Friday, October 30, 2009

Immersive Force, part 3

The current trends in video game input technology are not focused on haptic technology. Regardless of how cool the Falcon is, the thing costs $200. PC players have been happily WASD-ing it up for years, and I see little indication of a drastic change to the status quo. On the console side, the Wii's success has inspired both Microsoft and Sony to develop new input devices based on motion control. For at least the next few years, control innovation will be focused on gestural input rather than tactile feedback.

Gesture control and visual commands open up many new possibilities for gaming, but they also present dilemmas. As Leigh Alexander discusses in her defense of the "classic" controller, simulating a certain motion by performing a slightly different motion can actually be more distracting than substituting a button as an abstraction.

Force feedback must negotiate similar pitfalls. As folks pointed out in the first part of this series, the misuse and overuse of rumble actually serves to detract from the experience. For some, using vibration to try to convey the weight of a mythical beast or the recoil of a gatling gun is more distracting than immersive. However, judicious use of motion control can avoid the immersive fallacy by offering unique experiences that visual and motion control cannot.

A successful future for haptic feedback is one of subtlety and experimentation. Novel implementations of force feedback can refresh old concepts while also offering new ways to broaden and grow the gaming population.

Even if we do not seek a design revolution, force feedback can easily be utilized to reinvigorate tired conventions. For example: Many games feature characters who use radios or cell phones to communicate in hostile environments. In order to explain why enemies cannot hear ring-tones, most of these games (Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid, Mirror's Edge, etc.) construct excuses based on narrative conceits and the player's suspension of disbelief.

By using rudimentary force feedback technology, a game could allow the player to put their communication device on "vibrate" mode. This might make them stealthier, but it would also mean they would be more apt to miss a call.

Imagine this implemented in Mirror's Edge: Merc might try calling to alert you of a shortcut around a group of guards, but if your phone is on vibrate, the impact of your jumps or the the recoil of a gun may obscure it, thereby negating your opportunity for a shortcut. The trade off would be to leave the ringer on at the risk of attracting unwanted attention from the authorities.

Of course, subtle force feedback can also be used in more radical ways. Games are primarily a visual medium, but what would happen if a game endeavored to limit the player's vision?

The result might be something like Blind Braver, an experimental game that is played primarily through sound. The Wired article is quick to point out that the game's under-utilization of vibration as a means of conveying information to the player. This is unfortunate, as carefully designed force feedback could serve to be as important sound within the game.

A player could run up against a wall and use their joystick-controlled hand to "feel" the texture of the wall. If you knew the level's exit was down a marble corridor, a lack of vibration would signal that you were on the right path. Or perhaps you stumble across a coin in the dark: In order to find out what kind it is, you can use tactile feed back to examine the side for ridges.

Such an action helps blind people differentiate between coins in the real world, which leads into the most important benefit of force feedback: accessibility. Haptic technology can serve as more than a garnish to graphics and sound. Simple vibrations are easily taken for granted by those of us who are lucky enough to have unhampered vision and hearing. For gamers with disabilities, the immersive capabilities of force feedback hold a greater weight.

It is easy to conceive of a typical "match-three" style game in which the game pieces are differentiated solely by color. However, the simple act of making the controller vibrate when a green piece is selected versus a blue piece would significantly help a color blind gamer. For those with hearing impairments, the vibrations that accompany the impact of enemy fire in a first-person shooter may mean the difference between survival and a re-spawn.

I fully intend to be blasting Covenant well into my autumn years, so the issue of accessibility is a particularly compelling reason to trumpet the praises of force feedback. Haptic technology might not be at the forefront of user interface innovation, but it remains a uniquely versatile method for fostering immersion. In terms of vibration, less may be more, but some is always preferable to none.

We do not need to be shaken off our couches, but the physical connection that force feedback offers will continue to play a large, albeit invisible, role in connecting us to the games we enjoy.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

EXP Podcast #49: Next Gen Genetics

Our console generation is getting old, and there doesn't seem to be a new model in our immediate future. So what is going to happen to those "Next Gen" games we are perpetually looking forward to? According to Luke Plunkett of Kotaku, we might be short on innovative wonders for awhile. This week, Scott and I delve into Plunkett's somewhat controversial piece. Join us while we discuss generational shifts, ideal zombie numbers, creative spaces, sea mammals, and the evolution of game design. As always, we love to hear your thoughts in our email or the comments section below. Check out the show notes for Luke's original article; it is well worth reading.

Discussion Starters:

- What makes a truly "next gen" game? Or is this a frivolous distinction?
- What advancements most open up a creative space for developers to implement bold innovations?
- Is the evolution of games better characterized by fundamentally different eras or gradual iterations on common ideas?

To listen to the podcast:

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

Show notes:

- Run time: 28 min 23 sec
- "Where Are All the 'Next Gen' Games?" by Luke Plunkett, via Kotaku
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Bad Case of Avataritis

Two articles regarding avatars piqued my interest recently, compelling me to jot down my own ideas on the subject. The first is a piece by Martyn Zachary from The Slowdown titled Avataritis, in which Martyn laments the over-abundance of character customization in videogames to the detriment of in-depth development of a preconceived character. The second piece led me to the first and is it itself a response to Martyn's Avataritis. Once again, Chris Lepine of The Artful Gamer draws my attention - this time with a psychological approach to avatar creation. Though I will cover their points briefly, reading these two insightful posts is well worth your time.

