw one or two at a time.

The first game to make a big step in the right direction for FPS games was, for me, Half-Life, which tried to make a realistic looking, complicated, story driven game. It's still aim, shoot, run, but the story elements make the immersion actually meaningful and necessary. Story elements follow action continuously and a convoluted plot drives discovery. With Half-Life my problem was the environments were just realistic enough for me to demand them to be more so, but just unrealistic enough for me to be constantly reminded that I'm in a game. Gears of War and Bioshock are the first FPSs that really, really makes me feel like I'm in someone else's shoes, using the tv as a window.

The realism of the first person perspective has hurt the genre's immersive power, counter intuitive as that may seem. It's the one perspective that we actually have a frame of reference for. Game designers can make us believe things more easily when they are clearly unrealistic. We have no frame of reference for a pixelated environment, for overhead views of troops, for third person polygons. We can believe that it all works together because all we know about the world is what's on the screen. When games try to become realistic, especially from the first person perspective, the believability breaks down. We know what the real world looks like for first person perspective, and any deviation is immediately noticeable. Gears of war was able to be incredibly immersive by being not only exceptionally realistic, but simultaneously stylized aaaaand, not really a first person shooter. While it in essence is still just that, the fact that the game doesn't make you distrust what's on the screen makes it much easier to be drawn in.

Bioshock and Half-Life 2 have also been able to make a game believable, partly also by being stylized, but also by being incredibly well rendered and lit. Physics aside, objects in these games have real weight. Now they're not the first to do it. Doom 3 was pretty damn amazing. But Bioshock's environments in particular are colorful, engaging, complicated and continually believable by virtue of its amazing textures. Bioshock is the first FPS that has really drawn me in with graphics and atmosphere alone. In fact, when I take a step back, that's really what the game is. The action is relatively humdrum. But lighting and sounds are scary enough to make me uncomfortable, and the contents of rooms are detailed enough to insist that I explore every inch of the well rendered city.

Aside from graphical believability, finally there are some FPSs that are changing the formula. Gears of War is perhaps the first real step away from what Doom established. A new type of gameplay. Not aim, shoot, run. Granted it's not much different; it's cover, aim, shoot, reposition. But hey, I'll take what I can get. It changes the tempo of gameplay substantially and requires an entirely different mindset. The pinch of strategy that's added into Gears combined with the difference in environment interaction make for a breath of fresh air.

(By the way, if Splinter Cell is an amazing breakthrough in gameplay for the medium, let me know cause I never got into it.)

Battlefield 2142 is my first introduction to a massive multiplayer FPS that actually was immersive. It's environment, the number of people on a server, the variety of gameplay, and the gravity of some of the challenges in any given match make it feel like a real battle. Aside from the fact that dying is a frequent occurrence, it feels like you're actually in a war. I think the scale is really what does it. I applaud Halo for previous attempts, but the scale of Halo matches and no story just makes it feel like a game. Fancy graphics make it feel like an expensive game. Battlefield 2142 actually feels worthy of the graphics that it boasts, even without a story. The game's scale allows for strategy on an immense level. Makeshift military rank, massive numbers, real-time speech, and specialization of units makes this game really feel like a community with a purpose. This feels like a war simulation, not a shooting gallery or a football game.

FPSs I think have tremendous potential. I think they have a ton of ways to exploit our forced perspectives exactly because the point of view is so near and dear to us. While other game genres have continually experimented with ways of interactive with a particular style of gameplay, FPSs have pretty much stayed in the shallow end. Now that the technology that the genre relies on is finally becoming standard, that may change. Games like Portal make developers look like they're finally starting to take their water wings off and look toward the diving board.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Having and Eating: Immersion and Customizaiton

The internet is one of the best things that's ever happened to us. Don't try to deny it. We all love it for different reasons. For my part, it's the ability react to what you consume. I think that may be the most fascinating thing about electronic culture. We can all contribute, and everything we consume can be manipulated in some small way to make it our own. Part of our identity online.

