Friday, February 27, 2009

The Odd Couple: Flower and God of War

A couple weeks ago, I posted a Twitter message, proclaiming: "Flower is the most exhilarating game I've played since God of War." I followed this up with a review in which I praised Flower as a symbol of the video game medium's growing maturity. It was sentiments like mine that likely pushed Leigh Alexander to question some of the seemingly hyperbolic praise bestowed on Flower. While this is a brutal simplification of her argument, the main thrust was to suggest that we 'doth protest too much' when extolling Flower's greatness.

I think she has a point; it is easy to get caught up in the release hype of a game, especially one so unexpectedly pleasant as Flower. However, I think it is equally important not to blunt our praise when it is warranted. Regardless of the game's intention, it is one of the few titles that can make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up simply by thinking about it. I sympathize with Leigh's frustration in hearing people talk this way about a game when they offer little analysis as to why they feel such a strong connection (other than "it's pretty" or "it's fun to fly").

And this is where I come back to my God of War connection.

Before Flower, the last time I had such a visceral response to a game was when I played God of War. Juxtaposing these games is oddly hilarious, but I love them both for similar reasons.

Thematic Integrity

God of War is a game about power and destruction. Kratos dismembers his way through a stylized ancient Greece, killing anything foolish enough to get in his way, be it a monster, an innocent bystander, a building, or the gods themselves. Dramatic orchestral scores pervade a world in which the only subtlety to be found resides in how best to obliterate things. Even when the game takes a break from brawling and throws some moving platforms or environmental puzzles at the player, the destructive motifs are retained. Platforms are adorned with vicious spikes, doors are unlocked with human sacrifice, and entire temples act as puzzle pieces manipulated through brute force.

While Flower resides on the opposite end of the thematic spectrum, it is equally focused on maintaining its tone. The themes of growth and healing pervade the stages, and are augmented by itsgameplay and presentation. The level design features what basically amounts to locked doors and platforming obstacles, but they are overcome by utilizing the theme of fertility and nurture. Blooming flowers simultaneously advances thegameplay and the complements the story's theme.

The two games are like actors staying "in character" throughout a performance. God of War and Flower may portray vastly different characters, but they exhibit consistent behavior that adheres to and supplements their themes. Regardless of the games' intents or what how people react to them, the games maintain cohesive identities.

Immersive Controls

Players interact with these identities through control schemes that enhance immersion. More importantly, the games stand out as titles that successfully implement control schemes often derided as gimmicks when used in other games.

In addition to the fluid, nuanced combo scheme, God of War implements a variety of Quick Time Events. In other games, this gameplay mechanic degenerates into "press X not to die" situations that feel divorced form the flow of play. God of War's QTEs are unique in that they both mimic the action on screen and strengthen the player's connection to the action. Quick, precision stabbings necessitate carefully timed button presses. Twisting the head off a gorgon means rotating the analog stick. Careful, nuanced implementation serves to strengthen the link between the player and the game's events.

Flower's controls also provide immersion through both simplicity and the utilization of an oft-maligned control mechanic. The capricious nature of the wind is mimicked through the use of only one button and the PS3 controller's motion control. While one cannot stop on a dime or perform turns with jet-fighter precision, movement is consistent once the player learns how to manipulate its subtleties. The control mirrors the naturalistic themes of the game's graphics and story by making the player rely on flow and intuition when exploring the world. Like God ofWar's QTEs, Flower's motion control is a design choice that, in other games often ends up hurting the experience. In this case, the controls are justified and enjoyable based on their utility to both the gameplay objectives and the game's thematic structure.

As I said at the opening, it is easy to get caught up in the hype of a newly released game. Separating lasting feelings from the ones elicited by simple novelty is a delicate task. However, without deeper analysis, we will never be able to discern a frenzy from a lasting experience, nor will we see the sometimes odd connections games share with one another.

This was a hard post to write, but it was worth it, as I am now unable to purge from my head the image of Kratos frolicking in a verdant meadow while a handful of petals tickle a Minotaur's nose.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

EXP Podcast #14: Controlling the Periphery

The video game world is buzzing with the release of Street Fighter IV. It is a franchise that helped usher a generation of gamers into the fighting genre, and arrives greeted by a wave of emotionally-charged expectations. Further complicating any attempts at objective analysis further is the fact that Street Fighter is rooted in the arcade tradition. With the game's release come peripherals (by the way, it looks like Jorge was right: MadCatz is the pricey one!) that capture the arcade feeling. Mitch Krpata of the site Insult Swordfighting raises the important question of how to analyze games that rely (either implicitly or explicitly) on peripherals. We trace a brief history of non-controller pad input devices and muse on their effects on the games that use them. As always, feel free to jump in with your experiences and thoughts.

