Friday, May 29, 2009

The Sensationalist: Loyalty and Star Fox

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.

If the Star Fox team, were a basketball team, it would be the equivalent to LeBron James backed up by three members of the Washington Generals. Flanked by Falco Lombardi, Peppy Hare, and Slippy Toad, what starts as a four-person assault on a galactic empire often turns into outer space baby sitting. Some my most vivid memories of the game are of when the missions would take a a sharp, exasperating turn so that I could save my hapless wingmen from deaths caused by their own extreme lack of self preservation. This is not to say that I was always altruistic: Who among us can claim not to have blasted Slippy out of the sky in a fit of rage?

And yet, Star Fox 64 is one of the few games I can recall that elicited a sense of loyalty to my virtual teammates.

The task of making secondary video game characters not only memorable, but empathetic is a difficult task. In many games, the characters serve simply as tools with a thin veneer of personality. In genres like real time strategy, individual characters become faceless pawns in a larger war. While one may make friends in the trenches, few characters inspire any kind of lasting connection.

Games that have successfully unpaired loyalty towards their characters have accomplished it through a combination of narrative and gameplay techniques. To trot out a well-worn example, Aeries' death in Final Fantasy VII was jarring both because I had invested my time in developing her skills and because the narrative invested time in developing her as a pivotal character. Her untimely death served to cement my dedication to the rest of the party and harden my thoughts towards Sephiroth.

Similarly, Team Ico's way of crafting empathetic non-playable characters helps engender in me a sense of loyalty . Yorda and Agro are not directly controllable, but their crucial skills along with their narrative impact inspired a sense to protect and do right by them.

In Star Fox, the skills your wingmen bring to the table are occasionally useful. They add a small amount of depth to the still shallow story, but the game can be played basically as well in their absence. They typically bumble along behind you, shooting poorly, periodically interjecting with useless, annoying dialogue, and shrieking for help whenever an enemy has the gall to fire at them. Certainly, the loyalty I feel towards the Star Fox team has little to do with their skillful piloting or intellectual capabilities.

The loyalty I feel for the Star Fox team speaks to broader issues of socialization and group identity. In a situation in which people work closely together against a larger force or insurmountable odds, the twin threads of of affection and contempt form a uniquely strong bond. Put plainly, belonging to a group tends to confer on its members the right to talk shit about said group. Everyone is guilty of complaining about their crazy family or ragging on their hometown's football team. However, outsiders who would make identical critiques have no legitimacy to do so: Regardless of how bad things are, the members of the group share a unique relationship and exert ownership of their clique, which foments pride and group loyalty.

So while I might roll my eyes when Peppy nags me about barrel rolls, I am on some level fond of the senile old hare. I groan when Falco makes yet another snide comment, but I secretly enjoy his "badditude." I might purposely lob a smart bomb at Slippy as punishment for his incompetence, but deep down I find his earnestness endearing.

I might deride, or possibly outright abuse, my team, but I do so as a member of that team. Solidarity is ultimately exemplified when faced with those who would attack the team from the outside. When those Star Wolf jerks have the audacity to fire on my wingmates, my first thought is "OH NO YOU DIDN'T!"

The Star Fox team might be the Bad News Bears of interstellar combat, but they're my team, and you better believe I'm loyal to them.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

EXP Podcast #27: A Game's Travel

Our bags are in the trunk, Teenage Wasteland is playing on the stereo, and our coffee stained road map is on the dash: On this podcast, we're hittin' the road. This week, we draw our discussion from prolific and esteemed games writer/pseudonym L.B. Jeffries and his excellent article on Popmatters. Early last month, Jeffries discussed his thoughts on travel in videogames and raised some interesting questions. This week, Scott and I tag along with our own journey through videogame travel, hitting such topics as basic math, warp tubes, and boredom. As always, we encourage you to share your own tales of navigation in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- Do you ever use out-of-game distractions during in-game travel?
- Are games allowed to be boring? Not just calm, or unexciting, but actually boring?
- Do you use landmarks, or any other tricks, to help make sense of space while traveling?
- Which games capture your definition of travel best?

To listen to the podcast:
- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

-Run time: 25 min and 53 sec
- Travel in Video Games, via Popmatters
-Music by Brad Sucks

Monday, May 25, 2009

Let's Talk

Despite our daily communication with friends, family, and coworkers, reconstructing a natural conversation is surprisingly hard. Countless films struggle with believable dialogue, earning praise when successful. Actors are paid to communicate naturally, avoiding awkward silences or strange intonations that seem out-of-place for a particular scene. Many videogames have no voice actors to worry about and still have trouble incorporating players into an engrossing dialogue.

