Monday, May 31, 2010

The Sensationalist: Designing Trust

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.

In the world of online gaming, where we rely on strangers to cover our backs, heal us up, support our attacks, and not steal our loot, trust can be a rare commodity. When a few anonymous individuals can foment hostility amongst compatriots, it can be difficult to have faith in others. Yet success in many multiplayer games hinges on mutual feelings of trust between allies. To build reciprocal confidence is to build a great gaming experience - trust me.

Trust in multiplayer online games comes in many forms, some of which I want to exclude from this discussion. For example, players often engage with others trusting they will not use "game breaking" exploits. That subject I address more directly with an older piece on the Prisoner's Dilemma. I'll also ignore personal self-confidence, which itself is an interesting sensation games frequently attempt to evoke. There is also the issue of trusting game design - believing the developers are not out to get you with a fundamentally flawed and unfair game, something transparency can ammend. Specifically, I want to to discuss trust between partners, or at least potential partners.

Last week, Scott suggested "three hypothetical scenarios that would explore the darker side of human interaction" in Left 4 Dead. These alternate modes of zombie survival would create distrust amongst team members, exploiting the need for cooperation versus secondary threats. Although the post-apocalyptic franchise asks far less of its players, the game still creates mutual dependence and a feeling of trust between players.
Left 4 Dead and its sequel engender mutual confidence between players by necessity, above and beyond similarly team-based games. Survival demands team cohesion, from picking up a downed pal off the ground to battling an enraged tank together. Equally important is how the game reminds players to have confidence in their comrades. When one player blasts an attacking zombie away about to hit teammate, their teammate will be notified that they have a savior. L4D also keeps track of health packs shared and pills freely given, awarding philanthropy. When a room is being defensively held against an onslaught of zombies, you feel much more capable knowing someone is covering your flank, ready to bandage you up if necessary. The feeling is exhilarating.

The importance here is that trust is somewhat quantifiable. As in real life, we build credit with others over long periods of time, time we do not have when playing random competitive games with strangers. During the hectic frenzy of gaming, trust is built through trial by fire. Having a measurable and easily understandable moment of team-building, one which proves the capability and generosity of your compatriots, is invaluable to evoking a sense of trust.

In team-based competitive games, it can become troublesome when players have little faith in the abilities of others. In a game like League of Legends, players frequently blame their own team mates for the group's failure. One death early in a match, and an ally might not trust you to carry your own weight. These dynamics change how games are played. Distrust in LoL can foster redundancy (players start usurping each others roles) and poor decision making (plunging fatalistically into battle).
Alternatively, warranted distrust in the abilities of others demands working around shortcomings. In order to build trust over a very short period of time, there needs to be a measurable way to determine someone's abilities. Persistent player identities with their own leveling system are not enough. Support classes, for example, would benefit from additional metrics besides kills and assists to judge their worth. Players should be well informed about the roles and abilities other players have access to. This also means creating distinct and recognizable abilities. Knowing how your allies are contributing to a team battle with a quick glance at the screen goes a long way for building trust.

Where treachery is a potentially fruitful option however, building trust can be even harder. Neptune's Pride, a browser-based sci-take mix of Risk and Diplomacy, relies on trust and intrigue. Everyone playing should expect to have alliances broken. Therefore, building trust between players is a delicate matter. In this game, as in real life, communication is important, but not exclusively so. Words must match action, even if this means telling someone you will invade their territory. If a time comes where the aggressor pleas for help, a record of honesty is necessary to rebuild trust between players. While Neptune's Pride does not force honesty, it does provide an easy venue for communication (a trust building requirement) and numerous easy-to-understand measurements of trust (from trading technology to knowing monitoring player progress).
Team cohesion, the feeling that you can rely on others, dramatically improves multiplayer gaming experiences. Ideally, players enter online matches with faith in others, acknowledging the lack of authority figures in online spaces. Unfortunately many of us have become bitter, our online experiences spoiled by treachery, ignorance, or incompetence.

Therefore we must put our gaming relationships to the test. The more frequent and transparent the trial is the better. Even frequent low-risk trials will improve how quickly we coalesce into a functioning team (Yea, even those office team-building exercises could work). The more quantifiable measurements of trust and information about player behavior, the better we can assess ourselves in relation to our gaming cohorts.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Oh, the Humanity

While they have yet to eat my brain, there have been Zombies in my head for the past couple weeks. Last week I wrote that Dead Space was one of the few horror games that succeeded in making me feel like I was becoming a monster. This ties into one of my favorite conventions in great zombie stories: the parallel transformations of the infected and the survivors. While some people lose their humanity by turning into the walking dead, others lose it when social rules and taboos break down during the apocalypse.

It is difficulty to simulate moral degeneration in a single player video game, as the player must willingly buy into the idea that they have some sort of obligation to the virtual world and its inhabitants that goes beyond maximizing their personal chances for survival. Therefore, perhaps the best way to recreate the ethical dilemmas that arise in the wake of a zombie outbreak is to introduce more human players. To this end, I would like to suggest some hypothetical game modes in Left 4 Dead.

The Left 4 Dead series has always been a popular, carefully crafted zombie experience. It already provides a compelling argument for how important cooperation is in surviving the zombie uprising, but what would happen if players were given incentives to act less than saintly? Below are three hypothetical scenarios that would explore the darker side of human interaction during a zombie attack.

"Left Behind" - Self Preservation

L4D has been lauded for dynamics that make cooperation not just optional, but necessary. Saving yourself invariably means saving your teammates, as the horde will overpower anyone that tries to go it alone. But, what would happen if it were difficult, or even impossible, for all four humans to make it out of a level alive?

