Friday, July 31, 2009

Review: The Surprise of Super Mario Galaxy

Every time I play a new Super Mario game, I am surprised. I am surprised that a franchise as old as Mario can stay relevant over the years, even though the plucky plumber continues to hop over the lifeless carcasses of so many washed-up characters. I am surprised that, although Nintendo has given Mario as many wacky jobs as Fox has given Homer Simpson, the Mario series remains fresh. I am surprised that it remains as exhilarating to control Mario as he sprints and jumps over lava today as it did over twenty years ago.

At this point, it should not come as a surprise when I say that Super Mario Galaxy is an excellent game.

Every few years, Nintendo unleashes upon the gaming world an overall-clad testament to the company's continuing mastery of the platforming genre, and of game design in general. Every Mario platformer has either demonstrated untapped potential in the genre or demonstrated Nintendo's willingness to pursue novel, sometimes risky, design choices (many ended up doing both of these things):

  • Super Mario Bros. defined (and many would argue continues to define) video games as medium
  • Super Mario Bros. 3 showed us the possibilities of an overworld map and demonstrated that that 2D sidescrollers can have multiple layers of depth
  • Super Mario World familiarized us with everyone's favorite mount and well as demonstrated how expansive and secretive supposedly linear levels can be
  • Super Mario 64 ushered in the era of 3D gaming and created the scavenger hunt template that 3D action games continue to use
  • Super Mario Sunshine gave Mario a permanent tool for the first time, and introduced new water and tightrope-based gameplay dynamics

Super Mario Galaxy re-introduces 3D gaming, expands the rules of platforming, and demonstrates how the judicious use of motion control can augment traditional gaming mechanics.

Galaxy's approach to 3D sets it apart from any other game. We live in a 3D world, one that relies on rules of orientation: the concepts of "right-side-up" and "upside down" define our perception, and have defined how we have constructed 3D games. Galaxy's spherical design aesthetic often alters this concept of orientation; when Mario runs around one of the planetoids, his direction is dictated by how the camera is positioned. With a simple button press, what was once "left" instantly becomes "up." Suddenly, the player must learn how to negotiate a new universe of game design, bringing back echoes of the delirious sense of freedom inspired by Mario 64.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nintendo demonstrates wisdom when implementing motion control. Instead of awkwardly trying to replace actions traditionally controlled by buttons with hand motions, Galaxy uses the Wii's powers to augment traditional skills. The most prevalent use of the Wii remote's motion sensing capabilities is found in Mario's spin move. Used as an offensive attack or a jump-boost, the spin is activated by the nearly ubiquitous "Wii waggle." Even a small flick of the wrist will activate the move, but more importantly, the form of the waggle is irrelevant: the move is performed identically whether one shakes the Wii remote like bottle of cheese whiz or a fishing rod.

Without having to worry about performing an oddly exact notion, the player can instead focus on linking the move together with button presses. Motion control is used inventively to eliminate the need for awkward thumb repositioning or unintuitive combination presses. This development lends itself well to new gamers while also introducing a new set of challenges for veterans.

Other motion controls crop up in racing and balancing mini games, but these sections are cleverly separated from the main platforming stages. Again, Nintendo understands that motion control requires new design conventions. Motion control is not yet refined enough to handle the precision jumps Mario is famous for, and so Nintendo does not force the issue. Instead, they use the novelty of tilt control and cursor pointing in unique challenges that benefit from those specific features.

I have marveled at the inventive platforming in games like LittleBigPlanet and And Yet it Moves, but Galaxy makes an even larger impression. It implements the concepts found in numerous critical darlings in fully realized way, often years ahead of other studios. Not only is Nintendo the best in the business, it also maintains its position in the vanguard of game design.

There is something special about the essence of Mario, even when compared to other beloved franchises. Mario either inspires creativity or attracts people willing to explore new ideas within the oldest of genres. Franchises like Pokemon and Zelda remain largely in a state of suspended animation that, while pleasant, makes them feel conservative when compared to Mario. A new Mario game not only finds the intensity to make my hands sweat, but does so in a fresh way each time.

Every iteration of Mario is crafted with painstaking care to inspire in the player a new way of conceptualizing the platformer. The title "Super Mario Galaxy" is fittingly poetic, as this game, like every Mario game, is its own independent reality: Galaxy's very being is justified and explained perfectly within its set of unified rules, fashioned specifically to reify it as the sole form of existence. Playing this game leaves one feeling that this is, and has always been, the natural way of things.

Super Mario Galaxy makes it impossible to imagine what will come next, just as each previous title made it impossible to imagine its successor. However, that game will come, and we will be surprised when we are dropped into that new universe. We will also quickly be unable to imagine anything else.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

EXP Podcast #36: Another Brick in the Wall

What happens when our universe and the digital ones we find in games begin to overlap? Inspired by Steven Conway's excellent piece about re-examining "the fourth wall" in the context of video games, we take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of playing a self-aware game. Much is discussed: we navigate the labyrinth that is the Metal Gear universe, explore the hidden meaning of Tingle, and dredge the depths of Rapture in search of answers. Help us break the fourth wall of our site by jumping in with your thoughts in the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- What games successfully play with the idea of the fourth wall? Do they employ subtle "winks" or explicit self awareness?
- Are games that "extend the magic circle" to encompass the player the ideal way to play? How does the rise of motion control effect this?
- How does the role of authorship impact the idea of the fourth wall? Is it necessary for a designer to extend the magic circle, or is it up to players to dictate their level of involvement in the game's fiction?