Some discussion starters:

-Should Street Fighter IV be reviewed a specific way (either arcade stick or control pad)?
-How much focus should the hardware have in game analysis?
-What do you think of the "fairness" argument: Should games have a standardized control scheme to ensure a level playing field? Should developers ensure that third party peripherals do not undermine this?

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 19 sec
-Mitch Krpata's article: "A Peripheral Concern "
-Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, February 23, 2009

February '09 Round Table: A Transitory MMO

Last month Corvus Elrod asked Blog of the Round Table contributors to translate a piece of literature into a videogame as if the game were designed first. This month, the Round Table revisits these adaptions and asks participants to build upon an other's design theme while ignoring the original literary source. Choosing one post to draw was difficult with such a fascinating collection of entries. I settled on an interesting adaptation of Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren by Travis Megill of The Autumnal City, which I encourage you all to read. I have never read the source material, so all of the following is inspired solely from Travis' design goals; forgive me if I mangle Delany's original intent.

I cannot get enough of bizarre, surreal, and cryptic literary works. I love it when my narrator is flawed, psychotic or completely untrustworthy; all the better if the world shudders under the weight of mysteries, red herrings, and symbolism. Naturally, I was intrigued by Travis Megill's version of Dhalgren, which puts players in an unpredictable world of "twisted reflections" and shifting realities, a graphical adventure game amidst a fragmented and "circular narrative." This game constantly asks the player to reassess their identity and their understanding of the reality that surrounds them. My goal with this post is to imagine similar circumstances in the traditionally persistent world of a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game.

Shifting Worlds

The Dhalgren MMO, at a basic level, is a class based experience in which individuals belonging to multiple factions accomplish quest objectives, gain experience, and level-up. However, players do not share one world, but many worlds. Each server is composed of many realities, some in different time periods, some in different environments, and yet others in different universes with alternate physics rules and character models. At any given time, a player can occupy one reality and share this reality with hundreds of players or be completely alone. These worlds are not stagnant, and at early levels, players are frequently transferred to alternate realities, sometimes becoming another person with entirely new personal histories, motivations, and quest objectives.

The avatar's deeds will effect their own world, but may also create ripples through some other realities. Players may log in to find themselves inhabiting a new reality, a palimpsest of their former home in which non-player characters recognize them for actions they did not commit. Perhaps helping another player accomplish their quest objectives will result in your hometown being destroyed, creating new objectives while removing old ones.

Level Progression

In keeping with Travis' adaptation of Dhalgren's symbolism, level progression in the MMO will represent how well your persona can "make sense" of the universe. As characters gain experience points, they are rewarded with new gameplay abilities that allow them to better accomplish tasks, control their movement through realities, and interact with other players. Some non-combat abilities may include expanded speech options, voluntary realm transitions, or time travel.

Rather than change an avatar's appearance with level specific gear, all players will have a home that will reflect their level progression. Starting from a foundation, characters will improve their house and will soon find it populated with remnants of the journey, including some usable objects. The house will be a powerful node for your travels, and its appearance may change depending on your circumstances. Family portraits may change, walls may crumble, room may shift position, and objects may appear or disappear.

Player Interaction

The characters inhabiting Travis' game will occasionally switch roles, appearances, and identities. In order to maintain this aspect in the Dhalgren MMO, players will rarely be certain if another character they are interacting with is an NPC or a real life individual. NPCs will wander the world much like player characters.

When a player initiates communication, a fullscreen dialogue tree opens up. If you are lucky enough to communicate with a real person but they ignore you or leave mid-conversation, an NPC copy will be created to handle the rest of the conversation. Players can accomplish group quests, even across realms, by accomplishing individual parts of a quest line which will open up a shared realm.

Guilds can be formed relying entirely on this mode of communication, though some members of the guild will not be real at all. In line with the alternate reality elements Travis' incorporates, some guilds will be entirely populated with NPCs and one unaware player. A website and guild events will be controlled by members of the development team to further the illusion of player interaction.