For example, there could be obstacles within a level that allow the four players a choice as to how to surmount them. The players come to a narrow alley and find the way through blocked by a pile of debris that can only be moved by at least three players. There is also a an automatic door leading into a building that would let the players pass through to the other side of the alley. However, the door must be held open by one other player in order for another to make it through. In this situation, would people try to convince one player to prop the door by promising to move the debris once they got to safety? Perhaps they would risk getting trapped in the alley and try to move the debris together in solidarity? If one person agreed to keep the door propped only to be surrounded by multiple Tanks after the others got safely through, could this poor soul expect any help? Three survivors is still a pretty solid team, and there is always a chance you will lose people in the rescue attempt.

Additionally, what if players reached the end of a level to find that the helicopter rescuing them could only take three, two, or even one person to safety? Would the humans turn the guns on one another, would they argue about who deserves to be saved, or would a hero step forward in self-sacrifice? In any case, the attacking zombies would soon illuminate what type of beasts spring forth from inside the players.

"The Enemy Within" - Distrust

There comes a point in every zombie story when someone is either infected or suspected of being infected with a bad case of zombitis. The only cure is a serving of hot lead to the cranium, but a misdiagnosis could turn a mercy kill into a murder. By calling into question the absolute benevolence of humans, this mode could simulate the paranoia and the callousness bred during a zombie attack.

Envision a mode in which the players are told that one or more of them might be infected. The infection takes hold slowly and the victim will still be able to act normally for a time. Eventually, the virus will take over and transform them into an agile, intelligent, gun-wielding, AI-controlled Special Infected zombie. There is an antidote at the end of the level that can cure them if you can reach it before they transform completely.

This mode would immediately put players on guard, even if no one turns out to be infected. If a player seems a little slow on the draw or appears to be controlling poorly, it may be a sign of degeneration. On the other hand, it could also mean they are simply not a great player and still completely human. Perhaps it is best to simply kill someone you think is infected and prevent a bigger problem down the line? Of course, unless an infected person admits they are an undead-man walking, you may have just killed the person who would've saved you from that Smoker stalking you from the rooftop.

As you get closer to the end of the level, do you try to save someone who seems to be transforming, do you listen to a player's fervent assurances that they are still "one of you," or do you slam the door and save the only person you can trust: yourself.

"The Green Eyed Monster" - Greed

No matter how desolate the world becomes, there will always be something to covet. Maybe once the economic system collapses under the weight of the walking corpses, we will go back to trading in gold. I can imagine that potable water would be quite a valuable commodity as well. Regardless of what it is, suffice to say that there will be treasure to tempt the hearts of survivors.

Imagine that four players happen upon a briefcase of said treasure. Getting the treasure to the end of the stage is the goal, and as an added incentive there is a meta game that keeps track of your personal treasure total. This could be used to create Geometry Wars-style leader boards, or perhaps to open up alternate skins and bonuses. The point is that there would be actual value in amassing treasure.

The problem is that the treasure is heavy: picking it up makes you run significantly slower and prevents you from using any two handed weapons. Clearly, you will need other players' help to get this thing to the goal. However, the treasure will be divided between those who survive; with every extra survivor your wallet gets a little lighter. Would it be so bad if one of your fellow players "accidentally" slipped off the roof? And when it is down to two of you, would anyone be the wiser if your gun happened to "misfire" as their back was turned? Why should you share the profits anyway? You were the one doing most of the work.

Zombies are frightening because they show us how easily humans become monsters. When faced with our own demise, the precarious laws and principles that guide our society are quickly consumed as easily as flesh and bone. To experience such a transformation in a game means that the player must see themselves as part of a human community that they can either protect or undermine. Because of its inherently social structure, Left 4 Dead seems like the perfect way to explore how cooperation is affected when things get bleak.

Can altruism, fidelity, and generosity overcome self-preservation, distrust, and greed? Of course they can. Now, why don't you just relax and rest your eyes for a bit? I'll watch to make sure no one lays a hand on our food supply and I'll give you a yell if I see any zombies. Don't worry about it. What do you mean "That thing on your arm looks infected?" It's just a rash. Just go to sleep...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

EXP Podcast #79: Laborious Longevity

Sometimes games are just too hard or too large. Is this a common problem and is it hurting the industry? John Davison of GamePro thinks so. Maybe this explains why so many people never finish their own games. Guest host David Carlton of Malvasia Bianca joins us this week to offer his insights on lengthy games, the joys and pains of difficulty, parenting, and cyclical gaming trends. You can find the original article in the show notes, as well as links to more of David Carlton's work. As always, we encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Some discussion starters:

- Have you stopped playing any recent games because they were too long or too hard? Would you have finished them under different life circumstances?
- How much of the gaming landscape is changing because of an aging developer demographic and a broadening market?
- What long or hard games have you stuck with and why?

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: 37 min 34 sec
- "Too Big and Too Hard, " by John Davison via GamePro
- Malvasia Bianca, home of David Carlton
- The Vintage Game Club
- The Video Games and Human Values Initiative
- Playdom
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, May 24, 2010

Review: Aquaria 's Cure for Sea Sickness

I have never been a great swimmer. Even the watery worlds of video games have proven unfriendly time and again. Water is notoriously hard to get right. Some developers just scratch the idea entirely, tossing out initial design plans to maintain their sanity. Altair of Assassin's Creed was hydrophobic for good reason. Although, thanks to the enticing and philanthropic Humble Indie Bundle, I have recently been playing Aquaria, a 2007 game by Bit Blot that reminds me that yes, games can be better, down where its wetter, under the sea.

