Monday, March 30, 2009

The Sensationalist: Frailty and Team Ico

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.

Let me begin by admitting I am already breaking Sensationalist rules by discussing two games at once, but the visual, mechanical, and thematic similarities between my choices warrant the approach. The two games I am discussing are Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, both developed in Japan by Team Ico.

If we want to get psychological with videogame consumption, it would not be a stretch to say the hobby lends itself well to power fantasies. Players are frequently transported into the body of a character with abilities vastly superior to their own. To highlight the player's new found strength, arm muscles will be thicker than thighs. Or just as frequently, players inhabit a lithe and nimble protagonist, able to traverse even the most difficult terrain with a preternatural ease.

Keeping in mind the tendency towards empowerment, what a brave feat it was for Team Ico to create two games, and two characters, that so successfully evoke a sense of frailty. Both the self titled protagonist of Ico and Wander of SotC (so named from the original Japanese title, Wander and the Colossus) appear suddenly in the game environment. Neither character reveals a cat-like prowess or mystical power. Aside from Ico's small set of horns, both are relatively unassuming. Beginning with these small characters alone in an immense landscape, Team Ico depicts an unlikely convergence of strength and fragility.

The Sound of Frailty

Ico and SotC have been lauded for their stunning visuals and sense of scale. Both worlds are visually enormous, and seamlessly explored by their comparatively small protagonists. Making Ico and Wander seem small is important to creating a sense of frailty. This is partly accomplished with large visuals, but equally important are the sounds.

Ico's cries to Yorda echo off massive stone pillars, through wide rooms or vast open spaces. Similarly, Wander's calls to Agro, his steed and loyal friend, stand in contrast to the silence of an open plane or the distant cries of an eagle. Also, each character's call changes depending on the distance to their companion. Where Ico changes his pitch and non-sensical words, Wander pierces the distance with a whistle. Team Ico gives players auditory measurements that remind them of their small and ineffectual stature.If you listen close, the sounds of Ico and Wander betray their frailty. Every high pitched cry Ico gives out when attacking opponents mirrors his youth. Lest we forget, Ico is a scrawny young boy, and with each strike at the shadow beasts making off with Yorda comes the sound of exertion. Ico's panting while running, and each grunt he emits when attacked, is matched by Wander. Just like Ico, Wander will let out a huff when landing after a fall. Wander makes the same sign of labor when riding atop Agro as well. These auditory signals accompany a character who toils through their accomplishments. These are not the sounds of a war hardened champion, but of a fragile character accomplishing strenuous tasks.

The Movement of Frailty

While playing through Shadow of the Colossus, yet again, I was taken aback by the number of character animations, some of them seemingly unnecessary. When Wander plummets from a cliff side, his limbs flail about, his body contorting to the whims of the player. Occasionally, he will swing his body to the side to move from a ledge above another. Also, his body will correct itself, trying to maintain balance on a moving Colossus or tumble over when thrown from Agro's saddle. Aside from imbuing Wander with a physical form, these animations belong distinctly to a character bound by the fragile human body.Ico's movements betray the same human frailty. When Ico swings at a wall, the force jolts his arm and sends him reeling back. Before dropping off the side of a wall, his arms will windmill about as he desperately tries to maintain balance. Even pulling Yorda along will result in physical tugs. These signs of relative frailty last into the final boss battle. Ico , wielding a sword not of his making, strikes at the dark queen and is knocked prone, unable to hold his grip on the weapon. His valiance is not that of a trained warrior, but an inexperienced child.

The End of Frailty

Setting aside the potential connection between Ico and Wander (Are they the same person? Has Wander found redemption at last?), both stories end in similar ways and take the same approach to frailty. When Ico defeats the queen, he is knocked unconscious. Shepherded by his previous ward, set adrift on a boat amidst a crumbling castle, Ico is in a complete state of helplessness. Yorda holds him as if a mother to a child, and though Ico has won, his victory is marked not by a new found strength, but a return to sleep.

Shadow of the Colossus takes this theme and runs with it. For a brief moment, Wander is given colossal strength but his power is dwindled and he is swept into a vortex. His sleeping beauty, for whom he underwent his trials, finds a baby with horns in his place. Wander is returned to the ultimate form of frailty: an infant. The nameless woman mimics Yorda's actions, and cradles the child like a mother.

At last, the player, accustomed to gaining ever amazing abilities as the game progresses, is allowed to rest. Ico and Wander become completely powerless, but their frailty is a reward. These games are not about beefy soldiers overcoming hordes of monsters or ninjas vaulting great heights. Rather, Team Ico weaves these stories about a hidden strength, the strength that reveals itself in times of great need, the strength, courage, and bravery found in even the most humble and frail of protagonists.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Good Game's Ghost

In last week's podcast, Jorge and I tried to wrap our minds around examples of "B," kitsch, and camp games. It started me thinking about games that, while not necessarily "bad," try to do some interesting things and wind up coming up short. It seems that the middle ground between Broken Pixels and GOTY is a sparsely populated one, so I wanted to elaborate on one of my favorite "splendid failures:" Geist.