This is a big reason why I love and have faith (gah! faith! get it off me!) in the video game medium. Interactive art is something that's been part of post-modernity for a long time and it's a/the fundamental principle of video games. It's a toss up between what's more important to me in gaming, the interaction or the narration. All I can really say is I've never found a perfect balance. As I've said before, I think the two facets are part of a tipping scale: the more interaction, the less narration.

This is a blog about Magic: the Gathering. It is, not really, but sort of a plug. But you know what, for a long time I've felt that there was something about Magic and gaming that went hand in hand perfectly. I'd meet gamers who'd turn their noses at Magic and say to myself "Either you never learned to play Magic, or you don't really like gaming." It took me being bribed with free cards, but now I've finally given some to why I feel that.

Magic: the Gathering makes an interesting bridge between interaction, in the form of customization, and narration, in the form of established goals and game structure. It's really very similar to real time strategy games like Starcraft and Civilization. You have an established repertoire of game resources (units in RTSs, cards in Magic) and each one has an established use. After that, the way the game goes is up to you. In RTSs this comes in the form of organization, build up, how you use your units, what sort of player you want to be. Are you going to turtle, like a puss, or rush, like a dick. Magic is the same way. In both games and Magic there's an element of preliminary planning and an element of on-the-fly interpretation. I think this may be one of the reasons that people get turned off to Magic. The preparation is pretty lengthy, and spontaneity is more limited once the games starts. But herein lies my excitement for Magic. It's tremendously complicated with enough different avenues to allow just the construction of decks to be exciting. Thousands of cards and complicated rules make for a lot of creative leeway.

I remember sitting in class in high school and thinking about better ways to use the Zergling's burrow ability better, but there was no way to try until the game started. And even then it was a crap shoot because anything could happen once the game started. With Magic I can take my time planning, refining, experimenting. Then, during the game, it's my planning and my luck versus my opponent's. For this reason, I think Magic is great for anyone who actually likes Myst invading their daily chores, but would really like solving the puzzle to mean more than being able to solve the puzzle.

There's another trade off to be had between customization and immersion. I think the hierarchy goes thusly: video games -> Magic the Gathering -> Dungeons and Dragons. The relation is how much you have to fight the knowledge that you're sitting in a room being a nerd in order to enjoy the fantasy you're trying to live. The point of all of these really is to pretend you're something you're not. To fantasize.

Video games, with their noises and colors and moment to moment concentration really lets you forget that you're sitting on a couch pushing buttons. The biggest enemy to a good game of Magic, for me, is silence. Nothing makes it harder to maintain my fantasy of being a badass spellcaster than the awkward, silent stare of an empty apartment broken only by my own reluctant voice saying "I cast Magic Missile Pyroblast". If there's one thing I like about Magic these days, it's the attempt to make the artwork more realistic and more situational. A good remedy for self-consciousness in Magic is a creature who's artwork is not only unarguably fun to look at, but helps put you in escapist role of a murderous wizard. Engaging flavor text (oh yea...flavor text) also serves to cement the cards in some tangible world. I've always loved the Weatherlight series for attempting an actual story with it's cards' texts and images.

On the one hand, it requires more effort to become immersed than simply looking at graphics. On the other, the fantasy becomes very personal. It's your deck that you built. In gaming you are almost always forced into the role of someone else. In Magic you have a lot of freedom to engage the fantasy world on your own terms.

And although one might feel a little bad sitting in a room playing a card game, there's definitely something nice about knowing who your opponent is rather than suspecting the trash talking prick who sniped you doesn't have his Adam's apple yet.

I suppose I should talk a little about the specific expansion that I'm being bribed with. As this is a core set there's not a lot to say about the set itself. The artwork gets better and better, which again is basically all the immersion aspect of it, so better art means better immersion. It's really interesting to see the cards that make it in and the ones that don't. There's a culture to Magic that core sets represent. Card popularity and usefulness (not to mention neutrality) are reflected in each new core set. I remember when Serra Angel was removed, I think from 6th. I don't know how long it's been back for, but it feels like the game is complete again. Cards that have served you well or inspired a deck theme become beloved characters in an amorphous story and it's always nice to see who's popular in the fantastical battlefield.