I would not be the first to criticize the videogame industry for churning out uninspired stories starring the strong and capable white male killing everything that moves - or the objectified female doing the same. I do not believe it is particularly contentious to say videogame narratives lack character diversity in numerous ways. If we take this for a given, character customization can be, as Martin puts it, "a convenient narrative cop-out." Developers can avoid the pitfalls and potential costs of writing a unique, compelling and well-structured non-normative personality by giving that responsibility to the player.
Lepine follows up by identifying an "armoured gamer" trait that restricts whom a player can relate to based upon their physical similarities. Many gamers may see, and are encouraged to see, avatars as an extension of themselves. They immerse themselves into a story by creating a physical representation of themselves within the game world . In an industry dominated by white males, diversity is expectantly deficient. I combine Chris and Martin's sentiments when I spread the blame around, putting the onus of change on gamers and developers alike.

When given the opportunity, I exclusively play a female character. My Mass Effect character is a red head with a mean scar across her face. In Fallout 3, I did my best to create a lead of mixed descent. I do this specifically to experience non-normative stories. I interpret my father-daughter Fallout 3 story differently than I would a father-son story. In this regard, character customization allows me to circumvent the game industries reliance on normative player characters. If I am going to tell my own story within a story, I would prefer it be unique.
I also enjoy making my character each time. I can easily spend an hour designing my avatar and experimenting with all my aesthetic options. Here is where the creative process falls short. As Martin points out, "character creation" is better described as "character transformation." Our protagonists always have some foundation, be it in their physical or mental characteristics, that exists within a preconceived world. This is where homogeneity shows itself.

Bonnie Ruberg of Heroin Sheik and Simon Ferrari of Chungking Espresso have both called out Bethesda for their sloppy inclusion of female protagonists in Fallout 3 - sentiments I can safely affirm. Alex Raymond of While !Finished finds similar normative trends in Mass Effect, and actually received a response from Bioware defending their design decisions by stating they are "unapologetically aiming for a wide audience." Both these games successful depict diversity in important ways, but still succumb to common narrative tropes.

This presumption that gamers are incapable of engaging with protagonists unlike themselves, particularly when it comes to race, is insulting. This belief simplifies both players and avatars. Chris Lepine puts it well with this statement:

"We don’t have to be, want to be, or know how to be the characters we see on screen. All we need is characters that perform understandable actions and reactions. Relations. Emotions. Desires. Wants. Wishes, drives and urges. None of these ultimately have to do with ethnicity, gender, looks or otherwise."
As a Latino gamer, I still find numerous stories starring white characters engaging. Other gamers can find non-white male protagonists immersive also, even if it takes some getting used to. Humans have an amazing ability to empathize and interact with individuals unlike themselves. Designing games based upon our preconceived notion of what would be easiest for the majority of players is a terrible idea. The result is already apparent: a plethora of stories cut from the same cloth which, on occasion, sloppily include stereotypes as if to appease a quiet minority.

There are a lot of diverse stories out there, and plenty of writers to tell them. A membership survey by the International Game Developers Association finds its development community to be 83 percent white and predominantly male. Naturally its output is largely homogeneous; but it need not be. Ursula K. LeGuin, and numerous female authors, have told compelling stories through the eyes of male protagonists, Ian McEwan and a few male authors have done the same with female protagonists.

One's personal identity need not limit their creative capabilities or grant them arbitrary authority to speak for their own very diverse community. Avatar creation, be it top-down or bottom-up, requires tact and maturity. For many, the games industry seems to be short in both departments. That is on all of us to amend.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Immersive Force, part 2

Last week, I professed my love for force feedback in video games and argued that the judicious use of vibration can greatly increase a game's immersive capabilities.

This week I sat down and to think about force feedback in games released after the original Rumble Pak/Dual Shock era, but I had trouble recalling as many outstanding moments. This could be because the shine has simply worn off. It has been over ten years since Star Fox 64, and what was once a novelty is now a standard feature on all console and many PC controllers.

The larger problem is that force feedback's implementation has become stagnant. We have reached a point where we know when our controller will vibrate and why it will vibrate before we even start playing the game. When something blows up: vibration. When we reach the inevitable turret sequence: vibration. When a lucky goomba scores a cheap shot: vibration.

However, this need not be the case. Haptic technology may never be as visually impressive as motion control for graphical updates, but by embracing subtlety and ingenuity, it can provide immersive experiences that cameras and screens will never be able to replicate.

Allow me present some examples of understated, immersive force feedback.

The Novint Falcon

First, a major disclaimer: I have not even seen the Novint Falcon in person. Even so, I trust the Idle Thumbs crew not to steer me wrong. I also trust that Valve would not go out of its way to ensure compatibility with a $190 controller unless it was well worth it.

A universal theme in last last week's comment section was that it is definitely possible to have too much vibration. While the Falcon is definitely has more powerful force feedback than most controllers, it also seems to have more nuanced force feedback as well. The idea of being able to sense textures and shapes opens up a multitude of possibilities for almost every genre.

Bit.Trip Beat/Core

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the Bit.Trip series. As I have mentioned in the past, I love the games, even though I have a sneaking suspicion that they actually hate me.

The Bit.Trip games utilize the Wii's simplistic force feedback motor to reinforce the connection between the game's music and its control. Instead of shaking the controller with each successful volley or punctuating boss battles with vibrating explosions, Bit.Trip's force feedback helps the player stay in rhythm.

At the beginning of the level, the controller begins pulsating to the music's beat, which in turn corresponds to the timing of the bits. It is a subtle (and in my case, initially subconscious) method of teaching the player how to succeed.

The Wii Interface

Again, although I believe it to be relatively simple in comparison to other force feedback controllers, the Wii OS, as well as games like Wii Sorts, employ subtle force feedback to allow players to interface with virtual objects.

As the pointer glides over the various games and channels on the Wii's menu, a small bump works in concert with visual and audio cues to so signal that the pointer has passed over a new menu option. I have found this especially useful when utilizing the visual keyboard and number pad: the tactile feedback between keys helps prevent errant typos.