Three big concepts that Geist swung at...and missed:

1. The Story

The Swing: The game's silent protagonist, research scientist John Raimi, suddenly becomes embroiled in a sinister plot in which secret scientific experiments are being used to unleash demonic beasts from another dimension into our world. Raimi battles his way through extra-governmental troops as well as creatures of the occult. It is refreshing spin on the traditional "space marine in an alien universe" story.

The Miss: Unfortunately, Gordon Freeman robbed the game of some of its novelty in 1998. And again in 2004.

2. The Possession System

The Swing: After an unfortunate run in with the game's mad scientist/resident occultist, Raimi becomes separated from his body, turned into an ethereal being invisible to the naked eye, and gains the power of ghostly possession. This ability opens up intriguing and novel gameplay scenarios: Raimi can posses people to glean information from their memories or employ their skills. Animals can also be possessed and utilized in solving puzzles or navigating environments closed off to humans. Possession of inanimate objects is also possible, and over the course of the game Raimi possesses everything from an shower heads to turrets.

The Miss: The possession mechanic becomes its own undoing by fostering the player's imagination. While the player seems to be in command of a possessed person or object, the effective control that can be exerted over the host is extremely limited. When possessed, most humans have similar skills and identical controls. The prospect of possessing a rat is fun initially, but the sheen wears off when it becomes apparent its main powers are to run and squeak; no biting or clawing for these gentle rodents. Because of technical limitations, Raimi can only possess certain objects in any given room. While it is neat to take control of an old TV and blow it up, the game's narrative suggests that Raimi could just as easily take control of the coffee table holding it up. Unfortunately, only certain items seem susceptible to Raimi's ethereal powers. It was a noble attempt, but the hardware running the game (and the GameCube was no slouch!) simply did not have the power to convey the interactivity necessary to back up the game's concept.

3. The Identity Crisis: Shooting or Sleuthing?

The Swing: The game alternates between standard first-person shooter gun battles and adventure sequences in which the player must determine how to use the environment to scare someone, thereby making them vulnerable to possession. The gun battles range from fighting human military forces to hellish monsters and include a variety of fps tropes like turret sequences, escort missions, and timed battles. In the possession sequences, the pace is slowed and the player must determine how best to terrorize potential hosts by utilizing objects in the environment.

The Miss: While finding objects with which to scare a person is fun, it soon becomes apparent that there is only one solution to each puzzle. As discussed in the aforementioned section, a very limited number of objects can be possessed. Even if it would make logical sense to scare a person by possessing some books and hurling a few at them, if the books are not the key to the puzzle, they are not interactive and the player is out of luck. While inventive, the limited puzzles are jarring since they exist in what seems to be a perfect environment for testing the ingenuity of the player. Instead of fostering creativity, many challenges degenerate into using the "examine" command on every object in a room until the glowing one appears.

The shooting, while serviceable, does not set the game apart from high budget smash hits like Half-life or Halo. Some wonky aiming, cheap AI, and questionable frame rates add frustration to mundane missions and inspires more longing for non-existent in-depth possession puzzles.

Despite all of its shortcomings, or more accurately because of them, I admire this game. The sci-fi story, possession mechanics, and gameplay variety all show that both N-Space and Nintendo were looking to put out a bold, inventive title. The game provides fun in the form of short bursts of ingenuity. There are some gruesome monsters, and playing poltergeist is entertaining.

The game fell victim to bad timing. It was just released before the developers could sort out the balance between adventure and gun play, before Nintendo could provide the audience necessary for a new intellectual property to succeed, and before consoles could make possible the kind of interactivity necessary to support the game's story.

With Geist, it is clear that the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

EXP Podcast #18: A Gamer's Best Friend?

Animals have a long history in video games, and continue to play important parts in the most recent titles. This week, we happened upon an article detailing the story of a high school student offended by the treatment of dogs in Call of Duty: World at War. Her efforts to petition Activision to change its ways got us thinking about how and why games are criticized, as well as the larger role of animals in games. Although we have a bit of fun at the article's expense, it is a useful tool for examining how people react to violent games, how different forms of violence are interpreted, and how animals fit in to the medium as whole. As always, we love hearing your responses to both the story and the podcast, so feel free to send us an email or jump in on the comments!

Some discussion starters:

- What memorable animal appearances can you think of? What role did the animals play in the game?
- While we were not exactly optimistic about Lucci's chances of getting Activision's attention, her efforts raise a good point: how should people display their disagreement with publishers and developers? Petitions? Essays? Response games (like the PETA example)? Voting with one's wallet?
- To what degree does the incorporation of animals succeed in games, and how would you like to see it improved?