Most games that jump into the deep end handle "water levels" terribly. These "H2Onerous" arenas tend to be tedious, difficult, and confusing. I will admit I have never enjoyed the aquatic levels of any Mario game going all the way to World 2-2 of the original. When the plumber splashes down, his forward progress becomes painfully slow and awkward. From Donkey Kong Country's "coral capers" to Lara Crofts wet suit escapades, most underwater experiences have been uninspired shipwrecks. Water levels had sunk my expectations for Aquaria to Mariana Trench depths.

To my delight, Bit Blot managed to actually create an entertaining sea adventure. Naija, a mermaid like creature, is the protagonist of Aquaria. Awakening from an animalistic consciousness, and seemingly the last of her kind, Naija explores the 2D ocean labyrinth of Aquaria, seeking clues to her existence in the remnants of ancient civilizations. Gaining new physical forms, Naija increases her roaming grounds to shallow seas and the deep abyss. All the while, making the player feel at home in the water.

The fluidity of movement plays no small part in Aquaria's success. A few exceptions withstanding, most water levels do a poor job of expressing motion through liquids. Seafaring characters tend to be sluggish and particularly floaty. Or, on the other hand, they move too quickly through the environment and eradicate the sense of liquid immersion. Aquaria creates a happy middle-ground.

Najia swims effortlessly through the ocean. Yet she is noticeably slower than some local animal life, thus expressing the limitations of her humanoid form. She is still as spry as one might expect of a mermaid. By holding the left mouse anywhere on the screen, players move Najia at various speeds depending on the proximity between the mouse icon and the character model. A quick click of the mouse and she launches ahead briefly, potentially attaching herself to rocks, granting players the ability to launch again in short succession. She also has a very sharp turning radius, letting her cut corners with ease. The resulting combat mechanic is the engaging offspring between a leopard seal and a 2D space shooter.
Mobility, not direct engagement, makes up the largest portion of combat. Most enemies in Aquaria have distinct movement patterns depending on their species. Creatures with ranged attacks fire projectiles that also have their own unique flight paths. Learning how hazards move through the environment, and how to avoid them, is necessary to progress. The individual character models, many consistent with their movement, allow players to size-up an encounter at a glance. Bosses, however, tend to move less frequently, demanding fantastic player acrobatics instead. All of Najia's movements, which may change depending on her form, are called upon to engage with the world.

The waters of Aquaria also manage to encourage open-world exploration while still corralling the player along an acceptable story path. Certain segments of the ocean are impassable until Najia gains a new physical form. Entrances to these areas dot the landscape, hinting at inaccessible territory while still offering bountiful opportunities for exploration. Strong currents, for example, appear throughout the environment, both helping and hindering progress. There is also a completely open but pitch black tunnel system. While exploring its depths always feels like an option, the darkness effectively cordons off the space until later in the game when Najia can create light. Thus, it always feels like players inhabit an ocean, not a relatively linear system of tubes.
The dark Abyss contributes to the games ambiance as well. The environments, from an old clockwork temple to a kelp forest, are vibrant and convey some of the ocean's visual spectacle. The water surface segment is particularly entertaining. Najia can jump out of the water and onto dry land. After spending quite some time submerged, the clearly lit surface and increased gravity contrasts with the undersea world, making it seem that much more aquatic.

Aquaria does suffer from some of the same faults of other maritime gaming experiences. Mainly, with its emphasis on combat and exploration through the truly vast world, Aquaria can become tedious. In short sessions however, the joy of swimming through a well realized sea of creatures is enough to tide me over between encounters. The above, coupled with several physical forms, strange nautical monstrosities, light and dark mechanics, and fluid movement, creates a highly dynamic game within its watery confinement. Three years after its release, Aquaria compels me to get my feet wet.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Real Monster

Some time ago, our friend Gerard Delaney of the Binary Swan put up a post about zombies that has since been shambling around in my head. Gerard argued that, despite the preponderance of zombies in video games, "Zombie games draw heavily from film but do so without ever replicating what it is that makes the movies horrific." In films "Zombies may produce the most ’shocking’ moments, but it is the degenerative humanity in the survivors that is most horrific."

I found this critique very perceptive and I began to keep my eye out for games that had the potential to transform the player and their avatar into something that resembled their enemies. The pickings were slim: it seems that most games tend to excuse or justify even the most dubious behavior from their characters and players. In games like Resident Evil and Dead Rising, zombies are a convenient enemy that can be guiltlessly mowed down. Any humans that find themselves on the wrong side of the battle can be written off as insane, traitorous, or evil. The player is never tempted or lulled into losing any part of their humanity.

However, as I wrote about Dead Space, I was reminded that this is not always the case.

Dead Space is basically a tale about zombies in space. The hapless crew of the Ishimura are first killed and then systematically reanimated into undead parasites whose mission is to hunt down the player. It was easy to forget that the monsters were once human during the heat of battle, but the various audio logs and story sections made it clear that this was a ship full of individuals. Furthermore, playing as Isaac, the player is ostensibly worried about his girlfriend, Nicole, as well as the rest of the rescue crew.

This concern for others was dumped out of an airlock the minute I saw the parasites infect a corpse and turn it into a crazed monster. From that point on, the game became about surviving. Doing so meant not trusting anybody and discarding any respect for dead. Every survivor I encountered became a potential traitor and the thought of possibly protecting them made me resentful of having to waste the ammo. Because the zombies were vulnerable to dismemberment and relied on intact human hosts, I decided to cut their power off at the source. Every time I found a human corpse, I engaged in my ghastly work. There were times when I was listening to the departed's audio logs as I viciously desecrated their corpse.