Guilds will have a village or town populated by the home's of its constituency. Just like your private home, this town will grow and diminish based upon the "understanding" level of its members. Players must consistently report back to the guild, as identity changes make consistent communication difficult. This town can also be infiltrated by enemy players posing as members. Taking on a new identity to accomplish this task can have unsettling consequences however. Infiltrators may permanently lose their previous identity and become real members of their previously opposed guild or faction.

Successful endgame players become explorers of reality, managing to make lasting relationship with fellow mavericks, letting themselves find meaning by abandoning a sense of place beyond their home. You can always create a new character to explore new worlds, just don't be surprised if you bump into your old self wandering the universe.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Review: Flower and the Growth of Games

When Jorge and I have the good fortune to play a game concurrently, we like to offer two-part reviews. One of us writes the first section in which we write a normal-length post while the other person offers some brief additional thoughts.

This week, we discuss Flower. Thanks for reading, and we look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.

Titles like Bioshock and Grand Theft Auto are frequently offered as evidence that gaming is "growing up;" The games explore moral choices and contain traditionally adult themes like sexuality, extreme violence, and drug use. This trend towards thematic grit in games is accompanied by increasingly complex rules, graphics, and controls. Flower, developed by thatgamecompany, stands as an alternative to the idea that sophistication requires complication. By marrying wonderful imagery and sound with alternative methods of control and storytelling, Flower's tale of growth becomes a metaphor for the maturation of video games as a medium.

It is almost a shame to use words to describe Flower's visual splendor; as trite as it sounds, the game is best described as an interactive painting. The player navigates through verdant pastoral environments as flower petals. The artistry straddles the line between simplicity and detail to simultaneously evoke a sense of familiarity in the land, as well as one of fantastic mystery. Gliding over closed flowers allows them to bloom, adding to both the body of petals controlled by the player, and the stages' lushness. The visuals are outstanding, and work to subtly draw the player into the experience instead of jumping out in front of the experience in hopes of actively "wow-ing" them.

This comfortable, almost confident feeling extends to the game's controls. Flower bravely and wholeheartedly embraces the PS3's Sixaxis motion controls as the only way of maneuvering the flowers. While motion control has a checkered track record, Flower succeeds in employing the often awkward Sixaxis to mimic the feeling of wind. The motion controls in Flower are not an gimmicky afterthought, they are the product of a design choice made to augment the experience. The same type of forward momentum is assigned to every other button of the control, elegantly simplifying the most complex console control ever made.

Conceivably the most controversial part of Flower is the narrative. While there are no words or dialogue to be found, Flower's presentation, musical cues, and tactile gameplay combine to present a vague story arc. While the predominant theme is growth, the specifics are left to the player's interpretation. I have heard people posit widely ranging ideas on the game's message, ranging from a diatribe on radical ecology to a traditional Christian allegory. With enough support, both of these theories, as well as many others, are plausible. Thus, Flower demonstrates not only the graphical and mechanical mechanical growth of video games, but also the growth of storytelling: Creating a vague narrative that relies on audience interpretation is a sign that the designers believe that the game is expressive enough to succeed in inspiring people, and that people are sophisticated enough to draw their personal conclusions.

Flower's greatest achievement is the method in which these player-driven conclusions are facilitated. The graphics, the controls, the gameplay, and the sound all work to build a story. The absence of narration or explicit directions allow the physical act of flying to create a plot, while the environmental cues and music set the tone of the story. This game is one of those rare works that abandons expository information in favor of placing faith in the belief that the work's individual elements will congeal to create meaning. The result is an experience that enjoys an autopoietic existence. While human hands surely built the game, it manages to hide much of their influence. Even the method in which I attained the game (downloaded via wi-fi) embodies the game's tone: while the experience is not a corporeal one, it nevertheless exists and carries with it the self-created potential for meaning.

In the quest to find the "Citizen Kane" of video games, are we not in danger of ignoring the "Fantasia" of video games? More troubling, by defining games with analogies, are we donning epistemic blindfolds that prevent us from experiencing the maturation we so avidly seek? Flower is a quiet game, a whimsical one, an unassuming one, but it may also be the surest sign that gaming is growing up. Its winds carry a message about the changing nature of video games, a message that suggests the medium is ready to stand on its own.


Second Thoughts: A Sense of Purpose in Flower

It is much easier to describe my experience with Flower through analogy. If I were to rely solely on mechanical descriptions, I would not be able to pass on some of the feelings the game elicits. Above all else, this game is about immersing the player in sensations.