One potential pitfall, as I have mentioned before, is that most of the time we don't really have anything interesting to say. In order to maintain an exciting pace and indulge the protagonist's self-importance, even nobody non-player characters may respond with overly dramatic dialogue and emphatic intonation that seems out-of-place. Dialogue becomes even more treacherous when player choice is involved.
Traditionally, players participate in conversations through dialogue trees. Branching choices shape the outcome of a conversation, alternatively offending or befriending NPCs with a few available responses. Bravo for developers who wish to maintain interaction throughout the entire experience, but in-game conversations via dialogue trees are strange. Real conversations, particularly with strangers, tend to be much less rewarding. Rarely do these consist of one or two sentence inquiries with an equally short response.

Intimate chats with friends and family is not unusual. These conversations can last quite a long while, covering a range of topics and including long rants. A good game of D&D can include such ramblings because the game creator is there to make up things on the fly, but videogames are sadly incapable of such spontaneity without exquisite AI. In the mean time, our own dialogue takes the form of text-based responses.
Voice acting, particularly good voice acting, can add a lot to a scene. Voice acting allows us to interpret a piece of dialogue the way those having the conversation interpret it. There is a big difference between "Where have you been been?" with a concerned tone and "Where have you
been?" with an accusatory tone. Hotel Dusk has no voice acting and suffers from this problem far too often. The detrimental solution is to create extreme dialogue that is difficult to misinterpret but obviously overblown.

Dialogue choices in Fallout 3 are clear cut, even extreme, seeming very unrealistic. Developing a morally gray character is difficult in these circumstances. When I threaten to kill someone, I have no doubt they'll understand my meaning. Such threats cannot be insinuated; thus, a great deal of narrative depth cannot be created without veering from the standard dialogue construction. Also, Fallout's protagonist repeats your text choice verbatim, without their own accompanying voice. In order to simplify player choices, the game unrealistically constrains dialogue.
Mass Effect and Hotel Dusk adapt and improve conversations by giving players only the general idea of dialogue choice, and then allowing the protagonist to respond appropriately. In this way, player choices are simplified while still allowing subtle intonation in their response or through voice acting. The problem with Mass Effect's dialogue is that player choices are not always reflected in the conversation. Perhaps the way I interpret certain dialogue contrasts with the game designers interpretation. This can be troublesome. For example, if you choose a dialogue option with an exclamation point and the character does not yell their response, are you unsatisfied?

Of course, these are my personal preferences. I can understand some players wish to know exactly what their character is going to say before they say it. But to satisfy my own desires, dialogue options should have as much information regarding its tone as necessary to convey meaning, including descriptive tags (such as hostile, inquisitive, insulting). Alternatively, voice work can accompany text choices to convey meaning through intonation.

Including realistic NPC relationships, there is still quite a bit of innovation to be made in RPG dialogue. We could always relegate all conversations to cut scenes, but we would be missing unique opportunities for interaction in moments with undoubtedly long lasting effects. Some great and terrible repercussions can stem from simple conversations. Alternatively, we can go the Zelda route and just not say a thing. Sometimes, shutting up can be awfully appealing.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Bit.Trip Beating

I try to make it a practice to complete games before I write about them, but in the case of Bit.Trip Beat, I will have to make an exception. This game is so damn hard, I am unable to hazard a reliable guess as to when I will finish it.

According to the game's official site, Gaijin, the developers, "wanted to make a game that used the tools of today to inspire the fun of yesterday." The result is a game that resembles a combination of pong, guitar hero and space invaders, all presented in glorious 8-bit graphics and sound. The retro homage goes deeper than the chunky graphics and chiptune music: this game channels the controller-throwing frustration that was 8-bit gaming.

Gameplay takes place on a pong-style board, except the right paddle has been replaced by an off-screen block launcher that challenges the player to return a variety of shot styles. If the player is skilled (or lucky) enough to survive for any length of time, they are rewarded by being able to add to the music with each successful volley.

The game starts with basic shots that send the ball towards the player in a straight line. Things soon take a turn for the vicious: although the projectiles' colors denote their behavior, trying to return a sinusoidal wave of pong balls while eyeing another group ricocheting off the ceiling is the stuff of nightmares.

Bit.Trip Beat recalls a time when games were designed to grow fat off a bounty of quarters. The varieties of pong balls and their patterns are extremely difficult to volley, even after committing the patterns to memory. Memorizing patterns is one thing, but it takes calm nerves and a steady hand to clear the levels.

The game seeks to challenge the player in different, equally maddening ways regardless of their success. Missing too many shots in a row will eventually plunge the game in to a black and white pong replica screen. In this mode, the only noise comes from the speaker in the Wii remote. Its harsh beeping reminds the player that they are perilously close to seeing the all too familiar "game over" screen. While the pong screen removes the distracting background graphics, it also strips the projectiles of their color, a crucial clue in anticipating their behavior.