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 54 sec
- Mike Fahey's (Kotaku) article and response: "Students Protest Call Of Duty Dog Killing"
- The original article from the Lowell Sun: "NDA students protest video game's depiction of cruelty to animals"
- Cooking Mama and PETA's response
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Catch-22 of RPG Dialogue

I finished Mass Effect a few weeks ago, and it quickly climbed the ranks of my favorite games. It felt more like a real science fiction than any futuristic title I've played to date. Though I did not enjoy Fallout 3 nearly as much, they both succeeded in creating an environment with its own unique personality. And its set of inhabitants seemed as if they would go about their lives long after I turned off the console. John Doe Alien and Jane Doe Wastelander are both crucial in creating these living environments, too bad they talk too much.
In order to create what feels like a persistent world, there must be a gaggle of pedestrian individuals to wander about and make each place feel "lived in." The job description for a videogame extra is simple: sit around with other NPCs , eat a bagel, mutter something about the weather, go home at night, done. Here is the problem as I see it: We make these prop characters more realistic by allowing the player to interact with them, but they don't have anything interesting to say. The fact is, most everyone is boring.

So imagine an immensely interactive game, one in which you can have conversations with anyone you see, a truly realistic world. As players, should we feel obligated to experience each conversation in order to partake in all the game has to offer? Is there a fear that repetitive dialogue with unimportant NPCs will train us ignore everyone, thereby missing out on some compelling narratives when we pass by a more significant individual? Is it pessimistic to say a realistic game environment is a world mostly full of mundane and uninteresting people?

Maybe it's a completionist tendency of mine, but I already feel compelled to talk to everyone whenever I play an RPG. As you can imagine, this can make walking through any RPG town a disgustingly time consuming endeavor. I may have spent more time wanding the Citadel in Mass Effect than exploring the far reaches of space. Likewise, I was more familiar with the labyrinthine halls of Fallout's Rivet City than I was with the remnants of Washington D.C. Most of the time in these places was spent tirelessly exploring every dialogue option available.

Most NPCs in Mass Effect will follow three tactics when interacting with the player. Some will say just a few words of greeting, or hostility, and remain essentially non-interactive. Some will give the player insane tasks to ask of a complete stranger (Seriously, the number of random civilians I assisted in Mass Effect is mind boggling. Why anyone would trust a space marine to solve domestic disputes is beyond me.) Lastly, some NPCs will tell you a great deal of unnecessary information about the world and those living in it (When does knowing the main export of an alien species come in handy?).
<Having too many significant NPCs is distracting and unbelievable. In-depth dialogue trees with unimportant civilians is too often boring and uninformative. Now I'll admit, this could be partly my fault. I should probably take my mother's advice and stop talking to strangers. But if I can interact with anyone, how do I figure out who to talk to? One option is to make videogame dialogue more like a conversations in a stage performance. Because of set design and time restrictions, spoken words are chosen carefully and frequently advance the plot. Or perhaps its best to play the role of a upwardly mobile businessman, talking only with the people who matter.

Another option is to borrow the improve dialogue options mechanic from these games, and incorporate relationships into Player-NPC conversations. Instead of allowing the player to increase their charisma or intimidation, dialogue options can increase naturally from the type of interactions players have with extras. Stop by a bar and get some strange glances from customers and a gruff bartender. Frequent this same pub daily and the bartender may greet you with a free drink while Cliff from Cheers tells you all about his day.

The inverse could also be true. Stop playing frisbee in the park every weekend, and maybe people change or forget about you. Understandably, this would require an expansive RPG set over a long period of time. I'm not trying to finalize anything, just theorize ways out of the tough position between storytelling and technological advancements that allow persistent worlds. Who knows what kind of star role a videogame extra can become. After all, a stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Sensationalist: The Aging of Old Snake

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.

I have written about maturity in games before, but mostly in terms of a game's thematic or marketing approach. It was not until Metal Gear Solid 4 that I found myself examining maturity in games in a much more literal sense. MGS 4 presents an image rarely seen in the video game medium: the aging and decline of an iconic hero. Snake's transition from "Solid" to "Old" imbues the game with a strong sense of what it means to age. MGS 4 vividly conveys the feeling of mortality that aging elicits, and it does so largely by employing graphical finesse and extended character development. Despite a vastly improved control scheme and a wider variety of moves, Snake still feels hobbled by age, thus demonstrating the importance of passive game elements like cut scenes and graphical splendor in a medium increasingly lauded for interactivity.

Snake's age is striking because it is an aberration in the milieu of iconic video game characters. Mario has kept a decidedly robust figure over the decades with nary a grey hair in his mustache. Sonic has gone through some "extreme" phases (including lupine), but the blue blur looks essentially the same today as he did during the Genesis era. After fighting hundreds of battles, Ryu and Ken are in better shape now than they ever were. Although Link has been subject to some chronological wackiness, I will be surprised if we ever see a wrinkle in his noble Hylian visage. In the Neverland line-up of Super Smash Bros., Snake is the sole character for which time refuses to stand still.