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: 35 min 47 sec
- "A Circular Wall? Reformulating the Fourth Wall for Video Games," by Steven Conway, via Gamasutra
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, July 27, 2009

Review: Genre Blending Steal Princess

There is beauty in two seemingly disparate parts melded into one seamless creation. Peanut-butter & jelly sandwiches come to mind, but I'm a sucker for food analogies. Steal Princess aims to merge simple puzzle solving elements with platforming components. The combo seems to be a genre in itself, with Braid and most recently Trine has excellent examples. Genre is itself a nebulous word, which I will eagerly lambaste again if given the chance. The lines are blurred anyway. Even Cliff Bleszinski, creator of the modern quintessential shooter, believes the future of the shooter genre is in RPGs. Steal Princess is an intriguing patchwork golem that rests uncomfortably in genre borderlands.

Published by the ever prolific Atlus, of Shin Megami Tensai fame, and developed by Climax and Marvelous, Steal Princess follows the comedic exploits of Anise, a skilled young thief with an eye patch and an attitude. Like some of her adventuring predecessors, Anise is accompanied by an only moderately annoying fairy named Kukri who is enamored with the legendary hero Anise is destined to become. She is an reluctant heroine rescuing a prince.

The should sound trite, and for the most part it is. But make no mistake, Steal Princess is very much aware of itself, approaching what should be a hackneyed storyline with light-hearted gibing at its own expense. At times, the game is genuinely funny. The characters are poke at convention and even the demons are endearing. The occasional piece of attractive animation and clever dialogue break up gameplay with humor reminiscent of anime like FLCL. But those damn genre mechanics get in the way again.

Game progression consists of working your way through various stages, each consisting of a series of grid maps. Each map has a door Anise must open and exit through, with traditional platforming obstacles in her way - levers, spikes, traps and the like. However, the puzzling task is finding out which precise route and kill order of enemies is necessary for escape. With whip in hand, Anise must use the land formation, enemy lay-out, and various acquired weapons to reach her goal. Each map is like a combination lock.
The puzzle design is actually quite inventive. Many enemies can only be killed with specific weapons, but not right away. Anise must approach each enemy as part of a large puzzle, using their characteristics for her benefit. The game iterates on this basic design with some impressive and increasingly difficult puzzles. It is not uncommon to find yourself with the key, but with no way to reach the exit. Most maps require multiple play throughs just to scope out the territory and get a feel for the land. Like all successful puzzle games, the "aha!" moments are deeply satisfying. It's the platforming required to bring a brilliant plan to fruition that is so frustrating.

What should be a simple application of your skill becomes repeated attempts at needlessly bothersome platforming. Steal Princess is not designed for the precision its platforming requires. The static camera angle makes judging distance and timing difficult. Anise's brief hovering and strange collision detection compounds this problem. Enemies used as platforms and launching devices seem to take up a larger amount of space than their model demands. It is not rare to see Anise hovering slightly to the right of and above an enemy attacking her with futile swings of an axe.

Anise's whip, her main navigational tool, is finicky and consistently aggravating. The whip is imprecise, which is partly explained by the sloppy detection and camera angle. The other more obvious and almost insulting explanation for whip-frustration is the baffling control design.
Players can activate the whip in two ways. They can use the stylus to click on a target or they can press the right shoulder button. Pressing the shoulder button will whip an object detected within a certain range of Anise. This method becomes especially untrustworthy when there are multiple moving targets in close proximity to each other. The stylus, while slightly more precise, is a pain to use when trying to combine whipping with jumping or moving. Using the stylus to play fluidly requires an inhuman act of finger contortion.

There are few games I find appealing that mangle playability so severely. In most respects, Steal Princess should be a simple and joyful diversion. It's strange to want to like a game whose flaws are few but crippling. Steal Princess employs such genre tropes, some successfully, that I could have faith in renewed application of tiresome game elements. But the platforming mechanics are simply not capable of supporting the puzzle design. Instead of seamless genre-bending creation, Steal Princess is more of a shambling automaton. Like Frankenstein's monster, Steal Princess is impressive because its creation is an eloquent accomplishment. Unfortunately, the game is a composite medley falling apart at the seams.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Portal Through Time

This past weekend, I plugged a gaping hole in my personal gaming experience: I finally played through Portal. Let us dispense with the formalities: the game is a masterpiece. The marriage of a brilliant concept and a sublime execution is a rare treat. Anyone who enjoys games, science-fiction, or simply fine storytelling should play it.

After basking in Portal's magnificence, I began to ask myself why I had waited to so long to play it. I was keenly aware of its existence: it garnered excellent reviews and spawned numerous geek memes. I even had a friend who dressed up as weighted companion cube for Halloween, so why the delay?

I am reminded of a post Michael Abbott wrote during last fall's game release orgy:

For those of us who enjoy contemplative play - and if you haven't tried it, I heartily recommend it - I suggest we slow down and chew our food. Resist the urge to finish a game simply to stay with the pack. Leave open the possibility of writing about and discussing games weeks or months after they're released. Enjoy the scenery. Jump off the [new release] train. I suspect it's headed nowhere anyway.

These sentiments appeal to my preferred gaming style. A completionist by nature, I love exploring everything a game has to offer and reflecting on the experience when I finish. The impulse to "keep up with the Joneses" is expensive, time consuming, and, in my mind, not conducive to fostering thoughtful reflections on video games.

However, as I played Portal, I could not shake the feeling that during the fall of 2007, I was chewing the wrong "food."

Staying up to date on gaming releases allows one to analyze games within their contemporary contexts and to monitor trends within the overall medium. Portal's gameplay and story challenge many traditional gaming conventions. Creating a first-person game that does not involve explicit gore is nearly unheard of, and the game's mechanics allow for a truly novel way to explore three-dimensional space. The game's writing caliber equals and surpasses most television and movie dialogue, and serves to augment the gameplay experience.