Of course, this makes tactical sense: I was depriving my enemies of the means to fight. However, as I was mutilating the dead beyond recognition, I could not help but think that what I was doing was pretty close to what the necromorphs were doing. On one hand, there was an entity who was completely self-serving, who harbored no respect for anyone else's life, and whose actions were an affront to human social customs. On the other hand, there were the zombies.

While there are other games that funnel the player towards decisions of questionable morality, few arise as organically as my corpse stomping choice in Dead Space. As Wander in Shadow of the Colossus, I quickly got the sense that there was something ominous about the world. I eventually noticed as Wander's face grew more pallid with the death of each colossus, yet there were really no alternative decisions to make if I wanted to keep playing the game. Eventually Wander became a beast, but it felt like inevitable fate rather than my doing.

When playing Heavy Rain, I had Ethan follow the killer's order to shoot a drug dealer, in hopes of saving Ethan's son. While this scene had the potential to explore the issue of weighing one life against another, the episode was quickly dropped after the killing happened. True, the person who was killed was no saint, but it was still odd that it was never mentioned again. Before I had time to reflect on what had happened and how it might have transformed the character, the game had dropped it in order to move on to another scene.

Dead Space's seamless world does not have scene breaks, so I was left isolated and alone with my own thoughts. After spending enough time in the ship's cold, dark corridors, I began evaluating every person and object based on its threat and its utility. Could I use this to hurt my enemies or could this be used to hurt me?

It was sad that I had to destroy the bodies of the dead and abandon many of the living to certain death, but it was necessary. These monsters would stop at nothing to kill me, so I was justified in doing what I could to survive. In a way, I was saving these people from a fate worse than death.

At least that's what I told myself as I tried to scrape flecks of blood, both human and necromorph, off my boots.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

EXP Podcast #78: Finishing the Fight with Halo 3

As you may remember, Jorge and I are playing through the Halo series and making podcasts along the way. Released in 2007, Halo 3 was one of the biggest gaming events of the decade and I was quite excited to see how the game has aged. Having wrapped up the Master Chief trilogy, we spend the podcast discussing Halo's plot and extended universe, the game's influential design choices, and what the future holds for the franchise as well as Bungie. Halo's structure facilitates unique experiences for everyone who plays it, so feel free to jump in with your thoughts in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- Halo 3 seemed to emphasize its story more than the first two installments. How significantly does the in-game narrative, as well as the surrounding universe and marketing campaign, impact your enjoyment of the game?

- While Halo's combat has always had a distinct feel, each game has introduced subtle tweaks. Of the original trilogy, which game did you enjoy the most?

- After Halo 3, were you still interested in continuing the franchise? What are your thoughts on Bungie distancing themselves from the franchise and the rumors of their ambitious new project?

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: 34 min 26 sec
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, May 17, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII 's Casualty of Casual

I have never approached a Final Fantasy game lightly. Most of my time with the franchise has been spent alongside an official strategy guide. Exploring every nook in the game world, finding all the hidden gems and best weapons, made up half the joy of my early JRPG experiences. I eagerly consumed each new complicated and sometimes rigorous adventure with pleasure, even when I knew I would never finish the game. When I first dipped into Final Fantasy XIII, its simplified system made it seem more accessible and therefore more appealing. Unfortunately, Square Enix has created a casual game, and it has come at a price.

A few weeks ago, Scott wrote about Final Fantasy XIII's artistic representations devaluing the power of imagination in earlier titles, stating: "Make no mistake: Final Fantasy XIII is a beautiful painting, but I do miss being able to add my own brushstrokes." My attitude towards the game's adjustments mirror Scott's sentiments. While I appreciate what the game has become, I too lament the newest addition's shift towards an easily consumed world.

In a way, Final Fantasy XIII is a lot like Peggle. Besides a few monstrous road blocks here and there, the game is remarkably easy. While combat within a linear stage does become progressively more complex, even the enemies near the end of a section can be taken down with little hassle (For an very comprehensive discussion of the game's mechanics, see Simon Ferrari's post at Rules of the Game.) Eidolon summons, while visually attractive, are functionally useless. Most matches never become dangerous in the slightest. If they do and the player is killed, they respawn again moments before the fateful battle.
As a result, exploring the world of Final Fantasy has lost some of its dangerous thrill. In earlier titles, venturing off the beaten path holds as many risks as it does rewards. Traipse into a high-level area to find hidden treasure and you could find yourself confronting a sinister malboro and the threat of having to start over at an old save point. Because the first half of FFXIII is so painfully linear, and because the gameplay is relatively easy, I never felt enveloped by a realistic world full of dangers and possibilities - what I considered to be a franchise staple.

Along with these adjustments, dropping in and out of FFXIII is effortless. Every time a save is loaded, players are greeted with a "previously on..." bit of text, reminding them of recent story events. The high number of save points also makes getting out of the game a breeze. As a result, I find myself playing the game an hour here or there and then quitting when I get bored or real life intercedes. While this is not a bad thing per say, it has changed my approach to the franchise. While before I entered any world of Final Fantasy with commitment, I now dip in and out of the fictional universe with abandon, as if I were playing a few rounds of Peggle before bed time.
The story is partly to blame. While the dichotomous worlds of Pulse and Cocoon are interesting, the narrative pacing is terrible. Unlike other FF iterations, the game has abandoned large cities and calm home environments where characters interact with NPCs at their leisure. Instead, the cast of FFXIII is always busy and on the move. Yet at the same time, they accomplish so little. Even if the game were not introducing mechanics many hours into play, it would still feel like a long introduction well over fifteen hours into the story. I am given no narrative vantage point to view the world, no rest points to examine the story from a larger context, and few reference points from which to build my own conclusions or theories. While the leads carry on with their business, I feel like an outsider looking in, as if I am meant to wait around until the story is told directly to me.