I don't know why it seems strange to become attached to cardboard and totally acceptable to fall in love with pixels. As far as I'm concerned they're both doorways into creativity and escape. I'd generally encourage anyone who plays video games passionately to take a swing at Magic. All the major themes of fantasy lore are in it. The qualities of elvishness and orcishness, the life giving power of nature, the corruptive side effects of evil-derived power. But more than in almost any fantasy interpretation, this one lets you take a look at all the powers in fantasy and really do whatever you're inspired to do as long as you can afford the cards. I'm really not sure why there's never been anything close to a successful magic/video game hybrid, and I'm not even going to touch it. I think it's still a great idea. But what I'll say is this. We want to live somewhere else sometimes. We want to be powerful. And when it comes to being part of another world, there's something about complete customizable freedom that not even MMORPG characters can match.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


I'm not sure if it actually works this way, but it seems to me that art starts as amature experimentation, develops when it becomes lucrative and is funded, and only becomes fully explored when amature experimentation can be done at a level that's close to what is being done by funded artists.

This has certainly been the case with art media in the past (dammit I'm still not talking about actual games...) with writing, painting, photography, music and movies.

Writing is easy. When the masses can get their hands on pens and paper, you get literature. Painting was, for quite some time, something done for royalty and aristocracy. Mass production and the breakdown of feudal social networks allowed for painting to progress beyond establish styles. At this point whoever wants to paint can paint. Period. Same with photography. The Kodak hand camera was downright feared by professional photographers of the turn of the century. They thought it would ruin photography as an art and make it crude. They didn't know that some of the greatest stylistic breakthroughs would come from a six year old.

Anyway, the trend is partway finished with video games. Tetris and Pong were created by programmers as playful experiments and theoretical tests. But games are hard to produce and few people have the expertise to make one from scratch. In fact, the barriers preventing just anyone from creating a game have been so massive that video games have been an entirely business oriented art for just about its entire history. Only recently have we finally found a method of producing video games without the need to be funded.

Flash and other internet animation programs are allowing people with relatively minimal programing knowledge to experiment with appearances and game formats and make games in their spare time.

That being said, I'm pretty sure not much real experimentation has happened yet. Many of the best flash games are still only experimenting with visual styles and simple game layouts. There are still very few games that are actually trying to make some statement using the gaming structure.

However, I do think this is a way really good games can and will be made. It takes someone with nothing to lose to make soemthing that's never been attempted before.

The alternative is for some decently large companies to put their necks on line. I'm sure many would claim that this is already being done, but in actuality I think very few companies have really put themselves out on a limb for the sake of making a really artistic game. Though some of my very favorite games could be considered the result of just that.

The new online formats that the major platform systems include are facilitating this sort of avant-garde game exploration. Flow, one of the most beautiful, albeit simple, online games I've come across has been picked up by Sony and has been ported to the PS3 as a downloadable game.

I'm honestly not very sure how seriously independent game designers are taken by the game industry, but there are some really great things being made. I'm hoping that as people experiment with creating games fans will begin to expect different things and turn to each other for their games the same way we've done with video and music entertainment. When that happens, maybe people with money will perk up and fund some amazing ideas.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Link Orgy

Here's a great interview from Wired with Orson Scott Card. I particularly like his comment about protagonists in games. As I see it, Card's Empire project (the simultaneous writing of a novel, comic, video game and I think a movie) is an amazing step in the right direction for games. It's juxtaposing video games with other story telling media, which will hopefully do something to legitimize games and encourage publishers to take writing in games seriously. I've always enjoyed Card's series, so it'll be really interesting to see how a sci fi writer who's work I'm familiar with deals with game design. I just hope it isn't awful...