MGS 4 illustrates Snake's aging by taking full advantage of the PS3's ability to imitate life. Grey and wrinkled, Snake moves deliberately and gingerly in the cut scenes. His low voice has become exceedingly gravelly the point of comedy, although things get less funny when he seizes with uncontrollable coughing spasms. The aggregation of old psychic wounds compounded with new physical ones make him reliant on pain relieving injections during his missions. While still able to sneak through enemy territory undetected, any moment of rest sees Snake groan and rub his undoubtedly sore back. Perhaps Tactical Espionage Action is better left to the young?

The interesting thing about MGS 4's overwhelming thematic focus on aging is that it exists in contrast to most of the gameplay. Until the last scenes of the final act, the player has more nuanced and varied control over Snake than in any previous Metal Gear game. Clearly the old dog has learned some new tricks: side rolls, strafing, log-rolling, face-up crawling, crouched running, along with a bevy of new customizable weapons make Old Snake the most skilled incarnation of the legendary soldier to date. The physical degradation communicated by the cut scenes and story often runs counter to the skill in which Snake utilizes cover and dispatches enemies. It seems MGS 4 is a textbook example of that bogey-man of critical gaming: ludo-narrative dissonance. So which end of this ludo-narrative tug of war wins out?

As can be gleaned from my Twitter posts, I was quite trepidatious about starting MGS 4. However, the disenchantment I felt for the series after MGS 2's overwrought story and MGS 3's stagnant gameplay was wiped clean by Snake's latest (and hopefully last) adventure. Although the controls and updated move set were welcome surprises, what I will remember most about this game is my empathy towards an aging Snake. As I saw him wince his way through the missions, I was reminded of how long I had been following this character, and how much punishment he has received. More accurately, I was remined of my complicity in his scars. I could not help but think about all the times I lead him into a suicidal firefight or carelessly traipsed through a mine field. The milege Snake acrued was milege I had put on him over the decades. This connected me to a character that I had only previously thought of as a campy, stoic, bad-ass, trained to fight on in a never-ending war. It soon became clear that this war did have an end, as did its chief combatant: Snake.

A common explanation for how games differ from other mediums focuses on the role the player takes in helping explicate their meanings. I have always been part of that subset of gamers that claim to be wholly devoted to gameplay; to hell with story and graphics, if something is satisfying to play, that is all that matters. MGS 4 is a powerful challenge to this mindset, as the game conveys the sense of Snake's aging by letting the graphics and cut scenes tell the story. The gameplay and the player have a relatively small role to play in creating the narrative, a design choice that seems to find itself out of favor in current games.

However, like Snake himself, these techniques persist, and they were able to express "aging" in a video game as I had never felt it before. Perhaps traditional narrative techniques themselves have aged better than we give them credit for?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

EXP Podcast #17: The "B" All and End All

It seems like most people have their favorite examples of the "so bad it's good" class of film. Low-budget, occasionally self-aware, "B movies" often form strong followings of people who love them for their effort and entertainment value. This week, we discuss a recent article by Christian Nutt of Gamasutra that examines the obstacles and efforts in the creation of "B" video games. We invite you to join our conversation about chainsaw arms, "Sweet" dialogue, and NPH by commenting on this post. As always, you can find the original article in the show notes for your enjoyment.

Some discussion starters:

- Have you ever enjoyed a game you knew was poorly designed or implemented? Would you consider this a "B" videogame?
- Is it possible to have "B" game mechanics or must "B" games rely on thematic implementation?
- Can you think of any games that you considered "A" level when they were released, that now seem campy or "B" level?

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:

- 27min 18sec
- "Can The Industry Make a 'B Game'?" by Christian Nutt, via Gamasutra
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, March 16, 2009

Introducing The Sensationalist

We gaming enthusiasts seem to be in a constant state of defense against those who question the legitimacy of videogames as a meaningful form of entertainment. Like literary fiction and cinema before it, the responsibility of proving the value of the medium to others falls on the shoulders of creators and practitioners. Such desire to feel recognized often comes down to a very human desire to share those things that give us great joy. One measurement of worth often thrown about in the discussion of legitimacy is the ability to stir-up emotion. Not until a videogame can make you cry, some have said, will videogames earn complete legitimacy. A game's true worth lies not in its sales numbers, but in how often it can make a grown man weep.

Many emotional gamers have come out of the shadows to defend their medium against those who would classify games as mere baubles, unable to hold deep meaning or evoke any sensations other than childish glee. Yet tears are but one measure of psychological impact. The most successful games are often praised for their power to immerse the player in another experience, to make them feel enveloped in captivating environments. From wastelands to ancient keeps, myself and my gaming compatriots have seen otherworldly vistas, filling us with a sense of wonder. Who, then, is to decide which emotions give videogames meaning? What arbiter will tell us awe is less true a sensation than sadness?

