Monday, June 29, 2009

EXP Podcast #32: Wimping Out

Trying to make a game simultaneously accessible and challenging while also retaining a cogent plot is a daunting task. Inspired by Julian "rabbit" Murdoch's piece about his son's gaming habits and a recent Gamasutra post by Leigh Alexander, we discuss the nebulous subject of challenge in games. Using the articles to focus the discussion, we explore the necessity of challenge, different ways of testing players' skills, and how we view the evolution of game difficulty. Such a hard topic means we need your help to do it justice, so feel free to join the discussion in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- Do you see a trajectory in terms of the games' difficulties over the years? If so, how and why have they changed?
- Have you ever considered quitting a game due to its difficulty, but decided instead to fight through it? Was this rewarding?
- To what extent do players and designers share the burden of accessibility?

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 04 sec
- "Wimp," by Julian "rabbit" Murdoch, via Gamers With Jobs
- "Can Nintendo Take 'Accessibility' too Far?" by Leigh Alexander, via Gamasutra
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Review: Blueberry Gardening

Winner of the 'Best Independent Game' at this year's Independent Game Festival, Blueberry Garden wears the 'indie' moniker like a cow wears spots. This delightful creation was bestowed on us by Swedish developer Erik Svedäng, who's name and look are the icing on the indie-cred cake. The game's success even earned it a place in the Indie Gaming Bingo pantheon (albeit without a win), seizing the Indie Trendy, Gentle Piano Music, Abstract Graphics, and "Experimental" categories. The creator of Indie Gaming Bingo said writing about Blueberry Garden "is like trying to write a soliloquy about a rock."

Blueberry Garden is a very successful rock. Yet the discussion of the game has been relatively subdued. Perhaps this is because the game is relatively short, taking players about an hour to complete. Perhaps this is because Blueberry Garden does not seize the player with a dramatic narrative about fruits, depression, and horticulturists. Or perhaps, as some fear, we have become bored of independent games with a budget incapable of sustaining fascination for more than a few minutes at a time. Though all of these are partly correct, I attribute the lack of game/agricultural discussion to the fact Blueberry Garden succeeds in so many small and simple ways that there is little to do but garnish it with equally simple praise. This is my soliloquy about a rock.

Blueberry Garden, like so many indie games before it, values exploration above all else. The explorer itself, who looks disturbingly like a plague doctor, jumps and flies around a modest world of light tones and pastel colors inhabited by strange animals and magical fruit. The music, cued when flying, is composed of calming piano melodies and contributes to the day dream atmosphere exquisitely.
Svedäng encourages players to play through the game twice before beating it, which likely happens regardless of his suggestion. Despite the serene exploratory environment, this is a task to accomplish. It was my favorite moment when, after examining the effects of fruits and flying about carefree, I realized the world was flooding. Quickly, lessons were tested as I tried to stack blocks of cheese and various household objects high enough to turn off the murderous faucet. Alas, my miniature plague doctor drowned.

This experience occurred because there are no instructions, no labels telling the player what fruits do what, how to approach the task ahead, etc. This design choice should normally infuriate the player, and for some it did. The strange shapes and colors, the blue moose wearing sunglasses and the constantly hungry squares with party hats mystify the entire experience. For a moment, I even believed death was merely an aspect of the game. Perhaps, I thought, the game is testing how high I can go before I drown.
Blueberry Garden is a world barely defined. The rules and mechanics are not clear, nor is it easy to partake in exploration. The camera follows the beaked doctor closely, forcing players to map the single continuous world in their imagination, swooping down only occasionally to confirm a location. Likewise, the puzzles are not segmented or richly explored. They seem to exist haphazardly around the level, as if they were truly created by the environment, not the insidious hand of the developer. The brilliance of the oncoming flood and a veiled environment, is that exploration is first taken out of necessity, then out of curiosity, making the latter all the more satisfying.
Prior to playing Blueberry Garden, if someone were to suggest to me a strange game with these characteristics, I would be skeptical at best. Perhaps what makes the game so interesting is also why it does not fuel passionate discussion. Blueberry Garden normalizes obscurity and rewards exploration of an almost non-sensical environment. Svedäng even rewards those who complete the game with silly sketches and concept art seemingly out of a high-school notebook. Svedäng has created a game that is pleasing with non-traditional (or soon-to-be-traditional) elements that should intuitively annoy players. Our lessons have been learned: great games can be made with even the most counter-intuitive design choices. Perhaps Blueberry Garden heralds an age of innovation internalized. That is quite an accomplishment for a rock.

Friday, June 26, 2009

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

This is the third post in a series about exploring the role of "difficulty" in video games. Feel free to read the first two posts as well as an ancillary post using Mirror's Edge as a case study:

Difficult Games, part 1: Gaming Tony Kushner

Difficult Games, part 2: A Reflection on Themes

On the Edge of Success

In his essay, "The Art of the Difficult," playwright and critic Tony Kushner argues in favor of art that challenges its audience. He focuses on plays that present challenges in terms of their creation, staging, and interpretation. Kushner's arguments are useful for analyzing the ways video games address complicated themes, however, video games traditionally offer more than simply a theme-driven concept of difficulty.

In order to complete a game, a minimum amount of physical and mental dexterity is required. Having a brilliant analytical mind or a deep knowledge of art history will not yield a successful sniper shot nor the precision to execute a series of perfect jumps across spiked chasms.

When I started this series, one of the major questions I had was whether games had grown easier over the years. I personally feel that I have an easier time succeeding in games today even though my basic aptitude and dexterity has plateaued (and probably even declined).

While it is true that the kinds of difficulty found in games of the 1980s and 90s is becoming unusual, the trajectory of game difficulty remains curious. In many ways, games are becoming simultaneously more and less challenging as time passes.

The Fall of Specialization and the Erosion of "Skill"

The advent of services like the Wii Virtual Console as well as retro homages like Mega Man 9 have brought into sharp relief the contrast between older games and contemporary titles. Both Michael Abbott and Mitch Krpata wrote eloquently about Mega Man 9, commenting on its unforgiving nature and punishing level design. They both identified the game as one that demanded excellence rather than one that fostered development.