If one manages to put together a respectable combo of flawless returns, the game rockets into "hyper" mode: the music gets pumped up while the background graphics grow increasingly psychedelic. While these flashy rewards denote success, they often serve to make it even more difficult to see the balls which often lead the player back down into the pong-themed basement.

Back at the game's website, Gaijin goes on to say "Our goal was to make a game that was as simple in gameplay as the games of the early 80s and equally as fun—even though gamers' tastes have changed over the years." They have done a good job tapping into the current popularity of rhythm games, as it is supremely satisfying to add to the well-done music. Mercifully, the game supports co-op, allowing up to four people to battle shoulder-to-shoulder in the pixelated trenches. This is probably the only reason I was able to clear the second stage.

Still, "fun" is an odd word to use to describe this game in light of the medium's contemporary conception of challenge. The rise of the narrative-driven game has lead to a relaxing of difficulty in huge hits like Prince of Persia and Bioshock. Other rhythm games like Rock Band have generous "easy" or "no fail" modes. PixelJunk Eden was even patched to ratchet down the difficulty. Using these metrics, how can this game be fun?

The answer is rooted partly in history and partly in the nature of the medium. Bit.Trip Beat reminds players of a bygone era in which brutally hard games ruled the main stream scene, unapologetically handing us our asses. The undercurrent of such an era is felt in most games, but raw challenge has been superseded by new design philosophies. Still, the occasional walk down memory lane is enjoyable, especially when the knowledge that a return to modern gaming is only a few menu clicks away.

Additionally, Bit.Trip Beat remains attractive because it simply and elegantly illustrates how video games distinguish themselves from other mediums: while games might challenge our interpretive and analytical minds, they also provide a test of physicality, dexterity, and the implementation of theory.

Bit.Trip Beat challenges us on a basic level: no amount of philosophy will make that paddle move any faster. It is a challenge to prove that flesh and bone can best silicon and pixels. And that is why I can't rest until I get to the third level.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

EXP Podcast #26: Spring Cleaning!

Every week, we add to a massive list of notable news, analysis, and opinion pieces related to video games, knowing full well that most of them will never make the show. We figured it was time to sort through some of the backlog for any gems that may have been passed over and fashion them into an auditory smorgasbord.

The topics vary widely, and range from art design, memory and history, dating, and even death. Be sure to check out the show notes for links to the articles. As always, feel free to weigh in on the discussion in the comments with your thoughts on the stories, or with links to some of the stories you've enjoyed over the past months.

Some discussion starters:

-How do you keep track of your past gaming experiences?
-Have you ever learned about history through gaming?
-What is the perfect "date game?" Does such a thing exist?
-Which games do you admire for their artistry?
-Do you have any life/death stories that took place in an on-line space?
-Which recent gaming articles have you enjoyed recently?

To listen to the podcast:
- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

-Run time: 31 min and 53 sec
-"Altars," by Lara "KaterinLHC" Crigger, via Gamers With Jobs
-"Can Games Handle History," by Luke Plunkett, via Kotaku
-"The Dating Game," by Wendy Despain, via The Escapist
-"Artist Wants More Diverse Game Graphics, Says Developers Should 'Believe More in Games,'" by Steven Totilo, via MTV Multiplayer
-"Death Leaves Online Lives in Limbo," by Peter Svensson, via The Associated Press, posted on
-Music by Brad Sucks

Monday, May 18, 2009

May '09 BoRT: Videogame Memorials

This post is part of Corvus Elrod's monthly cross-blog event, The Blogs of the Round Table. This month's topic is A Game Is Worth a Thousand Words: What would one of your favorite pieces of non-interactive art look like if it had been created as a game first? May’s topic challenges you to imagine that the artist had been a game designer and supersede the source artwork–whether it be a painting, a sculpture, an installation, or any other piece that can be appreciated in a primarily visual way–to imagine a game that might have tried to communicate the same themes, the same message, to its audience.

Last year, poking around London's parks and gardens, I stumbled upon a sculpture-fountain hybrid, the beautiful piece of public art pictured right. The installation was commissioned by the Canadian Memorial Foundation who held a design contest to select a project. The winner was Pierre Granche, and his task was to design a war memorial for the Canadians who lost their lives in the two world wars.

Though admittedly not my favorite work of art, I find it visually appealing and immensely interesting. I chose this piece because the difficulty it poses for the designer. A memorial must visually appeal to an audience and speak a message that respects actual historical events. Now to add a function, to ask this piece to be interactive and entertaining while maintaining the traditionally quiet solemnity of a memorial, is no easy task. Yet I believe videogames can lend themselves well to this goal, serving a similar purpose with tact and intimacy.

Drawing roughly 3 million visitors every year, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. is perhaps the most well known memorial in the United States. It is a standing monument to the general war experience while maintaining the importance of each individual person whose name is transcribed on the wall. Like the Granche's work, it draws on historical events to speak a greater message.