The force feedback in the Wii menu compensates for the pointer's often erratic behavior. Additionally, it circumvents the problems that the lack of physical feedback presents when using similar point-and-choose technology like laptop touch-pads and iPhones.

God of War

As I read over that last section, I realize that I may have spiraled off into the deep end, so I will end with a final, more traditional example of impressively nuanced. force feedback.

While it might stretch the definition of subtle, the vibration in God of War is crucial in immersing the player in the game's world. Although it literally adds to the impact of the game's massive set pieces (the Colossus of Rhodes sure seems heavy), vibration is most skillfully utilized in the combat.

Most importantly, force feedback is used to augment (or mask, depending on your viewpoint) the many quicktime events built into the game's combat system. Upon entering a successful button sequence, Kratos' attacks are accompanied with contextual, discrete vibrations. A stabbing blow feels different than a slice, which differs from a punch. While it may not be understated, force feedback is used as a sly tool to transform "press X not to die sequences" into epic battles.

While we may not be able to recapture the excitement of haptic feedback's initial impact, this does not lesson its importance. Meaningful, yet subtle force feedback should be the new goal. When it is done correctly, it can be more immersive than any faux-explosion.

Next week, I will wrap with some thoughts and predictions on how force feedback's future might shake out. As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts in the comments. Have we grown jaded towards force feedback? What are some of your favorite examples of subtle motion control in contemporary games? Have I pigeon-holed myself as raving Wii fanboy?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

EXP Podcast #48: Exploiting Bobby Kotick

He has been called a heartless, devilish, carpetbagger. He is unapologetic about his mission to take the fun out of making video games. He has inspired neo-folk protest songs. He is Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision. This week, we discuss one of gaming's most infamous characters and his influence on the medium. We cover capitalism, sensational journalism, and some light conspiracy theory in an attempt to fight against the culture of "skepticism and pessimism and fear," perpetuated by everyone's favorite villain.

Some discussion starters:

- How does Kotick's business philosophy affect your perception of Activision-Blizzard and the titles it publishes? To what extent are your more casually-interested friends and family aware of the business side of games?

- Which (if any) company executives make a positive impression on you? How do they do this?

- To what extent is Kotick simply playing a role for the public? Is this even plausible?

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 50 sec
- "Why We Love to Hate Activision - And Might Be Wrong," by Leigh Alexander, published on Kotaku
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, October 19, 2009

Review: Lucidity, A Children's Tale

It seems most children's games, particularly those for the six to twelve age range, tend to be shoddy marketing tools for real world products. They are often shallow creations meant to teach the value of a useless grind, or satiate their modern hunger for collectibles. There are a few outliers of course, but they are few and far between.

There is, however, a slew of mature kid's books. Children's literature has discussed a wide range of mature themes, with many classic stories full of adult content. These works of fiction ask a great deal of their reader, and respect the experiences of a younger audience. There is a recent game from LucasArts that seems to meld the success of mature children's literature with videogames. So sit a spell, and let me tell you the tale of Lucidity.

Once upon a time, there was a surge of artful videogames.

During this time, the game connoisseur could find a friend in The Path, Blueberry Garden, or Braid. These games were charming, daring, and beautiful, and but a few among many. Most importantly, these games proved that low budget artful games could be economically viable. So LucasArts, an aging but respected developer and publisher, decided to renew their game development efforts by venturing into the world of artful games. And so Lucidity was born.
It might be more appropriate to say Lucidity was adopted. She shares more with other indie titles than she does with her LucasArts siblings. She has a quaint demeanor, with her soft hues and papered appearance. She wears colorful pastels but also has her share of darker and subdued levels. Like Blueberry Garden, Lucidity is instantly appealing.

When playing with Lucidity, she'll have you escort a young girl named Sofi across a treacherous level. Sofi never stops moving, and in order to help her, you have got to lay down an object in her path that will maneuver her to safety. But Lucidity is insidious. She likes to give you these objects - stairs, jump shoes, fans, planks, slingshots and bombs - completely randomly. If Sofi falls to her death, Lucidity will make you start all over.
Lucidity can be mean, but she is also mature for her age. She uses Sofi to tell a story about loss. Sofi's journey is a representation of how she confronts the death of her Nana. At the end of each segment, Lucidity gives you a postcard from the grandmother, helping Sofi grieve. When Sofi's grandmother dies, Lucidity tells the story of Sofi's grief and her eventual acceptance, incorporating the memories of her Nana into her life. Lucidity tells a sad and simple story that approaches death with tact and maturity. It is a story that would be a perfect addition to the children's game genre.

Unfortunately, Lucidity does not play well with others. Her artsy appeal hides her erratic behavior and an internal design far too cruel for kids. Lucidity will mock and tease you, making it very hard for you to escort Sofi anywhere but to certain death. She seems so kind at first, but she later insists you react with almost inhuman speed. She also adheres too much to the role set by Tetris and Lemmings, and is not fun to play with when she becomes stubborn and unkind. She forces you to abandon strategy for frantic button mashing and twitch gameplay. Lucidity asks too much of children and too little of adults.
We should feel bad for Lucidity. In some ways, she is so very unique and worthy of attention. If she were meant to play with kids, she would offer a much needed sense of maturity to her genre family. Instead, her delightful nature is wasted. Perhaps LucasArts didn't play with her enough during her early development stages, or perhaps they didn't give her enough attention. Perhaps their need to create something for the indie-artful crowd took precedence over their desire to create a game worthy of its name. If we wish hard enough, if we really encourage proper development, then maybe Lucidity will have a sister. And we will flock to her, children and adults alike, and praise her as an exemplary addition to the family.