Games from the 8-bit era place the onus of learning the system of rules and the techniques for success on the player. To succeed in a game meant becoming a specialist in a specific set of skills required by the game. Memorizing jumps, learning enemy patterns, and having the patience to re-try a sequence numerous times made players experts.

This skill-based ethos has softened over the years. Let us use the Super Mario games as examples: in the old days Mario could take one hit (if you were lucky) before the player was sent back to re-try the level. Falling into lava was instant death, and completing a stage meant getting from one point to another flawlessly.

Today, Mario has a raft of hit points and falling in lava results in singed bottom instead of a "game over." Completing stages in Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy are tied to finding a way to collect a star. The player can bumble their way to success or achieve a flawless speed run; if they find some way to collect the star, the end result is the same.

Although Leigh Alexander's post "Great Big Bites," focuses on the PlayStation era, she explores a the current zeitgeist of instantly accessible games:

Engagement is the Word Of The Day -- developers promoting new projects enthusiastically use phrases like "bite-sized chunks", "pick up and play". If a game doesn't demand any more than five minutes from you in any given session to be enjoyable, that's a plus. And when we pick-up-and-play these games in bite-sized chunks, we are meant to be immersed and to receive a narrative without ever needing to sit still, watch, read or listen. Oh, and the game is also supposed to teach us how to play it without us realizing we're being tutored, and we're never supposed to feel stumped or stuck.

Alexander wonders whether we are losing the skill to patiently explore a game in the absence of overt help from the game itself. The original Legend of Zelda's map had no landmarks, Final Fantasy VII had a story that took dozens of hours to tell, and PC adventure game puzzles required abstract (and sometimes nonsensical) thinking to solve. Games that have instant maps, record every clue, and neatly section gameplay into bite-sized chunks require none of the skills historically associated with gaming. Feeling less than special for completing games that ask so little is understandable.

However, while difficulty based on specialization and finely honed skills may be waning, there are new forms of challenges taking assuming dominance.

The Rise of Generalized Skill and Required Creativity

Modern games require a player to display an enormous breadth of skill and creativity. While games may not be as punishing as they once were, their control schemes have grown increasingly complex and their goals more abstract.

Using Mario once again as an example, we can see how varied modern gaming is. In Super Mario Galaxy, Mario can tip-toe, walk, run, wall slide, duck, jump, double-jump, triple-jump, cartwheel, back flip, long jump, spin, and ground pound (the list goes on, but you get the idea). To put it another way, today, Mario has more actions than he had frames of animation in the 8-bit days. These moves require the player to gain proficiency in a number of actions to be used in various situations. While the platforming challenges themselves may be simpler, recognizing the correct tools to solve them has become more complex.

Additionally, an increasing number of games abruptly change styles during play. Racing, rolling, and surfing are all secondary play types in Mario, yet they are necessary to complete the game. Since Metal Gear Solid, nary a game is shipped without some sort of stealth element, regardless of genre. While players may not fail as often in modern games, they are responsible for learning a wide variety of actions within each game.

Even more revolutionary is the move towards community based games and user generated content. The contemporary gaming scene is dominated with games like require active player input in creating the gaming experience. World of Warcraft owes its success to the players' willingness to form guilds and then devote time to their upkeep. LittleBigPlanet starts to shine only after the players take it upon themselves to create the game they want to play.

In these examples, success and failure are measured in terms of community engagement and artistic creativity. While the traditional parts of the gameplay may seem easy in comparison to their precursors, the source of the games' difficulty has shifted from the process of consuming to the process of creating.

Kushner's point that difficulty is the key to truly powerful art is an important one, but we must remember that ideas like "difficulty" can be surprisingly fluid. Measuring difficulty in games using a metric tailored to titles from 1980s as ignores monumental shifts in game design and player taste. One could just as easily look at the original Metroid game and decry it as "easy" because everything is offered to the player readily: There are no levels to design or communities to build, only critters to zap.

Difficulty is not a singular force with a unified trajectory; it is contextually-based concept that continues to branch out, acquiring new meanings as philosophies, technology, and tastes change over time.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

EXP Podcast #31: Throwing in the Towel

Sometimes when the going gets tough, the less-than-tough just quit. At least that's what Sean "Elysium" Sands did when confronted with some ridiculously skilled players of Demigod. We here at EXP have immense respect for the talented writers of Gamers With Jobs, so we would never ridicule Sands' excellent confession in his Personality Flaws piece. On the contrary, this week Scott and I spring board off of the article to discuss unhealthy competition, victory through attrition, player tantrums and cooperative design in competitive games. As always, your thoughts are welcome in the comments.

Some discussion starters:
- Has competition ever soured your gaming experience? What about a need to keep up with other players?
- Is there competitive meta-gaming in gamer culture? Do you think this is destructive or healthy?
- What does a competitive game look like if it's designed to encourage cooperation and mutual learning?

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: 30 min 27 sec
- "Personality Flaws," by Sean 'Elysium' Sands of Gamers With Jobs
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Sensationalist: The Games of Jason Rohrer

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.

There are few names in the 'indie gaming' crowd that draw as much attention as Jason Rohrer. Though he may not be widely known amongst the gaming public at large, for a man from up state New York who spends a good portion of his time programming amidst verdant meadows and volunteering his time at a local food co-op, he's pretty renowned amongst his slice of game enthusiasts. Frequent panelist at development conferences and winner of an Independent Games Festival Innovation Award for Between, Rohrer has been marked as one of the most influential minds in game development, all because his simple pixelated creations trigger rare and profound sensations.

Once again I bend the Sensationalist rules by discussing the collective work of one individual, not because they share a theme, but because the methods are similar and effective. Considering his spartan game design, it almost seems as if Rohrer's work is a phenomenon. After all, how could so few polygons elicit so much thought? Why do so many of those who play Rohrer's games express genuine emotions? Part of the answer is as simple his games: because he asks us to.

None of Rohrer's works are visually mind-blowing or particularly complex. Immortality is essentially a block stacking game, Gravitation a vertical platformer, Regret a memory puzzle. At its most basic, Passage is played by simply moving your character from left to right. It is their subject matter that deepens the experience.
Let's begin with an example. Immortality is a thought experiment. Above your avatar a clock counts down your imminent demise. Hovering in the sky are two icons, one symbolizing death and one appropriately symbolizing immortality. The goal, if you were to arbitrarily create one, might be to stack blocks to reach one of these icons. Rohrer boils down distractions to leave only the basic mechanic of jumping and moving blocks, placing the importance on your decision. When given the opportunity, would you live forever?