With this in mind, Scott and I introduce to you The Sensationalist, a new EXP series in which we seek to examine how videogames evoke a myriad of sensations. Not as guardians in defense of games, but as explorers of meaning, we seek to build a catalogue of the emotions games engender. Despair, panic, friendship, the loss of a parent, curiosity, aging, and pride are just a few examples on our enormous platter. At least once a month, Scott or I will discuss one particular sensation or emotion in one of two particular ways.

- The first will use a somewhat historical lens, discussing how videogames have addressed a particular emotion in the past and how contemporary games are approaching the same theme.
- The second approach will look at the success, and failures, of one videogame's evocation of an emotion.

Some of the sensations we will discuss span genres, recreated in many forms across a wide range of games. These games may succeed because players can easily empathize with the protagonists, or because the story touches on powerful themes, or because the game is a canvas on which players impose their perspective and derive their own meaning. Understanding how our unique medium wields emotional power may shape how players and creators approach sensations in future games.

With The Sensationalist, we are trying to elucidate highly individual experiences. Videogames are deeply personal, but also shared. Some of these sensations we remember fondly and our memories of them are quite similar (frustration at learning the princess is in another castle, for example). Yet others are fleeting and intimate, empowered by the player's particular circumstances, imprinted with their personal history. As a result, these posts are subjective by nature, but we will strive to articulate our opinions, and how we arrived at them, as best we can. Our words are by no means final. We hope that differing interpretations will lead to a larger discussion and a deeper understanding of how games affect us all.

If there is a certain game or emotion you would like to see addressed, we encourage you to send us an email to ExperiencePoints[at]gmail[dot]com. We eagerly await your participation. To browse at your leisure, you will find an up-to-date list of all Sensationalist posts right here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Video Games Should Watch the Watchmen

Like most of the nerdoverse, I made my way in to the Watchmen with feelings comprised of equal parts anticipation and trepidation. While the prospect of seeing an adaptation of one of the seminal works of the comic book genre was thrilling, my cynical (or realistic?) side made me acutely aware that it could very well be a train wreck.

Thankfully, I found the film's themes remarkably faithful to the book, and its deviations from the source understandable and acceptable (albeit somewhat disappointing). As others would agree, the movie seems to be both a worthy ode to the book, as well as a commercial hit.

Of course, my mind tends to wander to video games, so I began thinking about why video game to movie translations are so dreadful, while comic book films often succeed. I have always thought of video games and comics as spiritual cousins in terms of their appeal and their fight for cultural legitimacy, and so the dearth of respectable video game movies strikes me as odd. After some thinking, I came up with five reasons comic book films succeed, and what video game adaptations could learn from them. Before I proceed, a word of caution: do not read into this too deeply. I do not mean to suggest that video games need to be made in to films, need to be more like films, or are inferior to either comics or film. Look at it as a light hearted thought exercise and a longing to expose a broader non-gamer audience to the works we all enjoy.

1. Hire Outstanding Actors

This may seem obvious, but the importance of talented actors cannot be overstated. Even when he finds himself in a bad film, RobertDowney Jr. can carry the sucker. Thankfully, Ironman was a fun time, but largely because Downey was able to create a unique, believable character to hook people in to a relatively unknown character and a story. If relatively niche video game franchises are to be made into movies, they need aDowney-esque actor to carry them. Sorry Freddy Prinze Jr., Wing Commander was too heavy for you to carry.

2. Hire Competent Directors

Seriously, no more Uwe Boll.

3. Know What to Cut

Here is where things start getting painful. Regardless of how much everyone liked the Tales of the Black Freighter and New York's death by mutant sea food, it is clear why these things were cut from the silver screen's Watchmen. The need to create a cogent story that appeals to those less knowledgeable while retaining a reasonable run time means a certain loss of content, and perhaps even sophistication.

As Watchmen demonstrates, this does not mean that the themes or essence of the story needs to be sacrificed. Would a film adaptation of Eternal Darkness that had five characters rather than twelve be that much worse? Yes, it would simplify the plot as well as disappoint some of the avid fans, but if this is the price for keeping the game's thematic integrity while also making a good movie, so be it. Which leads into the next point...

4. Stay True to the Source

The best thing about Christopher Nolan's Batman movies are their faithfulness to spirit of their source material. While he has had some mood swings, Batman is essentially a dark, brooding character who protects a city that serves as a metaphor for his damaged psyche. Nolan understood this, and thus his deviations from previous Batman stories were forgiven because of his adherence to themes respected by fans and understood by newcomers.

Video game movies seem to have difficulty sticking to the spirit of the source material. Take the Super Mario Bros. movie: the film tries to place the characters and settings of Mario in a real-world context. Bad sci-fi explanations of the Mushroom Kingodom and cheesy special effects leave fans disappointed and newcomers baffled. The problem here is not that someone tried to make a Mario movie; they tried to make the wrong one.

Why not embrace the psychedelic acid trip that is Mario's world and make it an animated film that does not have to justify the existence ofKoopas or fire flowers? Bowser already has an image problem, no need to complicate things with Dennis Hopper.