If I had played Portal, before now, it would have had major impacts on the work I do for this site. In our discussion on ethical decisions, Nels, Jorge, and I explored how choices, consequences, and personal moral systems affected the weight of in-game decision making. In Portal, I found myself examining the ethical validity of destroying the child-like turrets. If one became turned around and rendered harmless, I elected to let it "live" rather than destroying it. Unlike the Little Sister choices in Bioshock, Portal's rules did not imply a reward/punishment dynamic when acting on the turrets. Even though the game was narratologically linear in both presentation and execution, the combination of strong characterization and my preconceived ethical system engendered moral decisions.

Portal inspired meditations on life and murder, something I would have brought up in last week's podcast. The game uses murder as a means to arrive at a larger message, utilizing it as a tool to fashion a believable story. In the tradition of many murder mysteries, the unseen killing of other test subjects and Aperature staff begins the story. GlaDOS even has a self-professed motive: Science!

At some point in the game, I began thinking of GlaDOS as a person, and I resigned myself to the idea of her murder. It was not enough to escape; she had to be stopped. In the climactic confrontation, GlaDOS seems to dance on the line of sentience. Are her insults and shrieks of pain that of a software program created to elicit unease from humans, or are they signs of intelligent life? If it is the latter, Portal is at once a mystery and an assassination game.

In addition to one's personal experience, it is valuable to play a game along with a community. Being able to discuss contemporary titles with others furthers the collective understanding of a game's importance, as was evidenced by last winter's Prince of Persia discussion. Unfortunately, not all games have the staying power and dedicated community that titles like Far Cry 2 enjoy; most games are fated to burn brightly when first released, and then glow as embers until enough time has gone by to examine them in a historical context.

Limits on time, money, and interest all factor in to deciding what we play, making difficult choices necessary and inevitable. But how do we choose which games we play and when we play them? Do we go strictly by personal inclination, or is there a way to suss out which games deserve immediate analysis?

Recalling Michael's nutritionally-themed metaphor, it seems that some games are best consumed hot out of the oven while others function perfectly well as leftovers. Most importantly, it seems that chewing our food is much more enjoyable when we are all gathered around the same table, sharing the meal.

Whatever the case may be, I think this xkcd comic perfectly illustrates what it was like to hang out with me this past week:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

EXP Podcast #35: Anger Management

I am inundated with excellent games, happy as a clam. But trouble has been brewing for some gamers who fear the titles they love will be marred by sneaky developers and their zany "improvement" schemes. Some have gone so far as to organize an online defense force, including fans of Left 4 Dead, Starcraft, and Diablo. Maybe they have some reasonable complaints and should be heard. Or maybe they are entitled good-for-nothings with too much time on their hands. This week, Scott and I tackle 'nerd rage'. Join us while we discuss whiners, community organizing, unicorn art and what pisses us off. As always, your comments are appreciated.

Some discussion starters:

- Should gamers, such as the Left 4 Dead 2 boycotters, bother organizing against perceived grievances by developers/publishers? Where does the sense of entitlement come from?
- What responsibility do developers/publishers have to their consumers, fan base, and online community? What are the best tactics for diffusing hostility when it arises? Is acquiescing harmful?
- What sparks your nerd rage?

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: 27 min 56 sec
- Left 4 Dead 2 Boycott Group
- Starcraft 2 LAN petition
-Diablo 3 art petition
- Adam Sessler's response to L4D Boycott
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Sensationalist: Solitude and Dear Esther

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.

Spoiler Pirate says "Yarrrr, there be spoilers ahead!"

There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall.
- Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

Dear Esther was released in June of last year, but it wasn't until the game received some attention recently that it piqued my interest. Created as a research project by Dan Pinchbeck at the University of Portsmouth, UK, this Source Mod is pensive and unsettling, a unique creation amidst the crowded mod scene. Though more of an interactive fiction than a game, Dear Esther evokes a sensation traditional games rarely even strive for: solitude.

This game is difficult to discuss for a multitude of reasons, primarily because of its somewhat randomized narration. Periodically, exploration of the abandoned island will be punctuated by a voice over randomly selected from a few narrative options . The story is disjointed, yet maintains a quiet tone tinged with fear and loneliness. Twice my story began as follows: "The gulls do not land here anymore."

The island remains the same, an integral narrative element and its own beacon of solitude. From the outset, the shore recedes into fog with barely a hint of land beyond. A small bird takes wing at the games onset, but there is not the raucous sound of seagulls roosting on the cliff side. The absence of certain sounds is distressing and enhances the feeling of solitude. Without the sound of other living creatures, the sound of footsteps, the wind, and the surf seem all the more oppressive, as if these all exist within a vacuum. The music, narrations, strange electronic humming and periodic whispers appear as hauntings, products of the island or memories or hallucinations.

It is difficult to know whether the protagonist, or the narrator (presuming they are not one and the same), embrace their solitude. Two vast scars are cut into the cliff face, warding off potential rescuers and ensuring the eternal privacy of the island and its one inhabitant. The story tells of a hermit who once occupied the island, no doubt in search of some greater truth, whom never revealed himself to the island's occupants. The narrator laments: "I appear to be an unworthy subject of his solitude." The narrator is (or was?) supremely isolated, with only the ghostly memory of a hermit to keep him company.
Dear Esther is populated by incorporeal ghosts like the hermit, simple reminders of people long gone. The opening scene is of a barren house, an overturned chair and boxes for left-overs, which reveal a life long abandoned. Similarly, strange drawings are scrawled across the island - circuits, chemical formulas and words. These are joined by other artifacts - rusted ships and cargo strewn about the shore, the weathered dwellings of the sheep herders who once lived on the island, and abandoned paper boat. These worn down remnants of a bleak existence create a palimpsest of the island and the man it represents.