My answer was an unashamed yes. Upon reaching immortality the clock and the icons disappear. It is in that singular moment the game takes on meaning. The game has no purpose without goals to reach, only curiosity about death remains. By extension,Rohrer asks the player to reexamine their perceptions on the value of death (and life without it).
Most of Rohrer's games are empowered with these moments of self-reflection. The entertaining puzzle mechanic of Perfectionism is given new meaning when, upon completion, your score is ranked number one above "nobody". A nice transition between a sense of pressure to excel and shame of realizing it doesn't matter in the slightest. The shame of Regret strikes when, after feeling so secure in your knowledge of which animals feed on which food item, you accidentally kill one, creating a ghost that will haunt your little avatar later in the game. Similarly, the sense of loneliness in Gravitation occurs when, after empowered by a companion to soar to great heights, you come down to find her missing, with only a dwindling fire to keep you company.
Idealism, Perfectionism, Police Brutality, and others do not elicit an emotional response independent of their subject matter. In fact, these games are quite similar to others that have come before it. It's not the lines and squares of Perfectionism's puzzles that foster interaction with the game's themes, it's the fact the very title asks us to keep these questions in mind. For Rohrer , the existence of meaningful games is taken as a given. To expect his players to engage with these thoughts and emotions through play is a brave decision and a powerful statement on game design.

All this is not to say these games are only successful because we want them to be, there is talent in their design. Between (one game I was unable to play), explores isolation and cooperative behavior by necessitating another players involvement. Cultivation, on the other hand, tackles issues of social cooperation by incorporating the results of selfish interest into its design.
Passage, perhaps the most played of Rohrer's games, elicits sincere emotion with simple design to surprising effect. Passage is about life, death, aging, loss, and companionship all told by moving an avatar from left to right. A hazy future gives way to memories as my avatar noticeably ages with his companion. Again, the moment of profundity occurs when my companion dies, leaving a tombstone to mark her passage. It was here I let my character sit idly, pondering my own thoughts on mortality. And then, with the baggage of loss, my avatar and I moved on, the former dying shortly after.

Unlike the other Sensationalist games we've discussed, Rohrer asks us to reexamine the game we are playing to find emotions, concerns, and perplexing thoughts that we already have. Loss, loneliness, fear, joy are all universal, complex, and vague. These games leaves them that way. Passage is not sad (or happy) because one specific character underwent a very specific journey, but because we recognize we too must follow this path. The sensations it elicits are sensations we are familiar if not comfortable with. By squeezing these complex emotions into tiny pixels, he asks us to examine the weight of these sensations. In doing so, the games of Jason Rohrer proves what many gamers already believe: that the sensational storytelling potential of videogames is endlessly expansive.

Friday, June 19, 2009

On the Edge of Success

Thanks to Krystian Majewski and Erik Hanson, I have plenty of homework to do before I put out the third official part of my series on game difficulty (you can check out part 1 and part 2 here). In the meantime, I thought I would post a sort of "appendix" or case study about how to approach a specific game's difficulty.

A while ago, I stumbled upon Ben Abraham's "How to Kill People More Effectively in Far Cry 2," a post in which he outlines five ways to prevent yourself from dying time and again in Far Cry 2. I feel that Mirror's Edge and Far Cry 2 are in some ways kindred spirits: people want to like them, but certain characteristics give rise to frustration and disappointment which serve to mar the overall experience. I enjoyed Mirror's Edge quite a bit, but the enjoyment came after employing five major techniques that alleviated the trouble I was having with the punishing gameplay. So, without further ado, I present: "On the Edge of Success!"

1. Walls are your friends

Judging distances in the platforming segments can be a bit tricky, as it is difficult to tell just how far some gaps are. To alleviate the pressure of timing your jump perfectly, make use of the walls liberally. Wall runs can save you if you accidentally jump to early, as your momentum can carry you far enough to close the gap on a botched leap. Additionally, wall runs can in combination with ending the run with a jump can give you a little extra altitude when trying to reach a high ledge or poll. Faith is a nimble character, so do not settle on the ground as the only thing to put your feet on.

2. "One at a time, Faith"

Sometimes, you simply will not be able to avoid an enemy confrontation. Whether it is a scripted event or the AI has simply blocked off an escape route, fighting is sometimes necessary. At multiple points in the game, your navigator sidekick,Merc, cautions you to fight each enemy as an individual.

Rather than trying to "Rambo" your way out of a situation, take his advice. Even if you charge into a group of guards and use your slow-down "bullet-time" reaction trick, this will only neutralize one guard. The other two will start wailing on you, and you will not make it out alive. Instead, you must prevent the enemies from clumping together by leading them on a chase. Circle around obstacles, slide underneath them, or dart around a corner to draw a straggler away from the group. In this way, you can neutralize each guard while gaining enough momentum to refill your slow-down move in the process.

3. Strafe for your life!

"But what if the guards won't move?" you ask. That is where strafing comes in.

In video game parlance, "strafing" has become synonymous with "moving sideways." A more traditional definition is an offensive maneuver that seeks to inflict damage on an opponent through a series of attack runs. Faith's major advantage over the guards is her superior speed, so you must use this during battles. If an enemy refuses to move or separate from a group, target them, land a couple of attacks making sure not to dally too long in the fray, and then circle around for another run.

You might not even successfully incapacitate a guard on the first run-through, but you will be able to inflict damage without incurring any yourself. Remember, the guards want you to stand still: they are physically stronger than you and a stationary target is an easy one to shoot. Do not play the game by their rules. Think of the fights in Mirror's Edge like the plane scene in North by Northwest; you are the plane and the guards are Cary Grant, but this time, there ain't no corn to hide in.

4. People don't kill people, guns kill people

Here is where things will get controversial. Simply put, guns are a great way to solve an enemy confrontation. They are quick and deadly, and when used, drastically increase your chance of surviving an encounter with multiple enemies. The trick is being able to get over any moral compunction caused by using them.