On a related note, Terry Pratchett's daughter Rhianna Pratchett is hot as hell. She's writing for Heavenly Sword, and among others, wrote for Escape from Monkey Island, which now that I think about it has humor very similar to her father's books. Just to complete the circle of fantasy incest, I'm currently reading a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and if you need a link explanation of Neil Gaiman so help me God I'll slap your head Stuart Style.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Doing, Making, Saying and Thinking

Well, it's been a long time coming, but I think I'm finally ready to get into the real heart of the matter.

How can video games be more expressive as art forms?

I would like to show that we can expand our notions of what interaction entails in video games. There are many unexplored ways to express ideas through gaming and make gaming more meaningful.

What you have control over, and the form that that control takes, affects two things: how you experience a narrative, and how developers can express ideas to a player.

The form of interaction enables a player to ask questions about themselves and what the game is trying to tell them. If the player’s interaction takes the form of ____(control over movement, behavior, plot direction, which character to use, etc), then questions could be: How does it feel to ____. How does the story change when I _____ differently? What is my reason for ____ing? Or, as Nico puts it, “It’s not about saying ‘what would it be like to be in someone else’s shoes?' It’s about saying ‘now that I’m in these shoes, what do I do with them?’” The way the player answers such questions, or the degree to which the answers are left open ended, is how video games can express subjective and specific messages to players, either directly or through metaphor and allegory.

It is my belief that just about all stories require a certain kind of participation. We enjoy hearing stories because we project ourselves onto the characters and into events in the stories. The appeal of nearly all fiction and entertainment is escapism and fantasy fulfillment. We imagine ourselves in the world of stories we read about, watch and listen to.

Different types of stories appeal to people differently because they cater to different fantasies.

Action/adventure tends to cater to the fantasies of being in control of exciting situations, performing acts of violence, feeling "alive" by way of adrenaline rushes and risk taking. If you enjoy watching the Governator shoot a bunch of identityless drug runners, you probably enjoy the idea of committing acts of violence without the guilt of being responsible for emotional trauma that such acts would cause in real life (there's nothing wrong with this, btw).

The majority of video games come in the form of action/adventure. There's nothing wrong with action/adventure, but it's near exclusivity in games limits the way a game can be expressive by limiting the types of questions a game can force a player to ask and the way a player interacts with the story.

Horror seems to fulfill the desire to be in a scary or otherwise traumatic experience and survive. Confronting deep rooted fears and being able to survive them and punish those who would inflict them upon you is enjoyable. There's a cathartic pleasure in experiencing things that are uncomfortable, granted you won't be permanently injured.

The reason people project themselves onto characters in a romance seems pretty clear. It's fun to be in a romantic relationship. It's more rewarding when it takes some work, bla bla bla. Having a relationship work is fun.

It’s a little harder to explain why we like drama, but I think it has to do with voyeurism and a really simple fascination with how the lives of other people differ from our own. Watching other people make decisions and go through events gives insight into other people’s minds and into our own. It makes us ask the question “how would I deal with that situation?”

I think it’s a good idea to analyze this because it’s important to see how different story types target different fantasies and change their form to fulfill them. This is what video games should be doing more of and aren’t. In order to effectively express something in games, we should be looking at what it is about a story we think people are going to want to engage in and make control over that the main vehicle of the game’s interaction.

Video games as a medium should be extremely capable of fulfilling these fantasies. Rather than participating in a story indirectly, through projection, players participate directly through the games interactive aspect.

In fact, gaming has fulfilled the fantasy of committing non-emotional acts of violence better than most shoot-em-ups have. I think this is because they allow for more choice. More than most, the action genre isn't about voyeurism and watching someone else’s choices. It's about pretending you are Ahnold. FPS's have done this better than any violent film. They actually let you choose who to shoot and what to do. What they lack now is the desire to use this experience to ask the player questions and make them think. Some games have tried to do this, but I think using the interaction to ask questions should be more of a primary focus of a game. The interaction should be a means as well as an end, not just an end. (sniff sniff, I smell Kant...)