The End

Friday, October 16, 2009

Immersive Force, part 1

Games seek to provide immersive experiences in a variety of ways. Sometimes, we look to a game's artistic aesthetics to convey the existence of its virtual space. Unfortunately the passage of time and the technological improvement that comes with it can serve to retroactively detract from games that rely largely on imagery to captivate the player. For example: Jorge and I have been playing Halo 1, and while features such as its textures or facial animation may have been impressive in its time, new styles and techniques have supplanted them, and they now serve the opposite purpose for which they were designed.

A narrative approach to immersion sidesteps some of the problems of relying on sight and sound to create a world. A compelling story may help a gamer invest themselves into a game world. Whether such a story is formed by a strong authorial hand or by a game world that acts as a medium for individually tailored experiences, story-making can imbue deep meaning into the most banal sprites.

My preferred route to immersion is a physical one. The sole tangible connection between a player and their game is through their control setup. To this end, I think that haptic technology is often overlooked in terms of its potential for immersive impact.

That's right: I love force feedback in games, and not for the lascivious reasons you may assume.

In order to explain this, let me share some of my favorite instances of force feedback.

Star Fox 64

Historically, Nintendo has been at the forefront of console control innovations, and force feedback is no exception. In 1997, the release of Star Fox 64 and the introduction of the Rumble Pak ushered in the age of vibrating controllers.

As is to be expected, the Star Fox utilizes vibration to augment the many large explosions created by its team of woodland aviators. However, the game also contains a number of nuanced uses of vibration designed to subtly immerse the player. Firing a charged laser shot yields a short, dull thud as the beam leaves your weapon. When the Arwing's wings shift for different types of flight, a sustained rhythmic pulse, accompanies the movement of the airfoils' flaps. Using the break would elicit a different rumbling frequency than using the boost.

Star Fox 64 is impressive not only because it normalized force feedback in video games, but also that it did so creatively. In addition to crowd-pleasing explosions, vibration was used to convey both the extraordinary and mundane sensations of piloting anArwing.

Metal Gear Solid

Whether it is breaking the fourth wall or allowing the player to feel the heartbeat of digital characters, the entire Metal Gear Solid series is a testament to the inventive use of force feedback. Sometimes, it would take the form of Kojima experimenting with the boundaries of the medium. In the famous Psycho Mantis telekinesis scene, the player a fun taste of the insane world Snake inhabits in return for a suspension of disbelief.

The series also uses vibration to augment gameplay events. Every time Snake is spotted, a sharp jolt accompanies an audio and visual cue, adding to the sudden chaos of the situation. Tools such as the heartbeat monitor allow the player to track enemies using the pulse of their controller.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time/Majora's Mask

The transition into a 3D allowed players to experience a more detailed Hyrule. In addition to the visual spectacle, Rumble Pak support afforded players a new sense of what the Zelda universe feels like.

Like Star Fox, Zelda uses vibration for both obvious and subtle purposes. Vibration is used to heighten the sense of danger when doing battle, but Link has hobbies outside of fighting demons. Whether he is playing with explosives, practicing his equestrian skills, or lazing the day away down at the fishing hole, his activites are conveyed to the player through feel.

In what should be seen as both a wink at the player and a clever way of selling more Rumble Paks, the N64 Zeldas included an item called "The Stone of Agony." After obtaining it, secret underground caves would cause the controller to vibrate. The item functioned as a haptic metal detector, vibrating stronger and more frequently as the player got closer to the invisible entrance.

I became aware of force feedback's impact on my immersion while replaying Majora's Mask on the Wii Virtual console. Disappointingly, the port does not support force feedback, rendering the Stone of Agony useless. However, it was not just the absence of this item: it was as if the game had lost a certain heft that made it somehow more authentic. When I stuck my sword against a wall, there was a clang, but no vibration. The world felt hollow, and all because of the absence of a tiny motor.

Although this post might make it seem like I am stuck in the 1990s, my next post will focus on more contemporary uses of force feedback, as well as my hopes for the future. Until then, feel free to jump in to the comments with your favorite uses of video game vibration. How important is force feedback to your gaming experience? Which games rocked your world with rumble? Do you view it as a gimmick, or is your faith in its immersive qualities unshaken?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

EXP Podcast #47: Groping the Television

Last month, previous EXP podcast guest Nels Anderson made an interesting claim: videogames have far more in common with television than film. Truly the Citizen Kane of comparisons. Scott and I watch a lot of television, but we're no experts. So this week we thought it appropriate to discuss these two mediums with another guest. Joining us this week is Justin Keverne of Groping The Elephant. We are honored to have such an intelligent blogger and designer in our midst. Justin provides plenty of insight to go around and one of those charming British accents to serenade our listeners.

Join us while we discuss format breaks, self-created narratives, short attention spans, and television adaptations. Our hosting triad and the broad subject matter has made this podcast a little longer than normal. Don't worry, it is time well spent. You'll find Nels's original article in the show notes, along with supplemental articles we mention in the show and links to Justin's own work. As always, we'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- How does the viewing/playing format change your gaming experience?
- Do you find episodic games pleasing in the same way as television?
- Are lessons from the television format you'd like to see in games?
- Any television to videogame adaptations you'd like to see?

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: 45 min 37 sec
- "And They Rot Your Brain," by Nels Anderson via Above49
- "Journey Into the Cradle," by Kieron Gillen via Kieron Gillon's Workblog
- "Game Within a Game," by Justin Keverne via Video Games and Human Values Initiative
- Find more of Justin's work at Groping The Elephant
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Sensationalist: Dead Ends, pt. 2

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.

This post is part two of a two part Sensationalist series exploring how games use death to evoke emotions.

WARNING: This post may contain major spoilers for Final Fantasy VII, Far Cry 2, Half-Life 2: Episode 2, The Darkness and Lost Odyssey.

Last week I discussed the death of player characters in games. This week my focus is on non-playable-character death. I'm honing in further to just NPCs who are close to the lead character. I'm intentionally excluding the deaths of random background individuals and enemies, including boss figures - all worthy of study on their own.