Yet I still enjoy the basic repetition of combat and forward progress. Equipment upgrade management and even the "crystarium" experience points system are largely superfluous, yet needlessly confusing. It is the combat itself that is rewarding. But the interface is a mess, making it hard to discern how my individual decisions affected the outcome of a battle. As I have discussed before, the game cannot be praised for its transparency. So while I am pleased to receive a five star rating after a battle, it tells me very little about my performance. Like Peggle, the repetition and visual spectacle of battle, coupled with a largely useless reward system, creates a feeling of unearned jubilation upon success. A feeling, in retrospect, I begin to resent.
I keep returning to Final Fantasy XIII the same way I return to my favorite casual games. When I think about it, the game is actually pretty boring. The paradigm system, which turns combat into a risk-reward strategy game, can be very fun during more difficult boss battles. However, the vast majority of my time is spent hitting the "auto-battle" button while I wait for the next cut scene. While maintaining the visual spectacle we come to expect, the game world feels less rich than any of its predecessors.

In an effort to simplify the series, making it more accessible and friendly to modern audiences, Final Fantasy XIII has lost the ability to envelope me completely in a mythic world full of strife and mystery. It has become casual filler. While I enjoy the experience, I am still gripped by a sense of loss. I feel like an old explorer on a tourist train through the jungle. The ride is actually quite nice, I would even recommend it, but I also miss adventuring into new worlds on my own.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Review: Dead Space's Uniquely Familiar Feel

The following post contains spoilers for Dead Space.

I finished Dead Space several months ago and have been trying to write about it ever since. I enjoyed the game but was having trouble articulating what made it stand out. At first glance, Dead Space certainly seems to be stereotypical video game fare: space guns, space monsters and an armored space dude are not fresh elements within the medium.

Dead Space was a highly marketed game and has the kind of polish that puts it in the company of other blockbuster titles such as Halo and Gears of War. However, Dead Space is able to stand out in the crowd because of subtle rule-based tweaks and wise thematic choices. While it might not be revolutionary, Dead Space effectively utilizes design choices and story themes to transform stagnant conventions into novel experiences.

This theme of subtle novelty crystallized in my mind after hearing Jeff Gerstman's theory that "head-shots are ruining games." I think the theory has some merit: Many shooting-based games reward and incentivize accuracy through one-hit kill headshots to the detriment of combat variety. In many games there is little tactical advantage to targeting any other point besides an enemy's head and using any other weapon besides one that can deliver a precision shot. Jeff cited the latest Splinter Cell game as an example of how headshots work as a disincentive to experiencing the range of weapons and combat dynamics the game has to offer.

Dead Space addresses this problem by simply reversing the trend. The enemy "necromorphs" are most vulnerable to limb shots which makes fighting them vastly different to fighting most other video game enemies. The game's "strategic dismemberment" system rewards the player for experimenting with a variety of strategies and tactics: deciding whether to remove an enemy's legs to slow it down or whether to shoot off its arms to limit its offensive power quickly displaces the instinct to shoot for the head. The player must learn to study the enemy appendages, movement, and weapon vulnerability than simply finding the standard instant-kill spot.

The way combat is viewed and managed also differentiates Dead Space from most games. As I discussed last week, implementing a diegetic HUD helps create a convincing world while simultaneously blurring the line between the game's visuals and rules. From a usability standpoint, having on-screen health, ammo, and option menus are desirable elements, but they can often undercut a game's thematic coherence. Usually, the on-screen action is underneath a layer of meters and numbers that have no direct relationship to the game world. In Dead Space, ammo, health, and menu information take the form of holographic projections emanating from objects that both the protagonist and the player see. While Dead Space does not redefine the role and necessity of on-screen menus, it does justify the existence of a HUD rather than force the player to suspend their disbelief.

Dead Space's science fiction and horror motifs also help it deal with video game story-telling tropes. As is the case in many games, much of the story is told through found audio logs recorded by former inhabitants of the game world. In a game like Bioshock, the plausibility of both encountering recordings created by real people using Cold War-era technology and carrying the gear to listen to it is a contrivance that must be accepted in order to enjoy the game. As Star Trek taught us, sci-fi folks like recording their thoughts orally and liberally, regardless of their rank or vocation. Finding a bunch of recordings seems natural and, since Isaac's suit is a walking media center, listening to them while exploring is believable.

The game proudly carries on the tradition of both the sci-fi and horror genres with its plot. The secretive, alien-obsessed Church of Unitiology is an obvious stand-in for the real world Church of Scientology. This representation is about as subtle as the Klingon/Russian metaphor in the original Star Trek series, but it is done with the same purpose: by using familiar symbols and concepts, the game gives the player solid cultural landmarks that are then explored in greater detail. Sci-fi has never been particularly subtle with its metaphors, and by naming the protagonist "Isaac Clarke," Dead Space acknowledges that it is engaging with its lineage and with the knowledge players bring into the game.

At the same time, Dead Space is also brave enough to follow through on its horror themes. Isaac begins the game searching for his girlfriend, Nicole, who was on the necromorph-infected ship. As the game wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that Nicole is either dead or worse. Isaac and the player are kept in the dark until it is revealed that Nicole committed suicide rather than become a space zombie. This instantly cuts out the potential of the "save the princess" happy ending we still so often find in games. While this is depressing, the ending becomes truly horrifying when a necromorph-Nicole jumps out of the shadows and attacks Isaac right before the game fades to credits. Of course, the sequel will probably explain this little incident away, but as a self-contained package, it is the perfect ending to a bleak, futuristic zombie tale.