Yet war memorials are strange. What message they do speak is incredibly subjective. Though they may tacitly normalize or even condone state violence, memorials are theoretically politically neutral. One visitor to Green Park may see the fountain as a message about the futility of war, while another may interpret the falling leaves as symbols of national war heroes that prove war is inevitable.

Memorials are also fundamentally public experiences. Like a national gravestone, they serve as a site of communal mourning, solemn appreciation, weighty contemplation. Yet while inviting the gaze of any passersby, memorials do not invite criticism. They are not meant to be hung in a gallery to be rated by critics. There is almost an obligation to respect this particular form of art as outside the medium, serving a higher purpose than art for art's sake.

My videogame memorial design must be a completely free experience playable in your browser. Players are invited to explore narrative puzzles that track individuals' experiences before and after war. With just enough information to find a solution, visitors to the memorial game are investigators, solving riddles and following clues through a collection of photos, diaries, interviews, and official records to create a portfolio of one person's life during the war.

Though the game is opened widely to the public, it loses an important unique to occupied public spaces. A sense of community is strengthened when in physical proximity with others in a shared space. Being bound to other visitors equally in awe at the human experience is appealing, so this game memorial would require multiplayer elements. In addition to a general chat, skilled players could combine portfolios and collaborate with others to track the experience of a battalion. A running list of player names, locations around the world, and their portfolio status, can facilitate a communal experience.

A tiered difficulty system, one which includes basic puzzles for children and entertaining educational lessons, could be incorporated to satisfy players of multiple skill levels, improving accessibility. The game should be fun, if that is what you are looking for. I do not believe fun is incompatible with respect, nor did Granche, who "anticipated the public's appropriation of the monument: children can often be seen sliding on the sloping sculptural mass, and it also serves as a fountain: a fine layer of water trickles over the two surfaces of the pyramidal body, reflecting the environment of vegetation, clouds and people."

Ideally, the videogame memorial fills the differing desires of those who would visit Green Park, allowing play alongside quiet contemplation. Down time, moments in between play that invite reflection from participants, is incredibly important and could serve as a reward for excellence. Each portfolio completed will shape a unique story, that blends with the stories of others into a larger piece, a game to remember, create, and interpret simultaneously. Interactive can globalize traditionally nationalist experiences and remind us of the very human sensation of loss across borders.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Book Review: "From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games"

In From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games, Ed Halter attempts to elucidate the tumultuous relationship between video games and warfare. Beginning with a survey of war's historical representation in games, the book winds through World War II, the birth of computers, and the subsequent proliferation of computer technology in both the military and entertainment sectors. In doing so, Halter makes a compelling case for viewing the link between warfare and video games not as a one-way channel, but rather as a porous wall: a wall allows the two spheres to intermingle, blurring the line between reality and virtual reality.

Halter begins his study with a brief discussion of games' historical association with war. Games have been used to simulate organized combat since antiquity. Whether it was Egyptian Pharaohs or Viking raiders, games about the strategy of combat were used as both diversions and educational tools. The conflagration of battle and gaming grows stronger through medieval times and into modernity (a claim based largely on the generous availability of primary sources), as games like chess and go assume their positions as quintessential examples of war games. With the advent of industrialism, chess variants such as Kriegsspiel and the mass appeal of toy soldiers more explicitly linked gaming with waging war.

Halter's narrative of video games' birth dovetails with countless other stories in American history: despite being a nation ideologically obsessed with independence and autonomy, the interest and funding of the federal government has been critical to video games. Early games like Spacewar! were created on machines designed to fight the Cold War. Machines created for venues like Vietnam instead became virtual battlefields for students looking to take advantage of the latest technology. Soon, schools like Stanford had to explicitly forbid people from using the computers to play games during business hours.

Nothing this popular goes unnoticed by either the government or the military. Halter calls upon The Great Communicator to illustrate the government's growing attention towards games:

"Even without knowing it, you're being prepared for a new age...I recently learned something quite interesting about video games. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain, coordination in playing these games. The Air Force believes these kids will be outstanding pilots should they fly our jets...Watch a 12-year-old take evasive action and score multiple hits while playing Space Invaders, and you will appreciate the skills of tomorrow's pilot."

-Ronald Reagan, from a speech given at Walt Disney World's EPCOT Center, March 8, 1983

Games like Atari's Battlezone demonstrated the rising popularity and sophistication of games, as well as their utility in the eyes of the military. While the Army-commissioned version of Battlezone may not have caught on, military integration continued to grow with the rise of increasingly complex games, as well as the mod scene. By the 1990s, there were army recruiters in the arcades and clear engagement with contemporaneous conflict in games, such as Operation Secret Storm.

