Sunday, January 20, 2008

Playing in the Pixel Box

Amidst all my talking about games as art I'm constantly reminded that this isn't what draws us to gaming. In fact, I don't think the meaning underlying any art is what draws people to it, at first anyway.

Explaining why I play video games is something I feel like I've been solicited to do for a long time. By parents, peers who aren't interested in games, and especially adults who have a "concern for how you're spending your time." It's not easy to explain, and something tells me I shouldn't have to. I don't have to explain why I like the color red, or what makes a singer's on-pitch voice appealing.

But, I am called on to explain why I like the sound of a distorted guitar, and what makes noise music appealing. So maybe a little exploration into the appeal of playing video games is worthwhile.

I think the first thing to say is that if you like video games, you probably like the sights and sounds of them. You probably like the bright colors, you like the sound effects, the music, the movements on screen. Seeing and hearing the images and sounds is inherently pleasing for the same reason any image or sound would be. And yes, games have a particular look and sound (we'll get to feel later) that you don't necessarily find elsewhere. This is particularly true for those of us who played them in the 80's and early 90's. We grew up with MIDI sound effects and pixelated images. At the time they may have been substitutes for better images and sound, but now they're pleasing for their nostalgia.

The real reason I think we play, however, has to do with the ability to have selective emphasis over what is inherently pleasing, and be creative with a set of tools that are entertaining in and of themselves. I should note that I'm going to skip over the entire phenomenon of immersion and escapism. What I'm talking about here is the appeal of playing video games in an abstract sense. What motivates interaction?

Interaction is a form of creation, I think. Within established boundaries that are predetermined we are able to make the game go how we want. The game itself is pleasing, and interacting with the game is like choreographing the sights and sounds and motions that we enjoy.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I got into video games first by watching. I would watch a friend, or a friend's older brother, play. I liked the sounds and the motions and wanted to see the game happen. When I was offered the controller, the beauty of the game became a little fractured. The graphics didn't move so fluidly, the motions and colors didn't interact as well. I didn't make as good a choreography as they did. But, when I practiced, when I got a little better, all of a sudden I didn't want to watch. I wanted to play. Because playing made it mine. I was able to "create" the graphics and sounds to my specifications. That degree of control and pride in having helped make the enjoyable thing is what hooked on gaming.

Playing a game makes the sounds, the sights and the motions that are inherently pleasing personal. They become yours by the fact that your decisions create them in time. The more you are able to control the aspects that you are drawn to the more pleasing the game becomes. This seems to be both the reason people may have a hard time with RPG's in which you have only to press "attack" to win, and why people get so excited about being able to customize an avatar.

Some say that gaming is appealing because it's a challenge, that the fun is in overcoming obstacles and that the reward is a sense of accomplishment at having beaten the game's puzzles. While I absolutely agree that that is true, I can't help but think that I never play games to be done with them. I play to play. There may be a goal in gaming, but the fun of playing in my mind is in "creating" the game as I go, not destroying the game by ending it. Gaming is like being given a set of light and sound toys to play with, and being given a task to help you decide how to play with them. Like being given blocks to play with and being told "build a tower." While you will surely feel pleased with yourself at having built the tower, you're playing with blocks because blocks are fun to manipulate and control.

As player, you are conductor and decide how the game unfolds. The game dynamic breaks down when you are given so much control (or so little) that you can't make the game dance the way you want it to. If you have an idea in mind of what you want to conduct, but the tools you have won't let that become realized, it becomes frustrating and not fun.

I think the fear that people feel when they see us playing has something to do with the understanding that while we are being creative by playing, we aren't being very creative. There are lots of boundaries and while our desire to be creative and proud of ourselves is satiated by gaming, we don't really have much to show for it. And this is why I want games to have meaning. So that while we are playing in our sandbox, being creative within limits, we are also learning.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Kill Your Friends

I think the demographics enjoying video games are seen as more homogeneous than they really are. Music and books aren't all marketed to the same people, but in general I feel that the biggest variety of acknowledged gaming demographics that exists is between age groups. And even then ESBR ratings are overlooked pretty heavily, leading to the "why are video games so violent? you know kids are playing them!" crap.

There's also the "casual" and "hardcore" demographic distinction, but from the abysmal reception of most of the titles designed for "casual gamers" and frustration with games sacrificing complexity for accessibility, I think it's safe to say that casual gamers are people who don't much care for video games. The only successful marketing toward casual gamers that I know of is the Wii.

It's no longer fair to draw the line at PC or console either. But there are real video game demographic disparities.

There's an entire approach to games that I like to call "sport-gaming". Yes sports games are often included in this, but I'm not referring to simulated sporting events. I'm referring games who's primary draw is competition with other people. It seems to me that this is use of the gaming medium that differs fundamentally from games which are designed to be immersive or tell a story. All games try to be fun, but sport-games rely on the fun of competing with other people.

Here's the distinction: sport-gaming is not about immersion, story telling, exploration, or information. The game is actually a little incidental. Despite graphics being present, you aren't playing a soldier and you aren't fighting an alien. You are you, and they are them. The actual people. You don't die or destroy, you lose or win. Rather than being judged based on a narrative or complexity or originality, sport-games are judged based on how they allow you to interact with others. I sometimes see Halo matches as basically touch football. The game is just a way for you to play a sport against someone

Experiencing a game as a sport makes the game a conduit between you and others. There is still a lot of focus on the game, but once you become familiarized with it, the game itself becomes almost invisible and the activity becomes much more about outsmarting and outperforming others. I think this is in fact why there's so much trash talk among people playing online games. It's not the same as playing against your friends. When not face to face, the desire to "better" becomes heightened, as does the need to create more tangible social contact.