While walking across the island another person appears and vanishes on two occasions. I was eager to chase this person down, only to feel a growing sense of solitude at its disappearance. The ephemeral character who walks the island could be any number of characters: the narrator, the hermit, Paul, Donnelly, Esther, a fleeting combination of any one of these. The shadow of those who once existed, in physical form or merely mentioned, makes their absence palpable, engulfing the protagonist in solitude.

This experience aligns with the narrative, the terrible feeling of loss the narrator suffers at the death of his wife. At times the island feels like a tangible love letter, at times a suicide note. The music and story culminate into something potentially coherent. Past characters merge and Dear Esther becomes a story about the terrifying solitude of loss. The title itself is the first inscription of a goodbye letter to someone who will never read it. Dear Esther evokes a powerful sense of solitude by surrounding you with the absence of what was.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Uncharted: The Artifact

Seeing as how Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is about a quest to uncover ancient artifacts, it seems fitting to imagine the game itself as a piece of history. What might we learn about video games when we view them in the context of design evolution? What does a title convey about contemporaneous player tastes?


Imagine the distant future: The year 2030. As you make your way to home from work, you pass a thrift store advertising their selection of video games.

"Why the Hell not?" you ask. You engage the maneuvering thrusters on your hover-car and find a parking space.

You arrive home with your prize: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. After dusting off your PS3, you find yourself looking back at the year 2007.

Being Part of the World

While the graphics may pale in comparison to your SONARS (Sony Optic Nerve Augmented Reality System), the game world is remarkably coherent. Waterfalls and foliage are imbued with the same sense of physicality that Nathan Drake, your avatar, exudes. When he climbs over a box or leans against an ancient stone wall, you get the impression that the models are actually interacting with each other. Perhaps this is due to the detailed character animations, or maybe the texture artists out-did themselves.

Whatever it is, the game lacks the Hanna-Barbara syndrome: The sense that only some parts of the scene have weight or structure. Just as Yogi and his picnic basket seem oddly more detailed than the background or set pieces, games like Final Fantasy VII and The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time contained characters and items that seemed to pop out of their environments. Uncharted's world, however, possesses a unified style in which the vine you can swing on and the tree that you simply admire from afar appear equally real.

"What the Hell is Yogi Bear?" your kids asks, as she sizes up Dad's latest "treasure."

You respond without looking away from the screen: "You know those cartoons Grandpa is always quoting? And watch your mouth."

Going through the Motions

You stumble upon an ammo cache and to your delight, find a grenade. Ready to wreak havoc, you pull the pin with the L1 button, swing Drake into position with the two analog sticks, and promptly throw the grenade at Drake's feet.

With a bruised ego and a bruised avatar, you realize that the arc of the throw is controlled by tilting the controller. Why would aiming a grenade require two separate, yet crucial methods of controlling the y-axis while aiming? Throwing grenades is not a groundbreaking gameplay development, so why fix something that is not broken?

You are reminded that the Sixaxis experienced some growing pains during its early years. Precision was not the device's strength, and games were generally ill served when they relied on motion control for subtle actions. Thankfully, only a couple years later, the Sixaxis as used in Lair was supplanted by the Sixaxis as used in Flower. Unfortunately, the motion control in Uncharted seems closer to the former than the latter. All this seems quaint in the face of Microsoft's new holographic projection peripheral, Project Limpopo, but the effective implementation of motion controls (however simple) still makes a difference.

A Familiar Game

A sense of deja vu sets in and, while not altogether unpleasant, begins to dredge up other long forgotten games. You crouch behind a wall for cover and bullets dance above your head, stirring familiar memories. A lucky shot tags you and the colors wash out of the screen. You look through your inventory for bandage, but by that time, is recharged and back in fighting form.

A couple of breaks to drive a vehicle or operate a turret carry a familiar scent. You decide that the game just wants to make sure it sidesteps the "one-trick pony" label. Somehow, the boating sequences feel more like a punishment than a bonus, but they end soon enough.

A cutscene begins and you put your controller down to get a drink. While at the sink, you glance back at the TV just in time to see a flashing circle and Drake's subsequent demise under a pile of loose pile of rocks. The quicktime event has made its presence known.

"People couldn't have tolerated that crap, could they have?" you mutter as you restart the sequence. After all, even Nintendo's Check Balancing Board lets you correct a misplaced decimal without having to re-open the bank statement. The second time around, you make it through unscathed and you cannot help but feel a small, guilty twinge of adrenaline in response.

You find yourself musing that despite its quirks, the game was definitely on to something. How often is it that someone could control a Mal-like character in Marcus-like fashion? It might not be a museum piece, but this is a finely crafted experience. There is a certain frankness to it: Uncharted strives to demonstrate narrative cohesion and visual fidelity while incorporating the popular gameplay elements of its generation. Uncharted's successes and failures are more than its own; they are the triumphs and shortfalls of a generation in gaming.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

EXP Podcast #34: Murder, She Played

How many videogame characters have watched die? Now how many of those actually meaningful? There is something unique about murder in videogames in contrast to killing. This week, Scott and I once again spring board off the murderous ideas of Christian Nutt of Gamasutra. Join us while we discuss Shakespeare, revenge, and wanton slaughter. Christian's original article can be found in the show notes. As always, we encourage you to chime in by leaving sharing your thoughts in the comments section.