When I first began flying through lush fields, oblivious of any obstacles or destinations, I ogled my surroundings. I was reminded of what it felt like to wander my backyard wilderness as a child. There is no user interface, no on-screen tutorial to reward or punish me, just serene exploration and the audio-visual satisfaction of blooming flowers, brushing blades of grass, and swirling over rocks.

The game favors exploratory learning, and within moments I was healing the ground and testing the limits of movement and maneuverability. Very quickly I was chasing my tail and soaring upwards, just to dive back towards seas of rich colors with one thought: "This is what it must feel like to be a dolphin."

Flower gradually builds these calming experiences until your incorporeal avatar encounters a mangled landscape. There are many well designed aspects of Flower, from the effective audio-visual elements of the starting room to the ingenious credits sequence, but this moment in particular marks Flower's greatest strength. Without words or an epic voice over, Flower has an unsurpassed ability to evoke a sense of purpose.

It is hard for anyone with the slightest knowledge of world affairs to miss the environmental message, but the game's heavier themes are not oppressive. Flower is not unlike an enchanting political ballad, enjoyable regardless of political affiliation but designed to stir up reaction. It is an ode to exploration, play, nature, and the sensations of life. Best of all, these elegant design choices are accomplished with miraculous simplicity.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

EXP Podcast #13: At Game's End

Hello readers and listeners. This week Scott and I branch off of a neat panel discussion Stephen Totilo held with Ken Levine of 2k Boston and Todd Howard of Bethesda Softworks. Each panelist was asked to comment on their game endings, Bioshock and Fallout 3 respectively. We take their comments and run with them, discussing our thoughts on cut scenes, interactive conclusions, and more. As always, we encourage you to take a look at the original article and footage in the show notes. Comments are appreciated and we've got some discussion starters just below if you need some momentary inspiration.

Some discussion starters:
- Do traditional game endings feel like a payoff? Have you ever cheated and watched an ending online?
- What do you think the future holds for videogame endings? Do you think there is an easier or better way to end games?
- What have been your favorite and least favorite videogame endings?

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 12 sec
- Original MTV Multiplayer article with footage from Ken Levine and Todd Howard Comic-Con panel.
-Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, February 16, 2009

Role Playing in the Wastes

In addition to my normal videogame consumption, for the first time, I am facilitating a tabletop RPG. Being new at game and story creation, I am fearful of making mistakes, cautiously developing a cohesive and welcoming story environment. This has me thinking about character development and what it takes for players to feel comfortable in an alternate persona. Fortunately, this process has been coinciding with my Fallout 3 experience.

Fallout 3 seems to welcome players into a world of nearly endless possibilities. The previous games in the series allow players to do almost anything they want, and Bethesda has put in a good effort in maintaining this trait. Endless options, the game suggests, give players a deeper connection with the avatar they develop. The outcome, theoretically, is a role playing game in which the player feels at home in the body of a Vault 101 resident, immersing the player not just in the game but in their persona.

There are some important character creation tools at a DM’s disposal. Players commonly choose play styles before the game begins. They often have character goals in mind before their persona even has a name. Players may also choose a character alignment (Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Good, etc.) to map out how their avatar may behave in certain situations. DMs will frequently supplement these decisions with a personal history for the player. Not only does the history provide a brief overview of knowledge, but it provides an experience the player can interpret to develop their avatar’s long-term motivations before in-game events transpire.

My Fallout 3 character was created in a similar way. I chose to play “evil”, deciding to blow up megaton as soon as I knew it was an option. But I also wanted to see how complex of a character I could develop, deciding I would contextualize and justify my actions.
As a baby, I needed to assign ability points, divorcing these decisions from my character's motivations. I had no personal history to shape these decisions. I did not invest points into intelligence because my character had a history in the public education system, but because of its mechanical relevance later in the game. This is similar to character creation in tabletop gaming, but without an established personal history or knowledge of the world around me, I could not easily contextualize these early decisions.

Fallout 3 quickly gives the player dialogue choices that color who the character is, rather than a giving the player a sense of who their character is beforehand. Why was I behaving like a little Vault punk, other than the fact it was in line with how future me might behave? An early example of contextually removed choices is the G.O.A.T. exam, a silly test clearly designed for the players benefit, not the avatar’s.The answer to these questions have no in-game effect. The results of the exam determine which skill points the game suggests you tag, not binding you whatsoever to the outcome. Any motivation for choosing one option over another comes from the player alone.