In the book's second half, Halter displays his keen sense for journalistic profiles. A parade of strange, almost secretive folk residing in the nexus of the entertainment, military, and edcuation industries describe their work towards creating the perfect war simulation. Companies with deceptively bland names like the Institue for Creative Technologies combine talented people from the Hollywood, academia, and the military in the hopes of creating increasingly useful military training tools. Halter makes a strong argument that, if a holodeck is ever created, it will be on Uncle Sam's dime.

Halter ends by bringing the focus back to the cultural complexity of war in games, a complexity that has grown more tangled since the days of chess andkriegsspiel. From mainstream games with military endorsement like Kuma War and Full Spectrum Warrior, to the menagerie of social commentary-meets-pulp works found on Newgrounds, it is clear that video games are at once used to lionize and criticize war. Discourse from accross the ideological, artistic, and financial spectrum is both created and analyzed by the medium.

From Sun Tzu to Xbox is an important book, as it demonstrates an academic approach to games that takes a different tact than traditional "games studies." Instead of theoretical constructs, Halter uses games as evidence to explore society's views on war and gaming. By the end of the book, it is clear that, while shocking, games like Six Days in Fallujah are nothing new. War and video games are no strangers to one another, and all signs suggest their relationship will only grow closer.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

EXP Podcast #25: It's About Time

Is this already episode twenty-five? My how time flies! Which is exactly the topic of the day. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I stumble upon a clever idea from Reid Kimball, Gamasutra Expert Blogger and level designer for Buzz Monkey Software. Taking a cue from cinema, Reid suggests game designers implement the potentially cheesy but versatile tool that is the montage. By creating an interactive montage, the passage of time is expressed without a non-interactive cut scene or jarring jump in time. Join us while we discuss flashbacks, lumberjacks, the mighty Chronos, and how games and gamers play with time itself. Of course you can find Kimball's article in the show notes below. As always, we would love to have you share your own temporal musings in the comments section.

Some discussion starters:

- What games express the passage of time in satisfactory ways? Does their interactive, or the lack thereof, improve the experience?
- Do you enjoy playing games under a time constraint? Does this give greater meaning to the passage of time in-game?
- Are there characters or franchises you would like to see age in real-time? Do you think this would add to the immersion?

To listen to the podcast:
- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show Notes:

- Run time: 26 min 48 sec
- Reid Kimball's article, via Gamasutra
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pokémon and On and On

The Nintendo DS games occupying my DS carrying case seldom appear on the currently playing section of EXP, not because of any sense of shame, though I am acutely aware of stares when I rifle through my collection on public transportation. Rather, I play these games in short cycles commuting to work and they rarely stay in my mind for long. One recent exception has been Pokémon Diamond, part of the fourth-generation of Pokémon games, twin to Pokémon Pearl, uglier sibling to the recently released Pokémon Platinum, and one of the strangest creations on my shelf.

I purchased Diamond a couple months ago, long after its 2007 release date. I consumed it with excitement, albeit slowly. Four of my housemates also picked up copies of Pokémon Pearl and Platinum. We soon began late night trades of captured pokemon and requests for Evee evolutions. Yet even after the hours of good ol' fashioned bonding time, I've come to this conclusion: Pokémon is the most terribly designed game that I still enjoy playing.

Pokémon Diamond has a respectable rating of eighty-five on Metacritic, with plenty of glowing reviews. My own experiences with the game would demand an alien scoring system that could translate my hatred and enjoyment into a series of runic matrices or non-euclidean constructs. I have voiced my antagonistic ramblings to my housemates with mixed results.

Game flaws populate Pokémon as if its "Gotta Catch 'Em All" slogan were referring to poor design choices. Allow me to rant for a moment. The game, for all its depth, is incredibly uninformative. For a large portion of the game, a world map is not easily accessible as an application on the bottom screen. The map that is available, both on screen and in your bag, is largely devoid of helpful information. "Is that the route that is blanketed in fog? Do I need cut to access a honey tree there?" You might as well guess.
The same uncertainty is applied to your pokemon collection efforts. Some pokemon can only be caught at night, others in short windows of time after slathering a tree with honey. Some pokemon evolve only when certain conditions are met, some must hold onto a specific object, others only evolve when traded, or when you earn their love. None of this information is made clear to the player.

This uncertainty is exacerbated by incredibly slow gameplay. The incessant short but useless animations are maddening. Every little thing, crushing rocks, telling you an attack is "super effective," and reminding you its raining, requires numerous seconds of game time. Fighting a weak pokemon , a repeated occurrence when not showering yourself with repel potions, can take far too long considering how easy it is to defeat them in one blow. The result is too few opportunities for meaningful input.