Some discussion starters:

- Does an excess of killing in videogames dampen the effect of murder?
- Do certain genre's lend themselves better to murder stories?
- Are there specific murder stories that you would like to see in a videogame format or believe would translate well?

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 12 sec
- "Can Murder and Games Meaningfully Meet?" by Christian Nutt, via Gamasutra
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, July 13, 2009

Consuming Warfare

Setting aside for a moment the battalions of soldiers that populate our media history, the gun wielding heroes (and occasional heroines) who weave a treacherous path through enemy infested territory, let us look at a specialized task of condensed terror and men burdened with the risk.

Hurt Locker, the latest work of Director Kathryn Bigelow, is part classic war film and part inventive thriller. Screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal penned the script, imbuing it with his experiences embedded with an American bomb unit tasked to disarm Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), frequent killers in Iraq.

Hurt Locker
was a quiet yet suspenseful success, one I thoroughly enjoyed viewing. This isn't a film review, so my hearty recommendation must suffice. Rather, one scene -- enveloped by context of course-- piqued my interest in particular. Allow me some non-spoiler background.

Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) provides support for a three member team led by Staff Seargent William James (Jeremy Renner), the man who dons the bomb suit with frightening ease, regularly putting all of their lives at risk. With slightly over a month remaining in his tour of duty, Eldridge is buckling under the strain and contemplating inevitable death. In the scene in question, a Colonel reassures Eldridge, interrupting his play session of Gears of War 2.
It comes as no surprise that soldiers unwind with videogames, relieving combat stress or the invisible monotony of war. My reaction was not consternation that Bigelow was equating violent videogames to actual violence, which may or may not have been her intent, but interest in two fictional characters. Eldridge has about as much in common with Marcus Fenix and I do, yet both make up consumable warfare.

Marcus is a maverick, taking mankind's fight for survival to the enemy, frequently killing grotesque monsters face-to-face with never a civilian to muddle the mission. Marcus has no reason to hesitate. Eldridge on the other hand, is scared. His enemies are faceless, there is no queen to eradicate, only another bomb between him and his last day of duty. Each mission is less about his capabilities and more about fate. Eldridge has no power over if or when an IED will go off, and one mistake could skew luck against him. For Marcus, war is hell but at least it's simple.
During an interview with David Chen of Slashfilm, Director Kathryn Bigelow stated Hurt Locker is "looking at the price of heroism and the cost of that kind of bravado and that cost of that skill set." As she sees it, Eldridge and his team members are heroes carrying a great burden. Of course Eldridge plays Gears. Of course I do too.

So it is that Gears of War and its war game compatriots join the ranks of simplified combat films (in contrast to Hurt Locker), resting comfortably with John Wayne's The Green Berets and Pearl Harbor. This is not to critique the quality or content of these works; surely each holds a shred of reality. Rather, our consumption of palatable warfare exists across mediums. The creation of violence aside, do war games help some people rationalize and make sense of combat? Perhaps not many, but yes, absolutely. Of course there are those who want war to be simple, who want easy answers to explain away countless lives lost. Who would not seize an opportunity to cull the madness of warfare?

Even films that reveal some of the complexities of war, including Hurt Locker, simplify other aspects for the benefit of comprehension. There are times where simplicity is required, when we calm our consciousness to tell other stories too easily lost in the overwhelming ugliness of humanity at war. Some of these are painful, others beautiful. This partly explains our fascination with World War II in film and video games. It is an ostensibly understandable and just war that was, in reality, anything but simple.
There is a danger in succumbing to simplicity. There are those who believe in the fantasy of a palatable war. I believe this is less the result of media than self-imposed blinders, but I don't take this for granted. For soldiers like Eldridge, there is only the hope of temporary relief, un-dulled by hopeful catch phrases. In response to the army's "Be All You Can Be" slogan, Eldridge asks "what if all I can be is dead."

There are also times when the story of Eldridge, or the real life stories of the individuals he was based on, are what we desire. We willingly give away our agency by partaking in a non-interactive film, one that does not empower us the way Marcus empowers us. We, on occasion, want to feel powerless.

Films like Hurt Locker, which does not explicitly tackle the merits of war in Iraq, can still depict one small shred of the complexities and brutalities of war. I willingly enter Eldridge's world, one without restarts, easy answers, or visible threats.There are moments when games are too easy, the protagonists too effortlessly heroic. There are times when we want to feel trapped under the flaws of humanity for many reasons. If possible, I would like to see games give us this difficult experience.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Nathan Drake in: The Curse of Ludonarrative Dissonance!

With Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Naughty Dog presents the player with Nathan Drake, a character designed as an alternative to super-powered space marine heroes so often found in games. In the game's "making of" featurette, the development team repeatedly mentions their commitment to fashioning an "every-man" hero.

Michael Abbott sums up Drake's appeal:

"Much of Uncharted's success can be traced to its hero, Nathan Drake - a regular guy with no special powers or skills (well, he is a pretty good climber). Nate's ordinariness helps explain the game's overarching structure. Nate is basically in it for the ride, tracking a story he does not control, figuring it out as he goes along."

Based on the voice acting and cutscenes, this is accurate. Yelling "Aw crap!" when a grenade rolls in front of your feet seems like a natural reaction. Grunting and panting while scaling a sheer cliff is something I could see myself doing. And who really makes sure their shirt is tucked in at all times? Drake's characterization suggests he could indeed be one of my drinking buddies.

However, when it comes to actively playing the game, I feel as though I am controlling a completely different character. Why? Because, when faced with an obstacle, this plucky, fun-loving, regular dude morphs into a frighteningly efficient killing machine.