Despite these barriers, I had fleshed out my character to my liking and came out of the vault comfortable with my decisions. My evil actions would be driven by mistrust, paranoia and a desire to find my father. Yet the game design did not facilitate this interpretation. I stole to survive, yet for every Stimpak I would steal, I would lose Karma points. At one point, my negative karma allowed one "shady" gentleman to view my character as a potential compatriot, despite the fact he had never seen me steal or kill. The personality I gave my character was not the personality Fallout seemed to be shepherding me towards.

My character’s desire to find her father also collided with quest decisions. I rarely felt justified setting aside the main quest line to accomplish any of the many side-quests available. Even loathsome acts are committed for the benefit of NPCs I would not normally interact with. When I did finally find my father, my character's story arc was essentially complete, making the rest of the game moot.

At this point my character’s motivations have changed dramatically and I am having an easier time contextualizing my actions. Yet the difference between role playing in a open world tabletop environment and role playing in the confines of an open world videogame are still stark. A role must be created before it can be filled, something endless choices do not facilitate. Despite having significantly less depth than Fallout 3, I found is much easier to play the role of a comically evil villain in Fable II.

Options may not facilitate role playing, but this might not be a bad thing. Character creation and development is an exciting prospect for many players. What this implies however, is that this entire experience could be my fault. Maybe I was playing it wrong. If a game is created in which player interpretation and choice are fundamental to story progression, could the player be to blame when the game does not live up to its narrative potential?

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Demo Dilemma

The advent of consoles with hard drives coupled with widespread broadband Internet access has raised the profile of game demos. What was once limited to PC gaming and the occasional promotion has become a major feature in the game industry and in gaming culture. It seems like many of today's games have two release dates: one when the demo drops and second when the final game hits stores. It is an interesting phenomenon, and I would like to find what effect, if any, it has had on sales. But that is a topic for another day.

I recently logged on to PlayStation Store and engaged in a downloading spree, sifting through demos new and old, from all genres. Hopping from game to game is fun, especially given that all the demos are priced at a very reasonable free-ninety-nine. Unfortunately, I have come to a conclusion that is disappointing to me and probably disheartening for game developers: After completing many games' demos, I feel little compulsion to play through the full versions.

Like Tycho of Penny Arcade, I enjoy deciphering a game's thesis. Whether it be simple or profound, every game has something to communicate to the player. Usually, I am also fairly disciplined about fallowing that thesis to its conclusion, i.e., the end of the game. Oftentimes I will see a game to the end simply to analyze how closely it sticks with its original claims. While this habit has led me suffer through some train-wrecks, I enjoy the historiography of gaming so much that it is worth it. Additionally, on some level I feel I owe it to the developer to experience their complete work.

Unfortunately, many demos seem to blunt my desire to play games that, had I started the full versions without playing the demos, I would have completed. F.E.A.R. 2, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and The Last Guy, have all fallen into the doldrums; my interest in them has been satiated by a demo. The tragic thing is, if I had the entire games sitting in my house, I probably would be playing and writing about them this very moment.

Is this a problem? And if it is, what is the solution? Clearly, developers have a difficult task when constructing a demo: how much content to include and how long an experience to provide are tricky questions. From players' perspectives, having a demo that is honest in terms of content and presentation can greatly influence a purchasing decision. Perhaps a happy medium can be reached with "teaser" demos that are more limited than the status quo?

The point is, I am not sure how to rectify my demo dilemma, so I will throw it to you, kind readers:

-Players: How actively to you play game demos? Do they convince you to play more games in their entirety? Do you worry about spoilers when playing them (and remember spoilers do not necessarily have to be plot points, they can begameplay styles).

-Developers: How do you decide what to put in a demo? Do you worry about the kinds of assumptions people make when playing an unfinished version of your game? How would you change the current practices concerning game demos?

My recent experiences with demos has been a study in short term gain leading to long term loss. I jumped on the demos of games like Mirror's Edge, Dead Space, and Resident Evil 5, and enjoyed playing them. However, the demos seem to have been too effective in providing a satisfying experience, as I feel like I know enough about those games to be comfortable in leaving them on the back burner, all the while intending to return to them sometime in the nebulous "future" when I "have the time."