Additionally, the joy of combat is quickly eroded as strategy becomes attacking your enemy's obvious weakness. Strong moves do not balance well and it is easy to rely mostly on your startingcreature. This "Big Hitter Syndrome" becomes increasingly important as eggs and pokemon with out-of-combat abilities take up precious space in your party.
Yet watching your pokemon evolve or catching a new breed is incredibly satisfying, sharing this joy with friends even more so. I believe Jonathan Blow's assessment of World of Warcraft is applicable to this same phenomenon. Blow has called WoW unethical, relying on "artificial rewards," aesthetically appealing sounds and visual effects that do not stem naturally from well designed gameplay. I'm a huge WoW fan, but I can see how he interprets level grinding as tedious work to achieve artificial satisfaction.

Pokémon shares this affliction. To put it bluntly, Pokémon's gameplay is incredibly boring, but the artificial rewards are enough to keep me playing. The games success can be partly attributed to its ability to satisfy a human (or cultural) desire to consume and collect. Blow considers this to be unethical because designers are intentionally exploiting "these psychological phenomena" to sell fundamentally flawed game designs. Its clear the Pokémon have not markedly improve since its inception, its ability to satisfy a strange desire has always been close to perfect.

Can a game that sells millions and is widely praised, yet full of glaring flaws and frustrating design choices, still be considered a good game when its success relies on artificial rewards? Has Pokémon become a sort of virus, propagating a false desire to "Catch 'Em All?" Why is this anomaly, this awful yet entertaining game, so unsettling? Maybe I should smash the cartridge in protest... right after I snag myself a Raichu.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Broken Blocks

While I do have a penchant for critical darlings and conceptual oddities, let it not be said that I look down on the gaming's mega hits. On the contrary, some of my favorite recent titles have been pure popcorn and soda. Luckily for me, and the medium overall, it is not unusual for great games to exist simultaneously as a retail colossi and models of outstanding game design.

Sadly, this is not the case when it comes to Lego Star Wars.

Lights...Action! Wait, Aren't We Forgetting Something?

In Lego Star Wars, the camera is the deadliest foe the player faces. They have no control over its movement, and the gaggle of Lego avatars tend to get separated from each other, especially when playing co-op.

This is not a new problem to cooperative platformers. From Ninja Turtles to LittleBigPlanet, keeping track of things as wild as humans is no mean feat. Most games employ one or a combination of different methods of ensuring the players stay on the same screen:

1. Zoom the Camera back when the players get separated, thereby allowing for an unobstructed view of play.

2. Lock the camera so that its movement, as well as the players' progression, is linked to the slowest player. This way, the fast/skilled players can't leave the slow ones behind and advancing is tied to the weakest link in the chain.

3. Allow a player to be left behind but then warp them back to the leading player. There may be a penalty for the player who must be warped, but at least it keeps the party together.

Lego Star Wars implements its own maddening take on these three concepts. The camera is basically fixed: regardless of how many characters and players, there is no zooming out.

When the lead player tries to advance, they can actually "drag" the camera along with them, thereby creating invisible walls that push the other players. When Hanah and I were playing the game, it was not unusual for one of us to be knocked off a platform simply because the other person walked a bit too far away from the field of view.

If this were not enough, sometimes the camera would let another person fall behind, completely out of frame. In this case, it would not warp the lost person back in to the fray. Instead, it would sign the lost person out of the game, giving the AI control where there was once a human. This added layers of confusion and annoyance as we continually had to sign back in to the game to take control of characters over which we had inexplicably lost control.

Let's Get Some Perspective

Lego Star Wars forces the player through a world ill-equipped to facilitate successful navigation. The combination of oddly strewn ledges and a camera angle that fails to convey their distances and angles leads to a maddening series of false starts and re-tries.

Unlike LittleBigPlanet, Lego Star Wars does not lock its characters to specific spatial planes. Because of this, even walking across a bridge is a major accomplishment, as the camera tends to constantly shift. Starting across a bridge, the player's destination may be to the left, but due to the endlessly fickle camera, "left" may become "up" halfway across the bridge.

Another particularly strange and enraging quirk concerns the transition between level sections. In some cases, the door to the next room will be on the right side of the screen, necessitating the players move right to advance. However, after the screen loads, the player often finds themselves oriented in a way counter to the direction they were moving in the previous screen.

Unless a game is trying to make an artistic statement about cognitive dissonance, if the player leaves one screen from the right, the next screen should generally place them on the left side of the new screen. This fosters level cohesion and a sense of geography. Why implement a navigational system that changes which way "up" is after every screen?

Plastic Soul

Real Lego blocks are about exploration, creativity, and discovery. Though each set comes with instructions of how to build the picture on the box, other examples are shown to incite players to create their own rules, and employ their imagination while at play. Lego Star Wars initially drew me in with its nods to the classic toys, but I soon saw that, while it looked like Lego, it was nothing like playing with actual Lego.