Things started getting weird when the trophies came rolling in. Every so often, I'd hear a chime alerting me to my latest accomplishment, the majority of which were tied to weapon proficiency. Soon, I began to wonder just how lethal Drake was, so I collected some data:

Drake's Body Count
TrophyConfirmed killsEstimated kills
Brutal Slugger (kill 20 enemies with brutal combo)20-
Stealth Attacker (20 stealth kills)-5
Steel fist (melee kill after dealing bullet damage)-2
Grenade Hangman-0
50 Kills: PM - 9mm50-
50 Kills - 92FS - 9mm50-
50 Kills: Micro - 9mm10-
20 Kills: Wes - 44-5
20 Kills: Desert - 5-3
30 Kills: MP4030-
50 Kills: AK-4750-
50 Kills: M450-
30 Kills: Dragon Sniper30-
50 Kills: Moss - 12--
50 Kills: SAS - 12--
30 Kills: M79-20
20 Kills: Mk-NDI grenades20-
Totals320 (confirmed kills)358 (conservative total estimate)

Note that these numbers are a conservative estimate of how many enemies were slain over the course of my play-through. Although I cannot substantiate it, I would guess that the actual body count is closer to 500.

I soon realized I was controlling a character whose cutscene persona clashed with his gameplay persona. Cutscene Drake was a smooth talker who tried to bluff his way out of jams, lived to solve historical mysteries, and was not immune to accidentally bumping his head on low doorways. Gameplay Drake shed his conventional charm, instead becoming an expert marksman proficient with over a dozen firearms, a stealth assassin whose first move against an unsuspecting enemy was to kill rather than incapacitate, and a juggernaut who slaughtered his way out of predicaments. Unfortunately, this Drake was unable to kill that infamous beast we call "ludonarrative dissonance."

Naughty Dog was actually too successful in casting Drake as an every-man. The writing, acting, and directing did help me identify with the character, so much so that I felt like I was betraying their creation when actually participating in the game. Uncharted is one of the few titles in which I have given any thought to how many people I/my avatar killed in a game. Based on his personality and competance, Drake simply did not seem like the kind of guy who would (or could) pick up any random gun and use it for large-scale seem like the kind of guy who would shrug off large-scale manslaughter. While interesting, I do not think this was the developer's intent.

I am hoping that in Uncharted 2, the Drake that shows up in the gameplay will be the same Drake I got to know in the cutscenes. A shift of focus towards "action" rather than "combat" could provide big thrills by emphasizing ingenuity in the face of danger rather than blood-lust. Implementing more complex platforming or chase sequences would both show off the game's wonderfully crafted engine while also preventing Drake from becoming a sociopathic killer.

Since the game so successfully relies on cinematic techniques, why not look to the master for inspiration?

Despite its low body count, the scene conveys is full of hazardous excitement. The fighting showcased is not that of trained warriors, but that of desperate people in an extraordinary circumstances . Indy's admission, "I'm making this up as I go," also serves to remind the audience that he is not a superhero; he's just a guy trying his best to stumble through ridiculous situations.

An action/adventure approach would mesh well with the character Naughty Dog created. Gameplay that downplays gun fighting in favor of more physical and environmental challenges would better complement the Drake we meet in the cutscenes. Additionally, this approach would give the game some much-needed separation from the ubiquitous run/shoot/cover gameplay popularized by Gears of War.

As an added bonus, limiting the amount of explicit killing could clear the way for more prudent, meaningful, and hilarious violence:

Talk about an everyman: Who among us cannot sympathize with Indy's decision? I have a feeling Drake would.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

EXP Podcast #33: The Decision Dilemma

Last month, outspoken game designers Clint Hocking and Manveer Heir held a little cross-blog discussion regarding the design and implementation of ethical choices in video games. We are accustomed to making decisions about weapons, strategies, and the color of our Sim hairstyles, but meaningful choices with moral weight are relatively rare. Even when faced with potentially tough moral dilemmas, the current nature of video games may dilute the effect. Heir suggests in-game permanence (which has created various interesting experiments), while Hocking eschews authorial influence in favor of ludic solutions.

It is tough topic, so we decided to we decided to call for backup. This week, we have are honored to welcome Nels Anderson, author of the excellent Above49 blog and gameplay programmer for Hot Head Games. Join us while we discuss permanence, harvesting children, Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, readability, and the future of moral choices in games. With three of us at the table, we made this podcast slightly longer than normal, but extra time is well spent on a very complicated and contentious subject. We encourage you to read theHocking's and Heir's original articles in the show notes, along with supplementary pieces we discuss in the show. As always, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- Have you ever faced a difficult in-game discussion that stemmed from moral concerns? If so, did you translate this into simply mechanical outcomes? Did you approach is role-playing as the protagonist?
- If your in-game decisions were permanent, would they be more meaningful? What techniques add add weight to a decision?
- To what extent is in-game decision making impacted by real-world experiences? Do you carry your personal set of ethics into a game?

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: 41 min 13 sec
- "Ethical Decision Making," by Clint Hocking, via Click Nothing
- "Designing Ethical Dilemmas," by Manveer Heir via Design Rampage
- "Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock," by Clint Hocking
- Rescuing vs. Harvesting Little Sisters Graph, via Escapist Magazine
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Twenty Minute Life of Faith

It is a strange moment when topics seem to converge, when an idea is spread amongst the "blogosphere" just enough to understand for certain that yes, a dialogue is taking place. Right now, permanence and meaning seems to be the subject on our collective mind. What started as a cross-blog discussion between game designers Clint Hocking and Manveer Heir evolved into an joint experiment of epic proportions.