5. Choose Projects Wisely

Some comic books lend themselves especially well to film adaptations and require relatively little adaptation. X-Men is a prime example because every character has distinct, recognizable powers that complement their characterization. Wolverine fights like a beast and has metal claws; he is the surly outsider. Cyclops can sets his sights on evildoers and blasts them with pure energy; he is the morally upstanding captain. Professor X has nearly limitless psychic and intellectual abilities; he is the cerebral, all-knowing mentor.

When making a video game, people must be honest about how much source material is included in the game, rather than bestowed by the player. A protagonist like Link is beloved because of a combination of nostalgia and projection: his long history of silence has allowed players to concoct their personal back-stories and any film adaptation would do nothing but disappoint them.

Final Fantasy is a series with complex characters, but the scope of the stories and the emotional arcs take dozens of hours and hundreds of lines of dialogue to explicate. Distilling the experienced of Final Fantasy into a two hour ride is contrary to what the series stands for, and thus it should never be filmed.

On the other end of the spectrum, Gears of War seems like a logical choice for a solid action movie (as others have noticed). Incredibly buff space marines with attitude and badittude; the screenplay almost writes itself!

Again, I do not make theses suggestions to imply that film translations are necessary for video games to assert some sort of cultural credibility. I think it is only natural for folks to want to see respectful re-interpretations of their favorite art, and for capitalism to incline towards squeezing every last cent out of every cultural artifact it can get its hands on. I only suggest these two impulses need not be mutually exclusive.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

EXP Podcast #16: Corralling the Community

We all know by now that the stereotype of the solitary, basement-dwelling video game nerd is the stuff of fiction. Gaming communities have always existed, but the rise of the Internet has allowed for increasingly complex and direct communication between players and developers. This week, we use Leigh Alexander's piece on Eve Online to start a conversation about community management in modern games. We also take a look at Brandon Boyer's article about Infinity Ward's Twitter-based suggestion box for the next Call of Duty: Modern Warfare game. Of course, no discussion about community would be complete without your feedback, so please don't hesitate to jump in via comments or email!

Some discussion starters:

-How involved are you in large scale community games like Eve Online? What drew you to the community and why do you think it was successful?
-Players: How (if at all) do you interact with game developers? Do you post on message boards, send emails, or just vote with you wallet? Developers: What are the most effective ways of gathering feedback?
-In today's world of downloadable content and game patches, is there a danger of developers over-reacting to complaints from a vocal minority of players?

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
-Leigh Alexander's article about Eve Online: "Interview: CCP's Tinney On How EVE Keeps Growing"
-Brandon Boyer's article about Infinity Ward's use of Twitter: "Call of Duty creators Infinity Ward launch their Twitter suggestion box "
-Steven Totilo's article about Gabe Newell's DICE 2009 talk: "DICE 2009: The Very Different Gaming World Gabe Newell Wants"
-Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, March 9, 2009

Beers, Gears, and Sports Camaraderie

This past weekend, Scott and I had a chance to play Gears of War together. I know, we are a little late to the game, but we want to have a foundation before we approach its well acclaimed sequel. After grabbing some 'cold ones' and some strategic couch placement, we proceeded to unleash a world of hurt on the locust armies. Though we've yet to finish the game, there is a sensation from playing that I cannot shake. The entire experience felt like a combination of watching and playing the Superbowl.

More than any game that comes to mind, even sports games, Gears of War evokes a sense of team camaraderie, along with all the baggage that comes with masculine sports culture. Many of the game elements, visually, mechanically, and audible, support a design theme that intentionally evokes the passionate, and often ridiculous, behavior of sporting events.

Let's take a look at the most obvious, and ridiculed, aspect of the Gears of Wars cast: the guys are enormous. Their immense girth is just as unsettling as the locust army. The army Marcus and his teammates wear are equally imposing. Brighten up their COG regalia with splashes of color, and these men would fit well into any football team's defensive line. The average locust soldier, with their comparable size, could easily be imagined as the offensive team, and this is exactly how they are treated.

Dialogue in Gears of War is largely made up of insults, and self-congratulatory exclamations. Marcus frequently announces a successful 'active reload' with a gruff "sweet" or "nice," and taunts nearby locusts with "bring it" or "eat boot." Dom raucously joins these bits of running commentary with "in your face," " shit yeah" or "sup bitches?" None of these comments sound out of the ordinary, particularly when coupled with Augustus Cole's declaration of "that one's for the highlight real" or "the train is a smooth ride." Cole Train, as he calls himself, is voiced by Lester Speight of Office Linebacker fame, and like his in-game character, is also an ex-football player.

Marcus, Dom, Cole, and Baird's taunts and insults are just as frequently directed towards each other as they are towards their enemies. This creates relationships between these characters that are more similar to popular depictions of teammates than soldiers (though the two no doubt intertwine). Rank is seldom an issue, civilians are treated with indifference at best, and emotions are treated with a "get in the game" mentality, usually resulting in any remotely touching scene being quickly followed by "sup bitches." In popular depictions of masculinized sporting culture, this behavior is not out of character whatsoever.