Horror has been fulfilled much more poorly, and romance almost not at all. At least in the States. Action/adventure encompasses nearly the entire gaming repertoire, including children's games. I think the reason for this is that the fantasies of horror and romance are more time consuming to fulfill and require more dedication. The fantasy of shooting something can be fulfilled in a matter of seconds or less, and can be done so over and over and over for as long as a person is still entertained. The fantasy of surviving something traumatic requires much more time. First danger has to be established in some believable, palpable way, then some sort of survival must be achieved in order to complete the fantasy. Resident Evil attempts to do this by utilizing atmosphere , surprising zombies (band name) and guns. Atmosphere presents the danger, zombies/surprise makes it palpable, guns create resolution. It’s not entirely effective since I think there's too much resolution and not enough danger. There’s too much killing of zombies and not enough fear of being eaten. Horror movies work because most of the movie is establishing danger, killing off identifiable people one after another to give you the sense of "oh man, everyone I projected myself onto is dying, I could die in this imaginary world!" and only at the end letting the last person/people survive. A good horror game should take the appealing part of the genre, being placed in trauma and escaping it, and make the game about controlling that.

While talking about this, Nico and I came up with what we think is a good idea for a horror game.

Romance takes forever. In order to fulfill the fantasy, you have to make a relationship. The more complicated it is, the more believable it is, the more it fulfills the fantasy. Part of the appeal is the struggle to get what you want (the other person). The more time it takes, the harder it is, the more rewarding it feels when you get it (them). Dating games that I've seen, particularly dating sims, tend to try to fulfill it too quickly, too shallowly, and appeal too much to the physical aspect of a relationship. For a dating game to be worth playing, it would have to use player participation to immerse a person in the experience of forming a relationship, not just a means to expositorily get from "unlikely meeting" to "first kiss". So how could interaction enhance our appreciation for such a fantasy?

Again, Nico and I think we're clever and have come up with an idea.

When it comes to drama, I think we are too short sighted in trying to come up with game formats. I thought about mentioning GTA or Metal Gear as examples of drama done fairly well, but then I decided that that wasn't true. In action stories, the behavior that we get invested in is the violence, the running around, the action. But in a drama that is simply not the case, and we shouldn't be trying to let a person participate in a drama by having them run around and control where the person goes. Like romance, much of what draws us to drama is dialogue and story events. The interaction should reflect that, giving some control, or at least influence, primarily over the story events and dialogue. The best example of this sort of idea that I can come up with off the top of my head is Black and White, where your decisions affect the appearance and behavior of the game continuously. I imagine an effective drama game doing something similar, having a player make constant decisions and being motivated by being able to see different results from different decisions. The game wouldn’t be about getting the character through the plot, but letting the player determine the plot.

I think video games are thought of as low brow entertainment by lots of people because they have done a very good job of appealing to a very limited set of fantasies. The exceptions, games like The Sims, Katamari, Guitar Hero, Second Life and Hotel Dusk, seem to have felt the pressure to be widely appealing and easily accessible, limiting their expressive potential. One of the few games that I think has really broken the mold, and done a good job of not compromising, is Riven. But that doesn't mean games have to be either artistic or entertaining! Games, like all media, have the potential to be both. We just have to think outside the box a little more.


Now this game idea is one that Nico and I are pretty excited about. Partly because it sounds like lots of fun and would be a new type of game, but also because it shows what could happen if the notion of what a game is supposed to be like was tweaked just a little.

Nico and I suggest a horror MMORPG. You may say "...thats really not a very novel idea." Well, bite me, yea it is. Here's why.

Like I've said, games have a pretty high tendency to focus on action and adventure. Even survival horror games like Resident Evil, which claim to emphasize staying alive over shooting everything, are still pretty much about shooting everything. That's not what horror movies are about. Horror is about being scared, feeling victimized, embracing trauma, and living through it.

This game that we've devised would put a player in an MMO world of spooky, creepy and otherwise frightening surroundings full of critters and dangers. And it would not give you the ability to defend yourself. Not to any substantial degree. Maybe you could kill little monsters that bug you, but basically you'd be in constant danger of being killed by all the horrors

There would be safe spots, camps and outposts, where you and other players could meet each other and mingle without being threatened. You could form groups and go exploring together.