To draw from Ernest Adam, as I did last week, the death of an "other" is unique. We mourn their loss differently because we have no control over their fate. Unlike the player's death, we are not to blame for their passing. In some ways, this makes their death more significant. In Adams's opinion, "to make death meaningful in a computer game, it is not the player who must die, but the player's friends."

Goodbye Aeris

I know we have all been through this before, but I have to do it. The death of Aerith Gainsborough (or Aeris pre-retcon) in Final Fantasy VII is, hands down, the most significant death in gaming history. For many gamers, her death is their most memorable gaming moment. Numerous fan fiction has been written about her, stories have brought her back from the dead, and rumors have spread about ways to resurrect her in-game. There was also a petition signed by Japanese players urging Final Fantasy VII Director and Story Writer Yoshinori Kitase to bring her back to life, to which he refused.
In a May 2003 issue of Edge Magazine, Kitase had this to say about Aerith's death:

"People die of disease and accident. Death comes suddenly and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling, but great emptiness. When you lose someone you loved very much, you feel this big empty space and think, 'If I had known this was coming, I would have done things differently.' These are the feelings I wanted to arouse in the players with Aerith's death relatively early in the game. Feelings of reality and not Hollywood."

Unlike the noble death of player characters, NPCs die as unaware innocents. Although her death is technically a sacrifice, her sudden death is effective because she is a love interest who represents an exaggerated feminine embodiment of good. Her healing abilities are hospitable by nature, her pink dress and timid demeanor hides a woman of conviction, and of all people, Cloud is her true love.
To kill this character, a crucial element of the player's party, reminds the player what is at risk. In an excellent article comparing Aerith and Yuna, Denis Farr of Vorpal Bunny Ranch and GayGamer points out: "The trope that still remains strong is the romantic bond both plots place between this male/female duo, and the expectation that part of what we are mourning is the loss of a future together. " For many, Final Fantasy VII was the first game to permanently kill a meaningful character and transform a classic RPG narrative story into a vengeance tale.

Goodbye Investment

The utilitarian argument is raised too often when citing how FFVII successfully evokes emotion with Aerith's death. Some suggest Aerith's death evokes more anger than sadness by kiling off a valuable party member in which the player has invested time. While the ability to level Aerith does hide her inevitable demise, the loss of time investment does not evoke anything but anger in pursuit of the self-interested player. If this were the case, numerous games would succeed with even temporary character restriction, be they death attributed or not.

Far Cry 2 succeeds with their NPC death by exploiting the players dependence on utilitarian benefits. The player in Far Cry relies on NPC allies to revive them, and these allies rely on the player to do the same. This mutual trust, at first, builds a sort of friendship. Unlike Adams's suggestion I mentioned earlier, whether an ally lives or dies is ultimately in the player's hands. An ally's early death is avoidable and therefore meaningful in a different way.
This relationship changes however. Allies begin to mix with one another. Their motivations are increasingly selfish, and they begin to represent a foreign breed of the native combatants. Before long, the death of an ally becomes less meaningful than those last few syrettes. After all, another mercenary can easily take their place. When the player kills a dying ally themselves, without hesitation, Far Cry 2 succeeds in creating a unique death that evokes what the lead character feels: nothing but cold self-interest.

A Long Goodbye

Death is nothing without a period of mourning. How we each say goodbye to those we have lost is both a personal and shared experience, and a fascinating cultural creation. Western bereavement practices, for example, are relatively brief and distancing affairs. In the final moments, it seems, we are scared of what death entails for the living. Then perhaps it is no surprise mourning is largely absent from videogames. The few exceptions to this rule, many of which are brief depictions of loss, tend also to be the most moving.

The death of Eli Vance in Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is a powerfully somber moment. The perpetually silent Gordon Freeman is incapable of ordering fast food let alone mourning, but Alyx is not. Eli's daughter, who seems to speak for Gordon on numerous occasions, mourns in his stead. Her repeated cries of frustration and anguish, her final "I love you" to her father, the way she runs to his limp body, and her tears echoing in the darkness before the credits, are powerfully moving because they realistically depict the immediate sense of loss following the death of a loved one. The final credits immediately following allow the player to linger on this moment, giving them a time to mourn Eli's death on their own.
The Darkness depicts a similar moment of immediate loss when Jackie's girlfriend Jenny is murdered in front of him. Like Alyx and Gordon, Jackie must watch helpless while this happens. His grief overcomes the darkness possessing his body, and Jackie kills himself. His suicide and time in the underworld depict immense grief, an emotion strangely absent from NPC deaths in most games. His final moments with Jenny at the game's conclusion evoke loss and regret because they dwell on her death, and Jackie's regret. Like Half-Life, these emotions are with the player the moment the credits roll.

The Big Empty Space

Above and beyond these examples is Lost Odyssey. Kaim, the lead character in the game, finds his daughter (whom he presumed dead) on her deathbed due to illness. Her death is not sudden and not the result of an evil wizard or dark fate. Her body is not quietly and quickly disposed of, but decorated and sent off to sea with a lavish funeral. In fact, the player is actively engaged in the ritual, tasked with collecting flowers and participating in a torch ceremony.
Her two children, Kaim's grandchildren, mourn with Kaim and discuss the death of their mother openly. Lost Odyssey evokes a sense of loss by embracing death and grief and including the player in the process. Most of us know these feelings far too well. Giving us a venue to join in the mourning process with the game's cast is a bold and successful strategy.

There are few more games that give death its proper emotional space. The Graveyard, again, is a meditation on loss and mourning itself. Lucidity, LucasArts's latest, seems to approach mourning through the eyes of a young girl. Dungeons & Dragons, amongst other tabletop games, has long given a space for players to mourn the death of their companions in interesting ways.