While Dead Space presents us with recognizable structures in terms of game design and story, it manages to present them as strengths rather than contrivances. Be it the combat, HUD design, or plot, Dead Space incorporates the best elements of established design philosophies and utilizes them to craft something unique.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

EXP Podcast #77: Earning The Badge

The cub scouts, the younger sect of Boy Scouts of America, have recently added a new honorable achievement for children to attain: the videogame merit badge. Technically, they award a belt loop or academic pin. Regardless, to claim the glory of such a trophy, kids have to accomplish a few tasks. Join us this week as Scott and I discuss the ESRB, consumer education, math with Marcus Fenix, and what it takes to become a young videogame guru. You can find a link to the scouts official requirements in the show notes. Comments, as usually, are highly appreciated.

Some discussion starters:

- What do you think about the cub scout requirements? Are they detailed enough? Do they serve an important purpose?
- Does this award fulfill a perceived need to acclimate children to the world of games and technology?
- What requirements might you add to the list?

To listen to the podcast:

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

Show notes:

- Run time: 25 min 22 sec
- The cub scout video game award and requirements
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Political Power of Games

I take the value of political analysis for granted. Which is why I loved writing the recent three part series on the politics of the Mass Effect universe. Along with an earlier piece on Far Cry 2, these articles use a single game to explore a host of ideas the way a history teacher might use a novel. I have skipped a valuable step. I forgot how important it is to articulate the political vigor of games in general. We work within a powerful medium, and I mean TNT powerful. I mean "I love Big Brother" powerful. Prometheus was chained to a rock indefinitely for giving mankind a creative and destructive power such as this. It just took me a trip to Germany to remember.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin houses an impressive array of historical information surveying a long history of Jewish life over the past two millennia. Within its collection, nestled amongst the tragic remnants of World War II artifacts, rests a board game titled Das Alijah-Spiel. Produced in the early 1930s, this simple dice rolling game was for and of its time. As discrimination and violence against the Jewish population rose, so did the appeal of Zionism and emigration. The game creators tapped into this predicament.
Das Alijah-Spiel taught children about moving to Israel, the information they would need to know, and the skills they might want to improve before their departure. It also prepared them psychologically, normalizing the idea of a new home, cementing their identity within a diaspora community, and preparing them for a trip many children would undertake alone. Like most educational experiences, it was also a form of propaganda. Das Alijah-Spiel is representative of the activity and self-referential thought during a time of great confusion and suffering. Which is only natural - it is a game after all.

On the other side of the Third Reich coin, the Nazi's had their own set of board games for the young and old alike. The 1936 Juden Raus! ("Jews Out!") capitalized on anti-Jewish sentiment by tasking players with expelling as many Jews as they could from a walled city. It was not, however, officially Nazi approved. Adlers Luftverteidigungs spiel (Eagle Air Defence Game) was approved though, along with Bomber über England (Bombers Over England). Children in both games eagerly destroyed the cities heavily populated with the enemies of Hitler's Germany. These games fit into a larger propaganda campaign implemented by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbel's, normalizing, trivializing, misrepresenting, and justifying the bloodiest war in human history.
Let's jump to the future. In 2009, esteemed game designer Brenda Brathwaite created Train, a single board game designed for limited exhibition, not mass consumption. Since its unveiling, the game has been lauded for its ability to evoke emotion with its mechanics. At its most basic, three players race to the end of a track, packing their train with pawns and sabotaging their competitors along the way. The big reveal? The destination is Auschwitz. The pawns are Jews and the players have been involved in genocide. Or not. If they catch on, players can attempt to derail their own train and impede all progress. Alternatively they could just get up and leave, itself a potentially valid game action. Naturally, the emotional response from players has been dramatic. Many players have been brought to tears.

I concede the three examples above are different. Das Alijah-Spiel was educational while Bomber über England sought to indoctrinate. Both of these games were designed to be enjoyable for children, while Train met an exclusively adult audience. Brenda also avoided using the term "game" or "play" in her rules book completely. Without a doubt, Train is an "art game" in a way the other two are not. For my purposes, however, these differences are trivial.
All of these games exist within a historical and artistic timeline. The political context of Jewish life in early 1930's Germany influenced the creation of Das Alijah-Spiel. By 1940 members of the Hitler Youth would be playing the game's ideological antithesis on living room floors. Sixty years later, Brathwaite would add her own interactive memorial to the events of those times. These games are related by history and by design. Like all games, they manipulate the human desire to play, disseminating information and sensations through action.

Games are inherently political. We are cultural beings, ourselves composed of ingrained lessons, perceptions, and strong beliefs. We leave an ideological fingerprint on everything we create. As cultural artifacts, games are no exception.

None of this is to say videogames in particular are, or should be, overtly political. Games do not have to be "about" something. Yes, you can enjoy a game without discussing race, class, gender or religion. But that too is insignificant. Games will be "about" race, class, gender, and religion anyway. It's only natural. After all, Crash Bandicoot shares the medium with the likes of Train. To completely avoid the medium's history, its potential, and the fact we imbue objects with meaning both intentionally and unintentionally, is self-administered ignorance.
These very political games are the ancestors of today's titles, whether we like it or not. Despite their thematic divergence, Bomber über England and Das Alijah-Spiel are related. So too are Wolfenstein, Mass Effect, and Civilization. Being an inherently political and historical medium, games potentially hold great influence. They can evoke strong emotions and convey simulations just this side of reality. They can also indoctrinate children with violent propaganda, or they can help kids reimagine a peaceful world. Games For Change exists precisely because of these beneficial possibilities.