In fact, the game would be set up such that you have to have a group.

If you go outside the camp, you would be able to make your way around for a while, running from things, hiding, fighting back against small assailants, but it would be impossible to go very far without help. With friends you could actually survive. But not by killing monsters. A monster would have the ability to kill everyone if you tried to just attack it. No, your friends are there to cooperate to lure monsters away, gain access to places that a single person couldn't (stand on each other's shoulders to get up high, use your combined strength to move things, etc) and to just help each other. A wounded person could require help from his/her comrades to be carried to a safe place to recuperate, whereas they would only be able to crawl and be devoured if alone.

Experience, we figure, would be gained not by killing monsters, but by actually exploring places you've never been, or where nobody's been, and by collecting information about the world. I like the idea of there being a plot, a reason all this is happening, that none of the players know. By finding pieces of paper, computer files, whatever, that provide the community with info, you gain experience and skill points. When you take back info to a camp, that camp could have an archive of all the info that's been found. New info would give more exp than info already found by someone else.

The thing that Nico seems to be really excited about is the idea of a class system based in the modern world. Skill points could be given to things like medical knowledge, physical prowess, or specific abilities like psychological analysis, military experience, cpr or dissection. I see people being doctors, therapists, cooks and the like, who would be able to heal the wounded, have more physical strength, calm down people who are getting too stressed, or (one of my favorite) examine a fallen creature for discovery experience. Just like being a cleric, or sorcerer or whatever in D&D, a good party that survives the dangers of this world needs to use its different members' abilities to meet challenges. With the right people, you could even kill something, on occasion.

I think this is a really cool idea because it makes use of the notion that the fun of the game is putting yourself in danger and somehow getting out of it. The fun in the game is exploring and finding out what's out there. Immersion is the main motivation. The heavy focus on exploration and attention to environment leaves a lot of room open for expression. An interesting story and complicated artwork would really fit in a game like this, and enhance all of the gameplay, rather than detract from it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Romantic Comedy

In the spirit of taking an alternative view as to what interaction can be, Nico and I came up with this idea for a romance game. The idea behind it is that the appeal of romance and romantic comedies is the fulfillment of a relationship fantasy. The parts of romantic stories that we enjoy have nothing to do with adventure or action, but entirely to do with social interaction. Therefore, that's what a game of this type should do.

The game would allow the player to choose from one of, lets say, a dozen people from different walks of life, who each start the game in some preset place in a small town environment. You walk around and find one of the other players, and try to start a relationship with them.

Interaction would take the form of making decisions about where to go with the person and what to say to them. Each recipient of the player's interaction has something of a plotline attached to them that the player discovers as they play, hopefully ending with some sort of romantic fulfillment.

Sounds sort of boring. Also sounds like every dating sim ever. But, I think if you give the interaction enough variation, it could end up being something really exciting and really different.

I imagine dialogue working this way: Each character has a number, lets say 1000, of established sentences that they can say at any point in any conversation. A player enters text via a keyboard, and gets a list of sentences that contain those words. Sort of like predicted text in a cell phone.
"i like you" yields
[ I think I like you! ]
I like it when you do that.
I can't believe I liked you!
Do you like the place I took you to?

The player selects a sentence, selects one of three or so tones that the sentence should be said in, and the computer recipient reacts differently depending on what's said, what tone it's said in, and what mood they're in.

The plotline for each computer character could also differ depending on what the player says and how they play the game. Either there would be certain elements of the plot that only get revealed when conversations go a certain way, or there could be multiple avenues for each plot to go (the first seems more feasible to me).

The game ends when you piss the person off so much, or when the conversations don't go anywhere, and the person leaves to their home, or wherever they go, and they won't take your calls or talk to you. There would be no "Game Over" screen, just the inability to continue the relationship with that person. If that happens, the player has to go find someone else.