However, death is widely passed over by players and lead characters alike. Death usually serves to highlight danger or motivate the lead character with a vengeance imperative. Mass Effect, Red Faction: Guerilla, Fallout 3, among others, leave the mourning process to the real world, where we seem to hide just the same. As Kitase says, losing a loved one "leaves a great emptiness." Games should have the courage to sit in this somber place a little longer.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Security Blanket of Mana

We are now into October, and while this Fall's storm of new releases might not be as violent as last year's, those who enjoy riding the new release train face a daunting task.

The tension between time, money, and games was thrown into sharp relief last week, when Jorge and I discussed the Fall lineup in detail. I realized that, even after discounting all of the Lego games, rhythm games, and Lego-rhythm games, there is still a sizable list of titles I want to experience. Some, like Assassin's Creed 2, are basically double the commitment, as my own personal neuroses prohibit me from playing the second game before the first one. Others are unexpected surprises like Brutal Legend or Demon's Souls. There are also games that I have been anticipating for months, like New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Modern Warfare 2.

On top of this, there is my pile of shame to attend to: I've been stuck on the last boss of Henry Hatsworth for weeks. I've been a quarter of the way through Killer7 for months, and I have yet to even finish a Halo game! How can I possibly alleviate the pressure to keep up and the anxiety of knowing that there are games out there that I am missing. My only recourse is to lock myself inside, order ten cases of BAWLS, and power through the entirety of my back catalogue.

On second thought, perhaps I'll just play Secret of Mana instead.

Since its release in 1993, Secret of Mana has become one of the few games that I revisit when life gets hectic. A combination of its gameplay, its presentation, and its nostalgic cache have kept me coming back for the past fifteen years.

Secret of Mana's battle system stands out as unique, even after all this time. While character movement and attacks take place in real time, the implementation of an attack meter prevents combat from devolving into button mashing. Cool-down time between attacks and optional charge-up techniques must be weighed carefully against the need for immediate action. While spell selection pauses the battle, casting is done in real time, allowing the player or enemies brief opportunities to counter-attack.

Unlike most other JRPGs, Secret of Mana's combat is integrated with its landscape. The random enemy encounters found in games like Breath of Fire and Final Fantasy IV whisked players into contrived arenas made to look, feel, and sound different than theoverworld areas. Secret of Mana always made me feel like I was exploring an actual world, as the land in which I encountered beasts and the land in which I explored for treasure were one and the same.

The game is not without its shortcomings. The plot is best described as cornballs served with a side of cheese, sprinkled with genre conventions. The heroes are a young boy who finds his destiny in mysteriously intertwined with a magical, a rebellious princess whose moxy hides a sentimental side, and magical sprite robbed of his identity by amnesia. Plot twists can be seen from a mile away, and certain parts of the localization are a bit suspect.

In true 1990s JRPG form, menu tweaking and EXP grinding were often the order of the day. The game could be played by up to three players simultaneously, but solo adventurers were left to grapple with the AI. Computer controlled characters often fell victim to the most dastardly of traps: the corner!

Despite all this, I am continually drawn back by the game's ability to evoke a sense of exploration. When I first played the game, Google, YouTube, and rabid fans had yet to create the exhaustive amount of reference material that exists today. Because of this, Secret of Mana lived up to its name; the title screen itself teased the end of the game, challenging players to find their way to the Eden pictured in the opening credits. When my nerdier friends and I would gather on the weekends to exchange tips on weapon upgrades and discuss the best spell combinations, we would often veer off into conversations about the game's fiction and begin theorizing about the laws that governed this fantastic world. Even today, that haunting opening song brings me right back to the first time I played it.

I cannot be the only one inclined to wax nostalgic about old games, so I will turn it over to you folks: What are your "security blanket" games? Which titles still have the power to trump the newest, shiniest new releases? Did anyone else get a few goosebumps while watching that last video, or is that just me?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

EXP Podcast #46: Fall Sales, Speculation, and Sweets

The Fall release season is upon us, bringing with it its annual gaming bounty. While it may be humanly impossible for us to play all of the new releases, nothing is stopping us from trying to guess what other people will play. This week, Jorge and I channel our inner Michael Pachter and enter into a gentleman's agreement: We each came up with a list of what we believe will be the top ten best-selling games released between October and December. When February rolls around, we will take revisit our predictions and score them based on their accuracy. Ideally, we will be using NPD numbers, but our access may be limited since we aren't members of the press. When possible, we'll use NPD numbers first and then supplement them with other sources when necessary.

The winner will enjoy a (hopefully) tasty dessert of their choosing...made by the loser! Food, games, and gambling: What could be better? Below are our respective picks. As always, feel free to jump in with your choices in comments section. What are your predictions? While we can't promise dessert for anyone that beats us (or can we...?), the victory will undoubtedly be far sweeter than anything made by mere mortals.

Jorge's List:

1. Modern Warfare 2
2. New Super Mario Bros. Wii
3. Wii Fit Plus
4. Band Hero
5. Uncharted 2
6. Left 4 Dead 2
7. Assassins Creed 2
8. Lego Indiana Jones 2
9. DJ Hero
10. Dragon Age

Scott's List:

1. Wii Fit Plus
2. Modern Warfare 2
3. New Super Mario Bros Wii
4. Lego Indiana Jones 2
5. Dragon Age
6. Lego Rock Band
7. Assassin's Creed 2
8. Left 4 Dead 2
9. The Legend of Zelda: The Spirit Tracks
10. Brutal Legend

To listen to the podcast:

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

Show notes:

- Run time: 28 min 11 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Sensationalist: Dead Ends, pt. 1

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.