Can games change the world? Absolutely. They already have. Does this mean we have to resign ourselves to a morose discussion of world affairs? Of course not. We can have our childish fun. We can revel in trivial delight. We can also have passionate critical responses to the most widely enjoyed games. We can talk about Heavy Rain's silly dialogue, and we can talk about how it depicts race and gender. These ideas are not incompatible - that is impossible. We can have our cake and eat it too! Such is the power of games.

Das Alijah-Spiel, Bomber über England, Train? These make up aspects of the medium's past and future. They are our lineage, the good and the bad. Gamers and designers play with fire in all its dangerous warmth and beauty. This is not just a warning about the risks of game design. On the contrary, I don't think we play with fire wildly enough. Rather, this is a reminder. Have no doubts; we work within an immensely powerful medium. We would all do well to remember that.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Trick of the Light

This week's podcast about 3-D gaming had me a bit worried that the technology is focused too narrowly on aesthetics. While it would be neat to witness the odd fireball hurtle towards us through the screen, 3-D seems focused on changing a game's visual experience rather than the systemic experience.

One problem I see with 3-D is the tendency to acclimate to whatever is on screen. Visuals are relative: what looked great in the 1980s looks crude today, and what looks great today will be laughable in the decades to come. Even during the course of a single game, it is easy to grow jaded in even the most wonderful environments. The initial scenes of Bioshock were breathtaking, but familiarity breeds indifference; the decayed city is still as tragically beautiful at the end of the game as it was at the beginning, we just start taking it for granted. How long will it take before 3-D becomes hum-drum?

As someone predisposed to favor mechanics and dynamics over visuals, I already have a strange relationship with graphics. With nearly every game I play, my brain starts to strip the graphical detail off of the on-screen images in order to focus more clearly on the story being told by the game's rules. I still enjoy a visual treat, but most of the time things start looking a bit like the original Star Fox: intricate geometry is distilled into simple shapes, color and textures are flattened and homogenized. It is a land where function reigns supreme, where the graphics have little bearing on my actions.

Of course, it is easy to draw a stark line between the gameplay and graphics in theory. In practice, it becomes clear how aesthetics can subtly shape even the most utilitarian of players. As a thought experiment, I came up with three relatively current examples of games who used their looks to change my actions.

Dead Space

The line between the ornamental and practical is almost fully dismantled in Dead Space. In terms of displaying inventory, health, and other statistics, most games break the fourth wall unapologetically. Instead of placing a layer of numbers and menus over the action, Dead Space makes them a part of the world. Isaac's health is an armor gauge on his suit, his ammo level is displayed holographically on his gun, and a menu is projected into a the world rather than on a pause screen.

By making the HUD a diegetic component of the game world, I was constantly aware of the small details of my surroundings. Keeping track of health and ammo in a hectic battle took more than simply glancing at the bottom of the screen. A raging fire, a charging enemy, or too many quick turns would obscure crucial details that other games would never hide. I quickly learned to pay attention to avoid wandering into a situation that could potentially hamper my ability to notice the small details on Isaac's gear. On a systemic level, Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space are very similar, but because Dead Space intertwines its aesthetics into its gameplay, I ended up playing the two games quite differently.

Mirror's Edge

The aesthetic influence on gameplay in Mirror's Edge begins to venture into less quantifiable territory. In the simplest sense, the goal in any Mirror's Edge stage is to get to the end. The levels are deceptively varied, and success can be achieved through following a number of paths. However, the way it looks when Faith is running makes it almost impossible to take things slow and steady.

Mirror's Edge reminds me just how fun it is to run as fast as you can. Small glimpses of Faith's hands pumping up and down, the subtle blur that engulfs your peripheral vision, and the sense that time is slowing down when she leaps across the gaps between buildings are all graphical flourishes that affected how I approached the game. Sometimes I would take a route I knew was more dangerous simply because I wanted see what running through a gauntlet of soldiers would look like. Stealthily plodding through a level or using a firearm are both legitimate, effective ways of using the game's rules to achieve success. However, the game's artistic style made it seem like flying high was the real way to play, even if it did result in some ill-advised maneuvers. Instead of scrubbing the game of its exhilarating graphical detail, I wanted to savor it.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Like Mirror's Edge, Batman's aesthetic influence over gameplay is one that capitalizes on an intangible sense of how to "properly" play the game. In Batman's case, the character and his world tap into decades of cultural authority to compel me to play in a specific way.

While I have not played through the full game, I am sure that when I do, I will limit the amount of time I spend in "detective mode." Being able to use a souped-up version of Batman's cowl to see through walls, scout out grappling points, and look for shortcuts is logical in terms of successfully clearing stages. However, doing so plunges the screen into a neon purple, blue, and orange that detracts from the Batman universe's quintessential Gothic look.

Detective mode also seems out of character for my preferred version of Batman. While gadgets have always been part of his arsenal, something about a real-time augmented reality display seems a little too high tech for the Dark Knight. Unlike so many other superheroes, Batman is human, and so I consciously change my play style to accommodate a visual scheme that reminds me of this fact.

So perhaps the impact of 3-D is not as superficial as I fear it may be? While 3-D may not change the fundamental rules of many established genres, it undoubtedly has the capability of inspiring us to play differently within those structures. If the aforementioned examples are any indication, graphics that may initially seem like a veneer can subtly take root in a game's mechanical foundation. After all, we call them "video" games for a reason.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

EXP Podcast #76: The Future of Games - In 3-D!