I fear that time and that future may never materialize.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

EXP Podcast #12: The Therapy Game

This week will see the release of thatgamecompany's unique new title, Flower. In an interview with MTV Multiplayer, Jenova Chen, the co-creator of thatgamecompany, explained that he hoped that Flower will feel "like therapy" to players. This got us thinking about the ability of games to act as stress relievers and how both the mechanical and narrative techniques in games affect our mindsets. We also talk about the traditional notions of why some games are considered relaxing, and we explore the soothing possibilities of games that normally would not be considered calming. We invite you to relax, take a deep breath, and then jump in with your thoughts!

Some discussion starters:

-What games, if any, do you use as "therapy?" Do they fall into one genre, or are there any you think are "surprisingly" calming?
-Is there a contradiction between a therapeutic game and one in which the player partakes in destructive in-game behaviors?
-What kinds of themes and imagery do you think of when you here about a "therapeutic game?"
-Does a genre of meditative or Zen gaming need to exist, or can it be encompassed within larger categories?

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 43 sec
-Patrick Klepek's article with excerpts from Jenova Chen: "‘Flower’ Should Make You Feel Better About Yourself, Argues Creator"
-Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Imperative of Fun

Last month, Scott re-imagined Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian as a videogame. The grotesque imagery and uncomfortable narrative style paint a bleak and appalling portrait of America's westward expansion, leaving the reader disturbed and uncomfortable. Let there be no doubt, this book is not an uplifting or fun read, but it is an invaluable and remarkable piece of literature every person interested in the Mythic West should peruse.

Could a videogame even begin to tread on such dark subject matter? There are plenty of readers who cannot finish Blood Meridian, surely the completion rate of the videogame version would be much lower considering players expect games to be fun or entertaining experiences. How many times have you heard a reviewer decree the ultimate worth of a videogame depends on the answer to this question: "Is it fun?" As I have said once before, I believe the expressive power of videogames is limitless, but popular notions characterize videogames as inherently 'playful.' This 'imperative of fun' stifles creative content and must be subverted or coopted when designing a game that is not actually enjoyable in the traditional sense.

Creating a game that is not fun might be a horrible design choice. Don't get me wrong, the 'fun factor' of a game is crucial when I assess a games worth, and I believe 'play' to be a completely legitimate endeavor for adults as well as children. But I can also appreciate a contemplative and depressing book or movie every now and then. Revolutionary Road, Requiem for a Dream, and Waltz with Bashir are all thoughtful films worthy of praise despite unsettling most viewers. How accurately can videogames invoke suburban malaise, irrational cruelty or oppressive tyranny? Can a videogame be less concerned with empowering a protagonist and depict instead their road to desperation and failure? There are, of course, games with disturbing content, but none as contemplative and unrelenting as some of the examples mentioned above.

There are a few ways to get around a fun focused player. A narrative 'bait & switch' could make a player think they are in a jovial environment only to reveal the story is far more bleak. "Surprise! You're actually stuck in an insane asylum!" Braid's 'switcheroo' at the game's end is a great example of this tactic. One could also embed the story in a less depressing environment. Maybe the character is having a very bad dream in the middle of a traditional adventure. The achievement or trophy system may also serve to distract the player from a more disturbing experience by wrapping them in the comfort blanket of familiar goal accomplishments. "Achievement Unlocked: You Lost Your Family's Savings on a Horse Race." But do these insertions of fun sell the experience short?

War games have managed to create fun experiences in decidedly not-fun environments. There is a distinct wall between the player and the sobering reality of war. A Gamasutra excerpt of Paraglyph Press' A Theory of Fun for Game Design suggests gamers see mathematical patterns in any given situation, health or experience point contributing to in-game success for example. "This is why gamers are dismissive of the ethical implications of games." Creating a game where the player should not or cannot dismiss the ethical implications is problematic. Players can separate a WWII game from its source material and designers help out by not including a holocaust survival mini-game.

Call of Duty 4 breaks the player-experience divide by asking the player to partake in an all too real aerial bombing scenario midway through the game. The visuals in this segment, visible on the right, are disturbingly similar to computer guided missile systems commonly used in the military today. When playing this level, I was reminded how easily destruction is wrought by people who are encouraged to give their actions about as much thought as I was giving to killing combatants in videogames.

Maybe this thought experience is self-defeating. Why should players finish a game that is not actually fun to play? At the very least a game's mechanics must be satisfying. If a game's mechanics can be enjoyable enough to encourage continued play, a game can potentially cover some very dark subject matter. Even heartbreaking movies can be beautifully composed. If there is a good story to tell, and it is told well, then perhaps there will be many who will gladly play tragic and unforgettable experience.