WARNING: This post may contain nuts, as well as spoilers for Far Cry 2, Mass Effect, Halo 3, Chronotrigger, Metal Gear Solid 4, Final Fantasy X, Call of Duty 4, Jericho, Passage, Bioshock and Eternal Darkness.

This post is part one of a two part Sensationalist series how games use death to evoke emotions. This post pertains to the permanent death of playable characters . Not only did the topic become too expansive for one post, but I forgot to post a Sensationalist article for September. Consider this series an intricate apology.

Death and Agency

Last week on the EXP Podcast, Scott and I discussed the relative absence of "downer" or tragic endings to videogames. In general, games end triumphantly with the lead character heaped in praise. But on occasion, all does not end well. As these unsettling conclusions go, death is the most disturbing plot device. Even more rare than sad or ambiguous endings, is the permanent death of the lead character.

Death, the real life variety, is a complex and incredibly emotional artifact of life. Death also changes. Some lament, for example, the higher rate of in-hospital versus in-home mortality, a relatively recent occurrence. How we approach death and dying is both personal and cultural, and trends poke up and reveal themselves in popular media. So, when a videogame makes an evocative move by killing off a playable character, we should pay attention.

I want to be clear that when I refer to death in this post, I mean permanent narrative death, not the mechanic by which players are punished - though this, too, is incredibly interesting. Of course the two elements are intertwined, but permanent death is a story driven decision meant to evoke more emotions than temporary game-overs.
Chris Lepine of the Artful Gamer, in his impressive post on the death mechanic, leads me to a May, 2000 article for Gamasutra, by Ernest Adams, titled Death (and Planescape: Torment). In this piece, Adams touches on the subject of the perception of player agency, something Scott and I discussed briefly on last week's podcast. As Adams puts it:

"The main character is an extension of ourselves, a sort of prosthetic limb reaching into the game world. If he 'dies' before the end of the game, it's irritating, frustrating perhaps, but we know in our hearts that this was not the way things were Supposed to Be."

The suggested trap of lead character death lies in this dilemma. The moment the playable character dies, she is no longer an extension of the player, but a person to mourn. Yet we do mourn these characters differently. There is some remnant of ourselves in these characters, with which we empathize, that makes their death resonate with us emotionally.

A Noble Death

There are numerous games that exploit these sensations by faking the lead's death. Chronotrigger's titular hero dies at one point, only to make a triumphant return. Master Chief in Halo 3 is presumed dead until the post-credits cut scene; and an award for style goes to Commander Shepard of Mass Effect who rises from the ashes after a harrowing final battle. These scenes heighten the sensation of success, as the player beats death itself.
While not permanent, the moment when the player and NPCs think the lead deceased is interesting. More often than not, this character is publicly mourned. Even Left 4 Dead, a game with respawns, will have the end credits read "In memory of" for those players who do not escape. With rare exception, player-character death is time for others to praise the player's efforts. As if to avoid the tragedy of mortality, a culturally western trend pervasive in entertainment media, games largely present noble deaths. These characters often make the ultimate sacrifice alone, knowingly separating themselves from the NPC cast during the final battle.

Mixed Emotions

The exceptions to the noble and solitary death are fascinating. Tidus, at the end of Final Fantasy X, leaps into non-existence. But, unlike most dead leads, is fully aware of his fate and is given a brief moment to say goodbye. His death manifests itself during this scene, as his gradual disappearance takes place. Tragically Tidus cannot be with the one he loves, but when he plummets he sees the smiling faces of others who have died before him, and even gives a low-five to his father. Like the noble sacrifice, Final Fantasy X redefines the success-failure dichotomy of most videogames. For Tidus, there is nobility and even happiness in death. Though set apart in a cut scene, his death evokes the mixed emotions of losing someone.
There are a few other notable and moving exceptions. Passage, a meditative game on mortality, presents solitary death. The player's avatar dies after his companion dies. Both die naturally and without a hero's praise. The first death is tragic, and now alone, the death of the player-character is welcomed. By evoking a sense of loss, the player-character's death evokes a sense of comfort as well as sadness, a set of mixed emotions accompanying real life death more than heroism.

Bioshock takes a similarly brave approach to death by not killing off Jack prematurely at all. In the final scene of the "good" ending, Jack dies of old age, surrounded by the Little Sisters he raised. Tenenbaum narrates: "In the end, what was your reward? You never said. But I think I know. A family." Unlike the noble deaths of classic heroes, Jack's death is informed not by his in-game heroics, but by the life he led afterwords and the life he gave to the children he saved. Success is slightly redefined, and his death evokes a calm happiness that comes with the end of a life well lived.
Another powerful lead character death, which both Scott and I have written about before, occurs in Call of Duty 4. A nuclear bomb explodes, devastating an entire city and taking down the player-character's helicopter. The lead, Sgt. Jackson, crawls out from the wreckage to gaze upon terrible destruction. Jackson's death is not a noble, sudden, and solitary sacrifice. His death is ugly, painful, and he is one of many. In Scott's words: "Regardless of the particulars of his or the player's story, Jackson is distilled into three sterile letters: 'KIA.'"

Sgt. Jackson's death tops my list of evocative PC deaths because, like Passage, the act of dying is playable. With limited mechanics, the player maneuvers Jackson out of the helicopter herself. To return to Adams's metaphor, the player can feel the extension of herself in the game world weaken. By contrasting high control to low control, Call of Duty 4 evokes a sense of shock, desperation, and loss.

Far Cry 2
succeeds in a similar way, giving its lead a noble sacrifice without glorifying her role in the conflict or her life. Both final missions are suicidal in nature, and are willingly accepted as a form of penance. As an opposite to Bioshock and the heroics of others, the lead is only noble in death. The player, culpable along with her avatar, dies justly. Death in Far Cry 2 evokes a sense of completion and atonement, not success.