I see this sort of game having lots of opportunities for expression. For example, not every character would have the same things that are available to them to say. You could have characters with different dialects, different vocabularies, different levels of education, different interests, and all are reflected in what is available to the player to say. Certain people might not work well with others, making the game more challenging if you pick two mismatched people to try and make the relationship work.

Plotlines could also contain commentary on social behavior. I had the idea that one character could be older and have an Auschwitz tattoo on his/her arm. If the player mentions something about this, you get added insight into the tattoo bearer's story, even an addition to their story. However, not all playable characters would have dialogue relating to such a thing, so depending on who you pick, you won't be able to access that part of the other person's story, and maybe not have as good a chance of having a relationship with them.

What I like best about this idea is that it takes control of a different aspect of a story and gives a good deal of free control over it. Rather than assuming that control over a character means telling them where to go, this idea shows the potential to control a person by telling them what to say and how to think.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Playing Something

I’ve been trying to find games to write cultural criticism of, and I’ve been having a hard time. See, I play mostly single player games, I always have. I like stories, I like narration. This is the main reason I’m so frustrated with the industry and feel the need to make a damn blog about it. However, video games are very culturally relevant. My problem is the games that have become cultural phenomena are frequently games I don’t play. Online games, massive multiplayers and open ended games like The Sims and online communities like Second Life (which by the way I just heard about. God I’m lame) have become so popular and addictive that they’ve become the poster children for gaming in popular culture. Which makes it frustrating when I don’t play them. I don’t even like them. In fact, I’ve avoided them ever since Starcraft was more popular in online form than single player. I didn’t even play Unreal Tournament for more than a few minutes before deciding that a shooter without levels wasn’t worth my time. Granted this has been to my detriment, as I’ve missed out on an entire aspect of gaming culture, but thinking about my taste has brought me to an interesting conclusion.

Games which are open ended, which have little or no linear narration, are much more interactive than games which have an established framework or story. That is to say, the game relies on the players’ input and changes depending on what the player does. Most games are really more participatory than interactive. Like books, they require the audience to be engaged, but the story remains the same. The player is constrained by the game’s rules, levels, plot, whatever. One perspective has been that games are not making full use of their medium by not being more interactive, that if they are only going to be participatory, they might as well be movies. However, the more a game has an established narrative, the less possibility there is for reciprocal interaction. Conversely, the more interactive a game is, the less narration is possible, hence World of Warcraft and Second Life. This, however, seems to actually be one of the reasons for the widespread popularity of games like WOW and online shooters. You get to play it how you want to.

Something amazing happens when you get people playing games that are really open ended. The flow of expression is reversed from the direction it normally goes in art. Ideas in art generally go from the artist to the audience. In a single player game the creators are presenting ideas that are being received by players. Open ended games actually take the expressive ideas of the players and inject them into the game and into the community. The game becomes less a finished work of art, and more of an art medium for the players to express themselves with. The players become co-artists with the creators, not just consumers of the art. This is very nearly unique to gaming I think. It’s like a visual artist presenting a work that’s paint and brushes and a blank canvas and saying to the audience “GO!” The artist’s work is part what s/he presented, but mostly what the people do with it. Even with online shooters the game is not so much the level and the guns and more about the people you play against/with. The game is about you and your friends, vs. Doom which is all about the levels and the enemies.

Games like this are appealing because the purpose is still to be fun, and are recognized in broader culture (and sometimes over-analyzed) because observing people play not only reveals what's inside the heads of the game developer, but of the players. Indeed because there is nothing that you have to do in WOW or the Sims, everything you do can be read into as being something that you want to do, whereas in God of War you can actually place some of the blame on the developers for forcing you to do such violent things. That's bs of course cause you chose to play, but I think the role of the player really is more intimate in open ended games.

I don’t consume art to express myself, I do it to learn about other people and their ideas. I play for stories and new ideas and immersion, not to be part of a community or share my own ideas. I guess this means I oughta give online games a second chance. I would learn about gamers and what gaming means to a big portion of both players and observers of the genre. But I want stories dammit! I want to see single player games being more artistic and expressive. Thank God for Eternal Darkness and Killer 7.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Super Corporate Mascots Melee!