I can not tell you how to quiet your guilt, but I will offer a couple of suggestions. First, while much has been made of the possibility of completing the game without firing a shot, remember that it is only one possible way of playing the game. In fact, completing the game without firing a shot is an unlockable achievement, which suggests it is an additional challenge rather than a core requirement. Try doing a stage and using a gun, and then re-play it without one in order wean yourself off firearms.

Second, you can utilize the narrative to justify gun use. At one point in the game, government forces locate and kill Faith's friend. This becomes a turning point in the story and in Faith's character arc, as the government forces have literally drawn first blood. Would it not be completely understandable to assume that Faith would, at this point, take the proverbial gloves off and start shooting to kill? In fact, during one of the later cut scenes, she uses a gun to trigger an explosion, suggesting that she is resigned to the idea that some of her opponents may die as she continues her quest.

Regardless of how you want to justify it, not using guns is a challenge, one that is not unique to Mirror's Edge. For example, in every single Metal Gear Solid game, it is theoretically possible to complete the game without killing any soldiers. However, "possible" does not suggest it is mandatory or even likely. Ultimately, you must decide how important the use or disuse of guns is to your conception of game's narrative. I played through the game both with and without the use of guns, and I enjoyed the novelty of both styles.

5. Take Authorial Control

Continuing down the road of controversy and subjectivity, we come to the issue of the game's narrative. While it may not be one of the great historical works of storytelling, Mirror's Edge contains a very linear, focused plot. The story of Faith's journey to rescue her sister and undermine a tyrannical government can seem understandably disjointed and halting if you must replay certain sections of the game ten times in a row before succeeding. Being frustrating by the narrative juxtaposition of catching the "flow" of free running in one scene and then being subjected to a perceived trial-and-error sequence in the next is understandable.

So how do you relieve the frustration of repeated failure? My solution was to decrease the importance of the narrative in terms of evaluating my enjoyment of the game. The story of a corrupt government trying to stamp out free thinkers is not exactly new, so I shifted my focus and instead began analyzing the stages as puzzles. This made the game a series of skill challenges, resistant to the effects of discontinuity that hamper a plot. By doing this, mistimed jumps became setbacks rather than narrative apocrypha, and enemies became obstacles rather than characters that required integration with the story.

Repeated restarts initially made the game feel broken, but I realized I was trying to fix something that was immutable: I could not "take back" that unfortunate encounter with barbed wire within the context of any story, since clearly Faith's story does not end with her getting her pants snagged on a razor. However, I easily "fix" the problem of not solving a "puzzle" by improving my skills, experimenting, and learning from my mistakes. Both scenarios result in the same outcome: I get to the other side of the fence. By looking at my failure like a challenging puzzle rather than an aborted plot point, I was able to retain my patience and enjoyment while playing.

I am fully aware that this mindset raises interesting philosophical questions in regards to game analysis. Essentially, the problem is whether we analyze a game based on what is given to us (drawing on some sense of authorial intent), or whether we evaluate games based on what we can do with the content (regardless or despite authorial intent). Can a game overcome flaws based on the way gamers play it?

I will not say that there is one standard we should follow, but I will argue we must address this distinction when analyzing games, especially games that challenge players to create their own meaning, or those that contain a myriad of ways to play. Is calling The Sims boring a commentary on the game or a reflection on the player? How do we take in to account Red vs. Blue or Grifball when evaluating Halo?

We should not excuse games with inane stories or sloppy mechanics, but it is necessary to ascertain just how and what we are evaluating when it comes to determining a title's capacity for fun and difficulty. When games like Mirror's Edge or Far Cry 2 challenge us, it is only fair to question how much of the challenge is fed by our expectations, and to explore the role our perception plays in the gaming experience. This is a lot to take in, and the subjectivity inherent in gaming experiences makes the concept of difficulty amazingly abstract, so I am interested to hear other thoughts on the matter.

Regardless of how you feel, just remember to keep strafing: seriously, it works.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

EXP Podcast #30: The Father of all Podcasts

With Father's Day coming up this weekend, we decided to dedicate a podcast to exploring the role of father characters in video games. Starting with an eclectic list of various game dads, we examine them in terms of their gameplay functions, back-stories, and their narrative importance. A number of surprising patterns crop up that link even the most dissimilar-seeming game fathers. We finish by theorizing about how father characters will continue to develop in forthcoming games. As always, feel free to share your thoughts about anything we mention in the podcast, as well as your analysis of any game dads we passed over.

Some discussion starters:

- Who are your favorite game dads?

- How is fatherhood portrayed in games? What makes dads important to the gaming experience in terms of story and gameplay?

- Has your perception of fatherhood in games changed over the years? Will the portrayal of fathers in games change as more gamers have children?

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 04 sec
- The Story of Being Homeless in Sims 3: ""
- "The Absent Dad," by Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Sin of Hotel Dusk

There are amazing adventures found in the pages of books, and you don't have to take LaVar Burton's word for it. Oh literature! A medium with a collection so vast its a wonder we've had time to hone storytelling in any other form. When novels are adapted to film, there is frequently something missing, a certain 'je ne sais quoi' lacking from visuals alone. "The book is better" has become so incessant its almost become a mantra for literary snobs around the world. There are so few contrary cases, we might as well just presume the book is always better and leave it at that.

Thus, it is no surprise video games frequently look towards literature for inspiration and guidance, for better or worse. Some go so far as to present themselves as a close kin to literature, a cousin born into the video game family but with such brilliant red hair there must be a touch of novel in him. Which brings me to Hotel Dusk: Room 215, developed by Cinq, published by Nintendo and first launched in Japan. The is played with the DS on its side, resembling how one holds a book. This devotion to its format lineage belittles its successful literature-videogame half-breed brethren.

A portable noir videogame set in a shady 1979 Californian Hotel intrigued me the way only a dark mystery can. Perhaps the game would be a serious drama with puzzle elements I thought, a procedural cop drama meets Prof. Layton. It was not.
Allow me to get the flaws out of the way: The secrets of Hotel Dusk unfold at an aggravatingly slow pace. The vast majority of character interaction is through cliche ridden dialogue, which scrolls far too slowly for fast readers or any literate readers intrigued enough in the story to set their own pace. Without the ability to enable instant text, the plot crawls along slowly regardless of story elements. Dialogue nodes are merely breaks between unchanging or dead-end conversations and the available puzzles in between chatter are rare and childishly simple. To make matters worse, the game insults the player by giving them an easy multiple choice test at the end of every chapter. To top things off, the story reads like a vapid airport mystery novel.