Ben Abraham of SLRC, shortly joined by Nels Anderson of Above49 and Michel McBride-Charpentier of Big Apple, 3AM, decided to play through Far Cry 2 with the threat of self-imposed permanent death. If their protagonist died, just once, it was lights out, game over. Clint addresses their undertaking here, which I encourage you to read.

Meanwhile, I have been harvesting the benefits of being one member of a two member team. Scott, my blogger in arms, is a 'smart cookie' if I do say so myself. His recent series on game difficulty fueled my own thoughts on the value of difficulty as it relates to engagement. Thus, with trepidation, I decided to play through Mirror's Edge with permanent death to answer this question: Is permanent death still meaningful in world that is less forgiving than Far Cry 2.

I entered the tutorial with strong intentions towards honing my skills, testing my memory on this simple course. Scott's tips for success became a mantra as I jumped, ducked, punched, and slide kicked around the map before properly embarking. Make no mistake, I knew exactly what I was getting into. My virtual parkour skills were nothing special during my first playthrough, but I was committed to putting in an honest effort. Skipping the cut scenes, I fell to my death in under twenty minutes.
The goal of permanent death, as I see it, is to experiment with meaning. Is my experience more powerful if bound by mortality? Does this create a stronger evocation of emotion? There are a multitude of feelings and layered meanings to be derived from a given gaming experience. The sound of gunfire in Far Cry 2 may elicit fear in some or excitement in others. Although I was not saddened by Faith's early demise, the experience was more intense than I expected.

My heart was racing as I approached the first large chasm, the red drainage pipe on the other side marked my single hope of survival. I remembered dying countless times on this very jump. I actually held my breath for the jump and let out a "yes!" when landed safely. My first encounter with gun-wielding police resulted in this same fear and elation. Fleeing helicopter fire in scene two, the thrilling pressure of pursuit was coming to an end as I spotted my escape route. At the apex of my leap towards an air vent ledge, I knew I had made a mistake. What should have been a wall run ended my game with that memorable woosh and thud.
The meaning of difficulty is strikingly altered with the threat of permanence. On one side, temporary failures become important lessons. Forgetting to tumble after a long distant jump visibly hurts Faith and serves as a threat, as if from a strict master, to improve my skills lest I jump to my death. The deadly failure however is meaningless without the opportunity to correct my mistake. If I stop playing because I am dead, I cannot apply what I have learned.

In the case of my Mirror's Edge play through, permanent death was meaningless by itself. It was the threat of death that enhanced my emotions, which itself is an external application. Permanent death didn't just change the story, it changed the game. The importance of my intent in creating the experience cannot be denied, nor can the intent of the Far Cry 2 'perma-deathers'.

Permanent death in Mirror's Edge is less about Faith's story than it is my own story, my own commitment in the face of inevitable failure. Would Abraham's protagonist evoke the same emotions if his permanent death scenario were his first and only playthrough? Would Faith mean more to me as a failed runner than the triumphant sister she becomes at game's end? I don't think so. If anything, her death is meaningful because I know what she could have become and am left to imagine the consequences. I am playing an entirely different game because I have changed the rules.
This is why the permanent death experience fascinates me. As I see it, the meaning of death and permanence is subservient to what games do best: the fostering of imagination. Gamers have long broken games, melding them to what they want them to be, regardless of linear design of authorial intent. Permanent death is another approach to imaginary rules. Meaning is the result of our own perceptions, embedded in and affecting external structures, interacting with a game world. In the case of permanent death, we are imagining a scenario that adds to our initial impressions.

What are the narrative consequence of Faith's eternal death? Are their replacement runners? Does a civilian thirty stories below question their blind obedience when confronted with the corpse of a young tattooed girl? Similarly, my interest in the Far Cry 2 odyssey is in the imagined result of mortality on both player and protagonist. Does killing mean something different to Ben and his avatar? Are these suddenly mortal game characters afraid to die? Are we imagining a new set of motivations for our characters as we read long with Nels, Ben and Michel?

The great majority of gamers are not so dull or vapid as to be used by game designers. Like listening to a record in reverse, players will find meaning or create their own. Great games, regardless of authorial control, are engaging long after 'game over.'

Friday, July 3, 2009

Difficult Games, part 4: A Challenging Future

This is the final post in a series of pieces about difficulty in games. If you are interested, please take a look at the earlier posts in this series:

Difficult Games, part 1: Gaming Tony Kushner

Difficult Games, part 2: A Reflection on Themes

On the Edge of Success

Difficult Games, part 3: The Rise and Fall of Difficulty

As always, the floor is open to your comments, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

When Jorge and I fought the last boss in Resident Evil 5, we must probably died over a dozen times. As the afternoon game way into dusk, our supplies of both ammunition and patience dwindled. We were faced with a choice: We could stop playing the game altogether, declare the game's AI "cheap" or "flawed" and lower the difficulty setting, or we could find a way to meet this challenge. I am happy to report that, armed with nothing but our knives and our wits, we poked that bastard to death.

While it was frustrating, Resident Evil 5's final boss improved our gaming skill in much the same way a complicated plot would foster the growth of our interpretive acumen.

Regardless of how involved and emotionally moving game narratives become, it is crucial to retain this form of skill-based, adversarial difficulty. The earliest games were defined by competitive struggle: Whether it was player vs. player Spacewar!, or player vs. AI tic-tac-toe, video games are rooted in direct challenges. The emergence of video games as medium for storytelling imbues games with the power to challenge the player more actively and directly than any other medium.