I've been talking about theory a lot lately and I think it's time I got back to actual games. After all I've only written on one actual game this whole time. So I'm going to focus on one that we all know and most of us love.

I love Super Smash Brothers Melee. It makes great use of the Gamecube’s graphics, its gameplay format and engine are innovative, it’s accessible, it allows for lots of personalization of gameplay, it’s really great. I’m not going to talk about all that. What I want to have happen is what the Esquire article mentioned. I want to provide criticism of this game, not a review. So, I want to talk about what this game says about society and those of us who play it, not from the perspective of a person buying a game, but from the perspective of art criticism.

Nintendo owes much of its longevity to the popularity and accessibility of its iconographic characters. Starting of course with the Mario franchise, which established no less than a dozen easily recognizable character icons of the Big N, Nintendo has been steadily making an attempt to create brand loyalty by encouraging players to form emotional bonds with its pixels. This has been remarkably successful. Few will openly admit to hating the Mario character. Even if you hate the games, the Mario character is charismatic and cute. But how can he be? He has no personality! There is next to no story for Mario to be part of! In fact much of his character bio was projected onto him after his inception.

The fact of the matter is that iconic images allow us to form emotional bonds easily by being open ended and subjective. Nintendo has a tendency to make their characters as iconic as absolutely possible, cartooney and simple.

Most people who love the game (or at least the ones I’ve talked to) will agree that the characters in Smash have moves and fighting styles that suit the character’s personalities to a surprisng and pleasing degree. Lots of this has to do with the moves coming directly from the characters' games of origin. Mario performs most of the moves from his various games, Link has some of his weapons, Kirby can eat people, etc. But often times people (my friends) get the feeling that other characters who are hardly even featured in their own games (Fox, Captain Falcon, Game and Watch) have moves that suit their characters’ personalities. Just like the U.S. audiences read into the simplest aspects of the Mario graphic and came up with “Italian plumber”, the game designers have included simple, archetypal behaviors for their icons. We eat it up and project personalities with nearly no information. We choose characters that we claim to like, although we have nearly nothing to base our liking on. We claim to dislike a character's personality, when what we really don't like is the fact that we suck with them. I know I get frustrated when i like a character that I'm no good with, even though the only real contact I've ever had with the character is using them within the game. This is a very real phenomenon and is not limited to Smash in any way. People anthropomorphize everything. What’s neat about Smash is that it illustrates not only that we are all very eager to do so, but that we seem to do so in a similar way. We agree that cute things are small, quick and light, that villains are big and slow and self-confident, that heroes are modest and powerful, and that old crappy hand held games (Game and Watch) are funny and quirky.

This doesn’t bring me to my next point at all, but I’m going there anyway. Again, what I think is so cool about this game is its illustration of Nintendo’s icons. But this game is particularly interesting as it illustrates, and spawns conversation about, Nintendo’s game history as it relates to other brands. Looking at the characters in the game you can basically see Nintendo’s retail history, from black game crystals to Pokemon. This is in itself interesting, but it becomes more interesting when we say “man, I wish there were some more characters. But who would they be?” Now we start thinking about who owns what. We say “oh, they forgot Bomberman...good.” or “oh, Nintendo bought Sega, they could include Sonic! Can’t they put in Final Fantasy characters? No, those are owned by Square.” The very fact that we know who owns what says something about consumer culture. But the fact that the characters we know and love are so deeply linked to the brands which created them is something unique to video games, and comic books I suppose. Video game cross-pollination in games like SNK vs. Capcom and Soul Caliber 2 removes us from the imaginary world of the game and puts us in the shoes of enthusiastic consumers, to the financial benefit of the company I would think. We begin to form opinions of a company based not on the quality of their products, but on the basis of which brand icons we care about. It's hard to hate Nintendo when you love Mario. It a good reminder of how deeply incestuous business and creativity are, and how much of our cultural history recorded on sales receipts.

So yea. Awesome game. Maybe sometime in the future I can talk about that fact.