There are other examples I do not have time to cover here. Jericho and Eternal Darkness kill lead characters, creating a lingering sense of fear and paranoia for the surviving cast. Interestingly, Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4 knows he is going to die prematurely, but the game ends before his demise. Player death is also a slim possibility in The Graveyard, which is itself a contemplation on loss.

Some of these I will discuss next week. In the mean time, I'm interested in hearing your opinions and experiences. While I hope I clarified some of my own thoughts, the questions I asked at the end of my post on mortality from awhile ago still stand. How does death in videogames reflect cultural perceptions on the subject? Does the mortality or immortality of a character affect how we approach a game? Does character death still serve its purpose if we have grown so accustomed to it? I'm dying to find out.

Friday, October 2, 2009

No Good, Yellow-Bellied Cheaters

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood has the dubious honor of being the first game in years that I have accused of cheating. As I restarted one of the showdowns for the fifth time, I began thinking about why my thoughts had turned to foul play for this game in particular. I am no stranger to the "game over" screen (Damn you, Hatsworth!), but something about these showdown sequences convinced me that the AI was stacking the deck.

After banishing the game from my house and reading this enlightening article from Soren Johnson, I have decided that the showdowns in Call of Juarez present the player with the perfect storm of frustrations: on thematic,gameplay dynamic, and mechanical levels, they work to frustrate the player and set the AI up to be seen as a cheater.

Game Thematics: "Clint Eastwood Always Shot First"

As Nels points out, the history of Western storytelling has instilled the assumption that the protagonist will come out on top. The fight might swing back and forth and the things will get tense, but the audience knows who will walk away when the dust settles.

Techland did an excellent job of conveying the feel of the filmic Western, perhaps too well: by introducing the possibility and the reality of the protagonist's failure, the game stands in opposition of well-established cultural expectations. As a fan of Westerns, the idea that the protagonist must win the showdown is almost axiomatic. Thus, any subversion of this iron law must point to subversion on the part of the AI.

I fully admit this is my fault, and that it probably is not fair to let my past experiences color my perceptions of the game. However, as Johnson says "with cheating, perception becomes reality." And besides, as Clint said, "Fair's got nothing to do with it."

See? Even when his gun misfires he still shoots first!

Game Dynamics: Shoot First, Aim Later

Most of the gameplay in Call of Juarez follows the model popularized by games like Halo and Gears of War. While the player is outnumbered by enemies, the AI controlled characters can take less damage and tend to shoot less accurately during the fights. Combined with plentiful ammo and regenerating health, these mechanics reward risky behavior.

The showdowns stand in sharp contrast to other sections of the game, as the player is suddenly as vulnerable as the AI, precise timing is mandatory, and a lack of cover and regenerating health provide no second chances. While the majority of the game is asymmetrical (in that the AI and player have different goals and abilities), in key moments it becomes symmetrical (in that the AI and player have the same goal and abilities).

Johnson comments that it is "especially challenging for designers of symmetrical games" to create fair fights. If the player can overcome the AI too easily, there is no challenge, but if the AI seems to possess unseen advantages, the player begins to suspect cheating. In the case of Call of Juarez, the juxtaposition between asymmetrical and symmetrical gameplay styles was jarring enough to precipitate thoughts of cheating.

Game Mechanics: IGN is Right

While it is fun to rag on IGN, I have to agree with their assessment of Call of Juarez's showdowns: "Beware; the opponent cheats by always having 100-percent accuracy."

Even if I managed to draw quickly enough, I would often miss the mark and eat the AI's lead. Curiously, the AI never fumbled with the draw, nor shot wide of the mark, leading me to believe that, in a situation that should be a relatively fair fight, the AI has an unfair advantage.

Johnson addresses the problem of making the AI fallible, even more so than a player:

In the original Civ, the AI was hard-wired to declare war on the human if the player was leading the game by 1900AD. This strategy felt unfair to players – who felt that the AI was ganging up on the human – even though most of them would have followed the same strategy without a second thought in a multiplayer game.

The key here is that only "most" players would use the same strategy as the AI. Humans are notoriously illogical and individualistic, which leads to both unconventional strategies and random mistakes. Without building in some sort of capacity for error, the enemies in Call of Juarez gain unique advantages over the player.

The signal to draw is the sound of a bell in the sound track, and while the chime takes place at a set point, a myriad of factors can still lead the player to make a mistake. Even if the player remembers (or correctly guesses) when the bell will sound, they must still must circle the AI opponent to maintain a clear target with the left thumbstick, keep the character's independently movable hand close to the gun with the right thumbstick , and pull the trigger at the correct time after drawing. Add to this the many biological annoyances gamers face, such as sneezing, blinking, and sweating, and the idea that your opponent will draw, aim, and kill reliably becomes exasperating.

Possible Solutions: Ways to Win the West

How could the duels in Call of Juarez been improved?

One route would be to give the player more tools towards victory. Perhaps a force feedback system with various levels of vibration that signaled the right time to draw? While it would detract from the game's visually immersive capacity, an aiming meter akin to the ones used for punt controls in the Madden games would have given players a visual representation of their accuracy. Imagine a situation in which the player must manually stop the aiming meter at the correct point to make an accurate shot. At first, the meter would swing back and forth rapidly, but it would eventually slow as the time to draw neared. This system would also give players the option of choosing to risk taking an early, but possibly less accurate shot.

However, these solutions might have proved too contrived for the feel of the game. The solution then comes back to cheating. As Johnson concludes, if games must cheat, they should do so "only in favor of the player." If Techland was looking to make a celluloid western in digital form, preserving the feelings of power and control exuded by Western heroes may have justified a hobbled AI.

Having to retry a gun battle ten times would have never happened to the The Man With No Name, so it should never have happened to me. And if that makes me a cheater, so be it.