For a game based on a building block toy, there is remarkably little building. Every so often there is a shimmering pile of blocks that can be assembled automatically by holding down a button. This is a huge missed opportunity, as it prevents the player from exercising any ingenuity in solving puzzles in the game. Instead of assembling the blocks to fashion solutions of their own, the player is guided along a standardized route. While it may be ambitious to want full control over every block, even the necessity to piece some of the blocks together manually would have increased the amount of agency afforded to the player.

Lego Star Wars is a classic example of modern shovelware. In this came, Lego is little more than a bankable license applied as a thin veneer over rushed, technically flawed, and poorly designed games. The most disheartening thing about the whole situation is that people are buying into this, philosophically and literally.

Going in to Lego Star Wars, I expected a pleasant, relaxing, if by-the-numbers, beat 'em up/platforming experience. A quick glance over the popular press reinforced the expectation that I was entering a cute, approachable game, targeted so that both kids and their parents could enjoy it.

It is quite disconcerting that the conventional wisdom is that the Lego games are great for kids. While thematically squeaky-clean, no kid should be subjected to the frustration and monotony of these titles. Since when did kids need simplistic games anyway? The Super Star Wars games of the SNES seemed to catch on just fine.

What if the worst were to happen? Instead of growing out of these games, children, naive and impressionable as they are, might grow accustomed to this caliber of game. The series has already moved millions of copies; what message does this send to game developers and publishers about their audience? Tomorrow's video game enthusiasts, designers, and publishers are in danger of being seduced by the Dark Side.

Please, won't somebody please think of the children?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

EXP Podcast #24: Cultured Gaming

This week, Inspired by Daniel Johnson's article about games and culture, we wade in to the fascinating-yet-nebulous realm of culture in video games. After a brief discussion of how to define the term, we think about the cultural influences found in video games. Whether it is a game's content, the way it was produced, or its capacity to illustrate the societies in which it exists, games carry meaning about everyone involved in the process. As this site is largely about examining the culture that both flows through and emanates from games, we found plenty to talk about in this article. We hope to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- What games have you found particularly interesting in terms of the way they represented a specific culture (either positively or negatively)? Who is most qualified to handle cultural topics in video games?
- When does a culture become stifling? How do development techniques, business practices, social mores, and player expectation impact this?
- What do video games say about our current societies? What games from the past do you find particularly illustrative of cultural zeitgeists?

To listen to the podcast:
- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show Notes:

- Run time: 28 min 50 sec
- Daniel Johnson's Article, via GameSetWatch: "'Lingua Franca' – The Place Of Games In Culture"
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, May 4, 2009

Gaming for Science

Though I would never relegate the entirety of videogames to the realm of baubles, mere toys that dwindle away the hours, I also see the value in idle play. That being said, sometimes I find it hard to reconcile my interest and background in world affairs with the amount of free time I currently spend playing, orchestrating, thinking about, and writing about videogames. So it was with great excitement I read an excellent article in the April issue of Wired magazine by John Bohannon , illustrating how game design applies to real world solutions.

The Community-Wide Experiment on the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP) is a biannual competition in which teams of biochemists compete in the advancement of complex protein folding, which can help scientists learn more about the cause and treatment for such conditions as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, AIDS, among others.

The reason CASP exists is because the task of finding the correct fold that allows a polypeptide to function properly is incredibly daunting. "Just 50,000 protein structures have been cracked since the late 1950s, while the sequences of millions of protein coding genes have been discovered in the past ten years alone." With only a relatively small cadre of scientists to work in this discipline, they have found ways to recruit. This is where gamers come in.
For one, computing solutions takes a lot of processing power, so much so that the members of Stanford University's chemistry department asked for a little borrowed processing time from computer users around the world. So the chemists created Folding@home. Much like the distributed computing project Seti@home that allows users to search for signs of extraterrestrial life in our galaxy, Folding@home installs a small client program that utilizes your processor to conduct actual research. With a growing gamer consumer base in mind, Folding@home creators developed a client for the Playstation 3 in 2006. Right now, thousands of PS3 owners are conducting science in the form of a nifty screen-saver.

Already the idea is inspiring, but even better than the insides of a PS3 are the insides of the human brain, with its uncanny ability to recognize patterns and pursue solutions for some of the most difficult puzzles. David Baker, a Seattle based biochemist who had already created Rosetta@home, a similar folding program, decided to team up with a computer scientist and tap into the human potential by creating Foldit, a protein folding game, a collection of science puzzles solvable by the gaming community.
"Players use the cursor to grab, bend, pull, and wiggle the chain of amino acids anywhere along its length, folding the protein into its optimum shape. The only rules are based on physics—opposite charges attract, atomic bonds have limited angles of rotation, and the parts of the molecule that stick to water tend to point outward. The closer your model's properties adhere to those rules, the more points you get."