After struggling with Hotel Dusk, I'm inclined to agree with the videogame segregationists, whose flag reads "Books are books, games are games, and never the two shall join." Reverting to my tendency of making food based analogies, this meshing of the two mediums creates more of a "liver and pancakes" than "chicken and waffles" combination. Yet some games combine aspects of the mediums remarkably well. Why does Hotel Dusk fail where others have forged a brilliant path?

The aforementioned Prof. Layton, possibly my favorite DS game, tells a compelling and comical story interlaced with puzzles which seem at first to have little relevance to the story. Given, Layton is more akin to a cartoon than a novel with its animated cut scenes, but the example is important none the less. Layton maintains a well paced story bolstered by gameplay, although its puzzles could have easily been collected into a game with no narrative at all.

On the visually opposite spectrum are interactive fictions (IF), experiences that exist in the borderlands of gaming. Many of these text-based adventures, such as Emily Short's Galatea, are completely devoid of visual elements. Regardless, there are those designers still creating surprisingly fun and intense games that far surpass the "Choose Your Own Adventure" novels of the early eighties and nineties. These IFs frequently push the boundaries of the medium and can be incredibly innovative, particularly with dialogue. Like 'escape the room' puzzles, many games in the IF genre reveal a hidden depth far more intriguing than what Hotel Dusk provides.
Both Layton and Galatea share many characteristics with literature, yet succeed where Hotel Dusk fails. What these games have that Hotel Dusk does not is interactivity through meaningful choice, or at least the illusion of meaningful choice. The element of video games that makes the medium so unique, and the most important element to keep when blending it with literature. Unfortunately, the puzzles are too simple to feel interactive and the dialogue is linear, only incorrect responses alter the story occasionally by ending the game.

The interactivity of choice in interactive fiction takes the form of narrative control. The player drives the story forward, changing pacing and outcome on a whim. The narrative is defined by the players, not regurgitated to them like a book on tape. But even if the story is fixed, involvement in gameplay is choice enough to envelope the player in the experience. Solving puzzles in Prof. Layton is rewarding by itself, but these become even more meaningful when tied to the story, setting the pace without being restrictive.

It is easy enough to find parties of contrarians eager to debate the definition of "videogame." I am comfortable with keeping the term nebulous. Even so, I have a hard time considering Hotel Dusk a videogame because it is an empty invitation to play. There is space for more literature-based videogames (Dante's Inferno and Tom Clancy's Splintercell don't count), but wrapping a poor piece of fiction in the guise of game without choice is a sin, belittling both crafts.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Difficult Games, part 2: A Reflection on Themes

In my previous post, I introduced Tony Kushner's "The Art of the Difficult," an article that argues on behalf of plays that challenge their audiences. Kushner rails against plays that are "eager to please" audiences accustomed to simple messages presented in uninspired ways. By addressing the messiness of of humanity in complex ways, people are challenged to think critically and struggle towards an understanding of human existence.

The comparison between theater and video games is not a perfect one, as games require a level of immediate physical dexterity that theater does not. Still, Kushner's philosophy can be used to explore the approach to thematic Difficulty in games. Using Kushner's argument as analytical tool, we can begin to undo the common conflation of "adult" and "mature" games.

Mirror's Edge and Echoes of Schindler

Kushner cites Schindler's List as an example of how a serious or "adult" topic does not necessarily yield a Difficult work:

For all of its crepuscular, ashy tonalities and its galumphing ponderousness, it's too squeaky clean, it's too careful, it betrays what it purports to represent, which was the antithesis of clean and careful, which was madness. Schindler risks nothing in attempting to make sense of the unfathomable; it only seeks to succeed, and so it's finally shallow, successful (237 Oscars!) and can speak to the Holocaust only in Hollywood cliches. Sure, it made German audiences "think about the Holocaust." Have you noticed that every five years something comes along that makes German audiences "think about the Holocaust"? And still they have in many ways some of the most draconian anti-immigration laws in Europe. They need to stop thinking so ostentatiously and to think more constantly, quietly and deeply instead.

Although it draws on less specific imagery and history than Schindler, the story of Mirror's Edge is subject to similar criticism. Summarizing the game's story is as easy as constructing a Don LaFontaine-inspired intro: "In a world where government enforces order at the barrel of a gun, people trade freedom for security, and the media is nothing but propaganda machine, one brave soul must have the FAITH to stand up." Ah, if only he was still with us today.

Mirror's Edge does not present the audience with a story that will teach them anything. Faith's morality is as unblemished as the sun-bleached roofs she traverses: she fights against governmental corruption, exhibits un-shakable loyalty to friends and family, and exhibits an appreciation for human life in a society indifferent to suffering. Her enemies are similarly shallow: whether they are killers, traitors, or mindless followers, everyone is sorted into camps that either endorse tyranny or liberty. In the end, Faith remains the same person she was the moment I met her.

I do not mean to suggest that the story is dull: I enjoy a good dystopian tale. I am, however, disappointed that Mirror's Edge never made an attempt to challenge the way I understand humanity. The narrative is Orwellian in tone, yet stripped of any nuance. The most compelling part of Nineteen Eighty-Four was not the cruelty that Winston endured, it was how that cruelty changed him as a person. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the very nature of reality is called into question. In Mirror's Edge, truth is easy to find: just look at Faith.

Faith in Progress

So, are we doomed to wait for a thematically Difficult game? Actually, I can think of several recent examples of games that challenge their audiences to discern their obscure meanings through a number of subtle nuances and conflicting messages:

Far Cry 2

As Jorge's analysis of Far Cry 2 demonstrates, it is possible for games to both engage with themes of violence, race, and colonialism while at the same time existing as products of said constructs. Who are the heroes and villains in Far Cry 2? Does the game offer any philosophies on human nature, or simply present questions?


I maintain that Flower is one of the most mature games we have seen in a long time, exactly because of its difficult narrative. What is Flower about? Is it a treatise on the environmentalism? A Christian allegory? A meditation on the meaning of "nature?" It could be any of these things or none.