There is a demographic of gamers who primarily play sport-games. Many games try to appeal to both types of gaming, narrative and sport. Often times this works perfectly well. I really like playing Starcraft's story. I have no interest in Gears of War online. There are a lot of gamers out there who seem to exclusively play games as sport, like game jocks. I seem to remember Gears of War not truly being accepted by 1up and IGN until it had sufficient multilayer maps and modes. Starcraft practically is an organized sport in Korea.

Part of this divide I think has to do with when you started getting invested in games. For those of us who grew up with an NES, I think there's more of a tendency to see video games as not really "games". Indeed this is where I see their value, as interactive narratives. While our parents asked "what's the point of this game" and were confused when we had a difficult time answering, we understood why our friends spent hours on games with "no real point".

On the other hand, there's an entire generation of gamers who only really began investing time in games during the X-Box era of online gaming. The growth of video games as a profitable industry I think is indebted to this type of gamer. Men young and old have video games, and many of them have no interest in fantasy narratives of any kind. They watch action movies for the explosions, watch sports to bet, and play games as sport. They pay for online subscriptions and they buy lots of titles.

Most of us participate in both worlds, but there are some who almost exclusively play online, and those who avoid online games like we avoid Hollywood clubs. It may be coming through that I don't particularly care for this type of gaming. I think it's like playing real life sports without any of the physical fun of playing real life sports. I'm trying very hard not to be snobby. But as much as I can admit that this is a useful way for people to interact, and a valuable way that video games have become embedded in culture, I do think that it's stifling gaming from being the expressive medium I think it should be.

Sport-gaming has to be repetitive. Rules have to be second nature, resources have to be familiar. The point is how you use the established game elements against others. If maps weren't small enough to memorize, controls simple enough to be predictable, and gameplay repeated enough to be accessible by players of different experience, the game wouldn't work. Playing the actual game can't be difficult or complicated, or the addition of unpredictable opponents would make the experience unbearable.

Video games are like comics in that they are just lucrative enough for them to be mass-marketed, but niche enough for the marketers to not know almost anything about the breadth of people they're marketing to. I don't think we as game consumers really know where we fall in game culture sometimes either. Maybe it's bad to draw lines in the sand and "other" different types of gamers, but I think some discussion of different types of gamers would be valuable.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Best Game

It’s clearly an overstatement to say that Portal is the best video game. That’s like saying The Siren is the best painting. There are too many factors involved in the art to be able to say that. But, I can say that Portal may be one of the best examples of an actualized video game that exists.

Portal is a complete interactive narrative, executed in such a way that its separate elements reinforce each other without interrupting each other. This is not something most games achieve and those that do do so by being very simple, visually and thematically. The simplest parts of the game are its premise (you have a gun that makes portals and must get from A to B) and the solution to it’s casual plot (the computer flipped out and killed everyone, and is now running on it’s own.) And honestly, a simple premise that becomes complicated and an archetypal plot that is introduced in a roundabout, mysterious way are elements of good games and good stories respectively. The graphics, mechanics, environment and puzzles are fairly complicated.

As far as a gameplay goes, Portal is executed extremely well. It has all the elements that decades of gaming have taught us are important for the experience to be fun. Its game mechanics are straightforward, the learning curve is natural, and the game stops before it becomes tedious. Your ability to play with portal technology freely lets you feel like you have been allowed to exploit the idea as far as you might like to. There's nothing I wish I'd been able to do but couldn't.

Portal has a plot. Well, Portal has a story. Not very original, but entertaining. What’s great is that Portal’s story is told brilliantly, almost without any expository information for nearly the entire game. The hardest thing in gaming, it seems, is to integrate a narrative with free control. Things like cut scenes and environmental boarders make play separate from story. They make a distinction between when you are playing and when you are listening. Portal tends not to. At all. The plot comes entirely from auditory and visual clues that may or may not be noticed by the player the first time, or any time, they play. All narrative information comes through almost subconsciously. Although the story telling value of hidden rooms and GLaDOS’ intonations depends on the player’s attention to them, there is no separation between the world and the player. The gameplay and story are one. What you see and hear in the process of playing is all that’s needed to communicate the game’s narrative. What makes things more perfect is that the passive plot and active play reinforce each other perfectly. The environment is much more real the more you explore it, using the gun is more fun because of GLaDOS’ comments, and failure more frightening as GLaDOS’ backhanded compliments remind you of the immediacy of the danger facing your Every[wo]man character.

This sort of symbiosis wouldn’t be possible if Portal’s simple features were not so simple. That being said, this game is a new archetype of how to do a game right. It could have easily been the same game it is now minus the monologues and visual cues. It could have been a ton of fun without any of it’s humor. But the added voice, the hidden graffiti, and environmental story clues make the game. As does the humor. I’m not sure what to say about the song except “kudos” and “thank you”. All games should have this much personality.

I don’t remember where I heard it, but I heard it that game design companies were hiring people as staff writers specifically. What I hope happens is that they don’t write simply dialogue, or general plot elements. I hope that part of video game writing involves writing plot as gameplay. I hope writers will storyboard and sketch and pitch ideas to the concept artists. I hope the timing of game elements and the layout of the environment will be territory of writers as well. In fact, games should have directors. Do they, Warren?