OK, I admit, that may not sound exhilarating. It doesn't have the entrancing soundtrack or alluring art of Braid, but it is amazingly well built. The appeal for many, including myself, is due in no small part to the competitive and cooperative elements that allow users to help each other out and alternatively taunt others into progression. I am still a amateur protein folder, but the world chat channel and the puzzle exclusive chat channel provide a strange sense of community for a single player game.

The result is exactly what Baker had hoped for, a sort of gamer hive-mind applied to science. There are high ranking teams, protein folding guilds, that tackle some of the harder proteins and have contributed several solutions to Baker's team at CASP. But even on the small scale, for those of us not solving complex puzzles, the community aspect is an interesting innovation that should be applied to other titles.
Foldit's charm is not solely its almost MMO elements. Foldit is well polished. It has a thorough collection of introductory puzzles that put countless game tutorials to shame, a simple interface design, and an easily understood control scheme that still allow players to perform complex adjustments to protein structures. Foldit can also compete with any XBLA puzzle game for addictive entertainment value. Baker didn't just create a tool system, he created a great game with applicable results. Take that videogame naysayers.

Such a creation only opens doors for innovative design challenges for the future. I can easily imagine applying solutions of games with broader scopes. Surely Sim City like games, with alternative rules and feedback systems, could contribute to our understanding of city planning and even emergency preparedness. Or perhaps gamers could use their collective intelligence to developed efficient agricultural practices, water resource allocation, or even simple inventions to solve puzzles that have stricken third-world countries for years.

For Baker's team, games and gamers are immensely valuable. Foldit players will share the credit with Baker's team if their structures are applied to real world therapies. As bohannon mentioned "It might be the first time that a computer game's high score is a Nobel Prize." Clever designers outside the industry should recognize the applications games may have within multiple disciplines, seeing games as a resource. If Baker's creation is the standard, I'll gladly be a gamer scientist.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Back to the Garden

After yesterday's heavy post and my recent descent into the abyss that is Far Cry 2, I figure a light post filled with unabashed optimism is in order.

PixelJunk Eden was one of my most anticipated games on the PS3. The first thing I did after setting up my system was download the game, and I am happy to report that I am still playing it today. In a previous podcast, Jorge and talked about "therapeutic" games, which is exactly what PixelJunk Eden has become for me. Like many of my other favorite games, PixelJunk is enjoyable not only in a gameplay sense, but also as a study of the ongoing evolution of a game throughout its existence.

I was surprised by Eden's "floaty" atmosphere: having expected a vertical platformer, I was initially disoriented by the game's gravitational quirks and emphasis on exploration. This garden felt as if it was on the moon: the effects of physics were recognizable, yet quite different from the norm. The interstellar motif is strengthened by the repetitive, orbital motions used to traverse the game's levels.

The clean lines and textureless stalks of the plants evoke the sense that they are shadowy dreams of something real, entities one step removed from reality. While the game centers around collecting pollen, the landscape is infused with sci-fi elements like warp portals. The hypnotic background graphics and the steady beat of the ambient music work to heighten this synthesis of high technology and the natural world. The result is an experience that feels at once organic and electronic.

While there is a large emphasis on exploring, Eden forces the player to hone specific skills in order to successfully traverse the levels. By learning how to harness the Grimp's ability to climb, swing, and fight, the player is exposed to a variety of gameplay styles that work best when combined with one another.

Largely due to its difficulty, Eden was patched in order to tweak the time limits for clearing the levels. Patching games usually worries me for a number of reasons: With patches, can we ever say there is a definitive version of a particular game? What of developer intent? How can we create a system to discuss games when the "texts" we study are continuously changing? What were they going to do to my beloved garden?

When I heard of the impending change, I immediately set to work finishing each stage of the game. In one sense, I felt I owed it the developers to see their game the way it was originally released. More shallowly, I wanted to say that I cleared the Eden before it was nerfed. I obnoxiously announced my progress on Twitter and, as many of my followers know, was able to achieve my goal.

To my delight, the patch was a major improvement on the game. By lessening the time crunch, Q-Games has relaxed some of the game's maddening difficulty, but still managed to retain a sense of purpose during the gameplay . If anecdotal evidence is any indication, their decision to change the rules of the game has led a greater number of people experiencing all their game has to offer. Speaking personally, I can say that before the patch, Eden was a solitary experience, but now Hanah and I navigate the garden together like odd Grimp versions of Adam and Eve.

My affection for PixelJunk Eden continues to grow with the release of a five-level expansion pack, Encore. Not only does this new content offer unexplored gardens, but it also adds new moves and gameplay techniques that feel like logical extensions of the initial game. The Grimp's are not given new abilities, rather it is the environments themselves that offer new experiences (pollen production and gravity control are two such examples).

Mirroring the gameplay itself, it seems that Q-Games carefully gathered user nuggets of user feedback and employed them to fertilize Eden's growth. With any luck they will continue to add to the game (my wish list includes a level editor!), ensuring that their creation remains in perennial bloom.