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Frustrating Narrative

Whether it is seeing a faraway ledge taunting you, being bested by a computer opponent, or struggling against a maverick camera, video games can be a frustrating ordeal. Their ability to inspire frustration is often overlooked when we articulate the differences between video games and other mediums, but I think the idea that we even expect challenge from games makes them unique. Certainly, a particularly tortuous novel or abstract film can be exasperating, but books and DVDs lead relatively safe lives compared to video game controllers.

I usually find myself getting exasperated with a game in which I continually fail. Usually, this failure takes the form of "dying," in some way, which means losing progress, points, gear, or the like. However, my recent time with PixelJunkEden and BioShock suggest that perhaps failure alone does not lead to frustration and that bad mechanics are not solely to blame. Instead, a game's narrative determines its capacity to frustrate.

I enjoyed BioShock and PixelJunk Eden immensely, despite experiencing quite a few failures on my journey through Rapture and my trek into Eden. I had no large problems with the controls, mechanics, or rules of either game. Curiosly, BioShock stood out as the far more frustrating of the two, despite the fact I failed far more when playing PixelJunkEden.

BioShock is a monument to story telling in games, or more precisely, a monument to explicit, linear-narrative storytelling. Well-written and competently voiced, the game's dialogue and characters articulate the story of a city's tragic demise. The dilapidated city structures are beautiful landmarks along a road that inexorably led me to the game's conclusion. BioShock is a game with a clear message and an explicit story, and this is why my failures frustrated me.

I had a propensity of attacking Big Daddy's without much forethought, and this led me to become intimately familiar with the inside of the vita chambers. Every time I died, it felt as thought I was somehow upsetting the game's narrative. Perhaps Jack was meant to "die" a couple of times to explicate the chambers' cloning capabilities, but rushing headlong into the same battle five times in a row felt like a disservice the story in which I was participating.

My PixelJunkEden failures dwarfed my BioShock deaths. Sweating against the clock while trying to collect enough pollen to traverse the game's massive levels created a mixture of stress and Zen concentration. Despite countless re-tries, I felt little frustration in having to repeat levels.

In retrospect, my lack of frustration in the face of dozens of failures was due in large part to PixelJunkEden's narrative approach. The game has very little explicit story, and what is present mimics the game's graphics to create something that is both abstract and impressionistic. The narrative inPixelJunk is a vague theme: It is a story about pollination and growth.

While playing the game, I clung to the naturalistic motif. I saw the game as a representation of plants' life cycle: Sometimes, plants do not bloom very strongly and must endure a long winter before trying to rebound in the spring. The non-human world is less linear than human-centered stories, and since I viewed the game as a story about nature, setbacks felt less permanent. I could fail as many times as necessary and feel little frustration because failure was not destructive to the narrative.

I have tried to avoid the term ludo-narrative dissonance until now, but I cannot find a better way to describe what I believe is the core reason behind frustration in gamers. If a game's narrative suggest that the protagonist not fail, yet, when controlling the protagonist, the player repeatedly fails, dissonance clearly exists. Here I begin to tread gingerly, as the beast that is the "Narratologists vs. Ludologists debate" is a fitful sleeper, and it is hard to control once woken.

We make sense of our world by creating stories that explain the situations we encounter. Some games create stories by presenting the player with apre-constructed narrative, while others create messages by employing gameplay techniques. However, without each other as foils, neither of approach holds any relative meaning. The chasm between narrative andgameplay is not going to disappear; we just need to figure out how to build a bridge with a sturdy center.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

EXP Podcast #11: Interactive Edutainment

Be they breaking a sweat playing a mean game of Wii Tennis or squeezing their "mind grapes" learning a foreign language, many students from around the world are incorporating videogames into their educational curriculum. This week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I take out our chalkboard, calculators and pen protectors to talk about videogames in the classroom. We branch off of two Kotaku articles available for your perusal in the show notes. As always we love to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comments section and feel free to answer the questions available below.

Questions of Interest:
- How have you used videogames as learning devices, if at all?
- What do you think are the limitations of videogames in the classroom?
- Is there anything you learned from videogames you still use, or could use, today?