Noby Noby Boy

Playing Noby Noby Boy is an exercise in confronting thematic challenge. Is the game a metaphor for capitalism, a study of the impulse to consume, or simply a game that lets you eat your own butt? We create order in the world by creating stories, so how do we understand a system that seems opposed to structure?

Onward to Fallujah

Amidst the controversy sparked by Six Days in Fallujah, Anthony Crouts, Konami's VP of marketing said: "We're not trying to make social commentary. We're not pro-war. We're not trying to make people feel uncomfortable. We just want to bring a compelling entertainment experience." In saying this, Crouts eloquently articulates the exact the argument for avoiding the Difficult. People do not want to think, they do want to be challenged, they do not want to be shocked because these things lead to discomfort.

Without Difficulty, we will never know discomfort, which means we will never know plays such as Venus or games like Today I Die. By shunning the Difficult, video games may continue to evolve technologically, but they will grow stagnant in terms of their contribution to our knowledge of the world. Rather than hide from the discomfort elicited by games that make us truly grapple with painful, confusing, or ugly concepts, we must embrace them and in doing so gain a greater understanding the human experience.

We must seek out and embrace the Difficult. Whether this means traveling to Fallujah or visiting a magical worm-boy that eats entire towns only to poop them out whole, we must proceed with the confidence of knowing we will be better for the experience.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

EXP Podcast #29: The Epic Aesthetic

E3 has come and gone, but the over-the-top presentations of upcoming games lingers. Huge screens depicting carnage and head-ripping made epic enthusiasts from around the world spasm with excitement like an epileptic at an anime convention. Which brings us to an article from last month by Chris Remo, Gamasutra Editor At Large and Idle Thumbs entrepreneur, asking if the videogame industry "over-eggs" the epic. I think we've got enough examples of gun-swords and gut-busting work this discussion into a soapy lather. Join us this week while Scott and I ponder chainsaws, crescendos, back flips and fun with Milo. As always, we encourage you to leave your epic thoughts in the comments below.

Some discussion starters:

- Is the videogame industry producing a glut of epic titles? Is it the brunt of guilt on consumers or designers?
- What are games do you think restrain themselves yet remain epic?
- Do the titles presented at E3, and motion controls, effect the future of epic?

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 44 sec
- Do Video Games Over-Egg The epic? by Chris Remo via Gamasutra
- Music by Brad Sucks

Monday, June 8, 2009

Lions and Jackals: The Politics of Far Cry 2 (pt.2)

Let me begin by saying this is not a criticism, at least not yet. This is part two of a two part series about politics in Far Cry 2. This series toys with that idea of videogames as educational tools, examining the game with a political lens. My apologies if you are not a fan of international politics, but allow me to nerd out a bit. You can find part one here. All comments are incredibly appreciated.

Symptoms of Violence

The land of Far Cry 2 is chaotic. Progress means adapting, it means bending the chaos to your will, planning your assault well in advance, but this only minimizes risk. Danger is never more than an arm's length away. Guns jam, fires spread unpredictably, and all the anarchy you try so hard to avoid will inevitably uncork, swallowing you whole into frenetic gun battles with hidden soldiers. You'll be pulling bullets out of your leg with pliers just moments after plotting an ingenious plan of assault. With your buddies dead, unable to save you, it's all the more exciting.

There is one who seems to look down upon the maelstrom: the gun-dealer who you, the player, are assigned to kill: the Jackal. Of all the characters inhabiting Far Cry 2, the Jackal has the most agency. The world he inhabits and the war he is trying to smother with its own violence, is viewed with an almost frightening composure. The Jackal's personal philosophy pervades the game and, intentional or otherwise, Far Cry 2 implicitly sustains popular notions of African politics, and in doing so justifies equally popular beliefs on violence, war, and humanity, beliefs with long lasting political implications.

As I mentioned last week, the lack of civilians in Far Cry 2 actually diminishes its sense of nihilism. Additionally, it also removes any potential agency such actors could have had. Only the mercenaries, and perhaps the political leaders, show any signs of being rational actors. The soldiers, who attack anything on site, are fanatically violent and show little motivation for choosing the gun-wielding life; they are almost rabid with violence.
Violence has taken on the terrifying power. The Jackal considers it an illness, one he too carries, able to kill a man with "the realization of what he turned into." This persistent view point fits into the narrative dotting Far Cry 2. That is to say Far Cry 2 depicts, and perhaps validates, prominent perceptions of Africa as a carrier of disease, of contagion, of civilization spoiled. Politically and culturally, many see Africa as an automaton, a golem created by colonialism, abandoned and doomed to carry out its wicked fate, becoming a perpetual maelstrom of violence and instability.

Into the Heart of Darkness

The game's protagonist descends into this anarchy, as L.B. Jeffries of Popmatters points out, mimicking the narrative from which the game was inspired: Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. The thematic elements of both stories blend well together, as do the critiques. Chinua Achebe, professor and novelist, famously criticized Conrad and his work in "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.'" Fittingly, either work could soundly receive Achebe's claim that it depicts:

"Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as a human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril."
Unlike Heart of Darkness, the mercenaries are not unwitting visitors to a terrible Africa. They are equally infected with violence, relishing in the opportunity for riches. They have succumbed to the plague of violence before entering Africa. The political philosophy Far Cry 2 depicts is more Hobbesian than Conrad's colonialist racism, and the Jackal's audio tapes support this:

"Who gets the lion's share; that's what it's all about. Whether it's between children, or animals, or warlords. It's not that everyone wants a piece, it's that everyone wants the biggest piece. And the biggest piece doesn't go to the monkey, or to the giraffe. The biggest piece goes to the lion. Because the lion is the fucking king! That's how it works. It worked that way a million years before there were men saying otherwise. That's probably how it should work."

The Jackal sees himself as an agent capable of destroying this disease of violent lawlessness, a necessary evil foreign governments secretly rely on to avoid their own intervention, lest they become embroiled in African anarchy. As the Jackal puts it, "their own media prevents them from taking action." (It is this fear that explains the Somalia effect: the US hesitancy to intervene, even in the face of genocide, after the US failure in Somalia in 1993).
The nameless country of Far Cry 2 cannot be salvaged, there is no cure, no means of transitioning to a stable country. The only hope, and the Jackal's goal, is to remove the innocent refugees and hope the country devours itself alive. The Jackal's understanding of anarchy and the importance of relative power echo similar tenants of Realism, a pervasive political philosophy with significant implications. In a world full of self-interested actors and incurable violence, governments can justify acts which I consider deplorable, ranging from self-interested intervention to non-intervention when foreign involvement is desperately needed. Whether you share my political beliefs or not, these tacit implications are present in Far Cry 2.