Have recent video games left you feeling a little flat? Fear not: as we speak, companies are getting ready to venture in to your living room via the third dimension. This week, we use Gus Mastrapa's article about the current 3-D gaming scene to discuss what may be the next big visual leap in games. Topics include everything from the practical costs of the technology to its implications for game design. Regardless of whether you already own a custom pair of 3-D goggles or if you still rock a black-and-white tube-TV, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- What kind of barrier to entry does 3-D face pose for the average gamer? Is there a certain price it must reach or a certain feature it must have before you make the jump?

- What do you think the relationship will be between 3-D and other technologies such as motion control and head tracking?

- How would you like to see 3-D implemented in games (if at all)? Are there certain existing games that you feel would benefit from the added depth?

- How does something like the Nintendo DS (or the forthcoming "3DS") impact your thoughts on TV and monitor-based 3-D rigs?

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 42 sec
- "Why 3-D Gaming's Future is Still Blurry," by Gus Mastrapa
- Music provided by Brad Sucks

Monday, May 3, 2010

Kubb and Transparency

Recently while strolling about a Berlin park, waiting for clouds of volcanic ash to disperse, I encountered a game I had never seen before (pictured right). Intrigued by this unknown form of recreation, I sat and watched two strangers for nearly an hour. After a short while, the rules and objectives of the game began making themselves clear. The game was understandable to those completely new to the experience. This sort of transparency is incredibly valuable in videogames and is a worthwhile pursuit for developers seeking wide accessibility.

The lawn game, which I now know as Kubb, goes something like this: Two players distance themselves evenly away from a large central "king" block. Each player is given five rectangular wooden blocks, or Kubbs, to place between two pegs in the ground, forming a row of evenly spaced blocks parallel to the opponent's row, creating a rectangular playing field. Then the players take turns throwing six large wooden batons at the opponents line of towers from their imaginary border line before finally aiming to topple the king. The player or team that knocks over the center king block first wins.

All of the above can be gleaned by watching the game for just a short time. There are further intricacies. Because Kubb has several distinct phases, these additional rules were also easy to comprehend by simply watching. For example, if Player A knocks down Kubbs during her tossing phase, Player B then throws these blocks into Player A's side of the pitch and stands them upright; these are known as field kubbs. At the start of Player B's turn, he must first knock down these Kubbs before moving on to her opponent's line of blocks. If he does not, Player A may toss her batons from a new imaginary line running along the kubb closest to the king.
All of these rules can be divined by logical assumptions based on non-verbal information, including what players do not do. For example, why were the players I watched not throwing overhand instead of the less accurate underhand? Why were they not tossing the batons horizontally, creating a wider trajectory and therefore increasing the likelihood they topple a block? The correct assumption in this case is simple: the rules do not allow them to do so. From the reactions of players, the acts they did not take, and the distinct phases of play, I felt confident I could recreate the experience without having read any official rules. I found the yet unknown game beautifully transparent in its design.

Let's look at Final Fantasy XIII's transparency, if for no other reason than I am playing it now. Understandably, FFXIII is a far more complex beast than the Swedish lawn game. Yet it does have a set of rules with various levels of transparency. We could say combat is a distinct phase differing from exploration. Within combat there are more stages. Waiting for your "ATB" action gauge to fill-up is one phase, attacking is another. Even further, one round of attacks is broken up into individual abilities which can be executed early. As each action is taken, its name disappears from the interface and the ATB meter depletes. How player choice is carried out temporally is fairly transparent.
Unfortunately, the rest of FFXIII's combat interface is a confusing mess. The screen is crowded with information, yet much of the interface is not explained until many hours into the game. Damage amounts against opponents stack on top of each other and include all party members, although players can only directly control the party leader. Less important information, like the constant reminder that switching paradigms with the L1 trigger is an option, is more prominently displayed than the opponents health meter. It is also very difficult to measure the efficacy of specific abilities. This can make the search for dominant strategy against certain bosses a chore.

None of this is to say the game is unpalatable. On the contrary, I am enjoying FFXIII immensely. Transparency is not necessary to create a great game. Bayonetta is still a critically acclaimed title, for example, despite its seizure inducing visual tornadoes. That design fits its aesthetics. However, many other games obscure what should be fluid readability with bad tutorials, muddled art design and animation, terrible user interfaces, and general lack of information. Poor transparency is similar to long exposition in film. The most immersive stories convey meaning by showing, not telling. When players can learn the rules that govern a game through observation and play, they are less reliant on tedious text-based information and less prone to confusion and frustration.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii and God of War III are two recent examples of what I consider very transparent games. Neither games are overly simplistic, yet they display their rule systems clearly, encouraging learning and exploration. It is no coincidence that the character select screen in NSMBW allows players to spin their characters, an additional in-game feature invaluable for high level play. Similar to Kubb's distinct phases, each attack in GoW III is visually distinct in its animation and its effect on enemies. These animations remain thematically consistent across equally distinct weapons. It is quite possible to learn strategy just by watching Kratos take out gods and minotaurs.

Clarity is not just beneficial for experienced gamers. My partner Nicole, who does not have a rich gaming history, watched the Kubb match with me and pointed out aspects of the game I had not yet inferred. A more transparent experience is a more accessible experience. And again, transparency does not mean simplicity. I would argue such complex games as chess, Gears of War, Starcraft, and The Sims are all commendably transparent. Obscurity and confusion can serve a purpose, but for the most part, the most beautiful games lay themselves out candidly for us all to enjoy.