As I am sure many of you know, even pick up games with family members or friends can become rife with otherwise inappropriate banter. This behavior is not restricted to real life events. Fantasy football leagues often encourage friendly player antagonism, and any Xbox Live participant has likely heard enough epithets to last them a lifetime. This highlights where the game succeeds. Gears of War creates the sensation of team based camaraderie, partly with clever game design that encourages cooperative behavior, but also by mimicking a sports culture gamers may rarely experience first hand, but are none the less familiar with.

Perhaps this is something to be concerned about. The encouragement of such behavior within gamer culture may just exacerbate what many consider to be a consistent problem with multiplayer experiences. Likewise, some may consider this game to be the ultimate trivialization of warfare. Both of these questions are interesting, and no doubt other writers have touched upon these very subjects, which are best reserved for another time and place.

It is not surprising that playing Gears with Scott is like watching the Superbowl. Backing up your team mate when separated, landing a grenade down a distant hole, and clashing with enemies along fortified lines all feel reminiscent of a sporting event. The art and dialogue support these elements in turn, by drawing upon pop-culture norms. Though I have never been a fan of masculinized sports culture, the sensation is appealing, partly because I know its a bounded simulation. Does this explain some of Gears of Wars success? Did Cliff Bleszinski play football in high school or did he envy the star quarterback? Maybe this is Cliff's way to make his brother, a sports blogger, proud. I can't be sure, but as I see it, the themes are undeniable.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Flower and WiiWare's Woeful Wilting

"What do I do?"

"Just press any button and the wind will carry you forward," I replied.

"How do I steer?"

"Tilt the controller in the direction you want to go," I explained.

After a few minutes of stuttering gusts and uncertain turning, my dad was comfortably soaring over the gentle hills of Flower's first stage. Soon he was experimenting with the game's controls; swooping through the grass and spiraling back up towards the sun. He tested the limits of the level barriers, how tightly he could turn, and how quickly the wind could accelerate. At one point he held the controller with one hand, rotating it to send the petals into a corkscrew maneuver. I had never seen that before.

"So does it kick you out after a certain length of time?' he asked.

"No, you can stay in the game as long as you want to. If you want to end the level you can open enough flowers to reveal the exit. Even then, you don't have to go to the next level right away."

"There are more levels? This one is all you'd ever need! It's relaxing just to fly," he proclaimed while turning the stream of petals back towards itself, like a dragon chasing its own tale.

"Believe it or not, Dad, there's actually a story," I laughed.

"Hmmm. Well, next time you're home visiting Mom and me, download this to our Wii."

A sudden melancholic weight made my eyes droop, but my smile, now a wistful one, rose to catch them. How does the saying go? "It's better to have loved and lost..."

That Flower does not exist on the Wii exemplifies the console's biggest weakness. Of course, the game would have to be endure some technological changes in order to exist on the Wii, but its spirit (probably the hardest part of a game to make) fits perfectly with the Wii's ethos. Both Flower and the Wii approach games and players from a unique angle; an angle focused on physical interaction, on shepherding both new and experienced gamers into a space where "game" and "play" are linked in a simple, elegant way. It is shame that they cannot exist in the same space.

In my review of Flower, I argued that the game was a sign of the medium's growing maturity. Eschewing the violence and swearing that usually denotes "mature games," Flower finds sophistication in shedding the complex control schemes, didactic tutorials, and cluttered HUDs of modern games. The game relies on the idea that people want a new experience, rather than just a simple one or a pretty one.

The PS3 and the PlayStation Network are quickly carving out a niche by providing imaginative, experimental games that utilize new ways of player interaction, while doing so at a relatively cheap cost. Is this not what Nintendo is attempting with the Wii? I have not bought anything on WiiWare since World of Goo, my Dad has little idea that the service even exists. Worse still, even if he did know about WiiWare, he probably would pass up most of its games.

It is easy to why WiiWare has literally become a joke: for every World of Goo there seem to be five Big Kahuna Parties. WiiWare's glut of graphically simplistic, thematically stale party games undercut the Wii's genius. While the Wii can be successful at repackaging old concepts for new players, I believe my dad's reaction to Flower is more indicative of WiiWare's unrealized potential.

In my Dad, Nintendo has managed to recapture someone who, at the launch of the Nintendo GameCube, commented: "It's the last system I'll ever buy." At the time, he still had kids living in his house, kids he spoiled by buying them Nintendo systems he never even touched. By now, his return to the console market is a familiar story: the Wii's low price point, ingenious marketing, and revolutionary design philosophy prompted him to give games another try. The Wii has infiltrated millions of living rooms, and brought with it two of the most disruptive forces in the gaming industry: downloadable content and motion control. Nintendo is sitting on largely untapped potential: By allowing an unbroken tide of cheap Wii-waggling, re-hashed, Mario Party clones to muddle its library, it is allowing the mantle of innovation to shifts to its rivals.