In an in-depth interview with Gamasutra's Chris Remo and Brandon Sheffield, Ubisoft Montreal's Narrative Designer Patrick Redding has this to say on Far Cry 2's politics:

"We're not trying to say, 'Oh, the trouble with people today is they're not willing to do really terrible, evil, monstrous things in order to accomplish the greater good.' This isn't like some neocon wet dream, right? The idea is that we don't pretend like we know the answer."

Though Ubisoft Montreal may not pose an answer with Far Cry 2, they do depict a world devoid of any answers, not even an attempt at one. When given the Jackal's strong opinion on the matter, and gameplay that supports his philosophy, what are we to hold as a counter-example? To this, I again give Achebe's criticism of Conrad: "He neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters." At which point, the prominent portrayal of Africa and violence is too easily palatable.

This is not a criticism of Far Cry 2 in the classical sense. I do not mean to call out Ubisoft as creators of neoconservative propaganda. Rather, I mean to prod at a small slice of Far Cry 2 that depicts what some consider to be a political reality. How we understand and interpret violence has real world repercussions. To some, including myself, violence without origin is a ridiculous and dangerous notion that is detrimental towards peace building. Videogames are not cultural artifacts exempt from scrutiny. If they were, I wouldn't enjoy gaming (and this game in particular) so damn much.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Difficult Games, part 1: Gaming Tony Kushner

What does it mean to say a game is "difficult?" It is one of those terms many of us use routinely, without ever qualifying it in anything but relative terms. For example, most of us agree that Ninja Gaiden is more difficult than the new Prince of Persia. How should we define difficulty in games, and how do we evaluate the efficacy of a game's difficulty?

In searching for a useful model for mapping difficulty, I remembered a thought provoking article by renowned playwright and cultural critic, Tony Kushner. The "The Art of the Difficult," focuses largely on defending the existence of challenging plays, but his arguments can also serve as useful lenses for exploring challenging video games.

Kushner's article is a stinging critique of mainstream theater. Claiming that "some really awful stuff has been successful" on Broadway, Kushner laments that it is "particularly degrading...for the human race when an audience stands up and cheers for something it cannot possibly have enjoyed." Kushner juxtaposes mainstream hits with plays like Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks, and God's Heart, by Craig Lucas, two plays that "ask us to do the impossible." Through a combination of complex staging, writing, and themes, these plays push people to grapple with complicated social, historical, and artistic issues. Plays such as these are rewarding, but their rewards are not served up readily. By existing as Difficult, Kushner argues "these plays are demands for a better world, a world that can understand them...A world of audiences hungry for the Difficult is the sort of world I want."

Standing in the way of producing Difficult plays are deeply entrenched societal and historical expectations. Video games, like theater, are largely the domain of the economically privileged. Kushner imagines that a cheering Broadway audience applauds in order to say "Hooray for us! We aren't poor! We can squander hundreds of dollars on joyless claptrap and tripe and feel only a moment's rage, nausea and regret! And we can still afford dinner afterward, which we know will be good!"

Could this be a reason behind our gaming fixation? Before dismissing this, we must at least admit the correlation between blockbuster games and the money we spend for them. How does the fact that I paid hundreds of dollars to play LittleBigPlanet affect my reaction to it? While I may be more critical of something I spent money on, no one wants to feel they spent money unwisely. Seeking to conspicuously enjoy games while defending the economic investment is likely a major source of fanboyism. Quick and easy satisfaction immediately validates our investments and tastes.

Do smaller, inexpensive games with little hype and simplistic graphics like Passage and World of Goo get passed by because folks are not willing to put in the work required to both discover and understand them? Could high profile titles be focused on reassuring us that we made a safe purchase, as opposed to challenging us to explicate their meaning? It is difficult to be certain, but I have a hard time believing that Disney's Lion King musical and Gears of War would enjoy as much success if they required an abundance of analytical work.

Economic pressure and audience expectation work in unison to form a climate conducive to "taking care" of the audience. Kushner maintains that theater as a medium continually struggles with the handicap of being viewed as relaxed, mindless entertainment. In Kushner's view, the theater "has always been meretricious, gregarious, eager to please, even at its most exalted something of a cheap date...Even when you're producing King Lear or The're puttin' on a show." Video games share this challenge: games are continually pressed to exhibit flashy graphics, instantly-intuitive controls, and banal stories of good and evil. Whether you are creating a game investigating the merits of objectivism (Bioshock) or contemplating the privatization of war (Metal Gear) you're still makin' gamez.

Of course, there is another kind of Difficulty I have neglected, one unique to games: physical aptitude. The physical skill required to "get" games is more intense than in other mediums. If someone who knows English reads Shakespeare for the first time, they will probably be confused. However, improvement will be made through sharpening their mental acuity and becoming familiar with the style.

If someone who has never played God of War has problems, the issue most likely is not a lack of conceptual understanding: beat 'em ups generally lack complex rules and stories. The inability to press the circle button fast enough to survive a quick time event is definitely a problem. It compounds Kushner's notion of Difficulty by adding hand-eye coordination to something that already requires skilled design and nuanced thinking.

In my next few posts, I will analyze specific titles in order to explore the various forms of Difficulty found in video games. Using Kushner as a reference point, I hope to synthesize a comprehensive, yet flexible understanding of how games challenge us.

It is only fitting that this will probably not be easy, but I hope you all will stick with me and share your thoughts as we continue.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

EXP Podcast #28: Power to the Players?