Difficulty is crucial to the medium, but so is flexibility. The kind of challenge lionized in one era is readily criticized when a new movement forms. After thinking about the role of difficulty and reading the work of many talented critics, I would like to suggest five ways games can succeed at retaining the value of skill-based challenge in a landscapeincreasingly dominated by the narrative influence:

1. A Fresh Coat of Paint

Traditional skill based difficulty mechanisms like re-tries, resource management, and leveling up, can be integrated with a game's thematic difficulty. Bioshock is a great example of a game that attempts to deal with complex moral issues. While doing so, it retains gameplay tropes that offer a decidedly traditional view of challenges: players take damage from enemies and re-spawn when they fail, power-ups are tied to an experience system, and resources are part of an in-game economy in which dispatching enemies yields income.

Often, these things are simply put in games as arbitrary rules. Bioshock specializes in contextualizing them: vita chambers (re-spawn points), Adam (experience points), and dollars (money/inventory system) all serve a narrative and game play purpose. This lessons the discordance often found between game rules and game plots, since the mechanics and story seem to support each other. In this situation, traditional challenges and new story telling techniques co-exist.

2. Make Difficulty Readable

Nels Anderson has written a fantastic series of articles about game difficulty. This summary does not do it justice, but one of his main points is that games most successfully engage players when they "[Provide] understandable relationships that allow the player agency and decisions with consequence."

This can be accomplished by having a limited number of mechanics while allowing for deep exploration of the gameplay dynamics that they precipitate (like Braid). Alternatively, breaking down the tendency to create single-solution, arbitrarily defined challenges whose difficulty arises from obscuring the challenge itself rather than forcing the player to improve their skills in order to overcome it forces the developer and the player to focus on logical solutions rather than brute force, trial and error techniques. The end result is a player who can see a challenge and focus on a solution with the tools the game provides, rather than guessing about what to do.

3. Player-defined Difficulty

Of course, there are some players out there who still yearn for challenges that require some trial and error. Arbitrary difficulty is not a problem if the player enjoys the challenge, which is why players should be allowed to customize their experience. While the traditional "easy, normal, hard" difficulty option is an effective way of doing this, there are more elegant and less intrusive ways to ensure each player can find the correct amount of challenge.

A player needs to complete relatively few of the time trial, one-hit death, or race challenges in Super Mario Galaxy in order to finish the game. Far Cry 2's thematic strength is just as strong even if players do not track down every last hidden briefcase. However, if players do seek these skill-based challenges, they are free to pursue them without having to alter the functioning of the game by arbitrarily changing the mechanics via a difficulty setting. Players of all inclinations can enjoy the same game while having different experiences.

Achievements and Trophies make this difficulty system even easier to implement, as they allow developers to suggest ways for players to challenge themselves. Pulrangs, a commenter on part 3 of this series, said it best:

"[With Achievements,] The game itself won't be hard to play, and there won't be too much punishment in the game, but getting the extra special biscuit is what will require particular skill."

Take a look at the new Prince of Persia achievements and it becomes clear that anyone bemoaning its lack of difficulty did little to seek out any challenge.

4. Consistency Rules All

In Krystian Majewski's excellent analysis of Braid's puzzles, he exposes certain challenges that contradict creator Jonathan Blow's claim that Braid's puzzles "don't require you to do anything random; they don't require guessing." Krystian makes a convincing case that inconsistent puzzle solutions hurt the overall game, even if they make the game more challenging. Analyzed within Nels' framework, certain parts of Braid suffer from a lack of readability.

Regardless of whether a game's challenge is found in its twitch-button action, pattern memorization, or logic-based puzzles, the rules governing the challenges must be consistent. It is easy to feel cheated when a game seems to be breaking its own rules. While it is a very impressive game, my experience with Far Cry 2 was one rife with inconsistent rules: foliage that was opaque to me never seemed to hinder enemies who somehow saw right through the palm fronds clearly enough to nail me between the eyes from 300 yards away.

At the same time, I was playing Bit.Trip Beat, a game I still have failed to finish due to its punishing difficulty. Bit.Trip Beat is forthright with its challenge: the game throws impossible patterns at the player, but all the rules apply consistently, despite their cruelty.

5. Relax the Definition of "Difficulty"

As I wrote in my last post, many conceptions of challenge are based on a model in which games have one solution that can only be arrived at through a linear test of skill. Simply because games are moving away from the need for precision platforming skills or absurd adventure game logic does not mean they are easier in an absolute sense. If a games' strength lies in actively engaging the audience, challenge can be provided by forcing the player to take a more active role in creating their own experience.

In order for games like The Sims and Noby Noby Boy to function, the player must address extremely complex questions: What should this character look like? What is my goal today? What are the limits on the size and scope of my play? None of these questions must be addressed in traditional games; the player can mindlessly pass them by on their straight path to the single goal. Although it may not be challenging in a platforming sense, being dropped into a blank level in LittleBigPlanet, tasked with creating a working stage is terrifyingly difficult.

The only certainty about the course of difficulty in games is its persistent fluctuation. Design philosophies, demographics, and player taste all interact when forming a zeitgeist, and will continue to change over time. While this may mean games with a "Space Invaders" approach to challenge are becoming niche games, it does not mean games as a whole are somehow getting "dumbed-down." Rather than view it as a de-skilling of gamers, we should look at the evolution of difficulty as the ebb and flow of particular types of challenge.

Video games' biggest strength is their ability to actively engage with their participants. A difficult game can function on a number of levels: whether challenging the player's dexterity, their ability to comprehend a complex narrative, or some combination thereof, the best games foster growth that occurs both during and after a play session. Whether games challenge us to create our own universe or to take on a super-mutant with a knife, embracing their difficulty is a crucial meta-game that we must play in order to understand their power.