I love Flower and am glad to own a PS3. However, it disappoints me to see games that would benefit from a broad audience end up stuck in the console with the lowest install base and the highest retail price. Thatgamecompany and Sony should be commended for releasing Flower, but without Nintendo's help, I fear they are simply shouting into the wind.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

EXP Podcast #15: Noby Noby Men

Keita Takahashi of Namco Bandai, creator of Katamari Damacy, has once again dipped his nimble fingers into his mystical bucket of genius and pulled out Noby Noby Boy, one of the most bizarre games I have ever played. Mike Schiller of PopMatters bravely took it upon himself to review this oddity. This week, Scott and I use Schiller's piece to discuss our own thoughts on Noby Noby Boy, Metagames, "play," and the sexuality of interstellar worm-like beings. I highly encourage you to watch some YouTube videos of the game and read the PopMatters review, both of which you can find in the shownotes. As always, we would love you to post your comments, no matter how bizarre they may be.

Some discussion starters:
- What are your thoughts on making your own in-game challenges? Have you any memorable accomplishments?
- Do metagames enhance or diminish a gaming experience?
- Do you think Noby Noby Boy is representative of a wider PS3 audience?

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 4 sec
- Some Noby Noby Boy gameplay.
- Noby Noby Boy and the New PS3 Paradigm by Mike Schiller of PopMatters.
-Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, March 2, 2009

In the Nude for Games

I have been thinking a lot about naked people lately. Before you ask, no, that is not a habit of mine. What brought me to the subject in the first place was one naked man in particular, and the reaction his flaccid penis elicited from critics, gamers, and media watchdogs. I am, of course, talking about Congressman Thomas Stubbs' manhood in Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned. This piece of downloadable content is rated M for Mature by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) for "Blood, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs and Alcohol." It was the brief scene of male genitalia that received the most attention.

The reaction to this scene is not surprising. Long have the guardians of modesty campaigned against depictions of sexuality and violence they deemed threatening to the moral fiber of society. The arguments, both for and against the game's nudity, were interesting. The topic of discussion tended to be whether or not the scene was tasteful or not, and whether it was necessary for the story. As I see, these points are moot. In fact, gratuitous and tasteless nudity might be exactly what we need to advance mature storytelling in the videogame industry.

Allow me to reassure you I am not some videogame pervert with an insatiable desire for digitized pornography (though such reassurance may be exactly the type of moral paranoia we should try to avoid). I am an adult who believes certain stories discussing mature themes warrant mature content, this can include nudity as well as violence and adult language. I, of course, prefer a tasteful presentation of such depictions.

People seem to be particularly sensitive about nudity and sexuality, as both rarely find a place in videogames. The puritanical nature of American culture is partly to blame, but the ESRB rating system also deserves some attention. Each game is rated by three anonymous individuals living in the New York area, more raters convene if the initial three cannot reach a consensus. It is hard to believe such a small group of people could be representative of the average adult game consumer. The vast majority "adult" games rated by the ESRB are given an M rating, though there is also an Adults Only rating available.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the film equivalent of the ESRB, suffers the same design flaws. A product with an AO rating or its equivalent MPAA rating, NC17, means the same thing: commercial suicide. Most stores will not carry, and console makers will not license, an AO rated game. To a much greater extent than films, unrated games suffer the same fate as AO titles. What is strange to me is the amount of sexuality and nudity that makes it way onto R, and even PG13, rated movies that would never make it to videogames.

The sex scene in Mass Effect received a lot of attention despite the fact it was more suggestive than explicit and was only available after building a meaningful relationship. Indigo Prophecy initially received an AO rating, forcing developers to alter a poorly rendered sex scene lest it reach the eyes of impressionable children with parental access to M rated games. Despite this, I believe a self-regulatory body is a better option than forced governmental regulation, which is much harder to change.

To draw a parallel to the film industry again, well into the 1960s movies were heavily regulated by the industry's production code which prohibited nudity and other moral concerns. This "Hays code" was eventually abandoned, not because of a concerted effort by critics rallying around tasteful depictions of nudity, but because movies containing nudity were released and they sold incredibly well. Not all of these were "tasteful" in the classical sense, many were foreign films, but such works as Some Like it Hot and Psycho also broke moral ground.

So perhaps gratuitous depictions of nudity are actually a good thing. It shouldn't matter if GTA IV's penis is necessary to the story or not, the fact that it exists may push open the door for more tasteful representations of sexuality and nudity. In which case, the success of The Lost and Damned may be another sign of a more progressive videogame industry, the same can be said of the orgy in God of War and thong-clad ninjas in Afro Samurai. It might be hard to swallow, but a gratuitous penis now and again might allow less risky depictions of adult themes to become acceptable and accessible (That's right, I went there). More than saying unecessary nudity has a place on consoles, it may be that gratuitous nudity has a place in legitimizing mature content for all videogames.