As we all learned from Uncle Ben, "With great power, comes great responsibility." When Paragon Studios gave players the tools to create their own quests in City of Heroes, it soon became a case study of what happens when people discover a new-found power. Upon gaining the power to design quests, some players began to exploit the system for maximum experience points with the minimum amount of work. This kicked up a storm amongst the City of Heroes players, as well as in the larger video game community. This week, we use Nels Anderson's post on the subject as focal point for discussing the role and regulation of player-created content. As always, we're interested to hear your experiences, so feel free to create some "reader-generated" content in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- How should player generated content be regulated? Should it? By whom?
- Are games with player-created content fated to be dominated by an elite class of creators? Is democratization necessary or ideal?
- Why do players exploit games? Where is the line between optimization and exploitation drawn?

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 56 sec
- Nels Anderson's post, via "About that Player-Generated Content..."
- Nate Ralph's post, via Wired: "Handed Keys to Kingdom, Gamers Race to Bottom"
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, June 1, 2009

Fires of Africa: Politics in Far Cry 2 (pt.1)

Let me begin by saying this is not a criticism, at least not yet. This is part one of a two part series about politics in Far Cry 2. Scott and I have talked about utilizing videogames as educational material in much the same way a history class might read All Quiet On The Western Front during a segment on World War I. This series toys with that idea, examining the game with a political lens. You can find part 2 here.

Be Warned: Spoilers roam these hills.

Welcome to 'Africa'

Alright, I've started Far Cry 2, picked my mercenary, and set out on the goal to kill an infamous arms dealer. This could be any number of well known stories. I'm a man with a mission and the know-how to kill anyone in my way, enough said. After all, the difference between a mercenary and a government sanctioned super-soldier so popular in first-person shooters is thinner than one might expect. What separates this tale apart from its FPS brethren is the political setting, a civil war with two competing sides vying for power. Then there is me, the protagonist, who doesn't really care who wins or loses.

So here I am, dropped in a nameless African state in the midst of internal conflict. Why not? After all, that's how most everyone sees Africa: a continent constantly at war. This perception is somewhat understandable. The number of internal conflicts and regime changes is staggering, and our understanding of why these occurs is limited at best. Even now, there are no less than twelve serious conflicts occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa, the most recent conflict of interest being Darfur.

The reality is a bit more complicated of course. When we talk about "Africa" we usually ignore the Northern most states. Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia usually don't count. What few African political science specialists there are frequently separate South Africa as well (Lesotho however, a small country within South Africa, is fair game). Ubisoft does not name their fictional country specifically to universalize the game's themes, depicting a political reality that purportedly holds true in any war zone.

Factions and Leadership

The political leaders in Far Cry 2 are as interchangeable as the country they claim to represent. Each faction shares characteristics with political movements common in political conflict. Even their names, the United Front for Liberation and Labour and the Alliance for Popular Resistance, are nice abbreviations masking the organizations' more dangerous activities. Even an abbreviation can be a propaganda tool, often recalling specific popular past movements while encompassing a new political message. Conflicting movements like the National Union for Democracy and Progress (NUDP), the Union of Cameroonian Populations (UPC) and Social Democratic Front (SDF) have occupied even relatively stable Cameroon.Ubisoft's visual portrayal of both the UFLL and the APR depict common political practices and create an uncomfortable and somewhat alien landscape for predominantly western players, a tone that fits the story of a foreigner in Africa. Both actors, but most noticeably the APR in Act 1, keep cultural artifacts in their headquarters. A lion adorns an APR poster, Zebra skins lie on the flow, and shields and spears dot the walls. These artifacts remind the player of popular cultural notions of Africa, which is the same reason such artifacts have hung on the walls of real life political headquarters.
Numerous African dictators intentionally associate themselves with African "purity;" claiming to be more "African" than their competitors is a strong political tactic. Perhaps the best example is Mobutu Sese Seko, Dictator of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for 32 years. Mobutu tried to Africanize Zaire, demanding citizens change their Christian names to more African ones. He changed his own name (Joseph-Désiré Mobutu) to Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, meaning "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake." He often wore a leopard skin cap as well, topping off his "Africaness."

If a dictator can associate their opposition with foreigners, lingering colonial resentment becomes a tool to rally popular support. Some UFLL graffiti, as well as quest dialogue, highlight both factions attempts to do just that. Which in turn stands in contrast to the fact both factions hire a bevy of foreign soldiers and mercenaries to do their dirty work. The irony is completely intentional. The result in Far Cry 2 is a narrative in which the protagonist, and player, are welcomed into a hostile and unwelcoming environment.
Those who bring in the mercenaries fit the mark as well. Oliver Tambossa, the leader of the APR, is adorned in medals and military attire, a constant reminder of his status and power. IdiAmin , ex-Ugandan dictator, was seldom seen without his military vestments. He maintained his Cult of Personality with this strong military imagery and frequent parades to himself. Whether Oliver Tambossa uses similar methods to maintain popularity is unknown, as most of the civilian population is strangely absent from the game.

Civilians and Motivation

This is perhaps the biggest flaw in the depiction of factions in Far Cry 2. Without a civilian population, motivation and political strategies are unclear. How has the APR recruited troops? Do civilians buy into their rhetoric? If so, why? It makes sense both factions want to maintain power for wealth, or even their own protection. Some have posited political leaders so frequently root out opposition because they know the fate of those who are overthrown. Of the 180 African regime changes between 1960 and 1999, an estimated 101 were the result of a coup, war or invasion (Arthur Goldsmith, Leadership Transitions). Of these, "roughly two-thirds were killed, imprisoned or banished to a foreign country."
Yet neither party holds a majority of power, and according to the Jackal, neither side wants to. Without depictions of a civilian population, motivations are less clear and political strategies taken by the factions less apparent. Duncan Fyfe of Hit-Self-Destruct discusses this phenomenon in his post War Crimes, stating "these games are a military wet dream: there's never a civilian in that truck. Everyone has left and the country is made freely available for gung-ho wannabes to run around playing paintball."

I agree with Fyfe in saying "the fiction supports the mechanics," and vice-versa. Having a country immersed in bad guys is important to the story. However, I think the themes could have maintained with civilian elements. The lack of civilians makes the conflict less nihilistic, not more.

In some ways, the political realities during intrastate conflict can be more unsettling than the depictions in Far Cry 2. On the other hand, the game's spartan approach to African politics, its lack of alternative approach to the conflict at hand, depicts an African state irreparably diseased. Like cultural depictions of a savage Africa, this is not new nor is it free from political implications. But that is the topic for next week.