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 18 sec
-Kotaku article: Wii in PE
-Kotaku article: Learning English on the DS
-Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Brief Look at Weapon-Appendages

Nestled in the supply closet of a well traveled gamer is a treasure trove of destructive implements. The plethora of videogame weaponry is simply astounding. The weapons, meant to obliterate, eviscerate or subjugate, are intriguing artistic works in their own right. This is of course because they are designed to be visually alluring and memorable. Cloud's immense Buster Sword, Fallout's 'Fat Man,' and Gordon Freeman's 'Gravity Gun' have become easily recognizable videogame cultural artifacts. Yet there is a unique breed of weapon with a functionality and appearance well deserving of appreciation and attention: the weapon-appendage.

Any natural appendage can be considered a weapon itself. There is a simple beauty in the movement and lethality of melee combat. A character trained in the martial arts, or who happens to have an insanely large forearm, is never unarmed. Fists and fighting games have largely been associated with such weaponry, but Faith in Mirror's Edge can kick a man in the groin with startling accuracy and Mario's feet can be surprisingly deadly. I do not doubt the value of a simple swipe, there is something to say for the zombie hordes and the menace that is their shambling corpses. What most interests me however, is the blend of recognizable weapon traits with the natural characteristics of the combatants, which I categorize into three classes.

The first class of weapon-appendage is that which closely resembles a normal body part, but has the traits of more advanced weaponry. One could easily include a great deal of projectile hurling enemies in this category, but the more "technologically advanced" appendages are far more interesting. The tongue is a classic example of such an appendage. Left 4 Dead's 'Smoker' zombie has a sniper like tongue that lassos and drags in its victims. Similarly, the aptly named 'Licker' from the Resident Evil series can lash or pierce its prey with its abnormally long tongue. The 'Plasmid' wielding hand in Bioshock is another example of weapon appendage, able to hurl lightening or bee swarms at unsuspecting foes. The first class of weapon-appendage cleverly disguises the traits of classic weaponry into a compact frame while maintaining its combat utility. When wielded by an enemy, it can be equal parts shocking and disgusting.
At home in horror and the often attached to grotesque creatures, the class two weapon-appendage acts like and resembles a classic weapon such as a club, blade, or projectile. Such hideous creatures like Starcraft's 'Zerg' race exemplify this type of critter. With similar spear or sickle-like slicers jutting out of shoulders and torsos, the reanimated inhabitants of the USG Ishimura in Dead Space are particularly horrifying manifestations of the weapon-appendage combination. The idea of a creature born with such devastating and lethal weapons are naturally unsettling. What deity would breed such an abomination, let alone one who's sole purpose is to create carnage? These deadly limbs, frightening mockeries of man-made tools of war, are more suitable on enemies; thus, it is rare to see the class two weapon-appendage on a player controlled character. The closest avatar that could fit this category is Jackie Estacado of The Darkness.Many of us are familiar with the class three weapon-appendage: a weapon in the place of a limb. The pirate hook falls into the category, as do the ridiculous prosthetic weapons in Army of Darkness and Planet Terror. Perhaps the origin of the class-three weapon appendage in videogames goes back to 1987 when two powerful franchises were created: Metroid and Mega Man. Though some images of Mega Man depict him wearing a wrist-mounted blaster, freeing the use of his hand, the common rendering is similar to Samus Aran's weapon-arm. Chronotrigger's Robo joins this team in 1995 with a rocket-propelled fist. Barrett of Final Fantasy VII, Baiken of Guilty Gear and Drachma of Skies of Arcadia can also be considered wielders of the class three weapon appendage. Unlike their progenitors, these characters' weapons replace permanently lost limbs, perhaps improving on their design.I am writing this post for a couple of reasons. First, weapon-appendages are pretty awesome. That aside, the weapon-appendage is an interesting design choice. By incorporating weapons into character models, game designers create a unique being and weapon all at once. Looking at the list above, these characters are fundamentally associated with their weapons. The effect can be to shock and horrify the player, as is the case with Silent Hill's 'Pendulum', or humor the player with ludicrous weapons, such as Bayonetta's hair attacks.

A weapon-appendage can also free the design team of potential ammo and weapon modeling concerns. Bioshock's 'plasmids' are clever work-arounds to give the player a permanent weapon with all sorts of bizarre powers that has only one source of ammunition: a quick syringe to the forearm. Any class of weapon-appendage is an in-game manifestation of control. If the player controls the weapon-arm he/she feels empowered. If the enemy has a weapon-arm, the player feels more vulnerable. The weapon-appendage is a strategic and fun creative device worthy of praise, respect, and sometimes ridicule.